DON’T SKIMP ON THE ROOM MICS
We’ll start with the obvious: The easiest way to create a realistic sense of space is with actual space. That means putting up multiple mics and/or room mics during tracking. Even if you think you’ll end up using mostly a close mic in the mix, you’d be surprised how adding even just a touch of a second mic (or perhaps a stereo pair of room mics) into the mix provides a dramatic increase to the sense of “dimension.” It can be even better if you’re tracking multiple musicians at once and there’s a bit of bleed between mics.
Of course, you have to be careful about mic placement when you’re doing this, and make sure none of your extra mics are creating nasty comb filters. But in general, if you track an extra mic or two you’ll rarely be sorry you did. You might also find that compressing these a bit brings up the room “information” more, even when added to the mix at low volumes.
ADDING A ROOM AFTER THE FACT
No matter how hard you try to get a good room sound, there are going to be times when the room acoustics are so bad that using room mics is unsatisfying. Or, you may be mixing a track that has already been recorded with only a close mic. In those cases, it’s tempting to simply grab your reverb plug or box and be done with it. But my experience has been that an actual acoustic space of some sort is going to produce better results, even if you ultimately end up adding a digital reverb to the space as well. So how can you “add space” after the fact?
First, find a space that’s acoustically interesting in some way, and might have some of the character you’ll be aiming for in the mix. It might be a tiled bathroom, or a stairwell, or simply a nice-sounding room that’s relatively dead. If you have any kind of mobile recording system like a laptop interface or all-in-one workstation, that will give you even more options. You can take your rig to a church or any other space you find inspiring. Bring your monitors and your best pair of mics, and simply play back your tracks through the monitors while in the space, and record the ambience. You can do this with individual tracks or the whole mix, and listen with headphones to find the best mic placement and distance.
These ambient mics may work well all on their own, or you may want to augment them with other effects when mixing. Another trick is you can add your own “pre-delay” in a DAW by simply sliding the ambient track a bit later in time. But making the effort to record these extra tracks gives you a whole new arsenal to work with in creating the soundstage you want.
GETTIN’ FREAKY WITH IT
Your creative options when recording ambient tracks don’t have to be limited to natural spaces. Sometimes you want to create a space that’s decidedly unnatural. One “old school“ trick is to run tracks into a tube guitar amp (overdriven as much as desired) and mic the result. If you have an anemic snare drum track, you can even lay the amp on the floor and place a snare drum on top, snare side up, and send the snare track through it (you may have to gate the track). When miked, you’ll not only get the distorted snare track but the amp will excite the snares and add some flair to a track that might sound too tight or boxy. Blend the re-amped track with the original track and it’ll fatten things up considerably! There are lots of tracks that sound cool when run through a guitar amp and miked, and again the extra mic helps add dimension to the soundstage that you don’t get when re-amping through an amp simulator or other effect.
Another old trick if you have an upright piano around is to open it up, place a pair of mics on the piano harp, and blast the tracks out of your monitors at the harp. This is something of a poor man’s plate reverb, and to get even freakier you can place a weight on the sustain pedal which will cause the piano’s strings to vibrate along with the tracks, creating eerie sounds. I’ve achieved similar effects with cymbals or anything else that resonates.
In short, experimenting with space can not only improve your recordings but it’s also fun and inspiring, and can really get everyone’s creativity level cranked!
Lee Flier is a guitarist, songwriter, engineer, and producer based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her band, What The…?, is a fixture in the Atlanta area, has released two independent CDs and of late has been performing in other states and countries. She can be contacted via the band’s website at www.what-the.com, and also moderates the “Backstage With the Band” forum at www.harmony-central.com.