Guerrilla Acoustics

Few things are more awe-inspiring than attending mass at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Those who have, probably recall bathing in the natural reverb of that mammoth pipe organ as the church emptied. A handful of us remained seated, listening to this enormous cathedral as the final chord was struck. The term “ letting out all the stops” must have been coined here because God had just left the building and we could hardly breath!

Constructing an acoustically perfect or isolated environment is a very serious proposition. A plethora of acoustic tools are now available for any number of sonic solutions but my guerrilla approach is to first explore your existing acoustic options. While at Westlake Audio I worked extensively with the Dust Brothers at their Silver Lake home. Originally they both lived and recorded there. This is where Beck, The Beastie Boys, Mick Jagger and countless others recorded. The biggest acoustic decisions on those recordings were if the glass doors to the pool were open or closed. One of Mick Jagger’s vocals on Bridges to Babylon were recorded with a hand held SM58 in the laundry room! Granted the Dust Brother are renowned for their low tech approach but they didn’t sell fewer records because of it. Eventually they did buy, refurbish and re-sell a world-class recording studio. Both have now have returned to their home studio roots. I also have worked in some of the best and worst acoustic environments so what’s a poor (or rich) musician do?

Since you’re entire recording studio can be transported in the back of an AMC Pacer find the best place to record for a few weeks. Those quiet, secluded relatives house and conveniently time your recording sessions with their vacations. Make sure the location WON’T disturb neighbors. Unfortunately many of those secluded little hideaways in Los Feliz are 3 feet away from a neighbor’s bedroom window. A Big Bear cabin is ideal until you need guitar strings or a MIDI/USB interface so choose wisely. You don’t want irritated residents or regular visits by local police. Once you’ve moved in start listening to the rooms. I will actually set-up my best condenser and record the silence in the room. I will also take a clicker and circle the room clockwise. When listening back you can hear any rumble, air conditioner or street noise you may have missed. The clicker gives you a quick high frequency reflection reference. Rooms are rectangles and create standing waves (definition) you will hear that as high frequency flutter or certain frequencies can “ Cancel” each other out. The hardwood floors in the dining room with glass windows may be great for the drum kit. Whether the curtains are opened or closed and furniture locations and will make a world of difference sonically. You’ve all heard the singing in the bathroom myth but that’s actually a lousy place for vocals. With all the ceramic and tiles it’s too bright and reflective. You will want to control that later with artificial reverbs and EQ. But, it is a rockin place for a guitar amp turned to 11. A large closet with some clothes still in may be better for lead vocals. Bass is usually recorded directly with a DI box. Most bass amps have a line level record out. Low frequencies are always the most problematic. Low frequency travel will vibrate the entire house. Keep amps off the floor, on a chair and the chair on carpet de-coupling the sound source.

With the engineer in the living room, the drummer is in the dinning room, guitar amp in the bathroom the singer is in a closet how the hell will you all communicate? Setting up a reasonable headphone/cue mix is an art unto itself and is another day of preparation. You will need very long balanced cable runs to avoid RF hums. Every time the refrigerator kicks on that AC circuit may click or buzz. Getting rid of those demons may take some more experimenting.

This type of guerrilla recording goes on regularly. You often hear of major recording artist’s renting a house several months for a project. Yes they bring in world-class equipment, yes they hire top-notch engineers and yes they do a reasonable amount of temporary acoustic treatments. Sometimes all that effort just doesn’t pan out. I remember when Trent Reznor/NIN, (unbeknownst to him) rented the infamous Sharon Tate Mansion. The process of implementing the technology and dealing with the acoustics actually became a liability rather than an asset. They eventually finished many sessions at local recording studios.

You may not have the luxury of acoustically stunning halls or professionally isolated environments but you can get good recordings at home. Just prepare yourself because there’s nothing worse than unwanted phone calls or UPS deliveries in the middle of your best performance.