Songwriting, yes, that’s right songwriting…………………..


I just listened to “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. This 60’s pop gem was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was Phil Spector’s attempt to put Ike and Tina Turner at the top of the charts.  It’s a masterpiece. How do I know this? Phil Spector said so. So did George Harrison and shit load of other people.  When it was released it rose to #88 in the US charts and then dropped out of sight. Phil Spector was so bummed he quit the music business for two years and slowly, thereafter, became a homicidal recluse. The fact that it went straight to #3 in England didn’t impress him. He still felt that he had failed.  I am now going to argue that he was right.

The damn record is a beautiful roar of overproduction.  He, of course, is known for creating the wall of sound style of production and this single is the ultimate example of that over-the- top style.  Unfortunately this buried the perfect song that should have carried the song into the whistling repertoire of every kid in america.  It’s interesting to note that the song later became a standard live hit for Tina Turner. This just proves my point. It’s a fuckin’ great song. It sums up obsessive love in a few verses and says it in a way that can punch holes in your heart.  Great song, overproduced = notable success without mega success.  Phil knew what he was writing about. He’s an obsessive guy. He once gave his wife twin five-year old boys as a christmas present. He didn’t ask he just got them and gave them to her.  Sure… that’s normal…. everyone gives other humans as Christmas presents.  So he’s nuts. We’ve established that fact without even exploring his recent homicide conviction.  Even so he knew how to write hits.  That talent is priceless and the true key to making it to the top. Let’s look for some examples that prove the point.

Bob Dylan -ugly fucker, can’t play, arrogant asshole that’s subject to maniacal obsessions, brilliant writer = superstar writer

Tom Petty – ugly bastard with weird voice, great writer =superstar writer

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – pleasant people, hipsters, undeniably brilliant writers = changed the world for a generation.

I can come up with hipper and weirder examples but it all points to the same thing. Songwriting is the core of what makes bands breakout into the rarefied air of superstardom. If you want to succeed learn to write a great song. One will do. Tons of undeniably brilliant songs would be better but that may be too much to shoot for. 

Writing great songs is a combo of vision, some talent and lots and lots of craft. It is a process that can be improved and honed, polished and practiced. It rarely appears wholly developed in useable form.  All the great writers learn from those that come before them. They listen to other great writers and absorb their themes.  If you listen to a great songwriter, say Bob Marley, for instance you can see that he writes about universal truths…..”No Woman, No Cry”…Gee that’s simple and boy is it true.  Great writers also steal with no shame. They don’t steal songs..well Zeppelin stole all their songs but they weren’t great writers…they steal phrases from the world around them. A friend says something true that’s clever or sad or funny and a song is born. They see an old movie and hear a perfect phrase and boom a song is born.  Great writing is the process of seeing things clearly, seeing the truth, or hearing the ring of truth in the hubbub around you.

The inspiration for a song is a morsel of magic. There is no denying that. But the heavy lifting of writing is to work and rework until the whole song is condensed into a perfectly balanced slice of life. It doesn’t matter if the meaning of the song is lost on others, they will inject their own meaning, it still must ring true to the writer and this will come through to the listener.

So this week’s blog is short. It’s also of paramount importance. If you are the writer for your band learn your craft. Learn it from the great writers. Think about their themes and their tricks to reach your soul. That’s why they are great writers and that, if you want to succeed at rock, is what you must do….

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

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How to release your own music…………


I asked for suggestions. I received quite a few.  I start by covering Dave’s suggestion that I provide a timeline for a band releasing their own music.

Let me start by repeating some advice I have proffered in the past. Releasing your own music is an excellent idea.  There seems to be an old wives’ tale that if you release your own music this will scare away labels. This is utter crap. Often people who have never worked in the actual record business will act as if they have all the answers. Invariably they will tell you “wait! shop the labels, wait until the market is ready…” – it’s all the same idiotic claptrap.  Thousands of worthy bands have expired waiting for their “big break”. The term “big break” points to the stupidity and misunderstanding that underlies this philosophy. Band’s don’t get a big break. They get ahead by hundreds of little breaks that bring them into a position to move to a large label and finally sell millions of records.  If you ever get to that point, don’t worry. The music business will go out its way to advertise the fact that the label created all the buzz and lifted you out of obscurity while ignoring everything the band and its fan base did to get ahead.

