When you're recording away from the studio and under time constraints, you need to get the big decisions right — and not become bogged down in detail.
Like many bands who've been around for a while, folk-rock act Model Village find their existence constantly threatened by busy lives, families, jobs and, above all, geography. Their line-up sees singer Rachel, drummer Kev and second drummer/pianist Kenny joined by three songwriting multi-instrumentalists; Dan and Ian live in Cambridge, but Piers lives in London, so full band rehearsals are a challenge — and lengthy recording sessions even more so! With that in mind, Ian asked if I'd be available to do a day's tracking for the band on location.
Miraculously, we managed to find a date where everyone bar Kenny was free, but various band members had to disperse in mid-afternoon. Given that they were hoping to record three songs, including overdubs, it was clearly going to be a busy day, so it was lucky that I was able to call on the help of Steve Fenton, who I've worked with many times before.
Steve and I had recorded Model Village in 'unplugged' mode earlier this year, but this was the first time we'd tried to capture the full line-up, including drums and electric guitars. Knowing we were unlikely to have more than five or six hours' recording time available, we decided to capture as much as possible of the band's performance live.
The location space we were using is part of an old barn-like building, with wooden floors, stone walls and a high ceiling. It's a very nice-sounding room, but quite lively, and we wouldn't have access to any gobos or isolation booths. In other words, spill was inevitable — and with that in mind, we decided to record the basic tracks without headphones, using a Wharfedale powered floor wedge as monitor for the guide vocal and acoustic guitar.
Not using headphones, to my mind, has two main advantages. First, a floor wedge is often much quicker and easier to set up than five pairs of headphones; and second, most bands are used to hearing each other over PA speakers at rehearsal rooms and gigs, so they find it easier to get into their comfort zone. Potential down-sides include not being able to give the band a click track, and the possibility of spill from the floor wedge onto drum overheads and other mics. However, Model Village aren't the sort of band who would want to play to a click track, and I knew from previous experience that Rachel is an unbelievably consistent singer, so I felt confident that any spill from this wedge would at least be in tune and in time.
Equipment-wise, I brought my own PC running Cubase 6 and a Presonus AudioBox 1818VSL USB audio interface, which has eight mic preamps and an ADAT digital input. This I fed from my Focusrite ISA 828 eight-channel preamp, and although the old M-Audio interface I was using as an analogue-to-digital converter has a couple of dodgy channels, I still had 14 analogue inputs to play with. I had brought a rackmount analogue mixer and a headphone amp just in case our monitoring arrangements needed to be re-thought, but didn't use them — the floor wedge was fed directly from a spare output on the AudioBox.
A combination of time and transportation issues meant Kev would be using my drum kit, which was already set up from a previous session, and comprises a fairly humble Yamaha Stage Custom Advantage shell pack with some '70s Zildjian cymbals and a deep-shelled Remo snare. I've never been any good at tuning drums, so I handed Kev the key and let him get on with it while I set mics up. He was able to coax a fairly reasonable sound from the toms and snare, although the kick drum proved more of a challenge.
Time constraints meant that it would be necessary to go with tried and tested mic placements, meaning a spaced pair of cardioid overheads plus close mics on all the individual drums. These were, respectively, a pair of old AKG C414s, a Beyer M201 on snare, AKG D19s on both toms, and an AKG D202 'rocket ship' on kick drum. I used a tape measure to make sure both overheads were equidistant from the centre of the snare drum (to ensure there were no nasty surprises due to phase cancellation), and we spent a few minutes positioning the kick-drum mic to try to get it to blend sympathetically with the overheads, but beyond that, there wasn't time for further experimentation.
I set the floor wedge up about eight feet back from the kick drum, pointing towards Kev, with Steve's Trace Elliott bass amp next to it. I knew from previous experience that an Electro-Voice RE20 positioned directly in line with the centre of the woofer, and a few inches away, captures a nice balanced bass sound, so that's exactly where I put it. I also used the amp's effect send as a DI output.
