The following material is adapted from page 193 – 210 of The Recording Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski
“In a tracking situation, aside from the responsibility of getting something decently recorded, the most important thing is to get good headphone mixes for the players – in fact, to get the best one possible. Amazingly, bad things happen to even the best players when the headphone mix is all screwed up. I don’t think you can pay enough attention to that part of it because if the guys are hearing something that feels good, it moves the session from sort of a technical exercise for the musicians to a real inspiring and fun thing. It’s really amazing how no matter what tools you’re using, if people aren’t having a good time, it’s just not going to work.” – Wyn Davis
- Headphones and the Cue Mix
- The Click
- Getting the Most from a Vocalist
- Recording Basic Tracks
- Where to Place the Players
- How Long Should It Take?
- Fletcher on Recording Without Headphones
Perhaps the greatest detriment to a session running smoothly is the inability for players to hear themselves comfortably in the headphones. This is one of the reasons that veteran engineers spend so much time and attention to the cue mix and the phones themselves. In fact, a sure sign of a studio neophyte is treating the headphones and cue mix as an afterthought, instead of spending as much time as required to make them sound great. While it’s true that a veteran studio player can shrug off a bad or distorted phone mix and still deliver a fine performance, good cans make a session go faster and easier and take a variable that is quite possibly the biggest detriment to a session out of the equation.
TIPS FOR GREAT HEADPHONE MIXES:
- Long before the session begins, test every headphone to make sure there’s no distortion and that they’re working correctly (test with actual music).
- Make sure that there is plenty of cable available so that the musicians can move around as needed. Use extenders as necessary.
- Check to make sure that the cables are not intermittent (nothing stops a session as fast as a crackling phone).
- Send some of the stereo monitor mix (the one that you’re listening to) to the phones first. Add a little of the individual instruments as needed ( more me ). This is a lot easier than building up individual mixes (unless they’re required).
MAKING THE CLICK CUT THROUGH THE MIX
Many times just providing a metronome in the phones isn’t enough. What good is a click if you can’t hear it, or worse yet, groove to it?
Here are some tricks to make it not only listenable through the densest mixes but also make it seem like another instrument in the track, too.
- Pick the Right Sound – Something that’s more musical than an electronic click is better to groove to. Try either a cowbell, shaker, or even a conga slap. Needless to say, when you pick a sound to replace the click, it should fit with the context of the song.
- Pick the Right Number of Clicks Per Bar – Some players like quarter notes, while others play a lot better with eighths. Whichever it is, it will work better if there is more emphasis on the downbeat.
- Make It Groove – By adding a little delay to the sound, we can make it swing a bit. Now it won’t sound so stiff and will be easier for players who normally have trouble playing to a click. As a side benefit, this can help make any bleed that does occur less offensive, as it will seem like part of the song.
One of the hardest things to record can be a vocalist who is uncomfortable. Even seasoned pros sometimes can’t do their best unless the conditions are right. Consider some of these suggestions before and during a vocal session.
- For the most compelling performance, make sure that the singer observes the Three P’s: Pitch, Pocket, and Passion. Your singer needs to sing in-tune (pitch), stay in the groove of the song (the pocket), and sell the lyrical content through his/her performance (passion).
- Make sure the lighting is correct. Most vocalists prefer the lights lower when singing.
- A touch of reverb or delay in the headphones can be helpful, although many vocalists prefer a dry vocal to make it easier to stay in tune.
- If you need to have the singer sing harder, louder, or more aggressively, turn down the vocal track in the phones or turn the backing tracks up.
- If you need to have the singer sing softer or more intimately, turn the singer’s track in the phones up or turn down the backing tracks.
- Maintain a dialog with the artist between takes. Long periods of silence from the control room can make the singer believe that you’re judging him even if you’re not.
- Try turning off the lights in the control room so they can’t see you. Once again, a vocalist may think that you’re judging him when, you might be talking about something completely different.
- If the take wasn’t good for whatever reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Something like, That was really good, but I think you can do it even better. The pitch was off a little. This goes for just about any overdub, since players generally like to know what was wrong with the take rather than be given a Do it again blanket statement.
- Keep smiling even if you don’t feel like it, since anything else can kill the mood.
“Given a 3-piece rock band, for example, I would prefer to have them try to play live, although not necessarily all in the same room, so that they’re interacting with each other and can accom- modate each other’s little changes in emphasis and timing. Given a larger ensemble, I’ve always found that you get better results if it’s possible to set everybody up to play live. I’ve done sessions with as many as 12 or 14 band members playing simultaneously. If it’s possible to have everybody play at once, that’s the best way to do it.”