Think of any huge band. There are always “early recordings”, “demos”, “bootleg recordings” etc. These are all recordings created as the band rose to the top. You often can find members of any huge band appearing in unknown bands before they make it big. All of this illustrates that the path to the top is a series of small steps and the associations you build with other musicians on your way up.

One final thought on recording and releasing material. Just do it. Don’t fuck around. Don’t wait for that producer to find time for you next year. For any new band the first year should have fifty gigs and at least one full length recording.  Write the material, practice it and then record it. Certainly take the time to get it right but get it down on tape.  You can always rerecord material later.

Okay let’s move on. For this blog I will assume that you are recording a full length release and all of the sessions are worked out or complete.  Often bands concentrate on recording and ignore everything else. This works great if you are U2 but it causes problems if you are a little band. You need to be thinking about releasing the record as you record it.  You should be setting up a mastering engineer. They often are booked months in advance. Mastering is expensive and necessary. It often makes your material sound pro and much, much slicker.

 At the same time you MUST be working on cover art. It takes longer to manufacture the CD sleeve than to duplicate the CDs. I recently had dinner with a alt country band. They have tons of talent. More songs than they could ever use and a gig schedule that would make any young band jealous. They fought for months over the album art after completing the recording of their first record. This delayed them months and, in the end, they ended up with a lousy cover that has little to do with their music. Work out your cover art while you are making the record.  By the time you finish your mixes and are working on a sequence you should have your artwork locked in. Make sure someone is taking notes for the album cover. These notes are the classic choice to contain a few inside jokes.  Please remember that these jokes will not be understood by your fans. Do not make the whole cover an inside joke. This invariably leaves you with a cover that the fans hate and do not understand.

Now you’ve reached the point where you have a finished set of mixes and an album cover. Pick a date about four months in the future and decide that will be your release day. Book a date at one of your strongest venues.  This will be your release party. If you don’t give yourself a release date as a goal you and your band will likely stall and delay yourself into obscurity.  SET A DATE!

Once you have picked the date count backwards from this date six weeks. This should be the date that your promo copies (and your copies to sell) should be in your hand. Now that you know the production date (that’s what it’s called after all..) you can contact the CD duplicator and find out how long it takes them to duplicate the master and produce the art. It’s usually best to give both these duties to the CD duplicator. Yes you can save some money if you find artwork manufacturing separately but putting 2000 cds into their sleeves sucks so just skip it. At this point you will likely notice that you are already behind schedule. Try not to worry about it and just press ahead with mastering and setting up various things to promote this magical recording.  As you move towards the actual release don’t be surprised if you grow to dislike the recording. THIS IS COMMON AND YOU MUST LEARN TO NOT SECOND GUESS WHAT YOU HAVE DONE! If you do start to meddle and change things you will fall down the black hole that often consumes bands and leads to purgatory.

With all of this behind you it is time to work out how you will promote the recording. Here’s some standard ideas:

1. Book a tour that covers every market where you are known and any geographically related market where you can scam your way into a gig.

2.Collect lists of every magazine, E-zine, website and blog that writes about music similar to your band. These will all receive a press pack (see my blog on this) photo and CD in the weeks before your release.

3. Set up an account to upload to Itunes and other sites. (CD baby is quite popular) Design and arrange for your website to have a new look and copious verbage about the brilliant release, all primed and ready to go on the day of release.

4. Dig around on the internet for info on Indy distributors. Call other bands, ask how they sell product. Take notes. (product is one of those nasty music industry terms for music…)

5. Design a tour shirt and some kind of Choch-Kee (sp?). This is some small cheap item that has the album art or title or band name that can be given out to people to promote the release. (I have suggested fortune cookies that contain the band’s album title in some clever way. No one has ever used this idea so maybe it’s a tacky idea …hey you can be the first) Be creative, hand puppets? key chains? Kites? Hand grenades? This is your moment to shine.

6. Think of possible promo stunts…. the album is called Pig Fuckers? Hmmm…. what could you do? Creativity goes a long way towards getting people talking. When people talk CDs sell.

