Empire Sound Studio, located near Dallas, Texas, has recorded some of the biggest acts in music in nearly every musical genre — and one of their favorite mic brands to use in the studio is MXL. MXL Microphones got a chance to talk to Alex Gerst, engineer and founder of Empire Sound Studio, about how the studio got its start and why MXL Mics have remained mainstays in the mic locker throughout the years.
The multiple Grammy-winning producer and composer has been a big fan of MXL Mics for more than a decade. Wright first gained notoriety for arranging strings for smash hits like Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” and “Rock with You,” and he continues to work with top pop artists today, recording strings for Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience album and Ty Dolla $ign’s Free TC. Here’s more on how MXL plays a big part in this music legend’s career.
If you want a quick guide on how best to use each of MXL’s wide array of high-quality microphones, check this out.
Condenser mics are best known for their sound sensitivity, wide frequency response, and phantom power requirements, but what’s going on inside to give them that signature sound? Let’s take a closer look:
A question our technical support gets all the time is, “What microphone is best for broadcasting and podcasting?” The answer is, any microphone can amplify a voice. That’s easy. But does it sound natural? Is your deep voice too muddy? Is the sound too bright? There are some subtle differences with broadcast mics that make speech sound clear and smooth, the way it should over the radio. You want to select a true broadcast microphone for your radio show or podcast, especially if you have one of those deep radio voices.
Recording a piano isn’t easy. The sound quality depends not just on the microphones, but on the condition of the piano and oftentimes the room where the piano is located. For the best results, keep your piano tuned and in good working order. Proper maintenance will eliminate one big hurdle of recording a piano. The rest is just a matter of good mic placement.
The piano is generally recorded using close mic’ing technique. Ideally, you’ll want a minimum of two microphones. Usually, the microphone capturing the higher strings is assigned to the left channel and the microphone capturing the lower strings is assigned to the right channel in the final stereo mix, though the stereo spread generally is not hard left and right. While a single microphone can be used, the lower and upper extremities of the instrument will likely be compromised. To capture the full range of sound, pick up a pair of instrument microphones, such as the MXL CR21 Pair or the MXL 603 Pair.
When you hear a memorable guitar riff, you’re probably not thinking of how it was recorded…where the amp sat, was it on a carpeted floor, was the microphone two inches or ten inches away. But it’s these details that contribute to the sound you hear on the recording. So how do you capture the sound of an electric guitar?
First of all, you want to record the amp. While the electric guitar can certainly be recorded directly, there are times when there is simply no substitute for the sound of a real amplifier. Guitar amps have particular gain stages that facilitate the popular “crunch” guitar sound. While digital modeling and processing systems certainly have their place, they may not have the same level of realism as the sound from an amplifier. A small guitar amp can be just as effective for this application as a stack, because you don’t necessarily need to “crank” the volume. Instead, you want to increase the amp’s initial gain to achieve the desired amount of overdrive.
Typically, a guitar amp is close mic’ed to achieve the highest direct sound. Placing the microphone roughly 4 inches from the grill, aimed directly at the center of the loudspeaker will produce the most “edge” to your sound. If you move the mic further away, it takes the edge off the sound. It’ll be a bit mellower.
Now, if you’re going to put a microphone super close to an amp, it better be able to handle some high SPLs (sound pressure levels). It doesn’t necessarily have to be a dynamic mic – a condenser or two can do the job. A good instrument mic can perform well on a variety of instruments, including a guitar cabinet.
Distance from the source isn’t the only thing affecting the sound. By angling the microphone slightly off axis and towards the wall, you can add more “room sound.” Experimentation is a key factor in achieving the sound you are looking for. You might put one mic close to the cabinet and one several inches way. You’ll target the cabinet but you’ll also pick up the cabinet sound as it’s reflected in the room.
A ribbon mic might also give you the mix of guitar and room sound you’re looking for. The figure eight pattern picks up sound to the front and back of the mic without any creative placement. It’s what ribbon mics are made for.
