The most expensive microphone I own cost me $700. I’ve recorded a lot of things with it – lead vocals, drums, guitars, piano, saxophone, accordion – tons of things. At Nashville Studio Live, a recording studio in Nashville that regularly hires me for sessions, this is the exact same microphone we use to track vocals on every session we do. It’s a great mic, and I’ve captured a countless amount of fantastic sounding recordings with it.
However, this particular $700 microphone is probably not the one I use the most. When I’m tracking a full band, I’ll use a whole bunch of different microphones, and the bulk of them are actually relatively cheap mics. Quite often, I’ll end up using a $100 mic to record a killer sounding lead vocal.
Now, I’ve certainly recorded with microphones that are very expensive-mics that cost $2,000, and sometimes even as expensive as $8,000. But I don’t own any mics that are this expensive. If I feel that a recording could benefit from using one of these super expensive mics, I either borrow it from a friend or rent it.
So here’s the point: it’s not necessary, and many times not even ideal to use really expensive microphones to record. So before you convince yourself that you “just have to drop $2,000 on the best microphone ever,” spend some time investigating whether or not that mic really is as necessary as you think it is.
At a certain point you might find that it is in fact a huge need to own a super expensive mic, and you will justifiably need to make that purchase. But I know personally that I’m not ever going to make this kind of high end purchase a day sooner than I have to-when my business begins to suffer because of an inadequacy of the gear I own (which has only happened a couple of times in the last 10 years). As a matter of fact, this rationale goes for all the other gear out there too.
When I played in a garage rock band in high school, I was always in search for the perfect distortion pedal – the one that could make my guitar sound exactly like the wall of distortion I heard on all my favorite albums.
I would listen to these records over and over, trying to pick apart each guitar tone in order to “reverse engineer” the sound so I could replicate it.
Somewhere around the summer after I graduated I realized that the sound I was hearing was not one single guitar pedal, but actually many different guitars overdubbed with different pedals, amps, microphones, and other gear.
That was a huge epiphany to me. I now had a whole new sense of empowerment into how to achieve the sounds I heard in my head, and capture them in the recordings I was making at the time.
Now I have a lot of fun working with guitar players to create the perfect sound. And it’s not always a “wall of distortion” that we’re after. Simply layering up a couple of guitars with slightly different tones, and subtle (or not so subtle) variations in the way a part is played goes an incredibly long way in creating a guitar part that dances with interesting nuances.
Next time you’re looking for the perfect guitar tone, you may find it by layering up a few different guitars, and making a few adjustments to the pedals and amps used as well.
Dynamics compression has become one of the most discussed topics within the recording community, and there’s tons of advice flying around on how to get instruments to pop and punch, as well as how to get your mixes to sound loud, exciting, and professional by inserting a compressor.
As I’ve been reading all this advice it’s become apparent to me that everyone is adopting the notion that compression is just another effect that needs to be on a track in order to get a “professional” sound. It seems that it’s the only thing people give much thought to when recording or mixing an album.
Here’s the thing… compression is not an effect – it’s a tool! Yes, it’s possible to use it as an effect to get a bombastic and exciting sounding track or mix, but this is not the reason leveling amps were invented. It’s important to understand this, because once you do, you approach the process of using a compressor in your recordings and mixes in a much more proficient way, which ultimately yields a much better sounding track.
Here’s a quick history lesson (I’ll try not to bore you). In the early days of recording there was no ability to multitrack record anything. The only recording device engineers had available to them was a single track, mono tape machine (and later, once stereo was invented they had two tracks). Furthermore, there was no ability to overdub anything, and there was no automation during the mixing phase (much less a mixing phase at all).
When you had a bunch of musicians all sitting in a room together and performing a song live to a mono track, getting the balance right so that all the specific parts of the arrangement could be heard was pretty tricky. The musicians were really good at balancing themselves – playing louder and softer when they needed to, and stepping up to or away from the microphone at specific times – but even still when productions started to become more sophisticated, and arrangements (and bands) started getting bigger, it became more and more tricky to make sure all the parts were heard clearly when captured to tape.
