Zen of Recording

Recording the Band, Part 1

You and your bandmates have spent the last several months writing, arranging and rehearsing your music, and finding your own sound. You’re now feeling more than ready to take to the stage and share your collective musical vision with your friends and fans, but no self-respecting club owner will even book you without first hearing you. Perhaps you’ve already passed the audition, but your fans are clamoring for product. Maybe you want to sell them an EP or an entire album’s worth of material. Alternatively, you might just want to capture a rehearsal so you can finally point out to the bassist that the F he’s playing under your B chord doesn’t sound nearly as cool as he thinks it does.

Obviously, assessing these needs and setting subsequent goals toward achieving them is paramount in starting out on the right foot. For instance, a simple demo for the band’s internal use is going to be a much less involved project than producing a retail-ready CD would be. Lots of bands simply post one mic (or even a smart phone) in the middle of the rehearsal space and hit “record.” While this is probably the lowest-fi of all solutions, it also carries with it several positive traits as well: there’s an energy, an atmosphere bursting with an excitement that is immediately discernible and undeniably charming. This is that “live” element that has proven to be so elusive that even the best producers and engineers can find it difficult to capture or replicate its vibe in their recordings.

Let’s assume that your band has come to a crossroads where financial realities place tracking in a professional studio out of reach. Or that perhaps past studio experiences have produced less than stellar results and you really want to take the reins this time, without worrying about the studio clock constantly running in the background. You want to make the very best recording you can, which sounds like you and your band on your very best day, giving your very best performance. This is not only possible, but people are actually doing it, every single day.

Full Band vs. Rhythm Tracking
Capturing as much of the band performing live as possible gives you the biggest portion of the band’s unique flavor with which to work. At the same time, the more “live” tracks you include, the more “bleed” finds its way into the microphones and consequently, the less fixable things can become.

For instance, you could have everyone playing and sounding terrific, but each time the guitar solo comes up, the guitarist falters or just doesn’t get a take he or she is satisfied with. You might then try to overdub those parts, only to find that the original performance is in the drum mics as well and can’t be mixed out. This often happens with vocals, too, or really anything that is loud enough to be picked up by neighboring mics. So what is the solution?

Rhythm tracking is a time-honored solution for finding a balance between a live feel and a focused, articulate sound and arrangement. This most often involves the drummer, bass player and at least one chordal instrument (guitar or keyboard), along with a “scratch” vocal so that everyone knows where they are in the song. With these players all performing at once, you get the energy, feel, and bedrock groove of the arrangement, which provides a solid and more emotionally connected foundation from which to build upon. Considering the care, time, and attention that can subsequently be invested into the more elaborate tasks of instrumental and vocal overdubs, this approach bears the most creative fruit, on balance. Even if each part is then re-recorded, there is still a very distinct and perceptible character to the resulting recordings that shows a sharp contrast to the “one-track at a time” approach.

Space and Isolation
Up to now, you’ve been doing most of your recording in the space you’ve set aside as your personal recording studio. Maybe that’s a spare bedroom or the garage or a walk-in closet. Oftentimes, it is not a place that can accommodate more than two musicians besides yourself. Considering the need for musical communication and separation between parts, it’s probably time to stretch out a little bit. Using the space where your computer or multi-track recorder currently resides as your control room, you may be able to convince your spouse, partner, and/or roommates to surrender additional parts of your home to your recording project, at least temporarily.

Let’s assume you’ve got a modest living room with a couch, a coffee table, an armchair, television, and stereo. If you can move the furniture out of the room completely, great. If not, try at least pushing things toward the walls, to open up as much space in the center of the room as possible. At one side, set up the drums in such a way that the drummer can play comfortably, facing the center. Alternatively, you can set up the drums in the center of the room, with the other musicians scattered around the room’s perimeter. The main thing is to open up those sightlines. When a band performs, there is a lot of subtle communication that happens: a simple head nod may signal the entrance of the chorus. A subtle facial expression and slight bend at the knees can ask the band to bring down the dynamics. The drummer can mouth “1, 2, 3, 4” before a big ending—without these understated cues, hours of precious recording time can be wasted on otherwise needless retakes and arrangement-related discussions.

Once we have our musicians in position, we need to decide where to put the guitar or keyboard amplifiers. Any adjacent room that can be closed is a good start. Room tone for rhythm instruments is not usually as paramount a concern as it is for subsequent overdubs like riffs and solos, so the nearest bedroom may provide a nice controlled environment for this stage.

Now, we can set up mic stands, microphones, and DI boxes. It is prudent to keep in mind that you may need many more mics and stands than you normally would employ for a rehearsal or gig. You may not have enough, so it’s best to have everyone pitch in what they can: headphones, headphone extension cords, mics, cables, and guitar stands. Try to visualize (or even better, write down) the signal chain for each element you’ll be tracking, including the distance between them and the control room where they will ultimately be plugged in. This will help avoid session-freezing scenarios that could have otherwise been prevented by careful planning.

Portions of this article originally appeared in Recording magazine. Special thanks to Mike Metlay. www.recordingmag.com

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer, singer, and songwriter. www.kaspro.com

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