Advice || and opinion

Choosing The Right Studio

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...Making The Right Decision, by Robert John Godfrey

GENERAL POINTS

A badly recorded track will make a lasting bad impression on all who hear it, however good you are.

Choosing the right studio can be confusing. There are many good studios offering a high standard of work for a reasonable price. There are also a lot of cowboys out there who will do you a bad job and take your money just the same - in fact, it is just like the building trade.

Most studios will claim that they are amongst the best on the scene even when some know that they are not. This article is to help direct the reader to the better places and avoid the cowboys.

The best studio recommendations will come from an impartial third party who has used the studio themselves. A good report from a happy band with an impressive recording they are excited about says it all.

However, bear in mind that some studios excel at some types of recording/music, while making a mess of others. Generally, studios which do a good job with dance music or soundtracks often haven't a clue when it comes to tuning and miking up a drum kit or recording an electric or acoustic guitar.

Some studios seem to be good value because they are very cheap - just remember that there is a fundamental difference between 'cheap' and 'inexpensive'. What you are actually paying for, when you book a session in a studio, is time. But what if your valuable time gets wasted through lack of experience or facilities? What if it takes all day to get a satisfactory drum sound thereby forcing you into booking more recording time. How is this cheap?

If you need to make a good impression - say on a venue for getting gigs, or a record label to get them interested - there is no point in skimping. A few extra pounds spent now might make a big difference, whereas a badly recorded demo will make a lasting bad impression on all who hear it, however good you are.


THE BEST COURSE OF ACTION

No amount of fancy recording gear can make up for an engineer with little ability, knowledge, interest or skill.

First, decide how much you want to spend, what facilities you need from a studio and then hunt down the one that best meets your requirements. The 'specifics' section below should help decide what facilities you'll need for your project. The best way to choose a studio is to make an appointment to visit it. If you are going to check out a studio by visiting it, why not take a CD of something that you think is a great recording? See what it sounds like through the studio's monitoring system, and ask to hear something they have recorded recently to compare.

Make sure that the studio has the right gear to do the job, enough properly designed and acoustically treated space, and it has an experienced engineer with the right attitude. Many of the cheaper studio's have trainee engineers or inexperienced owners.

When you make your appointment, ask that the person who would be engineering your session is there so that you can meet them. Find out how long they have been doing the job. Don't get palmed off with someone inexperienced.

An engineer with 'the right attitude' means someone who will be attentive to your needs and work with you to get the best possible result. Engineers with a bad attitude are those who: seem bored with the session; are always on the phone; 'do their own thing' to your recording; or are rushing to get away as soon as possible. Therefore, having met the person who would be engineering your session, try to gauge if you are going to be able to work them. And don't be frightened to ask questions.

Finally, make sure that the studio has ALL the right technical facilities for you. For whilst it is true that getting a good recording is primarily a matter of experience, skill, talent and commitment by all concerned, it is also true that even the cleverest of engineers is limited to what can be achieved without the right tools for the job. No amount of fancy recording gear can make up for an engineer with little ability, knowledge or skill. It is a sad fact that there are many of them out there!

Cheapskate studios and cowboy operations tend to skimp on things like good mics, high quality outboard gear, equipment maintenance and air conditioning.

If you cannot make a visit, go the studio's website or phone them directly. Check their equipment list, client list, mp3 files and room specs.

Microphones and Vocals

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MICROPHONES

 If the studio can boast a large range of expensive mics with names like Neumann and AKG in abundance, they will probably have everything else a good studio should have. Cheapskate studios and cowboy operations tend to skimp on things like good mics, high quality outboard gear and air conditioning. Having a top of the range Mackie desk and nothing to go with it and nowhere to put it, is next to useless. See "Specifics" below for more about microphones.

 

LEAD VOCALS

To record a lead vocal properly requires skill and the right tools. A powerful vocalist may have an enormous dynamic range - (from a whisper to a scream). Coping with these extremes of level has lead to the development of special microphones and dynamics processors to do the job.

