This is Part Three of a several part series that covers the basics of music production vital to the Independent music world today
One of the hippest records I own is U2, The Unforgettable Fire. Some folks may not be aware of it but much of that record was recorded outside a real studio. In fact it was recorded in one of the most unorthodox studio environments available, Slane Castle in Ireland. There are hosts of other non-studio records that have done remarkably well in the marketplace too. For instance, producer Rick Rubin recorded Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik in his house, The Beatles Let it Be contained tracks that were recorded on the roof of Abbey Road Studios, and Dishwalla’s home brewed hit record And You Think You Know What Life’s About was cut at their home in the Santa Barbara mountains. The point here is obvious: you do not need a studio to cut a great record in, you need top-notch talent to guide it and an interesting acoustic space to record it in. My position has always been that as long as you have clean stable A/C power available, you can pretty much record anywhere. That being said there are plenty of aspects you will need to consider if you choose to record outside a real studio. You will need to have the support staff available to troubleshoot system problems (ground loops, noise, wiring issues, etc,) some degree of environmental control (air conditioning) and a basic understanding of acoustics to solve acoustical issues. Home or location recording can be fun but nothing kills the buzz of a great performance more than traffic leakage or that nasty 60Hz hum on your vocal mic. For this reason you need to be prepared for all types of problems. If you prefer to go with the fancier worry free vibe of a commercial space make sure you have good acoustical isolation and clean power before booking. The rest should take care of itself.
This has been an ongoing debate for years but at this point it’s a futile one since there are few companies left to produce analog tape and the last major manufacturer has confirmed its imminent departure. Whether you like it or not, digital will eventually replace analog; it’s inevitable. As for whether artists should take one last swing at analog I usually leave that up to them but I explain up front that if they’re working on a limited budget the artist can expect costs to almost double with analog, plus you can kiss the convenience of home recording goodbye.
Another overlooked factor when considering tape recording is machine maintenance. These days most studios can’t tell you the last time their machine was turned on, much less when it was serviced by a qualified tech. It’s a really bad idea to put any master on an unknown machine because they can damage tape so easily. However, if you happen to be one of the lucky few who can afford an analog studio with well maintained gear to boot be sure to budget extra time to transfer the 2” masters before wrapping the session. You never know when you will need to call on that session again and by that point a working machine could be as rare as hen’s teeth.
Even if you’ve had your instruments properly setup outside the studio you will likely need to address them again before recording due to changes in humidity and temperature in the studio. Out of all the instruments you’ll use on your session electric guitars (and basses) tend to be the easiest to deal with tuning wise, but they can be a real bear if you are not on top of your intonation. If any of you have ever experienced going from one chord (or note) to the other and noticed the tuning seems to change on its own, it doesn’t, that’s an intonation problem. With this in mind you can understand why tracking on a poorly intonated guitar (or bass) is such an issue for recording. The minute you start to layer on other instruments that do hold their tuning the problem will become apparent. For this reason check each guitar before your session to save yourself the hassle of re-recording. Even after you have your intonation set, hard playing will require regular tuning so check it often. Always keep a good tuner handy and try to use the same tuner across the entire project since not all tuners are alike.
Drums, on the other hand, are by far the worst offenders because of their complex nature. Drums specifically require a great deal of time and skill to tune because they react adversely to different rooms and different temperatures. The drum sessions I look back on with any pride were the ones where I had a competent drummer who understood proper tuning and could respond to my complaints about the sound of the drums in the room. In those cases every drummer was familiar with the use of some type of tuning device. Torque tuners are one example. They allow the user to measure the relative torque on each lug. Another type of tuner would be the tympanic type tuner, which measures the pressure being applied to the drum head near each lug. Though drum tuners are really handy they will only get you half the way there; at one point you still need to use your ears to fine-tune the drums because inconsistencies in the head manufacturing process will require uneven tensions across the head to get good results. Even after the kit has been fine-tuned as the tracking session progresses you will need to check tuning occasionally because performance and environmental changes will cause the tuning to slip. For drum recording tuning is key and no EQ in the world will make an out of tune drum kit sound better.
Like drums, pianos are equally difficult to tune and require a lot of skill to deal with. When tracking pianos it’s especially important to have them professionally tuned and inspected beforehand. Pianos can slip while tracking but unlike the guitar I would not advise grabbing a tuning wrench and fixing it yourself (though I have been tempted to do just that on occasion). Keeping the room temperature stable and avoiding nearby doorways, windows or vent openings should be enough solve most slippage issues but don’t be surprised if you end up having to bring your piano tech out again to cover any slippage problems. Pianos are a very complex stringed instrument and are subject to the same problems that guitars are.
I am always amused when I tell my clients to be prepared for a session in every way and they show up without any form of a “spares kit.” A “spares kit” is a kit you would take with you if you were going to do a long-term gig on the road. Each kit would be specific to the rig you are using. For instance, a spares kit for a guitar rig might have a tuner, batteries, extra strings, picks, patch cables, guitar cords, power strips, A/C extension cords, tubes, and maybe even some fretboard cleaner to wipe your fretboard down between takes. Keyboard players might show up with some longer ¼” cables, IEC cables, extension cords and maybe even a DI or two just in case. In my experience drummers typically come the most prepared but even they should at the very least be sure to bring a floor mat, tuning keys, tuner, extra sticks, brushes and cloth tape to dampen the heads rather than rely on the studio’s console tape to do the trick. Though I would not expect a drummer to show up with spare heads, if your drummer has a habit of breaking them you probably should bring extras just to be safe.
My first paid gig in LA was as an assistant at a small studio. Since the studio was owned and operated by my employer he laid down the law from the outset when he was producing a record, little or no visitors allowed. Conversely, when we had regular bookings my boss never laid down such a rule. Why? Two reasons. The first being that since we were hired guns it wasn’t our business what the clients did as long as the gear didn’t get hurt and the second being that it ended up turning the studio into a profit center because clients regularly wasted time hanging out with friends. If you intend to go make a record (where ever it may be) keep whatever observers you may have assigned to a task that will help the project out or keep them out altogether. Aside from taking up space visitors tend to make subjective comments about the music at the worst possible time and complicate the producer’s job further by asking too many questions when he is trying to focus on the details of the performances and the engineer’s work.
I’ve still barely scratched the surface of the recording process but the above points still bear repeating. A good record can be made anywhere. Good equipment and great engineers cut records in the most unorthodox spaces daily. The idea is to be prepared for whatever problems may crop up along the way. Finally, recent sessions have reminded me that your producer is by far the most valuable tool you can have with you in the studio. If you hire a producer to guide you then take his criticism seriously. Producers exist to balance out the “Yes Men” that musicians subconsciously surround themselves with. Respect his input before you start recording (even if it hurts) and the session will absolutely yield you positive results. Failure to consider the guidance of experience will only cost you in the end.
Until next time,
Dusk Bennett is a freelance producer/engineer in Los Angeles and has worked with a number of award winning artists. He can be contacted at Myspace for further questions.
Licensed to Bitchin' Entertainment by Dusk Bennett. To receive permission to publish this article please contact Theresa Yarbrough