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What is 'presence' in a recording? How do you get it?

The quality of presence in a recording is a mark of professionalism. But if there isn't a 'presence' control, how do you achieve it?

'Presence' - a word that has a long history in audio.

The first time I heard it, way back, was in the 'presence' control that a home hifi amplifier might have.

The presence control was a simple mid-range boost. So, why did they call it 'presence'? In what sense can sound be more 'present'.

The answer to this part of the presence question is that the opposite of presence is 'distance' - not 'absence'!

So a sound might be present or distant. Imagine someone talking to you from three meters away. That's distant. Now someone, a favorite someone perhaps, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. That is present.

Those two sound qualities, which you hear all the time (hopefully) and can easily imagine, well describe the effect of presence. There is something in a sound that is produced close to the ear that is very pleasing to us, perhaps through conditioning even from the time of birth.

So if you can achieve this sound in a recording, of anything, then we will like it. We have been conditioned to like it.

Another way to describe presence is the subjective distance of the sound coming from your loudspeakers in a domestic listening environment - i.e. not near field.

Close your eyes and some recordings will sound further away than the actual position of the speakers, some will sound closer. Clearly, those that sound closer have more presence.

One way you can achieve the subjective effect of presence is to place the microphone very close to the sound source. In this respect, the microphone seems to behave like our ears, which is fortunate.

When I say close, I mean very close indeed. Normally when recording vocals with a capacitor mic, you would place a pop screen between the singer and the mic. But this increases the distance.

If your singer is prepared to put the effort in, which can be considerable, you will find that it is possible to sing into a capacitor microphone right next to the grille. Clearly, pops and breath sounds will be a problem, but not an unsurmountable problem. And the result will be very present.

Another way of achieving presence is to use a tube mic or preamp. That little bit of distortion is often said to add 'warmth', but I would say that the presence it produces is even more important.

Oddly, trying to add distortion later in the recording process never seems to work as well. It has to be done in the mic or preamp. Having said that, a processor like the Aphex Aural Exciter will add presence. I just don't think it's as good as tubes in the right places.

It is also true to say that the original technique of boosting the mid range frequencies adds presence. But you have to be careful here. Too much mid range and it will poke you in the ear with a sharp stick.

All of these techniques are simple to apply, but you have to use good judgment too. Currently I don't believe there is such a thing as a 'presence processor'. Would this be a good thing, or are we better off using the old-fashioned techniques?

By David Mellor Monday July 3, 2006