Cigars and Brandy in the War Room – June 2009

Hey guys and girls. This month we start a new series of articles on music, and a lot of it will be focused on what I know fairly well; recording. Not things like how to record, where to put a mic, how to hook up a Buss Compressor, why a Crate practice amp just won’t sound like a Mesa Triple Recto, no matter how hard you try (trust me). Rather, I’m going to focus on the philosophies behind recording and ways to make the project go smoothly, whether you are headed to someone else’s studio, or sitting on your bed with a laptop and a mic.

Great, you’ve decided to record your music. Now how do you get it to sound like something you’re proud of, as opposed to making excuses as to why you’re not? Let’s focus on some fundamental prep work that can go a long way towards making your record sound great.

The first thing you can do before you even set foot into a recording situation is to make sure your instruments are in good shape. This means getting your drums, bass, or guitar to sound good to your ears when you’re just jamming away. The reason for this is a very simple, but often overlooked principle of the studio. The studio is not a magical place. It can’t make your guitar, or any other instrument for that matter, sound like something it isn’t.

For example, let’s take a guitar amp. Now, I’m not making any judgments, because good gear is expensive. But if you’re pursuing a specific tone or sound, and you can’t get it with your amp, guitar, pedals or whatever, microphone placement is not going to change the sound of your rig. In other words, the tone you didn’t like before isn’t going to be changed into the sound you’ve always dreamed of the moment you walk into the studio. I don’t care HOW expensive the studio is, none of them are from the pages of British Mythology. The same philosophy holds true with any other instrument you might bring into the studio.

Yes, yes, OK, before you go crazy there are many little tricks and black voodoo that can be carried out to change parts of a sound after its been recorded. But, the fundamental tone, the vibe, the soul of the sound is going to come from the source, before it even hits the mic.

So what do you do? One of the easiest things to do if you’re not happy with your sound is to borrow someone else’s gear. You have friends in bands, right? Well buy them some Taco Bell and ask them if you can borrow their rig to record with. Or pick a studio with a selection of amps you can try out and use. Yes, it will take a few minutes of valuable studio time to test the amps. But in the long run, isn’t a few extra minutes spent tinkering worth having great tone on the album? Studios with vast collections of cool pedals can be very fun as well. Just be careful, because as soon as you open up that case of pedals, it’s easy to get, shall we say, distracted.

The other part of making your rig sound good is basics. Good strings, (bring a couple extra packs too, just in case), make sure your guitar is set up properly, no buzzing frets, the intonation is correct, etc. double check that your cables are good, although most decent places will have a couple extra ¼” cables lying around. Bass players, re-read that last paragraph and replace the word “guitar” with “bass”.

As one might expect, drums get a little more complicated. With a wide range of possible setups, from 10 piece kits (for drummers with very large vehicles), or even the most basic rig, the process of making drums sound good gets a little funky. 

A guitar is an instrument with 6 different tonal pieces; the strings, unless it’s a 7 string. But you get the idea. A drum set can have one snare, one hi-hat, one kick, three toms, two crashes, a ride, and a china. And that’s not even going too crazy. So here you’ve got an instrument with 10 parts that all have to work together.

So drummers, tune your drums. If it sounds rocking when you play, and it sounds rocking to the other members of the band, it will almost certainly sound rocking on tape. A Drum Dial or some other kind of drum head tension measurement system can really help to tune the drum quickly. Some studios may even have one handy.

Oh, one more thing, when transporting drums, temperature changes (especially down here in Florida) can really mess up the drum’s tuning. So even if you tuned it before you left, tune it again once you set up in the studio.

Another thing for drummers (and a personal request of mine) is to lay off the rimshots. When you’re playing live and just trying to get over the wall of guitars, bass, and vocals, rimshots may be fine, even necessary. But in the studio, surrounded by mics, with two mics on the snare drum alone, they are totally unnecessary, and can really hurt the sound of the drum. When you hit the head and the rim at the same time, the overtones of the drum are immediately muted by the stick. So you don’t get any tone or depth, you just get volume and attack, and when was the last time you bought a record for how loud the snare drum was?

Also, from a technical recording standpoint, it’s very difficult to get a deep, full sound out of a rimshot, no matter how many mics you use. If you’re still skeptical, next time you’re in a studio, do a take with rimshots, and then one without, and you can see for yourself.

OK, I’m out, stay tuned for more engineer rants, and (possibly) some useful info about recording.

Be Well

Chris Short

Owner/Head Engineer

Alpaca Ranch Recording .com


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