Making an album – Mumblin’ Deaf Ro
This is just my approach. There are millions of ways to record music.
An engineer is the person who operates the mixing desk, sets up the microphones and equipment, and who records your playing. It’s really important to use an engineer who is technically capable and easy to work with. I am not technically minded and so am easily impressed on the former point; but on the latter, it is essential that they are polite; that they listen; that they understand the type of music you’re trying to make; and that they are able to think about the songs in different ways if you hit a dead end. They also need a lot of energy, very good concentration and patience. Try and avoid engineers who only know about rock music. Ask them how they like to record vocals or piano, for example. That said, it’s hard to find all this out before you work with someone.
It usually suits the engineer to record every track separately so that they have lots of options when it comes to mixing later on. However, in my experience, the performances you get from musicians are much better when you play live together, and a bit of bleed (the sound of one instrument leaking onto another) or variation in timing is a modest price to pay. You can always overdub vocals, keyboards and lead guitar parts afterwards if there are mistakes. I think that getting good performances from musicians should be uppermost in your mind when recording parts other than your own.
If you’re going to record the music live you need to be very well rehearsed before you enter the studio and you need to have played together quietly so that you’re certain that each instrument blends the way you want it to. When recording, don’t get all Phil Spector: let the musicians do lots of takes when they’re feeling fresh and move on when they want to move on. If they get tired, take a cigarette/SPAR break. Try to avoid drinking in the studio unless you’ve got very good musicians who are used to playing well drunk. If the musicians come up with a good idea, try it, and don’t be afraid to include ideas that they bring to the studio. Musicians are creative people and if you just ask them to repeat scripted parts you’ll end up working with mediocre musicians. Also, if musicians don’t feel involved in the creative side of the process they can get bored and perform poorly. Some are easier to bore than others – guitar players seem to like variety, whereas bass players can seem happy to repeat one line forever if they like it. That said, you should retain full editorial control: bands are democracies; solo projects are not.
Allow twice as long as you think you’ll need when booking recording time.
The quality of microphones you use is really, really important, especially with vocals. I have found that the vocal mic is what lifts the recording from having a demo sound. I spent a long time on vocals because I don’t have a good voice and because I wanted my voice to sound good. My own personal preference is for very few effects and only a small bit of compression. Most people process their vocals way too much which is why people singing on the radio hardly sound alive at all. In general, every vocal will require some compression and reverb.
This is a very technical exercise, which I will describe from the songwriter’s point of view.
Music doesn’t sound like music when you record it. You need to mix it to reconstruct the song. In mixing you listen to each instrument separately and try to make it sound they way you want it to. Even if you achieve this, when you piece the whole thing together it will sound awful after the first few attempts. Mixing is very much an exercise in composition and arrangement, and not just a technical skill. You need to know how to build and combine instruments; how to achieve different subtle touches; and how to avoid using too many tracks, which is a classic mistake of amateur recordings that are self-conscious and try to be lush rather than purely musical. Overuse of backing vocals is another thing I’m not a fan of – I like to relate to the singer directly without lots of other voices butting in.
You can’t have everything high up in the mix, so you need to decide which parts to emphasise and which to leave as more background parts. Some very small details can be panned hard to one side. Bass is really hard to mix, so get your bass player involved in that. I like to pan guitar tracks to opposite sides, just because I think that on stage you never get two guitarists beside each other.
You develop these skills by listening to great music all your life.
Don’t ask me. It just comes back sounding much better.