Episode 13 of our In The Studio series discusses how to record electric bass guitar. When you’re listening to the video, there are a few places where we give sonic examples of the different methods. All of this video was recorded directly to the GoPro camera, including the sound. The ‘amp sound’ is a live amp in the room. The ‘direct sound’ is being heard live in the room through the studio monitors. As a result, the differences in sound you hear on the video aren’t as great as they would be if you heard them after were tracked in the recording system and played back. Keep this in mind if you’re listening and trying to decide what type of sound you might want. Also remember you can do more processing on the sound after it is captured – either before or after mixing. As always, questions and comments are welcome.
We are officially in Fall of 2020 and things are still so ______ __ (fill in the blanks). My wife and I took ten days to hike in the White Mountains in New Hampshire to clear our heads. There’s hundreds of miles of trails so you can pick trails where you can pretty much avoid all people. Which we did. Great weather and a great vacation. Nothing like crawling up a mountain with a beautiful summit view to give you some positive perspective. Unfortunately, you have to come back. So let’s listen to some music that might help take our minds off being back in the unreal world.
First Up: Brendan Benson – ‘Richest Man’
If you don’t know Benson as a solo artist you might recognize him for his work with The Raconteurs. This song is from his newest album ‘Dear Life’. Some times a song can just make you feel better. This song did that for me. Musically it’s a great little guitar driven pop/rock tune. All the instruments are clear and well placed in the mix. In a song like this it’s good to keep everything crisp. A few well placed horns fit the mood. What you really want to do is highlight the vocals and lyrics. They’re the bread and butter for this type of song. There’s some lead guitar work mixed in towards the end part of the song, but it’s placed where it should be – supporting the vocal, not overpowering it. Sending this out to my wonderful wife who keeps me sane during the insanity. It was also great to get home to see our two four legged furry kids, who are always ecstatic when we return. Can’t ask for much more.
Next Up: Skylar Gudasz – ‘Femme Fatale’
Creating mood is what music is about. Our first song was upbeat and happy. This tune takes us in the opposite direction. Again, the music sets the mood to highlight the vocals and lyrics. Slower tempo, simple drums that rise and falls in the mix to keep time. Synths fill in as strings beneath the vocals. The instrumentation starts out very spare and grows as the song advances. That technique draws you in to the song’s feel and lyrics. There’s a perfectly set up guitar solo in the middle of the song. Just enough fuzz and dirt on the guitar sound to sustain the notes, it’s simple and melodic to match the mood of the rest of the song. It’s the little things like the guitar arrangement that can make or break a song. A lot of times people judge a song on the complexity of the individual instruments but in the long run it’s the arrangement that makes everything work. It all supports her vocals. Wonderful phrasing and very expressive, it pushes forward the story in the lyrics and makes you feel all the sadness or pain.
Finally: Parsonsfield – ‘Paper Floor’
Parsonsfield has been known as more of a folk/Americana band on their earlier albums. Here they throw in electronic drums and a fluctuating, buzzy synth and build the rest of the song on top of that. Really keep it simple with a clock like bass and some acoustic guitar mixed in. This is another song where the simplicity of the arrangement allows the vocals to be highlighted. It has enough beat to keep your toes tapping, but overkill on the beat would be more in line with head banging and that wouldn’t fit the mood of the song. I think the theme for this month could be ‘keep it simple stupid’. Less is more. Mood makes the song.
Retro: Cheap Trick – ‘Downed’
I’ve been a fan of Cheap Trick from their earliest days. This song is from their second album, ‘In Color’ which was released in 1977. One of the greatest ‘power pop’ albums of all time (my opinion anyway). I can’t count how many times I’ve plugged in my electric guitar and played along to this album at high volume from start to finish. Still do on occasion. I picked this song because of the lyrics. The feeling of wanting to escape the craziness has been life long for me. Maybe now more than ever. Some of the lyric lines always resonated with me, the idea of escaping the grind.
I’m gonna live on a mountain
Way down under in Australia
It’s either that or suicide
It’s such a strange strain on you
Oh, i got a mind
Over you it’s not the first time
Oh, i got a mind
Too many people want to save the world
Another problem is it a boy or girl
Some say the weekend is the only world
It’s such a strange strain on you
Some days when the 9 to 5 crawl got the best of me I used to swear that ‘the weekend is the only world’. Stay sane out there.
