Recording on a Dime


Back in the days of analog tape and acetate masters, artists typically made records in hours, not in months or years as is often the case in today's world of plug-ins and tubemic simulators. John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1964), one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, in a mere four-hour session. Up until that time, most recordings were cut live, often with no opportunity to overdub. With that approach, how long could it possibly take to record an album?

Then came bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Steely Dan, who found a creative haven in the studio and spent increasingly more time there perfecting their recordings. Thanks in part to their example, it can take a ridiculous amount of time to churn out an album today. Of course, those bands likely also had the financial wherewithal to spend as much time in the studio as they wanted.

The luxury of “financial wherewithal” is rare, of course. As a recording engineer in the Boston area, I typically work with musicians endowed with great talent but little cash. That means most of my projects are recorded under the unforgiving glare of the ticking clock. Hence, I've become rather adept at engineering on a dime — sometimes even on a nickel.

Making a good record in short order is a challenge, but there are ways to help ensure success. First and foremost, keep in mind that this is a joint venture — the best engineer in the world can't make a great record in a hurry if the musicians aren't up to the task. I'll start by discussing pre-production tips for getting everyone organized. Then I'll explore the art of recording at warp speed, and finish up with some tips on mixing in the fast lane.

Most projects I record begin with a conversation that goes something like this:

“We have $1,500 and we'd like to record and mix and master an entire album. Can we do that?”

“Well, after tape and mastering expenses, that leaves about eight hours in the studio. I can handle that. Can you?”


After getting through that fun bit of business, I instruct the musicians on how to make the most of their studio time: practice like crazy every waking moment until the session. After all, great records are all about great performances of great songs (pretty simple, huh?). Of course, great recordings and mixes are important, too. Then again, I've gotten some great sounds in my career, and they haven't all translated into great albums.

It is not unreasonable — or unprecedented — to cut an album in a day, but there's no way it can happen if the musicians can't lay down the tracks. I've worked on projects in which the band planned to record live and cut everything in a day, and then proceeded to spend the entire time unable to play anything worth keeping.

On the other hand, I once had a band come into the studio with a fistful of dollars that the musicians had scraped together with the intent of recording and mixing three songs. Once we got rolling, the group ended up cutting ten songs, which we recorded and mixed in eight hours. Granted, it was a power trio (guitar, bass, and drums) and we didn't do any overdubs. But the point is that the musicians were so well rehearsed that they nailed keepers in one or two takes. That allowed me to keep rolling tape, and when it came time to mix the songs, there wasn't much to do — we had captured everything live.

Another point I counsel bands on is not to rehearse in the studio. If you can't afford a lot of studio time, it doesn't make sense to spend hours figuring out song forms and arrangements while the clock is ticking. Bands need to get those issues worked out before setting foot in the studio.

One other important pre-production task is finding out exactly what the instrumentation is — you must know what you're going to be miking. Draft an input list before going into the studio so you can stay one step ahead of the musicians. In addition, always have a backup plan in case your first picks sound lousy. Anticipation is key.

FIG. 1: The workhorse Shure SM57 remains a reliable studio pick, especially for miking snare drums. The author typically uses two - one for the top head and another for the bottom - and then reverses the polarity on the bottom mic.FIG. 2: The Royer R-121 ribbon mic has become a mainstay for many studio engineers. It's great for miking guitar cabinets, bass cabs, drum kits, percussion, horns, and strings.

When instructing bands about cheapo recording tactics, I always push for recording as live as possible. This has a variety of time-saving benefits. One, everyone plays at once, so you don't need to waste time overdubbing. Two, recording live often requires having several instruments in the same room; thanks to mic bleed, it becomes all but impossible to replace parts (if you do, you will hear “ghost notes” from the original track bleeding into other instrument mics, which tends to sound like someone playing wrong notes in the

background), so the musicians are married to the take. Three, mic bleed also means that the group is pretty much locked in to the sound, which also simplifies the mixing stage (although setup tends to take a little longer). For example, if the drums bleed into the guitar mic and you EQ the guitar sound during mixdown, you will likely alter the drum sound as well. In addition, bringing up the guitar will raise the drum levels — sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. You therefore need to commit to as many decisions as possible when setting up and tracking. That way you limit mix decisions, making mixing go much faster.

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It's vital to explain these things to the musicians ahead of time so that they understand the limitations this approach imposes. Let them know that they can't replace solos and vocals, and that they will have fewer options in the mix process. In short, they must play their parts “perfectly” or else be willing to accept an imperfection here or there — something people did all the time before digital editing became commonplace.

Naturally, you must be prepared for plans going south. I recently completed a record that we had planned to cut 95 percent live in a couple of days. However, once we got going, it turned out the singer was under the weather and couldn't nail his takes. Furthermore, the guitarist, whose amp was in the live room with the drums, wasn't up on the arrangements, so we had to regroup and overdub much more than planned.

Musicians are human, and they can't always accomplish what they hope to. That often puts more pressure on the engineer to get things done quickly. Be prepared to skip meals and not go to the bathroom for long periods of time.