A method has had to be developed to capture the apparent dynamic range whilst actually squashing it down so that its quiet to loud range is much reduced. This has to be done for technical reasons to do with the way domestic audio technology works, and popular music production techniques currently in practice.

All this has to happen without losing any of the drama, detail and excitement present in the performance. This is where the skill bit comes in. For if the engineer doesn't know what he is doing or how to use the equipment, the whole thing will probably be a disaster.

The right tools for digital recording are: a specially designed condenser microphone, and a (valve) compressor/limiter/de-esser to deal with the dynamic range.

Caution: The cheaper microphones will not be able to give you the smooth, transparent, and polished sound you need, no matter what the manufacturers blurb says.


Most commonly used suitable microphones:

  • Neumann models: TLM170 - TLM107 - U87 - U89 - M147 - M149
  • Audio Technica Model: AT4060
  • Rode Model: Classic MkII
  • Sony Model: C800G
  • AKG Models: C12 - C414 (Gold)

The Control Room & Equipment

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The Room

The shape and construction of the control room is crucial if you want to get any idea of how a recording is going to sound when it gets onto someones stereo. A control room, (unless very large) should be dead - no reverberation of any kind - nor should there be any serious standing waves at bass frequencies. A control room which looks like it has been built from the ground up as opposed to a room in a house or shed with a bit of padding on the walls, will always be a better bet and shows that the studio proprietor is serious about quality.

Recording Console - Mixer

Because of the number of mics required for drums alone, it is impossible to get a decent result without using a studio with a proper high quality mixing desk with a comprehensive patch bay. It should have a good range of dynamics (Compressors and Gates), at least one state-of-the-art reverb, and decent flattering monitoring which should include both near field and room monitors (speakers).

Professional Audio Mixers

Common Manufacturers Of High Quality are: API, Amek, Trident, Audient, Cadac, Sony, SSL, Trident, Yamaha, Mackie, Tascam and Digidesign - Protools (Big Systems Only).

Caution: Mackie, Souncraft, Yamaha and Tascam also make very good Mixers. They also make budget desks and live mixers which are not suitable.

Manufacturers such as Behringer, Alesis, Phonic, Tapco and Studiomaster do not make recording consoles for professional use.

Dynamics

Other absolute musts are compressors and gates. A good studio will have at least eight gates available, though in hi-end DAWs such as Cubase, Nuendo, Logic or Protools, the software dynamics are now very good.

A studio must have at least two up market stereo valve compressors (or two matched mono units with a link) plus a handful of various other types. All sound different, and all have their uses.

It should also have a dedicated vocal dynamics processor which I deal with in a bit more detail below.

Recording the Drum Kit

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The Room

Special consideration is needed when recording drum kits. Drums, like all acoustic instruments, need to breath. With the exception of some dance music and electro-pop, you cannot get a satisfactory result from a dead space. The best solution is a properly designed live room. Ideally you need at least eight feet of space above a kit. The room should be live but not roomy or boxy. Roomy, boxy sounding recordings are caused by standing waves resulting from the placement of acoustic instruments in an ordinary shaped room: ie a square or oblong box. Proper studio live rooms are constructed avoiding parallel surfaces and thus avoiding the production of standing waves. The ideal room size for recording a drum kit is about 2730 cubic feet with mixed material walls and a sloping hard (ceramic) ceiling.

Tuning

Unless a drum kit is properly tuned, no amount of messing around with mic positions and EQ-ing will get the desired result. The drum should sound good straight away. If it doesn't, it needs attention. Not all drummers know how to tune a kit. The recording engineer should know how to do this.

