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Take Your Positions - How To Decide Where To Set Up When Recording
Where you decide to set things up really does matter…

by Phil O'Keefe


When you record something, where do you set up?

It may seem like a really basic question, but it's really more of a fundamental issue, because where you set things up really does matter. Not just from an ergonomics aspect, although that's certainly important. You need to be able to see your music stand, reach (and operate) your recording equipment, have enough room to perform and be where you want to be relative to the microphones. But there's much more to it than that, especially in terms of the sound of your recordings.

I've mentioned in previous articles the advantages of recording in different acoustic environments, and modern mobile-friendly recording tools have made that much easier to do. It's great to be able to record different songs, or even different parts for the same song, in different rooms and buildings. A garage might give you the perfect trashy reverb for your drum sound, while a clothes closet might get you that dry and in your face vocal sound you've been after. Using different rooms is a great way to get a variety of ambiences on your tracks. But it's not just what room you record in - your location within the room matters a great deal too. And not just for the placement of the microphones - the positioning of the musician - more specifically, the sound source - within the room matters quite a bit as well.

Where do you go?

Most of us have preferred locations in our studio or home where we set up when we want to record specific things. How much thought did you put into selecting those spots? Why did you decide on those locations? There's plenty of good reasons to pick a spot, including lack of noise interference from outside, good lines of sight between the musicians and proximity to the recording equipment, but did you give any thought to how those particular locations sound? And even if you did, have you experimented with other locations within the room so that you're familiar with all the available options? If you haven't, you might want to give that a try sometime. You might be surprised by how different various instruments can sound when placed in different locations within the same room.

Things to experiment with

The same place in the room may not be ideal for every sound source. Location A may be a great spot for tracking vocals, but it may not be the best place if you want to get a different sound for the background vocals, and it may not be ideal at all for placing a guitar amp, so make sure you try a variety of locations with all of the different types of sources you record. You can try placing the sound source closer or further away from room boundaries and other reflective or absorptive surfaces, moving it towards a corner for additional bass buildup and reinforcement, and setting up off-center from the dead-center of the room to avoid phase cancellations from the reflected sound waves bouncing off the walls. If you have a rectangular shaped room with one end tiled and the other carpeted, try both ends and listen to how different they sound.

What about the microphones?

When it comes to microphone placement, as you probably already know, Distance Equals Depth. Move the microphones back and away from the sound source, and the recorded sound seems further away and more distant when you play it back. That's because you get a higher ratio of room ambience, reflections and reverberation vs direct sound from the singer, instrument or amplifier the further you move the microphones away. Our ears and brain interpret those increased reflections and ambience as distance cues.

But not all distant locations are created equally. Moving the microphones to a different part of the room, even though it's the same distance away, can result in a completely different sound. When you move the mic, it is picking up sound from a different location, and one where the direct and reflected sound waves are traveling in different paths to reach. They may be striking more hard, reflective surfaces on their way to one set of microphones, while interacting with more absorptive surfaces on their way to another pair of microphones placed a similar distance away from the sound source.

Sounds like something to try

It's impossible for me to tell you where the best locations are in your room because all rooms are different. You're just going to have to spend the time to try different things, but once you know how different locations and microphone placements within your room can change the sound, you can use that knowledge to your benefit when setting up the sound sources and placing the microphones. A little bit of time spent experimenting and listening to various locations within the rooms you regularly record in can teach you a lot about the sonic options that are available to you, and pay big benefits in the overall quality of your recordings. -HC-


What do you think? Do you have questions about this article, or suggestions about how to set up when recording? Then be sure to click over to this thread in the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!




Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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