You Want Good Sound? Go to the Source

All the processors in the world won’t help if the fundamentals are lacking
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I’ve always felt that getting a good sound isn’t just about plug-ins, tweaking, or editing: It’s best to start at the source. By that, I mean:

  • The players and their parts
  • The instruments themselves
  • The room, or other environment in which they record

Sure, if you’re good at editing, you can comp and edit until something works. I’m certainly not against using any tool in the toolbox when appropriate, but if you start with a great performance, done on a good (or at least “appropriate for the sound you’re after”) instrument in a good acoustical space, you’ll nearly always end up with more satisfying results than if you have to assemble and manipulate.

For that reason, I’ve also spent a fair amount of my finite gear funds on instruments and amps. In a perfect world, artists and clients would provide those for us — but that’s not guaranteed. Taking matters into your own hands can at least give you some options, and in extreme cases, save a lot of grief.

For example, last year I purchased a studio drum kit. I’m not really much of a drummer, so it doesn’t benefit me directly. But I’ve seen enough crummy kits come through my door that I figured it would be a good investment, and it really has come in handy. No matter how many times you tell clients the importance of good instruments and having a pro-level setup job done on them before they come in to record, it seems that some people just don’t get it. And going back to my “sound sources matter” philosophy, you can either bang your head against the wall trying to make a substandard kit sound decent, replace all the sounds with a program like Drumagog (and the client probably doesn’t have the budget for you to spend all that time anyway), or be proactive and have a good drum kit at your beck and call.

Additionally, as my friend Lee Flier likes to say, having a kit on hand is great “drummer bait.” It can be a lot easier to get local drummers to come over to your place to lay down tracks if all they have to carry over is a cymbal bag and an alternate snare or two.

Even if you decide not to purchase a studio drum set, keep some essential drum-related tools and emergency supplies on hand, such as:

  • Extra snare drum head
  • Snares
  • Moongel (a sticky, rubbery blue gel that you can apply to drum heads and cymbals to dampen the overtones a bit, or to control excessive ringing. Caution: A little goes a long way)
  • Gaffer’s tape
  • Mallets
  • Brushes
  • Sticks of various sizes
  • Felt pads
  • Wing nuts
  • A can of WD-40 for squeaky pedals
  • Drum key

Items like these can make the difference between a problem quickly solved, and an extended break in the session while someone heads to he nearest store. In addition to the drum key, knowledge about how to tune drums is an important skill for a studio engineer. I’m still amazed by the number of drummers I’ve met who really don’t know how to tune their own instruments.

Guitarists and bass players are not always immune to lacking instrument options and/or having poorly set up and prepared instruments. I have over a dozen guitars and basses, as well as several different amps and amp simulators at the studio, to help with the tonal options. I also recommend keeping around:

  • Electric and acoustic strings in various gauges
  • Thin, medium, and heavy gauge flat picks
  • Thumbpicks
  • Speaker cabinet cables
  • Preamp tubes (12AX/ECC83 and 12AT7 types are particularly common)
  • 9 Volt batteries
  • “Universal” AC adapter with multiple tips and voltages
  • Spare strap or two
  • Diagonal cutters for trimming strings
  • String winder
  • Standard and metric Allen wrenches
  • High-quality electronic tuner

Speaking of tuners, make sure everyone uses the same tuner so that they’re all working off a common pitch reference. With an accurate tuner and a little self-education, you can even do quick action and intonation setups on these instruments. On big budget albums being recorded in major studios, it’s common to have in-house instrument techs to deal with these concerns. In the project studio, if the musicians don’t get it right, it’s up to you to fix the problem.

Not everyone can afford to buy everything they want all at once, so decide where your system is weakest and what needs to be addressed first. While great mikes, the latest plug-in, or acoustic treatment (another oft-overlooked area in project studios) are nice to have and even very important, the quality of what you’ll be recording is crucial. So until next time, dig in, make the magic happen, and feel free to say hello.