Yesterday I posted a couple personal thoughts in regards to the release of the new Wes Sp8 EP, Three Song Thing. But I thought since this is a blog primarily about producing, recording, and mixing (a topic I have not actually posted on in a while), I should also share some notes about the recording process.
Recently Wes emailed me asking about what I could remember from the recording process-specifically what gear I used. A week ago Wes published a post on his blog that included my response to that email.
Click on over to Wes Sp8′s blog to read the post: http://wessp8.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/3songthing/
When recording, reaching for the EQ knob should rarely be something that you find yourself doing. In fact, EQ should really be thought of as a last resort, only using it as a tool to shape particularly difficult recording scenarios.
EQ is an often overused piece of gear in the studio. In my assisting days I was often told to patch up an EQ simply as a matter of common procedure. I also worked on a handful of sessions where the engineer showed up early and began EQ’ing before any musicians even arrived to play a note!
Now generally speaking, there really is no right or wrong way to go about recording. Recording music is truly an art form, and just like any art is highly subjective. However, there are many scientific guidelines that if used as a base point will help you achieve above average results.
It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of talented engineers who purposefully record using EQ so that they don’t have to use it as much during mixing. This is a very efficient, logical and wise approach. But equally logical is the notion that it’s just best to simplify. Recording with an EQ inserted is an approach that should be reserved for those who have a lot of experience in the field of recording. You could also make the argument that using EQ as an effect is a valid technique to employ when expressing your artistic voice, but this is a special case–not the normal set of studio circumstances.
The most effective way to get a great tone out of any instrument you record really comes down to three main steps:
Find the best place in the room for the instrument
The way a room interacts with musical instruments dictates to a large degree the way it sounds. The farther away from the sound source the mic is placed, the more the room becomes a factor in the recorded sound. Before recording, spend some time having someone play the instrument in different places within the room. Trust your ears the most. Once you find the best position in the room, designate that place for that instrument and repeat the process for the next instrument. Make sure you allot an appropriate amount of time for this process in your recording sessions, because this process can take a while.
Find the sweet spot–the optimal place to position the mic
After you have found the position where the instrument sounds best in the room, you need to find the position where the mic will sound best on the instrument. This process has two halves: a) using your ears in the room to find the initial position for the mic b) fine tuning that position by listening through the speakers in the control room. When recording very loud instruments such as electric guitars or a drum kit, it may not be possible to stand in the room and listen because of the high volume. If you find this to be true, then you may have to just go with the “b half” of this exercise. Also very important is to always wear earplugs when making adjustments in the recording space! Your most valuable recording asset are the pieces of equipment attached to the sides of your head. Protect your hearing at all costs. Otherwise you risk flushing your career down the tubes. Once you have found the instrument’s sweet spot you can move on to the third step in this process.
Choose the right microphone/mic pre combination
The last step in the process is to select the correct mic/pre combination. Honestly, to fully discuss mic/pre selection would require an entire blog post itself, and perhaps I will explore this topic in a future post. But for now, you just want to find the right match that seems to bring the most life to the tone of the instrument you are recording. In a perfect world we would all have any microphone and preamp at our disposal at any given time. If you happen to be in this situation you are a very lucky person, and probably should not be wasting your time reading this blog. For the rest of us reality is a different truth. Spend some time experimenting with the mics and pres that you do have available to you to find a combination that seems to fit best. If your situation is anything similar to mine, then you only have about three choices. Just do your best.
If you find that you are still not achieving the sound you want out of an instrument after going through this process, it is still best to adjust an element of one or all of the steps before inserting an EQ. Resist the urge to use EQ as a crutch. EQ should be used when you have no other options left to help you craft your sound, or if you are going for a specific effect, which as we said before is a special case. EQ should be used lightly and as a tool. If you do find that you need to adjust the sound by inserting an EQ, do so very judiciously. Leave room to do most of your EQ’ing during the mixing stage.
I hope you have found this article helpful. If you feel that I have overlooked something, or have any other tips on getting a great tone without the use of EQ, please leave your tips in the comments. Additionally, if you have any questions or would like to see an article on a specific topic relating to the music recording and/or production process feel free to leave a comment below, telling me what topics you would like to see explored on producer notes. If you would like to keep your suggestions private, you can email me at stinson[AT]producernotes[DOT]com
Good luck finding that tone you are looking for…
Rigging It Up
To get started you need to park your car close to your recording space. You are going to have three relatively long cable runs-a power cable, a mic cable, and a guitar cable. You might have the luxury of an outside electrical outlet near your studio door that you can use to cut down the length of your power cable. But the mic cable is going to have to be long enough that it can reach the mic pre, and the guitar cable is going to have to be long enough to reach the amp.
If you don’t have one long mic cable, you can just connect several together to make one quickly. The guitar cable can be extended by using two guitar cables and a direct box. Take the first cable and go from the guitar to the DI. Use the “pass thru” jack on the direct box to connect the second run of cable to the amp. I recommend using a passive DI, such as the Radial JDI [www.radialeng.com/di-jdi.htm].
