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Recording Mythology, Pt. 31/Passive vs Active Listening

To my way of thinking, there is a trade-off in being a musician, or at least, a person who dabbles in it on a permanent basis, and that is that one cannot listen to music in the ‘old’ way any more, that way being passive. I haven’t been able to sit down and simply listen to the music in over thirty years, because I’m always listening to the recording. I listen to the work of the producer before I even enter the realm of the songwriter and the musician. Nine times out of ten, I’ll have some comment on the mix, then the songwriting, then the tone of the guitar, the programme compression, and, as Alan Redmond would say, blah, blah, blah, and so on and so forth.

I didn’t used to be like this.

I can remember when I listened to music for the shear fun of it. I bought Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Crocodile Rock on a 45 rpm single as a young teen and I played the hell out of it and just drank it up. I never thought about all of that other crap. But by the time the first Queen album was released (the best record that they ever produced), I was a changed man. I’d become an active listener. I sat late at night with headphones, scrutinising the album one track (and one channel) at a time. I didn’t know what these guys were doing, or where the post-production picked up or where the pre-production left off, but I actually disected the record by ear. I’d mutter, “By God, one day I’m gonna figure out how to do that.”

I don’t know why I was so keen on recorded sound, but I had been that way since I was a kid and had gotten hold of my parents portable cassette recorder. I recorded all kinds of stuff: birds, passing cars, crickets at night, farts, and telephone conversations, but it had never occurred to me, until hearing to The Dark Side of the Moon, that one could actually use those sound in order to augment recorded music.

I was twenty-one years old before I’d scored my first Magnavox stereo reel to reel tape machine. It had not one but two tape speeds: 1 7/8 ips and 3 3/4 ips. Luxury. I was ecstatic. I sat the microphones up and played my guitar as I sang. I was horrified upon playback, because the results were awful. This was not the way music was supposed to sound; but what was I doing wrong? I was hopelessly behind the curve. I had a long way to go and a short time to get there, as Jerry Reed would say.

Little did I know that the goofy little omnidirectional mikes were picking up all of the early room reflections, and that that particular room had a terrible reverberation at around 500 Hz. I found an old book at the library that dealt with professional studio recording. It must’ve been published in the fifties, because all of the producers looked like Robert Wagner in the television show Father Knows Best, and the engineers actually had lab coats on. The book actually gave sound advice (yep, pun intended) and soon, I’d familiarised myself with words such as comb filtering, phase cancellation, flanging and stereo panning. I’d also learned that the environment that music was recorded in was important. I realised that my ears ignored a lot of the extraneous noise that went on around me, but that the microphones were not as selective, and heard everything equally well…and transfer those noises to the tape, where they were suddenly very apparent.

As an active listener, all of the carefree hours of music listening are behind us, and music hearing becomes a very serious and troublesome, yet many times rewarding, quality. Troublesome because we can hear the problem areas, but don’t know what the hell to do in order to address them, rewarding when we finally arrive at the solution and enjoy improved sonic quality of our recordings.

As I pointed out in Recording Mythology, Pt. 30, the tape format presents a unique set of problems on account of the uh…un-flat response curve of the medium, but noise can happen in both digital and analogue formats. Pops occur whenever a high-current appliance, such as a refrigerator or central heating and cooling unit switches on or off, flourescent lighting causes a motor-boating effect, floating grounds inject a 60 or 120 cycle hum (depending on where you live) into the signal, fan motors on rack mounted amplifiers can cause audible whooshing noises, running water through home plumbing, not to mention the crew of roofers two doors down, sirens, birds, car horns, cats, ad infinitum. You get the picture. Suddenly, everything that you never paid attention to is audible.

One can spend a lot of money on room treatment in order to address the issue, but that won’t always do the trick, or sometimes it simply isn’t an option. Sometimes the landlord is reluctant to allow us to permanently glue foam tiles to every wall and install a drop ceiling. Sometimes the unwilling party is a spouse or a parent. Sometimes we just don’t have the damned money.

Well, there are two simple things that most of us can do that will go a long way towards curing these woes. First, if you are using an omnidirectional mic, and you aren’t trying to record a choir and aren’t interested what the rest of the room has to say, you can get a cardioid microphone. These mics have a relatively tight pick-up pattern, and rather than ‘hearing’ sounds from 180° around, the angle is reserved primarily to what is directly in front of the mic, and all other sounds are greatly and effectively rejected. But not completely. The next piece of equipment to compliment the set up is a stereo compressor/gate. Yes, compressor slash gate. You have neither and need both, so why not get them in the same unit?

I won’t go into how to set up the compressor/gate, because the settings will be different in each instance, nor will I try to convince you that the process is easy, because it isn’t. If you’re serious about achieving good quality home recordings, you’ll buy the equipment, read the freaking instructions, and finally figure out how to obtain great results, but it will take a while. On the plus side, both pieces of equipment can be had at prices starting at about a hundred bucks apiece. And you can take them with you when you move, and the compressor/gate can then be re-calibrated.

Foam tiles become someone else’s problem.

Next time I’ll discuss another approach to taming room resonances with items referred to as baffles, or gobos. Until then….thataway, Mister Sulu.

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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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