If your bedroom studio is more bedroom than studio, you might think that recording bands is beyond your powers. But where there's a primary school, church hall or industrial unit, there's a space you can use...
Like many Sound On Sound readers, I have an attic room in my house that I sometimes call a studio. AIR Lyndhurst it is not. There's no control room, no live area, no vocal booths, and not enough room to swing a cat. My 'studio' can just about handle vocal overdubs and the odd bit of acoustic guitar, but a rock band? No chance.
Property prices and families being what they are, this situation is unlikely to change soon. Yet, like many SOS readers, I don't want to be limited to recording vocal overdubs and the odd bit of acoustic guitar. Recording bands can be incredibly satisfying, not to mention a great learning experience, and I'm not going to let my utterly unsuitable house get in the way.
If, like me, you want to record bands, but don't have the facilities at home, you have two options. The first is to hire someone else's studio — which is great, but only if someone else is paying. The second is to find a different sort of space to record in, and that's the option we'll be exploring here.
Location recording can encompass a huge range of scenarios. At one end of the scale, it's hiring Headley Grange for a month and parking the Rolling Stones Mobile outside, or persuading the London Philharmonic to schlep out to Barking Town Hall for a weekend. At the other, it's parking a stereo recorder on top of the sound desk at a gig, or capturing a sketch of a musical idea in the back of the tour bus. What I'm talking about here, though, is the kind of challenge that many SOS readers will be faced with at some time or other: making a one‑off, largely live, multitrack recording of a rock band, without hiring a studio.
With location recording, planning is everything. Both you and the band will be out of your comfort zones, and the more you can do in advance to make sure things go smoothly, the better. In most of these guerrilla recording situations, you'll be in and out of the venue in a day, so time will be of the essence.
The first thing you need to do is find your willing victims. Don't waste time trying to record bands whose music you can't stand, or who can't play for toffee. No‑one will be happy. There are sure to be good bands in your area — although, in these days when everyone and their dog owns a 'recording studio with more tracks than the Beatles ever had', don't be surprised if the offer of a free recording is not necessarily greeted with rapture. Don't go on reputation or demos. Make sure you see the band live, even if only in rehearsal. And make sure they are realistic about what they will get out of the session. Your joint mission will be to capture the excitement and energy of a band playing in a room, not to craft a lovingly produced studio confection.
The band I recorded as an example for this article are The Incredible Flight of Birdman, an excellent indie‑rock four‑piece who recently released their debut single, 'Where I Can't See You', on WET Records. Having put them on at several gigs, I knew that they were strong musicians and a tight band, with well-routined material. (They are also nice people, which always helps.) Even when you've won the trust of the band and enthused them about the idea of recording, though, you can expect setting up a session to require a good deal of patience! It took several months to find a day where the Birdmen, our chosen venue, my partner in crime Steve Fenton and I were all available.
It's reasonable to expect that the band will be well‑rehearsed for the session. Make it clear that you're not there to capture their work in progress, but to provide a snapshot of a practised, tight live band. It's also worth mentioning that things will sound better if they fit new drum heads and guitar strings before the session, although bands have an amazing ability to not hear statements like that. And, of course, make sure everyone has everyone else's mobile phone numbers, and directions to the venue.
Once you've found your band, the next task is to find a recording location. Two sets of considerations come into play here. Obviously, you need to look at potential venues from an engineer's point of view. What sort of acoustics do the rooms have, and will they suit the band's sound? How much separation will you be able to achieve, if necessary? Is there sufficient space?
However, you also need to take into account practical considerations. How far away is the venue? Will there be enough parking spaces? Where will lunch come from? Will you have to pay to hire the space, and for how long will you be able to use it? Is it secure? Does it have enough power sockets? Will people complain about the noise? Will you have problems with sound from outside leaking in, or with noisy air conditioning? Don't forget that circumstances change, and that just because there are no problems with noise when you visit doesn't mean it's always that way.