– Steve Albini
- While many modern recordings are made with as few players as possible playing at once, most recording veterans prefer to have as many players as possible during the basic tracking date. The reasons? The vibe and the sound. While such a session can be rather nerve wracking in complexity, it can really be a lot of fun as well.
- Regardless of how good the headphone system is, the players won’t do their best unless they can see each other, so that becomes priority number one. Even if the players know a song down cold, they can’t react to any nuances without clean sight lines to each other. Plus, many players (especially studio veterans) rely on looking at the drummer playing the snare in order to stay locked in time.
“One really revealing thing is to walk around a room and sort of stomp and clap and holler and hear where you’re getting reinforcement from the room and hear where it sounds interesting. Wherever you find the place that you like the sound of the reflected sound is a good place to start.”
– Steve Albini
- Generally speaking, you should be recording within the first hour after the musicians arrive, providing that you were prepared in advance and didn’t start your setup when the musicians did.
- The key to not using headphones in a spread out recording situation is to keep the amps about 10 feet behind the players and get the players pretty close to the drums. The visual of everyone that close together helps, as well as minimizing the acoustic delay times that occur when you spread the players out too far. When live on stage, there are monitors to solve that very problem.
- Sometimes a small speaker like a 10 or a 12-inch as a satellite speaker placed in the null of the pickup pattern of the mics will work wonders getting the drummer to lock with the bass player while you move the bass amp farther away from the drum kit. Gobos will often come in pretty handy, too.
- A lot of my guitar reverb/ambience can be had by moving the guitar amp so the little bit of bleed in the drum mics makes it a cool ambience for the guitars. Be careful that this doesn’t overpower the drum kit.
- If there are two guitar players, set them up on opposite sides of the kit. This will provide a better stereo picture when you dis- engage the mono button.
- Now that you have the whole band set up in a room, mic the room. You should get a reasonable balance of all the instruments. It should sound like a band in a room [fancy that!] The mono button is still in until you’re positive about the clarity of the bottom of the track.
- Need more snare? A Shure SM57 aimed about a foot off the side of the center of the shell of the snare drum usually will add all you need without complicating the rest of the balance.
- I usually try to get soft things around the drum kit. I actually carry a booth that is 8 feet high, 20 feet wide in the back, and 10 feet long at the sides. It descends from 8 feet high in the back to 4 feet high in the front, which is soft, with 4 inch insulation that’s cloth covered. Use front gobos as needed. A gobo between the amps and the kit will work pretty well at helping to control the bleed. This usually alleviates the bounce and splatter that will be caused by reflections off hard walls. Depending on where you position the kit, these reflections will come back to haunt you as Haas effect problems.
- At times, a floor monitor (like at a bar gig) will work well for a scratch vocal. Make sure you can EQ the monitor so the little bit of bleed you get from the scratch vocal track can be used as a vocal reverb when it’s time to mix. Sometimes it’s a way cool thing to have the reverb of the scratch track be the main vocal reverb. Not only are there always performance variations, but if you’re trying to place the singer in the same room with the band, it works like a charm. Just like the guitar and bass amps, you may need to move it around for balance.
- Most of the time the singer will actually gravitate to the spot in the room where the band’s balance is best.
“You put the mics up, place them correctly, and give the artist the room and the facility to work in and make sure it sounds cool so when they walk into the control room they say, Oh, that sounds just like I was playing it out there. That’s the goal. To capture the essence of what the artist is actually doing in the studio.”
– Eddie Kramer
Acoustic spill (known as leakage) from one instrument’s mic into another is often thought of as undesirable, but it can and should be used to enhance the sound instead of avoided. Many recording novices are under the mistaken belief that during a tracking session with multiple instruments, every track recorded must contain only the instrument/source that the mic was pointed at. Since it’s pretty hard to achieve, why not just use the leakage to embellish the tracks instead?
Instead of trying to avoid leakage, great attention should be taken to the kind of leakage being recorded. Leakage can be used as a sort of glue between instruments in much the same way that instruments magnify one another in a live situation.
So when tracking with multiple instruments, keep in mind the following:
- Keep the players as close together as possible. Not only will it help the players communicate, but the leakage will produce more direct sound than room reflection, resulting in a better sound.
- Whenever possible, use omnidirectional pattern micro- phones. The leakage picked up by omnis tends to be a lot less colored than direction microphones.