Fig. 1 An amp recorded in a tile-and-glass shower benefits from extra color provided by early reflections.
You might be reading this in the perfect echo chamber
BY GINO ROBAIR
ALTHOUGH DIGITAL reverb provides the most convenient way to add ambience to a track, there’s nothing like capturing the sound of a real room. But if you think that only concert halls and high-end studios have useful acoustics, guess again. Many sonically interesting spaces already surround you, and the unique qualities of the rooms in your home or apartment offer plenty of creative mileage.
Room to Room Most of us think we know our living space fairly well, but how many of us have actually listened to it and evaluated its sonic potential? Whether small (bathrooms, closets), medium (bedroom, kitchen), or large (living room, garage), every room has an acoustic personality that can be exploited, given the right mic placement (and perhaps some compression).
For example, bathrooms typically have the largest number of reflective surfaces (tile, glass, fiberglass) of any room in the house, so they make excellent echo chambers, whether for tracking, reamping, or as an aux send while mixing. However, a kitchen can also be acoustically interesting, thanks to its wooden cabinets, linoleum floor, glass windows, and the metal doors of the refrigerator and dishwasher. Oddball tonalities, which might be perfect for helping a guitar solo or vocal overdub stand out in a mix, can be achieved by miking from inside a tub, a sink, or the drum of a washing machine.
Start by going around the house with an instrument or two and listening to how they sound in each room. Pay special attention to characteristics such as reflections, decay length, and overall tone color. Although you can simply clap your hands or snap your fingers in each room, you’ll get a better idea of the tonality each space has to offer if you play the instruments you’re likely to record in there. For example, I thought that our newly remodeled living room, with its wood floor and high ceiling, had potential as a great live room, but it wasn’t until I strummed an acoustic guitar in there that I discovered how balanced its frequency spectrum was.
As you’d imagine, carpeting, heavy curtains, and plush furniture will dampen an environment’s high frequencies and the overall ambience within a room. Nonetheless, this darker, drier timbre might be perfect when you want to capture an intimate-sounding vocal or a tight, close-miked drum sound.
Don’t be discouraged if a room sounds boxy. Sometimes it might just be the sound source. For instance, a loud drum set may sound terrible in a rectangular bedroom that has a low ceiling, whereas close miking a small combo amp in there might give you an interesting slap-back effect.
Location, Location, Location Getting the proper balance of direct and room sound in a reverberant space depends on where you place your singer or instrument relative to the microphone. Of course, the closer you place a mic to the subject, the more direct sound you’ll get. But the mic’s polar pattern should also be taken into consideration, because it plays a major role in determining the blend of ambience and direct sound. By their nature, omnidirectional and figure-8 patterns yield more room tone than a cardioid, though the latter will still give you a good sense of the room’s ambience in a close-miking situation.
Let’s begin by recording vocals in the bathroom. Place a large-diaphragm condenser 7 to 12 inches away from the singer; the spacing will depend on how much room you want in the track and how loud the singing will be. If you have a multi-pattern mic, select omni mode. For more ambience in the blend, raise the mic about six inches above the singer, but point it down towards his or her mouth. As you position the mic, monitor the sound from your DAW using headphones until you find the sweet spot that fits the song.
When you place a sound source or microphone close to surfaces such as walls and floors, early reflections will begin to color the sound. In a highly reflective room, that’s something you can exploit. For example, to add sparkle to a droney guitar bed, I recorded a small combo amp in a tile-and-glass shower (see Figure 1), with a bidirectional ribbon mic placed 18 inches away from the amp. The front of the mic captured a direct sound that was saturated with early refl ections, while the back of the mic brought in the sustained ambience from the rest of the room.
Distance Equals Depth Larger spaces— hallways, living rooms, garages, basements— not only provide extra reverberation, but you can utilize their size to thicken up a track by combining close and distant mics. The greater the distance you have available, the longer the delay you can create. Sound travels at roughly 1,125 feet per second, so you gain a 1ms delay for every foot of distance between your source and the microphone.
Large rooms are great for getting big, dynamic drum sounds, especially when you combine a few close mics—on the kick and snare, for example—with strategically placed overheads and room mics (and some compression to glue it together in the mix). Electric and acoustic guitar tracks can also benefit from having space around them when recording.
In addition, uncarpeted hallways and stairwells make great reverb chambers. I recently used an echoey stairwell to add a rich stereo ambience to an old analog string synth by placing the amp at the top of the stairs and a spaced pair of omni mics at the bottom.
Here’s a recipe for thickening an electric guitar track when you have some distance to play with. Begin by placing a dynamic mic close to the grille of the amp, positioned a few inches left or right from the center of the speaker. Next, place a large-diaphragm condenser mic five to 15 feet away, and five feet above the floor, but pointing down toward the amp. Assign each mic its own track and hit Record. This setup will add dimensionality to the sound when the tracks are combined in mono, or add spaciousness when the tracks are placed on opposite sides of the stereo field.
A similar technique is to place a pair of condensers in an x/y stereo configuration a few feet from the amp, but pointing at the opposite side of the room. This will yield more of a stereo-delay effect from the room mics that you can blend in with your direct mic. Of course the success of distance miking depends on the position of the amp and mics, as well as the sonic qualities of the space.
If you’ve got additional inputs available on your interface, add a couple of mics in places you think will have interesting sonic characteristics—behind or above the instrument or amp, just outside a doorway, or inside a cardboard box or trash can, a few feet away. When you blend tracks that have radically different timbres, it can lead to an exciting and unusual mix.