Unless you live in the middle of the Antarctic, there will almost certainly be tens, if not hundreds, of workable recording spaces within a few miles of your house. Church and village halls, offices, farm buildings, schools and nurseries all have potential, and it's worth getting into the habit of looking out for likely venues when you're out and about in your neighbourhood. Schools have several advantages. For one thing, they're almost always far enough away from other buildings that you won't be annoying the neighbours. For another, you'll often have the choice of several different rooms within the school. For a third, they are unused at weekends and during school holidays. And there are often lots of musical instruments lying around!
Be very wary of booking venues sight unseen, even when they come recommended by the band. When a musician tells you that a room has 'good acoustics', that usually means there is so much reverb even a bass player can notice it. I once wasted a day recording in a secondary school where 'good acoustics' turned out to mean a series of perfectly square 30‑foot boxes, with no soft furnishings anywhere.
I actually broke this golden rule again on the example sessions, but I know Steve well enough to be sure that when he recommended his kids' primary school as a venue, it would be a trip worth making. Steve was able to get the head teacher and caretaker on side, too, which made a big difference, and we had the run of the school from 10am to 5pm one Sunday.
We could have used a number of different spaces within the school, and to audition them, I got drummer Rob Fisher to dig out his snare drum and walk around hitting it while Steve and I listened. We were briefly tempted by the main hall, which had a nice piano to tinkle; but this band doesn't have a keyboard player, and the space was far too big and echoey to be suitable for a rock band. Much more promising was the school's reception lobby: larger than a domestic room, with a high ceiling, hard surfaces everywhere and plenty of corners to break up reflections, it had a bright and lively ambience that would have been ideal for a particular sort of drum sound.
After some thought, however, we decided that a more neutral acoustic would be the safer option, and settled on one of the classrooms. It was larger than the lobby, with an angled ceiling and large windows along one side, but the thick carpet and other furnishings made it much deader acoustically. Unless the reason for your location recording is to take advantage of a particular acoustic for a specific purpose, it generally pays to err on the side of caution. After all, you can always add reverb after the fact, but you can't take it away; and unless you can find a means of isolating guitar and bass amps somewhere else, a lively acoustic can mean plenty of trouble with spill. It can also get tiring to listen to, both during the session and on the recorded results.
The purist approach to location recording is to balance the whole thing live and record to stereo. This is frightening enough if you're recording a bluegrass act, but you'd need balls of steel to approach a rock recording that way. For the purposes of this article, then, we'll assume you're going to record to a multitrack format for mixdown (and perhaps further overdubbing) later.
So you'll need a multitrack recorder. There are three main options: an all‑in‑one digital multitracker such as Roland's VS‑series or Yamaha's AW‑series; a straightforward digital multitrack recorder such as an iZ RADAR or Mackie MDR, paired with a suitable mixer; or a computer with a multi‑input soundcard. If I had a free choice, I'd probably go for the second option, which combines ease of use and stability with the flexibility to set up good cue mixes. Unfortunately for me, though, I don't own a large hardware multitracker, so I recorded Birdman using a Windows laptop, and took the opportunity to test out a piece of review gear, Tascam's new US2000 USB interface. This has eight mic inputs of its own, plus a further six line inputs, so by feeding the latter from the insert points on my Ashly MX508 rackmounting mixer, I was able to get a total of 14 channels — enough to let me close‑mic everything, with a few channels left over for overheads, room mics, scratch vocals and DIs.
You'll need a load of other gear, too (see 'Kitting Yourself Out' box), and it's vital to check before the session that you actually have what is required. Do you have enough mic stands and cables? Are they the right ones? (I've been caught out before now by the need to convey a stereo mix from two soundcard outputs to a single headphone-amp input.) Make sure you know exactly what the band is bringing, too: you don't want to end up in one of those 'But I thought you were taking the bass amp!' situations, and they may well be able to help out by contributing extra headphones, mic stands or cables.
