Natural Reverb

As mentioned in a prior entry, working on Molly Cherington's new album has been pretty smooth due to artist talent and a whole lot of time spent preparing for recording. This has allowed me (as engineer & producer) a lot of leeway and opportunity to get creative with the tools and the space.

When recording a solo artist performing live, I like to have a bunch of different audio sources. Molly's set up was something like this:

Vocals: Neumann U87, usually pretty close up. Really close on the sensitive, quiet tunes and backed off a little bit on the songs that get closer to the top of the dynamic range. Also played with angling the mic up toward sinus cavity or down toward chest for a little different sound.

Guitar: Pair of AKG 414's. Both set for hypercardioid, one on or beneath the bridge, and one at or near the neck joint. Again, distance from the guitar varies based on the dynamic range of the tune.

Ambient: Another 414. Moved around a lot from song to song. Got some great sounds with it behind her, and also more with it a little closer, kind of pointed at the headstock of her guitar.

Things got really interesting when I started moving the ambient mic into other rooms and leaving the tracking room door cracked open a little bit. We were working mostly at night, and the building is pretty quiet when nobody else is around. The main source tracks did get a little noisier with the door cracked open, but well within a tolerable amount -- also I was going for a little more open and reverberant sound anyway.

First I tried the lobby of the studio and that was pretty cool. Then I tried the utility room, which sort of two rooms away. Neat, but a little distant. The winner seemed to be the 414 in figure 8 about 20 feet down the hallway leading to the studio. The mic was literally 40 feet, two doors and three turns away from Molly singing and playing. I cranked up the gain, engaged the high-pass filter to avoid any rumble and really couldn't believe the warm natural reverb.

For mixdown, the reverb track required some carving up with the parametric equalizer. Since the gain was so high there was a ton of hiss and a lot of that needed to be rolled off. Fortunately, for a natural sounding reverb that top end stuff is really damped anyway. There was a resonant frequency or two that needed to be notched out. There were also a couple of mystery noises that just needed to be edited out. Once the EQ was done I applied just a little compression (2:1 just above the nominal level) to smooth it out, and once I set the track to an appropriate level and listened to it in context, I couldn't believe how smooth and natural it sounded. We wound up using it on about four tracks.

The moral? Don't be afraid to chain a couple mic cables together and go long if you are looking for natural ambient sound. Even if the reverb track seems noisy, remember that you don't want all that high end anyway, and that the level of the track will be very low compared to the main sources -- that noise disappears quickly and adds a warmth and realism that you just can't get out of any reverb box or plugin.