Placement of the amp is another important factor. If the amplifier sits on a carpeted floor, you are more likely to reduce the amount of brightness in the sound. Similarly, elevating the amplifier off the floor may result in a loss of low-end. If you’re looking for a big reverberant tone, placing the amp and microphone in the bathroom is another popular technique. The hard tiles and other reflective surfaces can do wonders for a dull sound. In this case, move the microphone back a few feet from the loudspeaker and crank it up!
Recording audio is all about getting the sound you want. Garage band or singer/songwriter? Rock anthem or wedding ballad? “Enter the Sandman” or “Faithfully”? Determine your desired sound and then adjust your mic and amp placement until you get it. There’s no wrong answer!
I was invited to present audio solutions for video to a group of high school and middle school educators this past week. The group, located in Los Angeles, CA, is a consortium comprised mostly of Los Angeles Unified School District media instructors. The group is called MELA (Media Educators of Los Angeles). My contact there is Antonio Manriquez. Antonio serves at the Executive Director, as well as Video Production teacher in the Hollywood High School New Media Academy.
Programs like the one at Hollywood High School are popping up in high schools all over the country, and I suspect the world. I have been meeting with more and more of the instructors of these classes, and some of the students. It is a dedicated and focused group of people working on supplying the world with the latest content, using the latest production techniques.
The thing that impresses me the most about these educators is their level of devotion to the art of content creation, and their commitment to their students. The particular group of educators I met with at the MELA meeting (about 30 of them) battled L.A. traffic, at the height of rush hour (which is world class jam packed) in the afternoon after teaching all day. They came from all over the L.A. basin, driving as much as 30 miles to attend. This is not a paid or required activity. They have taken it upon themselves to belong to this group to further their skills. They review the latest technologies, trends, and products. There is an open discussion about the challenges they are all facing in their classrooms.
In the new world of unlimited access to the public through IPTV, YouTube, and social media sharing, there is an unquenchable appetite for content. This translates directly into jobs and careers which the students can enter if they have the right skills. These young people will shape, and in some cases already are shaping, the new media
landscape. It’s really encouraging to see these teachers helping their students enter this field, giving them the tools they need to be successful.
We all know that information translates into knowledge. And knowledge turns into power. That means that these students have the power to shape their future through video production. At a very early age, they are stepping up to become the media leaders of our world.
I was proud to be invited to speak to this group. They were hungry for new information on products they can take back to their students, to help make the best videos they can. It was a great way to spend my evening. What I learned was that we as a society are in good hands. These students are our future. And to see such hard-working educators guiding their learning activities made me confident that we are going in the right direction.
Technology for the sake of itself is just noise. When you have a dedicated group of people using this technology to bring the world important messages, you have the recipe for a bright future.
I discovered a new music group that I enjoy very much. The name is Postmodern Jukebox, lead by a brilliant piano player and arranger, Scott Brandlee. He has hit YouTube pretty hard. I’m not sure how long it would have taken him to become known without it, but the visibility certainly helped.
I really like his unique treatments of current songs. But, it’s the simplicity of his recordings that really make an important point. Today, all a group or artist needs is a basic audio recording system and a camera to get discovered. When I think about studio recording, the picture that comes to mind is of John Lennon standing with his young son Sean, pontificating over an extremely complicated looking mixing board. It doesn’t have to be that way to get a good sound today.
This article is intended to be a broad stroke guideline to setting up a home audio and video studio and not a detailed How-To. There are a lot of articles that go into product related details. I want to give you some general characteristics to get you started.
If there is one takeaway I want you to get from this, it is that all music distribution will eventually end up on YouTube and that’s where your music should be if you want to get discovered.
From Forbes.com: Youtube “is the leading online platform for music discovery, as well as the preferred music service for those 18 and younger. In fact, 38.4% of all its video views come from music, and 10 of YouTube’s top 20 channels are dedicated to music, according to the YouTube analytics firm Tubular.”
YouTube and the like have changed the way we consume entertainment in a profound way. When producing music, a plan to add video is a must. There are a number of ways an audio track can be produced these days. There are two basic ways to get a record: you either record in a studio or in a live setting. This blog post is about setting up a studio.