When you need to record in a hurry, use familiar mics and preamps. That will not only ensure that you get a good sound, but will also eliminate the risk of wasting time on something that might not work — this is not the time to try out that new kick mic you've been dying to hear.

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For my part, if I have to get a solid drum sound for a pop-rock recording in 15 minutes, I know what to do. I put a Sennheiser E602 on the kick (just inside the hole, if possible), a Shure SM57 on the snare top and bottom (remember to reverse the polarity of the bottom mic; see Fig. 1), Sennheiser MD 421s on the toms, and a pair of Neumann KM 84s as overheads (I start with an XY-coincident setup and move them out to a spaced pair if that's not working). That gets me a solid, close-miked sound, and as long as the drums and drummer sound good, I know I'm in business. (Equally important is the fact that every studio I work at has those mics available.)

I also add a pair of room mics. I have a half-dozen different combos and placements that I like to use, but I go with what I know will get me a good sound in a hurry. I arrange a pair of Earthworks omnis (TC30Ks, QTC1s, or the inexpensive SROs — they all work great) in a spaced pair and give them a moderate squashing with a stereo compressor such as the Joemeek SC2 or Tube-Tech LCA 2B. I will also add a Royer R-121 (see Fig. 2) or R-122 about knee-high, two to four feet in front of the kit. Again, it's not that those particular mics will always yield the best sound possible, but that I know what I'm going to get,

FIG. 3: The minimalist drum-miking setup made popular by engineer Glyn Johns (of Led Zeppelin fame) requires only three mics: one directly in front of the kit, and a spaced pair of matching overheads behind, each aimed at the snare drum.FIG. 4: The Audio-Technica AT4047 is supremely flexible - it's great for vocals, drum overheads, kick drum, upright bass, bass cabinets, horns, and many other instruments.FIG. 5: Neumann's KM 140, which comprises the KM 100 output stage fitted with an AK 40 (cardoid) capsule, is smooth, quiet, and detailed. It's great on acoustic instruments for which a natural sound is desired.

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and it's going to be solid and flexible (by varying the levels of the front and room mics, I can drastically alter the sound as needed).

If I'm really in a hurry and dealing with a great-sounding drum kit, I might keep it simple with a Glyn Johns — type setup (see Fig. 3): one mic two to four feet in front of the kit and two to four feet above ground level, aimed directly at the drums (listen to be sure this mic picks up enough kick drum), and two overheads — one roughly over the hi-hat and aimed at the snare drum, and the other to the right of the drummer's right shoulder (assuming a right-handed drummer), also aimed at the snare. This is a time-tested formula that delivers a great natural sound (though do make sure to check for phase problems). I often use the Royer R-121 as the front mic, and usually large-diaphragm condensers such as the Audio-Technica AT4047 (see Fig. 4), Neumann U 47, or AKG C 12A for the overheads. Or I might use ribbon mics for the overheads — two Coles 4038s or Royer R-122s do nicely. If I'm recording a jazz session, I'll use the Royer R-121 in front and a stereo Royer SF12 as the overhead and call it a day.

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For bass, nothing is quicker than using a DI. However, I rarely find the resulting sound very appealing. That said, a nice-sounding bass through one of the high-end DIs such as the Avalon Design U5, or the line input of a Peavey VMP2 mic preamp, can be just the ticket. Otherwise, I have another simple solution: put a mic in front of the bass cabinet.

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Pretty radical, huh? Specifically, I put a Royer R-121 a couple of inches from the cabinet, and bingo — a great sound (contingent, of course, upon a great sound coming out of the speaker). Other mics I routinely use on bass amps are the Audio-Technica AT4047, Shure KSM44, and Lawson L47MP.

On electric guitars, I generally use a Royer R-121, again a few inches in front of a good-sounding amp. (Royer makes some of my favorite all-purpose mics. I always know what I'm going to get out of them. Again, they might not get me the best of all possible sounds for a given instrument, but I find without fail that they yield a damn good sound.) For mono acoustic guitar, I typically use a Neumann KM 140 (my favorite all-purpose small-diaphragm condenser; see Fig. 5) aimed at the neck-body joint anywhere from 6 to 18 inches from the guitar. For stereo acoustic, I usually add a second KM 140 aimed either at the bridge or positioned above the guitarist's right shoulder (assuming a right-handed guitarist) and aimed down at the guitar body.

FIG. 6: Streamline electric-guitar overdubs by having an array of amps standing by. Shown are (left to right) a 1961 brownface Fender Super Reverb, a blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb with a Royer R-121 in front and an Electro-Voice RE20 behind, a 50W Marshall JMP Mark II head on a Marshall 4x12 slant cab, and a Cage 18/00 head on a Sonicord 1x15 cab. The room mic is a Neumann KM 84.

As an engineer, you need to have a solid vocabulary of mics and outboard gear and be able to set up quickly without having to audition a bunch of equipment. If someone shows up with an instrument I've never recorded, the first thing I do is ask how other people have miked the instrument. Assuming the musician was happy with the previous recording, he or she hopefully will know how the previous engineer got the sound. Heed the musician's advice, but also use your ears — what worked in a previous situation might not work the next time around.

