Question from a reader, how to cut up money inside a band


Reader Oliver was kind enough to post a comment with a question that covers a topic I have intended to cover for a few weeks now. That topic is how do you cut up money within a band? What’s the whole royalty payment thing mean for individual band members over the long haul?
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Read through Oliver’s question and I’ll be back at the end……By the way Oliver is well-informed, and has put some thought into how his actions will affect other’s lives and their desire to be in the band. This proves Oliver is not a sociopath. Good for you Oliver. This may prove a handicap when dealing with all the bona fide sociopaths in the music business but it’s likely he’ll be a more satisfied rock star……………..
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Oliver writes:

Sorry if I’ve missed this somewhere but in keeping with the non-democratic approach you described, whats the best way to go about song rights/royalties? How do I avoid this situation:

i) Write every note and syllable and take all the royalties but gradually lose my band (but buy one eventually) (Dylan-esque)

ii) Write every note and syllable, split the money with band members to keep the band, drive myself crazy giving away money to the non-writing band, potentially lose the band anyway (Dandy Warhols-esque?)

iii) Agree to play/record anything good that any member writes and allow the rights/royalties go to the contributing member, run the risk of losing direction/ internal power struggles/ control over band. (Stones-esque)

None of these options seem good to me, and although I’m not greedy I’d hate to see a disgruntled band member in 30 years cruising on a yacht he bought with my songs (fanciful I know). I assume there’s no right answer, but you’ve been there and there must be a slightly better option of the three. I feel I’ve got to get this right early.

Regards and many thanks for publishing knowledge you can’t buy.
Oliver.

None of these options seem good to me, and although I’m not greedy I’d hate to see a disgruntled band member in 30 years cruising on a yacht he bought with my songs (fanciful I know). I assume there’s no right answer, but you’ve been there and there must be a slightly better option of the three. I feel I’ve got to get this right early.

Regards and many thanks for publishing knowledge you can’t buy.
Oliver.

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You’re welcome Oliver. I appreciate my readers and I know that getting an informed opinion is valuable. That’s why I write this blog.

Oliver’s predicament is classic. He is the primary creative force in his band. This is common. Most musicians are not also great songwriters.  A typical band is made up of :

A drummer – a rock steady rhythm monster with a flair for knowing exactly when to step in and a flash. He is the backbone and holds the rest of the band in the pocket and is the timekeeper.

A Bassist – He builds the groove and either adds the drive or defines the song as a dance tune. He can add darkness or light, thunder or soul.

Guitarist – Endless, colors and flavors, rhythms, melodies, flashy solos and roar.

 A Lead singer – this is the ego and the magnet and turns the writing into an experience.

Any and all of these people make up a band and make the magic that the world recognizes as rock. Any and all of the people could be primary writers. Any and all of these people make it work and without them the magic is lost. All you need to do is think of two or three great bands and it’s easy to point out an instance where the loss of a minor member seemed to change a band’s spirit and as a result the band’s golden years were over.  Making music is a touchy thing, little  changes often have big results for the better or worse.

Since this is the case how does a band split up the money?  In a way this question misstates the reality of the way money is usually dealt with within a band.  The vast majority of bands are controlled internally by one or perhaps two creative geniuses.  This is the person that writes the material and provides the vision that makes the band unique. This person has more power than the other members so saying how does a band split up its money is dishonest.  The real question is how does the person that controls the band allow the money to be split up? Or what is the best way for a band to work out a compromise that keeps everyone on board and gives credit and money to the person (s) that deserve it based upon contribution.

Another wrench that gets thrown into the possibility of an easy fair system is the fact that most of a band’s career is spent in poverty. The lifespan of bands after they get a deal or a hit, or build a base is, at the absolute extreme 10 years with 3 years being a much more likely scenario. As a result of this reality in most bands money is never discussed except perhaps as a fantasy until it is too late and there is a pie to split up without a system to do so.

I suggest quite strongly that if you are in a band, form a band or join a band that you force the band to have some kind of agreement on how money is cut up.

In the underground indy world, the world that I lived in for twenty years and helped create, there is little money to worry about as a band works out its career. Gigs can be for $50, or perhaps a $100 and recordings are simple affairs that are self financed.  So nothing to worry about right? No, there is still a little money being passed around and more importantly people will often PUT MONEY INTO THE BAND.  So you and your Mother’s Uncle’s Nephew pay for the band to record a record, who owns it? The answer is 50% you and 50% your brother. Or 50% you and your brother and 50% the band. What about the producer? I think you get the point.

When your band first starts out have a serious band meeting. Discuss the following topics and write down the results. It’s better to lose a nutty bassist during an argument before things get going then to have him walk out on tour when he doesn’t get all of the door which is what his warped mind had decided was fair. (this happened to me. He started with “Everyone knows I have the most talent…..)

1. Does the band keep a joint piggy bank? Who keeps it? In what form? (cash or an actual bank account)

2.What is done with gig money? Most bands use this to build up the piggy bank.

3. If you pay for a recording what is the split on the ownership of the recording? On this one I will suggest that you work out something where the person that pays gets their cash back first, then the band owns the recording with the person that paid getting an extra share for risking their money. This is a common arrangement.

4. Is one person the leader and or main writer? If this is the case that person MUST GET SOME CONTROL over the use of their songs, and get the publishing money. I will explain this later in the blog. Let me just say that songs make money and bands make money and the songwriter is gonna end up with the song money no matter what you may want. If this pisses you off then write a great song about it, turn it into a hit and keep all the money to prove how unfair that system is….

Have a meeting. Write this stuff down. Then rewrite it in the form WE the members of Dog Dandruff being Joe, Schmoe, Larry Schmoe, Curly Schmoe and Gonzo Garbigian do hereby agree  to the following……then put all the crap you agreed to and sign it. Make four copies sign them all and Larry, Curly and Joe get a copy. Gonzo’s mom gets a copy since he can’t read.  This is a binding contract. It’s not a very good contract and it’s not a contract written up by a lawyer but in court the judge will hold his nose and respect it. Make sure it covers what to do with gig money, royalty money and songwriting money.

Now if it comes down to a fight about money and this goes to court this contract and your two-bit agreement will run smack into the LAW. There are laws about songwriting royalties. (see one of my blogs for an explanation) There are laws about contracts and working for hire and working for a cut. There are sleazy lawyers. There are sleazy bass players with sleazy lawyer cousins.  What does all this mean? As soon as you have some success and/or a manager redo all of this with a lawyer doing the consulting.  If you do end up using a lawyer YOU TELL HIM WHAT TO DO!!! He doesn’t tell you. He works for you. He will advise you and you’d be an idiot to pay him and not listen but in the end if the band wants to leave all of the money to the Museum of Idi Amin then that’s tough luck for the lawyer.

Now for some practical advise. Perhaps this will help our Reader Oliver. The vast majority of bands, and by that I mean a band formed by unknown musicians in an attempt to make it big, split their gig money evenly.  Since recordings are becoming less and less valuable as money-making endeavours this may turn out to be the lion’s share of the money.  So split the money evenly after the band covers gig expenses. The better you do the more the gig expenses cover. Once the band starts to play regularly and your fee starts to get healthier it’s wise to start a system of per diems. (that’s Latin for Per Day) What does that mean? Well, let’s say your band is getting paid $400 per gig. You are doing 4 to 7 gigs per month. The gigs are all within a day or two drive from your home base. The band will be covering a hotel room where you can all fight over who gets the single bed and which three fools have to sleep together in the King size. The gas for the van will be covered as will tolls and strings and drum sticks etc. What won’t be covered is food, drinks etc.  (of course, you will read one of my future blogs about how to get a promoter to feed you and get you drunk. But that’s only one meal a day) So in this situation you make a joint decision to give each band member a $20 per diem each day you are on the road. If you have crew it applies to them as well. (even the T shirt girl) Why would you do that? It’s simple. If  you try to have the band pay for dinner, and drugs, and alcohol you will soon be really pissed at the one guy in the band that eats steaks, smokes high-class bud and get’s loaded every day. Every band has one. Well, maybe Fugazi didn’t…well come to think of it I think they just SAID that everyone was straight…

If you go with a system where everyone gets a little cash every day then if they eat too much or drink or whatever most of it comes out of their own pocket. This is fair. You will be surprised how many days you can go on twenty dollars a day if your bed is paid for and the promoter gives you food and drink once a day.  sometimes it’s $5, sometimes $10, sometimes $50, I’ve never seen it go over a $100 unless it was a cheap excuse for the band to subsidize the members drug habits. (the breeders, The stones, Etc.)

When Miracle Legion toured Europe in 88? (I can’t remember which of the dozen tours it was) I sent a new member of the road crew out with them. His name was Tommy, he was from Philly, someone’s cousin’s friend, tough, strong, compact, didn’t say much. The kind of crew i prefered. If he had been Scottish I would have had him cloned. Hey you can clone a dog, why not a great roadie?

Well Tommy was new to the road so I gave him the standard lecture and then told him he would receive $24 each day. I forget why we picked that number but that was the per diem. He looked at me like and owl in the headlights. I asked him what was wrong. He said “That’s a lot of money.” The other crew members laughed.  LAter I noticed him loading a ten pound sack of rice into his backpack with a camp stove and pot. I told him he had to dump the rice. He looked hurt so I told him we would buy him ten pounds of rice in London since the issue was bringing grain across the English border (no fruits or grains)

The tour went out for twelve weeks.  When I met them all for the wrap up at tours end I asked the tour manager how Tommy had done. “Too fuckin’ good!” was the reply. It seems that Tommy lived on boiled rice and whatever he could scrounge. He didn’t smoke or drink. He got high once a week on the band’s day off.  Since the band demanded a full meal each night at the gig he was all set for food. So he hadn’t spent much money. To top it off he had lent all the other crew money when they ran out and charged them 5% interest (he ok’d this with me. How the hell could you say no to that?) He came back with everyone owing him money and he still had $1780 of the 2100 in per diems. Smart Kid. They all ended up hating him because he made them look bad. They tried to keep him off of the next tour so I made him crew boss with a different band.

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So you split up the gig money evenly. You give out per diems based upon what makes sense.  Now we come to publishing and recording which was the central issue with Oliver’s questions.

I’ve seen numerous solutions and they all have strengths and weaknesses. I’ll start with recording.

The most common solution is for the band to split the royalties from and recordings evenly. This split only pertains to records that you actually play on. If you leave the band you keep the royalty payments on albums you played on and forfeit all future royalty earnings on future albums. You have no rights to the band’s name. That remains with the band that continues on. This is important. Ask the prog rock band Yes. They had a PRODUCER take the band’s name away from them. That sucks huh?

Now we come to the complex one, songwriting and the use of songs. This is often where the big money comes in. This money is largely outside the grasp of the record company. It has the law backing it up. Radio pays it. TV pays it. Concert Halls pay it.