Top Kit - Cymbals

For Rock, Metal and Pop, you need between 8 and 12 mics to record a drum kit properly. Jazz, R and B, Folk or Blues each require different approaches. Overhead mics should be a high quality condenser such us AKG C414s or AKG 451s placed directly over the whole kit about 2 or 3 feet above the height of the tallest cymbal. The Hi-Hat also requires either a directional condenser such as an AKG 451 with a hypercardioid capsule, or special dynamic such as those recommended in the Audix range by the manufacturer.

Snare

The snare would normally use a dynamic microphone placed just over the rim of the drum and pointing to the centre of the skin. The Audix range of dynamic mics are a good bet but a Shure SM57 or 58 works very well. A lot of engineers and producers like to mike the bottom of the snare as well, usually with a high SPL condenser. Again, tuning is the key to a good snare.

Toms

Much of the toms sound will come from the overhead mics, which is why their placement is crucial. The rest of the toms sound comes from being individually miked, using a similar technique to that employed for the snare. One would normally use the same range of dynamic mics for this job. Again, tuning is an essential ingredient.

Kick Drum

The Kick Drum needs purpose designed microphones with very good bass response at very high sound levels. AKG D12, D120, Sure Beta 52 or Sennheiser MD421. It is fairly normal practice to use two mics on a single kick drum. One to pick up the wallop and one to deal with the click. For many types of kick sound, the front skin will need to be removed and the skin tension adjusted to suit. The type of beater fitted into the pedal makes a lot of difference as does the amount of damping applied inside the drum. Your engineer should know all about this and what he needs to do to get the sound you are after.

Reverb & Digital FX Processors

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What is Reverb?

Often, people coming to record in one of our studios and say to the engineer "I don't want any reverb, please", when what they mean is that they want a raw, up front, in-your-face result. They say this usually because they have had a bad experience at another studio where the engineer plastered a washy, swimmy reverberation all over their recording and made it sound distant and mushy.

Nowadays, the term 'Reverb' does not necessarily mean reverberation in the strictest sense, like the sound of a big hall or cathedral. It can just as easily mean the acoustic space inside a small rock club, or even a telephone box. It can also mean the 'open air' sound of cricket being play on the local green, the sound of people in the street. The sound on top of a bus. All these are 'Acoustic Spaces' that can be convincingly simulated by machines and loosely call 'reverb'.

Instructing a studio not to put any 'reverb' on anything will always produce a disappointing result. A mix has to have a foreground, midground and background - just like an orchestra. This means that some things need to sound a little further away than others - you can't actually have everything in your face at once. The whole mix sounds one-dimensional if you try for that (with the exception of Slipknot!)
.

This is why having a classy reverb is absolutely essential for getting a professional sounding result.

Digital FX and Reverberation Hardware

This technology is very expensive to do properly. Accordingly there are only three manufacturers of really good quality reverb. They are:

  • Lexicon,
  • TC Electronics, and
  • Eventide

Suitable Lexicon models include: 960L; 480L; PCM 91; PCM 81; PCM 70 (Vintage); and 224X (Vintage). Other Lexicon models such as the MPX series make great guitar fx units, but are not nearly as suitable and can sound a bit cheap.

The best TC Electronics models are: M3000; M4000; M6000.

Eventide make the Orville, and its baby sister, the Eclipse. Both produce very classy fx.

All About Mastering

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A good look at digital mastering, by Max Read

What Is Mastering?

Once recorded and mixed, there is one more very important stage that can make a dramatic difference to the sound of your tracks - mastering.

Mastering involves a combination of different processes on the raw mix to achieve a variety of effects. Different kinds of music require different approaches; for example an unplugged acoustic song would sound very nasty with the kind of mastering used for a rock song. The end result can then be optimised for CD duplication.

Until recently, mastering was the exclusive trade of posh studios with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of highly sophisticated equipment. Now, the power of a modern PC enables high quality digital mastering to be done on a much lower budget.

