Audio Production 101: Recording Space

Cookie Marenco called her seminar at the Newport Beach show, ‘The Six Degrees of Degradation” and listed six production stages. These included recording, mixing, mastering, tagging/encoding, remastering and consumption. These stages are common and part of most music releases but all of them aren’t actually required. For example, I know of several music albums that went straight from the session microphones to the two-track mixed master. William E. McEuen’s ground breaking production of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was produced this way…and Bill Schnee’s audiophile label Bravura Records does all of its productions this way. He considers his mixing a part of the performance.

I don’t master my recordings at AIX Records. I simply don’t want to remove any of the dynamics or subtle details that the musicians performed by using compressors or other processors. I trust that they played the music as they wanted. My job as an engineer is to record what they perform.

The point is there are lots of individual approaches to making recordings, lots of tweaks that experienced engineers utilize during sessions and they are all unique. I remember talking to Jim Scott (a very prominent audio engineer that has worked with John Fogerty and lots of other “A” list musicians) about the profession. He told me that it took him 10 years to get to the point where he felt he could make a good sounding recording. The 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to master just about any art or craft applies as well to technical pursuits like audio engineering and coding.

So I thought it would be helpful to explore audio production stages in greater detail. Let’s start from the beginning and work our way through the entire chain. Today, I want to talk about the venue…the actual recording space where the musicians perform.

Music making can happen just about anywhere. I saw Les Stroud, aka “Survivorman”, playing his harmonica in the middle of some jungle the other evening. Todd Garfinkle, my friend and owner of MA Recordings features the different places that he uses as part of his sound. He has recorded in churches, the Paris metro as well as concert halls. One of my most memorable recordings was made in a cock-fighting arena in the middle of Haiti! Anywhere music happens can be a recording “venue”. This is called location recording.

Recording studios have many advantages over other locations. First, you get a quiet place to capture the music. There’s no airplanes flying over or subways rumbling underneath. A studio can be optimized for good acoustics, has all of the necessary equipment on hand and is restricted as far as hours or sound levels. Most commercial records are made in sonically dead studios. Reverberation, which is required on just about all recordings, is simply added using a digital processor.

When I started AIX Records, I knew that I wanted to make my records in a live performance space…no digital reverberation applied in post production. I record in a chamber music auditorium and capture the sound of the music bouncing around the room. Artificial “convolution algorithm” reverberation systems do a tremendous job but they can’t match the real thing. The acoustics of a live space contributes to the ultimate sound of a recording.

Finally, I should mention that many recordings are made without rooms of any kind. There are thousands of musicians/bands that are making records in their bedrooms using personal computers or even tablets. They dial up “virtual” instruments and trigger them using a sequencer. Everyone can be a musician or DJ with a little practice and the right software. The results can be great or terrible…remember the 10,000 hours or practice I talked about above. It still applies.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of the recording spaces discussed above. A good engineer and producer know when to use one or the other.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

3 thoughts on “Audio Production 101: Recording Space

    • Camilo Rodriguez

      You just gotta love Bonham, thanks for sharing that track, Matt.

      I really enjoy the recordings of Todd Garfinkle – I think I have them all – and I very much subscribe his concept of space in recording, and the role it plays in music and the experience of sound. Personally, as a drummer and percussionist, it makes total sense. A dull sounding studio room could be a total mood killer vs a room that talks back to you and gives you that amazing immersive experience of sound and your own playing. I’m sure space plays a huge role in the fascination with sound, music and the entire experience of listening, and which has been lost in studio recording and artificial reverberation.

      “In order to maintain the quality of sound, all M•A Recordings are produced in large, acoustically significant environments such as classical concert halls, churches and galleries. The importance of these environments cannot be overemphasized, as these spaces can only be considered as one of the co-creators of the recordings produced in them. The sounds created in a given space could simply not have been perceived anywhere else.”

      Todd Garfinkle

      Another great recording when it comes to capturing space and ambiance is Michel Godard’s – a tuba and serpent player who has also recorded with MA recordings – “Monteverdi; a Trace of Grace”, recorded by Jonas Niederstadt at Carpe Diem records. Jonas told me he had originally recorded in 5.1 but the album has only been released in stereo so far.

      The album was recorded in the abbey of Noirlac in France, as was Michel’s second album with Carpe Diem, “Le Concert des Parfums” , also very much worth a listen, and which are a series of improvisations based on the response of the musicians to several perfumes released at the moment of playing.

      It is also interesting how even the nightly crickets and the distant fluttering of birds convey the Noirlac abbey, and become part of the recording without becoming unwanted background noise. I am also sure that the joy of playing in a space like that, is a significant part of the great performances.


  • Hi, Mark!

    I’ll be the difficult one to deal with in this, again. And it’s not because any other reason but that that we live in a world that was not made nor intended for audiophiles.

    Let’s face it: yes, all what you say is true. But just for less than .0001% of musicians, artists, engineers, mastering facilities, studios, labels and consumers. I use a studio, as you do. There are some dead rooms in some studios. There are bright rooms. There are echo chambers. There are A and B studios in many places. There are anaechoic chambers elsewhere. So, by all means, there are plenty of ways we’ve been recording music for more than a hundred years. What hasn’t changed at all is the love and passion for something that is far removed from technology: the beauty of music.

    Not all of us capture sounds through stereo pairs. I dare to say, most of us don’t do it that way, with the exception of choirs and orchestras (and not every engineer does it that way).

    There’s a story I want to share with you and your readers about David Gray. He’s a great musician and composer from Sale, in England. He recorded a few really fine albums with Virgin Records. All the “proper” means were used, as is expected from a proper label. After several years of recording and losing money, he decided to get the right gear, plug it in, and get a go. In his bedroom he recorded maybe the best he’s ever done. It’s his music that gets deep under your skin. It’s his performance what makes him so good. It’s his soul and his music. But his sound is really good, too. In the end, he’s earned what he deserved. He’s topped the charts many times and his tours have been sold out for years.

    Of course we who follow you are into hi-def music. We actually do our recordings with the best gear we can afford and at the highest resolution we have at hand (that’s 192/24), but we know we have the world to deal with. And we want to be in the market. Does it mean we’re just slamming our tracks? No! Of course not. But we want to be in the business side of our craft. And we have a standard. And we can make (because that’s what even the best ears can hear) magnificent records.

    I guess everything lies in just one thing: doing things well. Not just well. Doing everything the best way you can. And you’ll deliver.

    We have to move our ideas towards the ones who have the bigger slice of the market in their hands. So let’s call the big labels and talk to them.

    I know -for sure, many studios that actually care about every step in the process. Ok… mastering is not needed. I agree. But the truth is mastering is done. And that business will not stop just because we agree that a great direct recording won’t need it. Studios will not disappear. Dead rooms will be everywhere. Great musicians exist from Micronesia to Morocco and from Albania to Australia.

    If we call ourselves audiophiles, we better try to be music lovers, because the reproduction of a live performance is physically and emotionally impossible through technology.

    Sorry for this super-long comment. Let’s just focus into the only one thing we all are expecting to be defined: what is, scientifically, hi-res or hi-def music. Maybe that’s the only thing we need to answer, so we don’t have to prove to ourselves we hear better things than the rest of the world.


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