This is Part Four of a several part series that covers the basics of music production vital to the Independent music world today.
Songwriting is about establishing a mood or getting an intended reaction from your listener. A while back when working on Rod Stewart ďStardust.Ē I had the pleasure of submitting some mixes of ďYou Belong to Me.Ē Aside from the performances, which were great, I was most intrigued with how the song made me feel. The song was melancholy and simultaneously hopeful which is a real paradox. Yet if I had to scientifically evaluate what made that song speak to me I couldnít, I would be trying to describe the indescribable. At one point you just have to experience it for yourself to understand it. This is the power that music holds over us. It can conjure up feelings and provoke action. For this reason Iíve encouraged the artists I work with to pick four records theyíre not familiar with and study them religiously before writing new material. By learning how other artists use their writing tools to provoke feelings and action, an artist can add depth to his or her own music that didnít exist there previously
Any basic session will require a significant amount of time to get set up. For this reason the band should have a roadie or even a friend who can help the engineer load in, setup, tune, and play instruments while the engineer gets basic tones. By doing this the engineer can avoid burning out the musicians before the session gets started. Iíll even go a step further and stagger the musicianís arrival times until I am ready for them so that they are not sitting around the studio wasting time being bored. Also while getting tones keep your reference CDís handy. While itís unrealistic to think that youíll get identical tones to your reference material, your engineer can use this as a guide to get you in the ballpark of where youíd eventually like your tone to be.
While I could write a book on microphones alone I would sum it up with the important fact that you should never judge a mic by the name on it, but rather its tone. Iíve seen classic mics that looked impressive but when examined up close, it becomes obvious theyíve been altered or they are just flat out not working right. Similarly, I have seen ďhomegrownĒ mics that look like junk but when you listen to them they sound great. Always use your ears and never your eyes when selecting gear. Pick the mic to match the sound you want from your source while remaining open minded about what you ultimately get.
Mic positioning is an equally lengthy topic and too complex to get into detail here. Suffice it to say that mic placement has everything to do with getting a good sound. Once you have dialed in your sound source, watch the engineer as he moves the mic (or mics) around and listen to what happens. If you end up going with more complicated multi-mic techniques watch out for phasing and comb filtering (hollow sounding tones) while keeping in mind that sometimes the best mic technique is just one mic on the source.
There was a time when recording boards were judged by the sound of their mic pre-amps alone. However, studio owners eventually began to put more emphasis on flexibility and features and paid less attention to the sound of the mic pre. This left us with some extremely flexible consoles that performed well but lacked the sonic qualities that many engineers appreciated from older pre-amps. As a result, engineers started using custom boxes that would allow them to interface older preamps with newer consoles. While one does not need to understand the details of how a mic pre functions itís important to know why we talk about them with such distinction in the studio world.
Essentially all a mic pre amp does is amplify the output of a mic so that it can operate at studio levels. Whatís interesting is that while most mic preís will share similar or identical specís they will have different sounds when powering the same mic. Essentially, each one will lend itís own color to an instrument and can add different timbres to a recording that werenít there before.
Though the pre amps sole purpose in life is to bump up the mics output to studio ďoperating levelĒ it is possible to overdrive the input of your recording system with the pre-amps output. Some modern recordists actually end up cramming so much input into their workstations that they end up overdriving the input within a dB of the digital ceiling without actually realizing it, which is completely unnecessary. Iíll spare the technical reasoning for it but in short you gain little, sonically, by printing to digital at obscenely hot levels. As you work with your signal chain keep in mind that digital is very forgiving of under recording. Typical workstation metering is not a refined tool yet so try to keep your meters in the ďgreenĒ and youíll be ok; over recording can result in distortion thatís impossible to undo.
Just as the whole mic pre craze has reached levels of parody, the same could be said for processing equipment like compressors and EQís. In short, compressors (or limiters) simply reduce the peak output of a mic pre to levels that are more manageable for the recording equipment to handle. By reducing the dynamic range of an instrument, you can cram more voltage into a limited space, thus increasing the apparent loudness of a signal (how else do you think Korn can go from a whisper to a gut wrenching scream without changing volume?). The trade off here is a higher noise floor and increased distortion specs. Studios carry a wide selection of limiters specifically because of the way they shape and distort the tone. Alot of the characteristics I attributed to mics will also apply to compressors. Do not judge them by their look because too often classic units have been heavily modified from original or are in serious disrepair. Ultimately judge them by their performance. When recording, donít be afraid to experiment with these devices but also avoid excessive amounts of compressing to disk because you cannot undo it if you go too far. Ultimately you should leave these decisions for the mix.
Ironically, EQís suffer from a similar fate. Like compressors, they too can add serious color to a sound, but if they have issues with their state of repair they can do more to damage a signal path than help it. These boxes are excellent tone sculpting devices and can add brilliance or punch to a sound either subtractively or additively. Most professional engineers agree that itís ideal to get the sound right at the source before adding EQ because if they are overused in tracking you can paint your mix engineer into a serious corner. Regardless of whose name resides on your EQ if it doesnít help your sound, either dump it in favor of another one or disconnect it altogether.
