DIY Record Production – Part 2: A Method – by Ian Button, August 2009
In the first article I spoke about my general philosophy on producing recordings for yourself. In the next two I am going to give you a few more details on the actual process I use for most of the bands I work with.
It’s worth noting at this point that I am going to be talking about recording bands i.e. more than one person playing at a time, and with some element of live performance, character or energy that it makes sense to capture.
A lone person laying down tracks one at a time is a totally different, and in many ways ‘safer’ proposition – read on and you’ll see what I mean…..
And I’m also talking mainly about gtr/bass/drums type bands – at least bands who have that as their basis, although of course the permutations of this lineup are very varied.
Finally, I am going to skirt over some of the technical specifics (types of mics/software/hardware etc) this time, as I will be dealing with equipment recommendations in a future article.
Where to record?
If you are self-sufficient in terms of equipment, and mobile, you can pretty much record anywhere. The most obvious choice for me and the bands I record is a rehearsal room – the good ones will be spacious, well-equipped with plenty of mic stands, extra mics & cables, teas, coffees, beers, chocolate etc. In short, a bit like what a recording studio has, but (usually) much cheaper. If the band are used to rehearsing there, even better.
Most of the recordings I’ve done over the last couple of years have been at Vatican in Mile End. It’s fairly convenient to get to, there’s parking, and a range of different sized practice rooms from the huge (for whole band stuff) to the compact (just done a day of Deep Cut guitar overdubs in this one). They also have an analog tape recording studio there, although we’ve never used it.
Outside the rehearsal rooms, I’ve taken the gear to numerous band members’ houses – in particular at the overdubbing stage (Awkward Silences vocals*/violins, Real Sound guitars, Deep Cut /Go Kart Mozart vocals etc). With Extradition Order and David Cronenberg’s Wife we have even been able to set up and record complete band takes in their respective ‘front rooms’.
The obvious advantage of doing it at home is that it’s free and there are usually no time constraints, but of course there could be issues with noise, particularly drumming.
Think about all the practicalities if you can. Consult with the bands about how much they want to get done, and make a plan for your recording day. Even though a rehearsal room is comparatively cheap, it’s easy to forget the clock ticking away and realise you’re running out of time – I’d always advise over-estimating the time you’ll need by an hour or two!
*NB Paul often records his own vocals & basic tracks at home and sends me the Garageband files to import into Logic. Jes and Lunch have both recorded and emailed me bass & guitar parts too. This cuts down the time/pressure factor of trying to get everyone’s parts recorded in one go.
Setting up, monitoring & spill
I don’t have multiple sets of headphones, mixers, acoustic screens etc – maybe one day I will get all this (and a big enough car/van to bring it all) but for now I (and the bands) have to get used to working in a kind of ‘open plan’ recording arrangement.
A few key points to remember: there will not be clinical separation between the instruments; not everyone will have individual monitoring or headphones; the band basically sets up and plays as though it is a rehearsal, and I record that.
This might sound amateurish and unfeasible, but stick with me, it works……..
It usually takes about half an hour to set everything up. Ideally I plug everything straight into my interface (8 channels), it gets recorded onto my laptop, and everyone hears stuff back through the PA in the room.
I can record 8 channels at once with the setup I’ve got, so depending on the lineup of the band, and what needs to be recorded/played together, I have to work out how many mics can go on the drums, gtrs etc.
Typically for an Awkward Silences live session, I’d set it up as follows:
1- Kick drum
3- Floor Tom
5- Bass (straight into soundcard/preamp, get a sound using software)
6- Guitar (as above, or miked)
7- Keyboard (as above)
8- Paul vocal
We can sometimes juggle this a bit – if we can use a MIDI keyboard it frees up another channel for a second drum overhead.
For Paul’s stuff we usually like to get a live vocal take, because it’s often that we capture something in his performance this way that it’s hard to reproduce later. I am often happy to accept a sonically less than perfect vocal if the vibe or attitude of it is great. I try and make sure that Paul has a decent mic for these live takes.