So now you’ve got the machine in gear. All of these things need to be timed to happen in and around the “Album Release Date”. It doesn’t matter much if you are a little early or a little late. You need college radio play (oh yeah get a list of college stations for mailing), press and local TV during the two months when your release will be new.  Don’t worry about shopping the release to labels. You can send out mailings if you like but the way to get signed is to get more popular. It’s a simple as that.

Columbia Records “discovered” Janis Joplin, the legendary blues rock singer at a show in San Francisco. She was given one of the most lucrative contracts up to that time. No one mentions that Columbia A & R guys first saw her at a 7000 seat theater show.  Those guys were a long way behind what every kid in Frisco had known for a year…Janis Joplin will melt your shoes….that’s how you get discovered.

I am sure I missed some points. Post questions, I’ll answer promptly….Oh yeah…if you are putting out a record you better be writing the next record or you will once again fall into the black hole……..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

Demos and the fine art of getting it down on tape………


About a month ago I ran a posting asking people to send in their demos. As I mentioned in that posting the idea was for me to criticize the demos in an effort to teach you, the reader, something about songwriting and recording. I got quite few submissions and, in general, there was some good stuff. Nonetheless I intend to kick the stuffing out of the songs I have picked. I am not doin’ this to discourage the musicians that were brave enough to go through this process. Instead I am going to give you an idea of how tapes are torn up by label people and producers.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs almost everyone in the music business can come up with one solid criticism of anything they hear and that is that whatever it is, no matter how good or bad, it would have benefited greatly if the person doing the talking had been involved in its creation.  The music business is full of people who are firmly convinced that they know everything there is to know about writing songs, recording music and turning that music into a mega popular world-wide hit.  In the few cases were I have seen this actually happen it usually results in something like “The Witch Doctor Song” as sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks or the Macarena. It is useful to remember that very few of these people actually have any talent. If they did they would be musicians. During the Golden Age of record companies there were A & R people who really knew their stuff. There are even a few of them alive now. ( I’ll mention Joe McEwan and leave it at that…Hi Joe..How’s the wife?)( I should also admit that this whole blog is based on the premise that I know something about writing songs, recording songs and creating hits. At least I have succeeded in all three activities so there is a chance I am qualified)

Sadly, if you are determined to be involved with a large label then you will end up dealing with dullards, power mad gay hobbits, Human version of Jabba the Hut and slimey limey Simon Cowell types. You may even get lucky and find yourself attached to one of the people in the business that understand that it is a business but at its heart it’s about music. Good luck.

Tonight’s blog is not going to actually get around to presenting some music and then pulling it apart. In order to reach that point I must talk about what demos do and don’t do for a band. I must also address some of the stupid misconceptions about demos.

The first grand misconception..”In order for a demo to be effective you’ve gotta break the bank and spend as much as you can on recording and producing it”. This is completely untrue. I suspect that this fallacy is kept alive by studio owners and indy producers that make serious coin when they run into a band with a rich daddy that will pay the bills. The truth is that the value of a demo is determined by the quality of the songwriting and the fire in the belly of the band that cuts the track. It’s that simple. Good recording, bad recording, 24 track digital, two-track kids cassette deck it doesn’t matter.  If you can’t hear the song, if you can’t really hear the band then that’s a lousy demo. If the band spends lots of money and time recording a demo they will get nothing other than a lesson. The lesson will end up being that it was a waste of time and money.

Second misconception “The formula for a demo is ____________. ” I’ve heard many things used to fill in the blank. “It’s gotta be just three songs” “It should be two upbeat songs and a ballad” “It needs to have a hundred-dollar bill and a gram of coke tucked into the CD sleeve” . This last one might actually get you the attention of the kind of record executive that will spend your whole recording budget on coke.  Truth is there is no formula. Demos shouldn’t be really long since it will never get listened to all the way through.  Demos should consist of a few great songs with enough material to show exactly what a band sounds like.

Third Misconception – ” A great demo will start a bidding war and land a deal overnight” I’ve heard this one ever since I entered the music business in 1978. That’s …hmm let me think…32 years ago. In all of that time I have never met a band signed as a result of a demo. I think that ends that rumor.  The way that a band gets signed is a result of many factors adding up. This has to be matched by having contacts and interested people working for you. When you put great shows, great songs, great demos, popularity (the most important factor), buzz, press attention together with a network of people who know about you , you end up with a recording contract.

