In 2008 Alex and his partner Amy set up Factory St Studios, a music hub in Bradford, England, with a spacious recording studio sporting a large format Calrec desk, tape machines, a selection of quality outboard as well as digital capability with Pro-tools and Cubase.
Over the years Alex has worked with many musicians of note including, Steve Cropper, Otis Grand, Kim Wilson, Ultrasound, Corrine Bailey Rae, The Somatics, The New Mastersounds, White Light Parade, The Whisky Priests, Geek, The Paul Middleton Band, The Heavens, Jasmine Kennedy and many more.
A little while ago, I had a four piece rock band come into the studio to record a track for their forthcoming album release. Whilst I was following my regular routine of setting up, it occurred to me that no one had taken me through the process when I was learning to record.
I suppose an explanation of how I ended up behind the desk would help.
I had played for many years in many bands and over time spent more and more time in studios as a session player and working on my own projects. The whole thing fascinated me. It was such an unintuitive process to record, compared with standing on a stage and just playing what you’ve learnt, that I was filled with questions; why would you need separation between instruments even if you are recording everything together? Why do you need headphones and can’t use monitors like on stage? Why is it important for the engineer to be in a different room? The questions just kept popping up….I bugged all the engineers in all the studios I worked in for explanations all the time.
Gradually things fell into place, there is a way of doing things for a reason….sometimes to suit the engineer….sometimes to get the band into the right frame of mind. As I watched, I realised that the best engineers/producers were arranging the day around getting the best from the equipment and the musicians; nothing was left to chance.
Spending more time on ‘the other side of the glass’ I have developed my own routines, and I have good reasons for keeping to them. It took a long time get here and I still develop and change, you never stop learning after all, but it could have saved me a lot of time and blind alleys had someone explained to me why they do things their way.
So with that in mind….
The band arrive
Hopefully at roughly the same time, it really helps to do a basic introduction to the studio with everyone at the same time; “the toilets are there” “here’s the kettle” “I like my coffee strong and black”, and then onto how we are going to run the project. On this occasion we were aiming to track one song including overdubs in one full day, mixing later, so a basic explanation of the breakdown of time scale i.e. the first couple of hours setting up, then 2 or 3 hours to get the basic track down and the rest of the day spent on overdubs, was given to the band.
This gives the musicians an opportunity to question the way we are going to set up and start making their preferences known. The fundamental premise that the musicians have to be happy and perform well is critical to producing a good recording, a pristine recording of a poor performance is worthless! It is better that compromises are made with the sound than someone being unable perform well because they are not comfortable in their surroundings.
A word about recording medium. I can count on one hand the number of artists who walk through our front door and don’t want to record to tape, and whilst we offer both analogue tape and Pro Tools/Logic, it really only comes down to budget. So anyone who tells you there’s no desire for reel-to-reel recording is probably saying that because they don’t have it!
I set the band to work setting up their kit while I get the mics out on stands and patch them into the desk, I’ll try and have a listen to each of the instruments as soon as possible to help with my mic choices, at this point I’ll also be talking to the players to get an idea of the sound they are after and start leading them in that direction. Often the sounds that players have developed on stage don’t come across well on recordings so they will need tactfully coaxing away from the tools they find work for them on stage to more recording friendly alternatives. for example guitarists often like to play with a lot of reverb (the preset patches on digital modelling devices don’t help there) but that can make the guitars sound distant. The old adage “you can add it later but you can’t take it away” is worth remembering early on to avoid going down the wrong path. Some players can be very resistant to change in which case it’s best not to push the point but go with the flow, it doesn’t take long to switch an amp or unplug a multi-effects unit, recording with the poor sound then getting everyone to listen and explaining how you would like to change/improve it can convince even the most stubborn effects addict away from their crutch, you can always feed them effects in the headphones and record the clean signal. It’s also worth remembering that there is an element of taste….. if that is the sound they want, then they may be right. It is their music after all.
Having got everyone in position I’ll start getting the sounds up on the console.
I like to have the band members who aren’t actually playing at that point, in the control room with me. This not only gives everyone a sense of perspective about the differences between the sound in the live room and the control room but stops someone playing the flugel horn while I’m trying to listen to the kick drum mic! As I get each instrument sounding how I want it, I record a couple of minutes to play back to the musician who’s in the live room. This helps give them the confidence that what they are playing will sound good and they can just get on with playing. It also gives me the confidence that the recording setup is okay and I can check for playback monitoring.
The headphone mix is critical for getting a good take. If the band can’t hear something well or their instrument sounds bad in their headphones they aren’t going to perform well. This seems obvious but it’s often part of the process that gets rushed. The musicians are keen to get on with recording and won’t speak up if they feel like it’s holding the process up. Because of this, I like to impress upon everyone the importance of a good headphone mix at this stage and make sure they know we won’t be pressing record until everyone is happy. This prevents the “that was a great take!” while the bass player was miming in the wrong key.
I try and get everyone their own headphone mix, one of the advantages of using a console is this process, putting together 5 different mixes with a mouse while the band plays a take of a three min song is a nightmare task but on a ‘real’ mixing console like the Calrec, it’s a piece of cake. I run my headphone mixes from the mic input channels pre fader, which means I can play with my monitor mix to my hearts content and don’t mess up what they are hearing. It is a nightmare as a player if your perfect headphone mix disappears just as you’re settling into the groove.
I also start recording at this point, and when I’m not listening to the headphone mixes, I can make a start getting my control room monitor mix together.First Take
When everyone is comfortable with what they can hear we go for a take. My aim here is for everyone to get through the song playing basically the right parts in the right places. As this is going on I’ll be refining my control room monitor mix, checking input with repro head, soloing all the mics to check I’m getting what I want from them, listening for phase issues and so on. Once the band have played all the way through with everything in the right place I’ll get them in to listen through to it. That’s when the fun really begins….
(to be continued)