The following is an excerpt from Bobby Owsinski's "How to Make Your Band Sound Great", which explores all aspects of playing with other musicians, including the equipment, hardware, and software used today. Here, Owsinski talks about the basics of recording yourself in live and studio environments.
April 02, 2010, by Bobby Owsinski
It’s time to record a few songs, either for a demo of your band to get gigs, or a recording of some of the songs you and your band mates have written. While it might seem as easy as setting up a couple of mics and a portable recorder during a gig, you can bet that it will take a great deal more work than that.
Recording is so easy these days. The gear is so inexpensive that every musician should invest in some kind of recording system, if only because it makes a great personal practice tool.
But recording is a lot different from live performing, and you definitely have to adjust your approach and way of thinking to get the most out of it. While recording may be easy, getting the results to sound good and getting great performances are not.
Let’s take a look at some different aspects of recording and how to get the most out of them.
Recording rehearsals should be almost mandatory for any band. You never know when either the band or an individual player will play something great, so recording everything that goes down gives you a way to capture it if it happens.
Likewise, if something sounds bad, a recording may be able to tell you why. You can’t always tell while you’re playing the song, because you’re concentrating on your playing or singing.
There are three ways to record rehearsals: simple, easy, and complex. The simple way is to use one of the many portable stereo recorders made by Edirol, Zoom, M-Audio, Yamaha, or Olympus, and experiment with its placement until you get the best balance.
Be sure to set it up with the gain down fairly low or the sensitivity set to low so you won’t overload the input and get a distorted recording (this means don’t allow any digital overs).
Fig. 12.1: Taking a feed from your PA head.
Depending upon the acoustics of your rehearsal room (it might be so reflective that none of the instruments or PA have any definition), the simple way to record might not get you a clean enough recording to use, so try something a little more elaborate. This method involves taking a feed out of the PA head and into your recorder of choice (see Fig. 12.1).
Almost every PA head (even the least sophisticated) now has either a Tape Out, Line Out, Alternate Out, Aux Out, or FX Out that can be used to feed the recorder. This might not be the best way to go since you might be recording only a vocal-heavy mix unless A) you have more than one vocal mic and those mics pick up some of the band, or B) you minimally mic all the instruments. Once again, the best thing is to experiment until you get a balance that you can live with, then rehearse and record away.
The complex way to record is to mic all the instruments and do a multitrack recording. Although you’ll get the cleanest recording this way, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have the intention of using the recording at a later time (like as a demo). As a rule, rehearsal recordings are never made for distribution—they’re only an internal working document to give you a reference point.
Recording yourself this way will take a lot of time to set everything up, and may leave you with no time to rehearse. Plus, you might be concentrating so hard on getting the recording to sound good that you forget to play well. My advice: keep it as simple as possible for rehearsal, and when you want to make a real recording, head for a proper studio. You’ll be a lot happier with the better result.
Recording Your Gigs
Recording your gigs today is much easier than it used to be. Most of the hand-held stereo recorders on the market are inexpensive and sound pretty good; and it seems like everyone has DAW software on a laptop.
But just because it’s easy to record doesn’t mean that it’s easy to make it sound good. Live albums done by big-selling acts require a complicated and expensive array of recording gear to actually pull this off.
Assuming your performances are spot on, the problem with recording your live gig is always one of balances.
Balance of the vocals against the instruments, balance of the instruments themselves, balance of the audience versus the band, or balance of the direct sound versus the reflected sound in the room. You can usually bet that at least one of these will be out of whack. Let’s look at each of these problems separately.
You would think that the best way to get a great mix is off the mixing board. While this might be the cleanest signal, it’s usually the least balanced, because even if all the instruments are miked, the vocals will be too loud.
This is because they’re the quietest thing onstage and need the most amplification. Many times the loudest stage instruments are missing from the board recording since they’re not amplified in the mix.
This is especially true in small venues like clubs. The larger the venue, the more balanced the mix becomes as the miked instruments have to be raised louder in the mix, but as a rule, you’ll always find that the vocals are too loud in a board mix.
If a board mix won’t work, consider putting a couple of mics out in the room and record the performance that way. Engineers have been experimenting with different ways of doing this since the beginning of recordings (especially in orchestral recording) and while it’s possible to get a really great-sounding, balanced recording, it takes time and experimenting.
