Elements EP: Engineer’s Notes Pt. II

A Home Studio Recording

As I mentioned in Part I, the overproduced first draft of the Elements EP was tailored for a university project and despite using interesting recording techniques and production elements to keep the listener entertained/intrigued, the end result was swimming in reverb and I felt it did not truly represent how I played the pieces at points (it also did not tie in very well with the videos as there was extra instrumentation in the audio, but not the video).

For releasing the EP to the public, I wanted audio that had minimal production values and no extra instrumentation so that it was able to be synchronised to the videos convincingly. As mentioned in the About Elements EP blog post, I slowly build up my recording equipment list as I could afford it and once I reached a certain point, I felt comfortable to record the EP properly, under my own rule, and with no university lecturer waiting at the finish line with a red pen to mark their disappointment.

My Equipment

Pro Tools 11

Saffire Pro 40

Neumann KM184

AKG 820 valve

SM57

Microphone Placement

  1. The Neumann was placed to the left of the performer, about 2 feet away and aligned roughly with the 10th fret, but angled in to point to the neck join (12th fret for my guitar).
  2. The SM57 was placed at the same height and distance away as the Neumann, but in line with the base of the guitar and angled in to point at the bridge of the guitar.
  3. The AKG was placed high above the other two microphones, about 3-4 feet away and in the dead centre of the other microphones.

But Why?

  1. The Neumann was placed at the neck to capture higher frequencies which are more prevalent there and suited for the small diaphragm condenser.
  2. The SM57 was facing the bridge to capture the percussive elements of the pieces and the dynamic microphone is very suited for capturing lower frequencies.
  3. The AKG was used as a ‘room’ microphone set to an omnidirectional position to capture a more ambient tone (the warmth of the valve also contributed to this).

To read more about microphone types and when is best to use them, check out Capturing Sound Pt I.

The Mixing

As I took my took my time with the recordings, I was quite happy with how the guitar was captured so I did very little in terms of mixing. A dash of reverb on the Neumann and SM57 channels to pull back the guitar – this was required as close miking an instrument sounds great but as the name suggests, it’s a very close and in-your-face sound [not the way we normally like to listen to an instrument]. A couple of corrective EQs were added to certain sections and some elastic audio was used to help sync the middle section of Instrü Mentae [this was very troublesome as the section; despite being played to a click track, has quite a loose timing]. Aside from that, I did not want to overdo anything, I just wanted my guitar to sound nice..but that didn’t stop the producer in me from adding a few things in.

Production Elements

For the mixing process I did very little in terms of adding effects but I did add in a few little reverse swells between sections like the minor section in Instrü Mentae. The introduction to that piece also uses some reversed slides (taken from the one you hear at the start of the piece) that were slowed down to transform them. These were then panned around the speakers, crossing from side to side. I had some fun with the natural harmonics in the introduction to The Ballad of Tom Riach – I recorded separate takes of each harmonic and panned the 6 strings from right to left and then left to right for each bar. It was mixed in very subtly but I found it added some width to the piece [you might be able to notice it when you hear the delay effect ringing out]. The introduction to Celtic Dawn uses a reversed open chord so the piece slowly rises to the opening note – much like the sun does when it creeps over the hills to provide first light.

Overall, I was happy with the finished product, but by no means was it the idyllic masterpiece of audible chocolate I had initially wanted. This is due to the fact that it was all recorded in my bedroom and not a state of the art studio with Pro Tools HD, lots of outboard gear, a seasoned engineer and a master of mastering. With this in mind, I’ll wrap up with some things I know could be better:

  • I recorded with new strings which sound great but were a little bit too crisp and buzzed a lot – there is only so much editing can do [see Celtic Dawn near the start for a notable example]
  • The fact that everything these days has to be compressed a fair amount so that it matches the level of commercial audio so the in the mastering stage I lost some of the performance dynamics and the overall tone of the guitar changed a little
  • The click tracks were carefully/painstakingly constructed, but could not totally capture human feel so some sections suffered. It was the price I paid to have the audio synced to video.

To conclude – there’s always room for improvement but for my debut release it’ll do just fine for now.

Neil.

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