When a songwriter writes a song it is, by law and common sense, his property. He cannot stop someone from recording it including his own band. They do, however, have to pay him for it and the payments are set by law. (I strongly suggest that you read my blog about royalties.)

This brings us to Reader Oliver’s questions. In essence since he is the writer and guiding light he is wondering what is fair when it comes to splitting up money from his song’s publishing.  Should he give his band members some of this money so that if he becomes wealthy they will too, at least in some smaller way. There are arguments on both sides.

Now keep in mind that this does not have anything to do with songs that the whole band writes of songs that other members write.  In that case everyone will share or the individual writer will get the money. But what about a band where one member is the writing machine?

So let’s now imagine Oliver goes to see his Big NY Entertainment LAwyer Harvey Jacobowitzhofffriederstein. Yup he sounds like he’s a stereotypical NY jewish lawyer.  Don’t worry I will also send Oliver to other stereotypical characters of other races and religions in future blogs spreading his fictional life around amongst all of America’s stereotypes! whoopee! Sorry I got carried away. 

Harvey is smart, he knows the business and he has decades of experience. He says

“Kid what a you meshugenah?  You’re talkin’ about giving away your money? Don’t you think the law is fair?”

He goes on to explain to Oliver that careful consideration had gone into the law and songwriters get exactly what they deserve.  He, of course, is a lawyer and lawyers are paid to represent your interests alone. They also seem to think that the law is always fair. If they changed the law today, he would tell you it was just as fair tomorrow.  In some ways the lawyer is right. Why would Oliver give away his money?

Oliver on the other hand realizes that if he has a hit song his royalty money will pour in. The band will not see any of this cash. Yes, the record will sell but the band will be in debt to the record company for big money. All of the sales of the record will go to paying off the band’s debt and the individual members will see little of it. This brings about a situation where one member is rich and the balance of the band gets nothing.

So now Oliver goes to see his manager, Clive Bakersfield -Coopersmith, a sweating, overweight Englishman with bad teeth. The manager listens to his problem while answering phone calls and returning emails.  He says

“Oliver, baby, you’ve got to keep the boys happy. You should split up your songs and give everyone a share. You’ll get the most of course. I’ll make a call and get you a publishing deal so everyone has some money by next week. That should keep everyone happy.” 

He goes on to explain that Oliver will write many hits and will be rich beyond his wildest dreams. He shouldn’t begrudge his band mates a piece of the pie. In many ways the manager is correct as well. What to do?

Now oliver goes to see me, the retired Indy manager that has seen bands implode for ridiculous reasons and for good reasons.

And I say “Oliver, thanks for reading my blog. Here’s some advice from someone who has no dog in the fight, me. Your instincts are good. You should make some provision for the guys that play in your band. It is, after all, your band and your songs. Lots of the people who you will play with will forget that or never learn that fact fully. This members will become problems and you cannot be tied to them forever.  So this is the practical solution that I would suggest.

1. Start your own publishing company Artful Dodger Music.  This company will publish EVERY SONG YOU WRITE.  This company can collect your radio, tv and movie royalties directly without any other middleman. Choose one of the performance rights societies, either BMI or ASCAP and join as both a writer and as a publishing company.  Of course at any time this company can choose to sublicense some or all of the songs to a large established publishing company in return for a cash advance and a commitment to land soundtracks, commercials and tv spots.

2. Offer the band members a publishing contract. It would work like this. They must publish all of their songs through your company. At any point they can opt out of this requirement in which case they lose all FUTURE payments on FUTURE work. They will still retain any income or rights earned up to that point.

3. As the second part of this deal they will receive part of the publishing company’s income. It will work something like this.If they write a song and publish it with Artful Dodger Music they, of course receive all of the writer’s shares and also a share based upon the main writer’s deal (oliver’s cut) This makes it so they cut the same cut for their songs that you get for your songs.

4. The longer that they stay in the band the more interest and ownership they will gain in the publishing company.  Each year will add a set percentage until they reach a maximum cut. They will never lose this, the company will pay them royalties in perpetuity (forever or until Ronald McDonald is elected president whichever comes first) The percentage of these cuts is open to discussion  although I would suggest that  you enter into the discussion with two numbers in your head. An ideal deal for you and a compromise that you’ll except in order to do the deal. Remember ONLY WEAK PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHEN TO COMPROMISE. I might suggest that you shoot for 50% of the publishing company and settle for 40%. This would leave 50-60 percent for them to split up.  If they stay in the band 4 years they get their full cut  of the band’s piece of the publishing company.  Each year they are in the band they receive 25% of the total amount they might get if they make it four years. As the band builds up their cuts the unassigned money goes to you.

5. If they leave they retain payments on everything published up to the day they leave.  They never lose this percentage. Any new member starts out at the bottom and has to accrue his cut as he goes, once again he maxes out at four years.

So what would this mean in the real world. OK let’s say that your write a hit “Beat’s the Dickens out a me”. It is published by Artful Dodger and released on your band’s major label record.  The record label pays mechanical royalties, radio plays it and sends in royalties and it appears in a bad kids sitcom where Miley Cyrus goes to 19th century london. For each $100 the song generates this is how it splits up.

1st year    $50 to oliver directly as the writer

                     $2.50 to each of the four band members that own 1/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of  50%

                         The balance of the $50, $40 goes to oliver so he earns $90 in the first year.

2nd year  $50 to oliver directly as a writer

                        $5 to each of the band members that own 2/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

                       the balance of the $50, $30 goes to oliver so he earns $80 in the second year

3rd year   

                      $50 to oliver directly as a writer

                        $7.50 to each of the band members that own 3/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

                       the balance of the $50, $20 goes to oliver so he earns $70 in the second year

4th year The band members reach full shares

                        $50 to oliver directly as a writer

                        $10 to each of the band members that own 2/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

                       the balance of the $50, $10 goes to oliver so he earns $70 in the second year

If they bitch about such a small cut explain to them that they are free to write their own hit records at any point at publish where ever they like. Also tell them that you do not have to give them anything and this is most commonly what is done.

What I like about a deal structured in this way is that it provides some incentive to stay in the band, do as they are told and not bitch too much. It also recognizes that they are helping your career in a substantive way.  This earns them money for good. And finally if you become stinking rich they become really rich. Most people can live with that.  Since a hit record in today’s market could generate about 1,000,000 in publishing in a year you can see how it would be a fair deal.

The band will secretly pray that you write lots of hits and hopefully help you do that by giving you the solid backing you need………with a deal like this you are on your way to succeed at rock…………………………..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

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Enslave the digital dwarfs!Lubricate your livingroom and compress your head!


So this is a blog in the continuing series covering recording techniques, gear, attitude, strange events in the studio etc.  The last blog was a run down of a track explaining how it was recorded. Tonight I think I will continue on talking about different pieces of electronics in the studio and how they are used to create pro sounding tracks.

Since I have covered microphones extensively I will tackle the next step in the chain, the microphone preamplifier, commonly called the mic pre. The Mic Pre is an extremely important piece of the puzzle. It is exactly what it sounds like, an amplifier for the microphone. The signal from the mic travels down the wire and enters the board. Here is where the Mic Pre does it’s magic.  It is a little, very powerful amplifier circuit. On the top of the board you have a simple volume control.  As part of the section dedicated to the Mic Pre there are often a few other controls. One may be labeled “Phantom” or “+48”. This switch turns on the phantom power. I covered this in an earlier blog so you can refer back to more in depth comments but let me just say that most condenser microphones require power. This is supplied by the phantom power system of the mixing board. In some cases there is one switch on the back of the board that turns on the power for all mic pre’s and on other boards there is an individual switch for each channel. If the power is not on the mic will not work. If it is on and the mic doesn’t require power it will have no apparent effect. Another possible control on the Mic Pre section is the Phase switch.  This is an extremely important switch and is often ignored or misunderstood by users. This is unfortunate since it has a really specific use that, once you understand it, can really solve certain recording issues. The switch is usually labeled like this ø. I have even seen it labeled like this ∞. which is completely wrong.  There are other places on boards where the second symbol, the symbol for infinity is appropriate. The Phase switch just isn’t one of these places. 

The concept of phase in recording is important so follow along closely. Sound is made up of waves. Just like waves in the ocean the sound waves have peaks (high points) and troughs (low points).  If you take a piece of paper and draw a perfect series of up and down waves with nice round curves that are all exactly the same you will have just drawn a sine wave. There is no need to discuss the math involved with a sine wave but just know that you can write out this wave using math.

That’s what it looks like.  Now let’s imagine that this sound is being played into a mic which is running down the wire and entering the mixing board through the Mic Pre. Now we switch the phase switch.

This reverses the phase of the incoming signal. Now the peaks are where the troughs were a moment ago. Since we are also listening in this imaginary scenario where we have an imaginary signal going into our imaginary board with our imaginary phase switch and the world is ruled by Damn Dirty Apes! Fight them! Be proud you are human dammit!!! You think all of those bananas in the super market are just a coincidence? No! It’s a conspiracy!… Sorry I got off track for a second. I am prone to losing track of fantasy scenarios.

Right so we are listening. What change do we hear? None, nothing, zip, nada. The phase switch just changes the way the signal is being processed. Since we are hearing a wave form that is identical except for the placement of troughs and peaks we hear the same boring sine wave. (a sine wave sounds like a really boring flute tone)

Now let’s imagine that we have two sine waves being played into two mic pre’s side by side. We are listening to these two signals in the monitor speakers. If these two sine waves entering the board with their phase patterns just like the two illustrations above, that is to say, where the peaks and troughs of the two signals would be opposite from each other we say that they are “out of phase”.  Since sine waves are mathematically perfect and regular if we actually try to listen to two sine waves that are “out of phase” with each other than the result is —————- Silence. The peaks cancel out the troughs and the troughs cancel out the peaks. This is caused by the signals being “perfectly out of phase”. In math terms they are 180° out of phase.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t quite get the math argument for this situation. What is important is that you understand that peaks and troughs are interfering with each other and it is changing the sound.  Let’s take this stuff and apply it to music.

Let’s say that you have a bass being recorded by a mic on track 3 and a guitar being recorded by a mic on track 5.  What happens when these two instruments and tracks are out of phase? Nothing. Why? Well it’s sort of a trick question. The two instruments are being recorded separately on two different  mics on two separate tracks. In this case what the phase of each track is doesn’t matter. PHASE ONLY MATTERS WHEN YOU HAVE TWO OR MORE MICS RECORDING THE SAME SOUND. When there are more than one mic catching a sound then the possibility comes up that the troughs and peaks of the sound may be out of alignment with each other. Let’s look at a situation that comes up often in the studio.

