How to create a final mix (pt 2)


So now we move on to adding the effects, compression and fader moves to your mix. I am assuming that you have read and understood part one. You have your mix up and running and it sounds completely balanced with drums, bass, guitars and vox. Now it’s time to add in all of the other ear candy such as background vocals or car crashes – whatever is left. As you do add elements find their proper position in the stereo field first, then find their level. This is important. If you set level first and then pan it somewhere it will be very hard to achieve balance.

This is the point where you sit back and think about the mix. Does it feel right?  Too dry? What does it need? This is the point where you may decide to add effects to instruments to achieve particular colors or atmospheres. Don’t add reverb to the vocals because all vocals have reverb. First this isn’t actually true and second it should be added in an attempt to achieve something particular.  Over the years I have spent endless hours screwing around with effects at the demand of musicians, all of that time was wasted. It rarely comes out better. On the other hand when a musician has something in mind you can quickly move towards a better mix. For example the singer might say “the vocal needs to sound more lonely”. Well that might seem vague but it gives you somewhere to go. You might add a small room reverb and pan the instruments slightly away from the vocal so it seems like it’s by itself.  By contrast the guitarist might say “the solo needs to sound grand, like a choir or something” . This leads you to push it back in the mix and add big church reverb. Most musicians understand how things should feel. They all use different terms to describe these variables. You need to take the time to understand what they mean by “it needs punch” or “it has to rock more”. Everyone seems to use these kind of terms differently. if, on the other hand, the drummer says, “I wanna sound like Bonham on When the Levee Breaks remind him that he plays like a pussy, Bonham was no pussy and that he still owes 9 bucks for last night’s food. In short ignore him.

Now is the time to think about EQ changes. Does the bass lack bottom? Is the vocal dull? When you identify a problem like these two attempt, at first, to remove things from the mix to see if the problem goes away. The most common problem that I have seen in mixing is caused by each individual element having too much top, bottom and mids. When you put it all together it makes mud.  THIS IDEA IS IMPORTANT. LEARN TO THINK ABOUT IT!

All of the great remix engineers spend most of their time removing frequencies from tracks to achieve clarity. Muddy mix? Take things out.

Now this doesn’t mean you need to lose the guitars. Instead you may need to EQ them and remove some well-defined frequencies. As you rebalance the mix and add in effects be careful to carefully remove bits and pieces of the different tracks frequency spectrums to allow other elements to shine. If you follow the rookie system of adding top and bottom to every track as it enters the mix you will end up with mud that smells of shit. I guarantee it.

Another important point about effects. Less is more and whenever you add reverb to a track it makes that track LOUDER. That means you must lower the dry track and add the reverb return track. Then rebalance the two elements, then rebalance the whole damn mix. If you put effects on everything then the mix will become an insoluble rubic’s cube. So don’t do that.

Next element to consider is compression. I am a big fan of compression. It makes tracks flatter dynamically and as a result adds detail which makes them stand out in the mix. It also controls big jumps in volume (very useful on vocals). This allows you to get a balance that continues throughout the whole mix. Again, if you compress a track you need to rebalance the mix.

Often I will run the mix through matched compressors to flatten the whole mix and make it all sound louder.  In this case both compressors must be the same with one unit “slaved” to the other so that only one set of controls runs both units. If you know how to do this and have two nice matching compressors give it a try. If not it’s best to leave this to the mastering engineer.

One final comment – always listen to the mix on as many different stereos as possible before deciding it is done. Play it in the car. Play it on your iPod through your girlfriend’s clock radio, play it on your kid brother’s karaoke box, play it anywhere that is a challenge. This will show you what needs to be changed and will show you how it will be listened to by your fans. Remember, no one is going to listen to your mixes on a studio rig so get used to it and mix it so it sounds good on ANY system……….

©Copyright 2011 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

Advertisements

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…..

——————————————————–

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.

—————————–

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.

—————————–

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.

—————————-

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.

=———–

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.

———————–

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.

————————–

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.

————————

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

Volunteers? Not the Jefferson Airplane song….


Ok readers I am looking for volunteers to submit a track or two of their music. It will appear on the site in my blog. I will then dissect the track and criticise ( or praise) songwriting, performing, recording etc.  If you decide to do this you should be thick-skinned and brave since I will most likely beat the stuffing out of your music before I am finished.  In return for volunteering to be publically humiliated you will get seen (actually heard) by a few thousand readers and get valuable advice from an old pro. I will also solicit comments from readers to round things out.

As I have stated numerous times I will not listen to demos since I would be deluged with music and have no time to do the blog which is the most helpful thing I can do for you. If interested send an mp3 that is less than 5 minutes long. The limit is one song per band or writer. In the email please make some sort of statement that says you are willing to have your stuff posted on the site and that you will not cry like a baby when I beat up your music. Send the music to ciceroqpublic(at)yahoo.com. I will collect songs for a few weeks then pick out one or two to post on the site. This should be a good way to wrap up the first series of blogs about recording. So everyone put their best Riff forward and we’ll all learn something about succeeding at rock…….

Brad Morrison

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

————————————————————————————————————————–

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

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