We’ve all been there. Something isn’t working in the studio. Perhaps it’s a technical problem: no audio is showing up in your DAW, or you can’t hear the monitor mix. Or perhaps your mix itself isn’t working. Things just don’t feel right and you can’t put your finger on it. Whatever the challenge of the day, we always tend to think the solution to our problem lies in the complex. When in reality, it might be simpler than it seems.
Via brewbooks Flickr
Occam’s Razor And Simplicity
Maybe you’ve studied or read about Occam’s razor as it relates to logic, problem solving, and scientific theory. The principle states “that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” Sound familiar? While not scientific fact for all situations, Occam’s razor, is a helpful guide in pushing us to simpler solutions rather than getting lost in complexity.
In our world of audio, we tend to over complicate things. We assume that in order to get a great recording we need racks and racks of nice gear, a fancy DAW, and a lot of technical know-how. But you and I both know the truth: that one microphone, an audio interface, and a laptop will get you there just as easily. But people bristle at the simplicity of it. It’s human nature. The same thing happens when troubleshooting problems.
My Dad’s Mic Placement Mystery
My dad has a home studio. Although a musician as well, he actually uses his studio to record voice over pieces as a correspondent for an online news radio station. I had set my dad up with a simple home studio in his walk in closet years ago and it’s worked great for him. Recently my dad moved into a new house, and so naturally he setup his microphone and interface in his new walk in closet thinking he would get similar results.
His first recording in the new “studio” didn’t go so well. He was so frustrated that he sent me the files and asked for advice. I listened to his previous recordings (from the old house) and they sounded great. Nice, crisp, clear, broadcast quality speech recordings. Next I listened to his recent recording. It sounded very low mid heavy, phasey, and in general “nasty” and unusable in comparison to his previous material.
My Initial Thought: It Must Be His Closet
My dad was using the same gear and the same software, so those weren’t the problem. The only change? His environment. I assumed there must be something happening in his closet that the microphone didn’t like. Small closets and rooms can have problematic frequencies that create build ups in weird places, it’s not uncommon. So I asked my dad to make me a video showing his setup in the new place (as he lives 12 hours away from me).
The setup looked fine, a bit smaller of a closet than before, but nothing crazy weird. I asked him to switch is position in the closet 180 degrees to face the door and see if that helped. Perhaps it was room reflections into the microphone off of the door. He tried it, and although the recording sounded slightly different, it was still plagued by that nasty frequency.
My Only Fix: Extreme EQ
Since mic placement and position didn’t seem to help much at all, I resorted to extreme EQ. I opened up his new recordings and began hunting for the problematic frequencies with an EQ plugin. In order to get rid of the nastiness I ended up cutting out just about everything under 300hz. It sounded majorly better, but now it was way too thin! I would never cut that much out of a voice, especially for broadcast radio!
It wasn’t a fix at all. And yet that was the only thing I could to help his tracks sound better. What was going on?! This wasn’t making any sense. Something was terribly wrong, not just slightly worse than before, but out of this world wrong.
The Simplest Explanation
I kept watching my dad’s little video tour of his closet, over and over, thinking through possible reasons as to why that space sounded so horrible. It just didn’t make any sense. Then when watching the video for the 100th time I noticed something on the microphone that I hadn’t noticed before. Something seemed out of place. And instantly a light bulb went off!
I called up my dad that very moment: “Dad? I think I figured out your audio problem. You’ve been speaking into the back of the microphone!” My dad was shocked. He couldn’t believe it. But sure enough, the condenser mic that my dad uses had been spun around in it’s shock mount and all along he had been recording from the back side of the mic. No wonder it sounded horrible, it could barely hear my dad!
The Moral Of The Story
My dad’s funny (and embarrassing) studio problem is a classic example of Occam’s razor. I’m sure you will run into many as well. A cable isn’t plugged in all the way, the plugin is inserted onto the wrong track, the plugin is bypassed and you didn’t notice, etc. Whenever a problem arrises, stop for a moment, take a breath, and ask yourself: What is the simplest and most basic thing that could be going wrong here? It’s a great place to start.