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The Disconnect

Why is recording music so hard? Why can’t we just do a good performance (live), capture it with a microphone, and we’re done? Because of something I call the disconnect.

We, obviously, hear with our ears. They are complex organs. We have two of them, which combine two sounds into one inside our head.

Our ears are amazing. We can hear sounds loud and soft, close by and far away. We have surround sound, or something very close to it. We are able to filter repeating or constant sounds, so we don’t even hear them after a few seconds.

Creating a microphone that is equally amazing and can work digitally … is a dream, not a reality.

Instead, our microphones “hear” in different ways than our ears. This is what causes the disconnect. We expect things to sound a certain way—the way we hear. But whatever we do, our microphones can never capture that and will always sound different.


Most people hate the sound of their own voice when recorded. We just sound completely different when our voice is captured by a mic, as opposed to when we hear ourselves speaking. Similarly, a singer can sound amazing in the room, but bland or ugly when you listen back on the mic.

The biggest differences

Mono vs Stereo

Mono means “single source”. Stereo means “two sources”.

Our ears are stereo. We have two of them and they hear slightly different sounds. This creates a wide, three dimensional sound in our head.

A single microphone is a single source. It only captures sound in one way. As such, it’s literally impossible for a single microphone to produce what our ears hear. Because it only has one channel, the sound cannot be three dimensional.

The concepts mono and stereo will return again and again in this course.


But it doesn’t stop there. When we speak inside a room, our voice reverberates off the walls. With every hit, the sound is deflected, and becomes slightly softer and higher. In a sense, even our voice turns from a single source into many sources by default.

Our ears are sensitive to long ranges and wide angles. We can hear this reverb perfectly. In fact, we use it to locate sounds in 3D space, and we feel uncomfortable if it isn’t there. Reverb in the real world is natural to us.

But when you record a sound? It will also capture the reverb. A mic will have a single recording of both the original sound and its reverb off the walls.

When you listen to it later—on headphones, in another room, etcetera—this reverb feels wrong and ugly. But you can’t change it anymore! It’s baked into the recording.

But the other extreme isn’t great either. If you remove all natural reverb from a recording, the mic will sound dry, lifeless and just as unnatural.

This means you have the tough task of creating just enough natural reverb (through recording or mixing) to make something sound like it sounds to your ears. More on that when we talk about Acoustics.

If you’re in a professional studio, they’ve treated the rooms for optimal audio quality. They’ve both reduced the level of reverb and made it sound prettier. That’s when reverb on the recording is actually beautiful and desirable. The probability that your bedroom has amazing reverb is slim.


When unwanted sounds are added to the mic, because of reverb or a bad audio chain, we call it bleed. The unwanted sound bleeds into the mic. I’ll use this term a few times, so I wanted to mention it.


As stated, our ears have a long range. We can hear what’s behind is. We can hear someone speaking two floors below us.

Microphones are the opposite. Most (popular) types have a very narrow range. They only pick up sound that’s

  • In front of them
  • And quite close

This has two reasons. First, it’s a natural result of the technique used for those microphones. Second, to prevent extra noise or reverb getting into the mic.

When recording, you usually want all instruments or singers on clean tracks. As little reverb, background noise, or other instruments as possible. This is only possible if microphones point at their source and are designed to only record that.

Now you might say: well then, why don’t I push the microphone right up against my source, to eliminate any other sounds?

Because of the proximity effect. As you get closer to a microphone, more lower frequencies are picked up. That’s why everybody’s voice sounds very low, warm or muddy when they push a mic almost into their mouth.

And, let’s not forget, we want some of that natural reverb or “space”. A guitar sounds good because of how it reverberates inside its soundboard. If you just record a string being plucked on its own, it will sound, well, exactly like that. Like pulling a rubber band.

Now you’ll understand most of the advice from the chapter on Microphones and Microphone Placement.

Wind struggles

The technique used in microphones has one more nasty side-effect.

Sound is a wave of differing air pressure. The air compresses and expands, which causes displacement in our ears, which turns into sound.

Microphones do something similar. But, again, less naturally and less … sophisticated.

Cheap or fragile microphones can actually be “blown out”. (Old ribbon mics are known for it.) If you put the microphone in a windy environment, or move it around too quickly, or just sing with very loud plosives, you might destroy the recording element.

Most microphones won’t be destroyed, luckily. But applying too much “wind” or “air” will cause many nasty sounds, as the mic just can’t deal with them nicely.

The biggest culprit is sibilance. Plosives like “s”, “p” or “t” often sound extremely harsh and loud when recorded.

Again, our ears can compensate, they are fine with it. But mics cannot, which means you often need to check for these sounds and fight against them.

What NOT to worry about

The elements above cause the disconnect. If you remember them and deal with them, you’ve solved 90% of your problems. To many, this might come as a surprise. We tell ourselves—myself included—that we need all sorts of equipment or that the issue lies elsewhere.

That’s usually not the case.

  • Our devices are so powerful now, that even cheap equipment will be fine.
  • There’s no need to record everything as loud as possible. Our digital signals have enough room (or “head space”) to turn up the volume later.
  • There’s also no need to be obsessed with removing noise or placing mics as close as possible. Again, mics are quite good at only picking up the sound source toward which they point. They often have some built-in protection against the most common clicks, ticks, plops, and other noises.

In a sense, there’s never been a better time to be a musician. With little money, you can get equipment that will last and produce good quality. You have more freedom and can make more mistakes while recording, and it will be fine.

So don’t worry about that too much.

Worry about issues that you hear and find annoying on your recordings, and nothing else.

That said, do remember that our ears quickly grow accustomed to sounds. This means that we’re quick to hate something we made after hearing it ten times. Conversely, we can forget that a song starts in an ugly way, because after five seconds we’re used to that “ugly sound”.

As always, the best thing to do … is to take enough breaks and get a good night’s sleep. To keep your ears objective.

Continue with this course
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