Handy Hints For The Solo Recordist - EMusician

Handy Hints For The Solo Recordist

So you have your songs, your equipment, and are ready to record. Or are you? While you may be tempted to jump right in and start tracking (after all, you are an engineer and a musician, so why not?), it’s important to get into the right headspace in order to be at the top of your game in undertaking both tasks simultaneously. Working solo, you can sure do whatever you please. But the way you approach recording when you are playing and engineering is vastly different from just doing one or the other. You must learn to juggle tasks, and master efficient workflow, or else you’ll never get anything done.
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Study your recording software’s transport control options and decide the best way to punch in, increment take numbers, set locate points on the fly, and so on. Often the first way you discover to do something won’t be the most convenient, especially if shortcuts are built in, or you can assign these functions to external hardware. You can waste an awful lot of time with awkward working methods if you are unaware of the alternatives.

#1 DRUM IT UP A BIT

Gracie Allen once said that most of what she knew she had learned by listening to herself talk about things she knew nothing about. If you are a non-drummer programming your own percussion, embrace your ignorance and don’t be afraid to experiment. Doing it “wrong” can sometimes result in a fresh idea that makes your music stand out.

Loops are essential for many modern music styles, but if you are trying for a more organic vibe take the time to edit variations in one or two verses of your basic track. Alter the fills, add a few extra lower velocity hits on the bass drum, vary the cymbal crashes . . . try to change it up a bit so that it feels more performed. If you do this in, say, only two verses, chances are you can recycle them later in the song with none of the listeners being any the wiser — it’s unlikely anyone is going to notice that the fill at the end of verse four is the same as the one in verse two. You can also carry this cloning process a bit further by cutting and pasting parts of a verse in a different order.

A lot of people make the mistake of randomizing time in order to make a track more “human.” A better approach is to randomize velocity (but not too much), as it gives the track a less mechanical feel without disturbing the groove. Randomize note start time a little bit if you must, but be careful not to overdo it; “human” doesn’t equal “sloppy” — if you wanted a loose drum track, you would just record one yourself. Try pushing the hi-hat forward a few clicks and/or delay the snare a bit. You’d be surprised how much of a difference even one or two clicks can make. But leave the kick drum alone initially, so it serves as an “anchor;” experiment by pushing the other components of the kit forward and backward a bit to get the feel you want.

#2 SWITCH IT UP

Depending on your equipment, it may be possible to connect one or more foot switches and to program them to perform different transport functions. Personally, I use a Mackie HDR 24/96, which allows connecting one footswitch to the mainframe and another to the remote (Figure 1). This is enormously helpful when making an album all by your lonesome.

Footswitches can be your best friend when you’re recording alone, but before you start doing sessions consider your options and experiment with different ways of programming and positioning the switches for maximum convenience. It’s better to err on the side of overtly sturdy and grossly oversized pedals than to invest in something too small and light, as you want your switches to stay in place and be able to activate via big dumb buttons instead of dancing carefully across crowded pedal boards.

“To avoid losing your groove when doing multiple takes, set your recording software to increment take numbers and/or loop record automatically.”

To avoid losing your groove when doing multiple takes, set your recording software to increment take numbers and/or loop record automatically. The more you automate, the more you can concentrate on actually playing. Remember that with non-destructive digital recording you never really lose anything when punching in, so be smart and take advantage of that by setting your punch-in point much earlier than you actually need it so that way you can be relaxed and ready to play smoothly when it counts. Also, keep the editing and treatments to a minimum when tracking — get your tracks down first, then put the engineer’s hat back on and clean up the start and the end times of the punch. You want to be fully in the zone for both duties; trying to jump back and forth between playing and producing will not do your tracks any favors in terms of getting soulful tracks.

#3 CLICK IT GOOD

Sure, you can configure your software to output a click track, but another route to take is to set up a MIDI track and use a drum sound from a module instead. This is a little more troublesome, but it can be really helpful when tracking alone. The two key points are:

• Use a sound that is as clearly different as possible, in terms of frequency and tone, from whatever instrument you are recording.

• Set the level low enough to avoid ear fatigue and leakage from your headphones (make sure you are using closed headphones, which mean less leakage and less chance of the click or drum track getting into your recorded track).

For example, when I first started recording acoustic guitar I found that the sound of the pick hitting the strings was so similar to the click that I could hardly tell them apart. When I got perfectly in sync with the click I could no longer hear it, and I would find myself drifting off the beat in order to be able to pick it up again — the exact opposite of what this exercise was intended to accomplish! Making the click louder hurt my ears, and it would sometimes be audible in the recorded track, even when I used closed headphones. No good.

The solution was to use a kick drum sound, which was not masked by the guitar. I could hear it clearly at a much lower level, so no worries about fatigue or leakage. When recording other instruments, I suggest possibly using a clave sound in preference to the ordinary click, simply because it is less piercing and more “musical.” At other times you may find that a crude drum track consisting of kick drum and snare helps you get the feel you want better than a simple click. While this may take a bit more prep time — here as in every other case — when recording, the engineer (you) should be prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of the performer (you as well).

#4 COMPRESS IN

“If what you are recording has a wide dynamic range, there may be no middle ground at all without compression.”

What did you just say to me? Calm down now. Split your signal so you’re recording into two tracks, and apply compression to one of them just to normalize and to improve your signal-to-noise ratio. Trust me, being your own engineer while multitracking can be difficult enough without having to police your levels too heavily, and you want as steady and as clean of a sound as possible when you’re overdubbing.

