Capturing the Rock Energy in the Studio

Why not let bands be bands?

The trend in recording has tended ever more toward “control” on the part of the producer or engineer, and less toward musicians actually playing together and making creative decisions on the fly. Yet a great deal of a rock band’s appeal depends on its ability to play with unbridled energy, and to interact without the restrictions of click tracks, headphones, or being crammed into a tiny dead room. In other words: the modern engineer’s nightmare.

My band is on a mission to record our next CD as “live” as possible, so I’m foregoing the engineer’s chair through most of the tracking to focus on playing. This requires engineers who are on the same wavelength — who love to let bands be bands in the studio, and relish the challenge this brings to the recording process . . . like my friend Han Swagerman, who owns and operates Beaufort Recording in the Netherlands.

“Many engineers are reluctant about recording a band in one take because of ‘spill’ or ‘bleed,’” Han says. “But when one uses the right mics for the job and puts them in the right spot, it’s doable. There’s a huge [emotional] benefit in recording ‘live’ . . . it gives me goosebumps [in a way that] would never have happened in an overdub while playing with cans. Bottom line: The music is all that counts, the rest is of minor importance.” This is our kind of guy!

Han’s big tracking room has a fair bit of live ambience, and hasn’t been overly treated or deadened. There was no fighting the room acoustics to get the right sound; we started jamming and almost immediately, everything felt comfortable and conducive to playing actual rock music.

Our singer sang a “scratch” vocal while we tracked — not just as a guide, but if the performance felt better from singing with the live energy of the band in the room, we were open to using it as a “keeper.” As we weren’t using headphones, Han set up a couple of floor wedges under our singer’s mic. Blasphemy! But we didn’t care. We experimented a bit with mic selection and placement, made our choices within a couple of hours and were ready to roll tape (yes, 2" analog tape. Oh yeah baby.)

To record this way, though, you have to be well prepared. If you can’t get through the song without somebody screwing up or getting out of time, you lose all the benefits of recording live. So . . . know the material, check that your gear is maintained well and sounds good, and if it’s all together, you can make excellent use of a few hours of studio time. We had the basics tracked for five songs by the end of the day, and were thrilled with the results.

My band does a lot of vocal harmonies, and we thought it’d be great to do all the vocals together, as we did with the instruments. But it’d be tough to maintain the feel of a live show when tracking with cans.

Fortunately, Han wasn’t afraid to ditch the phones, and neither were we. We lined up the three mics across the room, in cardioid pattern, with the null sides pointing at the tracking room speakers. Han gave us enough of the mix in the speakers that we could hear the track (including the vocals) and we let fly. With no cans it was much easier to stay on pitch, as we hear our vocals the way we’re used to hearing them. And being able to cue each other vocally was fantastic. Without technical hurdles to consider, we had the harmonies we wanted with very little effort.

In a good sounding room with the mics well placed, the bleed found on some of the tracks doesn’t sound bad — in fact it adds to the sense of space and energy. We’ll have less “control” over the sound while mixing, but who cares? We got both the sounds and feel we wanted at the source, so there’s little need to alter the sounds much in the mix.

No band that is accomplished in playing together live should be afraid to try this method — the results may surprise you. And with time, hopefully engineers and producers will become more willing to encourage bands to take the gloves off, and let fly!