How a simple hand-held recorder can change your perspective—and help you make better music
By Ronan Chris Murphy
The concept was born from a joke made during an intense week of pre-production for the first full length album by the Italian rock band, Riaffiora—an idea that would eventually have us singing at midnight in the piazzas of Venice, recording a pipe organ in an ancient church, recording guitars in the loggia of the Palazzo Ducale, using a 600 year old palazzo as a reverb chamber and more . . .
We were hunkered down in a 15th century wine cellar-turned-rehearsal space in the center of the medieval walled city of Cittadella, 40 minutes west of Venice. Influenced by great creative energy and copious amounts of local Prosecco, someone suggested that we record the guest accordion player while he flew over the piazza of Cittadella suspended by wires like a TV superhero. As the laughter (and perhaps the Prosecco) subsided, I could not get the idea of recording in this beautiful piazza out of my head. I began to explore the idea, and the more I thought about it, the more I understood that the music we were working on really was drawn from our surroundings—and I became obsessed with the idea of finding ways to actually integrate beautiful places in the Veneto region of North Italy into the album.
My eventual vision for the album was to create an album that incorporated the sounds, spirit and experiences of the ancient spaces, but still have the size and power of a major label rock album. We settled into Abnegat Studio outside of Vicenza, Italy where engineer Jean Charles Carbone and I recorded the basic tracks for the album. We recorded to Pro Tools HD primarily through the studio's beautiful vintage EMT console. All of the drums, bass, and a lot of the electric guitars were recorded at the studio, but with a few exceptions, the majority of the rest of the album (vocals, guitars, accordion, strings, organs, piano, and more) was recorded in historic remote locations around North Italy.
Bonus Video! See a 12-minute documentary on the making of the album
ALBUM: LA MARSIGLIESE
LABEL: DISCHI SOVIET STUDIO
An essential part of making this happen was that as luck would have it, Avid had recently released Pro Tools 9, allowing long-time Pro Tools users like myself to bounce easily between multiple systems and be extremely mobile. This made a lot of the remote recording very easy, but I still had aspirations of being even more mobile and capturing spaces where even the bulk and setup time of a laptop rig would be difficult.
“RUN AND GUN” RECORDING
I needed some kind of hand-held portable solution to be able to do the audio equivalent of "run and gun" (a filming technique of getting a shot fast without any tech set up or break down), so I looked into the available options. After some extensive head scratching and research I realized that I already had a great solution in the Zoom H4N portable recorder that belonged to Riaffiora’s keyboard player. We had used it in pre-production and got some decent recordings of the band using the built-in mics, but what made me settle on the H4N as the recorder was not only the sound quality, but its rudimentary (yet still very usable), built-in 4-track recorder. This feature would allow me to do the remote recordings, and save potentially days of synching and editing work after the fact.
I made some initial tests for audio quality, and to my surprise I found the onboard condenser mics very usable. Even though some outboard mics and mic pres would likely have improved the quality somewhat, I decided that the increased flexibility, speed, and ease of recording with the onboard mics would outweigh the small loss in audio quality. At no point did I ever regret that decision.
NO SYNC? NO WORRIES!
The solution for integrating the H4N, which has no kind of synch or time code, turned out to be quite simple. I made simple mono “in the box” mixes of the basic tracks on my laptop that had a short stick click sample at the beginning of each mix, and recorded that mix on to the first track of the 4-track session in the H4N. This left us with three tracks for overdubbing for each song. Using a simple headphone splitter, both the musician and I could hear the music and I could do a simple mix of basic tracks and overdubs. The only downside to this approach is that we were committed to the mix of the basic tracks. If the musician needed more or less of a certain instrument in the headphones I was not able to do that for them, but once the musicians understood that limitation, no one had any problem with it.
The H4N records onto SD cards, saving each of the four tracks as a single WAV file that starts at zero, and could be imported from the SD card into their respective Pro Tools sessions. Once in Pro Tools I “grouped” the 4 tracks from the Zoom and aligned them visually so that the stick click from track1 (the basic tracks mix) and the original stick click in the Pro Tools session lined up. The overdub tracks were now perfectly aligned with the tracks recorded direct into Pro Tools.
