starting out is rarely simple or pain free. for me, it’s a messy unpleasant series of clumsy efforts and hesitation. one step forward, many steps backwards. throw it in the crapper and start over. i swear. i despair. i think dark bloody thoughts. i sometimes throw things. i do not feel proud of myself during this time, or happy. i know self hatred and shame. it’s a hole filled with bad. and yet, i have no choice but to go in there… an idea, a seed… a baby? a monster? like moths drawn to the porch light. i have to look in there. in the morning, the doorstep is littered with little carcasses. if this isn’t you, bless you… and screw off. if you identify, read on brothers and sisters.
those who push the myth of creative genius do us no favors with their romantic fantasy. it’s good marketing, but mostly a pack of lies. making new stuff is rarely sweet. important? yes. satisfying? eventually. fraught with suffering? is the pope catholic? do bears shit in the woods? i’m not talking about doing the same old shit over and over again. it’s when you push for something new, different, untested, untried… but especially something that requires that you change your mind. i don’t think it matters if it’s an idea or a new material you just wonder about. just that it is not what you already know.
it’s good to go back to the reference for help with this: to remind ourselves what it is like giving birth! i’m a man. i have only watched and tried to stay calm. you do what you can… it’s not about you. at the risk of diminishing the magnitude of pushing out a baby (no man will ever know) it is still a good way to lend some understanding for what is going on in creative work in general. we are all mothers when it comes to this. the pressure is immense. it’s like crapping so hard, your bones turn inside out. and, you are messing with the contents of the universe. other people have strong feelings about that: “oh great, another one?!” or, “that’s god’s work you’re doing there, hallelujah!”. expectations… total indifference. there’s responsibility involved. it’s rough physically, even with the drugs, and there is blood and guts and risk. if it all comes together, there you are! with a new asshole and only at the beginning. and then the hard work starts. whatever you’ve made, becomes less and less yours the more complete it becomes. those really special things, the ones that end up as if they were always there long before you ever were and right and whole, those seem to have the least to do with you of all. even though all you’ve done is work. at least for a hacker, artist, or crafts person, there might be sleep at the end of the day, and not so many poopy diapers…
why am i talking about this? ahh. i was thinking about beginnings. starting out can be really hard. the middle usually ain’t so bad at all, and then finishing can get tough all over again. it’s a matter of dealing with the transitions… each one, a beginning. just as when kids are confronted with the switch from play time to lunch. or lunch to nap time. they often need a little help…
for recorded music, the start is often very very far from the end.
it’s interesting to consider how different the worlds of the recording engineer and the listener are generally… how little the two planets have in common, although somehow, they must be related?! the stuff looks similar! it relies on the same physics. the microphone and the speaker are reciprocals of one another, and definitely have many connections between them, both from a technological perspective and as a physical experience. speakers can often also be used as microphones too (very nice to use a 15″ bass cabinet as a kick drum mic, setup right in front of the kick). but, the one is at the beginning, and the other at the end. making music and recording it is anything but linear or neutral. playing it back is often practically puritanical. and there is a host of assholes wagging their fingers and tongues if you forget. the recording engineer makes a living with microphones, and the audiophile throws money at speakers… the recording studio is often a bland, foam lined suburban den looking crib. a fur lined ford fuck truck. the listening room is anything from couch potato modern to ikea tragic on ketamine. sometimes, the rooms are really carefully designed, other times, random chaos. ghetto or fly, they are obviously not ordinary spaces. one thing that is different now, than from years past, is that the site of the recording has become highly specialized. it is no longer a place most people will ever go to or hear any music. in many of them, the music doesn’t actually sound very good in the space at all! isolation is a priority in these spaces. it is a sort of temple, in the old sense. a space cut away from the ordinary world… just for the purpose of recording sounds. it didn’t used to be that way. music was recorded in places that you might ordinarily hear music: clubs, concert halls or temples! these days it is not at all like that. on the far end of the opposite side of the playback world, the listening room is actually a more open and inviting environment.