In the past, the only way to get a good audio recording was to rent a music studio. In the extreme cases of A+ talent with plenty of financial backing, that is still the way things are done. They use top notch, state-of-the-art equipment. Now though, more and more start ups are going to scaled-down recording studios or even setting them up in their homes.
What does an aspiring artist need to set up a home recording studio?
The Brains of the Outfit
The centerpiece of a home recording studio is the computer, and the software program. Whether Mac or PC, there are excellent recording programs. Apple computers come with GarageBand built in. It’s free, already on the computer, and adequate for basic recording. PC users have to buy a recording program separately as each PC manufacturer has its own suite of software built in. Whatever you buy, I suggest you consult with an experienced home recording user to get advice on the kind of computer and software that will suit your needs, based on your level of proficiency. One thing is for sure: if you are just getting started, you will upgrade as you gain experience.
Interestingly enough, the microphone is where most musicians and recording engineers consider the most creative aspect of the recording process. It is where everything starts and will change the tone of the recording. The recording can be as simple as a single mic or an entire array of them wired into a mixer.
On the simple side, one USB mic plugged directly into a computer is adequate for a track-by-track recording. The next step up is to use a traditional studio condenser mic with a digital interface. The quality of sound is generally better than a USB mic. It also opens you up to various mics, each with its own sound characteristics.
This is the plug-in device that turns analog signals into digital signals. An artist plugs their microphones and instruments into the interface in order to record directly into a computer. Interfaces come in all price points and can have one input, or multiples. The multiples have mixing capabilities but differ from a full mixing board. An interface can have both mic and line level inputs. An interface is still considered a device for more informal home recording.
Once you get to a more proficient level, you may want a full mixing board, like the ones you see in a recording studio. This gives you the ability to adjust the sound characteristics of each input before it gets recorded. The mix is recorded onto some sort of recording media and later turned into a digital signal after the mix is completed. Some artists prefer to create a “live” studio recording, having all instruments and mics plugged in at one time and then they go back later to tweak the mix.
The weakest link in any system is the cable. Whenever there is a problem in a system, the first things I check are all of the cables and connections. Most of the time that’s where the problem lies. I also find that cable is where most novice users cut corners. I can see why someone would think that all cables are alike…they look alike. But to the experienced recording engineer, the cable makes all the difference in the world.
You don’t necessarily need the most expensive cable, but the difference in cost between a really good one and a not-so-good one is usually not that much. Of course, we recommend Mogami for a number of reasons. Try buying two or three different kinds and compare the sounds. Another thing to pay attention to is the way a cable rolls and unrolls. This is important if you are moving it a lot. The lower quality cables will tend to kink up when they are packed up often. It’s that kink that affects the performance.
A studio monitor is what will play the recording back. This will affect your perception of the recording. No speaker is perfect; each one adds its own sound. That is the physics behind speakers. There is no avoiding it. There are speakers that will scope out to be perfectly flat. That doesn’t mean that they all sound alike. Listen to a number of speakers before choosing one. Remember that everything in the chain will affect the sound. So try and use the same electronics and cables so you are truly comparing just speakers and not full systems. Find the one you like the most, as the sound you are mixing is your vision of the music. There is no such thing as a perfect mix. Perfect is the sound you like the most.
A real studio recording is one in which the room is as “dead” as possible. Sound absorbing tiles will do just that, absorb the sounds, which means that the only sound the mic will pick up is the primary sound. As a test clap your hands. A hand clap will have no echo in a dead room.
A dead room has almost always been the goal of a studio recording. The opposite of that is a “live” recording, where room echo is a part of the sound. It seems that today, the trend is away from a dead room. There are numerous TV shows that are recorded in a live environment. Again, the sound is your interpretation. If you like the sound of a live room, that’s what you should have.
On the other hand, you definitely want to keep unwanted sounds out of the recording. A song with dogs barking and lawnmowers running in the background is not acceptable. Find the quite environment, and decide how much of the room acoustics you want. Items such as sound tiles and reflection filters are items you may want to use.
