You’ve done some playing and singing. You’ve written some songs. You’ve got this whole “music” thing down to some degree, and now you’re thinking about gigging or recording.
But you’re bewildered. You don’t know how to get started with the maddening, intimidating, even terrifying pile of hardware and software that gets used in modern production. This series is for you. It should help you understand a little more about what’s going on, so you’re not as mystified.
We’re Going In!
Obviously, what we’re working with is sound – a vibration in something physical that we can hear. Any real dive into the physics of sound is beyond the scope of this series, but you should be aware that all sound:
1) Has an intensity, or amplitude.
2) Has a rate of vibration, or frequency.
Sound has other properties as well, but these two will be the most important for a basic understanding.
Now, then. The fundamental key to all audio production is that we MUST have sound information in the form of electricity. Certain instruments, like synthesizers and sample players don’t produce any actual sound at all; They go straight to producing electricity.
For actual sound, though, we have to perform a conversion, or “transduction.” Transduction, especially input transduction, is THE most important part of audio production. If the conversion from sound to electricity is poor, nothing happening down the line will be able to fully compensate.
Transducers come in various forms, but the most commonly recognized sound-to-electricity transducers are microphones.
Microphones come in a large array of sizes, shapes, and behaviors. They all derive from one of two basic flavors, though:
1) Dynamics, which use wire coils and magnetism to generate current.
2) Condensers, which create a “variable capacitor” to produce current.
You should be aware that there are sub-categories for each basic flavor, such as moving-coil dynamics, dynamic ribbons, “active” dynamics, electret condensers, tube-amplified condensers, and whatever else the industry can cook up. However, in the most common scenarios, what you can keep in mind as a baseline is that dynamic mics don’t fundamentally require a steady supply of electricity to work, whereas condensers do.
Another generalization that can be made is the overall character of the microphone flavors. Although all microphones react quickly by human standards, dynamic microphones have moving parts which tend to be “heavy.” The moving portion of a condenser microphone can have far less mass, which makes for a vibration sensor that can start and stop moving very easily. Condenser mics are a common choice for the transduction of quiet, “delicate,” or “complex” sounds, and condensers can more easily be extremely accurate – but this does not necessarily mean that condensers are correct for what you need to do. There are plenty of dynamic mics which sound very pleasing on a tremendous variety of sound sources, and they tend to be more resistant to accidents and mishandling (although dynamic ribbons can be very fragile indeed).
Microphones also differ from one another in terms of their directionality, or the relative sensitivity of the microphone at different angles around the microphone element. This is also referred to as the “polar pattern,” in reference to how this directionality is commonly plotted on specification sheets. In terms of the basic microphone types, any directionality is possible. There are omnidirectional dynamics and ultra-selective condensers, and the opposite is also true. A list of common polar responses includes:
1) Omnidirectional, which has essentially the same sensitivity at all angles around the element.
2) Figure-Eight, which is sensitive to the front and rear, and tends to reject sound from the sides.
3) Cardioid, which is highly sensitive to the front, somewhat less so at the sides, and has a point of very low sensitivity at the back.
4) Super-Cardioid, which is highly sensitive to the front, less sensitive than a cardioid at the sides (with a particular side angle which is very low sensitivity), and has some sensitivity at the back.
5) Hyper-Cardioid, which is like super-cardioid, but narrower and with a more pronounced “sensitivity bump” for sounds coming from behind.
In many applications, mics with strong directionality are often preferred and even necessary. However, omnidirectional transducers see quite a bit of utilization as well, especially when accuracy is needed or tonal consistency at varying distances is required.
To close this installment, it’s worth talking about another kind of transducer, the “contact mic.” Contact transducers aren’t really microphones at all, in the sense that they are not designed to work well with sounds in air. Rather, they are intended to be fixed to a vibrating surface, which causes the element to deform or flex and thus create an electrical current. This is a piezoelectric effect, and so these pickups are often referred to as piezos.
Contact transducers generally sound rather artificial when compared with microphones, but most microphones aren’t in direct physical contact with a sound source. At the same time, piezo pickups can be very handy for dealing with certain problems, like instruments which need to be made disproportionately loud with minimal feedback.
Back in the heyday of the Grateful Dead, a special sub-scene emerged: The Tapers. Not to confused with tapirs, an exotic animal, Tapers would record the live shows to share with other people later.
Does that sound familiar?