It’s difficult to find the place in the room where vocals and instruments are perfectly balanced. When you find that spot, chances are the sound of the room’s acoustics will rear its ugly head (since most venues aren’t acoustically treated) and you’ll get so many reflections that the recording sounds hollow and distant.
Another problem is the spot in the room with the best balance might also have too much audience, either when you’re playing (you don’t want to hear the drink orders on top of the guitar solo) or too much applause when the song is over (assuming that you get applause, of course).
Here’s how a big-selling group does it. All the instruments, as well as the vocals, are miked onstage.
The signals are split so that they go to both the house PA and monitor system, and to a separate recording rig either isolated in a separate room in the venue or located in a mobile recording studio outside (see Fig. 12.2).
The audience is miked with multiple pairs of mics (the number depends on the size of the venue usually located at the front, in the middle, and at the rear of the venue. Another pair might be located on the stage aimed out toward the audience.
All this is recorded (alongside a backup unit, should the primary one go down during the show) over a series of shows, with the best general performance chosen and mixed later, or the best of several performances edited together.
Fig. 12.2. The three-way signal split.
Instruments or vocals might even be fixed or replaced by overdubbing at a later date if the artist just can’t live with a clam or shaky performance. I’ve known live recordings in which everything was replaced except the drums and the audience! That’s cheating to me, but if it’s okay with the artist and their fans, who am I to say?
Now I know you can’t afford all that, so what can you do to get a decent live recording? The simple way is to use a hand-held stereo recorder like an Edirol, Zoom, M-Audio, Yamaha, or Olympus model like you’re using during rehearsal, and position it about 12 feet back from the PA cabinets, but more on the edge of the cabinet toward the stage (see Fig. 12.3).
Fig. 12.3. Positioning the recorder.
This will give you the best balance between the vocal-heavy PA and the instruments on the stage. Keep in mind that you’ll have to experiment a bit to find the exact spot where the balance is right. That’s because the balance depends upon the song, the room you’re recording in, the volume of the band, the volume of the PA, and how large and boisterous the audience is.
The more sophisticated way to record would be a smaller version of the way the big guys do it. If you have either DAW software for your computer and a FireWire or USB interface, or a dedicated digital recorder like a Tascam DP-2 or Alesis HDR-24, then you can try this: Let’s say you have a common eight-channel interface from a manufacturer like M-Audio, MOTU, or Edirol.
Ideally, what you want is to get the lead vocals on one track, the background vocals (if there are any) on one track, the kick and snare on separate tracks, and guitars, bass, and keyboards all on separate tracks. Usually the rest of the drums will be picked up by the stage mics, and while this isn’t ideal, it does give you a measure of control over the most important elements.
How do you separate these mix elements?
On all but the most inexpensive mixers there are either Direct Outs or Inserts on each input channel of the mixer or console.
Direct outs (see Fig. 12.4) do just what they say. Each one sends an output directly from an isolated channel, so they’re perfect for recording.
Just connect one each for the lead vocal, kick, snare, and bass from the mixer to your interface.
If you don’t have a Direct Out, you’ll probably have an Insert on each microphone channel (see Fig. 12.5). An insert jack allows you to insert a device like a compressor, delay, or reverb only on that particular channel.
The insert jack can also be used as a direct output too. The trick (with mono connections like a guitar cable) is to push the plug in only halfway! (See Fig. 12.6. - page 5)
Fig. 12.4 Direct output.
What if you have two guitars and two background vocals? You have four band elements to record but only two additional inputs. The answer comes from the sub-groups that you might also have on your mixer (see Fig. 12.7 - page 5).
Route the guitars to a sub-group and plug that output into your interface, then route your background vocals into a second sub-group and send that to another channel of your interface (see Fig. 12.8 - page 6). Done!
Fig. 12.5 Channel insert
To finish the recording, place an audience mic about half the length of the room back from, and pointing toward, the stage.
The audience mic will not only pick up the audience response but also should give the track a little “glue” by helping to balance everything. Don’t add too much, though, as a little goes a long way. You can lose some of your bass response if you add too much.
A Simple Track Sheet
Here’s how a track sheet of the setup above would show channel assignments.
