News From The Woods - April 28, 2004


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published April 28, 2004

"Perspective From The Trenches"

I think most of us in the music and recording industry that receive Mix magazine read it for basically the same reasons. We want to be able to keep up with technology in today's obsolete-before-it-hits-the-streets marketplace. We scour the pages looking for tricks and insights into the how-to's of the recording process, seizing any opportunity to enhance our own operations. And, last but not least, we drool over the glamour shots of the latest studio offerings, imagining ourselves sitting there running that big board and creating the rock stars of the future. The large commercial, well established recording studio keeps plenty of these issues on their coffee table in the outer office so the visiting client can see they are in good company and are spending their money wisely on such a well equipped facility. The intermediate and small studio keeps them around so the client will know that at least they keep up with the technology and trends, even if they can't afford all that expensive gear. The project studio owner keeps them around just to remind him or herself what their goals are.

I don't recall the last time I read a demographic breakdown of Mix subscribers, but I would contend that more than half of the Mix readership is made up of people like me. We are out here in the trenches, scrambling for every session, forced by economics and geography to work with musicians who have little or no money. Sure, the high profile studio's client roster looks like a short list of MTV Music Awards. They can afford the newest technology and tools, and this upper echelon of the recording business primarily drives the marketplace. But my contention is that the bulk of recording studios operating across this nation are in situations similar to mine. I do radio commercials, corporate/industrial voice-overs, and some audio restoration work. In music production, I get the occasional band that is looking to be the Next Big Thing and have worked up some kind of recording budget. But most of my music clientele are performing groups of various music styles that want a well-recorded demo, or perhaps they have written a CD's worth of original songs and want to sell at gigs and music outlets. And of course they want to do it as cheaply as possible. We're not talking low budget here, we're talking "no budget". This reminds me of something John Glenn once said in an interview. When asked what thoughts he had just before liftoff, he said he couldn't get it out of his mind that all the components of his craft were built and assembled by the lowest government contract bidder. Like many things in life, with recording, you usually get what you pay for.

Tail wagging the dog
Technology is very important in the music and recording business, especially in these times of faster and cheaper PC's, MIDI and USB connectivity, and the new modeling technologies. But do we really need that Class A, High Definition, 96K, photo optical, advanced bit rate, USB controlled, sleek and sexy looking silk-screened Digital Frame Agitator (DFA) - with optional interchangeable electronics and multiple skins? Just how important is that air-cooled, multi-patterened, user-assignable studio microphone with the 12" sputtered gold-foil capsule and the vintage 1938 Ukranian U-234 double-plate rectifier tube? Well, I'm sure the manufacturer of those products would like for you to believe that you can't live without their product. I mean, that's how they earn their keep, right? But then, there have been entire volumes of works written about what Sir George Martin did with The Beatles and just two 4-track machines. Or how Phil Spector achieved his Wall Of Sound (patent pending). Or how Joe Meek did those weird sound effect things with "Telstar"? Was Sam Phillips really a genius or was it the Magic of Memphis, and what was so special about Muscle Shoals? How the heck did they get that fabulous sound on those orchestras of the Big Band era with just a couple of crude microphones? The answer to these and other heart-rendering audio questions seems to lie just out of reach of the rest of us, so we read everything we can get our hands on that could possibly help us on the path to Audio Righteousness.

The Gray Area
The real answer to all this is - as usual - somewhere in between. Let's begin by stating the obvious: First, it takes an understanding of audio signal flow, including the "Gozinta's" and "Gozoutta's" of patching your gear. You must at least be able to grasp the flow and function of your own particular recording set up, whether it is a 4-track PortaStudio, sophisticated 24-track analog reel to reel set up, or ProTools DAW. If you spend all your production time trying to get something to work you are not only slowing down the creative process for your artist, but you are perhaps losing that once in a lifetime guitar solo or vocal take. Not to mention it is a real drag being ready to go and waiting and waiting for the engineer to figure out why that signal won't come up on the console.

Whenever you read an interview with an experienced engineer, read between the lines and you can learn a lot of little things that can mean so much to your session. For example, a common thread in all interviews is when the engineer mentions the importance of "being ready". That means that at any time from the moment your artist or musician steps up to the Mic, you should be ready to hit RECORD from the get go. There is a definite reason for this. Musicians tend to let it all hang out on a first pass, and with each successive pass they will concentrate more on perfecting the lick. This usually results in (10 takes later) a "perfect" take that has absolutely NO life to it. The very first take (remember, the one you erased when the guy said "I can do it much better…" ?) was the real keeper. I always patch the performance to another track and keep the first one if I think it had a bit of life to it. I don't even bother with telling the musician; I just do it as a matter of course. Usually, the keeper track is the first pass when I said "Let's just run it down and get a feel for the track" - and casually reach over and arm the track as I hit playback, just in case. I have saved the bacon for the band more times than I can count using this method.

