Movable Feasts

As essential as inspiration is to an artist’s craft, it can be a Machiavellian little bugger. For one thing, it doesn’t always make the scene when you’re ready for it. You can meticulously set up your recording gear, put all your creative talismans in their proper places of honor, and brew a truly magnificent pot of coffee or tea, and absolutely nothing will happen. On the other hand, you can be driving to work, and inspiration will wallop you with an absolutely transcendent motif that you have no way of documenting, because the faithful mini-recorder you always carry in your glove box needed new batteries about seven months ago.
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By the same token, your band can unleash a ferociously inspired performance at a rehearsal, and, unless you’re recording every minute of the session, you’ll lose that moment forever. Unfortunately, it’s seldom feasible to hold every rehearsal in a studio setting, with microphones fastidiously positioned on every sound source, and a workstation set to capture spurts of musical genius. For most bands, location recording is confined to affordable cassette, MiniDisc, or compact digital-recording decks. These machines are fabulous for stereo (or, sometimes, 4-track) documentation of rehearsal sessions, but as they are not professional multitrack workstations, many players consider them as extremely poor vessels for moving practice recordings to the master stage. If you’re one of these people — shame on you! Such perceptions are very narrow, and they may deny you the use of a kick-ass performance that your closed little mind relegated to the demo heap.

The trick is to create an environment where your stereo rehearsal tracks can sound tight, dimensional, and punchy, so that you always have the option of transferring performances to your full-on multitrack system for overdubs and sweetening. You want the drums and bass to drive hard without sounding washy, the vocals to be clean and clear, and, of course, your guitar must rage like a rabid demon without destroying a balanced mix. Capturing these types of sounds requires only a little planning, some common sense, and a few techniques from early ’50s recording engineers.

Tame the Room

Too much room sound can pepper your tracks with a distracting, tinny ambience — especially if your rehearsal space is basically a garage. Diminish the effects of hard, reflective surfaces by covering them with cheap blankets and rugs. If you can afford it, many companies sell absorptive foam panels that work great. You can Google information on room treatment, but the basic gig is to prevent signals from ricocheting around, so grab a hammer, some tacks, and a bunch of duct tape, and blanket anything that dropkicks signals across the rehearsal area. Don’t forget the floor. Put drums on a thick carpet, and place amps atop a rug or mattress foam cut to the appropriate size.

Get the Mix

Getting a viable band mix is typically a matter of volume and instrument position. Play a few songs, and adjust the levels of the amps to taste. Take care not to “overplay” the room. If you get too loud for the dimensions of the space, no amount of sonic treatment will prevent the tracks from sounding like muck. Every room has a sweet spot where sound can be delivered with impact and dimension. Find your room’s optimum volume level, and make sure that the selfish noise fiends in your band don’t crank themselves above it. Of course, acoustic drums don’t have a volume knob, so if your hulking drummer is hammering louder than your amps (and vocalist), pull an old trick from the 1950s, and simply move the drums back, or the amps forward. Absent a console with faders, you’ll have to move your people and gear like a chess master to construct the best mix.

Delay the Goodies

It’s best to record your guitar tone dry and free of effects in order to facilitate overdub options when you transfer the tracks to a DAW. As legendary engineer Eddie Kramer once told me (twice), “Once you have reverb on your [live] tracks, you can’t take it off. Period.” So don’t blow a fabulous performance by committing to signal processing that you might hate later on. You can always sweeten things by doubling the track with a unison part bathed in the effects you desire, and mixing it subtly under the live guitar part.

Go to It!

Most of these little tips are, admittedly, pretty obvious. But I’m a big fan of capturing impassioned basic tracks — little “diamonds in the rough, so to speak — and refining them later (but not too much, of course). I’ve bounced tracks between cassette decks, CD-R mixes from hardware digital multitracks, GarageBand, Pro Tools HD, and all modes of analog machinery. My goal is saving an inspired performance — on whatever medium it exists, and at whatever quality it was recorded — because those flashes are glorious and rare. So if these silly hints help just one of you save and refine a brilliant location performance, then I can sleep well.