I would argue that, in many ways, livestreaming your show is a new form of taping. It’s an attempt to capture part of the experience so as to give something to your current audience, and hopefully reach some new enthusiasts as well.
The thing with taping or livestreaming is that the physics and logistics have not really changed. Sure, the delivery endpoints are different, especially with livestreaming being a whole bunch of intangible data being fired over the Internet, but how you get usable material is still the same. As such, here are some hints from the production-staff side for maximum effectiveness, at least as far as the sound is concerned.
1) Directional microphones are your friend.
While it might seem like a good idea to grab a wide, or even 360 degree soundfield, you will generally get a better result overall by being selective. Especially if you’re streaming from a bar or club, it’s really not a great idea to capture all the conversations, room reflections, and general disruption happening around you. A full-on shotgun mic probably isn’t necessary; Just find a decent cardioid or super-cardioid and point it at what you want to hear.
2) Keep your gear out of the way. Super out of the way, actually.
Audiences have an incredible ability to walk into, stand on, swat, and otherwise mess with your recording setup, often without even trying. Endeavor to find a spot where your streaming goodies are protected from the general public. The audio human’s spot can be pretty good for this. Just remember to ask politely first.
3) Run your own gear as much as possible.
As a sound operator, I am (as a rule), happy to help by pressing record on your device. However, it’s important to understand that the start of a show can be a bit like getting an airliner off the ground: A lot is going on that requires my close attention. I may end up forgetting to hit the little red button. If you can do it yourself, that’s much better.
Also, if there is any complexity at all to getting things rolling (beyond just pressing the aforementioned button), you really should take care of it yourself. It’s THE way to ensure success.
4) A direct feed might sound better, but…
…remember that many direct feeds are just a split from some output, often the main bus. There are many rooms and situations where the main bus is carrying a ton of vocals and just a touch of a few other things. Unless the PA is truly doing all the heavy lifting, you may find that a line-level feed isn’t musically balanced.
I like clean audio as much as anybody – maybe even more – but I can also recognize when “clean” isn’t necessarily the best capture of the show as a whole.
(There are some ways around this conundrum, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)
5) If you want a feed, please do your advance work.
Find out the day before, or earlier, what kind of connections and signals might be available to you. Sometimes, it’s easy for a sound tech to get something sorted out for you…and sometimes, it’s nearly impossible. The difficulty generally rises as the amount of time before the show decreases.
And please, please, educate yourself on the different kinds of audio connections that you might run into, and have your own adapters. Again, when speaking for myself I can say that I’m happy to help out in whatever way I can – but it’s always best when YOU are “Johnny On The Spot” in terms of having what you need to make your own gear play nicely with everything else.
I really don’t think you should get a record deal.
Wait – let me rephrase that.
I really don’t think you should spend time, effort, money, and emotional stamina to get a record deal. I played music myself, once, and hungered after a contract. I never got one, and I’m actually pretty okay with that. I had a non-realistic view of what a recording contract meant, and I’m betting that the same sort of reality distortion is in effect for quite a few other folks.
Of course, my opinion doesn’t amount to a hill of chili (super chunky or otherwise) without some reasoning behind it, so here are my bullet points, in no particular order:
1) A recording contract isn’t a career, or even a job. It’s a loan.
Carlos has said as much on social media, and I agree. I especially agree because I think I might have been the one who came up with the idea that a record company is just an unregulated bank. (I think. Actually, somebody else probably came up with it long before I did.)
The whole point of a recording contract is basically to say, “We’ll help finance the creation of a recording and other things, because we think we can sell those things for a TON more than the price of the financing.” If it works out, it’s a sweet deal for the record company, because they very likely have all the rights to the sound recording of your songs – and they can keep selling that sound recording to as many people as they can manage. If you’re not careful, or don’t have enough negotiating power, they will probably own those rights “in perpetuity.” (That means “forever.”)
Record companies don’t give you money for anything. They “front” funds to produce something with your name on it, hoping that your brand will be great for them. If you manage to carve a long-term career out of that situation, then that’s great for you (and the label, for whom it’s probably an even better deal), but the loan itself isn’t a guarantee that things will work out.
Plenty of artists have been dropped by their labels, by the way.
And no, if you get dropped, you won’t be likely to get the rights to all that hard work you did in the studio. That belongs to the people who paid for it, people who aren’t you.
Sidenote: KEEP. YOUR. PUBLISHING.
Actually, just forget about all the record deal hoo-hah and keep everything.