Don't forget the more obscure items that can be session‑breakers, either. At the top of my list would be mains power and headphone extension cables, USB dongles, a pencil and paper to note down comments, and emergency items such as spare 9V batteries, cable testers, Allen keys and the like. Your system, likewise, needs to be prepared. Make sure you have plenty of free hard drive space, and if you're working on a computer, set up template sessions with all your audio tracks, inputs and outputs created and ready to go. And don't just stuff your cables in an old Tesco bag: get them organised, neatly coiled and tied with cable ties. Colour‑coding them at both ends using electrical insulating tape can also be a great help when you later need to navigate through the spaghetti in a hurry.
As important as having the right gear is that you plan out in advance how you will be using it. As the engineer on the job, you have two roles. One is to capture the band's performance to some sort of recording medium, and get it sounding as good as possible. The other is to set things up so that the band are as comfortable as possible with what they are hearing, and are able to deliver the best possible performance.
It's all too easy to neglect this second consideration in favour of the first, and it's something that absolutely needs to be planned in advance. You might get lucky and find a band who don't need any sort of monitor mix — perhaps they're an acoustic or instrumental outfit who can balance their own playing, or perhaps they know their material so well they don't actually need to hear the vocals in order to get things right. Nearly always, however, you are going to have to give your band some help. That can mean one of two things: a monitor mix in headphones, or monitoring via a PA‑style floor wedge.
The latter option brings obvious problems in the shape of increased potential for spill, but some bands just play better without headphones, and if you want maximum energy, this can definitely be the way to go. The chances of eliminating spill altogether from a guerrilla recording are minimal anyway, and it often adds to the vibe of the results. Spill is not necessarily a problem unless it sounds nasty, or overwhelms the thing it's spilling onto, or it comes from something you are later going to leave out of the final mix. This is quite often the case with vocals, but even then, a bit of spill from the scratch vocal can often be made to blend with a later keeper with judicious application of reverb.
Naturally, of course, you'll need to be very careful to place the PA wedge to avoid bad‑sounding spill and to ensure that everyone can hear it — better to turn the monitor up and suffer the extra spill than have musicians play badly because they can't hear themselves. Oh, and if the drummer can't hear the bass or the electric guitars, it's probably better to move the amps, rather than trying to put those things through the wedge as well.
I'd sounded Birdman out about the various options beforehand, and they assured me they would have no problem monitoring over headphones. What's more, they wanted to try using a click on some of their songs, so any sort of PA was right out. I was glad I'd planned things out beforehand, because when I did, it turned out that the Tascam US2000 can't be used to set up a proper low‑latency monitor mix. I could have used Cubase's Control Room, but this would have required me to run a new piece of hardware at the lowest possible latency on an important session with no backup plan, so I wasn't keen on that idea. Instead, knowing that the band would probably only need to monitor vocals, bass and guitar, I reserved the Ashly mixer for these sources and fed my headphone amp from it directly.
To get everything clear in your head, it's well worth sketching out on paper a diagram that traces all the major signal flows in the setup you're planning to use, especially if you are, as I was, tying together multiple pieces of gear. A visual representation can be really helpful when it comes to figuring out what you'll need to bring, and in pre‑empting and solving any potential problems.
Planning, and a degree of caution, are also of paramount importance when you're arranging and miking up the band's gear. Remember, though, that planning is about how best to use your time as well as your equipment. This is a guerrilla recording, not Studio Two at Abbey Road. Spend too long setting everything up and you'll annoy the band and leave no time to actually record them — which is, after all, the point of the exercise. So make decisions in advance, where possible; and where it isn't possible, make them fast, and stick to the safer options if you can.
A fundamental question you need to address early on, and ideally in the pre‑session planning, is whether you, as the engineer, are going to be in the room with the band, or somewhere else. The latter option isn't always practical, but where possible, makes it much easier to monitor what's actually going to disk, and may allow you to listen on speakers if you want to. In practical terms, removing the engineer to a separate room will require that you have a stage box with a long multicore, plus the ability to set up some sort of talkback system to communicate with the band.
Although it's the riskier option in many ways, I personally like to be in the room with the band: it's simpler, it's more fun, and it gives you a better chance of geeing them up to produce stronger performances. (Not to mention that I don't own a stage box or multicore, which rules out the other option in most cases.)
