Ahhh, the man cave: you walk down the stairs to your freshly renovated basement, step on to the nice berber carpeting, a perfectly symmetrical room with smooth drywall and that manly paint color, you look at your big screen TV, surround sound stereo, coffee table with guitar magazines, your project studio all nicely laid out . . . OOPS . . . “Almost hit my head on that darned track lighting”. After all the ceiling is only about 7 feet high, but it’s your perfect man cube. On to the recording . . .
>> Fast Forward
The artist is happy with his vocals, you’re happy that he only needed 64 takes, and now it’s time to mix . “Oops, oh, I still have to comp those 64 takes, tune it, pocket it, clean it up . . . and then I’ll mix”. So after all that hard work you’re ready to mix . . . > PLAY
At this point, after you’ve applied some EQ to enhance the air, roll off some lows, apply some CLA compression . . . and then a little more CLA compression; some ‘verb, a little delay, some more CLA compression, you notice there’s this offending frequency. You locate it, cut it and then: > PLAY . . .
But now there’s something else peaking out and rearing its ugly head. You take care of that with a little more EQ. And then something else - MORE EQ, and then again - LESS EQ, and again - LOTS OF EQ . . CUTTING . . . BOOSTING . . . CUTTING . . . BOOSTING . . . till finally your vocal EQ curve looks more like the heart rate monitor of a modern stressed-out man who’s eaten burgers and fries his whole life.
So what went wrong? Was it the artist? . . . the microphone? . . . the burger? No . . .
The problem was the room.
Let’s go back and look at the room: square, low ceiling, dry wall and carpet. It might be yes-yes as a man cave, but for recording this is a no-no.
Basic Principles - a room should:
- not negatively affect the recording
- enhance the recording
This man cave has negatively affected the recording and has not enhanced it either.
It did such damage that no amount of surgical EQing is going to help it. In fact, the more EQ applied the worse the sound gets.
A Good Recording Room:
- disperses sound waves via angled walls, ceiling, surfaces
- uses a variety of designed sound absorbing and diffusing materials
- built with materials that enhance sound: brick, wood, stone
- reinforces sound waves (frequency build-up) resulting in peaks and nulls in the spectrum
- has no designed or too much sound absorbing materials, and little to no diffusing materials
- built with materials that diminish sound: drywall, lots of carpet
The louder the source is, the more it excites the room resulting in the room speaking back into the microphones. If it’s a bad sounding room, like the one previously described, you’ll hear it.
The best way to make the room balanced in its reverberation and frequency characteristics (a.k.a. tuning the room) is to use various diffusion and absorption materials. More on that later . . .
- Match the instrument to the room - see the chart below for good starting points. Remember that if it’s a small room, it should be balanced sounding
- Better to record in a huge room than a really bad sounding small room. I once recorded vocals in a huge church building for a variety of reasons: the artist’s budget constraints, I knew that it would sound better than a bad sounding small room, and it was a dense pop production and the room’s reverberation was completely hidden in the mix. Plus, it added some nice natural mono reverb at a low level. If I hadn’t wanted the reflections, I could have easily put up some baffles around the vocalist.
- For small rooms: 1) use diffusion and absorption materials to balance the reflections and frequencies, and 2) use baffling when you want to minimize room reflections getting into the microphones
If you’re stuck with a not-so-ideal room, don’t worry. There are plenty of things you can do to change the acoustical properties without a total renovation.
Using a variety of diffusion and absorption materials is the way to go. I’m not going to go into detail here about that because it all depends on the room you have. But I am going to point you to some resources:
Real Traps is an acoustic treatment company with fabulous products and is a great resource for acoustic information:
Ethan Winer is one of the owners of Real Traps whose website has a wealth of information on acoustics:
Auralex is probably the best-known acoustic treatment company, as you can find their products in most large music stores. They have great products, lots of information, a personalized room analysis, and an interactive kit calculator - very useful!
Join me next time in The Recording Chain, Part 4: The Preamp