Musicians tend to think that a really snazzy recording, sold in all the big outlets, backed with a spendy video, and pushed with a fancy marketing campaign is what generates a career-powering phenomenon.
Well, no, what creates the phenomenon is people hanging on every note that you play.
Now, to be fair, all the fluff can help you get in front of more people. But you have to ask yourself if all the costs are actually necessary. Sure, it strokes your ego to have spent a whole year in a studio that makes a starship look dinky, and to have display ads in all the papers, plus a launch party featuring 100 white horses and an airdrop of 7000 popsicles over New York. Sure, that’s hard to ignore.
It’s also a frighteningly expensive way to reach a few folks who would have loved you for the music, glitz and glam or no. Yes, it takes more time and effort to find those people without all the hooplah, but if YOU find them, and YOU make the connection, then YOU are in control of your career.
And you might have an actual career, instead of just a big party that lots of people showed up to because of the free popsicles. Those folks are just there for the fun and spectacle, and will be gone in an hour. A career has to last longer than that. The shortcut isn’t a shortcut – it’s a conversion of money to time, and the conversion rate is lousy.
Oh, and of course that expenditure gets tacked onto the loan that the label made you.
Here’s another thing: Record companies look for products that are either selling themselves, or likely will be able to sell easily as the flavor of the month. If they see that you’re building a a real fanbase for yourself, they may come calling, dangling a juicy deal in front of you. Why? Because they want to make money off of what you’ve built.
Ask yourself: If you’re building it on your terms anyway, why should you sell it all off to somebody else for an advance that’s actually a lowball offer, plus the “opportunity” to do everything their way? That doesn’t make sense.
3) Recording contracts don’t do much that you can’t do for yourself anymore.
I’ve talked about this on other occasions. Back in the day of physical media, access to large-scale manufacturing was necessary to keep a large fanbase supplied. Back in the day of a few, tightly gated media outlets, money and clout were needed to dialogue with a significant number of people.
Now, it’s all digital. Making a copy of the entire, uncompressed contents of a full-length recording is trivial. Compression and transmission is only slightly less than trivial. Everybody can get on the Internet and say whatever they want to whoever they want, with the only real limit on audience size being the number of people who will listen. (Social media platforms ARE gated, yes, but not nearly as much as traditional media.)
You can do all of this yourself. You don’t need the label’s advertising machine to connect with your fans. They’re on your favorite social media platform already! Go talk to them. Be available. Answer and ask questions.
You don’t need the label’s production machine to have a music video. A half-decent phone-recording on YouTube can be a major attention grabber.
You don’t need the label’s recording machine to lay tracks. A few okay mics in an okay room can be connected to a $300 audio interface with basic software, and make a recording that sounds just fine. Maybe even great. Plus, you’ll own the rights to your music, and the recording, AND the means to make more.
You ARE the label. You ARE the contract. You ARE your fan-connection machine.
Why pay somebody else? You don’t need a record deal to make art and make connections. All the tools are readily available.
I got into this business thinking I would be an engineer in a studio. That’s not how it worked out. Live-sound got a hold of me, and that was pretty much it. Even so, I do some occasional studio-style mixing, and I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.
One of the major problems with recordings is that you don’t control the playback system. One person might play your music on a rig that’s built to reproduce the entire audible range of sound with a laser-flat response curve. Another person might be listening on barely-working earbuds. Someone else might be one of those incredibly annoying people who listen to music by pumping it through their phone’s speaker. CAN WE STOP THAT PLEASE?
Even before the age of smartphones, “translation” was a big issue for folks making records. The question that was constantly asked was, “How do I make this tune sound good everywhere?”
In my mind, that’s the wrong question.
The real question is, “Does this mix continue to make sense, even if the playback system has major limitations?”
I realize that this is an appeal to absurdity, but I see it as counterproductive to try to make a song sound “good” on a half-dead clock-radio. A mix being played through a small, damaged speaker should sound like a mix being played through a small, damaged speaker. Spending hours and hours trying to make things fool people into thinking they’re listening to a better playback device isn’t worth it for most folks, especially because the mix will probably sound strange on more decent systems.
But spending some time on making sure that your recording basically works in a variety of situations IS worth it.
It’s actually pretty easy. If you already have a digital audio workstation of some kind (ProTools, Logic, Cubase, Reaper, GarageBand, etc, etc), you won’t need any additional equipment. Back in the day (and now), studios used to have small, limited bandwidth speakers they could route mixes through. That was before you could get another equalizer, basically for free, simply by running another instance of a plugin.
