The talkback mic is the usual way to communicate, one-way, from
the control room to musicians in the studio. But say youre
recording a closely-miked (loud) rock band in one room. How do you
hear them talking back to you?
And how do they even talk to each other without taking off
their headphones? Sometimes the room mics can't be loud enough
in the mix to hear conversations clearly.
Sure, you can put out separate mics (with or without on/off
switches) for each band member, and have these on faders so
you can mute/unmute as needed. But that requires a lot of
extra inputs, mics and attention span.
And invariably, these mics will usually be off when a band member
says something important, and then you'll have to ask them to repeat.
Tedious! But leaving the mic on all the time, of course, is sonically
unacceptable and dangerous to hearing and speakers.
As a result Ive developed a trick to make it all automatic,
a way to leave the room mic on all the time without concern of affecting
the recording while dramatically improving two-way communication
Put an omnidirectional microphone in the middle of the musicians
playing area. Condenser mics of a more sensitive nature work best
for this application. I'll use a lot of gain so that I can clearly
hear any band member talk at normal conversation levels. Fine
until someone starts playing guitar or hitting a drum!
So, the way to make it automatic (and safe) is to use a limiter/compressor
- a BIG limiter/compressor, one capable of at least 20dB (or more)
of gain reduction. I also may apply an EQ/filter, and/or, the mic's
roll-off, to lose subsonic rumble (but this is not mandatory).
The key is the setting on the limiter/compressor. I like to use
an UREI 1176LN, but any fast compressor with variable attack and
release controls will work. The 1176LN is not the cleanest piece
of gear on the planet, but it is one of the more vibey
I come from a time when, except Fairchild and LA-2, there were
more 1176s than anything else, so we used them first for utilitarian
projects of this nature.
I set the fastest attack possible - at least 1 millisecond or faster.
On the 1176LN, that would be fully clockwise. I then use the slowest
release time possible - 3 to 4 seconds. On the UREI, this is fully
counter-clockwise. (And note that even set at their slowest release
settings, I find that some 1176LNs are not very slow.)
I'll use at least an 8:1 ratio or higher, and fully turn up the
input knob on the 1176LN. When any sounds louder than normal conversation
are made in the room, the 1176LN, when seeing that much level, will
IMMEDIATELY be "nailed" to complete gain reduction, and
thus contribute little output. That hot omni mic wont
be heard much.
On the 1176LN, the VU meter is fully depressed. On other compressors,
the gain-reduction LEDs light up like a Christmas tree.
The fastest attack insures nobody's ears and speakers get popped,
and the slow release time means the compressor stays down, in clamp
mode, until well after loud sound stops. Adjust the output knob
for whatever level you need to record this mic to a separate track.
It is very important to only mix a small amount of this talkback/talkback
track to the phones and your monitor - just enough to make out conversations.
If you and the band hear this mic too well, it will affect the overall
sound and mix too much, especially if the song has wide dynamics,
breakdowns or stops. If you want to "ride" the release
time knob along with the changes in the music, you can create some
useful moments for later mixdown.
Finally, when using this trick, musicians seldom take off their
phones to speak to each other, and thus tracking sessions go better
creatively, along with fewer headphone mix/sound complaints.