Going Beyond Natural Sound Part 2
Beyond Natural Sounds
I wanted the instruments to sound natural in the room but, at the same time, to get a little beyond a natural sound; I wanted to put the listener’s ears inside the instrument to provide a different point of view. Coming from the production side, I called on my previous experience as a musical director standing in front of an orchestra in a concert hall. When I used to conduct for different artists, part of my preparation plan before he or she arrived for the run through was to check the music balance as the audience would hear it. I’d start the orchestra on a tune that didn’t require a great deal of direction, and then walk around the hall to get a feel for the ambient sound. If we used heavy sound reinforcement this was an even more critical check. As a music director, my responsibility was music, sound and lights; in reality I was the producer or “framer” of the show. If those elements were not just right, my clients let me know in the dressing room.
For the album project we were attempting to create an overall sound, as if we were going to watch a performance at Carnegie Hall. We wanted to sit right in the third row center and feel that the guitarists were sitting right there with us; and at the same time, have the depth and integrity of a wonderful sounding concert hall.
Sitting as a listener in the third row of a concert hall, you hear the direct delayed sound, then a blend of reflected sound from the walls and materials found in the hall. From this perspective the listener hears a combination of what is hear from the conductor’s point of view, along with the hall ambiance. It’s like being bathed in the sound.
A similar concept was also used when setting up the players’ foldback system. Even though we didn’t print the delays and echoes on the track, we added these discrete mixes to the foldback headphones. In fact, in terms of relative volume levels between instruments, the foldback mix was identical to what we were monitoring in the control room.
In terms of the tracking dates, having a glass partition across the more-dead sounding side of Monterey’s room was very important for us, because we could use it to liven up the sound of certain instruments, and to provide separation. We ended up putting the piano in this separate room, so we wouldn’t have unwanted drum leakage to contend with. In the old days when engineers were cutting jazz albums, they simply put everybody in the same room and worked with the leakage. Remember that if the musicians are put farther apart in the studio, the leakage – through reflections of various surfaces, as well as path-length differences – has time to get out of phase, and tends to detract from the direct sound. Whereas if you put people closer together, the leakage tends to be additive.
Modern techniques seem to employ people being placed in separate areas to eliminate the leakage all together, and then to specialize on each individual sound, which is what we did with the piano. To keep it away from the drums, acoustic guitar and back line amplifier, we decided to place the piano in a separate room to give us a cleaner recording.
Live but Controlled Acoustics
Basically what we were looking for as a recording environment was a very low ambient sounding room. We wanted a room that sounded bright: a space that had a certain degree of reverberation, but then a quick, even reverb decay without standing waves. In that way we could put the guitar in the center of the room with a close mike, and then use a distant mike if we wanted to capture some of this reverberation within the room.
We attempted to portray each instrument larger than life, which essentially comes from the process of close- miking. However, that’s only part of the story, since nobody listens to an instrument with their ear about an inch away from it; instead, you normally listen several feet away. So, when you close-mike and instrument or backline amp you get an artificial intimacy, a “hugeness’, that is very pleasant and which records well. Sometimes, however, it sounds a little hyped, and so you need to incorporate such close miking with distant-miking techniques to add enhanced perspective. If you don’t make use of the natural room sound, you can simulate it with echoes, digital delays, and effects of that nature.
Close-miking did ensure the integrity of the final product as we went through the different multi-track production states. If the instrument is small-sounding to begin with, as it is transferred from multi-track to two-track to disk, there will be various losses of low-level ambiance information, which loss can be overcome by emphasizing the direct sound from close miking.
Sometimes we blended in the room sound while recording certain instruments, such as the horns. Although the guitar tracks had room sound blended in with the direct sound, on top of that we would add straight reverb. Then, to obtain an open, “spacious” feel, we would use a delayed reverb, so there would be an initial slap, which would mimic the bounce or slap echo that is heard in a concert hall as the sound bounces off the back wall. Then the reflected sound becomes reverb as it bounces around the room, and you hear that reverb pattern decaying. If you only hear that reverb, without the initial slap, you don’t have that sense of depth you would feel in a big concert hall. So you have to have both; the slap or delay, and the reverb.
When the tracking session first started, the room environment was considered integral to the recording process, because we were using distant mikes. In the late Sixties, the introduction of multi-track recording meant we needed to go for increased acoustic separation between instruments, and close miking became the accepted technique. At that point studio designers started to use more and more sound absorbent materials to deaden the sound, and recording environments became very sterile.
But now we’re getting back to using the natural sound of a room, and utilizing a combination of close-miking and room-mike techniques. Many producers, myself included, see an increasing trend towards mixing natural sounds with synthetic sound, combining close miking with room ambiance, and the cross relationship between the two. You can draw from two different areas – record one
of instruments one way, and another in a completely different way – and incorporate those textures to provide something that was impossible to achieve a few years ago.