You set up a drum kit and put mics all around the drum kit to capture all the different pieces of the kit when you drummer finally gets out of jail, finishes fighting with his girlfriend, wolfs down the meatball hero her borrowed 7 dollars from you to buy, drinks all of your beer while your not looking and then finally decides to put down that smokin’ groove that opens your latest masterpiece “Fish eye soup”. Every hit of the snare or the kick or the hi hat or the cymbal will be picked up on all of the mics. Each mic will get more or less of the sound. This doesn’t matter and doesn’t cause the problems. All of the mics will receive some of the sound of the snare drum hit at SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT TIMES.

  The key here is to understand that the little graph is the pattern of a sound plotted ALONG A TIME LINE. So when peaks and troughs end up canceling each other out it is because the signal is happening at a slightly different TIME.

Get it? It’s ok if it’s a little fuzzy. What counts is that you learn a couple of simple rules and then learn to THINK about what is going on with your mics and channels. Then you can figure out when you might have possible phase problems

Here’s the rules:

1. Phase problems happen when two or more mics catch the same sound at different times.

2. Phase problems can also happen when two or more tracks are playing back the same sound with different effects on the different channels.

If you know these two rules then you will know when to suspect that the EVIL MUNCHKIN GOD OF BAD PHASE IS HAUNTING YOUR RECORDING. So now you suspect that the munchkin god is consuming your drummer’s soul. Damn that sucks. How can you be sure? How can you fix it? Easy.

Let’s say you think two mics are out of phase. They are both pointing at the snare drum. Listen to the two mic channels by themselves together. Does that make sense?  Ah, let me put it in better Engrish. Press the solo buttons on both channels or turn all the other channels down so that you can only hear those two mics while the drummer plays a beat.  Now, listen while he plays and SWITCH THE PHASE BUTTON ON ONE OF THE CHANNELS. It’s got to be one of the channels not both. If you switch both you will just create the mirror image of the same problem. [ Deep Purple’s Highway Star just started on my Ipod. It smokes…Man can Ian Gillian sing the high metal god shit!] So when you switch the phase button listen to see if more bottom appears. That is to say more bass frequencies, more low frequencies.  The most obvious sign that you have a phase problem is that the sound will be thin with no bottom. It may also have a flangy, phasey kinda sweep sound changing as the sound goes on. This happens sometimes not always but the lack of bottom is sure sign.  If you find that pushing one of the phase buttons in gives you more bottom in the sound then the two mics were out of phase. You can leave the button pushed down and record that way OR you can move the mic slightly to try to find a sweet spot that doesn’t suffer from phase problems. Both solutions work well.

What if your mixing board doesn’t have a phase button? It happens. I recorded two records on an extremely expensive English mixing board that had no phase buttons. In that case you soldier together a wire that switches the phase. If you need an explanation of how to do that post a comment or write me an email.

It’s extremely important that you learn to identify and eliminate phase problems when you record. This will help you tracks sound fat and happy.  I need to add that all recordings of multiple instruments using multitrack recording are going to have some phase problems somewhere in the mix. It’s impossible to get everything to be “perfectly in phase”. You only need to eliminate glaring errors. Get in the habit of checking for phase and moving mics, switching phase buttons to try to police these things out of your recordings.

 I once was asked to do a mix at a semi pro studio in Albany,NY. I was remixing some figgs tracks and another band offered to pay me to remix one or two of their tracks to hopefully make them sound a little better than the mixes they had.  I listened to their mixes and they were really muddy and it was hard to hear any individual instrument. I suspected that they were using too much EQ when they mixed. I turned up in the studio and asked them to pop in a CD of “Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”. The studio owner/engineer was really testy about me even working in his studio and lectured me about being careful not to break anything or mess up the careful set up and balances of all his gear.  At first he was really annoyed that I wanted to listen to Zeppelin. Eventually he put in the disc. I cranked it up and listened for about thirty seconds. I then clicked through about 20 seconds of  a few different tracks.

I got up from behind the board and opened the closet that was next to the wall where the monitors were mounted as recessed units. I reached behind one of the monitors and reversed the wires on one of the speakers before he could stop me. He was furious. An argument ensued. While he was still yelling at me I hit play on the Zeppelin CD and turned it up. He stopped dead in his tracks. It sounded great and he knew it.

His main monitor speakers were out of phase. He had one speaker wired with the positive wire to the negative and the negative wire to the positive terminal. If he had wired both speakers wrong he would have gotten it right but he had miswired one of them. For over a year he had been charging local bands decent money to mix recordings on an out of phase speaker system. As a result every band put tons and tons of added bass and bottom on their recordings. When they got home the recordings sounded like crap, muddy, indistinct and boomy. He had heard the complaints and thought that the bands were all idiots.

When his ego had recovered he apologised and offered to make the session free.  A few days later I was interviewed for the local arts paper. They asked me what I thought of the studio and I said “It sounded great! Our mixes came out great!” which was true.  It doesn’t help to buy $2000 monitors and then wire them wrong. The simple methods I have just outlined are easy to learn and will help you insure that your mixes sound good. There are pro tests using oscilloscopes and other do dads but leave that kind of stuff to pro engineers…..

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So the next piece of the recording puzzle is the next piece of the recording chain, the compressor. If you have read many of my other blogs you’ve heard me mention these items in various ways.  This is the most underused, overused and completely misunderstood piece of gear in the recording studio. (or on stage for that matter)

I love compressors. It didn’t always love them. I came to love them slowly, over time. I always used them but it wasn’t until I started to attend mastering sessions with high paid mastering engineers that I started to fully grasp their power and understand why they were so damn cool and so important to making a smoking rock record.

In 1997 or 1998 (my memory is poor) I won the RIAA Rock Record of the Year for producing Graham Parker and the Figgs “The Last Rock n Roll Tour”. I was flattered. I was a little confused since I felt I had made more important records and that some of the records I had made sounded better.  Like all stupid award kinda things it had to do with Public Relations, the way the wind was blowing in the rock business and all kinds of strange useless trends that added up to me winning over lots of people with huge names working with huge acts.

I remember turning up to the mastering session (mastering is where you go to a pro studio to adjust the EQ and Compression on a whole record. You should end up with a pro sounding recording) [Red Baron by Billy Cobham on the Ipod now. The electric piano solo is ridiculously good]  The mastering Engineer set up the tape and hit play. Then he turned to me and joked ” So do I even get paid for this?” He was flattering me. The record was mixed really well.(thanks to Eric Rachel who helped out) and it was compressed so much that the needles on the main meters shot up to +1 and stayed there for the whole record. This is a good thing for a rock record.  what i had done was compress the mixes. This makes them sound great.      (Here’s graham and the figgs at South By Southwest 2007)

When MIX magazine interviewed me about the record the first question the writer asked was ” This record is slammed. How much of that was done in the mix and how much did you add in mastering?” Again, the point here is that the writer knew that the reason the record sounded so damn loud was the compression.

So what is it? What makes Compression and Compressors so important? Let’s look at the gear and I think we can find and answer.

Compressors and limiters do two basic things. Limiters limit how loud a track or track is allowed to go. Compressors on the other hand make loud things softer and soft things louder.  That’s all. It’s simple really.

When you take a sound and put it through a compressor unit it changes the dynamics of the sound. It takes the louder parts of the sound and pushes them down and it takes the softer parts and pushed them up. It squeezes the dynamics together.

From the standpoint of how it stands it makes the sound stick out. It gives it an “in your face” quality. The harder the compression the more obvious the effect of making it push into the front. Heavily compressed music has a tendency to jump from the speaker. It makes a voice, for example, pop right out of a speaker. The vast majority of classic records that you and I love are compressed. They are compressed when they are recorded. They are compressed when they are mixed. They are recompressed when they are mastered and often, when remastered they are compressed yet again.

Many lousy engineers have railed at me, usually at length, about the evils of compression. They seem to be fundamentally opposed to the idea on philosophical grounds.  Their rant usually goes something like this:

“I never use them. I like my music to breathe. Why would you want to take any of the dynamics out of music? Dynamics are what make music sound real!! I hate compressors. Only lazy engineers and producers use them to cover the fac that they don’t know how to record!”

This rant is the exact opposite of the truth. In my experience the philosophical rant from anti compressor engineers is cover for the fact that they do not know how to use a compressor and as a result whenever they have tried to use them one of two things happens, they either have no effect and this leaves them confused or they make the track sound duller and this leaves them confused. So they make up a speech about the importance of dynamics.

Dynamics, the loudness and softness, in music are, of course, important. In the world of recording classical music musical dynamics are taken extremely seriously. Classical recordings often sweep from a whisper to a crashing crescendo. Classical recordings rarely use any compression. They stick to the absolute scale of dynamics. (that’s a complex argument that I won’t get into, just accept it and let’s move on) This is inappropriate for rock music. In the world of rock recording the trend through the years has been towards more and more compression.

In 1993 I hired Don Gehman to produce the Figgs for Imago/BMG records. Don has produced lots of hits. The Bee Gees, John Cougar Melloncamp (that self-righteous prick), Hootie and the Blowfish etc. Don is a decent engineer and that is his main contribution to “production”. He has certain technical tricks and methods and if you add all of them up that’s his “sound”. One of these tricks is Bus Compression. This is his trick alone but he is one of the converted ones that will fight to the death for Buss Compression.  What the fuck is Buss Compression?

When you are mixing down a multitrack tape into the final mix that will be released to the world the final two stereo tracks that are coming out of the mixing console and being recorded as a mixed two track tape or stereo file on a computer are referred to as the Stereo Buss. This is just the two tracks that make up a mix, right and left. The main outputs of the mixing board, left and right are the Busses. This is a bit of a misuse of the term but we won’t worry about that just accept that when an engineer talks about the stereo busses he is referring to the stereo signals that come out of the mixing board. Is that clear? I’m not certain I can explain it any other way.

Don and I and most of the producers in the rock world send this mix into a stereo compressor and compress the whole mix before it gets recorded as a final mix. This is called Buss Compression.

I remember turning up at Dreamland Studios in Woodstock NY in 93 to check on the Figgs album project. Don took me in the main control room and cued up a mix. He hit play and the mix blared out. He had a twinkle in his eyes and he was pointing at the meters for the final mix. They were old fashioned big meters with real needles. I kept looking at them and shrugging. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. Finally he stopped the tape so I could actually hear what he was saying.

“That’s what I call compressing for success!!” he joked. He then hit play again. The needles Jumped up to +1, wavered for an instant and then just stuck there quivering as the mix played on. His point was that the mix was compressed so hard that the recording jumped up to maximum and stayed there. Later he commented that mastering engineers loved him since he did all their work for them. When you compress a signal, track, mix, microphone input etc heavily it is called Slamming it. Well readers prepare to Slam the Shit out of your recordings!

