I know we’d all prefer to be in a professional studio with musicians over remote recording, but for now that’s just not possible for so many of us due to Coronavirus restrictions. So, I’ve taken a look at what the best home recording options are to keep us all going until the Covid-19 controls are lifted, (hopefully in the not to distant future).
I’ve teamed up with producer/composer Dan Jeffries and recording/mix engineer Jake Jackson from Air Studios, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for the past ten years when composing and mixing my TV and film soundtracks.
Putting our heads together – virtually of course – we’ve come up with suggestions for the minimum recording requirements to record music at a professional level.
Putting aside the musical performance by the musician, for all three of us the quality of the recording is, as you’d expect, the single most important factor. We usually spend days planning the optimum recording techniques and approaches before a session in a recording studio even takes place.
I also spoke to percussionist Joby Burgess, who in my opinion has the perfect home studio set-up from a musician’s perspective.
And for another composer’s viewpoint, I spoke with Nainita Desai, who writes scores for films, about her expectations from musicians during remote recordings.
Q & A with Dan Jeffries & Jake Jackson
Sheridan Tongue: What equipment would you suggest for professional musicians wanting to record at home, as a bare minimum?
- A condenser microphone in a cardioid pattern (or a matched pair if recording piano).
- A microphone stand with boom.
- An audio interface (anything made by RME, Apogee or Universal Audio will be good).
- Headphones (closed back so no spill).
- Laptop with audio recording capabilities.
- Converter doesn’t matter too much, just as good as you can afford.
- Headphones for recording should be closed back (important) but apart from that, comfortable, and a good brand: Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, AKG etc.
- Mic: a condensor large diaphragm, or pencil. In Cardioid, about a metre away from the instrument.
Sheridan Tongue: More specifically can you suggest some microphones and headphones?
Large Diaphragm Condensers:
- Neumann TLM103 – £839
- AKG C414 XLS – £650
- AKG C214 – £300
Small Diaphragm Condensers for piano or stereo recording:
- Neumann KM184 (stereo set) – £959
- Beyerdynamic MC930 (stereo set) – £690
- AKG C451 (stereo set) – £469
- Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT770 (250 OHM)- £105
- Musicians who like to have one ear off while recording could try: Beyer DT102s – £89
Jake Jackson: If I had to chose one, I would go for a Schoeps CMC6 with mk4 capsule, DT770 headphones, and I own an Apogee Quartet, so one of those!
Sheridan Tongue: We don’t tend to record singers that often in soundtracks, but can you suggest any microphones for vocalists?
Dan Jeffries: Yes, though actually vocals is a bit of a tricky one as everyone’s voice is so different. Hard to give specific advice in a way. If vocalists couldn’t afford the Neumann TLM 103 I’d probably recommend the cheaper Neumann TLM 102 (about £450) over the AKG414 for most vocals, but the 414 will record most instruments much better and be a better all rounder.
Jake Jackson: Vocals tend to sound better on a large diaphragm mic. But even a vocal on a Shure SM57 has great attitude. Just make sure you get a good level and record in a dry environment.
The musician’s recording set-up with percussionist Joby Burgess.
I have used Joby Burgess on a number of my soundtracks, and recorded Joby both in professional recording studios and from his own studio. For our last project together Dan Jeffries visited Joby’s studio to oversee the first day of remote recording, and he made some very small adjustments to Joby’s set up.
Sheridan Tongue: Joby, what microphones do you use for your remote recordings?
Joby Burgess: At the moment my go-to choices for remote recording are matched pairs of AKG C414, Coles 4038 and Neumann KM184 with a couple of Sennheiser MD421s on hand for anything that packs more of a punch.
Sheridan Tongue: What headphones do you use?
Joby Burgess: Beyerdynamic DT100 for recording.
Sheridan Tongue: What is your A to D converter and signal path?
Joby Burgess: Going in I use Focusrite ISA preamps and the Motu 828es, just trying to keep it clear and clean.
Sheridan Tongue: I notice that before you record a take you clip the headphone jack into something on your belt, what is that all about?
Joby Burgess: That is a habit that comes from playing live shows, it keeps the headphone cable off the floor and stops it getting caught on anything as I move around.
Sheridan Tongue: How do you like to use and position the microphones for tuned percussion (marimba and vibes)?
Joby Burgess: For marimba and vibes I would always record with a stereo room mic and then a pair of close mics positioned about 1 metre above the left and right ends of the bars.
Sheridan Tongue: What about for shakers, hand percussion and individual drums?
Joby Burgess: I was always record both a room and close mic position for each instrument so the mix engineer has some flexibility. Shakers and smaller drums I give some distance from the close mic, with the larger drums I get in very close.
Sheridan Tongue: Was there anything Dan Jeffries suggested to you about recording that improved your recording technique?
Joby Burgess: It is always great to have recording engineers visit me as I get a fresh pair of ears to check my process, plus some new ideas and perspectives on where I can make improvements. Dan suggested some new ideas for mixing my stereo room microphones and some shortcuts for printing stems, which can often be pretty time consuming after a busy tracking session.
I spoke with film score composer Nainita about what she expects from musicians when recording remotely.
Q & A between Sheridan Tongue and Nainita Desai
Sheridan Tongue: Excluding musicianship and the performance what is the most important thing for musicians when remote recording for you?
Nainita Desai: Communication. So much can get lost in translation and with the physical barrier it can lead to miscommunication.
Planning the session as though it’s a live one with cues worked out as though it were a normal ‘in person’ session with all sheet music clear, printed, and knowing what cues you are going to record is super important.
Sheridan Tongue: In addition to sending them music scores, do you brief them by email or phone?
Nainita Desai: Having a detailed brief in writing is imperative – once they have digested the notes then a phone call follow up is very useful for clarity and expectations.
I’ll send through a list of their session plan and how many cues we expect to record. I’ll also send through rough mp3 mixes of the music so they can run through or rehearse beforehand if there are any solos etc.
I’ve even sent through guide tracks for musicians to get an idea of the sound / style I’m looking for.
Seridan Tongue: Do you like to monitor live on Source Connect or do you prefer the musician to send you the recordings at a later stage?
Nainita Desai: To date I’ve received files later but with Source Connect Now – which is free, it’s definitely worth monitoring live and having visual contact such as Zoom for just live video.
Sheridan Tongue: Any advice for musicians wanting to remote record for composers?
Nainita Desai: You really need to nail your recording technique If you’re recording strings, then changing physical position, mic, even changing bow and instrument in between takes, different balances between room pics and even having more than one room to record in with different acoustics.
Those subtle details make for an authentic sounding blend of layers.
Those that are used to playing live need to understand that recording is a different discipline to live performance – pitch / time accuracy and intonation are incredibly important.
Little flutters and inaccuracies tend to show up in recordings and control over performance is imperative.
When life gets back to normal it is going to be important to continue to support professional recording studios and their engineers/staff around the world. They elevate our work as composers and artists and I look forward to bringing my future projects back into professional recording studios when the time is right.
Until then… Stay safe.
A huge thank you to Joby Burgess, Nainita Desai, Jake Jackson and Dan Jeffries for contributing to this article.
More about Joby Burgess
More about Nainita Desai
More about Jake Jackson
More about Dan Jeffries