While even the most basic instrument rigs have access to stunning effects these days itís still a good idea to let the engineer decide if he wants to print your effects or not. Typically modern effects units and pedals wonít hold up against the power and conversion that high-end or classic studio processors have. That being said, if an artist shows up with a song that requires he interact with some sort of effect during the performance (like a delay or reverb), I may print the source and effect to disk simultaneously so the artist can provide me the appropriate performance. Itís generally not a good idea to marry the effects and sound source together on the same track because you canít adjust the finer balances in mix. A better idea would be to place them on separate tracks via an Aux or Bus; that way you are not committing tones you canít undo in the mix.
Speaking of committing tones that you canít undo, Iím seeing more and more artists show up these days with modeling technology built into their instruments which attempt to emulate classic comboís at the push of a button. While I think this technology may work ok in a live setting, I have serious reservations about using it in the studio. My main reason for objecting to such gear in the studio rests on the fact that when compared to a real source under a microphone the model will not stand up. Worse yet, for reasons that escape me, Iím somehow to blame when asked to deliver sounds that match classic tones and my results come up short. Musicians, do not be offended if your engineer asks you show up with real instruments and amps instead of your flashy live rig. Your models might work ok for some purposes but for finely finished product, real instruments and amps have been the benchmark for quite some time and I do not foresee a change in this equation any time soon.
Once you have gotten your instruments miked up, the next step is getting cue mixes. This is one of the more overlooked aspects of tracking and is certainly the most critical. Cue mixes are a real balancing act. Most engineers gloss over them and hope for the best while most musicians are too willing to accept a mediocre mix just to keep the session going.
Amp isolation is ultimately the culprit behind most cue problems (though on occasion I have found under-powered cue systems (headphone amps) to blame). Even though isolation proves to be a huge relief to the engineer it remains a thorn in the side to the musicians who canít hear their instruments. To make matters worse, to get everyone a satisfactory cue mix, the click track leakage ends up loudest of all, bleeding into the overhead mics forcing the engineer to turn the click down. I list the methods I employ to break this vicious cycle below.
First, itís always a great idea to have your engineer set up a talkback mic near your isolated talent so you can communicate without hindrance. Secondly, while most studios have multiple cue mixes to allow everyone an isolated mix, this still might not be enough. These days, a lot of studios have outfitted their gear racks with more sophisticated cue systems which allow the musicians to dial in their own mixes rather than having to rely on the engineer to do it for them. Though these systems donít work in every situation (because they are often under powered) they can help. Lastly, while studio headphones can function ok, most of them are the ďopen backĒ style, which are prone to leakage issues. I personally recommend my clients bring in-ear-monitors or ďisolationĒ headphones with them since both systems block the offending leakage to begin with. As an added bonus they also allow the user to keep the internal levels much quieter. Though these products are NOT found in most studios, this added expense will save your ears and make tracking much more enjoyable. My advice is if you intend to isolate your amps or cut drums to a click, spend the money and get some good isolation headphones or IEMís. They will serve your career well both live and in the studio by giving you cleaner and quieter mixes, which ultimately will result in better across the board performances.
Once all of the preliminaries are out of the way, then itís time to actually record. Though I donít always tell the artists Iím recording (for psychological reasons), I usually allow them extra time to rehearse with the click to get comfortable with the cues and each other. Once recording starts the drummer should not stop unless instructed to do so by the producer or the engineer. Unless you are really going for a live performance, itís better to let the drummer run his take to completion even if the bass player totally screws up mid song. Likewise after a complete take, everyone should remain silentuntil they have been given the ok to communicate with each other. I personally have had artists ruin great takes or endings because they didnít have the ďbig pictureĒ while tracking. Save for obvious mistakes itís better to let the producer call the take rather than do it on your own. Thatís what he is there for and he is in a much better position to tell you if a take is worth scrapping in transit or keeping the magic of a unique performance.
After a few takes you should have a good idea of where the record is going. Iíll regularly invite the musicians into the control room to evaluate their performances and generate feedback that might allow me to help them further. Even though I ask the musicians to focus on their performances rather than the production, every now and then I get comments that pertain to monitoring issues. Keep in mind that all rooms, speakers, speaker sizes, and even playback volumes yield different results. Big speakers yield a big impressive sound but are rarely accurate whereas small speakers seem unimpressive but show higher levels of accuracy since they minimize room equations. There is always a ďsweet spotĒ for monitoring in the control room and typically itís reserved for the engineer or producer to make critical decisions in. When in doubt about the sound of your recording, ask the engineer to let you use the sweet spot for a minute or ask him how well his room translates to the outside world. Your engineer should know his room well enough to be compensating for the acoustic deficiencies of it. This brings up an additional point as well. When tracking in a non-studio environment, make sure your engineer has spent a lot of time listening to music he knows well in the space before recording. Recording in the real world can be done but because itís a hostile environment, you never know exactly what youíre putting down until you have spent ample time learning the sonic footprint of your workspace.
Tracking is supposed to be a fun low-pressure environment. Every now and then it can get a bit nerve wracking so avoid wearing yourself down. Stay fresh and take breaks often. Once you are done and have committed your performances to disk then you are ready to move into your next phase of production, overdubbingÖ 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