Recording Notes

I was lucky to have two studios for a number of years, one in an old barn in the southwest of France, and one in our garage here in Devon.  The studio in France was the culmination of a life-long dream: it was big, it sounded – and looked – great, it was wired properly, and I had built it, so everything was the way I liked it.  After several years of living in France full-time, we relocated back to the UK, where I built a small studio in the garage of our house in Devon.  Again, I built it (mostly) on my own; it sounds really good, and is a very comfortable place to work in.  This is now my only studio.

A one-man operation like my own poses some interesting challenges.  Being a recording engineer is (mostly) a left-brain activity: logical, analytical, orderly.  Being a musician is right-brain: intuitive, creative, rhythmic.  Juggling the two in order to make sure that the engineer doesn’t stifle the musician by never-ending adjustments or criticism, and that the musician doesn’t forget to press “record” or plug a microphone in, is crucial to getting things done. (I would note that the left-brain/right-brain theory has been proven incorrect, in terms of neurological function, but it’s still a useful way of thinking about things.)

I approach the process by trying to get all the engineering stuff out of the way before I even get near trying to do creative work.  Microphones set up, levels set, headphone mix good and at the right volume, all this stuff.  Then, forget about all that and be a musician.  Modern recording software has helped with this, as you can set the program (Pro Tools in my case) to repeat a particular length of time.  I usually set it to repeat, or loop, the entire song, and then I play through several times – if I’m having too much fun, a lot of times.  This allows me to completely forget about starting and stopping recording, I just play.  Then, again with the help of the software, I can select the best take, or parts of several takes, all with the idea that it will sound like a performance – because it was.  Then, I repeat the process for the next instrument I think I want (sometimes the idea doesn’t work) on the song. This is particularly useful in that I can work without really thinking – I try to not have any preconceived notion of what I’m going to play once the basic structure of the song is recorded; it’s a sort of layered improvisation.  It also allows me to essentially be a band – to play with myself (no jokes please, ha ha), to respond to what’s been played before, and to create something that’s spontaneous and feels alive.

Sound and gear

My path in recording and mixing over the years has been one of learning, then learning some more – quite possibly throwing out what I’d previously learned – and then some more on top of that.  It all adds up: technique, equipment, learning how to listen, how to use the tools you have, learning what to focus on and what to ignore.

I love sound.  I really love creating and capturing exceptional sound in a recording.  I’ve put together a combination of gear over the years that lets me get what I think are exceptional sounds reliably, with a minimum of farting around.  Good instruments through good microphones will get you a long way. 

Each instrument has a particular setup of microphones that I’ve come to rely on – I like to use the minimum number of microphones possible, both because it makes setup and engineering easier, and because I find it sounds better.

Most of the drum tracks on the album were done with Melodium 42B’s as overheads, a French ribbon microphone from the 1940’s that sounds fantastic.  The other drum overhead I used was the RCA BK11, the “modern” version of the 44 from the 1960’s; these sound great as well.  The other drum mics were pretty standard: an SM57 for snare and an E/V ND568 or a Sennheiser 421 for kick.  I rarely have the need to use tom mics with my music, getting what I need from the overheads. 

Acoustic guitar mics were either a Neumann KM-56 in cardioid, a Neumann KM-84, or an AKG C460 with the CK61 cardioid cap.  After wrangling with the 42B’s in a stereo Blumlein configuration with limited success, I discovered M/S recording for acoustic guitars a couple of years ago, using the KM-56 in Figure 8 and the 84 as the cardioid mic, but most of the productions on Unsung were too dense for stereo micing to be heard to any real effect.  I’m hoping to do more of this for my upcoming solo(ish) acoustic guitar project.

Electric guitar mics were pretty standard as well – either an SM57, an RCA BK-5 cardoid ribbon (designed to be able to record gun shots!), or a Royer R-121.

Microphone preamplifiers ranged from one of my set of Gates SA-70 tube/valve preamps – a mainstay of US radio stations in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s – to a Telefunken 376, an original Neve 1272, or the excellent RCA clone Bob Starr at RTZ made many years ago.  At least half of the tracks, though, were made using the mic pre’s in my Metric Halo ULN-8, which forms the heart of my studio.

My little studio in Devon is great for mixing.  It’s trapped like crazy, and is pretty flat except for a bump around 120Hz, but I know it’s there, and it makes things a little more fun, actually.  I’m using Amphion One15’s for monitoring, which is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I don’t need to reference on other speakers now, everything just translates.

Software has come to play a dominant role in recording over the past twenty years, both in terms of recording sound digitally as opposed to on analog tape, but also in the software that’s used for recording, and in small bits of software called plug-ins that sit within the main recording software.  They allow you to create, shape or alter the sound in ways that used to require large numbers of complex analogue processors – or were impossible. Two of my favorites are Cracklefield, from Sound Dust, which is almost like having another personality in the room with you, and Unfiltered Audio’s Sandman, which is a very idiosyncratic echo generator.  This digital vs. analog distinction has gradually become less and less meaningful, as digital recording has come closer and closer to capturing the indefinable magic of old-school analogue recording, but there’s still something about it.  So, I have a bunch of analog gear that everything passes through at the very end of the mixing stage.  It starts with an early FCS P3S compressor, then goes to a Fearn VT-7 compressor (bliss), then a Chandler CurveBender EQ, and then an A-Designs HM-2 tube/valve EQ. 

I feel like I’m really able to get the sounds I’ve always heard now, and the only limit is my own skill.  I hope I never stop learning.