In this new column, engineers share their experiences of real-world recording sessions, explaining the decisions they made, and what went right and wrong along the way. First up, we record an indie-rock band on location...
Band-recording On LocationAt the heart of any band-recording session lies a fundamental trade-off. On the one hand, a great performance is patently the most important goal, so you need to do everything you can to make people comfortable and keep them in a creative frame of mind. On the other hand, you’re responsible for making everything sound as good as you can, and few musicians will remain inspired if their exciting first take comes back sounding like the Shaggs!
When working with seasoned session veterans, there’s often room for manoeuvre: they understand that chasing enhanced sonics may involve them twiddling their thumbs for a while, and they’ll have learnt to perform well even when shut in a glorified cupboard with a dodgy headphone mix! For bands without a couple of albums behind them, though, there’s a lot to be said for making the recording process as ‘transparent’ as possible, mimicking their normal rehearsal or performance setup, and recording them all at once, so they can interact with each other fairly naturally. This is exactly the approach I decided to take when recently asked to record a three-song EP for talented local band Dunning Kruger.
In rehearsal, they were clearly a tight enough unit to make the ‘all at once’ recording method feasible, and when I floated the idea it was enthusiastically received. They had the opportunity to use some downtime at a small and well-deadened local studio, but I felt that a less cramped domestic environment could put the band more at ease and would probably provide a better drum sound — so it was great news when drummer Peter Zimre managed to secure the use of the converted loft at his parents’ house for a long weekend. It was a surprisingly large, airy living space with plenty of natural light (and the prospect of home cooking!).
Preparation is paramount if you want to make best use of your session time and avoid mood-shattering hold-ups, so despite the layout of the room being slightly unclear (no pictures were available in advance) I was determined to plan as much of the setup as I could. The lack of on-site recording gear presented no obstacle, because I have a 16-track location rig, but there were plenty of unknowns. For example, I’d be walking into an unfamiliar acoustic that hadn’t been used as a recording space, so I figured I’d better pack the car full of baffles to tackle any spill concerns (I stockpile old carpets, blankets and curtains for precisely that purpose!), as well as plenty of spare stands, bungee cords, and gaffer tape to rig them up with. A bit of redundancy in the kit list also seemed desirable, so I packed a few more cables and mics than I’d need, as well as a small uninterruptible power supply and some isolation transformers to head off the more common mains-related setbacks.
- About The Raw Multitracks: This is an indie rock production based around a live full-band take I recorded on location in a large converted loft.
- The main live take consists of nine tracks: stereo drum overheads; close mics for kick, snare, and toms (submixed rack, floor); bass DI; two guitars; and a stereo room. One additional guitar overdub was recorded on the same session.
- Three additional guitar overdubs were provided as DI signals, and some sections of those are reamped on three further tracks.
- Two edited stereo synth overdubs are included.
- The remaining six tracks are vocals, comprising a single main lead vocal, a chorus double-track, and two double-tracked backing-vocal lines.
- Challenges You're Likely To Face:
- There's a lot of spill on all the live-take mics, which means you don't get as much independent control over the sounds as you might expected from a primarily overdubbed production. Phase-relationships are also critical in this context.
- If you want to pursue the same kinds of disco-influenced sounds as can be heard on the preview mix, then you'll have to do a lot of work with gating and sample-replacement to dry things up that much during certain sections of the song. The lack of a hi-hat mic may also cause difficulties in that context.
- The level of hi-hat spill on the snare mic is quite high, and may interfere with your balance if you don't manage it in some way.
- Although the DI'ed guitar signals give you the freedom to design any guitar sound you want, that does put the onus on you to make those decisions.
- The synth parts have some printed-in stereo delay effects, and they also present some difficulties when it comes to blending all the tracks into a cohesive band sound.
- The lead vocal's mic choice for the verse wasn't ideal, so it's easy to end up with a harsh and/or woolly sound.
- Some Mixing Tips:
- Although there's more spill on these tracks than you may be used to dealing with, the mics were set up with the spill in mind, so don't immediately start gating everything otherwise you'll almost certainly throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Make sure you take the time to experiment with any polarity and phase adjustment measures you have at your disposal, because they have the potential to make enormous differences here.
- Compressing the snare with an HF boost in the compressor's side-chain is quite helpful for taming the hi-hat spill.
- Some amp simulation and/or distortion can help to fill out the subjective bass tone and blend it in with the rest of the band.
- Make a point of multing the live-take guitars, otherwise you'll struggle to get good long-term dynamics between the different sections of the song. Also, don't forget to consider automating the drum overhead and room mics.
- You'll almost certainly want to apply some kind of frequency-selective dynamics processing to the lead vocals in order to pull up the 'air' frequencies without tearing people's ears off with the consonants and sibilance.