As more people record in smaller spaces, such as bedrooms and bonus rooms, the ability to capture a “big room” recording studio sound becomes challenging. Putting up room mics and capturing the ambience of an Abbey Road or an Ocean Way is not an option for most people these days. But there are ways to get a big studio sound in smaller spaces, other than just adding a big plate reverb. Here are a few techniques that I’ve used very successfully to get a “live” sound in smaller spaces.
1. Record like it’s a live event.
I was in the studio with a 5-piece band, and they wanted their record to sound like a live show. How could we accomplish that in a recording studio? Well, what is it that makes a live show sound “live”? The answer is lots of bleed from everybody being close to each other. So we set up everybody in the main room — no amps in iso booths and no baffles. When the guitar player took a solo, the wires on the snare rattled. It was loud, and separation between instruments was minimal, which meant punching in and replacing parts was rarely an option. But the band was great and well rehearsed, so that was not a problem. If we didn’t get a really great take, we’d record it again. The purpose was to get a great “performance” that had lots of emotion and really spoke to the listener, not just a great technical execution of the song with no mistakes. It worked. And there was one other thing that made it feel live, which was…
2. Record without headphones.
With all the players and amps in one room, we didn’t need the headphones, and recording without them makes for a different vibe. Everyone could hear everyone else except the singer, who couldn’t hear her voice over the drums and guitar amps. What to do? I set up a pair of small speakers to act like monitor wedges, but I put them on stands just below ear level pointed at her and away from the band. These were in mono and equidistant from the mic (the mic and two speakers were three corners of a triangle). By reversing the polarity of one of the speakers (connecting + to – and – to +), the sound from the speakers canceled at the mic. Then I fed just the singer’s voice to the speakers. She could hear herself just fine and didn’t need to wear headphones.
You can even set up stage monitor wedges for foldback if you need them. I knew a producer that always used big 15″ subwoofers set up behind the drummer with the kick drum running through them because not only did it push lots of air in the room, it inspired the drummer’s performance because it felt like a clap of thunder every time he hit his kick drum.
3. Use the room and its reflections to the fullest extent.
Listen to the space and see where the livest part of the room is (most hard surfaces and reflections). Listen to the corners of the room that are farthest from the source. Put microphones pointing at the corners away from the source. For recording choirs that need to sound as though they are in a big space but are decidedly not, I will point mics into the corners of the ceiling behind the choir. That way, the sound they pick up has to travel from the choir to the front wall then bounce to the back wall and then reflect off it before arriving at the mic. If the room is only 25′ deep, the sound has to travel 45′ before it gets to the mic, so it sounds like a space that is much larger than it actually is.
4. If the room is dead, then look beyond the walls.
I’ve often been in rooms with little sonic personality and had to utilize adjacent spaces to find some ambience. Those spaces might be a closet or a hallway or a bathroom. In one studio, we would occasionally put mics in an adjoining stairwell or open doors to hallways and put mics there. One famous studio had a loading dock where they would position ambience microphones for drum recording. And bathrooms are usually great sources for sonic character because they have so many hard surfaces (tubs, showers, tile, mirrors).
5. Make things sound more live by adding space around the mic.
In other words, try moving the mics away from the instrument. The timbre (character) of an instrument changes as you move away from it — the frequency balance changes due to the distance. Listen to a guitar from six feet away, and then put your ear right in front of the soundhole. Huge difference, huh? Employ space and distance to put more depth in your recording. If you’re recording in a small room and the reflections from the walls make things sound boxy, try using a bidirectional ribbon mic and move the mic farther away (counterintuitive, I know). With a figure-8 mic, those sidewall reflections will be minimized. If the reflections from the wall behind the mic sound bad, use a reflection filter to eliminate those, or add baffles/acoustic panels on problem areas to minimize reflections.