The reason that many people shy away from compressor and often misuse them when they do use them is that they don’t understand the basic system and controls of a compressor. You guessed it, I’m going to cure you of that problem right now.

When a signal enters a compressor the compressor squashes the sound. It takes the soft bits and makes them louder and it takes the loud bits and makes them softer. It is pushing everything towards the middle of the VOLUME CURVE. It looks like this:

The signal in the picture is our friend the sine wave again.  Notice that there are three sections of the graph. The Attack, the middle section which is just the signal while being compressed and the release.  When you look at the front of a compressor you will find (not on all but on some) controls that say things like attack and release. There is also two important ones called threshold and ratio. Some simpler units may just have ratio and threshold. The final control knob, or dial or key pad is output or trim.  This is how it all works.

A signal enters the box, the threshold control adjusts the level at which the compressor starts to compress things. It does this based on VOLUME. Always remember that a compressor is doing things in the world of volume, nothing else. When you adjust the threshold you are setting the unit to kick in at a certain volume.  Look at this picture of a classic Urei compressor the 1176, the king of guitar compressors.

[The passenger by iggy pop just came on my ipod. Damn is it compressed! Sounds great! ]

The meters measure two things. This is usually what gets people confused. When the compressor is set one way the meter measures the incoming signal. you set this so that the signal hits zero pretty regularly. Then you switch the meter control to change what the meter measures. Now it will show you how much compression is happening. As you turn the threshold knob the volume of the incoming signal crosses the “threshold” of when the unit starts working. That’s why it’s called THRESHOLD. Duh! (if you don’t get it keep rereading this blog. I stared at my first compressor for most of 1979 before the instructions, the nasty comments of a few engineers and logic all came together in a flash of insight)

Once the unit kicks in the meter is showing you how much volume is being squashed. The more the meter moves in this setting the more you are compressing the signal.  Once you start to squash the signal it will start to get softer. This is supposed to happen. This is when you use the output/trim knob to turn the volume back up to exactly where it was before. Now you have a signal that is the same apparent volume but the internal dynamics have been crushed together.  This is what you are after.

How hard the unit crushes the sound is determined by the ratio switch. This is set at 2 to 1, 3 to 1, 4 to 1 etc. The larger the first number the stronger the effect. Start out at 2 t 1 and work your way up from there. The only other controls on a compressor are attack and release. To explain these I must talk about how compressions SOUNDS.

Once your ear gets used to hearing the compressor doing its magic you should start to hear the unit come on and go off. You will hear this as an unnatural change in the volume. Engineers refer to this as PUMPING. The cheaper the unit the more obvious this effect is. After you get really tuned to it you’ll start to hear it all over everything coming out of your stereo and radio. In fact DJ voices are extremely crushed and compressed and recompressed and limited.  This gives them that deep boomy, in your head kind of quality. THIS IS WHAT PROPERLY COMPRESSED SOUND SOUNDS LIKE!

Ever hear Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon”? Slammed, slammed, slammed! “Led Zeppelin? Same thing. Beatles? Jesus the Beatles set the standard for highly compressed music. So if compression creates an effect that you can hear and sounds unnatural why is is used? Because it brings out all the detail of the instruments and voices. Ever wonder how engineers get that cool grainy, crisp sound to lead vocals? Compression. How about the guitar sound that roars out of your speaker? Reverb? Nah! Compression! How about the cymbal sound that seems to shimmer and drift away in long sustain. You guessed it. Do I need to do on? Trust me. This is how pro audio is done.

So let me review how you dial up the voice of god on your compressor.

1. take a signal from a mic, route it into the compressor input. From the compressor output it goes straight to record. Tape, computer whatever it doesn’t matter.  Now turn on the unit and listen. Set the meter to measure input. Turn up the input control until the meter is hitting zero regularly.

2. Set the unit to 2 to 1 ratio. Change the meter control so that it now measures compression. Now slowly turn up the threshold until the meter becomes active. The unit is now compressing the signal. You should hear the sound get softer and duller. Get a decent amount of compression happening. At this point it doesn’t sound so great.

3. Adjust attack and release. For the moment you can set both of these to fast. This means the unit will engage really fast and release as quickly. If you are trying to add sustain to a cymbal make the release long. If you are trying to tame a bass that booms sometimes but otherwise sounds cool set the attack to slower so the unit kicks in when the bass gets out of hand.

4. Now turn up the output/trim control until the volume is back where you started. At this point you should have a sound that is the same volume as what you started with but will sound kinda crunched. It will still sound a little dull.

5. Now turn on the EQ on the board. Add a little high frequency. Each kind of compressor sounds a little different. They all remove some high frequency content so you need to add some top back in. In the ideal world you are trying to make the EQ the same as when you started.

If you do this right then the final track will stand out in the mix. It will have lots of detail and life. When I record I compress almost every track. The only tracks I don’t compress are Kick and Snare. Sometimes I compress them as well.  Butch Vig, the famous producer of Nirvana and tons of great Sub Pop bands uses gobs and gobs of compression. Especially on the drums. That’s how he gets those drum sounds that leap out at you.

Ok some final, important words about compressors. You may already own a few compressors. Perhaps one of them is a guitar pedal. This is not a compressor it is a paperweight. A box like that is used to add some sustain to your lead guitar sound. It is not a studio compressor.  You may own a rack unit with eight compressors in a long unit. You bought it for about 200 on ebay. This is not a studio compressor. It claims it is but this is a bald faced lie.  You may own a reverb unit that has a setting called compression. This is not a studio compressor it is a cheap, lousy sounding reverb unit.

When buying studio equipment it is always better to buy less channels of higher quality. The best compressors can cost thousands of dollars for a single unit. This is not overkill.This is quality. It makes a big difference when it comes to compressors. Urei is the most common high quality studio compressor.  I like the LA4A myself. They are not cheap, about $500 for a single unit used.  DBX makes great compressors as well. These are cheaper and can had for around $300 per channel for a high quality one. I’m partial to the DBX 160. They are really nice on electric guitar. These are many, many others. Some are cheap and some are expensive. It’s up to you what you can afford to spend.

Think of it this way. If you own one high quality compressor for your studio you will use it on EVERY OVERDUB. This means that lots of tracks will benefit from the magic of compression. If you can afford two you are in even better condition. Make sure you buy matching units that have a feature called stereo strapping. This is a feature that allows you to hook the two units together. when you do this one of the units controls operates both units electronics. This allows you to run the outgoing mix (Hey we’re gonna do BUSS COMPRESSION just like the pros) through the two channels. Since the units do the same thing to both channels it gives you a compressed stereo mix without any weirdness from having one side compressed and the other side not compressed or half compressed.

Finally I will talk about limiters. Sometimes these are part of a compressor unit. This is called, oddly, a compressor limiter. A limiter is a compressor that can be set to not allow any signal to exceed a certain limit. When the signal hits the limit the unit kicks in and pushes it back. These kind of use are used by mastering engineers to insure that they can push a mix right up to the limit of their system and it will never jump over the line into distortion.  There are uses for limiters in rock recording but they are rare and unusual. I will leave that topic for you to figure out when you’ve mastered compression and mixing…and when you’ve mastered compression and mixing then you are well on your way to Succeeding at Rock.

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

Studio rundown of a track………


Tonight’s blog, and yes Happy St. Patrick’s Day, is going to be different. I hope it doesn’t turn out in that “smelly kid with the stray eye” kinda different. Instead I’m trying for “cool idea that I didn’t know would be useful until I saw it” kind of different.

I am going to post a track that I produced and then run down what went into it and how we recorded it in the studio. The track is a song by Super 400. They are a Troy NY band. I signed them to Island Records and Managed them for about a year. I produced their first record.  Unfortunately for them their record came out a week before Edgar Bronfmann bought Island  Records. The first thing he did was drop 1/3 of the roster. Since the record was a month old when this decision was made they got the axe. So they returned to obscurity and left behind a fine major label record that no one has ever heard.

I signed this band when I saw them open for the Figgs on New Years Eve. They reminded me of a mix between Stevie Ray and Cream. They are a power trio with a hot woman on bass that really can groove, a monster drummer (his brother plays bass for Lenny I stole it all from the Beatles Kravitz) and a great guitarist. The guitarist plays a 50’s les paul tv model. At the time we made the record he was using an interesting rig for his sound. He had a Fender Bassman, set up for a pretty clean sound and a gibson Leslie cabinet. If you don’t know Leslie cabinets you should. They are a speaker system that was designed for organ. Although they often contain an amp that’s not what is unique about them. The real trick is the actual speaker system. It is split into two channels, highs and lows. All of the high part of the signal goes to a horn that resembles two small trumpet horns fused together. This is hooked to a motor. When you click on a switch [I’m listening to “To Love Somebody” By the Bee Gees. Yeah the fuckin’ Bee Gees! It’s a classic. Try writing a song that good some day…], right so when you click on the switch the horn starts to spin. It takes a few seconds to come up to speed and when you hit the switch again it spins down slowly. This gives you this beautiful warbling tone to all the high frequencies.  All the bass tones go to one 12″ or 15″ speaker. This is facing DOWN towards the floor. Yup, down..Crazy huh? Well this shoots the sound down into  a circular baffle system that also spins. This causes the bottom notes to warble at a different rate with a different spin up and spin down speed from the high-end. {Now I’m listening to “Academy Fight Song by Mission of Burma]

Ken Hohman of Super 400 used this beauty as the main speaker system. sometimes he would use the bassman alone, sometimes the leslie, sometimes both. He didn’t think this idea up. He picked it up from Stevie Ray Vaughn. I have no idea where Stevie got it but it’s been around for a long time.  The Leslie cabinet and the effects it produces have been used for at least sixty years on organs. In the sixties bands started to use them in the studio to get numerous cool effects. If you listen to Sgt. Peppers album by the Beatles they use leslie on vocals, guitars, drums – they use it everywhere. There is one simple reason that they do. It sounds really cool.

Ken’s set up was Les Paul into a splitter ( I think he had a rat pedal he used at times). One side of the splitter went to the amp the other to the leslie. Simple, foolproof, sounds great.

Super 400’s drummer Joe Daley was in love with Ludwig Lucite (sp?) kits at this time. He owned two or three of them. They were manufactured in the early seventies with the Rock Band market in mind. They have a unique sound. They don’t have rich tone like a wood shell drum. Instead they have a flatter more aggressive sound. He used remo coated skins for the whole session. This, I believe, was at my insistence. The drum kit had fresh skins almost every day. Especially on the snare drum. This is the only way to get a snare sound that consistently has snap and bite. Ludwig Vistalite kits appeared in a very famous TV appearance by a world renown nutcase drummer. They were also played by John Bonham of the unknown super group Led Zeppelin. To make these kits sound good you must play hard. These are not the kind of kits you use for light jazz gigs at Sunday brunch.

