When you have a musician coming in to the studio to work, you want them to have the best experience they can. Your job is to make the recording process as transparent or invisible as possible for them. This allows them to totally concentrate on their playing and creativity without having to worry about the technical aspects of the recording process. I recently had a friend come in to start working on a new song. Time is a precious commodity so we wanted to complete as many tracks as possible in one session. He wanted to see if we could complete the guitar, bass and vocal tracks in one session. We’ve worked together before and he’s an amazing musician, so I knew he’d hold up his end and have his track ideas ready to go. My job is to have the studio prepared to move seamlessly from one track to another. Here’s some basic preparation steps that will allow you to do that in the studio.
1) Decide what equipment you’re going to use. One of my goals is to give the musician multiple sonic options whenever possible. In this case that applies mostly to the guitar sound. If the musician has a particular amp or effect pedal of their own that they want to use, I try to get it in to the studio before they get there so I can have it miced and pathed. In this case we were using all in house studio equipment and decided to use stomp box FX pedals instead of rack mounted FX units. This photo shows the overall floor pedal setup.
2) Set up the effect path. The guitar signal is split at the stereo chorus pedal (the pink pedal). One line goes to a delay pedal, a flanger and a distortion pedal to an amplifier. The other line goes to a phase shift pedal and then in to a POD direct in amp emulator. This allows for a variety of guitar sounds to be recorded in one pass, both amped and direct in. The order of the pedals does make a difference in the overall sound. You can try several configurations to get what you want.
The output from the distortion pedal goes to an amplifier set up in another room. Although this large room is great for natural reverb, in this case the amp is just close miced with an SM57.
The bass guitar goes to a ten band EQ pedal. You can see it in the upper right picture of all the floor pedals. I love this pedal for bass, whether recording or live. It allows you to really dial in a specific EQ as well as boosting the signal if necessary. Two other items will go in to the patch bay. One is the drum machine seen in the upper left of the pedal picture to use for a click track. For vocals we have a Neumann mic going in to the patch bay.
3) Set up the signal path through your patch bay. This is where you run your incoming signals in to the rack mounted units then in to your mixing boards. I have paper diagrams of all the patch bays connections – when you have a lot of connections you don’t want to make any mistakes.
For this session all the inputs except the drum machine will run in to rack mount pre-amps and compressors/noise gates. Although the mixing boards have pre-amps and compression for each channel, I like using the higher quality outboard units. For me they’re also easier to fine tune.
4) Set up the signal path through the mixing boards. Decide what channels in the mixing board each signal is going to. I’d advise coming up with a logical system that works for you. I tend to set up multiple recording tracks by instrument the same way for most sessions. This makes my life a lot easier as ‘muscle memory’ will kick in if you’re trying to move quickly to make an adjustment during a recording take.
This is also where you select where each track will go in to your recording software. On a digital mixing board you should have a page that defines where the signal will be sent to. Again, try to maintain a consistent logic as you do this setup.
You can now set up the tracks in your recording software. You’ll want to keep the same order whenever possible. I usually have tracks that go left to right on the mixing board go top to bottom in the recording software.
5) OK, here’s where the organization part really needs to kick in. I like to create a chart for everything in the recording path. With this many transitions and connections, there’s a pretty good chance you could have some type of failure in one of the pathways during the session. The last thing you want to do is have to start guessing where a problem is while you’re trying to record. I don’t want to have the musicians standing around waiting while I’m trying to make a fix. It just feels less professional to me. And it could put a stall on the musician who was on a roll. Inspiration is like lightning in a bottle. When you catch it you want to keep it.
6) Test every pathway. I go one path at a time and test all the connections from the instrument all the way in to the recording software. I work to get a good strong signal level at each stop. Make sure the effects pedals work. Get a good strong signal in the pre-amps, compressors, mixing boards and software. Get basic settings ready in the pre-amps and compressors. That way when you’re recording the changes will be tweaks rather than ‘where the hells the signal?’. This is when you can change out a cable if it’s causing a problem.