These are a few suggestions for your audio recording. In the next installment, I will discuss adding video to your creation. It’s the video that will help get the song discovered on Youtube.
Many thanks to Sable Cantus for his contributions to this article. Sable is a higher education instructor of Digital Arts at Goldenwest College in Huntington Beach, where he teaches digital music recording. He is also an accomplished musician, performer, music teacher, and arranger.
This is the first in a series of posts about creating and sharing music yourself.
It’s been 5 years since I joined MXL. I came from the consumer electronics industry, where I spent most of my career in video. I have been an amateur performer all of my life, participating in school plays, standup comedy, and as a musician. I am no stranger to the microphone. But working with MXL has really opened my eyes to all the different ways microphones are used.
I looked at all of the web sites that sell our mics and read the user reviews. It didn’t take long to find out that people were using these microphones in their home studios. I had thought that studio condenser mics were used in, well, recording studios. But the majority of them aren’t. They are being used in people’s homes. I found out that the growth of home recording was exploding. It was because of the growth of personal computers and programs like Garage Band and Mixcraft, and digital interfaces like Steinberg. I knew people recorded music at home, I just didn’t know it was that many people. That discovery raised another question in my mind.
How Are They Sharing Their Music?
The answer to that question is what changed my outlook on our products, and on my approach to everything I do creatively. The answer is YouTube. That technology…those two words, put together, has changed the face of entertainment and communications in a profound manner.
“YouTube is the primary music platform for the 18-34-year-old crowd, the demo YouTube-parent Google calls “Generation C” who discover content online, via computer, smartphone and tablet.” – Forbes
With the advent of YouTube, anyone can share their music. It was one thing to be able to record music yourself, in your home. Before the PC, a musician had to record in a studio. It was expensive and reserved for the serious musician with financial backing. And before Social media, in order to share it, artists needed to have a label to distribute their CDs. Now, with the PC and a mic, anyone can record at home and distribute it to millions!
If a song is played in the woods, and there is no one there to hear it, is it still a song?
With YouTube and other social media, the artist can put their work out for the world to discover. The other side of recording is listening. What was once a complicated process – recording a song, finding a label, and then getting playtime – is now as easy as using a computer.
The Keyboard and The Keyboard
It’s ironic that the same word describes both an instrument used to make music and the object we use to control our computer when we create and share that music. There’s less and less distinction between the two. And MXL is in the forefront of this movement.
Our mission is to design and build quality mics at affordable prices, so that everyone who wants to record their art is able to do so. From the most popular selling 990/991 vocal and instrument recording kit, to the stunning red and gold tube mic, the Genesis, MXL offers a wide range of value priced mics. Each mic has its own unique sound and look.
From the novice to the most experienced recording artist, more and more recording is happening outside of the traditional recording studio. For some, the creative process is enhanced by their surroundings. I like to watch “Live From Daryl’s House,” a show on Palladia, which takes place at Daryl Hall’s (well known from his days with Hall and Oats) home. He invites guest artists into his home to record music. I also saw a documentary on Jeff Lynne (formerly of Electric Light Orchestra). He has a recording studio set up in every room in his house. Each room delivers its own unique sound.
That is what so many artists are doing these days. Music creation comes from the soul. The environment we record in can have a profound effect on the creative process. Add to that the opportunity to share that work via You Tube, and you can now see why home recording is so popular.
We at MXL and Marshall are proud to be a part of that system which allows anyone with a song in their head the ability to transfer it to a recording. In addition to our mics, we have cables (both Sound Runner and Mogami), and now video products to assist in the production and distribution of their art. MXL offers an end-to-end solution for musicians everywhere.
I have come a long way in my understanding of the music recording process in the five years since I joined MXL. It has helped me to lead the product design team and manufacture products that musicians need for today’s recording process. MXL has also come a long way. As we add new products, both audio and video, to our suite of products, we have become a unique brand in the industry. Musicians can look to MXL and Marshall to give them a one brand, end-to-end solution.
Let us help you share your art with the world.