Variety Is The Spice Of Life

I’d like to share a recording technique that I read about when I started studio work and have used during many sessions over the years. We’ve talked about the overall concept of giving yourself a variety of choices for mixdown in several different posts. The idea is to track one guitar performance and end up with multiple tracks with different sound qualities. One way to do this with electric guitar is to have the guitar going to two separate amplifiers. The first step in this process is to use amps with different sound qualities. For the example in the photo we’re using a Peavey amp on one side and a Mesa on the other side. Both of these amps are tube amps. Another way to add variety would be to use a tube amp on one side and a solid state amp on the other side. You want to make sure the amps have some separation so there is not a lot of bleed through going to the microphones. Here we have the amps pointed in opposite directions with a sound deadening panel between them. For this recording the amps were not at high volume. If you needed to have one or both amps loud to get the overdrive effect you are looking for you could put the amps in separate rooms. Each amp’s sound will be captured by three microphones. In our example we are using two dynamic mics close to the amps and one condenser mic slightly farther away on each side. You could also apply different pedal effects to the amps or use the amps on board effects for variety.

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In our example we split the guitar signal going to the amps with a stereo chorus effect to allow for a greater stereo field when panning tracks left and right. You could also use an A/B box or another type of signal splitter. Each mic will go to a separate track in the recording software as seen in the photo below. You now have six unique guitar sounds you can use throughout the song. You could do as many tracks as your system input and mic collection allows. If you really want to enhance the stereo possibilities for the guitar track you could record the track twice and hard pan the different guitar parts to the left and right channels in mixdown which would give you twelve tracks to work with. We frequently use this double tracking technique in our Messin’ With The Music songs since we are using acoustic guitars and don’t have effects on them to create the variety we have with the two amp setup. If you’re trying to create a stereo sound without making it sound like a different guitar part you have to be fairly accurate when playing the individual tracks. Each track will naturally have a slight difference. The odds of you playing every note with exactly the same timing and volume are pretty slim. The idea is to try to do each track as similarly as possible – the differences will appear naturally.

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In the final photo below you can see how we used the diverse sounds throughout the song. We’ve edited the tracks, bringing in different mics during verses, choruses and breaks. You can now accent different parts of the song with unique sonic signatures while maintaining a consistent guitar performance.

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If you have enough tracks on your mixing console you can enhance these changes further by cloning a track, sending them to different channels on the mixing board and using different settings of EQ, dynamics and effects on each track. This simple set up will provide you with multiple guitar sounds to make your track sonically interesting.

September 2022 Grapevine

Fall is upon us. The temperatures are starting to cool down. Daylight is getting shorter. Fall is my favorite time of the year. Although I do enjoy the long days of sunlight in the summer, this time of year is special to me. We do our traveling in the fall to avoid the large crowds in the spring and summer. We’ll be spending most of October doing hiking and photography in the National Parks. We’re heading southwest this year to the land of desert, canyons and incredibly huge vistas. Away from crowds (hopefully), traffic and often cell service. It always feels like a time of renewal. A time to contemplate the beauty that still exists when you get out in nature. Hiking to the top of a mountain or mesa to see the sun rise or set. Away from lights where you can see all the stars and the Milky Way in the sky. Challenging yourself on hikes that skirt cliff edges and scramble over rocks. For me it doesn’t get better than this. We build memories that last a lifetime. Lots of pictures and videos that trigger those memories. When we’re out there we wish we didn’t have to come back to the daily grind and non-stop b.s. news cycles. You also tend to meet some like minded people if you hit the trails early. I think my pre-travel mindset had a hand in the songs that were picked for this month. Let’s take a listen.

First Up: Sharon Van Etten – ‘Come Back’

This song sounds like the musical equivalent of watching the sunrise coming over the horizon. Starting with just acoustic guitar and vocals, the beginning of the song sets the mood. The guitar is panned slightly to one side, which puts a greater highlight on the vocals. Van Etten has an incredible voice and it’s front and center in this song. Keyboards slowly rise in the right channel to match the guitar on the other side. After a while you’ll hear a bass in the background adding some depth and bottom end to the song. When the chorus comes in the second time at the 1:30 mark, the vocals are doubled with harmonies added, drums and more keyboard appear and the music swells louder. If you create a song that has an emotional core and can produce the same kind of emotion for your listeners, you’ve succeeded. This song brings the feeling of a beautiful melancholia. It shows the importance of a song’s arrangement in achieving this. The slow build of the instruments as the song progresses. The power that builds throughout in the vocal presentation. It ends with a drop down in the last thirty seconds to just vocals and keyboards. The song succeeds in taking the listener on a 4:30 trip. The trip ends lyrically too, with the line “Come back, moments of fire can turn the car on back home”.

Next Up: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – ‘Saw You At The Eastern Beach’

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have put their song together in a very different way than the previous track. There is almost a separation between the music and the vocals. Let’s start with the music. There’s a nice little intro in the very beginning of the song. A little synth riff starts us out with a strong bass line coming in. A very straight forward drum line anchors the song throughout. Two different guitar lines are panned in the left and right channels. They stay within the chord pattern of the song, but the riffs they play are sometimes loose so the parts do not sound too repetitive. They’ve kept the bass line relatively high in the mix so that rather than acting as sonic fill at the low end, it’s another riff added on with just as much prominence as the guitars. Every once in a while a guitar playing a lead riff is added down the center of the mix. With the effects on the guitars, the overall feel is a wall of sound grounded by the steady beat of the drums. At the 2:56 mark there’s a neat lead guitar part. It keeps the same feel as the rest of the music, rolling along with the huge wash of the rest of the instruments. While all this is going on instrumentally, the vocals seem to sit in almost another plane of the song. They’re somewhere between singing and spoken. They’ve added a lot of reverb to the vocals and they’re not way up front in the mix, which keeps them in line with the instruments and gives them the feel of separate but equal in the arrangement. It ends with another interesting synth blip, finishing the song the way it started as if you’ve finished a chapter in a book.

