Recording Philosophy

by Nikolay Georgiev on November 1, 2010

“We are compelled to experience this illusion, totally caught up in it and constituted by it, as the truly non-existent, that is, as a continuing development in time, space, and causality, in other words, as an empirical reality.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The birth of the tragedy from the spirit of music’

Recording Philosophy

Isn’t it true that every time when we are fully immersed in the world of music, we and the musical piece become one? Our everyday’s life and its perception of time, space and causality are completely gone and overtaken by the musical event, in which we “actually” live for that particular moment. My philosophy is such that as an engineer I approach every recording as if I am participating in the creation of a real world. I can do this either as a photographer or a painter.

Many times I have heard other engineers saying that they record this or that instrument in exactly the same way for every session, because this is their proven technique, which yields the best results. In my opinion, there is no such thing as the best technique or way to record a particular instrument or sound. On the contrary, I believe that there is always this or that unique recording situation and it is on the first place the music, then the player, the room and the instrument to make me dictate how the recording could be done. I follow this way of thinking not only as a recording, but as a mixing engineer and a producer too.

Every recording is an interpretation. Our experience in the concert hall during a performance is always unique, alive and temporary. As soon as the last sound fades away, it is the memory for that experience or its recording to remain.

Of course, there is no sound engineer that can fully recreate in an objective or “absolutely transparent” way the musical event. It is always his interpretation that remains as a record. Despite this fact, we can distinguish two major, opposed to each other, recording philosophies. Those I have formally chosen to name: “the transparent and the creative approach”. As such they are just idealised concepts, a matter of language, and in reality all productions are never at their pure extremes.

The transparent approach is the one that aims at a truthful and accurate representation of that moment of reality which is being recorded. Such approach is most suitable for classical, traditional jazz and folklore music. It can also find a good application when collecting sound samples, recording for foley, or even making experimental music.

The creative approach. This is where the engineer would consciously alter the sound, process it and twist it until it obtains the desired shape for the production. The creative approach is the one which is a good start for most modern productions and can be used for a huge variety of musical genres like pop, rock, experimental music, metal, hip hop, etc.

I use and support both approaches, but keep in mind that each one of them has it’s own application and that there is actually no real border between them. They both are just a different side of the same coin: the magic of sound recording.

Transparent Recordings

Ideally this would be the world heard by our own ears. In the foundation of such technique lies the understanding that by using as few microphones as possible a most natural and realistic result will be attained. In fact it is possible to record even the largest symphonic orchestra with two microphones only, mimicking the human auditory system. Moreover, the audio purist will probably argue that this is not just possible but actually the best way to do it! In reality, however, in most cases more microhpnes would be needed to deliver the most of a recording session. The main disadvantage of 2 channel recordings is that little can be done to alter the acquired result. For example, it would be impossible to enhance the balance of a string quartet or add extra clarity to harp in an orchestra. The transparent approach also implies that the so recorded source is one which is suitable to be honestly exposed to a pair of the most detailed high definition microphones and an ideal mic placement is possible. In order to achieve good results, a good recording space and good musicians are a must. Even in the presence of such, it is always idea to have a few additional “safety” microphones, which would pick-up individual sections of the musical formation. The ideal recording is achieved when those are left unused in the final mix. The aims of such recording are:

• to accomplish a truthful, detailed and rich sonic picture of the performance;
• to attain great depth and an accurate and spacious stereophonic image;
• to achieve a clean and natural well balanced timbre for each instrument and the entire picture;
• the recording must be free of distortions and artefacts due to cheap or not well maintained equipment (equipment self-noise, degradation of the sound due to bad signal transportation, preamplification or conversion, clicks and glitches, etc.);
• the recording must contain as few unwanted noises as possible (car horns, coughs, HVAC noise, etc.).*

I can attain all of it.

Schema Stereo

Such goals require:

• good technical knowledge of the engineer (the right chose of recording techniques, equipment, microphone placement, etc.);
• well maintained state of the art recording equipment;
• good musical pre-production (familiarisation with the musical programme for the session, discussing the goals and the budget of the recording with the customer, etc.);
• good technical pre-production (visiting the venue in which the recording will be done, aesthetic and safety considerations, etc.);
• careful professional post-production (editing, mixing & mastering).

I can give all this to your project!

Simplicity is the key to success. Less is more.
I use as few as possible microphones of the highest quality. A lot of my projects are done with two microphones only.

Even in the cases where additional microphones are required to reinforce the recording image, my mix will still heavily rely on the signal coming from the main mic pair.

And since those microphones are there instead of our ears, absolutely no compromise can be done when choosing the appropriate equipment, no matter the cost. All of my portable equipment has been carefully selected to deliver the highest standards of realism and transparency: the microphones, the cables, the preamps, the AD convertors. Where the circumstances allow it, I prefer to use the shortest possible digital and microphone cables made of 99.9997% silver.

* Special care is always taken to avoid and minimize those. However, very often it is the venue itself which dictates how successfully they will be avoided. In many cases during the post-production process a lot of the unwanted sounds and noise can be reduced or sometimes even fully removed. Nevertheless, every recording is unique and an unconditional guarantee for this cannot be given.

Creative Recordings

This it the approach which would consciously alternate the sound, process and twist it, until it obtains the desired for the production shape. My motto here is:

“Anything goes. If it sounds good – it is good. Anything that helps to create a better illusion is welcome”.

Fender Amp, Jecklin Disk, Close: AT4080, AT4081, sm57 transformless

For such production I could still employ my transparent gear. But quite often, I’ll rely on other coloured equipment, which alters the recorded material in a unique way, giving it it’s own character, which in reality does not exist. Those recordings may not sound as natural and realistic as the purist’s one, but this is not what we are after. We don’t want to capture the performance as it is.

We create our own reality, we are painters!

Different idea of space

This is the world of a thousand ears and a thousand spaces and they all could be different form one-another. In this world we can “hear” (record) each instrument differently and separately. No one can stop us to use as many microphones of any kind as needed, or to mix sounds recorded in different rooms at a different time.

Why not to have the sound of many different real rooms available for a mix? For many modern productions the mixing engineers often prefer to have a few different reverberation and delay effects available. In this way the musical mix may acquire a new sense of depth and spaciousness, which has nothing to do with reality. Still, this often delivers very musical and convincing sonic pictures.

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