Producing Stoneflies: Recording & Editing
Due to Val pendulum-dowsing a lot between Italy and London and Timothy being a internationally sought-after session and live drummer in addition to the given fact of simply having no time to produce a polished-sounding guide track beforehand, I decided to be as pragmatic as possible about it having Val performing, that is: singing, all songs into the trash mic of the drum recording setup (see 2.1.2!) with a clean sound on a small guitar amp designed for busking only listening to a click after the drums where set up and sound checked, which had the nice side effect of being able to give Timothy a 30 minute break from being imprisoned and (headphone-)wired in the drum booth. With Val being the songwriter and an experienced session musician as well: One take each! I tried to set the inherent levels of vocals and guitar by the distance between his mouth and the amp from the mic, which worked out fine, with the only problem being a very extensive dynamic range in his vocal part due to switching from almost whispering to shouting. To quick fix that, I just asked my assistant to insert a brick wall limiter on the recorded tracks in pro tools and ‘squarewave’ the guides until they surrendered which worked out fine.
Before touching a mic or mic stand, I went into the drum booth with Timothy and gave him time to adjust the drum setup to his style of playing, tune the drums and get familiar with an instrument (I mean the kit model!) he had never played on before. I advised him to abandon one of the three toms mounted up and we decided to get rid of the HT and use the MT as a HT to provide me with one more spare channel on the CH-side of the console. After he said he was fine, I checked his setup with the goal of maximum spatial separation between the individual elements of the kit in mind, especially in as to HH and Sn separation, and we optimised things to an extent which left him still comfortable with his playing interface.
After Timothy confirmed to me everything was set up to his satisfaction, I started setting up microphones with my assistants, following my session plan. My 12-mic-setup for this project was quite straight-forward and not too complex, because I wanted to use only half of the AWS’ 24 channels for the CH-path and as many direct representations of the recorded signal on the MON-path, with only the kick and snare mics being bussed to one channel each to make space for click and guide track on the MON-side.
As to the techniques I used, I relied heavily on my three-year experience as an assistant to German recording and mixing engineer Marcus Praed (http://www.muehle-der- freundschaft.de/muehle/start.html) and my experience of tracking bands in my own studio in Germany since 2015 (https://www.timhocks.com/studio), sticking pretty much to procedures I found out working for me as an engineer and providing a solid sonic basis for post-production in rather hard and heavy genres.
That being said, I still wanted to try out new techniques during the process of drum recording, with references to Vance Powell giving intensive insight in his production and mixing techniques applied to my first reference track in the context of an video interview by Sound on Sound magazine which is available on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=qsAGtM9YaG8), especially in terms of using additional mono room mics to run through distortion guitar pedals during post-production. On top of that, I referenced and reassured myself with the good old ‘Recording Engineer’s Handbook’ by Bobby Owsinski (in the German version) (Owsinski, Bobby, p.200 - 244). Starting with the spaced-pair overheads (sE 3s) aiming at the right and left edges of the kit and being positioned between snare and high tom on the horizontal axis applying the 3-1- rule (admittedly, by eyeballing), I brought my close mics into place: The D112 was positioned in the middle of the kick (as in: inside of the kick!) pointing at the position where the beater hits the head, the Audix F12 looking at the middle of the left half of the resonant head, at a distance of circa six centimetres (or less) to make use of the proximity effect for low-end exaggeration and minimal bleed information captured. One SM 57 was positioned three centimetres above the snare rim looking at the position where Timothy’s stick hit the head. On the bottom side, an SM 58 was used as all TLMs were already borrowed out, with its ‘looking’ direction being rectangular to the Sn top mic, pointing at the snare wires at a distance of about 10 centimetres. Next up, a SM 57 was used on the HT instead of a broken MD421three centimetres above the rim, pointing at the centre of the head, followed by a MD421 covering the LT at a height of about six centimetres above the rim pointing at the middle as well. An AKG SE300B covered the Hi-Hat, facing it off-axis from crash cymbal and snare. To capture to drums’ sonic development in the room, a spaced pair of sE1A were brought into place at a very low height in the opposite corners of the room, facing the corners. I would have laid them on the floor in a Steve Albini manner, if the microphones would have been my own. Last but not least, a single SM 57 was set up about two metres away from the kit, in a central position (taking the middle of the kick as a reference point) at the height of the snare drum, facing the snare drum as a trash mic, to be used for guitar pedal distortion and other fun stuff at a later stage.
On the side of gain staging and shaping the sound sent to tape (sounds better than ‘DAW’), I pretty much stuck to the chronology live engineers use to soundcheck drums, with kick first, snare second, toms next, cymbals after that and a looped full-kit drum groove last. After having set-up the gain for each channel - trying to aim for the S.O.L. of the console input -, I applied basic board-EQ and filtering to all tracks to ensure the highest signal quality possible on the way in already which I learned to execute properly during my assistanceship and make use of in most recording situations I encounter in my own studio as well, being a heavy outboard and board-FX user on the recording side. Also, never having had the chance to record through an SSL desk before, I was very keen on trying out the legendary SSL-EQs in the analog domain, as demonstrated by a lecturer at SAE Cologne in a Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=64VFTtaUS54&list=PL1EtCshLMBOTcDqY3IdhuBj3fEu14wOgM&index=5). I would have used outboard compression in addition to that, but due to issues with the wiring between drum booth and control room, a broken snare stand which had to be replaced and me loosing time figuring out how the talkback mic worked, I decided to skip that step in order to simply be quicker and start to get stuff done/ recorded sooner.