Their kaleidoscopic approach to instrument-swapping is one of Model Village's USPs. It's rare for any two of their songs to feature the same line-up, and so it proved here. The first two tunes we tracked, 'Oh My Sisters' and 'Splitting The Risk', both featured Piers on acoustic guitar and Dan on bass, while Ian played electric 12-string and six-string respectively. For the third song, 'No Personal Touch', Piers picked up his Telecaster, while Dan and Ian swapped instruments, and Dan sang lead instead of Rachel. This particular swap provided a reminder that it's important for the engineer to remain vigilant even when things are going well. Suddenly, although no settings had been changed, the bass sound became unusably distorted, simply because Ian was digging into the strings with his right hand a lot harder than Dan had been, and it was necessary to back off the preamp gain on the amp.
The band had brought their own Vox AC15 amp, which Ian and Dan employed, while for Piers' electric guitar we used an EL84-based, low-wattage, single-ended valve combo I brought along. I put two close mics on each amp, with the aim of obtaining tonal flexibility and thickness at the mix. There wasn't time to position them with any sort of scientific rigour, but I made sure at least that any phase issues were working with rather than against us.
During tracking, Ian was using various effects pedals — a compressor on his 12-string, and a vintage mains-powered delay on the six-string. Unfortunately, the delay was causing a fairly prominent hum, while the compressor wasn't really improving the sound of the 12-string, so after a couple of takes we decided to abandon both and add any effects later. I was also a bit worried that the amount of reverb he'd dialled in on his AC15 might prove excessive at the mix, and as we could always add more reverb after recording, we backed that off a little.
With no isolation in the room, the acoustic guitar could have proved a headache. Fortunately, Piers' instrument had a fairly good-sounding under-saddle pickup. I plugged this straight into one of the high-impedance instrument inputs on the AudioBox, and used an aux send in its Virtual Studio Live software to send some of the signal to the floor wedge. I didn't want to have to rely exclusively on this at the mix, though, so I also miked the guitar with an AKG D19 pointed at the bridge, as close as I could get it (perhaps six inches away). I've had surprisingly good results using this technique in the past — the D19 has virtually no proximity effect, and has a nice bright top end, so you don't lose too much definition by going in close.
For Rachel and Dan's guide vocals, I set up a Shure SM7 dynamic mic, and again fed some of its output to the floor wedge. Halfway through the session, I noticed that I had an unused channel, so belatedly set up a ribbon mic in a fairly random position in front of the drums, to capture some additional ambience.
One can't hope to get everything perfect on such a hurried session; the important thing is to get the big decisions right, and know when to stop worrying and press Record! Fortunately, in this case the choice to go without headphones worked out well, and we were getting decent takes very quickly. We were able to keep the floor wedge at a level where it was barely audible in the overheads, and as I'd hoped, Rachel's guide vocals were note-perfect.
Another big decision concerned the choice of takes. We needed to identify keeper takes to overdub to, but we wouldn't have time to listen back to everything we recorded and make a considered choice; still less would it be possible to edit together a composite take. So I listened carefully on headphones as each take went down and made a few mental notes, but made a point of asking the band how they felt before venturing my own opinions. Once we all felt that additional takes of a particular song weren't improving on what we already had, we nominated the best yet as the keeper, and went on to the next song without further discussion. This was risky, but in the event I think we did choose the right takes.
Once we'd decided that we had all the takes we needed, there was no going back, as Kev had to leave. Fortunately, he wasn't needed at the overdubbing stage!
The most important overdubs were Rachel's vocals. As I'd expected, her guide takes were great, and I could easily have used them if it wasn't for the drum spill, which would have spoiled the drum sound. For her overdubs I set up two mics: an AKG C414, which I find a good complement to most female voices, and the SM7, just in case I needed to match the vocal sound on the guide takes (and it never hurts to have a second mic up, just in case something goes wrong).
