Vocal Levels and Reverb
I'm recording our acoustic band with a portable stereo digital recorder on a table. The vocals are always too quiet in the recording, but they don't sound that way live. I thought that digital recorders were supposed to capture sound accurately. How can we get the vocals louder in the recording? -- Emma Gingerich, Raleigh, NC
A digital recorder can accurately capture whatever signal it is receiving. That signal is from the microphones built into the recorder. So the recording can be only as good as what the mics are picking up.
If the mics "hear" an improper balance between instruments and vocals, that's because the mics and recorder on the table are too close to the instruments and too far from the singers' mouths. The closer a mic is to a sound source, the louder that source is in the recording. So place the stereo recorder and its built-in mics at mouth height, on a mic stand or some other support.
Do a few trial and error recordings. Record with the mics at mouth height and listen to the playback. Are the vocals too loud now relative to the instruments? Lower the mics a little at a time until the balance is the way you want it.
I need some help with applying reverb. What level should it be set to? What should the reverb time be? My reverb plug-in has some presets like "hall", "plate", and "room". What should I use? Should I apply reverb to individual instruments or to the entire mix?
-- Randy Pellman, Orlando, FL
The basic answer is "whatever suits the song". Reverb is a simulation of an acoustic space, like a concert hall, bar, or small room. Decide what kind of room you want your recorded performance to take place in, and try to simulate that with the reverb settings.
Suppose the song is an intimate conversation with your girlfriend. It would be silly to use lots of concert hall reverb (one with a long reverb time, like 2 seconds) because you're not talking to her in a big empty room. Instead, use little or no reverb, and a shorter reverb time (like 0.5 to 1.0 second).
Or suppose the song is a luxurious ballad meant to be sung in a large auditorium. Here you'd use a "hall" setting or a longer reverb time (maybe 1.5 to 2.5 seconds).
Many pop and folk songs are recorded "dry" (without reverb) so they sound up-front or in your face. This makes the performers sound like they are in your listening room, not in some other venue.
Don't add reverb to the stereo mix. Instead, set up a stereo bus with a reverb plug-in inserted into the bus. Set the reverb's dry/wet mix control all the way up to "wet" or "100%". Then, in each track that you want reverb on, insert a reverb send to that bus. Adjust the reverb-send level for each track to control the amount of reverb on each instrument and vocal -- whatever sounds right.
Beginning recordists often add too much reverb, creating a muddy sound. Try turning down the reverb send a dB at a time and see how little you can get away with.
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Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, microphone engineer (www.bartlettmics.com), and audio journalist. His latest books are "Practical Recording Techniques 5th Ed." and "Recording Music On Location", both available at amazon.com.