The range of loudness and softness that the human ear is capable of detecting is much more sensitive than what microphones or other recording equipment can pick up. There were often times a vast difference between how loud and soft musicians played. This became tricky because if the recording engineer didn’t turn up the microphone enough, then the really soft parts of the song would be too quiet for the audience to hear. But if he turned it up enough so that the quiet parts were audible, then the loud parts would overload the recording equipment, causing distortion.
Recording engineers needed a new solution to help them get everything recorded in such a way that all the elements of the arrangements could be heard by the listener, yet not cause the equipment to overload and distort. So they built leveling amplifiers which were capable of automatically turning down the volume of the loud parts, “compressing” the dynamic range in which the musicians played.
This way, the recording engineer could turn up the microphone loud enough so that the quiet parts of the performance could be adequately captured, and when the musicians started playing louder, the sound would automatically be turned down to a reasonable level.
Understanding the background of a compressor in this way is important because then you understand it’s true purpose in the context of recording music. And when you understand its purpose this way, you begin to approach its use differently. A compressor should be thought of first as a tool, not an effect.
You wouldn’t eat a plate of salt with a little bit of steak on top, right? Dynamics compression is like seasoning for your recordings and mixes. Not every track needs it, and most of the time when you do use it, the point is to help gain control of and tame the loudness of a particular track.
Hope I didn’t bore you with this rather long post today.
When mixing have you ever found yourself battling a really dynamic vocal, trying to get it to sit just right in a large arrangement? Heavy rock songs, and “wall of sound” pop songs are particularly susceptible to this issue.
Next time you find yourself in this position, you might want to try this technique I picked up from my days as an assistant engineer, hanging out with some of the best mix engineers. It allows you to get the natural dynamic quality of an uncompressed vocal, yet still use some pretty heavy compression too.
In your DAW, create two auxiliary inputs, and arrange them so that they are right next to the lead vocal track. Route the lead vocal track so that it’s output is bussed to the input of these two aux tracks. Label the first aux track something like “Lead Vocal Main”, and the second one something like “Lead Vocal Crunch”. Pull the fader of the second aux track all the way down.
On the first aux track, don’t insert any type of plugin. On the second aux track, insert a compressor and set it so that there is a pretty substantial amount of compression – even perhaps limiting. A good starting place would be: Threshold at -16db, Ratio at 6:1 (maybe even notching it up to 10:1 or higher), Attack fast to medium fast (5-50ms), and Release also fast to medium fast (5-50ms).
Bring the primary vocal track up to the level you feel is appropriate in the mix, and then pull it back just a bit. Now tuck the “vocal crush” track just underneath the primary vocal enough so that the presence on the vocal feels more solid, but the gain reduction characteristics of the compressor are not obvious. As the song transitions from section to section, you can add more or less of the compression track as needed.
Once you get the levels for the two tracks generally dialed in, you can fine tune their levels with automation. This trick allows you to sneak by with some pretty heavy compression, yet because the compression is somewhat hidden underneath the uncompressed vocal, you still retain the natural characteristics of a relatively dynamic vocal, all without hearing too much compression. It’s pretty much the exact same thing as adding buss compression to a drum mix, which is a very popular way to mix drums.
Try this out and then leave your thoughts in the comments. Would love to know how this vocal compression technique has worked for you.
Photo by Jules Holiday - http://www.facebook.com/juleshollidayphotography
The two most significant factors are the songwriter’s ability to write an amazing song, and band rehearsal/pre-production. The rest, and generally more insignificant parts, have to do with things like the production team, the gear, and the studio space.
Here’s another riff on a thoroughly discussed topic, starting with an obvious (and much used) analogy. Today just seems like the right day to bring it up again…
An amazing tasting steak starts with an incredible piece of meat, right? I think that we can all agree that having a master chef prepare a substandard cut will still yield a lousy tasting meal. Or just average at best.
Yeah, a chef of remarkable talent can certainly work with what he has, achieving results that are superior to what most people can do. But that’s not the kind of thing that get’s people raving about how amazing the food was at that restaurant, and “have you been there?”. That’s not the kind of thing that makes people justify spending several hundred dollars to celebrate their anniversary.
