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Recording Mythology, Pt. 30 / When Less Becomes More

I’ve been high horsing my opinions long enough and it’s time I got back to the subject of music, which is what this blog is normally about in general, and recording in particular. My apologies to those of you who began reading my blog out of fringe interests concerning my outspokenness. Sometimes I just go off on a tangent, but dammit, I’m only human.

I don’t claim to be any more or less than a songwriter and home recording enthusiast, but now that I’ve been doing it for going on thirty years now and the process has gone from analogue to digital, it has been apparent that I’ve been somewhat reluctant to make the jump to digital. I won’t go into all of the reasons that I think that tape is the premier medium of choice, but now that ‘old school’ seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity, I like to feel that I’ve got some sound advice in the field of magnetic recording, since I’ve never stopped in the first place.

That having been said, I may point out that much of the following processes in respect to mixing can be successfully applied to digital recordings as well. Some things never change.

It seems I’m always running upon some desperate analogue neophite that can’t seem to get his tape recordings to sound the way he or she wants them to, and although the reasons are vast, a great many times the problem seems to lie in the fact that there is a lack of understanding in the differences between the analogue and digital mediums.

There are lots of cassette Portastudios out there that can be had for next to nothing these days, and since this seems like a logical starting point, folks are digging up distributors for cassette tapes and trying their hand at analogue recording for the first time in their lives. Cassette tape machines generally have a tape speed of only 1.75 inches a second, and a few had an option of doubling this speed, but even with this, the sound is at once muddy yet sibilant, and the frequency response much more narrow than in digital recording. For the home recordist and traveling musician, when the Portastudio first hit the market, it was as much a technological breakthrough as was the iPhone. Up until that time, multitrack recording was limited to open faced reel machines weighing thirty pounds or more and, many times the cost was prohibitive. Few gigging musicians could afford to cough up 5k for a tape machine and continue to eat and pay rent. Once the machine was had, that was all there was to it. There were no effects, no preamps, no mixer and no EQ. That stuff had to be purchased separately.

The primary task then, was to come up with ingineous ways to offset the physical limitations of the medium in order to obtain good results. This required skill and experience. Much more than is required with digital formats, I might add. Overcoming the obsticle was the reward. Joe Meek and George Martin were a couple of guys who excelled at the process. Imagination and engineering trumped technology in those days.

Tape machines also require care and maintenance. One of the first things that new analogue enthusiasts have to learn is to religiously clean everything in the tape path. The recording, erase heads, and capstan must be regularly cleaned using a Q-tip moistened with 90% isopropyl alcohol. The pinch roller and all other rubber parts must be kept soft with application of rubber conditioner. The recording heads must also be ‘degaussed’ or demagnetised. This is an art in itself, and improper degaussing can permanantly ruin an otherwise perfect recording head.

This leaves many wondering what the attraction ever was in the first place. Well, you work with what you have.

I like to think of tape as having more depth, as opposed to the breadth exhibited by digital equipment. I say this primarily because of the ability to drive the ingoing analogue signal much hotter than is otherwise possible in the digital domain. As many of you know, too hot a signal can ruin a digital recording, but sometimes, when the effect is desired, tape can be driven into what is known as saturation. When this occurs, there is a physical anomoly that many refer to as ‘tape compression’. Now a lot of analogue junkies will start fights over this terminology, insisting that there is really no such thing as tape compression. This is only an argument in semantics, of course. The point is, regardless what one wishes to call it, the effect is much the same as compression, thus the common nomenclature. Once the tape has become magnatised to saturation, the iron oxide coating can physically hold no more signal.

Here are a few ways to get your tape recordings on the road to sounding ‘respectable’.

First and foremost, keep a clean machine, and if you’re recording on a cassette machine, find the best high-bias chrome tape. Stay away from ‘normal’ and ‘metal’ tapes. ‘Metal’ does not indicate a particular style of music, in this case.

Second, a hot signal is always desirable in analogue recording in order to keep the signal to noise ratio as high as possible, because when a weak signal is recorded and then the gain is boosted order to bring the volume up to a suitable level, the inherent high frequency tape noise or ‘hiss’ is also boosted. It pays to bear in mind that if your signal is weak, the ensuant recording will sound thin and tinny. Therefore, always use a preamp in concert with a microphone in order to get a good signal into the deck. Monitor the signal with headphones in combination with the VU meter if the recorder has one. You’ll want to get ‘into the red’, but not so much so that you can hear actual signal distortion through the headphones.

