Mark R. Johnson


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[Amateur Recording]
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Amateur Recording
Part 6. Recording Environments

It is important to note that whenever recording, you are capturing much more than just a bunch of sound. To paraphrase artist and performer David Thomas, recording a performance is as much an attempt to capture the space in which the performance took place as is it is an attempt to capture the performance itself. The simple fact is that the space in which a sound exists has a tremendous impact on the nature of the sound. All of the various reflections and resonances of the sound within the space results in an array of complex sonic interactions that may be caught in the recording.

Concert halls and performance stages are specifically designed with these interactions in mind. For the most part, digital effects processors were developed as an attempt to provide a flexible, artificial means for simulating recording spaces by providing equalization, reverberation, and delay. These processors, however, are seldom able to recreate the kinds of complex environments in which many famous recordings have been made.

The point of this section is primarily to help recognize how important the recording environment is to the recording itself. It transcends simply accounting for the various sources of noise (internal and external), and addresses the very interactions of sound waves as they reflect off surfaces of the environment. The result can be constructive resonance that seems to enhance and deepen the sound, or perhaps a destructive dissonance in which the tones break apart into a jumbled mess. Below is a humorous list of interesting household spaces that appeared in a recent Electronic Musician article, "A House Divided" (Feb. 1997). While the actual usefulness of recording in different parts of your home may be somewhat questionable, the descriptions should help give a better sense of how sound will react in different types of environments.

The Bathroom

Everyone starts out in the bathroom. Anyone with a tile shower is familiar with how encompassing the sound of one's voice can become. This is primarily due to the highly reflective tiles all in close proximity, bouncing and recombining the sound to form a constructive reverberation of the sound. To exploit this, one can setup a large diaphragm omnidirectional condenser mic in the shower to capture strong vocals and wind instruments. It can also serve as an effective way to add "ambient attitude" to one's electric guitar amp by placing it on a towel inside the tube and positioning the microphone far enough away to pick up the natural reverb.

The Kitchen

The kitchen also presents some interesting environments for brightening a sound. For example, to capture a bright, metallic resonance of low to mid-range woodwinds or similar instruments, try placing a mic back into an open oven, facing outward. For a somewhat warmer, more intimate sound, try the dishwasher, again pushing the mic back into the appliance and playing into it. You might even try changing the depth of the microphone, as well as leaving the dish trays in for greater diffusion of the sound.

Closets and Hallways

Among other things, long hallways can serve as effective echo chambers recording interesting effects. For example, David Bowie recorded "Heroes" using a three-mic multiple-reverb constructed in a long hallway. The first microphone was placed directly in front of Bowie while the remaining two were each placed halfway down and at the end of the hall, respectively. Additionally, the two further microphones were each gated so that they would only record medium-loud and full-volume notes, respectively. As a result, the softer parts of the song are close, intimate and reasonably unaffected. However, the more Bowie opens up, the stronger the role the reverberation of the echo chamber plays.

Instead of adding reverb and other effects, closets are particularly good for avoiding unwanted reverberation and other effects. This can be particularly useful any time you want to record a relatively dry signal, such as for heavy bass parts or for audio that will be heavily processed later on. By placing the bass amp or other audio source elevated back in the closet and placing towels and blankets on the floor in front and draped all around, one can greatly reduce the number of sonic reflections, therefore cutting down on the reverberation effect.

Unless you are recording in an acoustically neutral studio, you can expect that the space will have a significant impact on the sound you record. You should always be aware of the positioning and orientation of your microphone(s). You should also be aware that the microphone will not always pick up what you hear. Your hearing may be primarily omnidirectional and good at picking up echoes and reverberation whereas the microphone may be very directional and may not pick up the reverberations much all. Just keep in mind that you can always do a quick test recordings to get a sense for the space and how the mic will respond to it.

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Last modified 4/26/97.