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Tracking: Tips For Recording Band Rehearsals

September 1, 2009

Unless you are lucky enough to practice in a recording studio, documenting your rehearsals is going to require some compromise. Lets face it—the typical rehearsal room is a Petri dish of filth and horror. The putrid smell of stale cigarette smoke, rotting fast food, and spilled beer is almost enough to drive a street-hardened bum to fits of retching. They’re not the best joints for bringing in DAWs and expensive microphones. In addition, many rehearsal rooms are acoustically challenged, making that multiple-mic technique you’ve been itching to try a very bad idea, as room reflections and signal bleed from various instruments mutate your music into a sonic sludge that even the most advanced audio tweezers cannot remove.

The good news is that you don’t need a big system to record your rehearsals, and perhaps even capture high-quality tracks you can build upon later in your home studio. A simple, digital stereo recorder with built-in mics from manufacturers such as Sony, Samson, TASCAM, Zoom, and M-Audio can offer stunning sound quality with minimal hassle. The convenience of these portable digital recorders does not, however, mean you can just put them any old place, press Record, and blast away, confident your tracks will sound like a Steely Dan album. Best results come from experimenting with where you place the recorder, and keeping tabs on the volume of each instrument in the band.

Start by positioning the recorder about six to ten feet from the band at roughly waist height. (Remember, the farther you place the recorder from the band, the more room ambience will be picked up.) Now, record a take and listen to the results. How does the mix sound? If the guitars are crushing all the other instruments, turn them down. If your guitar player whines about losing his tone, try facing the amp towards the back wall. It’s always better to turn down the offending instrument(s), than to turn up the ones that are not cutting through the mix.

The toughest instrument to get a good sound from using the stereorecording method is usually the kick drum, which can get lost in the mix. If your drummer hasn’t already, have him remove the front head of the kick in order to aid projection and impact. Also, don’t let the singer (or anyone else) stand directly in front of the drummer, as their bodies can act as “meat gobos” and absorb some energy and articulation from the kick. Placement of bodies and instruments can be critical in some spaces—especially if you want to hear every element of the band clearly. You never know what aspects of the room—or the mess within it—can accentuate or attenuate specific frequencies until you move things around, experiment with the placement of the recorder, and control your band’s performance dynamics. It is a bit of a drag monitoring all these sonic elements, but once you get a mix you dig, you can record all day without worrying about anything except delivering exciting performances.

Even though you are not using a multitrack, you can still use EQ to fine tune sounds—you just have to do it at the source, instead of after the fact. For example, an overall boominess caused by lousy room acoustics can plague your recordings. So roll off everything under 80Hz on the bass amp. Not only will this alleviate the boom, the diminished low-end woofiness may help that “problematic” kick drum punch through even more. Keyboards can also add a bunch of low-midrange schmutz, so use onboard EQ or filters to cut 500Hz by a couple of dB at a time until you reach the desired amount of clarity. Your guitar player may need to tweak his or her “live” sound a little differently than normal in order to blend in with the band mix, as well. Once again, listen to “test” recordings to determine optimum tonal adjustments and volume levels. And if getting your sound involved some movement of your gear, simply put tape markers in place so you can easily put everything back in the optimum spot when you load in after a gig. It’s all about making the process easy, hassle-free, and repeatable.

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