The Bass player Lori Friday played classic Fender basses. She played vintage Precision and Jazz basses. I don’t recall which bass she used on this track but it’s likely that it was her Precision. During parts of the session she played through an Ampeg b15 flip top amp. On this track she was playing her stage rig which was a large twin 15″ cabinet with a Vintage Ampeg head. It shows since her sound rocks through the whole record.

Now for the set up rundown. I’m going from memory but this should be close to the final setup for the song.

Drums: We were using a sixties attitude for miking the drums on many of the tracks for the album. The basic tracks, drums, bass guitar were being recorded in an old onion barn at my farm. This is a large (24 x 32) room with a 17 ft peaked ceiling. The whole room is made from 200 year old wood including the floor. This gives a very warm, rich sound.

On late sixties recordings the drum kit was often recorded with three mics. One about three feet in front of the kick. It’s set up high enough to get lots of kick but some of the general kit as well. The second mic is set up over the high hat about three feet above the hats pointing at the snare so it picks up snare and hi hat as well as the cymbals and general kit sound. The third and final mic is set up at the EXACT same height as the second mic but over the floor tom side. It points down and in towards the drummer. These two mics are designed to be panned hard left and right with the first mic panned in the center. This gives you basic fake stereo. The nice thing with this set up is, although it gives you stereo imaging on the drums, the fact that there are only three mics on the drum kit means there will  be almost no phase problems from the multiple mics. This is not the case with a drum mic arrangement with lots of close mics. [Neil Young -Cowgirl in the Sand] On this session we decided to add one mic which was a Shure sm57 close in on the top of the snare to make it pop in the mix and sound a little more modern.

The Bass was close miked about 3 ft out with a EV Pl20. Simple – sounds great.

Ken the guitarist was miked in two ways. The Fender Bassman had two AKG 414 mics close in on the speakers. We monkeyed around with them quite a bit until they seemed perfectly placed and in phase with [Beach Boys -Sloop John B -Great instrumentation!] each other.  For the Leslie set up we used to AKG 460 condenser’s in and X, Y stereo pattern (see first recording blog for an explanation). These were set about twelve inches out from the high frequency horn. For the bottom end we used one Neuman 87. One? Why one? The bottom speaker rotates and as a result has strong stereo effect. Wouldn’t you logically mic this in some kind of stereo? The correct answer is NO. The human ear cannot hear direction in sound below about 400 htz. This is why it’s often hard to perceive exactly which way distant thunder is coming from. Miking the bottom baffle system in stereo would be a waste and wouldn’t add to the cool effect. In fact the single mic works great since the warble in the bottom of a Leslie cabinet is perceived as changes in VOLUME NOT DIRECTION.

All of the mics were plugged into a late Seventies Yamaha 1604 recording console. This is a low end pro console that is often available for cheap. I bought it when it wasn’t so cheap. Great console. Very musical EQ’s. Decent routing. Really nice sounding preamps. This is the most important piece of any console.  From the mic preamps ALL MICS went into good quality compressors. For Bass, vocals, and drums the compressors were Urei LA4A. For the guitars I used DBX 160 and 160X. In general I compressed them pretty hard with a 4 to 1 ratio. I will discuss compression which is extremely important in rock recording in a future blog. All of the tracks that were compressed were then EQ’ed slightly. I added back about 1 or 2 DB or 6K, or 8K or 12K depending on what sounded best.  I did this because compression removes about that much of those frequencies. I was attempting to bring them back to FLAT EQ. This is a concept I will discuss in later blogs.

From the compressors the tracks went straight to a TAPE MACHINE. Yes, tape. This was , after all 1997. I still use tape but that is a luxury for most people nowadays. The tape machine I used was a Tascam 16trk 1 inch with no noise reduction.

This song was RECORDED LIVE. This is extremely important. The song varies a little from flat time but I think that the live feel works wonders on this song. We cut Drums, Bass, and guitars with a scratch vocal that we threw out later. Lead Vocals were overdubbed using a Neumann 87, into the Yahmaha console, into a Urei LA4A compressor set to 2 to 1 and then straight to tape.

The whole album was mixdown from the 16 trk 1 inch tape at Trax East Studios on an API console with automation and all the normal bells and whistles. There are not that many effects or EQ’s or tricks in the final mix. Most of the mix consisted of getting a careful balance.  So that’s it. A top to bottom description of a recording. Here’s the recording. See if you can hear the way the miking is done. Don’t worry if you can’t. The goal of a good recording is for the studio to be transparent, that is to say, what the studio does to the band shouldn’t be very apparent. That, of course, is my viewpoint. It is a decent recording, not the best but certainly good enough to appear on a major label and it was created using pretty basic gear. And what really counts when you’re trying to succeed at Rock is how great is the song and the band????

Super 400 – Drawing Circles                                                                                                                                                                                               Super 400

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Microphones — Placement, Drummers and the destruction of, Voice of God, etc.


So now that I’ve set about writing about the studio I realize that I could have a complete blog about this subject and never have time to talk about  how to get your band to the top. That wouldn’t please all of you punters here at Success at Rock. I will try valiantly to churn out enough studio stuff to get us started on our path to the top of studio work. Then we can once again go back to how to seduce an A & R guy or how to cut a deal with a label that doesn’t include handing over your balls in a box. ( For all you ladies, labels want much, much more from you…)

In the last blog I covered different kinds of mics and mentioned a few applications.  Tonight I’ll talk about some stuff that is a little more fun. The kind of stuff that you can try out in your home studio. Tricks of the trade and some common studio tricks that are used by masters and oddly I don’t see turn up in the semi pro world enough.

I’ve seen some really sad prejudices with hack engineers and I guess I should continue to deflate some egos in an effort to get it right. It’s always about getting it right after all.  So a recap…..NO CLICK TRACK! if you want to argue for one good luck. There are some times when it is needed but unless you can actually explain why – you haven’t reached that point.  Next point, try to have fun. Get pumped. Your attitude and energy is a HUGE part of a successful recording.

Here’s another pet peeve of mine. Direct boxes. What in god’s name is a direct box for? I do actually know but I have been insulted by lots of engineers insisting that the bass, guitar, keys etc. must go through a direct box. THIS IS WRONG.  If you disagree please point to a hit record that isn’t a lousy, Britney styled pop record that makes use of instruments through direct boxes. This seems to be one of those ideas that became popular in the mid eighties for very specific reasons and circumstances and very rapidly became an overused method of hack engineers. 

Let me be plain about this point. Yes you can skip the trouble of putting a mic on an amplifier and tweaking its position until it sounds great and just plug the bass into a DI (that’s fancy talk for a Direct Box) box and onto the track. Sure go that route. The fact that it sounds lifeless and more importantly it ends up in a completely different sonic universe from the rest of the band shouldn’t stop you. That is if you are lazy and don’t care what the recording sounds like.

We all buy beautiful, unique, expensive amplifiers for one good reason. They echo God’s Voice. This, of course, makes the kids dance. (and pay to see you)If you have an amp use it. Mic it, carefully. Play with the amps settings ’til it sounds like a hurricane. Turn it up, turn it down. Put it in the bathroom. Go in the bathroom, smoke a joint and think of a more creative place than the bathroom to put it.  NOW LISTEN CAREFULLY! MAKE A GREAT SOUND IN THE STUDIO AND PUT A MIC ON IT! How do you do that? By listening carefully and trying things out.  Here’s a few stories to back up this idea.

I bought an old, 1950’s Danelectro Amp at a garage sale in 1986. It was only about 20 watts. When you plugged a Les Paul into it and turned it to 10 it sounded like half of the Rolling stones catalog, Stay with Me by The Faces, four or five Zeppelin Tunes and even the crunchy reggae rhythm guitar sound from the Jimmy Cliff hits. If you put a mic on it,   it sounded like a hit.  That’s a guitar sound that can not be a preset on a guitar pod pedal system.

Story two – In the early nineties I was making a record for The Figgs or Small or Phish, hell I don’t remember but I was in a studio in Western Massachusetts. Nice place, expensive. It was one of those places where you lived in a beautiful log cabin and then wandered down a dirt road to a giant cube in the woods that contained a studio. Sweet ride.  I was cutting vocal tracks and we were all burnt out from weeks of recording. The phone in the control room rang and the engineer Eric Rachel answered it. He immediately got in some kind of an argument with someone. They wanted to interrupt me and he wasn’t going to let them.[Eric by the way is a metal god. He is a fucking great engineer producer with things like platinum Skidrow records on his resume. His studio is in South River, NJ and is called Trax East. His rates are reasonable. Give him a call if you want to make a kickin rock record] After about five minutes he finally gave up and motioned for me to pick up the line. On the other end is an engineer from a studio in Seattle.

“Hi, is this Brad Morrison?”

“Yeah. but I’m in a session”

“Great. This is Joe Shmoe.  We’re cutting some tracks for an album  and the band is trying to copy an acoustic guitar sound from a record you produced. Do you mind telling us the secret?” 

Was this guy kidding? He was calling me in the middle of a session from the other side of the country to ask how I got a sound? Was the band gonna fire him or something? Was he trying to impress his girlfriend?

“Ah…sure. What do you want to know?”

“You produced the Vestrymen’s first record right? The song “Blue Fall Day”?

“Sure did. Great song. What about it?”

“Well, how’d you get the acoustic guitar sound? We’ve tried everything. I’ve run the guitar Direct and we are using a Lexicon 480 with the Harmonizer patch. Can I read you the settings and you can tell me if I’m close?”

Now most of that bullshit  may make no sense to you but he is talking about using a $30,000 effects processing unit. Very Fancy.

“No I won’t listen to the harmonizer settings. You are way off base! Hang on I’ll get you a phone number that will solve your problem.”

Now he was confused.

“Ah..a phone number?”

“Yeah the guitarist from NRBQ. We used his Martin.” (NRBQ  is one of the great bands of the 70’s/80’s)

“But….We’re trying to get…”

“Listen you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.  What kind of guitar is the guitarist playing?” It turns out that the guy was playing a crappy $300 ovation guitar into a DI box and they had spent hours (I’m sure very expensive hours) playing with effects to try to make it sound like a guitar I had recorded years before. Idiots.

“Listen. If you want that sound, or something like it get yourself a top of the line Martin Acoustic Guitar from the 1940’s. Put a really nice condenser mic in front of it and another really nice condenser mic pointing at the body, check to make sure that they’re not out of phase and hit record.” I hung up. Moral of the story – if you want a really great acoustic guitar sound then use a really great sounding acoustic guitar. Never try to record it direct. Martin guitars sound like the voice of god on a crisp fall day.

