The first thing I would like to focus on is the acoustical environment of the studio.
One must realize that the size of the room is a significant factor in the quality of our sound and recording. As a rule, one may say that the larger the room is, and the higher the ceiling is, the more open and clear the sound will be. A good recording room must be acoustically managed, and not dry. A common mistake is to introduce acoustic foam panels into the room, such that they manage the reverberation time of the room, but without taking into consideration the frequencies and harmonics that might be affected by the panels. We want a room that responds to the instrument. For instance, when recording an acoustic guitar, we seek a room that will not close up on the sound and smother it, but rather remain open and reverberate clearly and equally across the frequency range of the instrument, allowing the natural harmonics, such as overtones, of the instrument to ring true.
One can experience the difference simply by playing an open chord in a dry, stifled room, and compare it to the same chord in an open room. Even when moving from a dry room to one’s living room, the difference of which we speak can be heard.
The second element we wish to feature is the analogue recording chain. The typical input chain consists of a microphone, pre-amp, dynamic processors, equalization and the cable.
When recording a classical or acoustic guitar, one generally records with a condenser mic. Nowadays the range of such microphones is very wide and the difference in quality is significant. Assuming there is a choice of such microphones in the studio, we would do well to experiment a bit with different types, to choose the one most suited to one’s present needs.
When recording an acoustic guitar, particularly a classical guitar, one should not place the mic too close to the instrument. The full sound of the guitar does not come just from the strings, but from the reverberating space around the guitar. Again, experiencing it oneself is best, so ask the guitarist to play and place your ear close up, then farther away. Our ear is more sensitive and attuned to the source of a sound than a microphone, but one will get a general idea of the problem when miking too closely. I generally mike at about 60-70 centimeters, but sometimes even a meter and more to get the sound I desire.
The next link in the chain is no less important – the pre-amp. Indeed, the pre-amp may be even more important than the microphone. Assume one has an excellent microphone, capable of delivering the full range and dynamics of the instrument, but one’s pre-amp is somewhat limited. In such a case the dynamic richness the microphone delivers will be lost. Leaving us with a poor recording. What is needed is a transparent and dynamic pre-amp capable of receiving and delivering the pristine sound coming from the mic. In many cases of studios on a budget that I have handled, it is better to give priority to the pre-amp. For instance, if one has a budget of $2000 for the purchase of a microphone and a pre-amp, one would do better to spend $1500 on the pre-amp and the balance on the microphone, rather than the other way around. Basically, a top of the line microphone with a poor pre-amp is useless, whereas a lesser microphone with a quality pre-amp will deliver the best results possible.
(For the purposes of this article, I will not discuss dynamics and EQ.)
Last but not least, the cable. A good quality cable is designed to transmit the sound and dynamics of the microphone to the pre-amp as faithfully as possible. We do not want a cable with slow transmission speeds or that pads certain frequencies. Quite often I have heard someone say that a certain cable “adds nice lows to the sound”, or the like. However, a cable does not add frequencies, it pads them, that is decreases them. So if a cable significantly pads midrange frequencies, it will sound as if it is adding lows and highs.
Finally, I would like to add that all the fine rules we learn are all true on paper. One should always experiment on your own, decide using your own ear, and try to create a new sound every day. The more we invest in recording well, the better off we are in the mix, and this is true of any kind of recording.