A mastering session involves listening to each track individually and fine tuning the mix, paying attention to the amount of bass, overall presence, dynamics and perceived volume. Sometimes it may be necessary to 'fix a mix', for example if the vocals are too quiet it is sometimes possible to pick them out with a bit of added eq. at just the right notch. Good mastering is the "icing on the cake" for any track.

A good mastering will add clarity, depth, 'air' and also perceived volume to a mix. Whereas a bad mastering may just add a lot of volume and distortion!

It is important to note that the skills and experience of a mastering engineer working in a purpose-built room with calibrated equipment is by far preferable.

Too Much Limiting

The most critical aspect of mastering is to get the program material to the right volume (average R.M.S. level to be precise, with 0dB being the maximum level). An increase in RMS level can be achieved by using compression/limiting - the more compression, the louder the track sounds but the less dynamic range it has. Increased compression/limiting is potentially damaging to the program material, resulting in a distorted, crowded, unnatural sound.

"Clients must be informed that they can't get something for nothing; a hotter record means lower sound quality!" - Bob Katz - legendary Mastering engineer.

There are no rules about how loud a CD should be. In fact, the average level of CDs has been edging up year after year since their inception and a kind of 'Loudest CD Contest' has emerged. The chart below says it all:

Average CD Levels

* chart courtesy of Bob Katz' great article

"I listened to all the CDs submitted to NARAS for consideration in the 'Best Engineered Non-Classical' Grammy category. We listened to about 3 to 4 cuts [from the 267 albums submitted]. Every single CD was squashed to death with no dynamic range...the Finalizers and plug-ins were cranked to 'eleven' so that their CD would be the loudest... Not one...attempted to take advantage of the dynamic range or cleanliness of digital recording." - Roger Nichols - Grammy winning engineer for Steely Dan, Beach Boys and more - Jan. 2002 Eq Magazine

So, what is the best level to aim for? Well, for most 'pop' music with drums, somewhere between -10 and -14 is a good place to be.

"Note that there is a point of diminishing returns above about -14 dBFS. Dynamic inversion begins to occur and the program material usually stops sounding louder because it loses clarity and transient response." - Bob Katz

What Does This All Mean To Us?

At The Lodge we try to make sure that the client is made aware of the above issues at mastering time. The bottom line is that - however tempting - it is not a good idea to try and make your CD the loudest that was ever made.

What is a CD ROM Master?

It’s a DATA CD that can be read on a PC or Mac that usually contains .WAV files. The studio will usually provide you with a CD ROM Master if you intend to copy the tracks to a PC then create your own copies.

A CD ROM contains error correction so you know that your files will be glitch free if you copy them from a CD ROM.

An audio CD may contain small errors which you don’t hear (unless they are big scratches) because your CD player uses error concealment to smooth them over. When you 'rip' a CD these errors are not always corrected.

What is a Red Book Master?

It’s just a standard Audio CD that you can play in any standard CD player.

A standard CD-Audio (Compact Disc Digital Audio) has a maximum capacity of 79 minutes. This standard was established by Philips and Sony in what is known as the 'Red Book'.

The most important thing is that your Master disc should be burned in what's called 'Disc At Once Mode' (DAO) (Not Track At Once or Session At Once), which may happen if u use Media Player for example. It should also be burned at a speed lower than the maximum speed that the burner can manage.

What is a Glass Master?

A Glass Master is used in CD replication to make proper CDs like the ones you buy in shops. The data from your Red Book Master is transferred to a photo-sensitive layer on a glass disc. A photo-chemical process then etches the glass to create a mask. The Glass Master is then used in the replication machine and can be re-used to run off future copies.

See also www.dr.loudness-war.info - www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep11/articles/loudness.htm

Getting The Best From The Lodge

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We have both the facilities and know-how to provide you with a fantastic final mix and production.

Ideally, mixing and mastering should not take place on the same day as Recording. There are exceptions, but you are likely to get a much better outcome by separating the two processes.

Fresh ears can be very tasy and are best served with a side salad and fries.

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