The amp can be set up pretty much anywhere in the car. If you have an SUV, I suggest putting the amp in the back cargo area. Experiment with folding the back seats down to see how it changes the sound. If you drive a compact car or sedan, I suggest putting the amp in the back seat. You can also experiment here by putting the amp in the trunk, and then folding the back seats down. Using a smaller car is a little bit trickier because the tighter space will make it harder to find a stable place to set the amp. If you are using a tube amp in a small car, you want to make sure that you don’t lean the hot components of the amp up against a seat. This could prohibit the amp from venting heat properly, which could then damage the amp, or worse, start a fire.
While on the subject of precautions, it’s important to note weather conditions. Think twice before you attempt this trick if it is bitter cold or brutally hot outside. You are going to be putting your precious expensive equipment inside a car with no ventilation for hours. And absolutely DO NOT try this if it is raining or snowing. Taking advantage of a garage or carport can save you here. Use good judgement when setting this up. If you have any doubts, you probably just shouldn’t do it (don’t say I didn’t warn you).
The last step to setting up this recording trick is dealing with the cables. The best way to handle this is to crack a window and run the cables through. Then take some towels and seal up the gap. When micing up the amp, there are a variety of choices you can make. The most simple approach is to use the tried and true 57 close up on the speaker.
The car as an effect
Don’t be afraid to get creative. Feel free to use the car trick as a way to get a unique sound for the guitar tracks. Experiment with more than one mic if you have the resources to do so. Get crazy with the mic placement. Try different areas of the car, and different mics/polar patterns. Maybe a ribbon mic near the windshield, or an omni mic near the driver’s position. Perhaps even try recording a different instrument altogether, like bass or background vocals. The latter will be particularly tricky, because you will have to run long cables for the headphone system.
Let me know how this turns out for you. I would love to hear examples of this trick put to use. Post comments about your experience with links to your recordings. Good luck! Hope you have fun with this one.
Photo by: J.D. Tiner. Please note: The above suggestion and link to the Radial DI box is NOT a paid ad. I simply think these are great DI boxes.
Until now, I have focused all my posts on topics such as motivation, organization, inspiration, marketing, networking, etc. An important requisite to becoming a successful producer/engineer, is to have a knowledge of and become good at these less obvious business traits. But those skills don’t do much for you if they are not built on top of the more overt traits required, such as practical recording and mixing techniques. One of my goals for this blog is to provide useful tips on how to record/mix/produce music in the studio. So this week I am going to move away from talking about the business end of making music, and get into the studio.
Over the course of the week past, the topic of buss compression came up twice in conversation with a friend. In recognition of that, today I am going to illustrate this technique, using an example applied to the drums. Buss compression is a very versatile mixing tool. You can use this technique on pretty much any instrument you mix. It’s applicable to virtually any style of music, wether loud and aggressive, or natural and organic. However, you must use discretion. It’s not always the proper tool for the job.
If you are unfamiliar with exactly what buss compression is, it is a technique that refers to taking a group of instruments, which are all of the same type (i.e. a drum kit, rhythm guitars, background vocals, etc), creating a sub mix of them through an available set of busses, patching the sub mix through a stereo compressor, and blending the compressed signal back into the main mix. This can be done on either an analog mixing desk, or in a DAW. The result is a more defined sound because the audio material is essentially doubled. Since it is an exact copy (except for the compression effect), the phase coherency causes the audio to be reinforced. Buss compression is also a more flexible way to use compression, as the effected audio can be blended with more control. It is most commonly used on drums, but as mentioned before can be used on other groups of instruments.
Setting up buss compression is a fairly easy process. In my example I will illustrate the process first in the analog domain on a mixing desk, then in the digital domain, using Pro Tools. Both applications I will describe using a drum kit as an example.
Electrons and Neutrons
Working on an analog mixing desk is perhaps the most straightforward way to use buss compression. Start by selecting two unused busses, such as busses one and two. Assign all the channels for the drum returns to those busses, and patch the outputs of these two busses to the inputs of a stereo compressor. Some of my favorites for this application are the API 2500, Chandler TG1, Neve 33609, and the SSL G Series stereo compressor. If you don’t have one of these compressors at your disposal, any stereo compressor will do the trick. Bring the outputs of the compressor back into two open channels of the mixing desk, and pan those channels hard left and right. It’s preferable to use two channels adjacent to the drum returns, but if you don’t have any nearby use what you can. If your console allows for it, include these two channels in your automation/solo group for drums so that when you solo all the drum channels the compressor is included. That’s it concerning setup in the analog domain.
1′s and 0′s
In the digital domain, setting up for buss compression is just a little bit more complicated. My example uses Digidesign Pro Tools, but the setup should be similar in most DAW’s. The first step is to create two stereo Aux Inputs directly after all your drum tracks. These are going to serve as the returns of your unprocessed and processed drum sub mixes. You want to set up these Aux Inputs next to all the drum tracks so that you don’t have to constantly scroll (if at all) to adjust the settings. Make sure you pull both faders of the two Aux Inputs all the way down, as your DAW may set them to unity gain (0dB) by default.
