Recording diary: Mumblin Deaf Ro – "Senor, my friend…"

Originally published on the Things You're Missing website.

Mumblin Deaf Ro

 

Recording diary: Mumblin Deaf Ro – Senor, my friend …
by Mumblin Deaf Ro

About a year ago I started recording an album at home using a Roland digital 8 track. Because of the constraints involved, I decided to keep it simple, using combinations of acoustic guitar, piano, drums, bass and vocals for the songs, so this may be less relevant to people interested in recording a fuller band sound. Nevertheless, I hope that some of the advice on mics and planning are relevant no matter what you're recording. Incidentally, I was working a day job throughout this project so this reflects a more piecemeal approach. This piece is mainly about recording; I have not gone into the nitty-gritty of mixing, which is a topic of its own.

Finally, you should know that I am lazy perfectionist. I usually have an idea how it should be done properly, but because of time/energy constraints or lack of technical knowledge, I do it differently. Oddly enough, the results can be more interesting because of this.

Introduction: Studio vs Home Recording
The basic choice for me was between paying to rent a studio or investing time and money in making a home recording. With the studio option you get professional equipment, professional expertise and good results with relatively little technical know-how. Unfortunately, studio time is very expensive and, unless you've got a label behind you, you mightn't have enough time to do the recording to the standard you'd like.

Although the homespun option still involves a considerable investment, it frees you up to spend all the time you need to get the recording just right. My previous recording experiences with bands had left me feeling that with more time, we could have done a much better job. Rather than risk this anti-climax again, I decided on the DIY method, leaving me with plenty of time to make, and learn from, mistakes .

The Creative Vision
While it is tempting to become precious about the album and to brazenly laugh off the limitations of home recording, you'd be wise to be realistic about the project. I decided to record songs that I felt would work with simple arrangements, with relatively few whistles and bells.
Depending on the complexity of your music this may not always be possible.

Also, I find a common problem with home recordings is that the creator sometimes attempts to overcompensate for the rudimentary equipment at their disposal by using mutli-layered keyboards and vocals to achieve a certain richness in the sound, or by adding extra instruments that clutter the arrangements. My advice would be to resist this: the real test for an 8track recording is not how full it sounds, but how well you find 'space' in the recording (i.e. you can hear each instrument clearly without each of them being high in the mix).

Anyway, it's no harm to decide, in broad terms, what type of album you're going to record before starting. If nothing else, it will help you decide which other musicians you'll need to get on board. I would advise you to be flexible and not to attempt 'capturing the sound in your head'; believe me, it doesn't exist and anyway it'll free you up to enjoy a more serendipitous recording experience.

Planning
Once I decided the songs I was going to do, I made a list of everything I intended recording for each song. This left me with an intimidating 'to-do' list but it helped keep me on track. As I was recording over a long period of time, I aimed to clear one item off the list per evening/session, e.g. do a bass line or backing vocal. I also found it useful to record songs in batches of three, so if I got bogged down I could switch to something else and revisit the problem with a fresh mind later.

Time management is also important. If you want to do a good job, you'll have to miss some TV programmes and piss-ups. In general, I fixed one or two nights per week to do it – I chose Monday and Tuesday, leaving the weekends for recording other musicians, and attending to my social and love lives

With home recording you may have to bounce down a few times and as such, the sequence you record the instruments for a song is very important.
For example, you may want to leave vocals, drums, bass and lead guitar with a track of their own. For the most part I recorded in the following
sequence:

    1. click track first – you can use a metronome, but I found using basic drum beats from a keyboard better because you can find your place in a bar by reference to the bass/snare as opposed to a clicktrack where the beginning of the bar is harder to distinguish. I asked my drummer to select a suitable clicktrack, seeing as he was the one who had to follow it
    2. record a rough take of vocal and guitar/or piano – this, together with the click track constitutes the dummy track.
       Do 1. and 2. for three songs.
    3. I contacted any other musicians I wanted to use and asked them to commit to a date; I made arrangements with the drummer first. To keep things on track, I'd always ask them to give me one absolutely definite date, rather than a few 'maybe' dates. I gave them a tape of the dummy tracks, which saved a lot of time later.
    4. Do the drums – I will explain more about this below. If your drummer has trouble playing to a click track, turn it off and let him play along with the dummy guitar/vocal (which is in time with the click track anyway). Once drums are recorded, record the others instruments in time with them rather than the clicktrack (even if your drummer doesn't have perfect timing)
    5. In the interim, record any parts you can do yourself – aim for one item per evening and spend spare session time listening back to the dummy tracks for ideas rather than cramming as much recording as possible into a session. After all, if you're recording over a number of months, it's best to pace yourself.
    6. Record the other musicians. I used to ask them to do three takes for each of three songs straight off (9 takes in all). This way they'll relax and won't worry about making mistakes, because there's be another two versions to fall back on anyway. It's important to be patient and sensitive when dealing with other musicians; after all they have feelings too. Don't listen back to, and judge, each take as you go. This can break the momentum built up by the musician and will make it harder for them to relax. In general, do a block of recordings, then listen back over a cup of tea, and then clean up any mistakes.
    7. If you're using something like a sax, cello or other non-standard instrument, record them on a track of their own. Don't bounce them with other tracks until you've got used to listening to them with the rest of the song built around them – otherwise there's a tendency to put them too high in the mix.
    8. Finally do the vocals and backing vocals. I found vocals the hardest thing to get right, as there is a strong tendency towards self-criticism. However, to sort my voice out beforehand, I'd boil hot water, add a half a lemon's worth of juice and about three teaspoons of honey. This is particularly important when you've been working all day.

