The Art of Pre-Production: Band Recording

7 03 2011

So you have access to a nice recording space, you know you will have enough I/O for the project, and you have secured enough time to fully record it.

For some people, this is enough. They go blind into a project and whatever happens, they make it work. This tends to be the route of super professionals or arrogant posers. There are several steps that I take to make sure that sessions will not only run smoothly, but are recoverable from disaster.

Meet The Band

I cannot stress this enough. Meet up with the band, preferably at a rehearsal or show. Listen to their songs, and discuss with them their favourite recordings and what they consider to be their strongest tracks. Learn who can take a joke, and who wants to be treated regally.

This meeting will allow you to identify the band’s weak links, and start to gain their trust. By taking an interest in their music, the band are more likely to trust your opinion in terms of arrangement and instrumentation later down the line.

Here are several things that you may learn that will aid your first tracking session;

  • The overall timing and feel of the drummer – How does the drummer feel about using a click track?
  • Live or Multitrack – Are the band strong enough to perform to a high standard live? Does it suit their genre?
  • The band’s dynamic  – If multitracking, will the band members perform better if everyone is at the studio, or do they prefer to track in isolation?
  • The band leader – Every band has a leader, whether they are appointed or not, there is always someone making the final decisions. Identify this person and gain their trust and respect
  • Instrument quality – Do any of the electric instruments buzz? Do they hold their tuning? Make sure to ask your band to re-string any guitars before the session to minimize breakage

Bring your own Engineer Toolbox

My ‘Engineer Toolbox’ is a pencil case containing a great deal of extremely handy things. The size of your toolbox is entirely dependent on how paranoid you are versus how much you can be bothered. My ideal Engineer Toolbox is listed below

  • Sharpie Pen
  • Masking Tape
  • Gaffer Tape
  • A pair of headphones you know well (obviously it won’t fit in the pencil case)
  • Headphone adaptor
  • XLR to Jack adaptors
  • Microphone Clip adaptor
  • Spare Microphone Clip
  • Guitar Slide
  • Whiteboard Marker
  • Moongel (An extremely handy drum dampener)
  • A book for taking track notes or several track sheets
  • External drive (I take two, a small USB key at 16GB, and an external fire wire drive at 1TB)
  • Guitar Strings

Know your Equipment

In a high-pressure situation such as the first day of tracking, it’s important to make sure the band’s impression of you is a good one. Any problems or fears they have at this stage are likely to exacerbate as the sessions continue. The quickest way to undo all of the good work achieved at the first meeting is to be unsure of how to run the equipment.

Occasionally you will be faced with a problem beyond your immediate knowledge. If you are working with anything hardware that you are unfamiliar with, there is the possibility you may run into problems. DAW’s and plugins all tend to store their manuals on disk, so you can check things for reference. Having the hard copy manuals for the desk you are using, or the soundcard or preamp, means you can fault find much more quickly and easily, decreasing the amount of time you are not recording for, and showing the band that you are in control.

Prepare Session Files in Advance (Optional)

This took some time for me to fully appreciate, but if you fully prepare the session files for each song, then it will undoubtedly save time while tracking. It usually involves importing all the necessary backing tracks for each song, setting tempo’s, and using Memory Locations (Markers in the Logic equivalent), dictating the different sections along the play head, and then marking a 2 bar drop in position for each.  I used to waste 10 minutes a session trying to understand which section a musician wanted to go from, as our terminology didn’t always match up.

To be honest I only usually prepare session files for a particularly challenging project, such as a track that has many time signatures and feel changes.

The Night Before…

It’s obvious really, but being a recording engineer or producer is a proper job, and should be treated as such. Go to bed early, fully prepared, and when you wake up in the morning the session will be easy. You will find it easier to problem solve and will be easier to get on with.

Throwing alcohol into this mix isn’t recommended, as being hung-over can potentially affect your judgement in all areas of the process.

Summary

A great deal of the things outlined here are pretty straightforward. By taking the time to get to know what you will be working with, you can free up time to be creative with a band (which is why we all do this anyway!), and achieve far more in a standard session than you would have. You will become a better producer as a result, and it will improve your overall work ethic and potentially overall demeanour in the studio environment.