Third, noise is compounded, so clarity is a must. If any of the equipment which you use has a floating ground, resulting in ‘hum’, this noise will be printed into each track, doubling the effect with each subsequent track resulting in a dissonance which will be neither negligible …nor removable. If you have grounding problems, I strongly suggest that you thoroughly digest my advice in Recording Mythology, Pt. 9 and apply the fixes to your studio.

Fourth, analogue tape is renowned for bass response. Since the tape saturates at low frequencies much quicker than at high frequencies, you can afford to lighten up on the ‘phatness’. I like to cut everything below 40Hz. Most computer monitors don’t go anywhere near that low, and earbuds are even worse. What people actually hear are the harmonics of these bass frequencies. With this in mind, I usually give a little boost around 200 or 400 Hz.

As for the tape ‘hiss’, one trick that analogue junkies use to keep the high frequencies of any particular track intact while defeating tape hiss is to goose the top end of the track being recorded with equalisation, anywhere between 12.5 and 19kHz. depending on the instrument being recorded. When one does this with each recorded track, the overall effect during mixdown is exagerated top end. But this makes it possible to then cut or ‘shelve’ the highs above 16 or 17 kHz with programme EQ by -6 dB or more and – voila – the tape hiss is drastically reduced while the recorded highs will still maintain relative crispness. This is the same general principle used in the Dolby process, although the bias point is tweaked with Dolby. I’ve used all Dolbys A, B and C, and I don’t like them. I always got into the habit of defeating the process and dealing with the hiss myself. Once dbx was introduced, however, I became a convert. For once they got it right.

Successful EQing requires the diligent application of cutting, rather than boosting most frequencies. This is when less becomes more.

Keep in mind that individual tracks may sound incomplete when soloed through monitors, but this is common. I always monitor the recording process through my headphones, and have them snug on my head before ‘finding my tone’ for any instrument. As I go through the process, I listen intently how a given instrument sits in the mix. The more tracks I have in mind, the more tedious the process becomes. EQing tracks allows us to leave the ‘donut hole’ for other instruments and vocals to be heard through.

For instance, you don’t want an acoustic guitar hogging all of the audible frequency spectrum, so unless you’re tracking nothing but the guitar, you’ll want to cut almost all of the frequencies below 500Hz if you’re going to add electric guitar, keyboards, bass guitar, and drums. In Nashville (country music particularly), there is a trick known as ‘Nashville tuning’, where the low E and A strings are replaced with unwound strings (E and B strings) and then tuned to E and A, only one octave higher. The big booming notes are replaced with a sweet, crystaline sound, somewhat reminicent of a twelve string. The thing to remember her is to keep each instrument within it’s respective sound parameters through intelligent and selective shelving. A good musician and/or home recordist will do well to keep a copy of the Carnegie Note Frequency Chart close by.

carnegie note frequency chart

Using the chart, one can tell at a glance which instruments occupy which frequency ranges and EQ their tracks accordingly. You’ll notice that there are overlaps in many places where two or more instruments occupy the same frequencies. Although this is partially by design, many instruments have a ‘conflict of interests’. This is where good compositional and/or mixing skills are a must.

Through judicious selection, the recordist may shelve all but the most important frequencies in the range of a given instrument, thereby leaving ‘breathing room’ for the other placement of other pieces. Without proper equalisation, all tones and overtones generated by each instrument will be reproduced, and the results will be a cacophony of instruments, each one vying for space to be heard over the other. If we then turn one channel up, the others instruments become indistinct, and vocals, if present, become unintelligible. Thus it serves us well to remember that the first recorded track will dictate how other tracks will be shelved.

If you start out with the backing tracks and build toward the more prominant pieces of the tune, you’ll find the process more rewarding. Keep a mental picture of the finished product at all times. Sometimes as you progress through the tune, you’ll find the finished image morphing in your head, and this may require the re-tracking of some parts, but it will be worth the effort, as the end result will be something that you can take newfound pride in.

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About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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