Now, I know I am asking for the moon and stars here, but you might want to crack open that instruction manual for once and give it a read. You might just learn something important! At the very least you can now recite those all-important specs which impress everyone in casual gear slut conversation, and maybe even learn what a "side chain operation" really means, or suddenly realize you can use the back of that new ribbon mic for an entirely new sound! It's true that many operations manuals are poorly written - because they are usually written by developers instead of users - but you can still skim through it and pick up some good pointers about the care and feeding of your gear.

Cart Before the Horse
The second point I'd like to address here is that there is more to a recording session than just knowing the latest gear and how to use it. I always ask my new clients a very important question at the start of the session; "Are we recording a band or a song?" If we are recording a band then I cater to the band's direction and sound. In other words, if it's a four-piece guitar band then I will forget about adding a string section to the chorus or whatever. The band may need to use this recording as a demo to get jobs, in which case they want their product to reflect the band's true stage sound, more or less. A dubbed in extra guitar here and these is acceptable, but no big departures from the basic core sound of the performing unit.

If the main purpose of the session is to record a song, then it opens the door for many possibilities. Certain liberties may be taken "for the sake of the song". This means the song is the important thing about the session, with less regard for the individuals used in the recording of that song. For instance, an outside player might be brought in to do more justice to the arrangement. A prime example of "the song comes first" is when George Martin showed up at The Beatles first recording sessions with his own drummer. He wasn't convinced that Ringo could do the job, and so Sir George covered his tail on behalf of the record company by having a stand-by drummer in the wings. Of course, this kind of approach can also have detrimental effects on a band, not to mention the poor soul who is asked to step outside for a smoke while a "real guitar player" is called in.

Hands On or Hands Off?
Many times I can make suggestions about an arrangement or the way a musician approaches the recording of a particular track in order to get the most out of what I have at my disposal. Of course, this always depends on how you approach the subject to the band as well as how open the band is to "creative suggestions". What we're talking about here lies more along the lines of wearing a Producers hat instead of an Engineers hat. How far is too far and how much is too much? This particular area of dissecting the recording process is so nebulous and yet so important to the process and how the finished product turns out that I cannot go into enough detail in this article and will address it at another time. Let's just say that the way you treat your client and the way you approach the handling of that client is as important to producing the best results and getting repeat business as you can get.

The rule of thumb is that demo sessions will take less time generally than a session in which the song is the reason for booking the session. I offer a package consisting of an 8-hour block of recording time, which can be utilized in several ways depending on a client's needs. I tell them if they are doing a demo that they can expect to do perhaps four to six songs in the allotted time, depending on how well rehearsed they are, and how much they are willing to keep without overdubbing. But if they expect to record a finished and polished original song then it would be best to use the entire block for that single song. Of course many bands don't want to hear this and will object that they can do several original songs in 8 hours, but to take on a job like that is like asking for trouble. You can't possibly do each song or the band justice going the cheap route. Trust me, you can't build a reputable studio business by giving your time away.

I can sympathize if you are just starting out in the recording business, but the right way to approach this subject is to tell them up front that you are just learning how to do this, and that since you are using the band's session as a proving ground for your own learning curve that you will record them cheaply as a compensation. If you are honest up front no one can come back later and accuse you of deceit. Also, as your experience grows, you may then raise your rates accordingly. That way everyone grows together.

Be Flexible
You've heard about using the right tool for the right job. Well, in audio that is a two-edged sword. Yes, maybe it is better to use limiting instead of compression for a certain effect on a track, or to choose one type of Mic over another in a situation. We've all read about Alan Side's magnificent Mic cabinet, but sometimes he just chooses a plain vanilla SM57. The right tool for the right job. And sometimes if you bend the rules a little bit - perhaps using the equipment in a way it wasn't expressly designed for - you might come up with an interesting new effect. Just don't blow yourself up in the process! Again, it pays to read the operations manual first before plugging everything into everything else.

And who said that if you use a DAW or record using your computer that everything must now be digital in the signal chain, in effect becoming a digital purist at heart? Learn to use the best of both worlds. You don't read about Ed Cherney, Bruce Sweiden, or Elliot Scheiner choosing one over the other and then dismissing all other possibilities. The professionals, who have access to all the goodies, usually use analog for one chore and digital for another. For instance, they might record all the rhythm tracks to analog, and then bumping it all over to the computer for overdubs, sweetening, and editing. Face it, if pure digital was truly a replacement for analog, manufacturers wouldn't be clamoring over each other providing all these tube front ends to take the edge off that cold digital chill. Devices like Distressors and tube Mic pre's wouldn't be plentiful in the current market, and you wouldn't be reading such catch phrases like "helps restore that analog warmth" and "produces authentic tape saturation".

I'm not telling you that you need to run out and buy up all the latest new gear and vintage equipment. Believe me, you couldn't afford it. Just take the time to learn what you now have at your disposal, and don't be reluctant to experiment with it. With a few good tools and any decent recording medium you can get some pretty amazing recordings. By learning proper Mic placement instead of rushing through the set up and then attempting to "fix it in the mix" you can save yourself and your client valuable time later on. And most importantly, your return business will be directly proportional to how you treated your last customer.

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