All of this does take time. And nothing is perfect. You’ll probably hit some small glitch in any session you do. But when you get to run a smooth recording session it will all be worth it. In the session I was referencing in the beginning we completed the click track, four guitar tracks, the bass and three vocal tracks in a three hour period. And the session was a lot of fun. You can’t ask for much more than that. Now – go out there and create!
You read a music review in a magazine or online. In the topic line or in the body of the article the reviewer delivers a quick description of the artist being reviewed: ‘punk rock’, ‘bluegrass’, ‘heavy metal’, ‘pop rock’, ‘funk’, ‘hardcore’, ‘classical’. Those are just some basic labels. The labeling can become extremely micro: ‘psychedelic dance party industrial flaming death rock’. We’ve touched on this phenomena a lot on this blog, particularly when reviewing songs in the Grapevine articles. But is this practice good, bad or not important at all? I believe that all of those interpretations can be accurate.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with attempting to label music. There is a vast amount of musical material available. People writing reviews are usually trying to give you a short synopsis of the music so you can decide if you want to listen. I cruise through musical ‘labels’ all the time to help decide if I want to delve deeper in to a band. But as I’ve stated before, this can have a limiting effect and cause you to miss a lot of music that you might actually like. Or it might help you look for a specific musical style online by doing a search for a musical ‘label’ to find new bands. It’s just info. You get to decide how to use it.
Let’s take an example. The Dead South is a band I’ve reviewed before. Let’s take a look at their video for the song ‘Black Lung’:
If you look at how they dress and the instruments they are playing your first thought might be bluegrass music. But is it? In articles I’ve read the band itself has often stated that they don’t consider themselves bluegrass musicians. And if you really listen to the song, I don’t think I’d consider it traditional bluegrass. This song might fall better in to Americana or folk – but again, you’d be describing the music by using a label. Some of their other songs carry a total different vibe. We have talked about this in our Messin’ With The Music series. Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs use mostly acoustic instruments when recording the covers. Again, the mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar, etc are often associated with bluegrass. We’ve consistently stated that we’re not attempting to do ‘bluegrass’ covers of the tunes despite the instrumentation. This pulls in another part of the overall picture. A band wants to present an image that they can be associated with. How you dress, how you look, the instruments you use help construct your image. It’s another form of a label. Fans are looking for something to latch on to. But it’s a label the band creates for themselves. If it’s in the band’s control, I think it’s a good thing. There are limitless examples of record labels creating an image for a band, often with disastrous results.
Let’s listen to another song. This is ‘Radio Clash’ by The Clash:
The Clash have always been considered as one of the great ‘punk’ bands. Is ‘Radio Clash’ a punk song? Musically, I’d be hard pressed to drop the song in to that category. But…….listen to the lyrics. They certainly embody the anti-authority, anti big business attitude of punk. One of the reasons that The Clash are a great band (in my opinion) is the wide variety of musical styles they covered in their career. Even though the music touches a lot of styles, the lyrics and attitude are pretty consistent. They were all about destroying ‘labels’, which in itself was part of their band identity. The Clash controlled their own identity and musical style. You can’t ask for more than that.
How about another one:
White Zombie’s ‘More Human Than Human’. Is it metal? Is it industrial? Hard rock? I can tell you what a great song it is in a dance club. So, can we label it? Would tacking a label on this song cause a lot of people to miss hearing it? If a song is really good, it can sometimes break through barriers and be heard by a wide variety of people (this video has over 31 million views). So labeling can be a two edged sword. Some bands will break through labeling and be successful. The vast majority of bands will never have this level of success. Maybe ‘classifying’ their music will help them, maybe it will hurt them. I think the most important part of the equation is the control the actual band has over their classification and image. If I’m in a band, I want to control my own music. This rolls right in to the topic of bands intentionally misrepresenting their style of music and image. I think that’s totally up to the band. You might present yourself one way to get more publicity. This might work and get people to view you and like what they hear. It could also backfire – “these guys call themselves country music? What a bunch of poseurs”. As long as the band controls their fate it works for me. Who doesn’t want to control their own fate?
