Recording Apocryphonic: Very Loud Band, Tiny Little Room

•December 28, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I love recording ‘live’ bands. Now, I don’t just mean bands playing live, but bands who produce their music around what that can actually play live. Theoretically, they should be able to play all of their material on a stage more or less how it would be on an album. Especially if there is a dynamic ebb and flow about their music. Apocryphonic pretty much needs to be recorded as live performances.

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Active DI box before the Fender BassMan 100

So here’s the problem: limited space. I wanted to track live performances but all that we had available for space was their rehearsal room which is approximately ten by fifteen feet and containing two complete drum sets and enough amps for about four bands. Tight. They also play real loud with big tube amps, but I really wanted to get a big and controlled mix out of the main session, ie minimal bleed. All hail the inline DI box!

So to start, we had to play the angles. The drums were in one corner facing parallel to the shorter wall with the bass amp in the diagonal opposite corner of the room firing off axis of the drum mics. For the guitar, Chris just went through a Fender Twin across from the bass amp, raised up onto another cab to get it more into earshot for him. Having the amps aimed at each other across the room also put their mics back to each other for very reduced bleeding. I mic’d both rigs and put an inline DI just before each signal hit the actual amps. Then we got the amp’s volumes to where they were playable for the band but not interfering very much with the drum mics. This way they could play live, then we could push their dry DI’d signals back through more massive setups.

We had to track a quieter section near the beginning with the snares off because of the bass causing some rattling, but the rest went pretty easy. In one day we got about ninety five percent of the tracking done, including the vocals.

Notice the blanket hanging from the ceiling...

Notice the blanket hanging from the ceiling…

After session one, takes got selected and everything got pieced together. Since the drums were done, I mostly worked on that mix until session two. All that session two involved was recording some drone feedback and redoing a guitar part or two, again with both miced amps and inline DIs. Was actually had to troubleshoot the drop ceiling for the drone parts because the feddback was resonating the metal framing up their. Lifting up the light fixture and wedging in a blanket helped to cut it back a lot. The next step was very long and very loud.

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Stand in the thrall…

The reamping was done in two passes: guitar first then bass. The original unamped guitar signal was sent to a Sunn Concert, an old Fender Bassman 100, and a Sunn Coliseum amp and their respective cabinets: an old Fender 6×10 and 4×12 and a Sunn 1×15. The Fender cabs were miced with AT4040s while the Sunn 1×15 we mic’d with an AKG D112. I had an old Shure omni dynamic mic across the room for a room mic as well. Everything was teched and cranked. We then shut the door, hit record, and let the guitar for the whole EP play through and record new amped tracks. Even Chris’s high notes had balls now. The door shook. It was loud.

We did the same for the bass, except with the addition of a dirty Fender Twin mic’d with a Rode NT2000 added for some mid-range grind.

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I like my area mics on drums to be tight.

When it was all said and done, we had four guitar tracks and seven bass tracks all tracked with the same performance. Add that to the seven drum mics we walked away with 18 tracks from simultaneous live performances. And since the reamping was done in the same room as the drums, the space and tone from all of the tracks is consistent. By reusing the same space over and over again, we were able to record at the volume that they play at in that tiny room without all of the bleed. And we got it all done in two sessions!

Here’s a little clip of what we got out of that little room…

Johnny Cremains – The Leave It To Believers Sessions

•October 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Johnny Cremains as a band has a sort of vintage sounds to them. When I was asked to record them, I immediately knew more or less how I wanted it to sound. Because of their live vibe, Sean wanted to do live takes. Works for me.

When a song is played from start to finish regardless of little mistakes, there is a certain momentum that can build up. When recording in sections, to a click, or in isolation, the effect is just that. The performer is more focused on their own part at that moment instead of working on the whole. This isn’t generally the case with live performances. The show must go on! Deal with the gaff and keep on moving.

There’s also unspoken, and often even unrealized visual ques that get communicated between band members. The drummer might shift his position a bit right before a change or the keyboardist may hold a chord with one hand and flex the finger of the other right before he jumps up to a higher melody. Seeing this subconscious little language can help considerably with the timing and dynamics of the performance. A band should play like a band.