Of course, you don’t have to use this compressed track for your mix, but you should try feeding it into your headphones so that the tracks you are listening to while laying down that next section more closely resemble how you feel they should sound. And try to do this with a “real” compressor instead of a plug-in because if you feed an uncompressed signal into your A/D converter, you have to be careful to avoid digital distortion on the peaks and low bit resolution (“grainy” sound) in the quiet parts. If what you are recording has a wide dynamic range, there may be no middle ground at all without compression. Also, recording with compression helps to prevent blowing a take when you hit one very loud note.

#5 ENJOY THE SILENCE

Chances are you’ll be cutting a lot of your tracks in your control room (or a room that’s full of some pretty noisy computers and other equipment). This is especially a problem when recording vocals. Aside from unplugging everything, what can you do to help keep your tracks noise-free? The first thing you should do is check out last month’s issue (June 2007) for tips and tricks relating to proper room treatment and noisy equipment workarounds; but there are a couple other approaches to lowering your noise floor that can be implemented in one-room recording scenarios.

If you can’t place your equipment in a completely separate room away from your mics, try just setting up so that your mics point into the corner of the room farthest from the gear (preferably not towards a window). Then hang blankets or drapes in that corner, a foot or so from the wall, to create a dead air space. If you’re in a bedroom, you can also try pointing the mics toward an open closet full of clothes. Make sure to use cardioid pattern mics. If you have a noisy fan on a piece of equipment, placing something (such as a pillow) directly in front of the vent can help a bit as well; but take care not to place this against the equipment in a way that blocks any airflow, or you run the risk of damaging your gear.

When it’s time to record vocals, place your mic in one of the aforementioned positions to record a couple of minutes of room tone (what we wish was pure silence). Listen back and monitor your room sounds, identifying any problematic sources of the loudest noises. See if you can reposition or otherwise dampen the sound of the worst offenders. If it is impossible to cut a track without extraneous noise, you can always gate your recorded signals when mixing, or just manually edit your way to a cleaner vocal take. Applying a high pass (low cut) EQ on your vocal tracks, setting the knee just below the fundamental pitch of the lowest note in the vocal, can get rid of a lot of low-pitched noise without doing much damage to the vocal. Remember to go easy on the compression when treating a track that was recorded in a noisy environment, as excessive compression will elevate a slightly annoying noise floor to the level of totally unacceptable.

You can also use this room sound sample in conjunction with noise reduction processors (as found in Sound Forge 9 and Adobe Audition) that subtract noise from a signal to give a cleaner sound. Just don’t apply too much noise reduction, as it may alter the main sound.

#6 CAREFUL WITH THAT EFFECT, EUGENE

“A drier vocal often sounds more intimate, and can be cranked up louder without turning the mix to mud.”

A fundamental mistake made by many performer/producers is that they try to compensate for what they perceive to be a lack of personality inherent in performing all of their parts by drowning everything in effects, in some misguided attempt to make themselves not sound so much like themselves.

I’ve noticed that every time I see a singer try their hand at a mix, invariably the track ends up with too much reverb on it. In the case of reverb/echo, less really is more. A drier vocal often sounds more intimate, and can be cranked up louder without turning the mix to mud. But if you don’t want to turn the reverb send down, you can always just use a shorter reverb on the vocal. This will help clear up the mix a lot.

As mentioned before, compression is not going to crush away your problems — more often than not it will just amplify them, especially with vocals. This may be common knowledge, but one trick to getting your vocals louder, and to cut through the mix without excessively altering sound quality, is to apply a judicious amount of technical and aesthetic compression. I hear a lot of complaints about digital compression being too “clinical,” but by pairing digital compression with a hardware compressor that “warms” the vocals up, you can avoid changing the sound for the wrong reason. Remember, get the color and warmth from your hardware compressor, and then apply the “clinical” plug-in last in the chain to fine tune and possibly, provide some degree of limiting.

If you’re trying to bring your vocal track more forward, set a midrange parametric EQ for a 2dB boost with a moderately sharp bandwidth, then slowly adjust the frequency control up and down until you hit a spot at which the track seems to jump out at you. For a female vocal, this is often a little over 2kHz. Male vocals are usually roughly an octave lower, although in both cases, boosting the sibilance frequencies around 3–4kHz can increase intelligibility. Once you’ve found the critical frequency, adjust the boost and bandwidth to taste. Conversely, if something else seems to be getting in the way of your lead, go through the same procedure on that track with the EQ cut instead of boosted. If you aren’t sure what is causing the problem, identify the offender by cutting the other tracks one at a time. In general, when one instrument is getting in the way of another try this “notch and sweep” trick on the problem tracks. The natural tendency is to boost whatever you can’t hear, but if you’re not cutting about as often as you are boosting with your equalizers, you will probably have a muddy mix.

#7 WRITE IT DOWN

Whenever you record or do a mix, keep meticulous notes so you can recall your settings and recapture your sound as easily as possible (see the related article on session documentation in this issue). Of course you can — and should — save everything possible in your computer or digital workstation, but things like mic placement, settings on outboard gear, and so on need to be written down; this goes for pedals, effects units, and in fact, anything with a knob or a slider (Figure 2). Just because you were involved every step of the way doesn’t mean that you will remember it all. Suppose you finally get around to mixing a song you recorded several months ago and you belatedly discover a really bad note, or maybe you want to change a couple of words in the third verse. You would like to duplicate your microphone setup and compressor settings so that the overdub will blend in; if you have good recall notes, you’re good to go. If you don’t, you’re screwed.

You can draw your own recall charts, or find them relatively easily online. Many manufacturer sites offer free recall sheets for their gear, but there are also a variety of user sites that offer downloadable recall sheets as well (www.barryrudolph.com/pages/recalldirectory is a great resource, for instance).