FEATURE/ADVICE: Sound Reasoning Part 2 – monitoring levels and listening

Monitoring levels are important
Photo credit: © Borislav Kresojević

Mark Wingfield is a mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio. He has three DownBeat Masterpiece albums under his belt, a Jazzwise Best Release Of The Year, and over 300 rave reviews from around the world for albums he has worked on. In this series of articles Mark gives advice on how to avoid common mistakes made in the recording studio which will hold back your album from sounding great. This is the second part of his special advice series for LondonJazz News. Sound Reasoning Part 1 – the set-up is here.

Monitoring levels

In my previous article [see above] I discussed the importance of the set-up phase of a recording session where the sound of each instrument is decided upon. One important thing to understand, which helps not only in the set-up phase, but also in mixing, is monitoring levels. The term monitoring levels simply means, how loud you listen to the music in the studio control room.

The first thing you need to understand about monitoring levels is that everything sounds better when it's louder, that's a biological fact of how our auditory system is made. However loud volumes don't give you an accurate representation how your recording really sounds. Remember, something played back at loud levels always sound better, clearer, more detailed, warmer, more vibrant etc... A lacklustre, muddy recording, will sound bigger, clearer and more detailed and exciting than it actually is if it’s played back at loud volumes.  It is very important not to be fooled by this.

In the mixing industry playing back at loud volumes actually has a name – it's refer to it as "impressing the client". Be aware that some studio engineers compensate for a muddy sounding recording by playing back at loud volumes in the control room. They may do this knowing full well that playing back at loud volumes flatters the sound. Such practices when used knowingly are an attempt to fool you. Not all engineers do this to fool you however. Less experienced engineers may not even realise that playing things back louder makes things sound better than they really are. They may simply play it loud because they believe it to be an accurate representation of what's been recorded. It isn't.

Be wary when an engineer plays things back loudly.  It either means they are trying to fool you or they are fooling themselves. The only exception would be that they might turn things up monetarily in order to listen out for a problem of some sort.

In addition to things sounding more impressive when they are loud, the human ear starts to skew the high and low frequencies at higher volumes, so you end up with a skewed version of what's actually been recorded.  Playing back too quietly will also cause the low and high frequencies to sound inaccurate.  Your ears hear most accurately when the listening volume is around 76 db (spl C weighted) for loud passages in the music (more on this below).  A good engineer knows this, and should have some kind of calibration on their control room volume which will at least approximate this level.

TIP: You can get very cheap sound level meters for your phone.  Although these won’t be accurate enough for professional calibration, they will give you a close enough idea of how loud the playback volume is.  If you are sitting two to three meters from the speakers, in a small or medium sized room, the level on your meter should measure about 76 db (spl) during the louder sections of a tune.  Make sure your meter or app has the facility for C weighted type metering (most do), you’ll need that for an accurate reading.  This measurement is not sufficient for calibrating your studio speakers, but it will give you a rough idea whether you are listening too loudly or quietly.

As a rule of thumb, if you can’t easily have a conversation while the music is playing back, it's too loud. If you’re having to raise your voice or shout in the control room, it’s much too loud.

Listening during the set-up phase

The key thing for you when recording is to have the right listening volume when you are setting up and getting the sounds of each instrument. Normally what happens in a studio is that the engineer sets up the mics, say for example for the drums, then the rest of the band or the producer listens in the control room as the drummer plays. Based on how it sounds, they make comments and suggestions on how the sound could be improved. Then changes to the positions of the mics, the type of mic or the type of mic preamps are made. Once you're getting close to the sound you want, you do a short test recording so that the drummer (or who ever you are setting up for) can come in and listen as well.  From there more adjustments may be made until you are all happy with the sound of the particular instrument.

You don't want to be getting a rose-tinted version of how things sound at this crucial stage, which is why it is so important not to be listening at volumes which are too loud (or quiet). Remember, if the truth is that engineer has set things up so that your instruments sound dull and flat, if you listen too loudly, they will sound much bigger and richer than they actually are.  If this happens, you may well end up settling for a recorded sound which is not as good as it could have been. Later when you listen back in mixing studio (assuming the volume isn’t also hyped there) you’ll hear the real sound, which maybe be disappointing. Of course a good mix engineer can hugely improve a lacklustre recording.  But no engineer in the world will be able to make it sound as good as it would have done if you’d got it sounding great during the recording.