Photo courtesy DRC

I had a sound in my head from the start. I wanted to capture them with a sort of Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” method. Spector was known for packing musicians into a relatively small space and recording them all in unison. The way that the air and ambiance responds to this approach just can’t be replicated. The result isn’t just various instruments being summed together. The air in the room itself is being knocked around harder. Everything’s pushing against everything else. You want to talk about analog processing? There’s nothing more analog than air. We did everything right in their rehearsal space. This pic is from the third session. Everybody could high five if they wanted to.

The trick to tracking all of this so tight was just a bit of strategy. First of all, I used all cardioid mics for their control. No omnis or ribbons here, although I would’ve loved to move one of Doug’s amps a little farther away with a ribbon on it, but whatevs. Secondly, all of the amps were aimed at least 90 degrees off axis from the drum mics. There is some mic bleed, but it’s easily controllable.

In fact, I’ve found that as long as the bleed is at least 12dB to 16dB lower than the primary signal, the timing and phasing anomalies that turn up can actually add to the tone and sense of depth to the recording. Our brains get spacial information in various ways and allowing slight timing and phasing effects to creep into the mix naturally helps our auditory centers place the sounds deeper into the 3D stereo image. Science!

About ninety five percent of the tracks were done in only eight tracks. For the drums, I used a variation on the classic Glyn John micing setup. I used two area mics and a kick mic. No snare mic. Didn’t need it. Mike plays hard. The bass and keys were both DI’d even though they were going through a Fender Bassman full stack and a Roland keyboard amp respectively.  Doug got a mic for each of his two amps, and I took Sean’s vocal mic right from his PA. Yup. Even Sean’s vocals were done live. Since Sean never sings and plays theremin simultaneously, we just ended up using his vocal mic on the theremin amp for those parts. The ONLY overdubs were Doug’s backup vocals and the occasional Hammond track. Oh wait. We also tracked some radio dialing from an old shortwave in the studio and added a sample to “The Great Silence.” That’s it.

After everything’s setup and teched comes my favorite part: letting the band play while I press the occasional button, eat snacks, and drink a beer. Take your time guys.

Old Abbey Road Console

So, I wanted to mix this similar to something mixed in the 60’s, eh? What gave a lot of those 60’s era studios their sound? Well, the two main factors were the mixing consoles and the reverb. Analog mixing desks have characteristic sounds. Mixing through a Sound Techniques desk sound different than mixing through a Midas desk. It’s the same as with guitar amps.  For example, a Fender Twin sounds different than a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. Why? Different circuits and components.

So, since I work almost entirely in the box at this stage, I had to build a desk sound. Digital mixing is just that. Digital. A plus B equals C. That’s not quite how analog works. Analog mixers have some interplay between tracks. Just like multiple instruments in a room together effect the air differently simultaneously then they do when solo, multiple tracks running through an analog mixer effect the electrical components differently. Analog mixing generally sounds more “glued” together. That and the electrical makeup of the boards also tended to add their own color to the mix, as well. So, with the help of some secret ingredients, I assembled a custom master buss chain to help glue and color the mix in a way similar to an older mixing desk but without overdoing it. Just enough to watermark a vintage vibe across the mix.

Zappa’s reverb room at UMRK

The final big piece was the reverb. Older studios had their own reverbs. Some where chambers. Some were plates. Some were stair wells. Whatever worked for them.  And studios usually only had one of these things. So, come mixdown, signals had to be bussed into the reverb setup as a whole and brought back in as a whole. All the tracks that were getting it had to share it. So that’s what I did. I set up one reverb buss, a plate reverb, and just sent what we wanted through it. Everything with reverb, with the exception of Doug’s guitar effects, is sharing the same plugin. The piano and vocals got most of it. Sean’s vocals were also getting sent to the reverb pre-fx, meaning the louder he physically sang, the more reverb he got. This made his quiet parts fairly dry sounding, but when he really belts it they also fill up more space. I think I might have stole that idea from one of David Bowie’s engineers. Oh well.

As for individual track processing, that’s way too boring. But I do like to treat my plugins like their hardware equivalents. Nobody’s got one of every piece of hardware. If you do use hardware, you have a select batch of gear that you like, and that’s what you use. I do the same. I only allow myself a few compressor/eq/fx plugins per project.  Having everything use the same virtual set of gear also helps make the mix sound more believable. Leave it to believers. Ouch.