BAND ON THE RUN
The decent audio quality, as well as the speed and simplicity of recording with the hand-held recorder, allowed for recording opportunities that could have not have been realized with a traditional setup. As our entire “recording studio” could fit in my coat pocket, we were able to move fast, and set up fast. This let us go into various locations without attracting attention to ourselves and start recording literally within seconds of finding a space in which we wanted to record, and be on the run within seconds of getting chased out of any given space.
In addition to the hand-held recorder tracks, we also used a laptop and Digi 003 (with various converters and mic pres) to record in locations where we had a little more time for set up—and less chance of being chased away by the cops. The locations included the several rooms in a 600-year-old palazzo (whose four-story marble stairway also served as a reverb chamber), the 200-year-old Teatro Sociale in the center of Cittadella, and the 160-year-old pipe organ in the church of Fontaniva. The recording of the pipe organ ended up being a combination of recording directly to Pro Tools and the Zoom. We had only a limited time for setup in the church, as a funeral service was set to start soon after our arrival. I put a Shure KSM32 (medium diaphragm condenser) on the balcony close to the organ pipes and an AKG 414 (large diaphragm condenser) about 50 yards back in the middle of the church. I really wanted to capture the ambience of the church, so I set up the H4N 100 yards back in front of the altar on the far side of the church.
As the Zoom was not synched to the Pro Tools session in any way, I clapped my hands in the church before each take so that we would have a way to visually align the clap on the Zoom tracks with the clap on the tracks recorded directly to Pro Tools (you can hear the clap we left in at the beginning of the song “L’imputato” on the album). When it came time to mix, I never used the AKG 414 track from the middle of the room, but instead used the close sound of the KSM32 with the ambience from the Zoom and, in some cases, used only the Zoom, which provided a surprisingly good overall sound for the organ when I didn’t need much direct impact.
These sessions became some of the most enjoyable recording moments of my life, and the level of excitement and joy of all involved was something I’ve rarely witnessed in my over two decades of recording. And yes, we finally did record the accordion player in the beautiful piazza of Cittadella (although, sadly, not flying through the air like a superhero), tracked acoustic guitars in the salon of a renaissance palazzo, and the highlight was using the magical city of Venice, Italy as our live room: In the middle of the night we recorded vocals in the middle of Saint Mark’s Square and in tiny hidden alleys by the canals, we recorded guitars in the loggia of the Doge’s Palace, violins by the gondolas docked in the Venice lagoon and church bells throughout the city.
BACK HOME IN THE STUDIO
Because we never had exclusive use of any of the outdoor spaces, every recording situation was filled with extraneous noises, such as boats and Vespas roaring by, people talking (or yelling at us to be quiet outside their windows in the middle of the night), or unexpected blasts of wind. If I felt something added to the spirit of the event I kept it, but could clean up almost all the troublesome noises with a combination of iZotope RX and Bias Soundsoap noise reduction software. We never “lost” a performance because of noise issues.
There were a few musical parts that we recorded in both the controlled studio setting through all the high-end gear and also in the remote locations with the hand-held recorder, and much to my surprise, in almost every instance I chose the H4N version in the final mix. Although the studio recordings were technically superior, there was something special about the character of the sounds and a spark in the performances of the remote tracks that always seemed to be more exciting in the mix.
I mixed and mastered the album at my studio, Veneto West, in Los Angeles. After completing all the technical work of aligning and cleaning up the “hand-held” tracks, the process of mixing was no different from any other album I might mix—but in this case, we had unique elements and a bit of magic that helped make the album special and an experience of a lifetime for all of us involved.
At its best, new technology allows us to expand our creative palette. I’ve worked on hundreds of albums, in some of the top studios around the world—but a simple hand-held recorder that cost a few hundred dollars opened up creative opportunities that would have never been available to us even in the most expensive recording studio in the world. And now, the whole world can be our live room.
Producer/Mixer Ronan Chris Murphy has worked with artists such as King Crimson, Steve Morse, Tony Levin, Chucho Valdes, Nels Cline, and Ulver; he's also the founder of Recording Boot Camps™, a new kind of school that teaches musicians what they really need to know to make better recordings.