Mark Wingfield at his Heron Island Studio's desk
Likewise, if you listen too quietly, you can miss problems such as an annoying rattle on the drums, or the fact that when the bassist moves you can here a low-end rumble. These are things which can cause real problems in a mix. It’s important to listen out for this sort of detail so problems like these can be fixed before you start recording. Listening out for problems such as these is one reason a good engineer might temporarily turn up the volume to quite loud, before returning it back to a standard level. I highly recommend you listen out yourself for these sorts of problems during the set-up phase.  The engineer has a lot to think about, they might easily miss the fact that a drum mic has slipped and is rattling every time the drummer hits the crash cymbal or the floor tom. So being a second pair of ears can sometimes really save the day.

Leakage

It is perfectly possible to get a great, even world class, jazz recording in a small studio, but you have to be very careful about leakage. What leakage means is that the sound of one instrument can be heard through the microphone of another instrument. This isn’t always a bad thing, it really depends on the situation. Leakage can ruin a recording or it can enhance a recording.

If you are lucky enough to be recording in a studio with a large beautiful sounding room, where it is possible to have all the instruments playing together, then leakage can actually be a good thing if done skilfully. However, hiring a studio with great sounding large rooms is usually extremely expensive and beyond the budget of most jazz records.

Most jazz musicians these days, record in studios with small rooms. In these studios leakage can be a real problem. Leakage in small rooms is very unlikely to enhance the sound of the recording, but can cause real problems in the mix. Leakage can in some cases ruin a recording. Even if doesn’t ruin it, too much leakage can hold back a recording from sounding as good as it could have done. I’ll cover why this is in more detail in a later article. The point here is that it’s important to listen out for leakage during the set-up phase. In small rooms it should usually be kept to a minimum. You can check this during the set-up phase by asking to hear each instrument separately after a test recording of the whole band playing. If you can, for example, hear quite a bit of the piano coming through the bass mics, you may have a problem at mix time. If the bass needs to be EQed (which it often does) it will also affect how the piano sounds. In such a case you might have to make a choice when mixing between having a bass where the details are hard to hear, and having a piano with more added upper mids (from the EQed bass) than you really want. That’s not a choice you want to face, which is why it’s so important to listen out for too much leakage.

Continual checking

With the sorts of budgets we have to work with in jazz, there is rarely enough studio time to listen back to every take. What musicians often do is go by how the take felt when they played it. If it felt like a good take, you might decide to move on to the next tune without listening back because the clock is ticking. However I recommend that you do listen to at least half a take closely early on in the session, and at regular intervals through the session. When you listen, make it your priority to listen to the detail of the sound of each instrument, and take note of any problems you hear. That way if there is a problem you didn't notice durning set-up, (or a new one appears during the session) it can be fixed.

Here's an example of the sort of problem that can happen from a album I mixed recently. The recorded sound of each instrument was excellent and the group was extremely pleased with how the record was sounding after I mixed the first track. However, on the third track a noise appeared. There was a banging sound coming from the top snare mic, it was intermittent but happened frequently enough to be very noticeable. One of the mics or mic stands must have moved slightly during the session so that something was banging on the snare mic when the rest of the kit vibrated. This had the potential to ruin most of the recording.

In rock and pop music you could deal with problem like this by replacing the snare with a sample.  There is software which can listen to each recorded snare hit and play back a sample of a snare instead. However no software in existence can replace the intricate snare rolls which are the bread and butter of most jazz drumming, so this wasn't an option.

I did manage to fix the problem, but restoration work like this is time consuming, it can take as long as doing an entire mix, so needs to be treated as a separate job. Had the problem occurred on the overhead drum mics it might have been impossible to fix and the recording would have been ruined.  So it is very important to listen out for problems like this not just during the setup, but as the session progresses. This is a time when you might want to turn up the monitor volume loud so you can hear every tiny detail.

It's not just obvious problems like a banging drum mic that you need to listen out for. A musician might shift their position half way through the session, and this can adversely affect the sound. If, for example, the bass player or horn player moves their position a little backward, away from the mic, after lunch break, you can have a problem. That great sound you hear during set-up might not be happening on the tracks recorded after lunch. So check that each instrument is still sounding as good as it did during set-up as your session progresses.

Over this series of articles we will look at all the common problems you need to listen out for and avoid in the studio. You’ll also gain enough understanding of how the recording process works, to help you guide your engineer in achieving the sound you’re after for your recording.

In the next article we look at microphones and how choosing the right type of microphone can make or break your recording.

Mark Wingfield, Mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio
contact@heronislandstudio.co.uk
heronislandstudio.co.uk

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