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Where you place the mic counts. It often counts a great deal. What counts a great deal more is how the instruments you are recording sound. Great sounding instruments, played well by great players make recording easy. They also make recordings that sound like pro recordings.

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Now I’ve made that point I am going to tell you some classic mic set ups for various things in the studio. If you are an old dog you probably have seen these. If not maybe this blog teaches you something tonight.

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Here’s a classic drum set up:

Drum Set MUST HAVE FRESH SKINS! TRADITIONAL SOUND CHOICE WOULD BE REMO COATED

Kick -EV PL20 (or RE20 same thing) set the mic so the end of the mic is exactly where the front skin would be. Remove the front skin. Deaden the drum with a pillow or or the torso of the lead singer of a band you hate.  Mic SHOULD NOT be in the center. Off center somewhere where it sounds good.

Snare – Shure sm 57 on top pointing from the front of the snare across the skin towards the drummers right knee. Place a small leather wallet (best if stuffed with hundred dollar bills)near the front. Place a strip of duct tape so that the wallet bounces up and drops to deaden drum head. In other words put a piece of tape across the top of the wallet and down the side of the snare.

Snare bottom sm 57 180° out of phase

Hi Hat – Either a sm 57, 58 or nice condenser pointed straight down at the center of the hat about four inches from the center cymbal shaft.

Racks – One Sennheiser 421 between the upper racks pointing down to catch a bit of both.

Floor tom (s) Sennheiser 421 or AKG 414 six inches above tom to catch nice head shell combo sound.

Overheads  X Y Stereo (see my last recording blog) pair of Neumann 87 or AKG 460 or something else high quality. Set them over the drummers head about 30 inches up.

Make sure the kit is tuned properly!! Try to get the drummer to be sober. ( if that’s his best mood) This set up works great in a space that is relatively small with lots of wood, or stone. A wood floor is always a good idea with a drum kit. With this set up the drummer WILL destroy mics. Make sure he brings cash and knows how to say he is sorry and means it.

Another added mic in this set up is an additional kick mic that is a PL 20 or any decent kick mic. Place it centered on the kick EXACTLY 22″ out from the front of the drum for a 22″ kick, 20″ out for a 20″ kick etc. Check carefully for phase against the first kick mic. Use both kicks in the mix. The second one WILL have some phase issues with the other kit mics don’t worry about it.

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One mic I haven’t written about is a PZM mic. This is a pressure zone boundary mic. There are some fancy physics behind the mic design but that means little for this discussion. There are some classic uses of PZM mics with drums. These mics are universally IN PHASE. This goes back to that physics thing. What’s nice about this mic is that it is a flat plate. You tape it down somewhere in or around the kit. It picks up its sound from the vibrations running through whatever it is taped to. It works great with a solid wood drum riser.  If you really want to get crazy Tape it to the drummers chest. For some reason the drummers seem to like having 4 pounds of duct tape wrapped around them. Maybe they always wondered when they would finally be fixed up with duct tape so when you do it, they feel complete.  I once did this to a drummer and he wore the fuckin’ PZM mic for two days. He wore it out to bars, to another band’s gig and his girlfriend was staring fire daggers at me the whole time so I can imagine he wore it to bed.

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So, you must be itchin’ to see guitar mics addressed. OK here are a few classic set ups for mics on guitar cabinets.

First let me say that the EQ setting of a guitar cabinet is crucial. In particular the Bass knob must be used to a minimum. Guitarists hate this. I know I was a guitarist and I hated it. The problem with using lots of bass eq knob on a guitar sound is that most of it goes right past the mic which is up close. The sound of the bottom end of the guitar doesn’t even start to become REAL until around 6 feet out from the front of the cabinet. When you turn up the Bass knob you usually just make the sound muddy.  So adjust the EQ carefully, very, very carefully.

Next thing is skip the pedals whenever you can. It always sounds better and comes across better in a recording if you can get the distortion you need from the Amp rather than a pedal. If the pedal is the “sound” then use the pedal. Just crank the pedal back a notch and go for a slightly cleaner amp sound than is used for that sound on stage. Trust me it works much better through the whole mix process.

Ok mics-  Simple and easy..Shure sm 58 on one speaker cone 4″ to 5″ out off center. Try halfway from the center magnet to the edge. Then move the mic slowly OUT TOWARD THE EDGE WITHOUT CHANGING THE DISTANCE. Have someone else move the mic slowly while you listen in the control room.  Listen for the moment when the bottom end suddenly appears. This is a function of the proximity effect (see last blog). This kind of mic sound is a classic. Works great for standard rock and blues and punk and country but if you are a headbanger then you should try…………………………………………………….

An AKG 414. Either one or two . Both 8″ out from the center of the cones. This mic sometimes seems to come in two models.(?) The best results come from the ones where you can switch the patterns. Try the cardoid pattern first and then try the figure 8 pattern. If you’ve got two of them try one figure eight and one cardoid.  This should give you a crisp toppy sound that still picks up the lower edge crunch. Some people swear that having the cabinet face a wall just behind the mics is great I haven’t had good luck with that trick.

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With all of these guitar mic tricks you can add a room mic for ambience.  It’s often a nice effect to have a room mic track on the recording and only pop it into the mix on solos to add space and depth. (It also picks up the guitarist screaming vampire calls while soloing) You can use any mic for a room mic but the best choices are Omni mics that are high quality condensers.  Don’t ever get too hung up on the exact model of a mic. If you can afford high end mics then you can worry about that stuff. Basic miking technique will do more for you than knowing the difference between different year Neumann mics.

Try placing the room mic about 10-12 ft out from the cabinet. Try pointing it away from the cabinet to catch reflected sound. An old English trick is to place a big room fan in front of it so the sound passes through the fan before it reaches the room mic. This is clever. Clever usually sucks. I have used this trick with success. It took a little doing to get the warble that was cool without the sound of the damn fan…. If you really are serious about a sound from this universe you should try the real thing – a LESLIE CABINET which has a rotating horn and base baffle. I own three and they always come in handy.

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Bass guitar….Oh what the hell just plug it into a Direct Box! Who listens to the bass guitar?  Sorry I couldn’t resist. I’ve been typing through six XTC records, A Gourds record, Public Enemy –Fear of a Black Planet and Now the Tito Puente Box set… it’s late.

Bass can be a bitch to mic. It is also a great deal easier if you think about the sound before you try to capture it. Bass sounds are low down in the frequency range. Most of what goes on with a bass is below 500 HZ. This may mean nothing to you so I will explain. Higher frequency sounds are very DIRECTIONAL. They are also made of very small waves. This is why close miking works so well on a guitar cabinet. Bass sounds, on the other hand, are made up of very long waves. By long I mean that some of these waves can be 20 ft long. This means that the real sound of the bass may not be a complete “image” until you are far away from the cabinet. I have successfully miked a bass cabinet from far away but this is a tricky thing. Until you have lots of experience you should depend on close miking. Close but not guitar cabinet close.

Try an EV PL 2o (notice I really like this mic?) , a sm 58 (they actually work) an AKG D112, AKG 414. They all work. Use a decent mic as high quality as you can spare. If you use one of your good mics on the bass and you take your time and get it right you will be extremely happy with the results. The bassist will be your best friend since he has probably been having to suffer with being direct boxed to death. This means he has never heard his stage sound, a sound he is really proud of, on a recording. Give the guy a break. Record him properly.

Try miking the cabinet about 18″ to two feet out from the cabinet. Put the mic just off the center line of one of the speakers.  Once again move the mic slowly out towards the edge until you hear the bottom end appear. You may also need to find a spot that is a little “sweeter by moving the mic AWAY from cabinet. Be VERY CAREFUL, don’t let the sound start to sound distant. This will make the bass disappear in the mix.  A little bit of distance in the sound is OK since you are going to compress the sound and this will do wonderful things.

Now we face the kooky bass rig problem. You set up in the studio. The bass player is all ready. You go to set up the mics and you pull off the speaker cover to see what you are dealing with and “Ah F^&%” the guy has one 18″ speaker and 4 – 10″ speakers and some little pyramid thing designed by Mr. Data to recreate alien bird calls. What is wrong with these people? Don’t they know that Motown had 2 trillion hit record grooves played through an old Ampeg B15 Flip top amp with one fifteen inch speaker? What do you do with this rig from Area 51?

First you forgive the bassist. He is, after all, like third in line for the girls so he feels the need to have some kind of fancy pants rig. It’s easy to forgive him when you realize that the rig is not a problem. Try miking the main large speaker. In general the bass’s top end sizzle and growl is pretty easy to catch since the mic will be a couple of feet out from the cabinet. The hard part is to capture the low mids and lows so shoot for that…

If you want to take a chance and mic the cabinet from far away try this. Set the bass rig up in a small closet and leave the door half open. Mic the cabinet close and then mic the cabinet from about 8-10 ft away with a cardoid mic pointed straight at the open door. OR put the cabinet in a hallway. Cement is ideal. Once again close mic.  Point the second mic down the hallway. Never put both these mics to the same track without checking for phase problems and being absolutely sure that the mic set up “works”. What do I mean by works?  Do this. Solo both bass tracks. Have him play a long ascending scale from the lowest to the high notes on the neck. Listen carefully. You are listening for two things. Any notes that seem to drop out, fade, seem oddly soft, or are swallowed completely. These are notes that are being dumped by cross phasing.  If you find any glaring problems move THE MIC THAT IS FAR AWAY slightly and try again.  When I say glaring I mean glaring, large, in your face. You will always have some phase problems and this test will teach you to hear them. You can’t get rid of all of them. The second thing that you are listening for is standing waves. These are pesky little problems that demonstrates that Physics is not a high school teacher’s fantasy. As you listen some notes may Boom.  By that I mean really BOOM loud with a sense of sustain. You may have noticed this effect before while singing in the shower. Some notes seem to ring the room. This is literally what they are doing. The problem is caused by the bass guitar sending out a note that has a frequency that is a whole number multiplier of the room dimensions. (???!!) Yeah who cares huh? You do cause they will destroy a good mix.  A properly designed studio will not have these. Not many studios are well designed. If you are paying the studio $5000 a day tell them to fix the problem by rebuilding the castle you are recording in ( this happened to me once) and go out for a nice meal. If you are recording in the real world you try this.  The key is to actually understand the problem. Look at what I said…A whole number multiplier???. OK this is the core idea. Let’s say that the bass plays a B, one whole step up on the A string. This note may have a frequency of 11 ft from peak to peak of the sound waves. (I don’t know the frequency I am just making it up) The hallway that you are in is 33ft long exactly. Ah Shit. 33 divided by 11 is three. Bad news the peaks of the waves will pile up on the peaks of the reflected waves and BOOOOOOOOM. You have a note that is fuckin loud, loud, loud.

