Recording Pro-Grade Audio? Map Out The Signal Chain!

Want to get into pro-level recording? Then don’t get too hung up on picking out the right microphone, but pay attention to every step in the process.

Audio engineer Frank de Jong has noticed that many musicians and fellow engineers have forgotten the basics of recording, and warns that setting up an expensive microphone alone isn’t half the job: “The microphone you use is just a small part in the sum that makes up the sound of your recordings. Other things, like the sound source, acoustics, preamp and various pre-recording preparations are actually much more important.”

The Signal Chain

Recording audio is all about applying logic and structure. Each step of the process must match the next, which is why it’s important to chart the signal chain in advance. This way, you’ll know where each sound is coming from, how it’s captured, where it’s routed to, and how it all sounds in the end. According to audio engineer Frank de Jong, mapping out the signal chain is an essential part of the recording process: “The signal chain usually isn’t factored in during pre-production, either because people use the same gear they always use or because they simply don’t give it any thought. If you ask me, pre-production is one of the most overlooked parts of recording. You need to have a mental image of the entire process, including the approach and gear you want to use, before you even plug anything in. This takes proper planning and preparation, which is the foundation of every recording session. Also, many engineers tend to think too much about the technical details and not enough about the music. As the audio engineer, you’re in service of the musicians, not the other way around. The technical side of things is second to the music, since ultimately, the music is what it’s all about.” Frank believes that pre-production should include a timetable, a list of the instruments and the names of the musicians that’ll be playing them to guarantee smooth communication. In addition, you’ll want to jot down a list of the microphones and any other equipment that you need. “And don’t forget to think about the room and where in that room you want to set up each instrument. Draw up a blueprint for every track so you know what you’re dealing with at any given moment.”

Three Strong Points

“Of course, beforehand, you also need to know what kind of sound the band is after and how you can get there. Feel free to come up with ideas that can be experimented with, but don’t undermine the musicians. A good recording engineer has three strong points: they’re technically apt, creative, and must have solid social skills,” says Frank. No matter how well you’ve prepared and planned things, there’s a lot that can happen in the middle of a recording session. “First of all, everything hinges on the musicians’ individual performance that day, so that takes priority. For them to hit the right note and get into a groove is key. It doesn’t matter what strategy you’re going with, if the band is having a bad day, the recording will be worthless. This means that as a recording engineer, you need to be flexible. If the drummer prefers a specific set-up or plays in a way that doesn’t favour the recording, then it’s up to you to come up with a solution. You can tweak the position or configuration of the microphones, but you can’t ask the drummer to adapt because you want them to be as comfortable as possible so they can deliver the best possible performance. Here, good vibes in the studio can also go a long way.”

The Source

The first part of the signal chain is the sound source, which can be an instrument or vocals combined with the acoustics of the room. In fact, the acoustics strongly influence the recording. “A lot of people are too fixated on the microphone. The microphone you decide to use only determines roughly five percent of the sound. The source and a few other factors play a much bigger role. Capturing crappy vocals with a £3,000 microphone only brings out the worst in those vocals. Recording bang-on vocals with a much cheaper microphone is always going to sound better. In other words: ensure that the sound source is up to snuff,” Frank advises. The acoustics are different from room to room and how as well as where each musician and microphone is set up has a big effect on the overall sound. These things matter more than microphone selection. As well as the room, the position of each sound source and microphone can be experimented with. “Find the right sound. Even a low-cost microphone can capture solid sound when it’s set up correctly and making the most of the acoustics of the room,” Frank concludes.

Make Education Decisions

Even if it doesn’t have the biggest impact on the sound, picking the right microphone is still important when it comes to creating the right sound. “There are a few things you need to know about the microphone that you intend to use, like the exact distance at which it should be set up from the source, what kind of timbre it has, and at which angle it should be placed. The angle helps determine the timbre so you need to be able to make an educated decision here. You also need to bear in mind that every instrument gives you various microphone placement options. For example, if you want to hear the keys of a saxophone on the recording, you’ll need to point the microphone at the bell.” Besides exact placement, there are other things that you need to keep in mind, like the direct reflection ratio: the reflection of sound in the room and coming from the instruments. Then there’s the microphone pickup pattern, which determines how sensitive the microphone is to soundwaves coming from different directions. There’s omnidirectional, bidirectional (figure-8), unidirectional, cardioid, semi-cardioid, super-cardioid and hyper-cardioid, each of which serves a different purpose. “Every pattern also has its own timbre. Using a multi-pattern microphone allows you to experiment with the pickup pattern and the timbre,” Frank points out.


Making the most of a good microphone requires a good microphone preamp. Frank: “Everything needs to be in balance because the weakest link in the chain determines the end result, so you always need to identify your weakest link. The AD converters only have a minor effect on the sound. Most of them will be good enough for high-quality recordings. Since it’s used for mixing rather than recording, the DAW you use also barely affects the overall audio quality.” At the same time, it’s important that you’re careful with any frontend processing that takes place before the AD conversion. You should only use an equaliser or compressor if you know what you’re doing because there’s no way back after you use these tools to tweak the audio during the recording phase. Last but not least, you’ll want to kit yourself out with a solid set of studio monitors which, while they don’t affect the audio quality, are essential for polishing off your mixes.

See Also

» USB Microphones
» Studio Microphones
» Live Microphones
» All Microphones & Accessories

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