“Watch where you point that thing,” I said with a wink to the banjo player in a local bluegrass group, as they each took their places around the stereo microphone array I had set up.
He chuckled, having heard the refrain a thousand times from sound engineers before me.
He was part of a group that played acoustic instruments, and his acoustic instrument just happened to be five times more directional than the rest of them, so he’d become used to his angle being adjusted or being told not to move while he played.
Such can be the life of a player of a loud instrument. Now to be fair, the banjo isn’t insanely loud overall. The term I used above was “directional,” and since the strings are laid across what’s essentially a snare drum, you can imagine hearing it straight on will be a lot louder than when it’s turned away, or from the back.
In contrast, I remember another duo I recorded, where the acoustic guitarist told me he has a weird guitar, and the sound “comes out of strange places.”
Sure enough, the typical 12th-fret microphone position left me scratching my head, as it didn’t fully represent what I was hearing in the room.
To figure this out, I walked around him again and again with microphone in hand and a long headphones cable extender plugged in. I ended up using a combination of a microphone in front, and one by the butt of the guitar, underneath his left arm. I played with the level, delay and phase of the rear mic to make sure it added only good things to what I was hearing.
A third story: An electric guitarist and her band came through the studio, and she was using a Fender Twin Reverb as her amplifier. Personally, I prefer much smaller amplifiers for recording, but the band’s sound was heavy, and her twin 12-inch speakers would get her feeling right as she played.
She wanted the amp firing straight forward, so she could feel the sound waves hit her legs like she does at the practice space. I wanted to lean the Twin Reverb back on its stand, for sound wave reasons. I relented, and we recorded what probably should have been “the” take.
When we listened back to it, something was off. It was bloated, not meaty, and it was not very articulated.
We recorded the next take with the Fender leaned back, and the meaty articulation returned.
When a speaker is mounted on a surface, some sound waves will travel across that surface, perpendicular to the way you’d think the sound will go. Standing straight, the amp was competing with some of the waves reflected back up from the ground, and it was also using the ground surface to emphasize some notes that relate to the size of the room. By tilting, we effectively “decoupled” the amp and what I heard was closer to what was coming out of it.
I’ll keep coming back to this point as we continue this series on DIY recording, but the solution in all of these stories was to listen and experiment. That’s going to be a way out for you as a recording engineer.