Enough of all that.  Here’s a short clip from the track “November’s Coming Liar“.

Editing on my Sony Bravia

•July 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

That’s a 40″, and the sound’s pretty decent.  When mixing for real world systems, it doesn’t hurt to mix on one.  Between my Sennheiser HD-280s, the Bravia, a spectrum analyzer, and a dynamics analyzer, I can usually get pretty good mixes without even hitting the reference monitors.  Plus, I can do this right in my kitchen.

Bat Shelter – Shadow Boxing Fever

•June 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Bat Shelter was great.  Here’s a clip from the same show as the Hospital Grade track.

Bat Shelter – Shadow Boxing Fever

Hospital Grade – Empty Ambulance Bay

•June 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Another live clip!  This one’s from a few years ago by a great band from St. John, New Brunswick called Hospital Grade.  Old friends from way back.  Plus, they’re awesome.

This was done with eight tracks, and was one of the first shows that I used a room mic for.  I also love the drum tone on this one: it’s tight and punchy and only three mics.

Hospital Grade – Empty Ambulance Bay

Check out their official website here.

(PS: Did I mention that they’re awesome?)

Taming the bass the 1176 way

•June 11, 2012 • 1 Comment

Mixing a bass guitar into a musically dense track can be tricky business. Human hearing is focused primarily on the mid-range frequencies, generally between 2kHz to 5kHz, and not so much the low end. Since the bulk of a bass guitar’s harmonic content is well below this range, most of the note definition comes directly from the initial attack. This makes compression a potential tone killer if used with too fast of an attack time. On the other hand, too slow of an attack can leave large transients tearing up your mix. In order to keep the bass frequencies perceivable in the mix, it also takes significantly more volume down there and can eat up quite a bit of dynamic headroom for the whole mix. The equal loudness contours graph to the right shows the relation of sound pressure levels needed across the bandwidth of human hearing that’s required for equal perceived volume.

One solution that can save you some mix headroom it to add more harmonic information via saturation/distortion/exciters. These methods can add higher order harmonics, making the bass more pronounced, but may alter the tone too much, depending on what you’re going for. So how to sit a bass naturally into a mix without sucking all the life out of it or compromising the tone too much?

 I generally mix loud rock/metal stuff, and I struggled with this for years, trying to find a balance between compression, eq, and istortion and it was hit or miss at best. Then I discovered 1176LN fast FET style compression. Introduced in 1968, the UREI 1176 was the first true peak limiter, with attack times as fast as 20 microseconds and compression ratios up to 20:1. With these insanely fast attack times and ratios, the compressor can kick in so fast that it actually grabs the bass transients and distorts then for a fraction of second, keeping the dynamics in check but still accentuating the note attack. It’s the benefits of compression and distortion all rolled into one, but when dialed in right, keeps the original tone intact. Yay!

And, thank goodness, there’s a bunch of software alternatives to the expensive hardware original. There’s even a few decent free emulations. The one that I use is the Antress Seventh Sign available here. (http://antress.blogspot.com/) It comes as a Windows 32bit VST and has about a half a dozen presets to start with and tweak from. There’s actually a lot of great plugins on this site, many based on classic pieces of gear, and they all come in one giant zip file, so there lots of free stuff to play with.

Setting the attack and release fairly fast, but not too fast, with a ratio of 4 or 8 is usually a pretty good starting place. You can then drive up the input to the the gain reduction up to where you want it. At the end of the ration knob, there’s a CR setting. The CR stands for crush mode and sets the compressor to all of the ratios simultaneously. It may sound like a strange concept, but it can have a nice effect in some cases.  It work great on vocals, too.  You can push the compressor pretty hard and still have it sound pretty good. This one is a staple in my bass processing chains.

Starting with a live track…

•June 7, 2012 • 1 Comment

I’m throwing in a live track for my inaugural post.  This is a live track from Geno’s Rock Club in Portland, ME from my band, Confusatron.  As an example of working with microphone bleed and track counts, this was done with only six tracks:  a kick drum mic, two area mics for the drums, one mic on each guitar amp, and a direct line out of the bass preamp.  Easy peasy.  Enjoy!

Confusatron – Laughter Birth