Either way, limited isolation and lack of time will inevitably mean that mic placement becomes rather less scientific than it might be in a proper studio with a control room. If you have tried and trusted mic choices and techniques, now is a good time to pull them out of the locker. For fine‑tuning mic positions while working in the same room, you can either turn your headphones up really loud and have someone else move mics around, or you can make a series of test recordings, adjusting the mics each time. The former tends to work well on acoustic instruments and amplifiers, while the latter is more or less the only way of approaching drum miking in this context.
For some reason, it came naturally to everyone on the session to set Rob's kit up at the end of the classroom. This placed it close to the large windows, under the highest part of the ceiling, but did mean that it was somewhat enclosed. Looking back, it might have sounded a little better placed more centrally, but there would have been a lot of furniture to shift, and I wanted the band to feel comfortable.
I broke another one of my own rules on the Birdman session by using an unfamiliar pair of overheads (I'd been looking for a second AKG D224E for months, and when one turned up the day before, I was too excited to listen to reason), but followed very conventional practice in mic placement. The 224s were above and behind the drummer, equidistant from the snare, and were complemented by Beyer M201s on the snare and floor tom, an AKG D19 and a D24 (which are, to all intents and purposes, the same mic) on the rack toms, and an AKG D202 on kick. My general preference is to keep the overheads fairly high, so that they capture a balanced drum sound with some room ambience, rather than combining closer overheads with a separate room mic. This can lead to problems with a weak drummer in an otherwise loud band, when distant overheads can pick up too much spill from guitars or bass, but I knew this was unlikely to be a problem with Rob's playing.
As always seems to be the case, positioning of the close mics was dictated more by the setup of the drum kit than anything else; I persuaded Rob to raise his cymbals enough to fit snare and tom mics in, but there was precious little freedom to move them about. Luckily, they sounded pretty good, so most of my time fine‑tuning placement was spent on the kick mic. Rob is one of those happy drummers who understands tuning and keeps fresh heads on his kit, so we didn't waste time changing anything or tracking down annoying rattles. There was some sympathetic ringing from the rack toms when the bass drum was struck, but as the cure — a piece of moon gel on the bottom skins — was worse than the disease, we decided to live with it.
Doug Stuart's bass seemed more likely to cause spill problems than the guitar amp, so I tucked it around a corner behind a judiciously placed Wendy house (you can't do that at AIR Lyndhurst). My plan was to take a DI feed off the bass amp as well as miking it. It took a few minutes to find a satisfactory position for a Sennheiser MD509; the bass sound coming off the amp was quite middly, and attempting to use proximity effect to counter this just made things boomy. I was glad I'd spent the time getting it as good as possible, though, because the DI output on the bass amp promptly died as soon as we began recording.
In some ways, the most problematic instrument was Rich Yates's guitar. Again, forward planning helped. Having seen the band live, I knew that Rich used copious amounts of reverb and delay from a digital multi‑effects unit. I didn't want to be too boxed in at the mix, so as well as miking the amp, I planned to use my A/B box to take a clean guitar signal for later re‑amping. (I was hoping this would also allow me to escape the panning dilemma that always seems to arise with a single guitar/bass/drums line‑up at mixing.) Miking the amp itself also required some thought. I didn't want too many low or low‑mid frequencies in the recorded guitar sound, because the bass was doing most of the work in that region, and tends to be more prominent in the Birdman sound. On the other hand, close‑miking the Laney amp showed up a tendency towards the shrill and gritty, qualities I wasn't over‑keen to emphasise.
Of the mics I had available, I decided the best option was probably a Beyer M260 hypercardioid ribbon mic, which has that ribbon smoothness at the top end without too much boominess at the bottom. After plenty of mucking about with position, we ended up having it pointing almost across the face of the amp, where it seemed to give the best balance between 'bright' and 'harsh'.
