Recording Workshop: Thom’s Rules to Record By
With Thom Furbee

by Thom Furbee
Vanguard Party 2.1 (October 2002)

In this day and age of digital Audio Recording, devices have been showing up with very powerful editing and mixing features at very affordable prices. Just open a recent copy of Musicians Friend. There are literally hundreds of stand-alone boxes, PCI cards, software programs etc most within the average musicians budget. All this power in the hands of those who actually make the music. No wonder the big boys are nervous. The problem is digital recording is not the same as analog. The process is different so the rules must be different.

Digital recording is sampling. No more – no less. In theory the higher the sample rate the better the sound. The higher the word length (24 bit- 32 bit) the better the sound. The trade off here is the higher these values are the bigger the file. No problem – big drives are cheap these days, and we can burn our own DVD’s and deliver audio in 24-bit splendor. So why don’t these affordable devices sound very good. Here is where analog and digital are the same— Shit in — Shit Out. In the analog world the secret to great sound is - great sounding instruments played by great playing musicians captured by great sounding mics and preamps. Digital recording is the same with the addition of - great sounding A to D and D to A converters. These affordable devices while packed with features lack the most important element- great sounding converters. This brings me to the first myth I would like to dispel. “ We can fix it in the mix.” No you can’t! There are things you can do with these wonderful editing features and digital EQ, but you still can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I have had drummers show up at my studio with old and broken heads, guitar players with blown speakers in their amps, and bass players with ten-year-old strings on their basses. Yet they want me to make them sound good. “ Can’t you fix it in the mix?” NO!!!

RULE # 1 Get the best players you can find playing the best instruments you can find. Use the best mics and preamps you can.

My best advise here is buy at least one good microphone. Check out the Audio Technica 4033SE. This mic rocks, and can be had for 280 bucks. Buy two of them. Any mic from Rode — NT 1, NT 2, NT 4 & 5 are all great sounding mics. For kick drum try the Shure Beta 52, and don’t forget a couple SM 57’s for the guitar amps and snare. As for preamps your best price bet is Mackie. The older 1604’s, and 8 buss (pre VLZ) sound better (more musical) to me than the newer ones, but any of their mixers are a good buy. I generally take the direct out of the channel and by pass the EQ. Most of the outboard Pre’s on the market in the 100 to 400 dollar range don’t sound any better than the Mackie.

RULE # 2 Forget that crap about slamming your converters on the input.
There is no truth to the myth that lower level sounds get recorded with truncated bit depts. and that you should get the highest possible input level. Set your input so that you have headroom. There is no going over zero in digital recording. Digital distortion is not pleasing. STAY AWAY FORM ZERO WHILE RECORDING. Did every body hear that? Let me repeat that —STAY AWAY FORM ZERO WHILE RECORDING. You are going to need that head room later — TRUST ME ON THIS. Nothing ruins a recording like digital overs. You got a good performance, you got a great sound, but what the fuck is that ticking all the way through the track. STAY AWAY FORM ZERO WHILE RECORDING.

RULE # 3 Avoid using EQ and compression on the input while recording. EQ and compression are wonderful tools, but once they’re on there they are impossible to remove. EQ has a way of building in the mix and turning to mud, and too much compression will leave you with a veiled quality that will have you reaching for more EQ. LESS IS MORE! Try using a high pass filter at 75 to 80 hz on everything but the kick drum and bass guitar. A good sounding mix has a lot to do with frequency separation. This little trick will open up the low end and make it easier to get your mix thumping.

RULE # 4 Try everything. Try every mic you have on every source. Experiment with mic position before you reach for that compressor or EQ. The slightest movement can make a big difference. Move the source around in the recording space. Send the track to a set of headphones with a mic in between them for that low-fi sound. Record the kick drum with a 12-inch speaker (yes I said “speaker”). A speaker is just a microphone in reverse.

The point here is that getting good results from your budget recording gear is more than possible. It just takes common sense and a willingness to listen. Oh I forgot to mention monitors. Listen to your favorite music on your play back system everyday and get to know your speakers. How are you going to know if your recordings sound good if you can’t trust your monitors?

I’ll be back with more of “Thom’s rules to record by” in future issues.

P.O. Box 266
Bethany, WV 26032