Not to underestimate what a really talented chef (which would be the producer in this analogy) can do, because simply grilling and serving a prime cut with no special preparation yields pretty average results as well. You need that chef who understands what makes this prime piece of meat so special, and can prepare it in such a way that the flavor is rich and fully expressed, just as you need a producer who can see the big picture in an objective way, and can guide the musicians to perform the song in such a way that it becomes truly extraordinary.
Yet, when it comes to making a record, this all gets confused. Too often people think the guitar, the amp, the microphone, the compressor (do you even know what it really does?), the studio, the producer, the engineer, the tape machine (can you really tell if it was recorded on analog tape?) is what makes a song and a recording critically acclaimed. If it were that easy, everyone would have a hit song.
All the particulars listed in the paragraph above are simply the Sonic Varnish that further brings out the star quality of an already amazing song. It’s like the spices that the master chef puts on an already delicious piece of meat.
If you want to make an album worthy of critical acclaim, then you need to focus and prioritize your efforts on the parts of the creative process that matter most.
Always have one.
A few scenarios for you:
1) You plan to record vocals using a specific chain of gear, but one piece in that chain is broken completely. It can’t be used until it gets fixed, and no one knows when that will be right now.
2) You’ve done three weeks worth of pre-production with a band, and booked some studio time at a rather pricey studio in town. One week before your scheduled recording date, a member of the band quits.
3) You’re juggling several projects at once. Today you’re recording some publishing demos for a songwriter at his studio, but tomorrow you’re planning to record vocals for a rock band at your own studio. Except you’re going to need to move some gear around for that to happen, and you’ve simply run out of time.
I’d speculate that a majority the time I end up having to come up with some form of a Plan B a few times (at least) on any given recording day.
Sometimes this could be a small Plan B: “Ok, let’s plan to show up to the studio at 10:30am instead of 10am.”
Sometimes this could be a big Plan B: “Well, we’re going to have to come up with our own funding for the project now, because the label just dropped the band.”
Always have a Plan B (and be agile enough to come up with a few on the spot). Because it’s not a matter of if you’re going to need it. It IS going to happen.
Also, be wise enough and brave enough to know when the best Plan B is to call the whole thing off entirely.
If you’re like me, then you probably find yourself wrapped up in this mentality all too often…
You read an article about how someone mixed a record, or you talked with someone about a particular way to record an instrument, and the next time you’re working you begin reflecting on what you read or heard. Then you end up constantly second guessing yourself.
Now you begin to scrutinize every little thing you do in the studio – where you place a mic on an acoustic guitar, how you select gear, or your workflow for making a record in general. I do this all the time, and not with just making records, I catch myself doing this as it relates to all kinds of different daily routines.
The latest is with my mixing workflow. Lately, I’ve been catching a few discussions on blogs about the best way to approach building a mix. I recently found myself trying a couple of these techniques for starting and building a mix. And boy, did I make it hard for myself – this specific advise was not working!
That’s when the lightbulb went off. I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” There was nothing wrong with the workflow I had been using before. It actually served me quite well. But for some strange reason, I too often get in my head that I need to try something else, just because I happened to read about it a couple days prior.
Making records is a daily learning experience. But there are also a lot of instances when you need to recognize that you already know something, and move on. If you have a technique for accomplishing something that works really well, don’t abandon that approach just because someone else came up with another method.
Record like you record, not someone else. It’s easy to get sucked into the notion that the way someone else does it is better than the way you do it, just because.
If you build great mixes by starting with the drums, then stick with that.
If an EQ inserted before a compressor typically sounds best to you, then it is best.
When trying out new methods, if the new technique does not seem to improve your workflow fairly quickly, then that’s probably your indication that you should stick with your current way of doing things.
Yeah, there’s times when you can learn a better way to do it. But there’s also times when you need to be confident that the technique you already use is sufficient. To do it any other way is not necessarily an improvement (and it could make things worse).