and then, there is how mics and speakers point at their various targets. that is also very different usually. i have spent a good deal of time trying to make speakers with a cardioid dispersion over the important octaves, just so i can set up a situation where the speakers really ARE the reciprocal of the microphones (stereo) in a really good setup. of course, only certain recordings can be ideally enjoyed this way, because modern recording practices seldom resort to such life-like techniques anymore (blumlein, ortf, decca tree, mid/side, etc). audio verite is out. interestingly enough, speakers which hold to this standard often sound great anyway… because the ears are prepared to hear things that way (a long conversation for another day). you don’t need to live in an anechoic chamber to enjoy the benefits. in any case, obviously, what happens at the microphone, the beginning of the recording, has a profound influence on the final result, regardless of the level and sophistication of post-production, and whatever you use to play it back. and, assuming the speakers are pointed at a listener (which they aren’t always…) some understanding of microphones and recording techniques help in speaker set up… although you NEVER hear that uttered in audiophile circles.
so what goes into a great microphone? what makes a great mic preamp? what makes for an appropriate mic setup?
good questions and not so easy to answer simply… have to deal with the first question first. there are several different kinds of mics and they lend themselves to different applications. and of course, different manufacturers handle the technology in varying ways. recording engineers like to think of themselves as really knowledgeable about mics but it is rarely so. they know applications… and are good at getting results using them. that is not the same thing. a few really do know how the gear works, but the vast majority get a good sound by any means necessary and stick with it, come hell or high water! not a bad idea when your paycheck is based on it. “who cares how it works?” quite often, the folklore of various mic types and the ways to use them are rooted in economic success, “hit sounds”, and that is the compelling standard. in american pop music, for example, recording a snare drum is most often done with a Shure SM57, because it has featured on most of the top of the charts recordings. everyone knows that sound and it causes no ambiguity. its also simple and repeatable. many people really do like that sound also, but most don’t question it. “that’s how the stones did it”, etc. i think it pays to think for yourself and keep an open mind here. carrots are delicious! i don’t eat them every day… still, i haven’t won any grammys! apparently, you should eat carrots every day. but, this isn’t the only situation that creates a particular niche for a mic though. the difficulty of recording certain sources in a really satisfying way also demands particular qualities and performance. piano, for example, is particularly tricky because of the distributed nature of the instrument. there are endless discussions as to what the best way is to mic a piano. there is clearly no one way. in this case, it is the opposite of the snare thing… certain engineers get known for their way of doing it, and also for the mics they choose to use. these two factors play most heavily into how and what is used, when. “steve albini does it that way…”, etc. a general overview is worth the effort.
the ear is sensitive to both differences in velocity and in pressure, and the universe has been generous to us in allowing ways for both types of variations to be detected and transformed into electrical energy. the condenser mic, and the dynamic mic are both efficient pressure transducers, and to a much lesser degree, velocity. ribbon mics, in their classic arrangement, are excellent velocity mics, and to a much lesser degree, pressure. at least, not so great as frequency goes up. there is a lot of overlap and exception in use but pressure mics tend to emphasize presence, and velocity mics tend to emphasize space. the distance to the source is also a factor, with proximity increasing pressure but not so much velocity. this will boost low frequencies as the mic is pushed closer to the source. recording spaces and recording particular sounds are very different jobs. the mic you choose for the job has a profound effect on the perceived result.
