Depth of Field and Recording Levels

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Zacharia Matilda
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Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by Zacharia Matilda » Mon Apr 27, 2020 4:15 pm

Hi gang. I’m tracking at home on to tape and I’m interested in people’s thoughts on tracking levels for instruments that are going to be in the back of the mix. Conventional wisdom is to keep my noise floor as low as possible by keeping my levels up. But I’m thinking that tracking something at a low level might pay off in the mix, as I will be getting more appropriate roll-off for a sound that will be “back there” anyway.

The reason I ask is I’m having some trouble getting some congas to sit in the mix. Even at a low level in the mix, every so often they seem to clunk and thunk and the sound cuts right to the front of the mix, which I’d like to avoid. I’m thinking tracking them at a lower level may help, even if I’m breaking the noise floor rule. I hate to do it for some reason. It’s the one “rule” I try not to let myself break. But in this case will it help me?
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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by A.David.MacKinnon » Mon Apr 27, 2020 6:03 pm

A lot depends on your signal to noise ratio. Try it and see what happens. It may work or you may have some of the same issues and extra hiss thrown in too.

Two things come to mind with conga (and any percussion really) -
#1 what mic are you using? If it's bright it'll feel forward even with tape rolling out some highs. I like dynamics on congas. RE15 or something from that family is my go to. 421s are great too.
#2 try backing the mic up. If the instrument is meant to be in the back sometimes a bit of distance on the mic will make a big difference.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by losthighway » Mon Apr 27, 2020 9:37 pm

Couple things come to mind:

If you're absolutely certain something is going to be mixed fairly low, than the importance of the noise floor is proportionately lower to how low it will be in the mix. I don't work on tape, but I've had some tracks that were processed by all kinds of nasty noisemakers- crummy stompboxes, dirty spring reverbs, that were also serving a less central role in the audio picture. These elements come in and out throughout the song and its amazing how the dirt on their fingerprint gets lost. This of course is completely dependent on the density of the mix as well, but you get my point.

Also, sorry if this is obvious, but what about compression? I often find percussion elements that are there for color can handle more compression than the starring drum kit, then they can kind of stay in place at that medium-low level where you don't have the problem that you're not sure if there are hits you're not hearing, and then ones that are jumping out too much.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by DrummerMan » Tue Apr 28, 2020 8:10 am

I get this with Congas a lot. That thumpiness really starts to feel like they're taking over and that threshold between being present and overpowering becomes a fine line.

A couple thing I do sometimes:

Use a more sensitive LDC from farther away. I've got a c12 imitation that picks up EVERYTHING so I can have a kind of quiet source 5 feet away and the noise floor is not really bad.

Roll off the low end and add a little room reverb. Obviously you've got more options and flexibility like this digitally, so may or may not be applicable to your situation.

Realized that those little moments where the thing is just barely too loud or too present is really something that will probably only bother ME, as the player and engineer and going down a rabbit hole of trying to get it perfect somehow will only waste my time and possible negatively affect what's already cool about the mix..
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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by losthighway » Tue Apr 28, 2020 8:15 am

DrummerMan wrote:
Tue Apr 28, 2020 8:10 am
Roll off the low end and add a little room reverb. Obviously you've got more options and flexibility like this digitally, so may or may not be applicable to your situation.
Yeah, I'm not as pumped on adding digital reverb to drums as a matter of course as I used to be. I was just working on some latin-type stuff (with incredible mastering work by Morespaceecho) and the combination of my room mic and a pinch of the digital reverb gave me that rush of gratification from hearing something I associate with the sonics of something I love (Buena Vista Social Club). There's something about congas that sound like they're interacting with hard walls.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by MoreSpaceEcho » Tue Apr 28, 2020 8:40 am

^^^^^ That track sounded great!

To the OP: I wouldn't record stuff low on tape on purpose, that's not going to do what you're looking to do, and it's just going to raise your noise floor. Record at a normal level and pull the faders back. If the congas (or whatever) are sticking out too much, try some fast attack/release compression to pull the transients back. Can also try adding some reverb and/or rolling off some high end.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by Recycled_Brains » Tue Apr 28, 2020 8:58 am

I always find heavier handed compression makes it so things never get out of the way, the exception being nuking a room mic or something like that I suppose. But I'd say maybe 80% of the times I've thought "why can't I get this to sit back a bit?", backing off or bypassing the compression altogether helped.

Depth of field, I find is more frequency and atmosphere dependent. Darker things sound further away. More reverb. More heavily low-passed delay. I use distortion and modulation often too. And panning. Sometimes I automate panning so things move around in the background and the listener doesn't have as much of a spacial location to hone in on. Anything to blur things out. I like those old windows you see in western films and really old farm houses. Transparent, but distorted. Idk. Maybe that's the :high: talking, but that sort of imagery helps me figure out stuff like this.

I'm also just going to put it out there.... maybe the congas aren't right for the arrangement and that's why you're struggling so much to get them to fit.
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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by kslight » Tue Apr 28, 2020 10:39 am

Maybe point a mic at another surface in the room (the wall or control room window for example) instead of the congas.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by Scodiddly » Wed Apr 29, 2020 6:01 am

If you record something very low in the meters, then when you mix you'll be pushing the fader up to 0dB. So you'll end up getting your source quieter, but the noise floor will be as high as you'd have for a featured instrument.

A lot of the suggestions tend to produce the effect of using high and low pass filters - maybe just try that first? Tuned percussion can fit into a very small frequency space.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by drumsound » Wed Apr 29, 2020 8:02 am

Congas are very dynamic. The technique is pretty much designed that way. I'm with MSE thinking fast compression might be the ticket. Possibly parallel compression, with a higher ratio.

You don't mention what machine you're using. I'd venture a guess that you don't have a late model Studer (820/827). That to me says, don't record low level, because the noise might become a problem. The dynamics, and the transient information of congas means you don't want to slam the tape either. Its quite easy to crunch up the transients in a bad way with certain percussion instruments.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by Nick Sevilla » Wed Apr 29, 2020 8:12 am

Use a 6dB/octave hipass filter on them, and sweep up from below until their thumpiness no longer is an issue.

Also, if you are mixing in a DAW, you can automate this sweeping filter, even bypass it, in certain places where you want more of that thumpiness.
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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by Recycled_Brains » Wed Apr 29, 2020 9:52 am

Nick Sevilla wrote:
Wed Apr 29, 2020 8:12 am
Also, if you are mixing in a DAW, you can automate this sweeping filter, even bypass it, in certain places where you want more of that thumpiness.
This reminds me that a dynamic EQ or multiband compressor would probably be a smart move.
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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by vernier » Fri May 01, 2020 3:50 pm

Recording level won't change much. Other things, such as mic choice, distance, amount of mics, room ambience, compression/limiting, and added verb will effect how it sits in the mix.

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Re: Depth of Field and Recording Levels

Post by vvv » Sat May 02, 2020 8:59 am

Also, if your playback of a low-level track is thru FX in the DAW, they may not work as expected; ex., reverb won't be "excited" as much as by a high-level track.
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