Something always goes wrong, and on the day, the multi‑effects unit decided to have some sort of brainstorm which led to all its patches having random levels. Worse still, the clean feed from the A/B box managed to clip somewhere on its way into the mixer. I spent a few minutes trying to track down the cause, but with no luck. In guerrilla recording contexts, you're often faced with this sort of decision: is the problem bad enough that it absolutely has to be solved, or would it be better to put up with it and move on? In this case, having tried the obvious answers like changing the battery in the DI box, I gave up, knowing that I had the miked signal available and hoping that even a clipped DI signal might still be some use when put through an amp simulator.
I threw up a Shure Beta 57 for Nick Osbourne to use for his scratch vocals, and as I had a spare channel and a Neumann KM84 lying unused, I put it up rather speculatively as a room mic. (In retrospect, I should have put it further away from Nick, as it too picked up his scratch vocals. Oh well. That's guerrilla recording for you.)
It usually pays to leave more headroom on a location recording than you might on a studio recording, as there is more uncertainty involved. In this case, however, I wasn't overly concerned, as I knew the band well enough to know that their playing is tightly controlled and their material fairly consistent in level. The most likely source of unexpected peaks on this session was the guitar amp, thanks to the misbehaving effects unit, so I made sure that had plenty of room to breathe.
With only a single headphone amp, I wasn't able to provide separate cue mixes for the different performers. And like most cheap headphone amps, my ART one sounds pretty bad when asked to compete with a loud drummer. After a couple of run‑throughs, though, we settled on a monitor balance that seemed to suit everyone.
Incidentally, I didn't bother bringing monitor speakers with me on this particular session. I'm fairly happy working on headphones, and I knew that there would be little enough time for setting up or listening in any case. (And because, frankly, we already had enough gear to carry around, and I was too lazy to dismantle my home setup to bring them along.)
So, after some three hours, it was time to hit Record — but not before everyone had had lunch, courtesy of Steve and family. Don't neglect the creature comforts; even if you're content to soldier on all day without a break, your band probably won't be.
It's at this point that you may need to be producer as well as engineer, deploying your people skills to get the best performances possible from the band. That wasn't really the case with Birdman, as the lines of communication within the band were good. Everyone agreed which performances they liked, whether they were good enough, and when it was time for a break. For the most part, all I had to do was sit back, enjoy and keep an eye on levels, occasionally soloing tracks in my headphones to check that nothing was going wrong.
If you set up monitor speakers, you can have everyone listen back to what they've just recorded, but along with the ensuing discussion, this can eat up a lot of valuable recording time. Typically, in this sort of recording context, the band will play each song until they feel they've got it right. One more take for luck is usually a good idea, but unless you heard something they didn't, go with their immediate judgement. And, above all, take notes. Remember, too, that you may be able to piece together sections from more than one take at the mix. Of the four songs Birdman attempted, three resulted in one take being clearly the best, while another will require some welding to join the front and back of two different takes together.
Ideally, you and the band need to plan together to make sure you get the most from the limited time available to you, and don't be afraid to direct them if you feel they're departing from the schedule. If the band are struggling with a particular song, better to drop it and record something else. And if you know that you'll need to record overdubs at the end of the session, leave enough time to do so. (Obviously, when time is of the essence, any overdubs that can be left until another date should be.)
It might sound odd, but there's far more to be said about the three hours it took us to set up than about the three we spent actually recording. On a guerrilla recording session, the aim is to get a powerful live performance onto disk, not to spend ages moving everything around between each song. I made a couple of small adjustments to the guitar mic position depending on what sound Rich was using for a particular song, but beyond that, it was just a question of making sure everything got recorded, watching the meters, and listening carefully. I always find it convenient to record each song to a separate DAW project, and this is easy enough as long as you've prepared your template properly.
When you're using someone else's building, you need to respect it and its owners. That means that if you said you'd be out at five o'clock, you need to be out at five o'clock with all your gear packed away, not hitting Record one last time in pursuit of that elusive final take. It also means you need to leave the place as you found it. Wash up your coffee cups, clear up your rubbish, put the furniture back where it was, and if there's a vacuum cleaner, use it. Fortunately, packing up is typically much faster than setting up. On this session, it took about 45 minutes to de‑rig all the band equipment and recording gear, and another 20 minutes or so to put the classroom back to its former state.