Note that the first listing includes a keyboard track instead of a second guitar track.
It’s Time to Mix
When it comes to mixing for a studio recording, you will probably take a different approach from the one I suggested for live recording.
In a typical studio recording, you’ll probably start with the drums (either the kick first, but sometimes the snare or overheads), the bass, or the vocals. It all depends on the song or the particular preference of the person doing the mixing.
In this case, it’s probably a good idea to not be too stringent about where you start from, because you might wind up emphasizing the weakest track you have.
What you’re trying to do is take the attention off the weakest track.
Even though an eight-track mix is fairly simple, figure out the weakest tracks and save them for the final stage (the audience track will be last).
If the drums are a little floppy execution-wise, start with the bass and keep that in front (just like in all the ‘60s records). If the vocals go a little sideways, keep them lower in the mix.
Fig. 12.6. Mono plug inserted halfway into an insert jack.
At all times, mix to your strengths, de-emphasize your weaknesses, and bring the audience in at the end to add the glue to the track.
Now For Some Serious Recording
Now let’s look at recording songs, either for a demo, to get gigs with or to showcase the songs you and your band mates have written.
While it could be as easy as setting up a couple of mics and a portable recorder during a gig as illustrated above, it probably will take a great deal more work than that.
There’s No Such Thing As A Demo
About the only thing that I would consider a demo is a sample of the songs from your set list if you’re in a cover band and need to prove to a promoter or club owner that you play acceptably well.
If you record these songs too well (like you might in a professional studio) you run the risk of having the recording backfire on you, with the club owner thinking that you really don’t sound that good because everything was polished in the studio.
Fig. 12.7. A mixer sub-group.
That’s why I always felt that a controlled example of your set, like at a rehearsal, made a lot better sense for getting a gig. You don’t want to spend too much time or money on this, and luckily, you don’t have to.
If you’re recording some of your own songs, erase the word “demo” from your mind. A demo will always keep you in the “good enough” mindset.
You have to approach each song as if it were a finished master because these days it’s easier than ever to make some excellent recordings without spending a huge amount of money. So, forget about demos. They’re just an excuse for a recording that’s inadequate in some way.
The idea of the demo came out of practicality, since up until about the year 2000 you just didn’t have the ability to make a record that sounded like a major release anywhere but in a real recording studio. Yes, it was done occasionally, but the vast majority of songs you heard on the radio were made by real pros with real pro equipment.
Back then, bands would make a demo that was just good enough to get a label or producer interested in taking them to the next level.
Because studios were so expensive (typically $100 to $250 an hour, plus engineer, tape, etc.), it was usually impossible to spend enough time to make a recording that was up to snuff, compared with a major label release.
And if you weren’t located near a reasonably high-end studio, you were forced to use whatever was available.
As a result, almost everyone made a demo before moving on to a deal with a label. Once signed, you got to make a record in a professional studio with some pros who knew what to do.
Most of that has changed with the last few generations of affordable and readily available recording gear, and with the fact that the listening public doesn’t care as much about audio fidelity as they once did (maybe they never did, but the record companies sure thought so).
It’s easy enough now to record for less money and distribute it for next to nothing. People expect every recording to be as good as you can make it, and that’s part of the problem.
Just because you own a hammer doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to swing it, and the same applies to recording gear. You may have some really cool recording toys, but it takes more than owning them to make a decent-sounding recording.
There’s a lot of information on recording available in books (like my four prior to this one) and on the Internet, but only an ear developed by experience can bring these tools to life.
The Way To Make Your Recording Sound Great
Now that we’ve gotten that straight, let’s talk about recording your stuff so it really sounds great. I’d be shocked if someone in the band doesn’t already have some sort of multitrack recording setup, so the temptation to record yourselves is going to be really great.
My advice: don’t do it if you can help it, at least not the basic tracks. The reason? Recording takes a lot of practice to develop the ear required to make things sound good, for one.
Fig. 12.8. Eight-channel live- recording setup.
It’s usually impossible to concentrate on both playing in a band and learning how to record at the same time (believe me, I know from experience). The second reason is that you probably don’t have a recording environment that’s conducive to making your band sound great. My suggestion is to do what most of the pros do: record your basic tracks (all the rhythm instruments if possible, but at least the drums) in as close to a real studio as you can using the best engineer you can get.