The AudioBox is one of those annoying multi-channel interfaces that has only a single headphone output, so I monitored Rachel's takes in isolation from the ProFire 2626 while she heard herself and the bed tracks from the AudioBox. Her remarkable consistency came through again, and very few takes were needed, the exception being a couple of points on 'Splitting The Risk' where I felt clearer diction was needed to get the words across. On 'No Personal Touch', I tracked Dan's lead vocal through a Neumann U77, again using the SM7 as a back-up (and because I wanted the option of using it at the mix if necessary). Rachel, Dan, Ian and Piers also had various harmony parts they wanted to add, ranging from a counter-melody that ran most of the way through 'Oh My Sisters' to a couple of background 'oohs' and 'aahs', and again I used the U77.
I'm not a fan either of pop shields or of small vocal booths, and personally I feel it's easier to get a good vocal sound by backing the mic off from the singer a bit, and recording in a large, good-sounding room. Since we were working in just such a space, I left the pop shield in its crate and moved the singers a little further away from the mics.
With the vocals in the bag, Piers wanted to double his acoustic part for 'Oh My Sisters' on electric guitar. Since we still had both amps set up, I split the signal using a pedal with a stereo output, and we ran the AC15 with heavy tremolo and recorded all four guitar mics, plus a room mic for good measure. Then, with session time rapidly running out, he produced a trumpet for some additional chorus lines on 'Splitting The Risk'. Without time to experiment, I simply used the same SM7/U77 combo I'd used for the vocals, but a little higher up and further away. With a couple of trumpet takes safely on my hard drive, it was time to call a halt.
Listening back to a location recording in the cold light of day can be an uncomfortable experience, and there's always a certain amount of trepidation involved in opening up the session in the comfort of one's own home! Once I'd opened my eyes and removed my fingers from my ears, I was relieved to hear that nothing had gone disastrously wrong. Nothing had clipped or distorted, all the files were present, and I hadn't accidentally assigned any tracks to the wrong inputs (a classic mistake when under time pressure).
There were certainly aspects of the sound that could have been improved, if we'd had more time to work on them — most notably the kick drum, which sounded a bit 'soggy'. Also, the mic on the acoustic guitar was only really usable in places where the drums weren't playing, but short of banishing Piers to a different room and setting up a headphone system for monitoring, it's hard to see how we could have got a better result there. My biggest regret was, unexpectedly, that I hadn't asked Ian and Piers to turn their amps up a bit louder. There was a significant amount of drum spill on the electric guitar mics, but almost no guitar spill onto the drum overheads; a different balance in the room would, I think, have produced both a better drum sound and a more expansive feel to the guitars.
When you're using multiple mics in an untreated room, and attempting to position them while monitoring on headphones, it's also easy to end up with an overall frequency balance that's slightly off-kilter. For some reason, when it happens to me, I invariably end up with bit of a hole in the 1kHz region, and as I mixed the tracks, I came to realise that that was exactly what had happened here. I used master EQ — and, on one track, Cubase's Multiband Compressor plug-in — to plug it, and from that point on, it proved relatively straightforward to get together rough mixes for the band to hear. Extreme processing proved largely unnecessary, and with the aid of small amounts of EQ and compression, plus a little vocal reverb and a lot of fader rides, I was able to get things sounding acceptable within a couple of days.
The band were pleased with the results, and following an additional as-yet-unscheduled overdub session to add keyboards, brass, and replacement acoustic guitar, are hopeful that the songs will make it onto their next album. All told, not a bad day's work.
The band Sam recorded in this session is Model Village, an Adult-Orientated Pop outfit from Cambridge and London, formed in 2008. This year saw the release of the band's debut album, following an 18-month period that saw them release three singles, get played a bunch of times on BBC 6 Music and XFM, and play gigs with Allo Darlin', Jeffrey Lewis, Damon & Naomi, Singing Adams, Widowspeak and The Lemonheads, as well as on the main stage at the Indietracks festival.
We've placed a few audio examples on the SOS web site to give you a feel for Model Village's music and the recordings that Sam made.