Finally: Cola – ‘Degree’

We’ll finish with a song that relies on the rhythmic interplay of the instruments and vocals to create the feeling and tone of the song. Each instrument follows it’s own line of rhythm throughout the song. To make this arrangement work you have to pay special attention to the EQ of each instrument. Since you don’t want the instruments to all blend together, the mix is very bright. They’ve pulled up the top end of each instrument so they stand out as separate pieces. There’s a great snap to the snare drum. If you listen carefully to pick out the kick drum, even that has a bit more snap than boom. You can get a good picture of how everything interplays if you listen closely at about 2:00. The guitar is playing arpeggiated chords, the bass is sliding between foundation notes, the vocals are working another rhythm and the snap of the snare and cymbals keeps the song driving forward. There’s a guitar part I really like at about 2:20. The guitar is slow strumming chords and besides hearing the chord itself you can hear the pick hitting each string, which adds another rhythmic element to the mix. One other little recording note – if you listen to the very end of the recording you can actually hear the amp buzz from the guitar during the short fade out. I think that’s a cool thing to leave in.

Retro: James Taylor – ‘Country Road’

Since I’m gearing up for hiking, I needed to include ‘Country Road’ in this month’s selections. This song and the album ‘Sweet Baby James’ is my go to listen when I’m thinking of being outdoors. I don’t listen to music when hiking – there’s more than enough just being on the trail to fill your senses. But if the right hike and mood presents itself…..Last year we listened to it on our hike on the Tall Trees Trail in Redwood National Park. We got there at 6:30 in the morning and were the only people on the trail. On a side note – if you’re going to listen to music on the trail, use earbuds. People are there for the peace and solitude.

Messin’ With The Music Part 21 – ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’

We’re back with another cover tune for our ‘Messin With The Music’ series. This time we did our take on the Three Dog Night song ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’. The song was originally released on their 1970 album ‘It Ain’t Easy’. The song was written by Randy Newman and was first recorded by Eric Burdon and The Animals in 1967. Newman also recorded his own version. Each version was a bit different with the Three Dog Night version hitting a funky, rock and roll style. The Three Dog Night version eventually hit number one on the pop charts. Our cover stuck with the usual Messin’ rules – acoustic instruments with each track played straight through. To fill out the basic sound, there are two acoustic guitars panned hard left and right as well as two tracks on six string banjo also panned to each side. There are bass and mandolin tracks as well as several different tracks with hand percussion. We have a single vocal track in the verses and multiple vocal tracks in the chorus. We tried to keep the same upbeat fun feel as the original track, with the amused observations of the party in the verses. It was a fun recording – there’s an interesting time signature difference between the verses and choruses. Hope you enjoy it.

From The Vault 9 – Conduit Plays ‘Blinders’

We’ve got another track from our vault of music. This song, ‘Blinders’, was on the Conduit album ‘Superior Olive’. We recorded this live in the studio in our ‘big’ room with a few friends over. The vocals went to the PA system, but also had a direct line in to the recording room mixing boards. The vocals were the only thing run through the PA system. The guitar amp was miced to the studio as were the drums. We took a direct line from the bass amp to the studio system and the PA. The other thing necessary to get some separation in the mix was being very careful about the placement of the amps and the PA speakers, as well as keeping the volume lower to keep the ‘bleed through’ down to a minimum. The separation techniques worked well and we still had the energy of the live recording. In a situation like this you could do additional overdub tracks, but it’s difficult to do punch ins to existing tracks without hearing the difference in the mix down. It gives you some appreciation for the way tracks used to be recorded. If you had a full band (much less a full orchestra) in one room and were only using room mics, if one person made a mistake you had to do the track over. Precision by each player was a must.

New Music And Video From Steaming Mulch – ‘You Soon Taste Languid Blue’

We recently had Steaming Mulch back in the studio to record a new song. As always, it was an interesting project. There are two distinct bass tracks and two guitar tracks. We combined these with several electronic drum tracks. Then vocals were added. They often like to pitch shift the vocals and that is what we did with this song. This is definitely the type of song you want to hear in stereo to get the full effect (so at least plug in you ear buds). I don’t know how most popular music is mixed today, but I really like to give certain songs a heavy stereo effect. For this song we took the two bass lines and panned one totally to the left and the other totally to the right. The two different guitar lines are mixed the same way, but not as drastically so with reverb added it allows some cross over from left to right channel. To make it interesting, the vocals have some stereo spread but the main kick drum track goes straight down the center to tie everything together. The idea is to make the sound a bit disorienting – but again, you need to listen to it in stereo to get the full effect. For me, the fun of working with Steaming Mulch is being allowed to have total freedom to make up whatever we want in the studio. The track recording goes the same way. They have riffs and ideas for each part, but the tracks for each instrument are never exactly the same from take to take. We usually record several takes and then pick the best one at mixing time. The video is left up to me, so I went for simple night driving and then made it look as disorienting as the song. Hope you enjoy it.