After you’ve gotten the basic tracks to the point that you’re satisfied, bring the tracks back to your band mates with the multitrack setup and do your overdubs without feeling the need to look at the clock all the time. When you’re ready to mix, go back to either the engineer who recorded your basics, or find the most experienced person you can find. Use this method and you’ll find that you’ll get a better product without having to spend too much of the band’s time learning to record and mix.
If you decide to record yourself or if there’s just no one in your area that you like and trust to record you, at least get some help. There are lots of good books out there, but of course I recommend the ones I wrote: The Recording Engineer’s Handbook, The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook (a best seller!), and the Audio Mastering Handbook. The first book you should get is The Drum Recording Handbook, because the drum sounds are the key to a great-sounding recording. If the drums don’t sound great, neither will anything else.
Pros Are Pros For A Reason
In the days before home studios were affordable, people learned the art of making records mostly through an informal apprentice program.
They started off in the studio as a runner or go-fer (the person that goes for coffee, sandwiches, etc.—in England they called them tea boys), moved up to tape-op (the person that operated the tape recorder—a position that was the first studio job to become obsolete), became an assistant engineer where they really learned the ropes, and then finally became a full engineer.
When an engineer got enough clients he (or she) became an independent, and if he worked on enough hits, finally got a chance to become a producer.
A producer didn’t necessarily need to be an engineer, and was usually a musician who had some experience making records, had a good sense of what sounded good, and knew how to put songs together.
Today the studio pros who can be really helpful have spent a lot of time in the control room and have developed their ears to where they’re finally tuned to what needs to happen to make a recording great.
The same goes for studio musicians. Session players have enough experience to know what to play and when to play it. They know how to best interact with the artist, other musicians, the engineer, and the producer to make the session the most efficient and fun. They have a vast array of equipment to choose from, all of it in perfect working order. They know how to make you and your song sound great.
The problem now is that most of the high-level pros are concentrated in London, New York City, Nashville, and Los Angeles, and so chances are you won’t have the ability to work with one of them even if you want to (although it’s getting easier with musicians, since most are available via eSession or will play on a track if you send them song files).
What I’m trying to illustrate is that studio pros are pros because they spend all their time working in the studio on music, and all that experience takes their ears and ability to another level completely.
It’s A Different Mindset
It’s been said over and over in this book, but it’s still worth repeating.
You have to think differently when you’re about to do some serious recording. If you read the first part of the book about your individual instrument, then you’re aware of the things that are expected if you want your recording to be successful.
Once more, let’s reinforce what it takes to think like a pro when it’s time for a recording session.
Arrive early. This goes without saying, but I’ll say it again to reinforce it. You should always arrive at least a half-hour before the downbeat of the session and if you’re a drummer or keyboard player with a lot of gear, then figure one full hour. Remember, if you’re late and you keep people waiting, it’s probably going to cost you money.
Turn your cell phone off. The session should be your main priority with as few distractions as possible and one of the easiest ways to achieve this is to turn off your cell phone. If you leave it on, not only do you risk ruining a good take if the ringer goes off, but talking on the phone is the best way to stop the momentum of a session in its tracks.
And it’s disrespectful to everyone else involved. Don’t even bother to put it on vibrate, as this will cause you to lose your focus just as easily as when the ringer is on. Turn it off; then leave the phone outside the studio in the lounge so you won’t be tempted to use it.
Make sure your gear works. If you’re serious about recording, then everything has to work, from the smallest guitar cable to the largest amplifier. Not only does everything have to work, but it has to be in tip-top condition as well. The better everything works and sounds, the better your recording will be.
Make sure your gear is comfortable to you.Make sure everything’s working, the cables aren’t crackling, your basses are in tune and intonated, your tuner is working, and your amp sounds good. Make sure you can set everything up quickly and be zero hassle to anybody, either technically or personally. Turn off your cell phone.
Make it a point that everyone sees you’re turning off your phone or leaving it outside the studio so they all understand that you’re not interested in phone calls while you’re working. Make the session a priority.—Paul Ill
Be Prepared. Know just what you’re going to record. Have a plan, and then have a backup in case things don’t work out the way you expect. Make any charts, notes, lyric sheets, or cheat sheets beforehand. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time for something that could easily have been done beforehand.