For today’s post we’re Messin with another song for you. This time we’re taking on ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears. The song first came out in 1984 on Tears For Fears second album, Songs From The Big Chair. It became one of the most popular and recognizable songs of that era of music. One of the best fist in the air, sing along choruses you’ll find. As I’ve said before we always pick songs we like to cover. I don’t think you can do an interesting cover unless you have some type of love for the song you’re working with. But you also have to be able to do something different and interesting with the tune. For ERP I don’t see the point of trying to do a note for note copy of a song. Who wants to do a ‘not as good’ exact copy of a song you love.
For ‘Shout’ it was easy to do something different. The song has a pretty ‘electronic’ sound to it, along with the drive from a full drum kit. So turning it acoustic gave it us a lot of choices. The basic foundation of the song was built on twelve string acoustic guitar. We did two tracks of that and panned them to opposite stereo channels. The other thing that gives these guitars some push and pull is that they are not completely identical throughout the song. If you’re wondering about how song arrangements are created, this technique is something to keep in mind. Before there were large multi track studios, you had to really think about how to place tracks in the song. If you listen to some Hendrix songs you’ll hear drums in one channel only and guitar or bass only in the opposite channel.
So for ‘Shout’ we used the two takes of twelve string guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass. There’s also some acoustic slide guitar and a second mandolin in the instrumental parts. For rhythm we used tambourine, washboard, wood block (the wood version of ‘More Cowbell’), egg shaker and a rattler that sounds a bit rain stick. We did four tracks of vocals, two for the verse and two for the chorus. The point is to highlight the vocals and lyrics. This was a one mic recording. We used the new ribbon mic for everything (see In The Studio – Microphone Basics). I’m pretty happy with the results.
Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears:
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.
Summer is in full swing. Consoling myself for having to cancel our September National Parks trip (very depressing; once again, thanks Covid) by trying to delve deeper in to some different music. We’re re-watching Ken Burns great country music documentary. If you’re in to music and haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. You may not think you’re in to ‘country’ music, but if you watch the doc you’ll find so many influences for every type of music that has followed. It also shows the progression of how music recording developed. Early recording was live, raw, and, to me, the most emotional and ‘real’. Like all other genres, the recording lost me a little when all the edges were smoothed out and became more ‘corporate product’. But the ‘good stuff’ was always lurking in the background and all you have to do to find it is look a little deeper. This concept can really be applied to most genres of music. Let’s look a little deeper in to our lineup for this month.
First Up: Tall Tall Trees – ‘A Wave Of Golden Things’
As discussed in previous Grapevines, there’s many ways a song can touch you. The first thing that hits me in this song is the mood. The song strikes me emotionally before I even start to listen to the various instruments and production. I’m a sucker for melancholy. And melancholy does not necessarily mean ‘sad’. It’s a combination of lyrics, melody, music and delivery. If you’re a song writer, you find that’s not easy to do. Some beautiful lyric lines – “cuz you could warm the darkest hue the sun it came and knelt for you”. Then you have to hit the right melody notes. The music perfectly compliments the vocals. Sparse percussion topped with piano and keyboard. The bass line (sometimes played on the piano) anchors the song and provides a deep bottom end. Some nice background effects and vocals add mood. The cherry on top is a beautiful video which plays perfectly with the song. Watching the video helps you travel the path the song lays out, starting dark and lonely and ending up with a feeling of hope, even happiness.
Next Up: Lettuce – ‘House Of Lett’
So let’s take a listen to something completely different from our first tune. Lettuce is a funk band that originally formed in 1992. They started playing together after meeting while at the Berklee College of Music. Musically you can really hear their influences – 60’s, 70’s and 80’s funk/jazz bands. I’ve always had a love for this genre of music and it lead to me taking up bass guitar in the 80’s. There’s nothing better than finding the pocket playing bass on a good funk groove. If you break the song down and listen to all the separate instruments you can tell how technically accomplished all the members of this band are. To start try to hone in on just the drums and bass. This is the foundation of the song and allows the other musicians to break out individually on top of their groove. Great bass tone – very easy to pick out but not too ‘poppy’ or overpowering. The horns carry most of the melodic feel of the song. As with most good funk tunes, the song will break down to it’s simplest parts and build back up again. As with most good funk bands, Lettuce knows the importance of changes in dynamics during a song. I may be adding this album to my ‘bass play along’ collection.
Finally: The Heavy Eyes – ‘Late Night’
Let’s make one more hard turn for our final song. A little bit of sludge/stoner rock to complete our trio. There’s a number of things I like about ‘Late Night’. The mix is really well done to accentuate the different instruments. It starts with simple background percussion and a fuzzy, fuzzy guitar part. The interesting part of the mix is that they place this first fuzz guitar strictly in the left channel. Crisp drums are placed in the center with a second fuzz guitar coming in and out of the mix at different parts in the right channel. Another part of the mix I like is that the vocals are clear and out front where many bands recording this style of music will bury the vocals in the mix and drown them in reverb. Something that separates this song from others in the genre is the amount of open space they allow in the mix. I think the feel of open space makes each part more powerful when it enters the mix. This concept of dynamics is something they have in common with the funk of Lettuce. It shows how important some open space in both the writing of a song and in the recording.