This is why I suggested a small closet since all of the bass notes will be too big to cause trouble in the small space. If you run into this problem there are a few possible solutions. Try  Moving something large into the space like a couch stood on end or a stack of cases or cabinets, anything to break up the wave before it eats the mix. Large sheets of plywood, sheet rock, blankets (rarely work since they aren’t heavy) etc. Try to break up the space. Another solution is to find the frequency on the bassists graphic EQ and pull out that frequency. Don’t try to EQ it at the mic end. That won’t work……..

————————–Wow! This one is clocking in at around 4000 words so I’ll wrap it up with one cute vocal mic trick.

Set up a nice condenser mic, like a neuman 87, akg 414, PL 20 (it’s a cardoid but it sounds great on vocals) etc. Set it up just above the vocalist pointing down to catch the voice and chest area. The vocalist should be singing slightly up into the mic.  So far this is standard. Now for the tricky part.  Set up two mics that you would use as drum overheads, nice cardoid condensers like AKG 460 (pricy but nice I own a few).  Set them up in an X Y Stereo pattern like I described in my last blog. They should be around chin height. They need to be at an exact 90° angle from each other. They should be pointing left and right to either side of the singer. This gives you three vocal mics. Now combine these three mics onto two tracks like this.  The top mic dead center so it is being sent equally to each channel. The X mic panned hard to track one, the Y mic panned hard to track two. Balance the top mic as about 60% of the mix and the XY mics as about 40% of the mix.  Now, as the final icing – set these two channels to play back hard left and right in the mix.  The result is the Voice of God. You’ll have a solid fat vocal track straight down the middle with beautiful, airy stereo around it. What’s even neater about this trick is that on mixdown you can rock the balance back and forth the vocal will appear to drift left to right AND BACK TO FRONT in the mix. Very Sexy. I used this trick on some Metal Power Ballads. It makes the teen girls melt into their shoes………

Well that’s all I have this evening. Try some of this and you will be on the path to succeed at Rock.

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Recording Gear A -Z, Z – A and other stuff……


I have been recording since the late seventies.  Yes, I know, that was just after they invented electricity and disco.  In those days we would rub two sticks together to make tape and then use the steam powered whatchamacallit to rev up the Edison light bulb.  Ah the good old days. Now all of these funky things are contained on your laptop so you do not need to know anything about all that strange gear from distant days when hobbits roamed the woods.  Actually the opposite is true. In order to use all of the little bells and knobs on modern recording software YOU MUST UNDERSTAND OLD GEAR! If you don’t you will never get the great sounds that are possible with modern software.

All of the modern software was created by people that understand the old gear.  Not only do they understand it they worship it that’s why–It’s all made to look like old gear. It’s all made to operate like old gear. And most important they try really hard to make it sound like old gear. I don’t think they succeed but I am prejudiced since I grew up recording on classic gear.

In this blog, or it may end up being multiple blogs, I will cover all the boxes and knobs and wires and crap that make a studio a studio.  I will attempt to explain things in a way that a beginner will understand at the same time I will attempt to cover things in a way that will allow  someone with experience to get some tricks and techniques. We will all see if I can pull it off. I sure hope I can do it since I bragged to a friend recently that I could and he will remind me regularly if I screw it all up and just end up confusing everyone.

Ok enough rambling and prep, let’s get started. 

The recording studio is intimidating to most people. It the most common scenarios the only person that seems at home there is the engineer. The reason he is at home and comfortable is he understands what all the boxes do, what all the knobs and dials do and mean. I hope that by the end of this series of blogs you will know most of these too. Then, as you get more relaxed and less intimidated you can settle in and have more fun, and really focus on playing great which is what the studio is supposed to be about.  Further if you start to understand the gear and how recording is done you can use the studio to bring out the best in your music.

Here’s a basic studio concept. There are INS and OUTS. In the studio music is turned from music bouncing around the universe into electric signals bouncing down a wire.  In the air music is waves traveling through the air. When it is turned into electric signals it is still (in some important ways) the same shape waves. I know this isn’t strictly true but for this section we will assume that the waves bouncing around the room turn into little waves traveling down the wire.

Just like water flowing through a pipe the electric signal has a direction.  Once again, get this straight, it travels along a wire in one direction. Because of this simple fact when you plug things together in the studio OUTS get connected to INS  and through the dedicated work of little elves  INS get connected to OUTS. This is really simple and you know this right. OK, well remember that you know this and this rule doesn’t get broken when you can’t figure out how to wire together a whole pile of kooky boxes together.  For example you might not know what a COMPRESSOR TRIGGER INPUT does but….yes, you got it and OUT is going to get plugged into it.  Sometimes in an effort to confuse you and piss you off they will change the names of INS and OUTS.  Pretty cruel of them huh? Well one way they change them is to call the out a SEND and the in a return.  Now the crazy studio math looks like   INS=RETURNS    OUTS=SENDS. This is the most common way they will attempt to hide these simple words.  Believe me studio engineers work really hard and use every ounce of their pea brains to come up with confusing ways to say the same thing.  Here’s another clever one — INSERT—. what the hell is that? Well, if we had to take a guess we might say Hmmmm, let’s see its got the word IN in it so maybe its an IN and we would be correct.  Ok got that straight? It’ll come up again and again and appear on the final test.(that’s the one that you take a 2:15 am in your buddy’s basement when you’re trying to wire up six mics, a small sound board, a reverb pedal  and a computer with recording software)

All of these basics are extremely important. If you are not a beginner you can skip them but you may actually learn something if you follow along.  I’m gonna try to surprise you know it all guys ’cause I’m one of those know it alls too.

The studio has hundreds and hundred and maybe thousands of knobs.  It is really confusing to look at until someone tells you that all of them are basically volume knobs. Yup, believe it or not all of those billions of little knobs are to turn something up or down.  That concept, that idea will get stretched as we go on but in the end they are just volume controls. If you can turn up your car stereo to make your ears bleed and drown out your buddy retelling that same damn story then you can run a studio.

If we look around the studio we see lots of knobs and also buttons.  Buttons and switches do one thing. They turn something on or off.  So that’s it. That’s all there is in a studio. I know it’s hard to believe but a studio is composed of two basic controls. Volume controls and Switches.  This allows you to do all the cool stuff that a studio can do.

These two simple controls control lots of complex stuff. Since there is only these two controls this forces all of the fancy complex equipment that is part of the studio to focus the way they are controlled in very simple ways.  This is good for you and me because it allows us to look at a piece of gear scratch our head and think about making it work in a pretty simple  system of  “try this”  not good…. hmm “try that” ohh that’s good.  Using this simple trial and error we can figure out all of the gear in the studio. It really is that simple. Whenever you are stuck, it’ll happen often, think of these basics and work up from these couple of ideas. No matter what happens this is the way studio gear works and often in confusing situations it will save your ass…………..Hmmm………….let’s see…. I’m not hearing anything…..let’s look in the back…the main control room monitor OUTput is plugged into the Crown 100 watt studio monitoring amplifier…..oh, it’s plugged into the LinkOUTput.. That can’t be right …Out’s go to Ins…Hmmm Let’s try plugging it into the unbalanced line INput and see what happens….Wow! that was easy.

Now later on I am going to correct myself and explain in detail why the knobs are not all volume knobs but for the moment we will stick with that definition.

Let’s start where all the sound in the studio starts it’s journey the Microphone.

Microphones are the basic piece of gear that are used to capture sound waves from the air and turn them into electrical signals that flow down a wire into the mixing board.  Mics are made up of a magnet and a diaphragm.  It’s interesting to note that speakers are made up of a magnet and a diaphragm. You can actually use a speaker as a mic. (Just ask the CIA) There is a legend that the Beatles got the great bass sound on taxman by using a bass speaker cabinet as a mic. They placed the cabinet up tight against the bass cabinet that was playing and then ran a wire from the speaker jack to the mixing console.  I’ve tried it. It’s tough to get it to not buzz but it does sound amazing.  The Beatles also taped headphones to violins and used them as microphones.

There are our basic types of mics.  Omnidirectional, Cardoid, Bi-Directional, and Stereo microphones.

Let’s start with Omnidirectional normally called Omni. This microphone picks up sound in every direction. If you point the mic straight at the ceiling it will pick up all sound in the whole room. It’s pattern looks like this

All of this technical stuff is fascinating but what is it used for? Some typical uses are to pick up the sound of the room adding space and depth to a recording. To do this there is usually a mic that is up close to a guitar cabinet and the omni mic is placed out in the room to catch all of the reflected sound and reverb from the room. The two mics are either put on one track or recorded separately so you can monkey around with it in the mix.

Another classic use of this kind of mic is to have a group of people stand around it to sing background vocals. This will often give you a big, blended sound of the voices. Another use would be to place it in the space between the strings and the lid of a grand piano.

Example EV 635A ( a classic, I own two)

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The next variety is called the Cardoid. It’s pattern is heart shaped like this:

Here it’s shown like an upside down heart. This is the most common kind of mic out there.  They are everywhere.  The reason that they are so popular is that they sound great, they are NOT THAT SENSITIVE so they only pick up what’s close to the mic and in front of the way it is pointing and they can be built to be bulletproof.

Now there is an important thing to know about Cardoid mics. They have a neat flaw.  It’s called the proximity effect.  That’s a fancy name for the fact that the closer you get to this mic the more bottom or bass frequencies the mic generates. It’s not picking up these frequencies it’s actually creating them.  So why is that so cool? Well if you get close to this mic and sing IT MAKES YOU SOUND LIKE GOD! These are common stage mics and often people skip over these mics in the studio to use a more expensive mic. This is a mistake.  Lots, and lots, and lots of hit records have been sung on Cardoid mics. Specifically the Shure sm58. They also sound great on guitar cabinets, bass cabinets and snare drums.  Another nice feature of these mics are that they can handle tons of volume without falling apart.  If you had to pick one mic to own pick a sm58. Another great choice is an EV RE20 or EVPL20 they are basically the same mic. I don’t know why they have different letters.

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Bi directional mics have a pattern that looks like and 8 like this:

this mic is most commonly used for background vocals with two people. They stand on either side of the mic. Many microphones have a little switch that lets you pic which pattern you would like to  use and they usually include this pattern.  This kind of mic also works well on Leslie Cabinets and near twin floor toms.

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So now we come to stereo microphones. Stereo microphones pick up sound while preserving the stereo image. What the hell does that mean? Well when you hear with your ears you can sense direction. If you turn your head you can tell that the sound has moved. Engineers say that it has a place in the stereo field. Basically you’ve got two channels side by side in your head. As you move your head the sound gets louder in one channel and softer in the other.  Stereo mics do the exact same thing. They are recorded on two channels and are extremely realistic. These kind of mics are used for vocals, drums, acoustic guitars, background vocals and many more things. They are also very expensive.