Recording on a tight timeline means that you, the engineer, might not always get to take a break between setup and tracking. But that doesn't mean you should expect the same sacrifice from the musicians — going straight from setting up to playing can be a difficult transition, and you definitely want the musicians in top form.

Whenever possible, I schedule the session so that, once setup is done and everyone is happy with the sound, the band can take a break before starting to record. That gives the musicians time to clear their heads and get in the mood to play (while I'm busy documenting setups, double-checking connections, and calling home to say, “Don't wait up”).

I know from unpleasant experience that once a band starts overdubbing, the whole project can soon grind to a halt. Some musicians

can overdub quickly and efficiently, but they are the exception, not the rule. I've had projects in which I thought that everything was done, and then the singer decided he needed to fix a verse. Nine songs and six hours later, I was left with half the mix time we had originally scheduled. That is one reason I try to structure the recording so that everything, or as much as possible, is cut live. Still, it's nearly impossible to capture everything live, so the next step is to overdub as efficiently as possible.

When overdubbing in a hurry, stick with one instrument and go through all the songs. That might seem like common sense, but sometimes bands want to finish each song one at a time, and that's tremendously inefficient. Rather, set up for, say, the guitar overdubs and roll each song, and then do all the vocals, and so on.

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When it comes to overdubbing electric guitars, I have a few tricks to help keep things rolling. Guitar sounds tend to vary from song to song, so I try to cover the sonic spectrum by setting up three or four different amps at once (see Fig. 6). I then set up two or three mics — typically the Royer R-121 in front, a Shure SM57 or Electro-Voice RE20 for the back of the amp (if it's an open-backed cabinet), and usually a room mic such as a Neumann KM 84. I assign the front and rear mics to one bus (again, check the polarity of the rear mic) and record the close signal on one track and the room mic on another. If I'm short on tracks, I'll blend the room mic in with the close mics; however, I prefer to pan the room mic away from the close mics to get a wider sound without having to use artificial reverb. In addition, having the room on its own track gives me control over the amount of room reverb in the mix.

With that much gear set up, changing guitar sounds is as easy as moving the close mics to a different amp and re-adjusting levels. Often I can go from one sound to another in the same amount of time it takes for the guitarist to change guitars and tune.

Overdubbing vocals is the real hornet's nest. Some singers are great and you can run down one or two passes and get everything you need. Others will nitpick each syllable and make life beyond painful. I try to get singers to take complete passes and to avoid excessive punching, simply because punching is time-consuming and often loses the feel of the track. Unlike guitar overdubs, vocal sounds generally don't vary much over the course of an album, so you can usually get the sound and then roll through everything.

Few other instruments require different sounds from track to track. Pianos, Hammond B-3s, and horns, for example, will almost always stay the same from the engineer's standpoint. Get the sounds quickly, based on your past successes (I suggest dynamic and ribbon mics on brass, beyerdynamic M 201s on B-3 and horns, and Neumann KM 140s on piano) and roll tape.

As we've seen, being able to do good mixes fast depends largely on the tracks — the more you get things right during the recording, the less you have to fuss over in the mix. That's true whether you're doing an album in a day or a month.

I have mixed a half-dozen or so full-length CDs in a single session each. Of those, I would say all but one sounded really good, and the one that didn't suffered because the drummer had a terrible-sounding kit and there simply wasn't time to make it sound better. In other words, the house was built on a lousy foundation (and some of the performances weren't so stellar, either). In addition, the band had a strict budget and self-imposed deadline, so there was no opportunity to polish the performances before mixing. As you surely know, not everything can be fixed in the mix.

The other albums I mixed in short order were cut almost completely live, so again, many of the decisions had been made already during the tracking phase. In addition, the performances were solid, and each project demanded a fairly consistent sound from start to finish, which further simplified the mix. Even so, when mixing under the gun, my approach is to keep it simple and try to capture the feel without adding anything flashy. You're shooting for as good as possible, not perfection, so be realistic.

One last thing I'd like to point out is that every high-speed project I've engineered has been done in the analog domain — a very intentional choice. Yes, 2-inch tape eats up a big chunk of the budget, but that very fact helps keep Pandora's box closed. I have yet to engineer a project in Pro Tools without the artist(s) wanting to exploit the possibilities of digital editing — very few musicians can resist the temptation to tweak a vocal here and alter a guitar line there. For that reason, I feel it's in everyone's best interest to keep the recording process analog and to get everything on tape pretty much the way you want it to sound in the final mix.

Of course, I don't mind doing whatever it takes to make a recording perfect. But when a band has a tight budget, I have a responsibility to reign them in, just as they have a responsibility to keep me moving forward. As long as you anticipate setups and problems, stay one step ahead of the musicians, and stick to your tried-and-true techniques, you'll deliver your end of the bargain. Assuming the band does its part, everyone will walk away happy.

Sean D. Carberrystill sneaks into Boston-area studios to record albums (quickly and cheaply) when he isn't too busy as technical director of The Connection on NPR.