Bring everything to the session you think you might need. Even if there’s only a remote possibility that a piece of gear might be needed, bring it anyway because you can bet it’ll be the one piece that will hold everything up if you don’t.
“I over-kill. I bring so much more stuff than we’ll use, because that’s part of the charm of hiring me. It’s part of the “ooh, ahh” factor, and also it’s to be of service to the muse and the spirit of the session. If you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing or where the music is going to go, that one extra piece that you bring can make the difference. I’ll bring as many basses as I can fit in my car for that day with a B-15.” - Paul Ill
Different Gear For Different Jobs
It’s also been said many times in this book that playing a gig is distinctly different from recording a song.
What works on a gig won’t always translate, either playing-wise or gear-wise.
You choose your gear for a gig based on versatility, durability, and general ruggedness.
The only thing that counts in the studio is the sound.
While one size might fit all on a gig, it will usually make for a boring recording, especially if you’re recording more than one song.
This doesn’t apply if you’re just trying to record some songs of your band to get some gigs, but if you’re recording your own songs, then gear makes a profound difference in how you sound.
You should make every effort to get a variety of the best-sounding gear that you can.
I’ll give you an example. On the first record I ever made (at the tender age of fifteen) my band, except for the keyboard player, took all of our stage gear into the only place you could make a record at the time—a real recording studio.
The keyboard player used the studio’s Hammond and Leslie combination. When we finished the record and looked back on our experience, we were horrified to find that the one who sounded the best was actually the weakest player— the keyboard player!
How’d that happen? Because he had the best pro equipment to use and all the gear we owned paled in comparison. It was an early lesson in using the right gear for the job.
Tips For a Great Recording
Whether you’re recording yourselves with your own gear or are using a studio, the goal is the same: make the songs and the recordings sound as big, as polished, and as accessible to your audience (however large or small) as you can. That being said, here are some things to be aware of.
You Hardly Ever Sound Great the First Time
Contrary to what you might have heard about hit records done on the first take, most recordings of any type require a lot of work to be any good. It takes time to get the right sounds and performances, and unfortunately, these things usually can’t be rushed.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn when recording is not to expect gold-record-quality playing right off the bat. One of the worst ideas you can get is that you have to be perfect every time you play. It just doesn’t happen that way, so don’t get discouraged. Even the best studio players make some flubs or have slightly erratic time when they’re playing.
They just go back and fix the problems afterward, and you can too. Yes, it happens occasionally when someone gets extremely lucky and plays something terrific on the first take, but it’s a rare exception—even for studio-savvy and expert musicians.
Recording is hard work. It’s not uncommon for people to slave over a part for days or even weeks until it feels right in the track. So if pros won’t settle for something that’s not the best it can be, why should you?
I know you’re probably thinking about all those hit records in the ‘50s that were done in just a few takes, how the first Beatles record was done in one twelve-hour session, and how in the glory days of Motown in Detroit they used to crank out three number-one hits in three hours.
All true. But don’t forget that all those famous 1950s artists honed their act from months and years of playing on the road, the Beatles played six sets a night for a year in Hamburg before they hit the studio, and the Motown studio musicians were the best of the best jazz musicians in Detroit with some hall-of-fame songwriters and arrangers.
But besides all that, the bar is set so much higher for recording these days.
Sad but true that many of those incredible tracks just wouldn’t make it through the recording process if they were done today because of defects in the playing.
The fact of the matter is that recording today on any level is a demanding process, so don’t expect great results right away.
Just like a band learning a new song together, everything takes time before it actually gels, so be prepared to work until you get it.
As an example, I believe that a typical overdub takes at least two days to record.
The first day you work the part out until it’s a perfect fit for the song. The second day you perform it well, because by then you know how to play it and can concentrate on performance.
The whole trick is to follow your gut. If you think deep down inside that you can do it better, then you probably can.
In the majority of cases, making a record is hard work. It takes a lot of time to work parts out, make them sound great, and play or sing them well.
Sure, there’s been a handful of records that have been done on the first take or in a couple of hours (mostly in the ‘50s and early ‘60s), but today it’s a rare occurrence that involves as much luck as winning the lottery.