In short your demo can have things about it that sucks but if the band is great that should shine through. If, as is usually the case, the band is just OK, perhaps good in some ways and not so good in others, then you will not get a deal due to those factors and the demo will just show other people the band’s weaknesses.

So now we reach the question “What do record companies do with demos? Who listens to them? How do I get them listened to?” These are all part of the same subject.

All of the major record labels do not accept unsolicited demos. Why do they do this? Why are they so mean? It’s simple really. They believe that any band that is worth listening to will have people promoting them. They will have a manager or a lawyer or they will have devoted fan that IS IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS. They believe this because it is true.  Promoters, agents, managers, producers, lawyers, road managers, film makers, DJs, studio engineers etc. all have their ears open for a great band. These people insulate the major labels from the mountain of demos that are not worth listening to. All of these characters have their ears open in an effort to find the band first and get onboard to make some money as the band succeeds.  Many musicians have a problem with this concept. They view all of these people as parasites. This is a stupid, self-destructive attitude. These people are not parasites they are symbiotes. What does that mean? It means that they do not feed off of the band and bleed the band and weaken the band, no, instead they work alongside the band and help them succeed. They teach the band the craft of being rock stars and the tricks of the trade. They produce and promote records. In general the further a person is from the major labels the greater the native talent they need to survive. An independent producer must search out and discover band after band and then convince them to let him produce a record. Then promote this recording. These are all valuable services for the band.

Now I can hear a certain number of you out there saying “Not me, I’m the next demigod of rock and no one knows it. All I need to do is walk on stage and the world will crawl to my feet.” Gee I hope that is true, for your sake. Even if you are Loki, the god of the underworld, you need to learn how to put on a great show and how to arrange your songs. You need to learn how to record. You need to learn how to talk to a writer and how to do a radio interview without sounding like Bozo the Clown.

So now that you know that you can’t just send in your demo – why should you make a demo? Well, you need the demo to get the other characters interested. You need to make a cheap, dirty beginners demo to turn on a producer or engineer. This allows you to make a better demo that ends up getting you a lawyer and catches the ear of a booking agent that will pick you up as your audience starts to grow.  This gets you to a label that finances some development demos that lands you a publishing deal….Are you starting to see the sequence?

So let’s go back to demos and the major labels. I will take the time to answer a few basic questions just to get them out of the way.

“How do I get them listened to?” Demos that make it to an A & R department of a major label get there by being passed on by an established manager, lawyer, producer or booking agent.  They are the gatekeepers. The status of the person that submits the demo determines who will listen to it.  For example I managed three different acts on Columbia records at one time. The PResident of Columbia was (and I think still is) Don Ienner. Don and I have met professionally many times. We’ve met to discuss promoting my acts, releasing various items from these acts, coordinating tours of these acts etc. If I were to call him he would pick up the phone. He would do this for two reasons. First he knows me professionally and respects the fact that I manage bands that have enough clout and status to be signed to Columbia. Second he knows from his experience with me that I only call people when I have something concrete to talk to them about. He also knows that whatever I want to talk to him about WILL LIKELY BE ADVANTAGEOUS TO HIM AND COLUMBIA. This is an important point. Always call people with something that might help them. This will make your phone calls wanted rather than an annoyance.

If I were to call Don Ienner and ask him to listen to a tape he would tell the VP of A & R to listen to the tape and give him his opinion. Then, if that opinion was favorable he would listen to it and call me up with a reaction.  If the music seemed like something Columbia might want he would suggest a showcase and ask questions like “Are you planning on managing or producing?” You might be surprised to know that, although I have known Don Ienner since 1988 I have only called him about a tape twice.  Why? Because I have only found two occasions where I was in the position to pitch him a tape that fit with Columbia’s interests and I had the job of pitching the band. In both cases Columbia did not offer the band a deal. Since one of the bands was the band Phish and they went on to be one of the biggest bands of the 1990’s I expect that the next time I call him he will listen to whatever I send him.

