Questions from a student sound engineer

This evening I’ve been asked a handful of technical questions to help a student sound engineer / music producer. He’s been happy for me to post my replies here, so if you’re interested in a little slice of sound knowledge, read on…

Q1) To what extent do you use foley/field recordings (if at all) in your work, and in what ways do you tend to use them most?

A1) My recent field recordings were for a project I’m just about to release. The project content has a locality to Redruth, so recordings of the town clock, the A30, steam engines, conversation from Stithians show and in fact lots of sounds, mostly percussive from within my home studio, like space bar, desk top and other creatively percussion instruments. At the start of the project we had no reverb processor to use, so we used mic technique, ie down the hallway, or mic’s set to Omni on instruments to create the feeling and effect of space. A lot of the clips were used, often reversed and highly effected to be used lightly in the recording in a stereo fashion. These recordings lifted the track sonically, giving more interest. From the bare back bone of instruments, the foley recordings created a sonically pleasing, finished sound.

Q2) When programming drums, do you tend to gravitate more towards hardware drum machines or daw based sequencing? 

A2) I tend to use my DAW to make drum parts, my preference however is to record acoustic drums. The joy of midi programmed drums is that you have a very good capacity to adjust the pattern, making it feel more ‘human’, or to change the drum sounds themselves. I find it equally quick to record drum parts live, or to program them, I work with what the client wants

Q3) When it comes to distorted/high gain sounds, do you have one method you prefer to use or is it more variable? 

A3) With distortion and sources with high input gain my first check is mic choice at the source. So maybe a guitar cab I would approach with a dynamic mic like the SM57 or the EVRE20. I would also consider also using condensers like the AKG414 which have suitable pad switches. Most of these mic choices are perfectly good at managing high SPL, including drums and guitar amps. In the studio, we have a separate guitar cab room, just fitting the cab and mic. It is on the extremities of the studio and highly sound proofed. We use this when we really want a high gain sound on the amp, without affecting recording that might also be simultaneously recorded in the studio. Beyond that, for live recordings, often separating the louder instruments into their own booth is useful.

Q4) Do you have any experience using hand built, makeshift or otherwise unusual equipment for recording and/or production? If so, what kind of results did this equipment give and did you run into any issues when using it? 

A4) Makeshift electronics equipment, I’ve not had much experience with, as most of my experiment / creative use with gear has been just within the tools I already have with my software and plug-ins. The room for editing and playing with audio is massively accessible even at the lower level of home studio set-ups. I guess, on a recording some time ago, I was finding that the fiddle jig / reel was sounding a little limp after recording it straight to computer through a sound card. I decided to run it through an old analogue desk, pushing the gains a lot! I got a grittier sound, then recorded it onto tape for the tape saturation and compression. After that, the tape recording went back onto the computer, it worked!! With the style of work I often do, I am constantly challenged with abstract world music and folk instruments. Some can be a real mastery to mic and EQ. I find these things the most fun to get around, often thinking, ‘does it plug in?’, ‘where shall I put the mic!?’. Experimentation breeds experience on this one! Get out there and have a play!!