And that’s what I recommend doing.
Put an extra EQ plugin across your main mix. Set that plugin to kill off both the low and high-end of your tune. A high-pass and low-pass filter set at about 200 Hz and 5000 Hz respectively should be a good start. Collapse the mix to mono if you can. Your mix should now sound like it’s being played through a phone speaker (gah!), or pretty mediocre earbuds.
Does the mix still make sense? Can you still hear all the instruments that you feel are crucial? Are the vocals still intelligible? If not, start making changes. Get to a place that you like, and then pop the “crappy speaker” EQ into bypass. Restore the stereo field, if you were working in mono before.
With all the high and low end restored, does the mix still make sense? Are the bass and kick overwhelming in the bottom end? Is there too much traffic way up high? If so, make changes in just those areas – the areas that were cut out by the EQ. Try not to touch the midrange much, though, because that’s what you just got yourself satisfied with.
Do some back-and-forth checking as you work. You’ll know that you’re done when the mix still works in both scenarios. The mix without the “sucky playback system” EQ should sound “good,” assuming that you think your regular playback monitors sound good. The mix with the EQ should work, and be basically listenable. Your tune will now have a much better chance of “translating” in multiple scenarios.
And, as a final opinion, I would say this: If your mix absolutely must be mind-blowing on a specific format, make a special mix just for that format. If, for example, you know that a huge chunk of your fanbase is definitely going to be listening on Airpods, create (and clearly label) a mix that’s designed to be stunning just for them.
But, if you’re not really sure what people will be listening on, basic attention to translation should go a pretty long way.
At coffee, I run into everyone. Our town only has one coffee shop, so it’s easy to find everyone there. I ran into a couple of musicians that I’ve jammed with, and I dig their tunes! Well, like me, they signed up for Distrokid – and like me, they have the eternal musician’s struggle: Record, listen, hear the mistakes, re-record, listen, hear something “lacking”, re-re-record, listen – and so on.
The thing that a lot of us (musicians, writers, artists, people) do is that we work hard on whatever our passion is, look at it, and then find everything wrong with it. Even when it’s someone like me who LOVES the little mistakes (read: “nuances”) that make things imperfect, I constantly hear things that need to be fixed. Even when a recording is produced and polished, I love having a little something that is off in it, but it has to be just the right kind of wrong.
So many of us keep shelving things because of those little mistakes. The wrong drum hit at that moment, a wrong note hit, a line of lyric misspoken – more and more things make us keep our music/art to ourselves.
Listen to some of the great recordings of the past. Listen to Zeppelin live at The BBC, listen to Tom Waits’ recordings in a barn (or his amazing VH1 Storytellers), listen to BB King live, or John Fogerty! They all have these moments that the rest of us struggle with! And, what do they do? They keep going! They released the music, they let the art out! Sure, a lot of artists rely on the beauty of our technology to help produce a “perfect” track…. No comment.
So, what do we do? Do we allow our mistakes to be a little part of our performances and recordings? Do we keep all of this wonderful music, writing, art to ourselves out of fear of our worste critic (it’s ourselves – The Storyteller), or maybe we just do something crazy like emphasize the mistake?! Whatever we decide to do, just get the art out there! Perfect or not, just bloody let it out!
Someone once asked the rhetorical, “what if Hendrix had left his music on a tape in the studio instead of releasing it or playing shows? What about Kurt Cobain or Joe Cocker? What about Janis Joplin? They all made mistakes, hit “wrong” notes, they were all perfectly human on their recordings – so why can’t you be?”
That was the thing that pushed me over the edge. Sure, I still want things mixed and sounding like they do in my mind – but if there’s this or that on there – a dog or car in the background, or a note that doesn’t quite go with the tune, or even a ragged vocal moment – I let it sit for a while before I say I need to try again. And, as I let it sit, they grow on me and I learn to love those little moments in the songs. Even the hiss of the amp can sometimes add another dimension to what I’ve been working on.
It gets worse (or “less perfect”) when playing live. When I was playing with a band, I would mess up a lot, I mean a lot. Now that I play solo shows… I mess up even more! It doesn’t matter to the audience how many things I have to think about; which pedal should be pressed, what distance I should stay from the mic, switching from a barred aug9 chord to an open min7th… Most audience members don’t ****ing care. They only care if it sounds good and they’re having fun. So, I’m learning (yes, still in the process) to roll with the punches of messing up on stage. In fact, a few of the screw-ups I’ve made on stage gave me ideas to change the songs for the better! How cool is that?!