Let us compare that scenario with a different, fictional one to help explain how the system works. Let’s say that a junior lawyer at an Entertainment Law Firm in Minneapolis,MN calls Columbia to pitch a tape.  Columbia will take him seriously since he is a professional and is in the business. They will probably tell him that someone will call him back. This call will get routed to an A & R co-ordinator. This is a person in the A & R department that works out all kinds of things like flights for A & R staff, showcase arrangements and, as in this case, calls from unknown law firms and managers. They won’t ignore the call. What if this band turns out to be the next Phish? Every major label is haunted by stories of how they turned down an artist that went on to fame. As a result they try to at least chalk up a rejection for everything that someone in the business shops to them.

In this case the A & R co-ordinator will pass on the contact to a junior A & R guy. He will call the lawyer, listen to the pitch and tell the lawyer to send in the tape. He then lists the tape in the incoming demo log. He is supposed to listen to the tape shortly after it arrives. Unfortunately he may make ten calls like this every day. The stack of unlistened to tapes grows and grows. As it does he pushes his boss to let him hire a “listener”. This is a person, usually an intern that gets cheap wages to listen to mountains of tapes. For each tape he writes a little blurb and rates it. He may get to pick out three or four as his favorites which the Junior A & R guy will then listen to.

So, it’s obvious that your chances of getting a deal through the junior lawyer in Minneapolis are slim. Even if the tape does get someone interested this is just the beginning of a long process with showcases, various demos and finally the word that they are gonna pass.  During that time you can grow old and die. NEVER WAIT TO GET SIGNED!!! It’s fine to pursue getting a deal but  never put of making records and playing live while waiting to get signed. This is a common and deadly mistake.

Next blog I will post two demos, one from the band Spiral Jetty Club and the other from the ever-present reader Oliver from Australia. I will then pull them apart and tell you how a label would view them, how a manager might view them and how a producer would hear them so stay tuned…………………………………………….

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

Lesson #17 Hit records are free, recording and your band……………………………


Recording with your band is damn important. In fact many musicians see recording as the core purpose of being in a band.  I, on the other hand, see being in a band as a balance between the studio and the stage. So far this blog has been about the stage and touring. Now I am going to turn some of my attention to recording.

Over the past 15 years the role of recording has changed drastically. Twenty years ago making recordings which were then turned into albums was the primary road to getting rich. Having a gold or platinum album on your wall told the world that you were set, that you have made it. This has changed. The advent of downloading has destroyed the value of a successful record.  I won’t bother to discuss whether this is good or bad we will just accept it and move on. In today’s music scene a band’s recordings can make them money but the real riches must come from playing live since it’s the one thing that can’t be stolen.  Don’t get me wrong. Just because making a recording and then selling it to the world is no longer a way to get rich doesn’t mean that recording is in any way less important than it was in the past. Actually the opposite is true.

Recording technology has gotten ridiculously cheap. Everyone can afford it and everyone does buy it.  The end result of this major change is that recording gear is largely in the hands of amateurs. I am a big fan of amateurs. I also recognize that when it comes to recording amateurs don’t really know what they are doing.

What does all this do to the music that is being put out by bands? The quality of recordings is dropping. It is also a lot less likely that someone is going to spend 2 million dollars to lock a rock band away on some island paradise to make a record.  Why would they when the day the album is released it will downloaded tens of thousands of times? This is a major change. It also offers you, my reader, a golden opportunity.

Since amateurs rule the world now, being a talented, knowledgeable amateur will pay off.  Any recordings that you make in today’s market are essentially promotions tools. They may make you some money but that is no longer their purpose. Instead all recordings are sermons. When someone downloads your song or pops a disc in and turns their attention to your music you have the opportunity to convert them, forever, to your religion. The religion, of course, is you and your band.  (Now christian rockers don’t get all feisty over my overuse of a metaphor) How serious should you take that opportunity? Do you think you are going to get many chances with each fan?

So there it is, the new world of recording is deadly serious, and, at the same time, a brilliant opportunity. Let’s approach recording with that in mind and one, extremely important , additional attitude. As some background I have been recording music since 1977, mostly in professional situations. I have produced or produced and engineered hundred of sessions. I am not even sure what the true number is any more. In all that time I have learned one essential lesson. Recording music must be fun!

