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RE/P Files: Interview With Grammy Award Winning Engineer/Producer Bones Howe

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By John Gibson April 5, 2012

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jg – The first question is about your use of baffles.

B.H.- My use of baffles? I don’t use them. Using directional characteristics of the microphones, you can get just as good separation as you can using baffles. You have to remember that sound travels… the example that is most often used is that if you drop a pebble in still water, it makes concentric circles spreading out, and that’s what happens to sound. If you put a baffle up, it still goes over it or around it.

The only thing a baffle does is block direct sound and make it rebound off something before it gets there. Chances are that if it rebounds off something hard, it gets there late, and then you probably have what amounts to echo, which you probably don’t want.

jg – How do you set up the room with the musicians?

B.H.- Having been a rhythm section player, I’ve always been against separating rhythm section members. The farther apart you put people in a rhythm section, the less together they’re going to play. Obviously the object is to get people to play as together as possible, so I always have them as close together as I can get them. The farther you get away from another player, the more you hear the sound late, and just that, let’s say being the length of Wally Heider’s studio, which is 30 to 35 feet, if you’re that far away from a drummer, you’re going to be playing a considerable amount behind him. Which is noticeable if you’re listening to a record.

jg – How do you approach microphone equalization?

B.H.- Depends on what the instrument is. You have to understand what the usable music range of each instrument is; obviously if you’re recording bass, you don’t roll off the bass. The usable music range of a voice, which is probably the most limited, let’s say is maybe from 100 cycles to, including the “s” sounds and so on, 10,000 to 12,000 cycles. You just don’t need anything above or below that, and that is the fallacy of the condenser microphone, which says that you have to be able to record out to 20,000 cycles. Actually what you get is mostly noise. I never use a condenser microphone on voice; I always use an RCA 77, and the reason I use it is that it makes the human voice sound nicer than it usually does.

The cover of the June/July 1970 issue of RE/P (click to enlarge).

Basic philosophy about recording is that you’re creating an illusion. Just like a movie is not really those people doing what it is that they’re representing, it’s just a flat screen representing a light image. To say that you’re going to make concert hall realism sound from a fifteen-inch cone of paper is as insane as saying those people are real up there on the screen. You have got to start by saying that there is no such thing as realism and what you’re creating is an illusion. It requires imagination, and it requires that the human being is able to accept the fact that it’s not real.

In other words you build something separate from what is actually going on!

Yeah, you build something that is not real. You’re jamming a whole rock and roll group into a fifteen-inch cone of paper, which is smaller than the speaker on the bass amp. You have to make that sound like a whole band out there rocking and rolling. Well, first of all it’s a physical impossibility and once you understand that it’s a physical impossibility, then you proceed to build an illusion that’s exciting. The more you try to build realism, the tougher you make your job. Just like the more you try to make those into real people on the screen, the tougher your job will be. It’s like black and white movies can be very exciting. People aren’t black and white.

Then, in addition, what considerations do you make for the radio?

OK, now we’re going one step farther away from what I just said. If it’s an illusion to make a rock and roll band come out of a fifteen-inch-diameter cone of paper, imagine what an illusion it is to get it out of a 6×9 oval radio speaker from a car radio. What happens with the 45 rpm record is that you know that your ultimate audience is going to be listening on the car radio, or the table model in their kitchen, or the clock radio in their bedroom, and that’s generally where it’s at if you look at the statistics.

All of them are the same transducer. It’s a little bitty 6×9 speaker, or maybe a five-inch-diameter circle, and it just doesn’t reproduce bass and it just doesn’t reproduce highs, and so what you do is equalize and build up the bottom and the top so that when it’s played over the air, it compensates for the deficiencies in some small way. Naturally you don’t ever get it all back like you do on a fifteen-inch studio speaker.

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