So, let the mistakes be heard! Maybe do something crazy and accentuate them! Don’t do a million takes to try and make it perfect, you’ll never be satisfied – I know I’m rarely satisfied at the first dozen listens. I’ll always have the struggle of the musician who loves the sound of raw music and emotion mixed with a person who is, in many ways, a perfectionist about how I want things to sound or be presented. I’m letting the former win the fights more and more just so I can get the music out there. Even if only one person hears it and enjoys it on any level – that’s better than none.
So, I will continue to release music, wrong notes and all.
Now, while I appreciate all forms of music, I think that these classic jazz musicians nailed it with their quotes:
“There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”
“It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”
“There’s no such thing as a wrong note.”
“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions”
“I played the wrong, wrong notes.”
A lot of my musician friends are discovering just how viable it is to produce their own material in the spaces available to them regularly. Under the right circumstances, doing so allows for leaner budgeting, and even a much steadier release cycle. (You can work with and release tunes on, say, a monthly basis, rather than wadding everything up into a do-or-die album process that takes years.)
In the DIY-recording realm, a point of confusion tends to be the difference between acoustical treatment and soundproofing. I’ve heard more than one person refer to the placement of acoustical foam on various surfaces as “soundproofing,” and while I understand what’s actually meant, the terminology is still off.
So, what’s the difference?
It’s actually a fairly simple distinction, at least as I’ve come to understand it. Acoustical treatment is modifying the behavior of sound within a space. Soundproofing is preventing the transfer of acoustical events between spaces.
To be fair, acoustical treatment can – technically – aid in some soundproofing. Acoustical absorption means that sound energy is converted to thermal energy. If, through something like acoustical foam, a sonic event is prevented from ever reaching a wall, then you won’t have a problem with that sound causing the wall to vibrate. At the same time, it’s important to note that most building structures are less and less likely to vibrate effectively at higher and higher frequencies anyway, with the losses from acoustic foam quickly becoming essentially irrelevant.
Soundproofing is a much more difficult business, because it requires getting a handle on vibrations that are very strong and difficult to stop. It’s a game of mass and isolation. Very heavy objects are difficult to set into motion. Objects that have less surface-area in contact with other objects transfer vibration poorly. The transfer of vibration from air to solids is highly inefficient; You can easily feel a big thump on your chest from someone’s hand smacking into you, but that same sensation from a subwoofer firing into the air requires a TON of speaker power.
So, with all that, effective soundproofing tends to rely heavily on expensive, permanent (or quasi-permanent) construction. Rooms can be built within other rooms, for instance, with air gaps between the outer and inner walls. “Airlock” systems with multiple, heavy, gasketed doors can be employed. Floors may be floated with absorptive rubber spacers.
A room can be nicely soundproof, but sound terrible inside. Build a concrete bunker inside another concrete bunker, and not much sound will get in or out. The reflectivity of all those hard surfaces will be horrendously bad, though.
Basic treatment, on the other hand, is much easier. Gather up a few thick, fluffy blankets that you can hang, and you’re likely to create a noticeable change in the room’s internal behavior. Reducing the “splatter” of content at or above 1000 Hz isn’t exactly trivial, but the effort required is within reach for almost anybody.
(Please be aware, of course, that really great sounding rooms almost never happen by accident or by way of a few, hasty changes. Full-blown, world-class acoustical spaces require a great deal of thought and preparation. The best ones have effective treatment at low frequencies, which is not a simple thing to do. Big studios with renowned rooms are expensive for reasons that include both soundproofing AND treatment.)
As I said, room treatment and soundproofing aren’t the same thing. In your self-recording adventures you’ll likely encounter some “environmental” problems. Figuring out which of the two concepts applies the most will help you approach the issue in a way that actually has a chance of being effective.
These days, from the indie artists to the major labels, recording budgets are shrinking. This does not mean that we no longer need professionally recorded material, we as musicians, have to find ways to get the best sounding recordings, while trimming down the investment. Here is my list of tips for you and your band to hit the studio ready to rock. When I booked my first ever studio session with my high school band, the local engineer told us to be well rehearsed, so we played through our songs every single day leading up to the session, but we were far from ready. These tips are what I wish I would have known going in my first time.
