Sometimes, performers have to be their own engineers. Here's how to get better results from solo tracking sessions.
For anyone keen to learn about recording, amazing advice is just a click away. Whether it's SOS's massive archive of workshops and interviews, YouTube videos by celebrity engineers or learned forum posts, you can't move for the stuff. But the vast majority of it has one thing in common: it assumes that you, the engineer, are recording someone else — and that's not an option right now.
In any case, the musician I've worked with most over the years can be pretty frustrating. He's an enthusiastic but hopeless singer, an annoyingly inconsistent guitarist, a two-finger keyboard player and a drummer who makes Mo Tucker sound like Buddy Rich. And I'm not going to be rid of him any time soon.
In other words, like many SOS readers, I've always spent a lot of time recording myself — and right now, thanks to COVID-19, I don't have much choice. And recording yourself introduces a whole heap of extra issues on top of those you might encounter when recording other people.
Anyone who's worked on a lot of sessions will have developed techniques to put musicians at their ease. These include bread-and-butter engineering skills such as generating inspiring cue mixes, but they also include 'soft skills'. A good engineer knows when to give feedback and when to shut up, how to make the studio look and feel comfortable, and how to make his or her activity invisible so that the artist can focus on making art.
For musicians to give of their best, they need to get into a zone where they can concentrate on the performance alone — and it's quite hard to maintain the illusion that the engineer is invisible when the artist is also the engineer! However, a surprising number of the engineer's 'soft skills' can still be applied when recording yourself, with a bit of lateral thinking.
Assuming you're recording at home, for instance, you actually have much more freedom to tailor the room to your preferences than would be the case in a working studio. Don't think of time spent painting, decorating, furniture shopping or just tidying up as wasted time that could otherwise have been spent in front of the microphone. Think of it as an investment in creating the right environment for you to work in. When you're buying or building acoustic treatment, it's not shallow to pay attention to the way it looks, as well as the function it performs!
But the most important thing you can do in this respect is to 'front load' the engineering, and thus separate it from the art. This applies not only to what happens on the day, but also on a broader scale.
Most of us are not musical wizards who play hundreds of different instruments, and most of us have only one room available to record. So, don't dive into recording your concept album straight away. Take the time to do a session devoted only to figuring out the best way to mic up your instrument in the space available. And once you've come up with one or more setups that you're happy with, document them carefully so that you can recall them with minimal fuss later. Take photos. Mark out the positions of mic stands, amps and instruments on the floor using tape. Note down the settings of preamps and other gear in the input path.
The ideal is to do what many session players do, and have dedicated recording rigs that are permanently in position in their studios. This isn't possible for all of us, but enables you to separate the engineering almost entirely from the performance. You can just switch the system on, sit down behind the drum kit or pick up a guitar and go.
Unless you're some sort of one-take wonder, the chances are that once you have your mics set up, you'll want to record the same parts over and over, or experiment with variations. For doing this, the traditional studio division between live room and control room can be — to put it mildly — unhelpful. If there's a worse vibe-killer than having to press Record, leg it down the hall, close the door, put your headphones on and pick up your instrument each time you want to start a take, I've not found it yet.
Even in a one-room studio, the ability to operate the DAW without leaving your instrument is, in my view, essential. At the very least, you probably need the ability to start and stop playback and recording at your chosen position, mute and unmute the tracks you're recording to, and adjust the balance in your headphones.
Unless you are a singing octopus, you won't be able to simultaneously play an instrument and move a mic stand.
Luckily, remote control over all this is now very easy to set up in all the major DAWs. All of them support transport controllers, and there are plenty of affordable options available. If your recording software implements the EUCON protocol, you can simply use Avid's excellent, free Avid Control app on any phone or tablet. And if you need full control over your DAW from everywhere in your room, consider using a large monitor screen and a wireless keyboard and mouse, or a KVM extender. If you are ever likely to want to record drop-ins, a footswitch can be invaluable.
Whichever solution you go for, it is worth investing in a stand that lets you keep your controller within easy reach at all times. Likewise, a really good locking headphone extension cable is a must in situations where you need to be more than a few feet from your audio interface — unless, that is, you go one better and invest in a personal monitoring station or portable headphone amp.
Similar considerations apply to MIDI-based setups, too. The last thing you want to do when inspiration strikes is spend ages routing your MIDI controller to a different instrument, or rooting around at the back of an audio interface unplugging the Casiotone so that you can hear the Omnichord. Once again, a few hours spent configuring your studio for the way you like to work will be repaid in spades when you come to use it in anger. Give a man a cable and he'll play for a session; teach him to use a patchbay and he'll play for a lifetime. Don't give him a fish, though, unless your studio is well ventilated!
All DAWs support cycle recording, whereby you can leave the system running and it'll go round and round in a loop, recording take after take in a neat stack that you can comp later. I've tried this often enough to know that I hate it, but if you haven't, it's definitely worth experimenting! Set loop points carefully so that you have enough time to prepare yourself at the start of each take, without getting bored and wasting time.
Finally, if you're working to a click, take the time to choose the click sound that works for you. There's a whole article to be written about setting up a click track properly, and it's easy to underestimate the difference it makes.
