As most home-based producers probably know by now, making music in 30 square feet of living space can have its limitations. For instance, wouldn’t it be nice to have some good old-fashioned ambiance on your demos every once in a while? On the other hand, how are you supposed to get room sound when you don’t have enough room?
There is one good way to add authentic live overdubs that doesn’t involve knocking out walls. The best thing about your portable recorder is that it’s portable - and if you can move it from one end of the house to the other, you can also move it right out the door and into a suitably ample space for the purpose of creating a few ambient add-ons. An empty rehearsal room at the local high school. The nearby VFW that will let you set up your DAW for an hour to two. A natural outdoor amphitheater. And so forth.
Unlike the old days of schlepping bulky tape decks and back-breaking processing equipment, roadie-like strength is no longer a requirement for remote recording. For most simple applications, a basic multitracker, a few mics and mic stands, and some cables will do the trick. If you’re a little light on the recording artillery, don’t sweat it - even small machinery is capable of producing decent sound, so long as you know what you’re doing.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the fine art of live mic placement. Recording off a small guitar amp in a 10x12 practice space is one thing, but harnessing the disparate sounds produced within a larger, more dynamic environment requires a little more thought. Still, it isn’t necessary to empty out the entire mic closet. The basic rule of thumb for ambient recording is one mic very close to the source, with another situated a good distance back for capturing the room acoustics (and some nice natural delay). For the close mic, use a simple dynamic model (a la Shure SM-57); to record the room, if possible go with a large-diaphragm condenser mic. If you’d like to record the room in stereo, use two mics, one situated on either side of the hall. Of if your mic has an adjustable polar pattern, you can set it to its cardioid position for capturing front, back and sides of the room. Later, when arranging your mix in the studio, you can blend the direct and live tracks to taste; accentuating the hall mic will give you a roomier sound, while bringing up the close mic will make the track more focused without loosing its ambient flavor.
For example, let’s say you want to add a live guitar overdub to a backing track recorded at home. For acoustic guitar, place one mic in the vicinity of the soundhole (or, for electric guitar, up against the amp grille cloth) and another positioned at least 15-25 feet back, suspended in the air on a boom mic. This arrangement may also be used for background vocal overdubs (when close miking, use one or two mics suspended directly in front of the singers), and works like a dream for horn parts.
It’s not even necessary to record an actual performance in your borrowed room. For some quick-and-easy ambience, all you have to do is bring your machine with completed studio track, along with a couple of small monitor speakers. Position a few mics some distance back, then play the track through the speakers, recording the live feed onto an available track or two. You can then blend the hall track into the original track at will.