After you have your two Aux Inputs set up, name them “Drums Main” and “Drums Comp” or something similar. Personally, I like to name mine “Drums Clean” and “Drums Smash.” Set the outputs of all your drum tracks to busses 1-2 (or whatever is available). Then set the inputs to both Aux Input tracks to busses 1-2. To complete the signal routing you want to set the outputs of the two stereo Aux Inputs to whatever you use as your main outputs, typically this is outputs 1-2. Lastly, you will want to Command-click (Ctrl-click in Windows) on the solo buttons for both Aux Inputs, so that when you solo individual drum tracks, you will not mute their returns (solo safe).
The first stereo Aux Input is the main buss return for the drums sub mix. Think of this fader as a semi-master fader for the drums. But do take note: it is important that you use an Aux Input for this application, and not a Master Fader, as these two types of channels process digital information differently. The second stereo Aux Input serves as the return for the compressor. This is just like patching the output of a compressor to two open channels on an analog mixing desk. On this Aux Input, you will want to instantiate a compressor plug-in as an insert. My personal favorites for this application are the Waves C1, the Chandler TG12413 Limiter, McDSP Compressor Bank, or the Bomb Factory BF76 plug-in’s. No worries if you do not have these plug-in’s available, use what you have. And that’s it for buss compression setup in the digital world.
Smash It Up
Now that we have completed the setup for buss compression in both the analog and digital domains, we will set the initial settings for the compressor, wether analog hardware or a software plug-in. Since we have not started building a drum mix, these settings will serve as a starting place, and will need to be tweaked later. You want to start with a moderate amount of compression, and adjust as appropriate for the type of music you are mixing. If you are using a hardware compressor start with the ratio somewhere in the range of 6:1, and the threshold at 0dB, or somewhere close. You will want to set the attack and release settings of the compressor in a way that accentuates the percussive quality of the drums. For now just set the attack moderately fast, and the release moderately slow. Leave the make-up gain setting at 0dB if your compressor has one. If you are going the digital route, start with a ratio setting around 6:1, threshold around -16dB, and make-up gain around 0dB. Leave the attack and release settings at their default state. When you begin to balance your drums, you will want to keep an eye on the gain reduction meter. Overall, you want this to be somewhere in the range of 6dB to 10dB of compression, depending on how aggressive of a sound you are going for. If you want to get really aggressive, then you will want to shoot for 10dB or more of compression.
The Fun Part
Now it is time to start building a drum mix. Start by pulling all the faders down for the drum tracks. Set the fader for “Drums Main” or “Drums Clean” to unity gain. The “Drums Comp” or “Drums Smash” fader you will want to start out by setting in the range of -18dB to -12dB. You don’t want the compressor return to be too loud at this point, but it is important that the level be loud enough so that you can hear the effect the compressor is having on the drum mix.
Begin building your drum mix by balancing the tracks as usual. As you balance all the different elements of the drums together, the sum of all the tracks will change the way the compressor reacts with the mix. It takes a bit of time to balance all the different drum elements together along with the two stereo Aux Inputs. At this point you can begin more accurately dialing in the compressor’s settings. Begin by fine tuning the attack and release settings. Set the attack just slow enough so that the transients of the drums become emphasized. The release should be set so that the volume of the audio returns nearly to 100% by the next drum hit. All of this is going to be dependent on the tempo and style of the drum part. The idea is to set the compressor so that it will pump with the beat of the music. Watch the gain reduction meter as you balance things out so you can see how hard you are pushing the compressor. More importantly, however, use and trust your ears when making these adjustments. Continue building a mix, changing the levels of individual tracks/Aux Inputs/compression settings depending on how aggressive or natural of a drum sound you want. For loud, heavy rock music you will probably want more obvious and aggressive compression. You can obtain this by setting the ratio higher and the threshold lower, then balancing level of the return channel louder in relation to the rest of the drum tracks. If you want a more natural and organic sound, you can obtain this by setting the ratio of the compressor lower, the threshold higher, then balancing the level of the return channel quieter in relation to the rest of the drum tracks. It requires a bit of patience, practice and experimentation to get it just right.
Not Too Much Flavor
Buss compression is a mixing tool that puts a lot of options in the hands of the engineer. It’s worth the time investment to become familiar with this technique. But be forewarned, using buss compression just because you can is a mistake. It is important to always make sure you use a production technique that compliments the sonic landscape a piece of music has already created. Fight the urge to overuse a skill just because it’s the newest thing you have learned. As always, moderation is key.
Try buss compression out in your next mix. Try two different versions of a mix. First try it out on drums, and then experiment with it on another group of instruments. Let me know how it goes. I would love to hear your results, so post comments with links to your mixes. Good luck, and have fun.