10. Make Your Arrangement Interesting.
Chances are, your song has an intro, a verse, a chorus, a second verse and chorus, a bridge or solo section with a final chorus and ending. Almost every song has some variation of this format and for good reason… it works. However, while there needs to be a common thread for each section, you need to have subtle changes to keep your listeners engaged. This might be dropping a few instruments out in the first verse, bringing the dynamic down, adding a new instrument to the second verse, add a new element to each chorus so they get progressively bigger throughout the song. You might try changing time signature for the bridge or having a completely different chord structure. The idea is that the vocal melody is going to be the same from verse to verse and chorus to chorus, so change the other elements for some variety and to keep things interesting.
9. Frequency and Rhythmic Separation Sounds Bigger.
Far to often, a standard rock combo hits the studio, two guitars, bass and drums. They’ve got a killer main riff for the song, but that riff gets played on both guitars and the bass. This is a perfect way for your big and powerful guitar melody to sound extra small. I’m not saying never double, but when you do, know why you’re doubling and certainly don’t have it be your go-to if you’re only planning to track two guitars. Rather, try one guitar on your riff, the bass doing some staccato stabs right where the kick drum is and have the second guitar do some chord stabs opposite the bass and see how huge that riff gets.
For some rhythmic variance, if one part is based off 8th notes or 16th notes, have the next instrument play something based off hole notes or half notes. This can give a really nice pushing and pulling feel and keep your song interesting.
For some frequency separation, maybe your song is in C. Try having one guitarist play the open chords down the neck and have the second guitarist either do some bar chords up the neck, or even put a capo on the fifth fret and play G shape chords. This provides a constant stream of ear candy that makes people want to listen all the way through and then listen again.
8. Highlight the Focus.
the listener should never have to guess what they’re supposed to be listening for. When the vocalist is singing, everything else needs to back off to make room for that vocal to shine. Sometimes this means playing quieter, or less or some instruments dropping out altogether. When the guitar solo comes up, the rest of the band needs to make room for the soloist. This can be very tricky because usually, the solo comes at one of the loudest and dense parts of the song. Work out what might need to be changed to accommodate. Everyone in the band should always be mindful of where the focus is at any given time and take the spotlight when it’s there’s and relinquish it the rest of the time. Think of it this way, if you have a four piece band, and everyone is playing equally, you each take up 25% of the mix. However, that means nothing is the focus. If three players back off to 20% of the mix, you give the focus musician an extra 15% to work with. The entire band playing at 100% 100% of the time never works.
7. Make Friends with the Click Track.
I can’t stress this one enough. Nobody can dance to your song if the tempo speeds up every time the drummer plays a fill and slows down every time the dynamic drops. Before hitting the studio, put headphones on your drummer so he or she can have a click during rehearsal. I normally encourage the rest of the band not to have the click, but just to follow the drummer. Once it’s time to count in the song, the drummer should be the leader. You’ll find the first time you put your drummer on a click in rehearsal how much the drummer plays to the band rather than the other way around.
Drummers, you really need to take control. Put your headphones on, play to your click and don’t try and conform to the band. Only play tight to the click and make the band conform to you. Do not give an inch. You’ve always wanted to ignore you band mates anyway, here’s your chance. I give you full permission.
6. Drummers, Balance Your Kit.
Playing balanced drums is what separates the good drummers from the big boys club. The best drummers know exactly how hard they want to hit each part of their kit every time. This comes from back when drums were recorded with just one or two microphones and there was no really way to have control of each individual drum during the mix. Since you couldn’t turn the symbols down and the kick and snare up, drummers learned to play their symbols quieter and their kick and snare louder. Hit your drums and tap your symbols. This way the overheads can be used as more than ridiculous symbol wash. You’ll cut down on the bleed in your other microphones. Another helpful tip, as you’re going down your toms, don’t lose steam. You can hear a lot of records where a tom fill starts nice and loud, but by the time they get down to the floor tom, you can barely hear it. Remember, a 16In floor tom head takes more energy to excite than a 10In rack tom. Hitting your floor with the same intensity as your smallest rack will not produce the same result.
5. Creating Musical Drum Fills.
It might seem like I’m picking on drummers, but the track starts with you guys. Without amazing drums, no matter what the rest of the song sounds like, the whole will never be as good as it could have been. Before you start tracking, take some time to think through your fills. Don’t fall back on the chug chug chug, chug, around the drums. This fill can be the perfect one for building intensity in certain spots, but isn’t always your best choice. Think about your fills as part of the music. Is there a strong melody line played on a keyboard or guitar that leads in to the chorus? You might want to try similar subdivisions for your transition fill. You might even want to choose the drums you hit in the transition based on the direction of the melody. If the guitar is going down, try going for your rack toms to your floor. If it’s going up, try floor to rack. Then try the opposite and see if contrary motion works better. There’s no, “This works every time,” here, but keep these ideas in mind when writing your drum part. This is where you can really influence the song musically rather than just rhythmically.