One thing I miss that was always part of finding and classifying music is the vinyl album cover (although vinyl has made somewhat of a small comeback). You used to be able to browse in a record store and flip through this wonderful art. A lot of thought went in to the album cover design and the visuals were often created to bring to mind a certain classification of music. Does this Grateful Dead cover for ‘American Beauty’ catch your eye? Does it give you an idea of what the musical style would be? Would you buy the album just because of the album art?
Classifying items is a big part of how the human mind works. This is definitely true in almost any type of art. In the last couple of years I’ve fallen in love with landscape photography. I use many of the images for still pictures on videos on our YouTube channel. The following picture was taken in Yellowstone National Park. I altered it to fit with the music for a Steaming Mulch song. Is it still ‘landscape photography’? Does the viewer get to decide? My final thought – art is subjective. You make the call.
The year that wouldn’t end is officially over. We’re all going in to 2021 with hopes and plans that we can accomplish some positive things. We received a new track in November from Steaming Mulch with the goal of seeing more this year. We’ll be replaying some of their older tracks while new ones are being worked on. We also came across some unfinished tracks from The Flank, another band on Velvet Wrinkle Wreckerds (Note – you can find more info on the bands on the label site velvetwrinklewreckerds.com as well as songs on our Soundcloud site). We’re hoping to finish those tracks this year and thought we’d dig in to the archives (it’s been quite a while since the last album release) and give you a sample of The Flank material. We’re starting with ‘Something Better Be’ which is the opening track on the album ‘At Stake’. I’m really looking forward to working on the new songs as they headed in a different direction from the first album which is always exciting.
Here’s ‘Something Better Be’ from The Flank:
There are other projects in the works for 2021 since some situational changes may allow us more time to work together. New original music is in the works for Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs as well as more Messin’ With The Music covers and some live In The Studio performances as well as more In The Studio ‘tech simplified’ videos. We’re looking to have some t shirts and other merch available. There’s even the possibility of another band coming in to Velvet Wrinkle Wreckerds. Bonnie and Samantha are certainly happy to see a new year so we’re starting with some dreams and the hope that this year will allow us to make them reality. We’re hoping you’ll join us in this 2021 adventure (and bring your friends along)!
When we did our last video for In The Studio we discussed the basics of microphones. Part of that discussion was that microphones were one of the entry points for inputting and capturing sound in your system. Today I thought we’d do a post discussing two of the next steps of ‘the chain’ (really two possible options for the next step of sound capture). My usual next step for capturing sound from a microphone would be to run them in to an outboard microphone pre-amp and then in to an outboard compressor. This is my personal choice as my mixing boards have inboard mic-pre-amps and compressors that could also be used. Again, we’re going to discuss this in relatively non-technical terms so anyone can have a basic idea of what the equipment does. I’m also not recommending specific brands or models. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and that’s a whole separate discussion.
Let’s start with the mic pre-amps. The simple explanation of a mic pre-amp is that it increases the signal from the microphone so that you have enough signal volume to get a good sounding recording. Let’s look at the pre-amp below:
This is a two channel unit so we’re only looking at one side. First, it has a button to activate phantom power. As we discussed with microphones, condenser mics put out less voltage than dynamic mics, so we need to use phantom power to add that voltage. If you use a separate phantom power unit in line before the pre-amp, you won’t need to activate this. The pre-amp has a dial where you will determine the volume added to the signal going in to the unit (Input) and a dial for adding volume to the signal leaving the unit (Output). The amount of power added to the input is measured by the LED lights at the bottom right and the output power is measured by the needle display in the upper right. You also have a button labeled ‘Gain’ where you can boost the input signal by another 20 decibels. You have a button to reverse the signal phase (if you want to know about signal phase, dig in our archives for the video on recording a snare and phase cancellation). The ‘HPF’ button is a high pass filter. You can use this to ‘roll off’ at a certain frequency – we’ll save a deeper explanation for another time.
