JOE DICKINSON: The Chain, Part One

Circle Studios’ Joe Dickinson has started a series of articles for API focusing on each stage of the audio chain.

Dickinson, a recording engineer at the Birmingham-based facility, and one of API‘s Rising Stars, begins by outlining the importance of the recording environment and the space, and explains how some bands should take more of an interest in these factors, rather than simply the quality of the equipment provided…


While wrapping up a session a couple of weeks ago, both myself and Circle Studios’ chief engineer Trev received phone calls from bands planning to book studio time.

We each explained to our prospective projects how important the choice of studio is when making a record – as both seemed keener to understand what gear we had, but neither showed any concern for coming to see and hear the space.

After we’d hung up, we began discussing the finer points of what truly makes a record. While it is obviously important to have great gear, the assumption that gear alone makes great records was, we agreed, backwards. If what you’re putting into a mic sounds terrible, it’ll never come out any better, just different. In fact, a single 57 on a talented musician in a nice space will feel infinitely better than a hoard of U47s on a poor player in a dull space. I have therefore decided to offer a brief insight into the way I look at the audio chain and what I consider to be the most important…

So first up in the chain is the environment. Although this is entirely dependent upon the type of people you are working with – it is perhaps the most underestimated factor in recording. The vibe, discussed by engineers and producers alike, is the immediate influence a recording space has on the people working there. For example, I prefer to work in a windowless space without wall clocks, so that I completely immerse myself in what I’m working on. Others prefer natural light, others like lava lamps and fairy lights – it really depends on who you are and how you work best. But whatever their preferences are, if you can design a space to get your musicians happy and feeling comfortable; you have instantly increased your chance of making a great record with them.

Next up in line of importance is monitor mix. Now that you have a musician in a space that feels they have reached optimum creativity level, you need to get them settled with what they are recording to.

As far as I’m concerned, the player has to feel the mix in order to work to it, regardless of what stage I’m at in the project and where we are tracking. If they don’t, I’m doomed before I’ve even pressed record. No one wants to listen to music that’s got no soul, right? Whether that means building a less robotic click track or recording guide tracks, it’s going to pay off in the long run. Get them comfortable and they’ll give you a perfect take quicker.

However (and here’s the kicker), although we tell musicians “they’ve got plenty of time”…they don’t. Time is always of the essence – as budgets get smaller the time available to record gets slimmer. So not only do we have to provide the musician with a top notch mix – it has to be done quickly to avoid the curse of red light fever and extract that perfect take.

In order to keep things moving in sessions, my preferred solution is to implement a ‘mix-yourself’ system in the live room. I either send stereo returns to a 12-channel mixer I travel with (utilising the aux sends as spare mixes should there be multiple players) or I’m lucky enough to be working in a studio that has the Hearback System in place, in which case it’s a piece of cat5 cake!

Either way I always have a quick dash into the live room and set up a rough mix to their specifications, getting feedback and liaising with the musician to find out what they need to feel most comfortable. Of course, sometimes that’s not possible, in which case I’ll spend a reasonable period of time getting them comfortable with the monitor mix direct from the board or direct from my DAW.

Now we have a great sounding and speedily obtained monitor mix – the players are in the moment and feeling good about the day – so what is the next most important item in the chain? For me, it’s the space.

Don’t forget that when you record anything you’re not just picking up the instrument as a single point source. You’re miking that player, on that instrument, in that location, in that space – a change in any of these may result in a variation in another. It doesn’t matter what else is in your signal path – if you’re in a foam-walled, carpeted, box room with zero energy, there is not a combination of gear in the world that will make it not sound like you’re recording in a foam-walled, carpeted box room. If that’s not what you wanted, then you’ve already tainted the record. The rule of recording is always ‘get it right at source’. While a mix engineer can change the balance of frequencies in a recording, the room tone and reverb cannot be readily removed once it is printed with the track.

I’m lucky enough to work in a commercial facility that has four spectacular sounding, and very different rooms, built from the ground up with recording in mind. Given my situation, it’s really easy for me to say that space is important. But if you’re in a studio that operates with a single room, there is still a great deal you can (and ought to) put in place to make sure it sounds the best it possibly can.

Add diffusers to ‘persuade’ sound around the room – this adds space to what you’re working on – always avoid parallel surfaces, and above all – I can’t stress this enough – make it variable. See how long a reverb you can get out of the room, and then find the inverse – how dead can you get it? By researching and understanding your live space you can quickly find out how you can arrange it to suit each individual record – and more importantly, each instrument on that record.

So, back to the check list: great vibe, players on the ball, the space sounds perfect for the record in question – time to put up mics, right? Not yet.

A sound source excites a space differently depending on its proximity to other materials. For example, if you set a drum kit up in a corner, you introduce two planes of reflective surfaces, bringing in a different factor of directivity (or Q as the acousticians call it). This is much different in comparison to if the drum kit were in the centre of the room. This means some of the sound is reflected back sooner, but what does that mean for the record? Essentially, the location of the instrument in the space changes the way in which the sound is picked up by a microphone. So by understanding your space, you’ll know how best to manipulate it to get the instrument sounding as close to how you want it to on the record, in the room.

This in my opinion is what separates a project studio from a commercial recording facility. While it is lovely to have a rack full of vintage gear, you are only as strong as the space you are tracking in. So in summary, the engineers’ job is first and foremost to set the vibe and environment because if you can get the source right, everyone’s job down the line becomes an exercise in creativity rather than damage limitation.

The next step is getting the same vibe and feeling heard in the live space, coming out of your monitors in the control room. But that’ll come in Part Two…

Happy tracking!

Website: Circle Studios

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