Over the past few years, as the cost of recording systems has fallen, those people striving for more professional results have realised the benefits of buying better microphones, more highly specified analogue to digital converters and other carefully selected pieces of hardware. This makes a lot of sense as most hardware products don’t suddenly become incompatible with the rest of the system if the computer OS changes, and high-quality microphones can last a lifetime. Why is it, then, that many of these same people seem to throw away most of the benefits of their high-performance recording systems by compromising with the basics of the recording process? Many Oxfordshire bands know a little about recording and mixing and it is usually the 'sexy' stuff they know about. What is the best high end console, the best microphone, the best amplifier. A client from Birmingham once pointed out to me the virtues of a particular signal path which is his words never failed to get excellent results. However I have news for all you gear heads. There is more to it then that.
At the recording stage, many project-studio recordings are let down not by the equipment itself but by poor acoustics in both the recording and mixing areas. If your vocals sound boxy or lack focus, the chances are that buying better microphones and pre amps will simply allow you to record the boxy ambience of your room with greater fidelity. This is one of the reasons clients come to Cooz's studio. We have three different acoustic spaces to choose from each designed with an acoustic signature to enhance the recorded sound at source and not to inhibit it. There are many ways to improve a difficult sounding room. Often basic technique can make a huge difference to the quality of the recording. It does not look very professional but it's amazing how a duvet or two can transform a vocal recording if carefully placed!
At the opposite end of the recording process, we have mastering, and it is here that we have to face the thorny question of loudness. Over the past few years, various strategies have been employed to try to make mixes sound loud when played next to another artist’s work, usually involving some pretty assertive compression and limiting. When used carefully, compression and limiting can help knit the elements of a mix together, making it sound more polished, but, sadly, commercial record companies often pressure mastering engineers to push the subjective loudness of mixes to such an extent that real damage is done, the practical outcome of which is that the consumer finds the mixes harsh and fatiguing to listen to. Bob Katz's excellent book: Mastering Auto – The art and the Science, is a must for any home recording enthusiast who wants to chart a passage through the process of any recording effectively.
But why such a quest for loudness? Radio play is part of the equation — naturally, you want your record to sound just as loud and appealing as all the other commercial releases. However, radio stations usually add some fairly hard multi-band compression of their own, so that an over-limited mix can end up sounding truly horrible. The use of MP3 players to play songs in a random order, rather than as albums, has increased the pressure to keep mixes loud. Experienced mastering engineers using the very best equipment currently struggle to make their mixes sound pleasing to the ear at the loudness levels record companies and artists demand, so it comes as no surprise that those trying to make their home recordings match the level of commercial releases using only basic plug-ins often spoil their music in the mastering. Maybe it’s time to say ‘enough is enough’ and do what’s best for the song, not simply what makes it loudest. If anyone complains, tell them that after five million years of evolution they should have figured out how to turn up the volume!
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