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.

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