This mic pre-amp is a little more high end and allows you to be a bit more specific in adding signal to certain frequencies. These are the toggle switches and dials to the right in the photo. Other than that, the mic-pre works in the same fashion.
After the mic pre-amp, the signal is sent to a compressor. The basic function of a compressor is to regulate the volume peaks of the signal before it moves to the next step. This can keep the signal from ‘clipping’ and adding audible ‘pops’ to the track if a volume peak is too loud. Let’s take a look at one and go through it’s options.
Going left to right. ‘Threshold’ determines at what volume the compressor takes hold of the signal. The ‘Ratio’ determines what the unit does with the volume once it reaches the Threshold. If you select a Ratio of 4:1 it means that once the volume level hits the Threshold, the compressor will allow the output to increase by 1 decibel for every 4 decibels of actual volume. The ‘Attack’ determines how quickly the compressor applies the Ratio and ‘Release’ determines how quickly it stops applying the Ratio when the signal drops below the Threshold. When you apply compression to a signal, you will reduce the overall top volume. The Output dial allows you to make up for this by increasing the overall output from the unit. Finally, this unit also has a ‘Gate’. The Gate allows you to select how much volume is needed to allow the signal to pass through. For instance, when you are recording a vocal, you don’t want anything from the mic to pass through when the vocalist is not singing. You would be picking up unwanted background noise. The Gate shuts off the signal when there is not enough volume going in to the mic. The ‘Rate’ dial allows you to adjust how quickly the gate takes effect.
The compressor in this photo also has a limiter (far right), which means that beyond applying the Ratio, you can set the compressor to cut off the output signal totally at a certain level.
Above and beyond controlling the signal level, mic pre-amps and compressors are used to add color, depth and tone to the signal you are putting through them. Mic pre-amps can use tubes or solid state circuits to accomplish their goal. They can run from affordable to incredibly expensive. Each type will add their own flavor to the sound you are recording. Compressors have been used as an effect to give certain sonic qualities to an instrument – you can find lots of info about using heavy compression on snare and kick drums to achieve a specific sound. Compression can be added at many stages of the recording process. You can add compression to tracks already recorded in the software. You will usually add compression to the final mix to even out the overall volume of the music.
We’ll continue to move through the recording chain in future posts. As always, let us know if you have questions or comments.
It’s been a while since we did an In The Studio episode. We had some live performance ideas started, but as with much of our lives, that’s temporarily on hold. So I thought we might do some more episodes that simplify studio tech as we did with micing the snare drum. A good place to start would be with a quick overview of the studio. You’ll have to excuse some of the noise in the video – it’s literally live with me picking up the camera and moving around, no post recording editing. You know us – we love running it ‘live’. If you have any questions, comments or topics you’d like to see discussed in future episodes, let us know. So let’s get started……….
Below are some photos referenced in the video. This will give you an idea of how the main control room setup is changeable depending on the task. First two photos are of different mixing/mastering station setups.
A couple of photos of setups using the movable sound panels – Vocal booth and amp separation.
And finally a couple of photos of setups in the big room. All the mic signal goes back to the main control room in to the patch bay shown in the video.
So we’re at the end of another year. Seemed much longer than a year. As always there was good and bad; ugly and beautiful. This was a year when I decided to consciously cut back on the ‘noise’. All the stuff swirling around that destroys creativity. Sooo……Newspaper – dropped. Cable TV – dropped. Staring at phone feeds – ehhhh…..work in progress, but improved. Have a basic idea of what’s what without drowning in it. There’s so much to do musically and with the site, and I needed some energy to work on it.
So my wife Lorena and I ventured to the national parks to do some hiking and photography. Two weeks in the parks works better than years of meds or therapy for me.