Mics
The first thing you need to know about home recording is that the end result is largely dependent on the quality of the microphones you use.
It is by far the most important piece of equipment and there are two main types: dynamic and condenser.

Dynamic: The ones you probably use in a rehearsal room or live are dynamic mics, usually made by Seinnheiser or Shure. These are trustworthy, robust mics, well suited to the day-to-day use; however, they are not quite sensitive enough for recording and instead you'll need to use a condenser mic for the best results.

Condenser: these are much more sensitive, and therefore much more expensive. This is not the time to be parsimonious though: if you can't afford one either club together with other musicians and buy one between you, or rent one. For a quality recording this is absolutely essential.
Also, for these to work you must route them through a small battery operated power unit (about the size of a guitar tuner) called 'phantom power'. Ask your friendly music shop about this.

(ed. Note that condenser mics are not necessarily *better* than dynamic mics, but they can be more suited to certain applications. Vocals will usually sound better through a large diaphragm condenser, but a bass drum or a loud Marshall will probably sound better recorded through a dynamic. Condensers *do* tend to be more expensive, but there are some very fancy dynamics around that are very dear too.)

Drums

Drums are quite tricky to record. Possibly more so than for other instruments, the room you record them in will make a big difference. I didn't have much choice as they were done in a friend's bedroom, but if you can you should rent a well soundproofed room in a rehearsal studios (you needn't go to the expense of a proper recording studio). To do it right, you can hire special drum mics which are specifically designed to capture the frequencies of particular drums or cymbals. There are many ways to mic a drum kit, but if you've only got 4 inputs (as I had) you can do it as follows :

Bass drum: special 'egg' shaped mic in the drum itself (ed. probably an AKG D112); put some pillows in to get softer sound; if your bass drum sounds puny (as mine almost always did), then try bouncing it together with bass guitar and treat the resulting combination with a little bass compression.

Snare: snare mic between hi-hat and snare, this should capture both

Overheads: Two dynamic mics positioned a either side of the drumkit, a couple of feet from the cymbals. This will capture the overall kit sound, especially the crash and ride cymbals; you can then increase the bass and snare mics to get the sound you want.

If you're really stuck and have only two mics, put one mic overhead and one in the bass drum.

To be really flash, you can put another mic in a corner of the room, about 6 feet from the kit . This is supposed to capture the 'ambient'
sound of the drums reverberating around the room, rather than the 'impact' sound. Basically, when you're mixing the drums down (I mixed them to two tracks) you can increase/decrease the ambient mic sound to alter the feel of your drums.

Guitars
I didn't record any electric guitars for my album. Basically I put a good condenser mic about 4 inches from the 12th fret of my acoustic. If you move it nearer the higher frets (towards the soundhole), you get a bassier sound, and a more trebly sound if you move it the other way.
Just keep trying new positions until you get one you like. By the way, it also makes a difference whether you record near a wall or in the middle of the room, so check these out too.

For lead acoustic guitar, be sure and listen out for whether your high notes are quieter than your low notes. You may need to compensate for this with you playing rather than mixing/recording. If squeaking on the fretboard bothers you – especially in the summer when your hands are sweaty – there is a brush-on substance you can get in your local music shop that prevents this.

Vocals
I find vocals quite intimidating, so they always take ages. The first thing to do is to make a popshield; this is a device that you put in front of the mic to prevent the air hitting it too hard when you make sshhh and 'p' sounds. They're expensive to buy, but if you have a wire hanger and a pair of tights you can make your own.

With vocals, I found that if I wasn't in the mood I just recorded some other instrument instead. I didn't try and force it, and the result was better for it. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of homey and lemon in helping your voice.

Generally position yourself about 4-5 inches from the mic (one stretched handspan) and put the popshield halfway between the mic and you. Put the input volume level as high as you can without getting a hiss. When you sing, you'll probably notice that you're louder for high bits than for low bits. Using some compression can even this out, compression is not a miracle-worker, so you should aim to sing at as consistent a volume as possible.

Finally
Once the recording is done, make a rough mix and listen to it for a few weeks before doing the final mix. This will give you plenty of ideas on the levels, panning, and any enhancements you need. I found that the tough decisions involved what I needed to take off the recording rather than what I needed to add. There can be a danger that, because you've thought of all these wonderful pieces to enhance your song, you'll be reluctant to get rid of them. Be brave though, the most important thing is that there is space in the song and that the listener can distinguish each part without any effort.

Once your cd is finished, all that's left for you to do is to rehearse your award acceptance speech …

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