Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Approach To Recording Bands: Part 1

I will be the first to say that there are many, many ways to record a band and I feel like I've tried most of them. Out of necessity I started out building songs around a click track. This is long before I owned a studio and due to equipment and space limitations it was the only reasonable way to work. In fact, I played in a band for many years (Rabby Feeber) that combined live tracks along with sequences of all kinds of crazy sounds and drum loops. We layered live guitars, bass and vocals over a sequence of guitar samples, drum loops and any cool sounds we could come up. Anything from a spinning a vacume tube to multiple guitar riff samples played on a keyboard. It was a very experimental project and when we played live it was quite a circus act. This was back in 1990 and at the time people didn't quite know what to make of us. There were a few bands out there doing similar stuff like Ministry and Big Black but no one in Lexington, Kentucky was experimenting with music the way we were.

After years of combining live music with sequences I reached a point where I was very burned out on it and my band started moving toward more of a live sound so that I could ditch the computers when we played out. This was a very liberating period in my life and I grew to love playing and recording live music. There is really nothing like making music with a group of people that are all on the same page and nailing it. The complexity of all those vibrating sound waves coming together to make a single cohesive piece of music which can travel down your ear canal and elicit such an incredibly strong emotional response has become almost a religion for me. To capture that emotion in a reproducible form through recording is something I've been in pursuit of for the majority of my life.

So what is the best way to capture something in a controlled environment that is, by its very nature, best created in an environment that is most of the time out of control? This includes places like clubs, halls and practice spaces that are full of people and not designed for recording. Most people, when they walk into a studio (unless they do it all the time), find themselves in a situation that is very foriegn to them. To begin with musicians are used to playing in a room with other people where they can hear, see and feel what is going on around them. Where the power of the music they are making combines with immediate feedback from the people they are playing with, to make something that is warm, expressive, loud, in your face, subtle, bone crunching, etc. Something that frankly, is very hard to recreate in a studio environment when a guitar player is isolated from the rest of the band, or a vocalist is overdubbing verses of a song or a drummer is focusing on a click track instead of his band mates. Musicians and vocalist also tend to raise their game to another level when playing in front of an audience. Something that most of the time doesn't work very well in a studio.

Unfortunately, sound isolation, overdubs, headphones, etc., are what make good records sound the way the day. I'm not saying there are no exceptions to the rule, at the end of the day there really are no rules when it comes to recording music. What I am saying is that in most cases, using these tried and true studio techiniques that have been around for many, many years is the safest way to insure that the end product will be top notch. Most bands I record have very limited budgets so its important to not waste time experimenting with techniques that may not work when you have something in your back pocket that you know will work. At some point down the road I'll try to dive into all the technical reasons why these various studio techiniques are so important but for now I want to keep this posting as non-techinical as possible.

So the question is, how do you utilize all these important studio techiniques while not making the band feel so inhibited that they find it impossible to perform at their peak? There is no one answer to this question. Instead, at Nitrosonic, we incorporate several approaches that make it a lot easier for a band to get into the right frame of mind when they are tracking a song.

To begin with, Nitrosonic was designed from the ground up to accomodate live bands. All the live rooms have several windows that enable full visibility to all the other rooms. A vocalist standing in the vocal booth can see into both the big tracking room as well the drum/acoustic booth. In most cases, I encourage the entire band to all stand (or sit) in the same tracking room and we use the iso booths for amplifiers. It is amazing how much it helps to have everyone work out of the same room, including the lead singer and drums. Anyone that has ever played in a live band knows that there is this subconsious communication that happens between band members when playing a song together. Achieving the right vibe and interplay required to record a great live song is very hard to do when band members can't see each other.

In some cases I will isolate acoustic instruments that need to be tracked live because electric guitars, bass and drums will create so much bleed into a condensor mic that the acoustic tracks will be unuseable. Nitrosonic also has 4 gobos that are used to isolate amps and drums when they are all being recorded in the same room. Gobos are the big heavy square green things you can see in the pictures at the Nitrosonic web site. Gobos are a great way to allow everyone to record with their amp while standing in the same room with the drums.

I also like to record a scratch vocal track live and in the same room with all the other musicians. Getting keeper vocal takes is an art in itself that I plan on devoting a separate posting to. In this case, the scratch vocal take is more for the benefit of the other musicians who are tracking. I also like to use one of those concave SE Filters on the lead vocals to prevent mic bleed.