Retro: R.E.M. – ‘Pilgrimage’
This song is from R.E.M.’s first album ‘Murmur’. I’ve listened to this album a few times recently and I’m always amazed at the depth of song writing for a band’s first album. There’s not a bad cut on it and there are a number of songs that are absolutely stunning. The album had the great first single ‘Radio Free Europe’. ‘Pilgrimage’ was the second cut and just blew me away. The song structure and mix are remarkable, especially for a band just starting out. It starts with the quiet background intro in to a kick drum driven guitar and bass riff. The build to the chorus and the vocal harmonies in the chorus are amazing. The chorus contains background ‘ahhhs’ as well the call and response harmonies. Dynamics play a big part in this song too. Change in dynamics may well be the theme for this month. The build to the chorus brings chills. Not many bands pull this off. R.E.M. is one of the few bands that lived up to the promise of their first album and maintained this quality of song writing throughout their career.
Our love of doing covers of our favorite songs isn’t new. We were messin’ with songs long before we started the current ‘Messin’ With The Music’ series. I thought I’d dust off one of my favorites for people who may not have seen it when we first put it out. Joy Division was a band that always had special meaning for me from the first time I heard them in the ‘punk’ era. Everything about them was different, from playing style, song structure, vocals and the way the instruments were used. Lyrics that had more depth and feeling than most. We went with ‘Isolation’ because of it’s great rhythm and bass line. Joy Division’s version used synths. We decided to do ours with guitar. The instrumental break sounds like a keyboard but is actually a fretless bass played through a bunch of guitar pedals. The mix and mastering worked out the way we wanted. We also were really happy with how the video turned out. I’m still happy every time I watch it.
So, from the vaults, Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover Joy Division’s ‘Isolation’:
This episode of In The Studio describes the basics of microphone functions and the different types of microphones. As with most episodes of In The Studio, I’ve tried to keep this from being overly technical. Since there are literally thousands of YouTube videos and blogs that are made for tech heads, I wanted to put out content for people who may not be deep in to the subject, but are interested in how recording studios work. So this video is set up like a conversation between me and you. This video is straight from the camera without editing software. As always, please feel free to comment or ask questions – discussion is always welcome.
So we’re rolling in to the second half of the year. Other than being hotter, hard to tell one month from the other this year. Same shit different month. After this could you imagine the idea of surviving in your basement for years if ‘the bomb’ dropped (Pretty bad when you reminisce fondly about the Cold War – the good old days when we were all in it together). So what does this have to do with this month’s selections? Nothing. Except that ‘quarantining’ gives me a lot of time to listen to new music. Yes, yes, I’m straining to find a silver lining……
First Up: Stephen Malkmus – ‘Xian Man’
Stephen Malkmus has been around a while. Originally known for the band Pavement (if you haven’t heard their ‘Slanted And Enchanted’ album, you should give it a listen) then for solo work and Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks. He’s covered a lot of ground. I always liked the ‘garage’ looseness of many of the songs. This song has that type of feel. Most of the foundation is acoustic and that part of the arrangement holds down the flow and feel of the song. There’s a great psychedelic guitar rambling through the whole song as well as slide guitar. The guitar solo in the middle of the song uses these multiple guitars to good effect for a loose jam feel. Even the vocals carry the psychedelic, loose feel. Also hits my favorite mixing style – everything is audible but has it’s own place in the overall mix. Great ‘creates a mood’ song.
Next Up: Public Practice – ‘Cities’
A lot of things connected with me as I listened to this song. Let’s start with the recording. Great snare sound: crisp, snappy and it really cuts through the mix. You can pick out the actual snares in the sound. The hi hat also has a big presence. The bass sound has plenty of top end – if you listen to it in the beginning of the song you can hear the great tone they get. The guitars then drop in. If you listen through headphones you can hear the different guitar parts split in to the right and left side of the stereo field. The tight, top end capture of the recording provides a lot of separation for all of the instruments including the vocals. Definitely captures the post punk funk feel. I’ve been listening to a lot of Talking Heads recently and this tune has that type of feel. There’s several ways you can go with vocals in a song. You can bury them a bit in the mix to use them more as an instrument and make them more ‘mysterious’. Or you can make them tight and out front so you can really understand the lyrics. This song uses the latter. Finally, the little synth and vocal background additions add variety to keep the interest up.
