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Recording Experiments That Didn’t Quite Go As Planned

You never know unless you try, and you’ll never learn if you’re afraid of pushing buttons, turning knobs and putting a mic where it’s maybe never been placed before.

Reading stories about all the recording “heroes” of yesterday and today gets old. These guys and gals never seem to do anything wrong.

Every single thing they try always works? Yeah, right.

Let’s focus instead on something I like to call Failure 101. A studio colleague and I have always agreed that it’s more interesting to look at experiments that totally failed. We’re not recording heroes – just a couple of guys not scared to turn knobs, push buttons, move mics, and clip the 2 mix.

First — a failure not really of the audio kind, but possibly the biggest failure we’ve had. In the early days we came across a project to record a “garage” rock band. We hung out with the band a few times to iron out the details. Along comes the session date and we began recording.

Cutting to the chase: After spending two weekends slaving away on five songs we still had a major mess to polish. We never once gave the band the justice they deserved, and instead, were more concerned with making some sort of “hi-fi” recording, completely overlooking the band’s vision and what was sonically best for them.

The performances were stale, the sounds didn’t fit the songs, and most importantly, we lost our communication lines with the band and killed their spirit.

We learned the biggest lesson on that session: The song is boss.

Low these many years since, we’ve never stopped trying things with microphones, compressors, loudspeakers, synths, etc. Along the way we’ve collected some pretty good stories of the “crash and burn.”

We had a pair of Earthworks TC30k microphones that went with us everywhere. One particular session, we thought we’d try some “more interesting” ways to mic a snare drum.

After an hour and many mics, I had the great idea of placing one TC-30k inside the sound hole of the snare drum. Now this was not easy to do — sure the mic is very small, and yes, it can take enormous amounts of SPL.

But think of the other factors involved. When you hit a snare drum, it moves. It doesn’t matter how secure it’s attached to the stand, it will move. And when we’re talking about a condenser placed to the millimeter or smaller, movement at all is very bad.

Our anxiety level increased a bit when we had a vision of the drummer accidentally hitting the mic. In this scenario the mic would actually bend if hit hard enough (remember, only a small portion of the mic is actually inside the drum).

But, carry on we did… After a few hours of getting drum sounds and doing all the different snare drum “treatments,” the moment of truth arrives. We turn up the gain, bring up the return, and … WHAT!?!? It sounds so terrible that all my “strutting around” embarrasses me.

“HONK, HONK” — sounded like a goose. The drummer says, “How’s that sound in there?” I swallowed my pride, push the talk back and calmly said, “Yeah man, it’s not quite right”.

Moving right along… we have an old tape delay unit called “multi-echo,” which is very much like a space echo or an echoplex. It’s actually a super cool unit, in that it can step up input and output level to 0 Vu (kinda), making it pretty good for the recording domain.

One particular mix session we were relying on this multi-echo unit pretty heavily, and we found it was taking us long periods of time per song to set up the delay time, and more to get it just right. This was becoming frustrating – there had never been a problem when using it on the record side of things.

Mind you, this is the first time we had used it in a mix session. After three days of fighting this thing I’m about ready to give up and just use a digital box when my colleague figured it out (by accident). We had already printed eight songs, of 18 total.

Every song up to this point had the multi-echo panned up the center, mainly carrying the lead vocal. The multi-echo was only returning delayed signal and nothing dry. On the fourth day Dan panned the lead vocal hard left and the return from the multi-echo hard right. BAM!!!!

The output of the multi-echo was completely out of phase with whatever we patched into it. It never ended up canceling the vocal in the previous mixes because it was not returning any dry signal.

We felt more than slightly stupid for not checking the phase before we started mixing, which is actually something we do all the time. We even have phase clickers for this reason (and yes, we had them at the time of this session).

Needless to say we had to back up and reprint eight “finished” mixes, which of course is not easy when you’re working in a home studio with no automation, let alone recall.

Some say, “The bigger you are the harder you fall.” Baloney — even that vertically challenged fellow on Fantasy Island falls hard, and so do we.

But you never know unless you try, and you’ll never learn if you’re afraid of pushing buttons, turning knobs and putting a mic where it’s maybe never been placed before.

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