Ever heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
Every once in a while, you come across something that has tremendous impact on you, and evolves your way of thinking. We’ve all had those moments when a song or a record has an extraordinary influence on us creatively. And us engineering types have certainly had our moments when someone opens or eyes to something new in the recording arts and sciences field. I’ve had this happen to me a number of times, and each time such a new excitement is breathed into my thrill of recording that it feels as if I’m experiencing the buzz of it for the first time all over again.
Late last week was one of those moments. I hit a link on the Tape Op blog, Tape Log, which took me to a post, called “Sonic Varnish” written by producer, mixer, and engineer Allen Farmelo. What an incredibly articulate post!
Allen’s idea is rooted in the analogy of a high quality varnish, and the concept of different pieces of gear in a recoding chain inducing a tiny amount of harmonic distortion into the signal, bringing each sound to life with a thin layer of sonic varnish.
Allen illustrates this point using examples of recordings from the 60s and 70s. During this time in the field of recording, it was common practice for engineers to bounce tracks down in order to make room for overdubs (due to limited track counts). However, something I had never considered before about this process is the fact that with each bounce, each track was going through the recoding chain multiple times. And each time, a new layer of harmonic distortion was imparted on the signal. The cumulative result was a recorded work with a unique sonic texture.
I’m not going to dissect each idea in Allen’s post here, because you need to read it in it’s entirety for yourself. But I needed to share his post with you, because of how it enlightened me in such an important way. I’ve always been of the variety of engineers that seeks out harmonic distortion as a way to enhance the music I record, but after reading Allen’s post, I have a fresh way of thinking as it applies to analog recording, generational loss, and the multiple back-and-forth of analog, to digital, back to analog, and and back to digital (and so on…) that is so often a part of the process when making a record.
It’s a total travesty if you go another day in your recording career without reading this post right now. Read it on Allen’s blog here: “Sonic Varnish” by Allen Farmelo
A very significant percentage of the songs I produce, I drop the click out (mute) within the first four bars of the recording. I’ve found that most of the time this pushes people into a frame of mind that gets them outside their own head – outside the calculations of the song – and into the heart and soul of it all. Granted, there are also a fair amount of recordings in which I don’t drop the click, but it is something I do quite regularly, and even when recording genres that you would think rely heavily on the click (like dance-rock).
Typically, there’s some resistance from the group about this. It’s an initial bump of fear in reaction to someone messing with their comfort zone. But with a little gentle persuasion I can win the confidence of the room. Most of the time, once the musicians try it, it’s a liberating feeling for the band to be cut loose from the click.
But then once we are free from the click, the song’s tempo begins to speed up and slow down constantly throughout the recording. The mere thought of that happening might make you cringe. Look through that initial jab of hesitation.
Tempo fluctuations are one of the most humanizing factors in a recording.
It’s all kind of like getting in tune with the energy of the song, and feeling what will best serve that song (actually, it’s exactly like that).
Pull out some of those old records from the 60′s and 70′s you’ve got in your collection. I bet what you will notice (as I did) is that A) the songs speed up and slow down throughout the recording, and B) the songs don’t always end at the same tempo they began.
There’s a reason we keep going back to these records as reference points and as something to aspire to – those folks were on to something. One of the things they were onto was the humanizing factor of letting the tempo dictate itself.
Don’t be afraid of dropping the click, take advantage of the humanizing factors it creates.
Back in July, I wrote a series of posts about recording drums. Now that it’s practically September, I thought I’d compile a list of these posts here, as an easy access “table of contents” of sorts. The idea behind each one of these “recording drums” posts is to share my simplistic, quick, phase-accurate, and easy to mix approach. Less is more.
Bonus: I actually wrote this post in August, but as it’s about percussion, I threw it in with this list. Using Household Objects As Percussion Instruments
Recording can get over-complicated way too fast. Especially recording drums. That’s when fidelity and performance captured in those recordings suffers. By keeping your recording setup as simple as possible, in a kind of ironic way, is usually when you create an environment where things actually end up sound big, punchy, full of life – creating a soundscape that is made up of multiple complex layers. Less is more.
Thanks for reading. Hope you’ve not only gotten something out of Producer Notes this August, but also enjoyed reading the blog.