Look at it this way. There are many important things people do. Open heart surgery – very serious, extremely important, never fun. Airline Pilot same deal. Making a kicking rock record? Well that should be a party in your head. It should be a trip to the circus, a   nantucket sleigh ride ,a conga line full of pranksters,  a day in morning sunshine that never fails, a crystalline snapshot of talent, in short it should be awful fun. The attitude that a band has in a recording session goes down on tape as strongly as the kick drum and vocals.  So for Christ’s sake loosen up and have a good time. I’m sure some of you readers are saying to yourself  ‘my music isn’t fun! it’s heavy and dark’. Yeah, yeah I get it. The rule still applies.  When you listen to a really great heavy, dark , monster of a record, I’m talking a record that is flawless from track to track, you are hearing a great band RULE THE WORLD. Guess what, it’s all attitude.  What you are listening to is four or five egos standing in a studio, a long way from you, both in time and distance, and they are strutting their stuff and ruling the world INSIDE THAT STUDIO.  Take it from me because I’ve worked on some great sessions.  When a band is cutting a track like that the studio is electrified with energy, it’s their energy, the energy of the band and they know it, they know they are burning down the studio around them and, in the end, if you really look at it, it’ all attitude.

So right from the beginning you can set aside the school of recording philosophy where people spend 9 days and three hundred and twelve takes to cut a bass line. If you want to learn about recording from that angle go somewhere else. 

Throughout the eighties and nineties I listened to engineers and bands crazy theories about how to record.  After a few years and a thousand or so hours of studio time I started to be able to predict what a musician or engineer was going to say before they would complete the sentence and by the end of the paragraph I would know what obstacles I had to overcome by getting them to unlearn some really bad studio habits.  I now have enough experience that I’ve figured out how many of these bad habits got started and why, at some other time and some other place they made sense.  I will try my hardest to cover a complete list of known bad habits. I may not remember them all just sitting at my laptop but I hope if I keep writing about the studio and how records are made I will cover all of the important ones.

What kind of bad habits? Well I’ll shoot some holes in one to give you an idea of the kind of thing I will cover in this blog.  Also I should point out that my studio advice is not going to be based on just telling you what not to do. I’ll strive to tell you what to do and what not to do and, most importantly, give you some reasoning to back it up. I’ve learned enough about my personality, and how this blog is shaping up to know that sometimes I’m gonna say, “DO IT THIS WAY! JUST DO IT! WHY? DON’T ASK WHY, JUST TRUST ME!”. In that case just trust me.

So let kick off the Dear Abby Column Advice For Recording Bands with one of my personal pet peeves, CLICK TRACKS. Click tracks piss me off. I have seen them terrorize scores of bands and ruin hundreds of hours of high cost studio time. I’ve seen great, talented drummers fired because of click tracks.

Now ask yourself, if you’ve had a drummer in the band for three and half years and he has been fantastic. That is to say he has been fantastic as a drummer. His inevitable run ins with the cops and his habit of small scale arson are just quirks and don’t enter into this conversation. Now ask yourself why in the name of god would you fire this guy solely because he can’t play along with a click track? I’ve seen it happen, many times. This kind of action is classic band stupidity.

Let me straighten out the record. I have an advantage on this particular topic because I was recording BEFORE click tracks became common and, of course, I have seen 25 years of click track mania. I had to listen to lots of yahoos  and turd polishers lecture me why click tracks are the foundation of recording. Often, these idiots would back up their lecture with a fictitious history of the click track lecture. My reaction has always been to tell them to shut up and sit down. If this fails I point to the door and growl and, as a last desperate action have the road crew kick the stuffing out of them.

Click tracks came into the studio from DANCE RECORDS.  Remember disco? Of course you don’t. If you did you’d be as old as me. Well disco was a music movement that featured a steady 4/4 beat that clocked at 60 BPM, 80BPM,100BPM and 120BPM (that’s beats per minute) There was almost no change in tempo over the course of a whole record and never a tempo change within a song. It’s tempting to say that there was no tempo change in the whole decade of disco. 