During the recording of one of my early band’s demo tapes, we became increasingly frustrated because it seemed to take forever (a whole four hours!) to record six songs from our set.
“We must really suck,” is what we told ourselves from that point until the band broke up, but only later when I began to regularly work in studios did I learn the real truth. Recording is hard work and takes a lot of time to make something that will sound good.
These were songs that we’d been playing at gigs every weekend for about a year so we knew them backward and forward. Or so we thought! You never really know exactly what you’re playing and exactly what you sound like until you record yourself. Almost always, you’ll find that something that you thought was gangbusters is, in fact, just a buster. You might be playing a line differently from the other guitar player. Maybe your rhythm pattern is different from what the drummer is playing. Maybe you just can’t hit that high like you thought you could.
The secret is to be brutally honest about your playing and singing, just like in the previous chapters. If it doesn’t sound great, either rehearse it until it does or don’t play it at all!
The Importance of a Producer
Whether you’re recording cover material as a demo for getting jobs or making a record of your own songs (remember, there are no demos when it comes to your material), it really helps to have an outside ear to help. I can tell you from experience, most people are incapable of doing more than one of the primary studio jobs at the same time (artist, musician, engineer, producer). Yes, Prince does it, but he’s not in a band and has plenty of time and money to get things to his liking.
A producer is the equivalent of a movie director in that he has the ability to craft your songs technically, sonically, and musically. Having a producer helps your studio efficiency. He can tell you when a take is better or worse than the rest.
He can tell you when something sounds good or bad and, most important, tell you why. He can mediate between opinions of band members if you let him. Just these things alone can make things go a whole lot faster and save you money and some brain damage as well.
Obviously, it’s best to get a pro who produces a lot and knows his way around the studio, but someone like that will charge you.
An engineer can usually help because he has a lot of studio experience, but once again, it’s really hard to engineer and produce at the same time and do both well.
A trusted musician friend who likes your band can be helpful as long as he has the respect of all the band members.
The real key is to have a respected outside voice that can help you in your decision making.
What you don’t want, however, is a control freak who insists things be done his way, someone who claims to have a lot of experience that can’t back it up, or someone who everyone in the band disrespects.
It’s your music and he works for you (unless you’re signed to a record label, in which case he works for them). He’s there to facilitate your vision, not his.
This Isn’t a Party
You should never treat recording as anything other than something that must take your entire focus. Indeed, you’ll need to give it 100 percent of your concentration to sound your very best. To that end, recording should never be treated as a party.
It’s not a place for your friends or fans to hang out, and it’s not a place for a couple of six packs. Just because you might be a punk band, it doesn’t mean you have to carry the lifestyle over to recording.
The Pistols had to be wild, wasted, and non-conformist because that was their image, but they were deadly serious when recording. Green Day also had that persona in the early days, but they were serious when recording and that’s why they climbed the ladder and most of the others from that scene didn’t.
If you want to make the best recording you can, don’t show up wasted. Do show up on time, and show up prepared. Good music makes you a cool person, not the act.
“I tend to approach every session, whether it’s in somebody’s cramped little studio with Pro Tools LE or if it’s in a multimillion dollar facility, the same as if I were at Abbey Road with the Beatles. They’re all equally important. I’m as enthusiastic or excited about coming over to somebody’s house for $50 as I am for a triple-scale record date. To me it’s all the same and I think people sense that enthusiasm and excitement.” - Paul Ill
“If I have Chad Wackerman on drums, I can tell him to lay back one more hair on the beat and he’ll know what I mean, where with younger players there’s only ahead of the beat, behind the beat, and on the beat. For advanced players there are a hundred variations of all of those places.” - Producer Frank Fitzpatrick
“An important thing for me is to serve the song at all times. Try to keep an open mind and if someone has an idea in the room then always let that idea be heard. If it involves you trying something different in the part that you’re playing, you can’t get defensive about it. You have to just let it happen because that really goes a long way toward creating a good atmosphere in the room. When everybody drops their ego and just tries to serve the song, I find that the best idea will rise to the surface and everybody will recognize it. It’s human nature to want our ideas to be the best ones, but if you can be open to others’ suggestions, you can learn something and maybe do something that you wouldn’t have thought of doing.” - Peter Thorn
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