Getting a “Live” Sound in a Tiny Studio

As recording has gradually moved away from large studios to small spaces, the difficulty to getting a big “live” sound has become more difficult to achieve. There are, however, some tricks that allow the expansion of small rooms to sound much bigger than ever expected.

First, forget using reverb. It is an artificial way of the solving the problem. All of these techniques will be done with microphone placement. Essentially, approach the session like a live event to begin with even though it might be a bit unconventional.

Life-like sound can apply to virtually any kind of recording or live broadcast — ranging from sports programming to live remotes. It can encompass voice to natural sound. One of the easiest to illustrate, however, is music. Let’s start with a four-piece band that we want to record in a small room — yet we want it to sound like a live show.

To get that live quality, let’s begin with getting bleed from the other players. To increase bleed, the band should be positioned close together without isolation, monitors or headphones. The musicians need to acoustically hear each other. Once assembled, they should play the song straight through — just as a live band would in a stage performance.

No close-making and no multi-tracking is used in this scenario. If the band makes a mistake, they start over again. Even minor mistakes should be embraced. The performance is not about perfection, but getting a live emotion and feel.

If the room being used for the recording is cramped, find the part of the space with the most reflections. This works with any kind of audio recording or broadcasting, from voice to music. Corners that are farthest from the sound source often work. Once found, place microphones pointing at those selected corners away from the musicians or subjects.

This is a great way to record choirs in a tiny space. Place the mics in the corners of the ceiling behind the choir. The sound will bounce around, giving the illusion of a much larger space. In fact, by essentially bouncing sound off surfaces, one can almost double the size of a room this way.

If the room is totally dead and bouncing the sound won’t work, use a nearby space, like a hallway, stairwell or bathroom to add ambience. In the days of the Mercury Theatre on the Air in the 1930s, Orson Welles used to place a microphone in an all-tile bathroom outside the studio. He even fired a rifle on the roof of the studio once to get an open-air ambience.

Another way to liven things up is to move mics away from the talent. As the mic moves away, the frequency balance changes due to the distance. Using space and distance adds more depth in any recording. Recording studios have always used room mics to record ambience.

AEA RM88 Stereo Mic as room mic

AEA RM88 Stereo Mic as room mic

A popular choice through the years from broadcasters and recording studios have been figure-of-eight ribbon mics. If a small room still sounds too claustrophobic, place a ribbon mic as far away from the sound source as possible. With the figure-of-eight recording pickup, reflections to the side will be minimized. If the reflections continue to haunt the session, add baffles or acoustic panels on problem areas to minimize reflections or guide reflections.

Another way to make a small space sound larger is by using a multi-channel immersive microphone at a distance and then mix it into the output. This will require some experimentation, but it can work well to broaden the space.

Getting a big live sound in a small space is far more than about dialing in more reverb, which is an artificial, often ineffective, way to accomplish the task. It’s really about mic placement and using your head to find the reflective spot in the space where the recording is being done.

This has been an issue since the earliest days of broadcasting and recording and is still solved the same way today. All audio is about telling a convincing story and to communicate that story in an effective way, the engineer needs to use the tricks at hand.

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