Another new fad of the age of disco was the drum machine. Can you see where this is headed? No? Ok, I’ll lay it out. People were making records with drum machines playing a relentless steady beat and if that wasn’t being used they were looking for the drummer to play a relentless, unchanging, steady beat.  Since this was often, very, very hard to do engineers imported an idea from the world of classical music, the metronome. As another bit of background I will confess that from aged 7 until aged 16 I played classical piano. So I am extremely familiar with the proper use of the metronome.  Now think for a moment. Think of a classical orchestra, there’s the strings, the horns, the kettle drummer, the woodwinds and there up front, on a podium above the rest is a giant metronome. Wait a minute, that’s not right!? Oh yeah there is some crazy guy called a conductor in a penguin suit. He flails his arms around and has great trouble controlling his hair… yeah that’s the right picture. So why isn’t there just a giant metronome? Well, it seems that the METRONOME is a device for aiding the PRACTICE of music.  What orchestras do is PERFORM music.  This is quite a bit different. In fact a classical score is littered with wierd words in Italian, like  accelerando, ritardando, and oddly even Rallentando and Rubato. These wierd words mean go faster, go slower and oddly, get slower and slower and you been robbed! what? What the hell does that mean?  Rubato actually does mean robbed in Italian and the term is used for a tempo that is devoid of rhythm. Well that’s pretty strange isn’t it. Why would you need terms like that? After all music has a tempo and you play along with that tempo through fiery attacks of demons and assaults of fans throwing panties right? NO! Music changes time, tempo, rhythm, volume, cadence, rhyme, …I could go on for quite a while. For the sake of this blog let’s just say it gets faster and slower.  Don’t believe me? Take a classic rock record and set a metronome to it. You may run across a song with flat time but you’ll also run into many where the time varies . The reason a player works with a metronome is to learn to play flat time, when it is called for. This does not mean that all music, and certainly not all rock music, is performed in flat time.

Now I’m certain that I’m going to get email from people that have used click tracks. They will argue that in order to edit together different takes the band must be playing along to a click track.  Oh really? If that’s true how did every band prior to multitracking, that is too say 1969 turn out hit record after hit record using countless edits without it ever being heard? Well, actually if you spend much time editing music you start to be able to hear edits on all records but that’s beside the point.

So point one on recording, forget the damn click track. Instead the band should be gunning for just the right pacing. If the track picks up a little speed as you go into the bridge or slows down as you go to the anthemic, triumphant chorus that’s a good thing. This is the way music is played.

So now I’ve done it. I’ve started to write about work in the studio. I will continue on with this in coming weeks. I will try to talk about subtle things like getting the “right feel” on a track and nuts and bolts things like what the hell does a compressor do and why would I want that done to me?

One final topic for tonight’s blog.  It’s a big one and I will get started on it and it will come up in various ways from all kinds of angles.  What should my band’s recordings sound like? Seems like  stupid question doesn’t it? Well, if you do a decent amount of recording you will be faced with this question repeatedly.

On this topic I have some good solid advice for any band that still hasn’t made records that sell or moved up to larger shows with packed clubs, that is to say, most of you out there in interwebland. For the forseeable future your recordings should sound like your band does live. The other side of the coin is that your live show should sound like an extremely solid recording.  Even if you have a jam band this is true. As a band gets its act together (isn’t that clever use of words?? Geez i is so smart) the band should be striving to develop a strong sound and personality that defines the band on every level. Your fans should be able to hear a verse and chorus of a live tape or recorded track and say “Hey that’s Arterial Bleeding! I’d know that sound anywhere.” Yes there is a place for growing changing, throwing your audience a curve ball, going acoustic etc. but first you HAVE TO BECOME SOMETHING EXTREMELY POWERFUL AND CONCENTRATED.  Your band needs to have its own sound and this sound needs to be put down on tape.  As part of learning to do that I believe quite strongly that early recordings should be cut  live.  That is to say, everyone playing together in the studio at the same time.  Don’t worry about overdubbing your way through a record. At first you should cut tracks together and, as a result, learn to play together in the studio which is a completely different “feel” from playing together live on stage or in a practice.  If you’re about to record tell the engineer that you are going to set up live and cut the tracks with just a “scratch vocal as a guide track”. This will annoy him enough to keep him out of your hair and it should be a few more sessions before he finds the time and nervous energy to meddle by insisting that you add bad keyboard sounds on the chorus of every song.

If you doubt me listen to “The Who Live at Leeds” or “The Beatles Revolver”. Both albums have many edits but the sound on tape is a band playing together live and doing it ridiculously well.

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010