Deep Cut’s latest basic tracks were laid down slightly differently – 5 mics on the kit, 2 gtrs etc:
1- Kick drum
3- Tom 1
4- Tom 2
6- Bass (straight in)
7- Gtr 1 (mic)
8- Gtr 2 (mic)
For this setup we had Emma singing along quietly with a guide vocal (because the rest of us in the band needed it) through the PA but it wasn’t recorded.
This setup and track arrangement will depend, as I said, on the instrumentation, and how well the band can play the tunes without vocals or other elements.
Obviously the less that’s going on the better – if the drummer can play through all the tunes on his own, then you could put 8 mics round the kit if you wanted. You just have to sort out what’s needed to get the desired result.
Remember that drums on their own might get you a very clean recording but might not be as exciting as when the whole band are playing.
Which brings me on to spill….
Now, there will be some of this…..quite a lot actually, depending on how loud everyone wants to play. Of course, you may plan to replace a lot of the live take tracks with individual overdubs later. You may only be interested in getting a good drum take – but remember that spill works in all directions. You might think your only worry is the drums spilling down the other mics in the room, but more often than not, the problem will be vocals/gtrs leaking onto the drums, especially the overheads. If you are going to compress the drums at all, this will be exaggerated more.
So is this a problem? In the most severe case, that overhead will become in effect a ’room mic’ for the whole band. This can be quite effective blended into a mix. Even the ‘ghost’ parts you’ll hear leaking through can add something interesting.
If you are happy to accept this, you will learn to love the spill.
But you’ll see that a problem could arise if someone plays or sings something that’s NOT meant to be on the final tune. A mistake or a changed musical/vocal part may still be noticeable even when the correct overdubs have been done, so it’s always good to point this out to the band before you start recording.
You may also want to encourage everyone to play, sing or monitor at as low a level as they can, use conducting techniques and signals, position amps intelligently, and simplify playing in order to get the basic takes down and keep leakage to a minimum.
What are we trying to achieve?
Essentially, in these sessions I am trying to capture the raw materials – the essence of the performance, basic sounds, and possibly some alternate takes/versions.
I am not really concerned with what you might call ‘getting sounds’ at this stage. Maybe if the guitar sound is set and decided, we will record it with a mic in front of an amp and it’s basically there, but otherwise I like to have broad options for later. That’s the beauty of recording just the unprocessed sounds with an initial, temporary guitar or bass sound monitored using a plugin.
Likewise, recording MIDI keyboard parts means you can use software instruments to get the sounds, and change them later.
On drums too, I don’t labour over getting anything more than a basic, natural sound from the overhead(s) and a signal from the kick, snare & toms, because I know I can trigger and blend additional drum sounds more carefully later on to get the kit sound I want. I think I’ve got my drum sounds process down to a fairly fine art – although I’m sure there’s people who still can’t believe how easy I say it is, or how lazy I seem!
Another factor here is what you, the producer/engineer can hear – think about it: you don’t have the luxury of sitting in a separate control room and dissecting every sound in isolation. You are sitting in the same room as the band, and even with headphones it’s not easy to hear in detail what’s being recorded until you play it back. In a way you just learn to set the levels right, sit back, enjoy the songs, and trust that your gear is recording the raw materials you need.
When you play stuff back too, remember the sound that will come out of that rehearsal PA isn’t going to be a true representation of what you’ve just recorded – if you need to you could bring along a set of proper monitors to listen back through, for a better idea of the sound (headphones can help, but they aren’t a substitute for speakers) – but you are not really going to hear what you’ve got properly until you get it home and start work on post production and mixing. It’s probably worth explaining that to the band too…
So that’s the setup – it might sound slightly scary, slapdash, hit & miss, but to me that’s what makes it exciting! I always look forward to getting back home after one of these sessions, opening the projects up, having a proper listen to what we’ve got, and imagining the next stage……. That’s the point where I usually send a very pleased text to the band.
In the next article we’ll move on to managing the recording process, takes, overdubbing etc…….