The time-honoured way to get good sounds in a traditional studio is to place the mics in a plausible starting position, head to the control room and ask the musician to play while you listen over the studio monitors. You can then return to the live room to fine-tune mic positions before repeating the process until you're happy. If I'm lucky enough to have an assistant on a session, I'll even send them in to move mics around while the musician is playing.
This old-school approach isn't really possible when you're recording yourself. Unless you are a singing octopus, you won't be able to simultaneously play an instrument and move a mic stand. And if you're playing any sort of acoustic instrument, or singing, you won't be able to hear what the microphone is capturing in real time. What you'll actually hear is a blend of direct sound from the instrument or voice, and the captured signal being fed through your speakers or headphones. It's very difficult to make reliable decisions about mic placement on the basis of this composite signal.
A creative tip that I picked up from the SOS Forum is to temporarily insert a very long delay — say, 10 seconds — in the monitor path while you're setting up. That way, you can play a bit of guitar or drums, stop, and immediately hear back exactly what the mics are picking up. If done carefully, this will even allow you to get sounds while monitoring on speakers, which I often much prefer to using headphones. A more flexible variation on this approach, albeit one that involves more muting and unmuting of speakers, is to place the mics and then record short segments of playing or singing.
Be careful, though: whichever approach you take, it's easy to be fooled into moving the mics closer and closer in the belief that you're improving the sound, when in fact you're just increasing the level and the amount of bass tip-up that's being captured. To get a bit more objectivity, try recording a few different setups or mic positions, taking notes each time, then level-match them in your DAW before playing them all back one after the other. And, of course, if you're overdubbing, it's crucial to see how they sound against the backing track, not just in isolation.
As with any recording, it's also useful to hear how your test parts will sound once you've applied typical mix processing such as compression and reverb. I often find, for example, that strained phase relationships between a guitar and a vocal mic aren't obvious until you start to apply compression, or add high end with EQ. Get it right and who knows — you might find that one of these test recordings, tracked with the pressure off, turns out to be perfect just as it is. It's the self-recording equivalent of the hoary old engineering trick of getting the musicians to do a trial run 'for level'.
Incidentally, don't forget that the sound you capture can be quite different depending on where in the room you position the source. It's easy to fall into the trap of always setting up in front of the DAW, just because that happens to be the most convenient place.
One of the most important skills of engineers and producers is the ability to get the best takes from their artists. When I record other people, I don't find it hard to maintain the detachment that's needed to know which takes are good enough, and the realism to judge when diminishing returns have begun to set in. When I record myself, all that goes out the window. I record take after take after take in pursuit of some elusive magical performance that, in reality, I'm never going to give. I form firm judgements about individual takes, only to decide a few days later that I was totally wrong. I start to unconsciously modify the parts that I'm playing, or attack the guitar with ever more force in the mistaken belief that I'm capturing more energy and life. I lag behind the beat, under the illusion that I have located the pocket. I get carried away and fail to notice that a string has gone out of tune or that click has started to bleed from my slipping headphones.
It's easy to be fooled into moving the mics closer and closer in the belief that you're improving the sound, when in fact you're just increasing the level and the amount of bass tip-up that's being captured.
For me, this is the most challenging aspect of self-recording, and I can't pretend to have cracked it altogether. Inasmuch as there's a solution, though, it will probably be personal to you, and will boil down in the end to self-discipline. Once you've spent ages setting up to record, you really want to leave the engineering behind, get in the zone and stay there — but there have to be limits, and this is one area where putting work into your initial setup can help. The less easily recallable your recording arrangement, the greater the temptation to record take after take after take to insure yourself against the possibility of having to recreate it tomorrow.
Just as with finding the right miking arrangements, it's worth spending some time to learn which approach to tracking gives the best results for you. For instance, try scheduling two or three sessions to record the same part in different ways. The first time, you could record the entire part end to end over and over again. Next time, take it piece by piece; start at the beginning and move on only when you're happy you have a good take of each section. Then try a third approach: record, say, five full takes, carry out a rough comp and then drop in on any sections that still don't seem right. Many people find it beneficial to record a bunch of takes, then leave them for a day or two before attempting any comping. The time away helps you regain a sense of perspective and objectivity. Whatever you do, it's usually worth keeping the first take: sometimes it just has a magic and spontaneity that disappear once you've gone over the part multiple times, and even if not, it's a useful reference to ensure that repetition doesn't lead you unconsciously to change the part in later takes.
On those occasions where you're really struggling to nail a take, it's worth asking yourself questions that would usually fall into the producer's remit. Are you trying to record the song in a key that doesn't suit your voice? Have you chosen the right tempo? Although that MIDI drum pattern grooves nicely in isolation, is it actually the right groove for the song? Try recording a quick and dirty demo of the song with just vocals and your main instrument, without using a click or even wearing headphones. You can then inspect the guitar or piano track in your DAW to figure out what the average tempo is, and check back on your vocal performance to see whether any notes really are too high or too low for you.
Finally, don't lose sight of the fact that neither the Coronavirus nor being a self-recording musician should doom you to working completely in isolation. Seek the opinion of friends and relatives, even if they aren't musicians or producers themselves. Explore the possibilities offered by online collaboration tools. Hire some of the many excellent remote session musicians whose services are available at very reasonable rates. Send your multitracks out to be mixed and mastered by people with fresh ears. The ultimate goal is to make the best music you possibly can. Recording yourself is a means to that end, not an end in itself!