As to the exact moves I made EQ-wise:
- Kick in: Filtering of sub-bass , negative low-shelf , notching out ugly low mids, boosting the ‘click’, LPF above click versus cymbal bleed and noise
- Kick out: Filtering of sub-bass, sweeping for and boosting of root note, taking out cheap- sounding mids, LPF above click versus cymbal bleed and noise
- Sn top: HPF below root note, sweeping for and boosting of root note, taking out cheap- sounding mids, sweeping for and boosting of ‘snap’, LPF versus noise
- Sn bot: HPF at circa 500 Hz., high-shelf to boost wire-information
- T1: Filtering below root note, sweeping for and boosting of root note, boosting ‘tick’
- T2: Filtering below root note, sweeping for and boosting of root note, boosting ‘tick’
- Trash: HPF at circa 50 Hz
- OHs: HPF at circa 100 Hz, taking out cheap mids at circa 500 Hz, boosting presence and positive high end shelf
- Room: HPF below Kick root note, taking out cheap mids, boosting low-mids for powerful sound, LPF versus too much cymbals
Next up were Vals rhythm guitar parts, which are pretty much the exact copy of what he would play live, but split up into clean and distorted sections to avoid inaccurate foot- switching during recording and doubled for hard-panned stereo positioning. We decided to go for the VHT combo because we liked its sound better in comparison to the amp Val had brought in and had the chain of guitar (Gibson Les Paul) -> pedalboard (compression and several distortion/ overdrive pedals) -> amp setup very quickly.
The guitar parts were captured with a single SM 57 mic close to the grill of the combo in front of the centre of the cone facing outwards at 45 degrees. with the aim of achieving the highest sonic clarity and directness possible, keeping things simple in post-production and shaping the sound relying on board-EQ, alternation of stomps and amp-EQ.
(RP: Aim: two sounds, so complemantary, that in mono sound like one sound)
The following setups were used for the four parts:
- Dist L: stomp distortion, clean channel on amp, Amp-EQ taking out mids, boosting lows and highs, board-EQ filtering out unnecessary frequencies and emphasising that
- Dist R: overdrive channel on amp, Amp-EQ boosting mids, cutting lows and highs, board- EQ filtering out unnecessary frequencies and emphasising that
- Clean L: guitar/amp/board-EQ setup to achieve a rather warm, low-midrangy sound
- Clean R: guitar/amp/board-EQ setup to achieve a rather mid-lacking sound with pronounced lows and highs and slight crunch via a stompbox
In terms of recording the required vocal parts for the tune, I chose a RE20 microphone with a pop shield in the live room of the AWS studio, mounted it at mouth height of the singers and told them to more or less keep a distance of half an arm’s length to it. Lead singer Val performed the original lead vocals while I asked my course mate and rock singer Tamara Steele to perform doubles of the leads and a double vocal harmony part.
Due to time pressure - the backing vocalist had to leave early - I decided against using different mics on the singers for separation and left that to board EQ and the mixing stage. In terms of processing on the recording side of things, I used board EQ and compression on both leads and backings with different settings depending on the two vocalists. I rolled off unnecessary lows below circa 100 Hz, used a low shelf to emphasise the body of the voices, a lo-mid cut to get rid of nasalness, a hi-mid boost in the presence area (4k for Val, 3k for Tammy) and a high shelf for additional breathiness at circa 15 kHz. Compression-wise, I decided to knock down Val’s loud sections by circa 10 dB GR, because his performance is very dynamic due to changing from almost whispering to shouting. For Tammy’s vocals, I left the compressor engaged to keep her performance more or less dynamically flat. In terms of tracking, it was a dream come true again: Val needed two takes for every song, Tammy nailed down the backings in one or two takes per part with minimal inaccuracies. Unfortunately, I forgot taking photos of the whole process, because we had to head off to a gig right after the session, but here is what I got anyway. Other than that, imagine a guy and a girl singing into a microphone ;)
I performed the bass parts using just a DI signal going to tape to keep the setup simple during tracking. In order to create my ‘character’ bass track, I re-amped it after comping using the SAE’s Ampeg bass amp with a very modest amount of distortion taking out the lows via EQ and boosting Mids and Highs there. The mic was a MD 421 very close to the centre of the grill for proximity effect usage and facing outwards to capture more high frequencies.
I used my Marcus Miller signature 5 string jazz bass with active electronics and flat EQ. 2 takes per song, comping, done!
As to drum editing, I started off with comping the takes we did together, choosing the best performed takes that would serve the songs best. Timothy had very little timing issues contained in his performances, which I chose to correct manually, going through the comped performance without looking at the screen, only taking action when the timing inaccuracies bothered me aurally. Is that even English?! ;) I grouped the drums, cut all tracks at the same time, put the cut sections into place, engaged fades and moved on.
In terms of guitar editing, I didn’t really have to correct any mistakes relating to wrong notes or similar things. All recorded takes were more or less good to go. That notwithstanding, I tried to improve overall timing in broad strokes by going section by section, chopping crucial sections and putting them closer to the grid manually, followed by fades of course. I focussed on the downbeats of each section a lot, in order to let the band hit hard and speak with one voice there.
After comping the performances together, I went through each track correcting minor timing inaccuracies by hand and proceeded with vocal tuning using Melodyne where necessary. The only minor tuning issues I had to address were in the lead vocal, which I corrected using Melodyne.
Bass performances were comped together, before running through them and fixing aurally annoying timing inaccuries by hand. I didn’t use a click track for this task, relying solely on my ear regarding the interlink between bass and drums, especially kick drum.