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.
This week at Factory Street we are running our half term Rock School. It’s a breath of fresh air to have young enthusiastic musicians everywhere. As the week progresses, I am invited to sit in on rehearsals and give some feedback on their work.
It’s a very similar process that I go through with the bands I produce in the studio really, the main difference being that the rock school students are much more able to take constructive critique, and act upon it, than many of the older bands.
Having said that, the more experienced the musicians are often more willing to accept direction. With time comes the understanding that the closer you are, the less objective you become.
We left off last time with the set-up complete and in control of what we are listening to. It’s at this point, with a performance of the material we are going to be working on tracked, that we reconvene in the control room to listen back and evaluate.
Occasionally a band will have a really clear idea of where they are going with their music and what comes back out the speakers is what we want, job done and off we go home…….
More often than not we feel there is room for improvement. So what are we listening for?
First of all I tend to think about how the song hangs together;
The answers to all the above can go either way. I can’t pretend I know the secret (whatever that is) but it’s worth asking the questions. There are no rules in music that don’t deserve to be broken but you should always have a reason and consider the implications.
Long intros that work well on stage to build the tension and set the scene can fall flat on a recording. The same goes for extended instrumental sections. Music is communication and I’m not a fan of the the message being “look at how fast I can play, I know all the notes.”
Talking of communication, how many songs have you sung without actually thinking about what the lyrics mean? It’s surprisingly common. I make a point of asking, not so I find out but to make the performers think about it.
That doesn’t just go for the singers. Instrumental music conveys intent and emotion too.
We also think about how the different parts might fit together. Often in practice rooms it’s hard to hear things, the bass player and drummer may have played a song many times without realising that the kick and bass don’t lock in together.
There aren’t many arrangements that really benefit from two guitars and a bass playing exactly the same rhythmic pattern all the way through, let alone the same notes.
The groove is of course fundamental to the whole thing. Does it feel right? The impact of changing the tempo just a couple of bpm can be enormous. Drawing attention to a certain instrument may be the key to someone finding the way to lock in if they have been struggling.
Different musicians find it best to work with a click track or not. I find it’s best not to get people to work with a click in a session if it’s something they are not used to. It can just be a new challenge that doesn’t help and puts people off. Certain types of music demand it but often a change in tempo can be a part of the arrangement and adds another dynamic to the piece.
The sounds need to be considered at the tracking stage too;
Two guitars with humbuckers into Marshall amps could easily get in each others way in the mix. This is why I have a selection of guitars and amps handy round the place. Usually musicians are reluctant to change their equipment but once they hear the difference it can make, they may change their minds.
If the kick and bass are masking badly then the best solution can often be to change the drum or the guitar. A certain amount can be achieved with EQ but if they take up the same space naturally then mixing them will be tough.
These are just a couple of examples. It is very important to have a clear idea of the frequency range you plan each instrument to take up and work towards that plan from the start.
If more than one instrument is being recorded at the same time then it’s important to check that the bleed is manageable. If it’s possible that one needs to be re recorded then this is critical, but the implications also need to be considered for just making things sound good.
How easy it is to change all these things in the space of one recording session is really dependant on the will and ability of the musicians.
This also of course all depends on your relationship with the band and/or the backers. Are you hired as a producer or recording engineer? Or any of the grey areas between?
It’s well worth working that out in advance. It could mean the difference between just getting paid for the session or getting paid for your input and creative genius for the rest of your life.