There is an easy way to fake a stereo mic using two standard Cardoid mics.  If you point two Cardoid mics towards each other and make sure that the angle between them is 90° then record them on two channels when played back they will create a type of stereo recording. This is called x,y stereo and is very common in pro recordings.

Well that covers the basic classifications of mics there is still a little more to finish in the basics. If you go to buy a mic the salesman will say “Are you looking for condenser? Does your board have phantom”. Yes he is trying to sound important but he is really asking something important. condenser mics are mics that require electricity to function. They must be plugged in in order to pick up sound. Any mic that needs that is called a condenser. This can be done in two ways. One is to have battery in the mic or a power supply that comes along with the mic. All mics require 48 volts. The other way is to get power from the mixing board. This is referred to as phantom power.  All mics use a three wire XLR cable. When you turn on the phantom power using the button on the board labeled “Phantom Power”  it send juice down one of those wires so the mic gets power.  Unpowered mics just ignore the electricity and the condensers come to life.

Some closing comments on mics. Mics are extremely important in recording. Expensive mics can sell for $10,000. A really great mic sell for about $2000. You do not need to spend that much money to make great recordings.  By far the most important thing to make a great band recording is FOR THE BAND TO SOUND GREAT.  I will say this again and again. To sound great in the recording you must first get a great sound with your instruments.  A simple Gibson plugged straight into a marshall or fender amp that is adjusted properly will sound great.  Almost any mic will capture that sound. If your guitar sound is not so hot the greatest mic on earth won’t fix it.

Lots more on studio gear and recording in coming weeks. I’m just getting started and it’s a big topic.

Learn to make a great recording and you are on your way to Succeeding at Rock.

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

A Hobo Bluesman talks about playin’ in the studio ……………………


This blog goes along with the recent blog that covered some important first concepts of making a great record. In that blog, which you can find elsewhere on my blog site, I stated that one of the most important influence in making a record is attitude. I then went on to shoot down the concept of click tracks. If you would like to read that blog, as an intro to recording, here is a link back to it.

A few years ago I produced an album for a Hobo Bluesman named Pinecone Fletcher. He dropped in this week to smoke camels, drink 3x coffee and jam on a couple of cigarbox guitars. Boy does a slide sing on a cigar box guitar through a dirty old amp. Years ago he called me and asked me to produce his record.  He had plenty of studio access. He had all the songs. He had a great set of players but he couldn’t seem to get anything magical on tape. ( He was using actual tape. He is, after all, a bluesman and the old way is the best way for guys like that) After a few weeks of hanging out with him in his small backwoods town I realized where his problems lay.  I suggested that he had to loosen up and start havin’ more fun in order to make the record work out right.  This week when Pinecone visited I asked him to write something explaining how we worked out the problems in the studio. What follows is his letter. Try to ignore all the nice stuff he says about me and read it for the meat and potatoes advice it gives. This is a guy that has been recording for a long time and he still found out he had something to learn. Also if you follow the link I posted for him above you can listen to some of the tracks from that session.  

—————————————–Pinecone writes ———————————————————————————————————–

Pinecone Fletcher March 7 at 8:30pm
I can’t say I ever really enjoyed the recording process before I met Brad Morrison. There seemed to be an endless queue of bad “engineers” telling me how to make a great record. Despite all their claimed insight and know how, I always ended up with some lackluster, boring, extremely forced & flat sounding recording instead of the record of my dreams as they had promised. Working with Brad I learned how to record a truly inspired record. The most important lessons had absolutely NOTHING to do with the gear, knobs, instruments or microphones. It was always about your attitude while recording.

I loved that any time anything started to get too serious we would take a break and walk away from it. The tracks always came out better when I felt great and was having fun, so we’d leave and come back when things felt less serious. Your attitude really does show up on tape. If your feeling serious your gonna sound pretty boring and serious on playback.

I also loved meeting someone who finally told me we didn’t need to use a click track. I can’t think of anything that can kill some mojo faster than that evil click track. Maybe some people are inspired while focusing on that intrusive beeping noise instead of thinking about what their song means to them as they track but I for one am not. What a beautiful thing to hear your songs ebb and flow instead of being forced into some kinda invisible time grid prison.

These two simple concepts really changed my thoughts on recording. Their was so much more I learned from working with Brad and I could write for hours about it but these two very simple concepts made such a huge difference I felt they are what I should mention to you all.

So kill your click track and stop being so serious. You’ll be much happier with the results.

Your friend ,

Pinecone

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Well that’s it for tonight’s post. I am working on a longer intro to basic studio gear and the proper use of that gear. This is gonna take some time to write. I hope to have that post up by Saturday, 13th……As usual feel free to post comments and questions…………….

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

Classified Madman!, the greatest goddamn f##king band of all time!


In the late eighties I signed a band to my record label.This band, the Vestrymen, were a jangly guitar pop band from Amherst Massachusetts. Now I have quite a few insane stories about this band including but not limited to How they came to give me autographed photo of the band members naked whilst tripping in the woods, How the drummer tried to kill me over a misrouted tape of loop of Ingrid Bergman and last but greatest the story of the greatest rock prank of all time the story of John-O! Tonight’s story has nothing to do with any of the sordid tales instead it concerns something that The Vestrymen discovered in a paper in Providence Rhode Island while on tour. Like any bored musician on the   road they were scanning the musicians wanted section of the paper and ran across an ad.

  The Vestrymen had a gargantuan appetite for drugs. Bless them they were stoned rock n roll stars. Imagine that! As a result, like all rural stoners they lived in a semi secluded ranch house in the Berkshires. (that’s part of Massachusetts that doesn’t appear on any maps of America. At least any maps of America that outline the places in America where Americans have jobs, work and suffer from common sense) This ranch house developed a legendary status as a crash pad, party house with the usual mix of midget luggage and imaginary teen runaways. Oh wait a minute. Sorry, I suddenly drifted into the story of John -O. Damn.

This ranch house, nick named the Ruby Ranch, was a standard rock crash pad party house.  The refrigerator in the Ruby Ranch was covered by a mix of tour memorabilia and in the midst of this chaos was THE classified ad.    What follows is a word for word transcription of the ad. I’ve included a scan of the ad at the end of the blog but it’s difficult to read, hence the transcription.  Now as you read this keep in mind that the writer was PAYING BY THE WORD. A typical ad like this in the eighties might have cost $20.00 for the first twenty words and then .25 per word thereafter. Since the Ad has 888 words this puts the printing charge around $235!  This man had a dream and he was going to back it up with his wallet. I recently wrote to one of the band members asking for him to dig up this gem of rock madness.  It stands as definitive proof what ten thousand spins of “Houses of the Holy” will do to a young, impressionable mind……………..


Utopian Band

Do you sometimes stay up late at night and dream that you are a member of the greatest rock and roll band of all time? I do, and I want to make that dream come true. I am 21 years old and want to be the lead vocalist. I have no experience, but I am extremely ambitious and intelligent. Ninety percent of my music spectrum includes the following bands. Heavy on Led Zeppelin and the Doors, while I am also into the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Moody Blues, U2, Sting, Pink Floyd, the Monkees and the Rolling Stones. To put this band together I need a lead guitarist, a bassist, a drummer a keyboardist and someone who can play the synthesizer. You must be able to unleash the raw power on your instrument that it would take to form a magical, mystical, eternal, everlasting sound that will rock an entire planet. How good can we be? Put it this way, there are 5 billion people in the world. Now imagine a kickass construction crew has just built a stadium that when full to capacity will hold 5 billion people. In every city and every town the word is being passed around the greatest band in the Universe is playing there.  The stadium sells out and everybody has the time of their lives. I am into freedom, liberty, peace, nuclear and conventional disarmament, a central world economy, one world language (English) and for everybody in humanity through the power of music to be mutually happy and satisfied. I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Confucius, Mahatma Gandhi, Plato, Aristotle, Socretes, Goethe, Sartre, Camus, Rimbaud,Nietzsche,Buddha, Mohammed and many people in the bible. I am not a deeply religious person but I have read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations at least 15 times. Some of the group songwriting we should do should come from experiences in the Bible. I really want to get to know you people very well, therefore we should get together and find a house to rent with a large basement so we can jam there. I am very intense when it comes to practicing. I believe we should practice at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. I have a complex yet simple ideology on life. I believe people should move to a world democracy, collaborate, consolidate and over-all contribute 100 percent to humanity as one society without war or conflict. The U.S.A. and her allies have about 10,000 megatons of atomic weapons, and the Soviet Union and her allies have 10,000 megatons of atomic weapons. There are about 1,000 20 megaton nuclear bombs between the superpowers. The are also about 50,000 smaller nuclear warheads in the world.  A 20 megaton bomb within a radius of 15 miles turns everything into molten lava; at 30 miles people are set on fire and burnt to a crisp, at a 100 miles people are permanently blinded. Nuclear strike zones in Rhode island are Newport, Quonset Point and Providence.  This will never happen, but I don’t like living under the threat of total destruction.Through the powers of the United Nations and the recent signing of the INF treaty and the successful summits between the USA and Russia, relations are at an all time high. Disarmament and development are two of the most urgent challenges facing the world today. They constitute priority concerns of the international community in which all nations developed and developing, big and small, nuclear and non-nuclear have a common and equal stake. Disarmament and development are two pillars on which enduring international peace and security can be built. The arms race is absorbing far too great a proportion of the world’s human, financial and natural and technological resources placing a heavy burden on the economies of all countries and affecting the international flow of trade, finance and technology in addition to hindering the process of confidence building among nations. Thus, there is a commonality of interests in seeking security at lower levels and finding ways of reducing these expenditures. I smoke marijuana and hashish to explore the deepest realms of the human condition.I believe time has no beginning and no end, life and the joy of living are infinite. I am a vegetarian and take vitamins for good health. I meditate to find inner tranquility. I would like to rent out this house on the east side of Providence and eventually move to New York. The house must have a huge basement that we can jam in. I must stress the intensity that I am looking for in you people. The lead guitarist must have the sheer power of Jimi Hendrix. The Bassist like John Paul Johns. The drummer like Ringo Starr. The keyboardist like Ray Manzarek. And the synthesizer player must play like the almighty God. I don’t want to do any covers. I just want to write songs and be as totally original as possible. It is extremely important that each band member can powerfully sing in harmony on backup vocals. Together we can put together the greatest goddamn fucking band of all time! This ad has appeared in Providence, Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston, Miami,Memphis, New Orleans, Tampa, Orlando, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Buffalo, Rome London, Dublin, Paris, Moscow and Peking.


 

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It’s interesting to note that he fails to give any clue as to how to contact him. A slight oversight on his part.  I believe he is still waiting to for the kick ass construction crew. How can you fail to admire this guy’s ambition?

 

 

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010