We’re all guilty sometimes of making the assumption that gear acquisition can solve all our recording problems. Bad guitar sound? Buy an expensive guitar, then a posh amp, then a complicated amp modeller, and use that instead. Muddy vocals? Spend several months’ wages on pricy mics, then invest in a killer compressor, then start all over again by dumping the digital eight-track and moving to Logic Pro. Good gear is great, but in truth, this kind of endless chase can end up costing you your savings and possibly your sanity, with little result. There are actually many ways to make simple equipment work remarkably well… but major manufacturers don’t spend thousands of pounds writing clever ad copy to tell you about it! This month’s article, then, is all about saving money… and getting really good results from the equipment that you already have.
Simplify your Arrangements
When you see a band live, the raw power and energy comes from a couple of guitars, a drum kit, a bass and maybe some keyboards. In an attempt to replicate the experience on record, inexperienced musicians often insist on throwing everything they’ve got at it, and every half-baked idea they have ever had ends up getting overdubbed onto the basic track.
When this happens, the essence of the song is lost, none of the parts can be heard properly because there’s too much going on, and you won’t be able to recreate the recorded track live. This often happens because self-discipline and taste exist in inverse proportion to alcohol and drug intake. This is why rock bands benefited from the restrictions of eight and 16-track analogue tape machines. By the time they got access to 24 tracks they usually got a record producer too, and the producer was there, in part, to exercise some judgement.These days many bands find themselves recording at home onto an unlimited number of tracks with no producer to say ‘Guys, do we really need the Tibetan nose flute?’ Consequently we have seen the rise of the specialised remix engineer, someone employed by record companies to clean up the mess created by bands who are too close to the music to sort it out for themselves – and a big part of their job is ditching the detritus. Can you afford a remix engineer? If you can’t, it’s time to exercise some restraint. Less is always more!
Use Simple recording Techniques
Hard disc recording technology, computers and affordable microphones have made it possible for anyone to record. You don’t need to use studios any more. There’s an exciting, almost punk, ethos to all this that encourages the notion that anyone can do it.
All this is of course completely true… but not everybody can do it well. The sound engineers that worked in commercial studios were trained professionals (although there were always exceptions). Before they got the chance to engineer real sessions, those guys (and occasionally gals) served long apprenticeships – not unlike a junior doctor’s internship.
Using an enormous number of microphones on a drum kit requires an intimate understanding of microphone technique, phase issues and signal routing. Most home recordists will get better results using four decent microphones on a kit in a Glyn Johns setup than they will using 14 cheap mics on each part of the kit. The same goes for guitars, vocals and effects during mixdown. If your technique is limited, use simple techniques!
Do you prefer the sound of your guitar in a dead room or a lively and reflective space? Does it sound best in a concert venue or your bedroom with a duvet thrown over the speaker cab? My guess is that most of us prefer a little ‘air’ around the sound. Recording everything super-dry actually makes it harder to achieve clarity in the mix. It also kills the vibe and makes band recordings sound unnatural – so we end up cluttering things further with digital reverbs and delays. If your home has interesting acoustic spaces, use them. Record lead vocals and basses dry by all means, but try recording acoustic and electric guitars in the hallway, the kitchen or even the bathroom. You might even want to try ambient mic’ing: this will make your recordings more lifelike and possibly easier to mix.
Use All Your Guitars & Amps
Surely you shouldn’t need any encouragement to use as many guitars as you can get your hands on, but some guitarists still insist on doing everything with one instrument. The result: everything starts sounding the same and this makes it very hard to achieve clarity and separation in the mix, leading to one big sonic mush.
Picking one guitar to handle the clean stuff and another to handle the crunch is a good starting point. You could do the same with amplifiers, too – clean Champ for the verses, cranked Marshall for the choruses.
Another great trick is to always go with odd numbers of takes when you are tracking up parts. For instance, it’s common to double-track or even quadruple-track power chords. This can create a ‘big’ sound, but it can be the aural equivalent of Marshall wallpaper. To give things an edge, add a third take to a double-tracked part, or a fifth take to a quadruple-tracked part to lend a bit of edge and focus – and use a different guitar and amp.
Recordists endlessly debate the virtues of analogue and digital or fret about the supposed inadequacies of their digital converters when in fact many of them aren’t getting the best out of the equipment they’ve got.
If you want to get the best out of your recorder, you need to optimise your levels. Analogue tape is quite forgiving and you’ll only hear obnoxious distortion if you massively overload it. Tape’s bÍte noire is its noise floor – aka tape hiss. The trick is to keep the recording level as high as possible, but without inducing overload, to mask that hiss.
Digital recording suffers the same drawbacks but it’s actually far less forgiving. If you overload it there’s no gradual onset of distortion, just an instantaneous and sickening digital crunch. When those red overload lights go on, you really must drop the recording level – but if you drop it too far, especially with 16-bit converters, you’ll get more noise and distortion. So before you go upgrading your converters or buying analogue noise reduction, set your levels correctly for optimum sound quality.
Go For Vibe!
Let’s face it, you’re not going to achieve the type of quality at home that you would expect in a top-class pro studio with trained engineers. In fact, attempting to polish the proverbial has ruined countless demos. Top-class productions require top-class gear and acoustic spaces – but don’t be deterred.
Recording at home lets you go for freshness and spontaneity. Your quirky room acoustics, cobbled-together budget gear and naÔve recording techniques could give your home-brewed demos an atmosphere and a vibe that’s uniquely yours – and a new, individual sound is more likely to get you and your music noticed than a studio demo that sounds much the same as every other demo.