Other than playing in the same room, probably the single most important ingrediant needed to get a good live take is a great headphone mix. In some ways this is more important than the microphones being used, the preamps, etc. Without a good headphone mix the band is gonna suck, no matter how good they are live. Without headphones its usually impossible to hear and feel what's going on around you in a studio. This is probably the single biggest complaint I hear from bands when they first walk in the door..."I hate playing with headphones!" If you ask why it usually comes down to some combination of it doesn't sound right, its unnatural, I can't hear the vocals, etc. Its never one thing.

Dave Barrick, an engineer/producer that I would count as one of my recording mentors, introduced me to individual headphone mixers a long time ago when one of my bands was recording at his studio. These handy little devices give each band member the ability to create their own headphone mixes from separate channels and to this day, everyone that has used these in my studio has had nothing but praise for them. The only problem is making sure that the sounds being routed to the headphone mixer channels is of really good quality. I tyically keep one headphone mixer in the control room so that I can monitor exactly what the bands are hearing and fix a problem as quickly as possible. This is something I pay a lot of attention to because I've been on the other side of the glass many, many times and know how important it is to feel comfortable with your headphone mix.

I'm going to close this one out for now and follow up with more details about my recording process in a second posting. As you can see, a lot of my philosophy around getting good live takes is to help a band feel as comfortable and confident as possible. I do my best to remove all the barriers that can contribute to a bad studio experience. In the next post I'll walk through the entire process from setup, to getting the basic foundation of song down, to overdubs. At that point you should have a pretty good feel for how I approach the recording phase of a studio project.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Recording Music: Tales From The Trenches

So this is my first posting in what I hope to be many, many more. I've been recording music now for over 25 years. I currently own a recording studio in Lexington, Kentucky called Nitrosonic ( that I built with the help of several good friends. For me, recording music has been a life long passion that began as a way to save money by not having to pay for studio time. I have to admit that I was extremely naive when I started on this journey, which is good because I doubt I would have ended up owning my own studio if I had known everything then that I know today.

Over the past 25 years I have learned a tremendous amount about recording and producing through a combination of trial and error, experimentation and lots of reading. I have no formal training. I've been fortunate enough to work with some really talented engineers and producers over the years who I learned a tremendous amount from. The knowledge I gained from working with these individuals in the studio was more valuable to me than any book I've ever read on recording (and probably any formal training).

So for this initial posting I want to give you some background on how I ended up at this point in my life. To begin with recording is not my day job. One day I would like it to be but at this point in time its just not practical to make a living recording music in Lexington, Kentucky. I plan on saving my rants about why its so difficult to make a descent living in the music industry for another posting.

By trade I am a software engineer. I have an undergraduate degree in EE from Vanderbilt University and a Masters from the University of Kentucky. I am currently a lead software architect for IBM corporation and I work primarily on a product called WebSphere which is an application server. My area of focus for pretty much my entire career has been real-time protocols. Everything from voice over IP to music streaming. Without my career at IBM, Nitrosonic would have likely never existed.

My normal life pretty much ends there. Over the last 25 years I have played drums with at least 7 or 8 different rock and country bands. I've toured all over the US and Europe with a band called Nine Pound Hammer (more on that later). I've written songs for and recorded pretty much every band I've ever played with. Some of this music has ended up in nationally released movies, TV shows and commericals. I have a publishing company called Nitrosonic Underground Publishing and occasionaly get a check from BMI. If you are a song writer and serious about working in the music industry, I can't say enough about joining BMI or ASCAP. Its free and will teach you a LOT about the music industry and how songwriters actually make money.

Recording music for me has always started with working on my own projects. Playing drums on a song while trying to engineer and produce it is very challenging. Its very difficult to wear all the hats required to make it work. Playing and engineering music require working in two very different parts of your brain. Over the years I've come to really dislike self-producing and self-engineering but for me its a necessary evil. The good side of it is that I've learned a lot doing it. I plan on devoting an entire post to self-producing at some point.

In additon to my own projects I've recorded a huge amount of music in Lexington and the region. Everything from Jewish religous music to country to speed metal and everything in between. Lexington has an incredibly diverse music community made up of extremely talented musicians and songwriters. Unfortunately, Lexington has never had much of a music industry so most of this talent never sees the light of day which brings me to one of the reasons I decided to get into this business. My hope is to one day help expose the Lexington music scene to the rest of the world. Easier said than done but I'm working on it...

So this seems like a good place to end my first post. I will continue to periodically post my thoughts on recording, engineering, producing and on the music industry in general. Let me end here by saying that I am not doing this because I feel like I'm some kind of an expert in this field. One of the things I love most about recording and producing music is that every day I learn something new. The one thing I know for sure is that there is no one right way to record and produce a song. My hope is to give anyone who is interested some perspective on how I approach creating, recording and producing music. These are things that have worked well for me over the years as well as things that haven't worked so well. Enjoy the ride...