4. New Strings and Heads Required.
This should be a no-brainer, but I was never told to have new strings on my guitars the first time I went in to track. You might say you don’t want your guitar to have that new string sound, but that brightness is something that can be taken away in the mix if you still feel that way at that point in the process, but it can’t be put back in if you track with old strings and change your mind and want the bright sound at mix down. You can make new sound a little older, but you can’t make old sound new. This even goes for bass players. No, the strings that came on your bass from the music store when you bought it three years ago are not going to cut it on a professional recording. Same for drummers. There’s considerable debate on whether you need to change out all of your bottom heads each session, but get some new top heads on, especially the snare and just use judgement for the bottoms.
3. Intonation and Tuning.
It doesn’t take much effort or money to get your guitars in to the shop a couple of days before your big session and have the intonation checked. Nothing is more disappointing than having your perfectly tuned guitar and you go to hit that blazing solo up the neck and everything sounds out of tune. Just bring your guitars and basses in, have a tech do a once-over, you’ll probably get out for between $20 and $50. When you’re about to drop a couple grand on your record, it’s not very smart to have every solo are bar chord out of tune to save $20.
Drummers, since you’re putting on those new heads anyway, take the time to tune up. A well tuned kit can really stand out in a track. If you’re not the best at drum tuning, find someone in your local scene who always has a great sounding kit and offer them a few bones and a case of beer to tune yours up the night before you track. It’ll be worth it.
2. Take a Few Chances.
Here’s where I make the engineers really mad, but hey, I don’t only pick on drummers. Leave room for some creativity in the studio. The common wisdom is before tracking day, know every note, every beat, every solo and vocal line perfectly. I say don’t do that. Get your songs most of the way there, but leave yourself some room to be in the moment. If the Beatles would have written every note before they started rolling tape, we’d never have the backwards guitar solos. John would have never tried singing a lead vocal while holding his nose just to see what it sounded like. The Rolling Stones never would have put a mic on an unplayed piano in the live room just to pick up some of the resonance of the piano strings while the band played. These are little pieces of magic that are getting left out of the process in these days of throw-and-go low budget recording. If you really have the rest of your stuff together, you’ll have time to try a few different things and make your own form of magic.
1. Don’t Fix-In-The-Mix.
That’s not quite the guitar tone we wanted, but we can fix it in the mix right? Never utter that last sentence… just never. Have a vision for your songs and take the time to uncover the tones before you hit record. What takes you a few minutes to dial in on tracking day saves you hours of trying to create a sound that you didn’t track that you knew you wanted all along. Here’s another place where some engineers will disagree with me, but if you know you like a specific delay that you’re getting from your pedal track it with your delay pedal. If your engineer refuses and it’s too late in the process to find another studio, offer to do a dry pass or have him take a DI from your guitar along with the pass that has your pedals. Here’s the catch, make sure your pedals sound good. Some engineers don’t like you tracking with them because they are afraid to commit, but most might hear something that sounds less than great in your rig and they only want to make sure that you have a great sounding record. If you take care of things on your end and really have your stuff dialed in, it shouldn’t be a problem. If your engineer still hears something unpleasing, ask them to help you dial it in based off your idea, but take the time to find the sound you want and print it that way.
I know somebody who has a large collection of guitars. He’ll have them all out for a session while he’s tracking. Then at mix down he’ll come out with something like, “Can you make this track I recorded with my Les Paul sound like my 335?” That is an extreme example, but always have your final sound in mind and do whatever you need to do to track as close to it as you can. You’ll be surprised at how much faster and easier mixing time is.
I hope these tips help you have nothing but incredible recording sessions in the future. I spent a lot of time and money learning how to create amazing sounding records. Hopefully you can skip some of that. If you follow these simple tips, I can guarantee that your first professional recordings will sound much better than mine.
I remember listening to “Enter Sandman” over, and over, and over again (driving everybody bonkers) because I wanted to hear that distinctive “Chunka, Chunka, Chunka, ChunCHUN” at the beginning of the tune. I’ve always wanted to do a gig where we actually got the “honest-to-goodness” Boston “sorta real, sorta synthetic, 1980s to the MAX” drum noise.