Finally: Mayflower Madame – ‘Vultures’
So let’s go a little darker for the finale this month. If you wanted to categorize, could be under ‘Goth’ (a term I might use to describe a wide variety of styles) maybe an off-shoot of ‘Industrial Dance’. Could fit under ‘Post Punk’ eighties style. I like the dynamics of this recording. The instruments in the song don’t sound computer generated. If you listen and pull it apart you can listen to the guitar line, hear the bass line as a separate piece etc. And for me, they sound like people actually playing instruments. A real clear place to hear this is at 1:59 where the song breaks down and is built up piece by piece. You’ll hear each instrument come in. In a style that’s usually deep in programming, that’s a nice change. And it all gets dunked in a deep vat of reverb and delay. I admittedly like that sound, but it could turn a song in to mush if not handled correctly. An example here is the kick drum. They got the tuning, mics and EQ set up to really capture the top end ‘slap’ so the kick cuts through all the reverb and drives the song along. The video continues that feel. And……….would it go on the dance CD for ‘Blacklight Nite’? Absolutely.
Retro: Blind Faith – ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’
No need to over analyze this song. I imagine most people have heard it. In certain emotional moods I go back to classics that have always touched me. There are a lot of great songs out there and they’re great for different reasons. This song has so much emotion and it’s created by the vocal melody. That’s one of the rarest feats to pull off in song writing. And it gets multiplied by Steve Winwood’s amazing vocals and lyrics. There’s many ways to interpret the lyrics, literal and spiritual. For me it touches the despair and sadness I feel about what’s happening now. Life is too short for anger, hatred and the people who promote it. The older you get, the more you realize it.
But I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.
Welcome to another entry in our Messin With The Music series. The recording of this song comes with an interesting history. ‘How Many More Times’ is a Led Zeppelin classic from their first album. It is also the first song we actually recorded for the series. Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs, like most bands, has gone through a number of band member changes. We had spent a lot of years always trying to have a full band together that was capable of playing live. Each time someone would leave or a new musician came in it’s practically like starting over. We had electronically released our ‘Celebrity Prostitution’ EP, staying with a garage rock, punk blues sound. This time we decided to just work on our own and concentrate on recording. The question became – what style of music should we do? On many sites or internet radio when you post a song you’re asked to pick a style of music it represents – usually from a drop down list. It’s difficult to categorize yourself. I’d much rather let someone else make that call. We’ve never stuck to a very specific style, although I guess you could put it generically under ‘rock’. So, just for fun, we decided to create a category and try to fit some music in to it. Thus was born Dark Americana Shoegaze. We wanted to work on figuring out instrumentation, arrangements and recording. We thought the best way to do this was to start by covering songs (although we do have a number of originals in various stages of completion). That way we could concentrate on aspects other than writing the song – and we’d get to play songs we already really liked.
We didn’t have any pre-conceived recording methods yet, other than keeping a ‘live’ feel – no autotune, no quantizing of drums or other instruments, no cut and paste of parts. With that in mind we got to work on ‘How Many More Times’. There was a lot of structural change to do. We certainly couldn’t copy Led Zeppelin’s eight minute and twenty eight second version. So we cut it down to a number of shortened verses, did a short piece to represent the long instrumental in the middle and another section for ‘The Hunter’. To keep the Dark Americana Shoegaze idea some verses are electric guitar based, some acoustic instrument based and some a combination. The vocal tracks tie all the different parts together. To get a big, full sound most of the instruments and vocals were multi tracked with multiple mics. If you listen you can hear a number of different electric guitar sounds, two bass lines and multiple banjo and mandolin tracks at different parts of the song. We stacked a lot of vocal tracks. When we finished recording we were looking at forty eight tracks. This was going to take a while to mix and master. We decided we wanted to get a song out quickly so we picked another song – ‘It’s Gonna Be A Long Night’ by Ween and moved to what became our more standard method to put it out quicker – one mic, one track for most instruments. That went well so we picked another song, then another, then another. ‘How Many More Times’ went on the back burner. When the pandemic put our recording on pause it seemed like a good time to finally put this song together. I will say that this is probably the ‘strangest’ cover we’ll ever put out, so it may be a ‘love/hate’ experience for listeners. Might do another Led Zeppelin tune in a bit more straight forward fashion in the future. It was certainly an interesting experience mixing it. So here it is. Hope you enjoy it. As always we encourage comments, feedback and suggestions.
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.