Getting a good sound from world-class musicians is easy. They sound great already, and there's a ton of advice online from celebrity engineers telling you how to record them. But if you run a small studio, or you're just starting out, your bread and butter will be a different kind of session.
And all those YouTube recording masterclasses won't be much help when the singer can't sing, the guitarist can't play, the drummer can't keep time and the instruments are held together with gaffer tape.
Even if you're not making Dark Side Of The Moon, though, a good engineer can make bands sound better than they are. In this video, Sound On Sound's Editor In Chief Sam Inglis explains how to turn musical lead into gold...
Recording musicians who are at the same level as you
One of the strange things about audio engineering is that the further up the food chain you go, the easier it gets. If you’re working with big-name bands you get to use great equipment in great rooms on great material. If you’re just starting out, you have to put up with limited equipment, bad-sounding rooms, lack of time and lack of support. But the most difficult thing is that you are going to be recording musicians who are at the same level as you.
The first time you work with a professional musician can be a bit of a light-bulb moment. You suddenly realise, oh, that’s how you get that sound. That’s what a drum kit or an acoustic guitar sounds like on a record. You realise the sound comes from the musician and their instrument. And the engineer’s job is basically about not screwing up.
But if you’re running a project studio or a local studio, your bread and butter is going to be local bands, and inevitably the quality is going to be variable. And to me, the biggest challenge in recording is to get good results from bands that aren’t at that pro level.
Part of that is about managing expectations. Don’t leave them thinking that they’re going to come out of the process with the next Steely Dan album if they really aren’t. Some musicians are very well aware of their own limitations and they’ll be super excited just to hear themselves recorded at all. Others are completely deluded and think that they should be able to come up with Led Zeppelin IV after half a day in the studio. Some musicians are much better than they think they are and the challenge is to overcome their own lack of confidence.
Either way, you need to go into the session without too many preconceptions, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. But you need to make an assessment quickly as to what you’re going to be able to achieve. If there’s really a huge gulf between what the band thinks they sound like and what they actually sound like, you might even be better off saying that you don’t feel they’re quite ready to start recording their classic album yet and that you’d like to do some pre-production with them first, or use the sessions to do some demos.
How do you get good results from an artist/band who don’t have years of high-level playing behind them?
They’re probably already quite nervous about going into the studio, so don’t force them into suddenly changing everything about the way they play. It’s counter-intuitive, but with bands who aren’t all amazing musicians, you’ll nearly always get better results recording the whole band live than by doing everything in pieces.
One reason for that is familiarity. They’ve maybe been jamming in a rehearsal space and they want to get their ideas down. If you suddenly tell them they need to play their parts one at a time, to a click, with everyone else watching from the control room, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Likewise, if the band are used to hearing themselves live in a room and you make them monitor on headphones, that can totally undermine their confidence. Yes it might be easier from your point of view as engineer to have everything isolated and done to a click, but that’s totally the wrong way to think of it.
These are your paying clients. It’s your job to make their lives easy, not the other way around. Especially if your rhythm section isn’t rock solid, the musicians who have to overdub to that rhythm section are going to find it really hard.
Another reason is time. Even if you have to do 10 or 20 takes to get a good performance out of a band, you’re still going to have something to give them at the end of the day. Multiply that by every individual part and factor in the time you’ll take to comp and edit all those parts together and you’re not going to have a very productive session. You’re also going to have a lot of very bored musicians on your hands. This is something they’re paying for and it’s supposed to be rewarding not tedious.
Provide really good instruments and backline
This is also the sort of situation where having really good instruments and backline in your studio is a Godsend. Inexperienced musicians very often have guitars that aren’t properly set up, or a drum kit they can’t tune where the heads were last changed in 1974. The last thing you want is to struggle for hours to get a good take out of them, only to have it ruined by a string that suddenly goes out of tune, or a snare that sounds like someone attacking Tupperware with a haddock. And whereas you can really put off a musician by asking to play to a click or with headphones, if you give someone a really good-sounding, nicely set-up instrument, then they might well be inspired and deliver a much better performance.
You can also try to anticipate problems further down the line. Take a DI output from everything that has one, so that you can re-amp things later if you have to. Ask the drummer to record a few clean single hits so that you can use them for sample reinforcement if you need to.
Also, trust your ears when it comes to timing and especially tuning. Just because someone has made all the green LEDs light up on the tuner is no guarantee that they will actually be playing in tune. If a bassist hits the strings hard they’ll always be sharp compared to the reference pitch. Have them play the same way when they’re tuning-up.
How do I get good sounds?
The same applies when it comes to getting sounds. If you’re starting out as an engineer there’s a lot of great advice out there from well-known engineers, but that advice relates to working with professional musicians. In the real world that most of us inhabit, those techniques often don’t work. If you’ve got a drummer who smashes the cymbals and barely hits the snare drum, you’re not going to be able to use those fancy miking techniques or authentic vintage compressor models, because they’ll just make the problem worse. You need to be able to think on your feet rather than just trot out some formula that you learned off the Internet.
As an example, I once had a drummer in the studio who had a fairly normal five-piece kit, but he arranged it so that everything was spread out in a long line. There’s no recipe out there that will tell you where to place the drum overheads when the hi-hat is in a different postcode from the floor tom.
Other times you’ll find that a guitarist or bass player is completely wedded to their signature tone, which sounds like someone cutting up cardboard boxes with a cheese wire. In that case I think it’s often best not to argue, but sneak a DI box in before the pedalboard. Then you’ll at least have something to work with at the mix.
Do skill levels vary among band members?
Something else you often find with amateur bands is that the skill levels vary quite a lot within the group. You can often use that to your advantage. For instance, if the rhythm guitarist has a better sense of time than the drummer, make sure that everyone’s hearing a lot of guitar in the cue mix, or use their part as a timing reference when you fire up Beat Detective, or have that person play the tambourine overdubs. Mix the rhythm guitar louder than you usually would and the drums further back.
The one time you can’t really do this is with something that’s the main feature of the song, like the lead vocal or a guitar solo. Trying to bury a lead vocal is almost always counter-productive. Turning it down doesn’t hide the fact that someone can’t sing. It just makes them sound like they can’t sing from further away. It’s much better to treat an unorthodox vocal as a feature. Put it front and centre and say, this is what it is. Even turn it up a bit louder than you normally would. It worked out OK for Bob Dylan.
Getting good sounds from bad musicians is hard. And learning engineering is hard. But the people who have to get good sounds from bad musicians are the people who are learning. It’s a bit like training to be a doctor by practising on people who have six weeks to live. It’s important not to let them have unrealistic expectations, but it’s also important to manage your own expectations. Because actually there can be a lot of satisfaction in taking something that seems really unpromising and delivering something that sounds even vaguely competent.
Engineering is something you learn by doing
Ultimately, engineering is something you learn by doing. So next time you’re sat there in the control room trying not to wince as the singer attempts a high C, don’t think about it as a form of Cold War torture. Think about it as a learning experience that will make you a better engineer. And when you finally do get to record the LSO at Abbey Road, you know you’ll be ready.