I even got to work on my ‘dislike’ of heights. Seems if you add jaw dropping views, my brain tends to ignore the height.
So when we returned at the end of September, I got back to work. Three features that were started – ‘Grapevine’, ‘In The Studio’ and ‘Messin’ With The Music’ will continue in to 2020. We’ll see what else we come up with. There are a bunch of new Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs original songs in the works. We may even get a new tune from Steaming Mulch. And we’d like to get more eyes and ears on ChurchHouse Productions. More contact with like minded folk (hint – tell your friends).
So ends our yearly update. Hope your 2019 was great and your 2020 will be better.
Welcome to Episode 8 in the ‘In The Studio’ series. Today’s topic is how to create mixing options for yourself during the recording process. A couple things to add about the process in the video. In the video the guitar sounds you hear have not been EQ’d on the mixing board. You can magnify the differences in sound by tweaking the EQ on each microphone using the mixing board. You can also add more diversity by adding effects units in the line between the guitar and amp (this will make more sense after you watch the video). As always if you have any questions or ideas, let us know.
The idea of an ‘Inspiration Point’ always reminds me of standing on the edge of a canyon and looking down at the beautiful scenery below. Or shouting in to the canyon and hearing an echo come back. Here’s an In The Studio version of our indoor inspiration point (Episode 6):
We also have three new ‘Messin’ With The Music’ songs in production and hope to have something out soon.
Just wanted to throw out a few thoughts on some items I think deserve some ink. The kind of wonderful distractions from the ‘real world’ that keep me going.
Always a great pleasure to drop in a new track from The Record Company. For your listening pleasure, ‘Life to Fix’:
An introduction to some of the invaluable staff at ChurchHouse Productions. I’d like you to meet our ‘in-house’ Public Relations staff:
She’s been a wonderful greeter and is a 24/7 studio pup. Bonnie loves to spend time in the mixing room.
And never hesitates to let me know what she thinks of a mix.
I believe the feedback was “I’m outta here…”
Besides being the owner of the famous ‘hound howl’ she’s a fanatical lover of David Lynch movies.
Although the aftermath of her watching a movie puts her in a bit of a ‘Lynchian’ mood (“this bed belongs to me now”).
Love them both and ChurchHouse wouldn’t be the same without them.
Shout out to a wonderful, old fashioned record store in Jim Thorpe, Pa, Soundcheck Records. The kind of place I grew up with and sadly are hard to find in today’s world. Let’s cross our fingers that vinyl and stores like this make a big comeback. If you’re up in Jim Thorpe it’s a must to check out.
We’ll be rolling out another song at the end of September. We’ll keep the title a surprise until then but as with the last song, we sort of broke it down and did some rebuild. Gotta have some fun.
When you begin to work on recording in your personal or project studio, what do you think is the most difficult instrument to record? All instruments (including voice) have their challenges. I think many people have found that recording live drums presented the greatest challenge. There are so many microphones, placements and techniques that it can seem a bit overwhelming at first. As with many parts of the recording process, there is not necessarily one correct way to record. You can use two room mics or multiple room and direct mics. As the recording capacity of ChurchHouse increased, I’ve used as many as thirteen mics to get the sound I want. I don’t necessarily use all the tracks in the final mix, but it’s nice to have options.
There’s a lot to consider. What type of mic is best for each piece of the kit? Where do want to place them? The drums need to be tuned correctly for recording, which will probably be different than tuning for a live show. Then there’s the ‘800 pound gorilla’ of the process – the room you record in. The room can make all the difference. In fact it can make THE difference. Some studios are known just for their drum rooms. We’re lucky enough to have both a small, ‘tight’ room that absorbs sound and a large open room with lots of natural reverb.
I’ve included a few articles about basic drum recording that I thought were a pretty good starting point. The bottom line in recording drums is taking the time and experimenting to see what works best for your drum set, equipment and recording room.