noise is always an issue and if you record noisy, noisy it will forever be. so impedance is an issue too. ribbon microphones are the lowest impedance and are theoretically quietest… although that is sure to find disagreement in certain quarters. typical range is 50 to 250 ohms after the transformer. before the transformer is milliOhms. it is just a short piece of foil after all. they put out such small signal levels (similar to a MC phono cartridge) and need a lot of gain after… the following passives and electronics play a big part in how well they do. dynamic mics are usually medium Z and have some meaningful inherent noise. the range is 250 Ohms to 5K Ohms. SM57s, for example, have enough self noise they cannot be used to mic a quiet source without obviously adding it to the signal. they hiss. still, dynamic mics can be medium to high output and that is also a consideration because the signal to noise ratio can still rate very well. there are some interesting low Z dynamics that are very quiet (Sennheiser notably). condenser mic capsules are inherently very Hi Z: on the order of 10 to 50 MegOhms. so they also must be buffered. their noise is both connected to the impedance and the electronics required to extract the signal… they have the highest “self noise”, but at their best are still very quiet (Shoeps, B&K/DPA, Neumann and Sennheiser). because of the electronics they can have the highest output and very impressive signal to noise ratios. condenser mics require a polarizing voltage to charge the capacitor capsules and this can come from an external supply (called a phantom supply or a dedicated supply for tube buffered condensers) or internal (a battery). a trend in modern mics is to derive the power for the preamp electronics from the phantom supply. this means that these mics draw more from the supply than in the past, which simply charged the capsule. they are also very high output. many of the most well known and beloved condenser mics are not that quiet. if you are recording something close up and loud, who cares? if you are doing a large room with subtle crap going on, you really do. nearly all mics are also connected in a way as to avoid returning the signal on ground (balanced output), which shares the electrical environment with everything else in the universe. by floating the signal off ground, a large source of noise is avoided. this does require somewhat more complex electronics but you will rarely see an RCA plug on a mic in a recording studio. RCA plugs suck anyway.
presence and clarity are more important in contemporary recording than space and ambient detail, even in classical music… so putting the mics up close is an inevitable fact of now. it is interesting that this is nearly always the case today, and it is absolutely antagonistic to the notion of “natural” recording. this is one of the more obvious reasons why “natural” (it is electronic after all…) is no longer at issue at all. there is some honesty in this but honesty isn’t the motivation. in reality, we rarely listen to anything with our ear right next to it… at least not for long. can you imagine a trumpet or a kick drum in your ear? a whisper or a tongue, sure… not a trumpet. yet, it is common practice to stick mics inside of these. no it doesn’t sound anything like a trumpet or a drum in a room, or a hall, but it has it’s own sound that is taken for granted today. the engineer then “assembles” the separately recorded sounds into a “mix” that balances the various levels into something that makes aesthetic sense. no, it has nothing to do with the way things actually sound. but it has what the engineer or producer considered to be important to the feel and mood of the work. when space and ambient info is wanted, it is often added artificially with reverb, “room mics” (it may not be the original room at all, but a side room, or a special built “echo chamber”), or delay effects (tape delay, digital delay, or “analog” delay (bucket brigade chips or magnetic oil)). creative control is the concern here, rather than documenting an event. close placement puts demands on the mics in terms of overload and durability that are important features. quite often, at high pressure levels the mics put out considerable amounts of signal, and distortion. this is part of the deal too.
the dispersion characteristics of the mics are also various. there is omni, cardioid, and hyper cardioid. figure eight mics are dipoles… and the dispersion characteristics are created by the dimensions of the mic diaphragm, baffle size, and the electronics. sound familiar? the cardioid dispersion is the most common and generally useful arrangement. it can be used close up or far back. it is well suited for imitating the experience of two ears on either side of a head, that separates them. if you are recording larger or more diffuse subjects, such as a piano, or an orchestra, omni mics come to the rescue. they pick up EVERYTHING. and if you need to isolate one thing, in a crowded environment, such as a snare drum in a kit, a hyper cardioid mic is dandy. shotgun mics are hyper hyper cardioid and are often used in film making to isolate the subject away from the equipment and people necessary to make the film. again, this is a rough general description and in no way conclusive as to application.
my motivation for relating these issues is mainly for those who are primarily focused on playback: the design of amps and speakers. it is rare among audiophiles and even DIY hackers that they have even the slightest clue as to how the object of their affection is made. in the next installment, we will look at mic preamps. and i will give a practical example.