By Max Woodhams

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Kick 1, Snare 2. Overhead neglect?

5 03 2011

Since the advent of hard disk recording the kick has found a new home with many engineers, channel one. Gone are the days that tape wear pretty much forced the hats or a tambourine down the first strip. This, for me, has had a psychological effect on how drums are recorded and mixed. The focus has shifted away from the overall sound of the instrument to the individual sounds of the drums. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in popular metal bands who have quantized and hit replaced their drummer almost entirely out of the record and the natural feel of the drummer is completely lost. In this article I wish to give my view on opposing this, I won’t talk about techniques, that’s up to you and there are hundreds of “how to record drums” articles out there if you want them, I will just discuss some ideas and principles I like to work with.

The most important microphones in your set up are not the kick and snare, but the overheads. They should not to be turned up last as cymbal channels, almost an afterthought after you’ve crafted your sound on the close mics. Doing so can have a profound effect on the sound of the close mics, the snare in particular, and you might just find yourself back at square one pretty quickly. In order to avoid ruining the close mic mix you might find yourself putting the overheads low in the mix. This leads to the disconnected instruments feel as the overheads act like audio glue to keep the drum kit together as one instrument in one place on one recording. This is how I go about dealing with my overheads to create a cohesive drum recording:

Recording

It has to start here.  Try to plan how you want the recording to sound well before you enter the studio, this will help you make the correct calls with microphones and placements, saving time and producing a better capture. We’re trying to create a complete drum sound from the overheads.  So select microphones with a decent flat response, maybe a boost in the top end to accent the cymbals as the drums will get help from the close mics later.  Don’t apply any high pass filters that might be on the mics, we want the kick to sound good too.

When placing the overheads there is one crucial thing to remember, no matter which technique you’re using.  The distance from snare to each overhead must be equal so that it appears central in the stereo field. The same is also true with regards to the kick. If you have set up your overheads correctly the centre line of the image will pass diagonally across the kit through kick and snare.  I have often seen overheads set up with the centre line straight through the drummer and kick, this will cause the snare to be left in the field. Occasionally I see the line placed through drummer and snare which will move the kick to the right.

Next up is checking levels. Start with the overheads and ensure that the kick and snare are coming across clearly and central in the field. Make any adjustments to the overheads now before setting the close mics. This also will help you make good choices when placing and levelling the close mics. For instance, you’ll be made aware that the overheads have great attack, but less body, so you can then position your close microphones to capture more of the drum resonance.

Mixing

Here’s where your overheads can really come to life! Try to get your snare cutting through the cymbals using compression, it’s all about finding the sweet spot with the attack, usually slower than faster, but it changes depending on the snare and cymbals in question. I have, in the past, completely removed my close mics as the snare sounded great and clear on the overheads. The kick is unlikely to sound complete at this point, but if you can persuade some attack and slap out of it and the toms you can achieve a decent drum mix just from two well placed, correctly compressed microphones. There shouldn’t be any need for EQ on the overheads.

Now when you add your usual gates, compressors and EQ on the close mics you can check them by rolling them up slowly into the overhead sound. You’ll hear a balance point as you bring the levels up, soon after that point the close mics will dominate the mix. We want to roll back to that balance point where they’ll add punch and depth to the mix but the drums will sit together as one instrument. A great, powerful, natural sound with a distinct location and place in the mix.

Editing

And finally, if you don’t mind, just a short word on drum editing. DAWs have made it very easy to move and replace every hit in a drummers performance. This is a fantastic tool for correcting genuine errors that weren’t spotted in recording. Or, god forbid, help rescue a drummer that really should go find another career. But try not to over edit the drums for any decent drummer, eventually you’ll just remove the feel of the track. Hits that are milliseconds early or late are part of the performance and are not perceived as errors. They genuinely aren’t detrimental to the music at all. Let them be and give yourself more time getting the recording and mixing right. I’m not saying don’t edit, just don’t do it because you can, do it because you must.

So,next time you plan out your channels for a session, put the overheads down one and two. See if it can change the way you think about the hierarchy of drum channels, and see if that can give you a new drum sound.

By Graeme Rawson.