The first time you open the newly recorded sessions in the comfort of your home 'studio' can be a nervous moment. If you didn't get it right on some of the judgement calls that arose during the session, the results can become all too apparent, all too quickly. Even if you avoided major screw‑ups, you'll wish you'd done some things differently, and there are sure to be compromises that need to be addressed at the mix. But if the worst happens and you end up with something completely unusable, it's not the end of the world: it's one day out of your life, and a free rehearsal for the band. Don't beat yourself up about it. Learn from your mistakes, call them up, apologise and arrange to do it again.
Thankfully, the raw tracks from the Birdman sessions held no nasty surprises. The drums came through pretty well, with no disastrous phase issues or clipping. The mic on the bass amp had held up without the safety net of the DI. The guitars recorded as well as could be expected in the circumstances, and some quick experiments with Guitar Rig suggested that it should be possible to disguise the clipping on the DI track and create a nice L‑R panorama. Even the scratch vocals didn't sound too bad. It'll never sound as polished and slick as The Incredible Flight of Birdman's studio‑recorded single, but for all its faults, it captures their live energy and excitement in a way that studio recordings never quite do. And, most importantly, it was fun.
Thanks to The Incredible Flight of Birdman, to Steve Fenton and his family, and to Bourn Primary School.
If you're being paid top dollar to record a high‑profile session, you'll want to ensure that your recording rig is bulletproof. That usually means using a second system to make a backup recording in real time, in case of power cuts or hard drive failures. (You might, for instance, use a hard disk or tape‑based digital multitracker as a complement to a Pro Tools rig.)
Guerrillas like to live dangerously, though — and, more to the point, most of us don't happen to have a spare multitrack recording system kicking around. To my mind, the chance of a hard drive failure is remote, and on a location recording session that is being done more for fun than profit, it's not worth making the elaborate precautions necessary to safeguard against it. Not that hard drive failure isn't a disaster, but in the scheme of things, there are a hundred other things that are much more likely to go wrong. Back the session up when you get home that night, or better still, take along a large USB memory stick and back up during session breaks.
If your existing setup is geared towards recording solo artists, or building up your own productions track by track, the sheer quantity of gear needed to make a multitrack band recording might seem intimidating. Not only are you going to need more mics, but these will be useless without stands and cables. Then there's the question of headphones and a headphone amp, and of course you will need a multi‑channel audio interface if you're working on a computer.
It's worth remembering that you can still do useful work without recording huge numbers of tracks. It's perfectly possible to get a good drum sound with two or three mics, and likewise, you may be able to share mics between other instruments. It's also worth remembering that you don't necessarily have to go down to your local music shop and buy everything brand new — an experience that would certainly leave your credit card feeling pretty dented. And there are bound to be other people in your town with gear they'd be willing to lend out. If nothing else works out, you might be able to find a recording location that actually has gear of its own. Perhaps, for instance, you could use down time at a local music venue.
Like many people, I've accumulated piles of cables and a motley collection of mics almost by accident, through years of being in bands, running failed club nights, optimistic bidding on eBay and blind chance. Apart from cables, stands and headphones, almost nothing used on the Birdman session was bought new (and the stands were being sold off at £5 each because the Chinese manufacturer had managed to mis‑spell 'mic stand').
If you put the legwork into looking, then, it is definitely possible to kit yourself out on the cheap. Learning to use a soldering iron and make your own cables will save money, but used cables are seldom pricey. Likewise, although the classic mics hold their value, you can often pick up newer ones cheaply, especially those sets designed for recording drum kits. And not infrequently you'll see entire home studios sold off for a song to those willing to collect. This is guerrilla recording, so don't let any weak points in your gear armoury prevent you from having a go. It's meant to be fun, not perfect.
- Planning is everything.
- Make the band happy and everything else will follow.
- Things will go wrong. Don't freak out, or waste time dealing with them, unless they threaten to stop the session altogether.
- Look after the venue. You might want to use it again.
- Make sure you know where lunch is coming from.