And I know that all of you can sing the drum part to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. Admit it.
As much as I’m against devoting every possible resource in a sound system towards massaging the drums, I am a HUGE fan of great percussion. The unfortunate reality, though, is that audio humans spend a great deal of time listening to not great percussion. Over the years, I think I’ve started to get a handle on what can go wrong, and what can go oh-so-very right.
First things first.
If the drums don’t “sound like that,” they probably won’t ever “sound like that.” Especially without a huge PA, unlimited audience volume tolerance, and an anechoic chamber, totally remaking the sound of a real kit in a real room is a truly difficult proposition. If the drum set naturally sounds like a pile of soggy pizza boxes and pie tins, then that’s what you’re going to get. With a lot of effort, we might be able to make it all sound like the nicest recycling-bin dumpout in the history of the world. It might even sound neat and interesting – but it’s not going to sound like a $10,000 shell pack with brand new heads. It doesn’t matter what mics we use, or how much processing is available in the console.
On the flipside, a setup that already sounds beautiful is hard to mess up, and requires fewer resources to translate effectively. An example that I’m fond of citing is that of Dave Murphy, the director of The Wasatch Music Coaching Academy. Dave is a top-shelf percussionist, and the owner of a truly stunning Gretsch kit. That kit, plus his maintenance and tuning, results in a sound that requires basically zero effort of any kind. When Dave steps on his kick pedal, for instance, the result is a truly beautiful blend of perfectly damped “thump” and “click.” Think of the most amazing bass drum, with a great mic in front of it, being run through a lot of PA: That’s what Dave’s kick drum sounds like WITHOUT a mic and a PA, and that basic template carries over to the rest of the set. As an audio tech, I don’t have to struggle with the sounds that Dave makes. Instead, I get to just pass them into the audience.
Along with this is the necessity of getting a shell pack and cymbal loadout that actually complement your band. You might love the tone when you’re playing by yourself, but if your kit is naturally too loud for the ensemble, or consistently steps on someone else’s frequency space, you’ve brought the wrong tools for the job. Tune your set to work with the rest of the group, rather than to compete.
I once worked on a show where a drummer was somewhat annoyed with me. He was a bit upset that I wasn’t making his toms “sound big.” I put on my headphones and solo’ed up the drum channels.
Cymbals: “KUSH! KUSH! KUSH! KUSH! BWASH! KUSH!
Snare: “BAM! BAM! BAM! BAMrattle BAM!”
Toms: “blum, bum…bdum…dm…”
The dude was smashing away at everything else, and then sort of lightly touching the toms as he went by. Of course they didn’t “sound big.” He was playing so that, especially compared to everything else, his toms sounded minuscule. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do.
What we’ve come right back to is, if you want your drums to “sound like that,” then they already have to basically “sound like that.” If you want your tom rolls to feel enormous when compared to everything else, you’re going to have to play them in such a way that presents that proportionality. If everything else in the kit is being bashed as hard as is humanly possible, you’ve got nowhere to go for the fills. Think about how you want your accents to “pop,” and then dial back the steady-state (the average intensity) accordingly.
It’s also possible to go in the other direction. I’ve heard drummers wailing away on sets that should have sounded great, but didn’t. A lot of those cases appeared to be a case of getting in one’s own way.
The initial transient of a drum hit is where the majority of the high-frequency information resides. This crack/ snap/ click/ thwack is melded in with all the low-frequency content, with the volume control being how much force goes into the strike. A very hard smack on the drum emphasizes the high end to a point where it completely overwhelms the “body” of the tone. At even further extremes, the stick or beater gets “buried” into the head, killing a lot of resonance that might contribute to a more “full” and satisfying sound. Put all this in the hands of a percussionist who has only one volume – maximum, that is – and what comes out is a harsh mountain of overbearing transients. In such a case, dialing back the “smackery” would do wonders for the overall sound of the kit.
So, if you’re trying to get a great drum sound, start without any audio gear. All those fun toys and enhancements will come later. There’s no electrically-powered transient designer that can do a better job than a great player. A good kit that’s been nicely tuned is worth more than a whole rack of Drawmer gates. The right choices of sticks and playing balance are some of the best EQ and compression you’ll ever find.
And I’ve never had any drum mics that were better than a basically decent transducer being pointed at a great drummer who’d done their homework.
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