Bad Recording Environment? No Problem

2009 Dec 07, 2009

If you have a home studio, chances are you don’t have a perfectly treated recording environment complete with floating floors and ceilings, acoustic paneling and bass traps in the right places, and a separate live room, vocal booth, and control room. Proper sound isolation and treatment is important, but don’t let the lack of those things stop you from making great recordings. Today I want to give you a few pointers for recording in difficult or noisy environments that hopefully will help you get great results with minimal fuss.

Via CircaSassy Flickr

An Example

First off, I’d like to share a track with you guys that might serve as a good example of what I’m about to go over briefly. A couple of years back I recorded an a cappella (all vocal) Christmas album with some old college buddies who are all great singers in their own right. At the time we decided to record it all in my old apartment up in Virginia. The challenges were that we were in my living room (our “studio”) with hardwood floors, in an old 1950s building, on the street side of a US highway! We knew trying to record an all vocal album in this noisy environment would be our greatest challenge of the project, but at the time we didn’t have a choice. Here is one of the tracks of that album:

“We Three Kings”


Solution #1 – Stay Away From Walls
In a rented apartment with wood floors, white walls, and thin windows the best thing we could do was get away from the walls. Hard surfaces reflect sound which is a problem. These reflections will eventually bounce back into your microphone and mix with the actual source you’re recording, causing many sonic problems. If you don’t have anything on your walls to absorb or diffuse sound reflections (acoustic foam, full bookshelf, blankets, etc) the best thing to do is get to the center of the room. That’s exactly what we did for the track above. I moved my coffee table out of the way and stood the mic right there near my sofas and we all just went to town. It doesn’t completely solve the problem, but it greatly minimizes noticeable reflections.

Solution #2 – Get Up On The Mic
I mentioned this technique in one of my previous posts and it definitely holds true in an untreated recording environment. Microphones “hear” what is loudest and most directly addressing it. In our case we knew that a lot of our vocal parts weren’t very loud, so we had to be pretty close to the mic in order to capture more of us and less of the trucks and sirens outside my window.

Solution #3 – Use Your Hi Pass Filter Often
A hi pass filter is a simple EQ effect that simply shelves off low frequencies completely at either a fixed point (generally 80 hz) or a variable point (as high as you like). Why is this important? Well all the low frequency noise in your apartment (air conditioning, refrigerator, street traffic outside) float around and build up in your recordings. This takes up “head room” in your mix and muddies up your tracks. One of the simplest things you can do to improve your sound and clean up a mix is to just cut out all that low frequency stuff.

How do you do that? Sometimes your microphone will have a hi pass (also called a low cut) switch on it. If so, use it! Also your audio interface or mic preamp might have as well. Again, use it if you have one. These are generally of the “fixed” variety like I mentioned. If all else fails be sure to add a software plugin EQ to address the low frequency later in the mix. These are useful because you can cut as high as you want (I’ll go up to the 300 hz mark sometimes for acoustic guitars). Either way, use the hi pass filter to get rid of a lot of that unwanted low sonic material. It’ll do wonders for your recordings.

Think Big Picture
In the end, just remember that you can’t get rid of all the noise on every single track. It’s a fools errand. What really matters is the big picture, how the final mix will sound. Do what you can to be smart in how you record, use the three solutions above to get a cleaner take each time. But don’t freak out if you can still vaguely hear a lawnmower from a mile away. If you can’t hear it in the mix, who cares?

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