Guy Massey shares tips and tricks as he records the winners of Focusrite's Dream Recording competition at AIR Studio.
Back in February, audio interface and outboard manufacturers Focusrite ran a 25th-anniversary competition in which artists or bands from anywhere in the world could compete for an impressive prize: an all‑expenses‑paid two‑day recording session at the prestigious AIR Studios in Hampstead, London, with Grammy Award‑winning engineer/producer Guy Massey (www.guymmassey.co.uk) at the helm. SOS were invited along to the session, both to observe Massey's recording techniques, and see what useful tips and tricks we might glean from him for our readers. The 1800 hopeful entrants were whittled down to a shortlist of 20, from which Massey picked the lucky winner, Fran O'Hanlon, who goes by the stage name Ajimal. "I listened to [the entrants' demos] over a couple of days and chose a top three,” Massey told me. "Then I listened to the three for another couple of days and thought, 'Yea, this artist! From the point of view of what we will be trying to achieve at the weekend, what I do will suit them really well.'”
The track O'Hanlon decided to record was 'I've Known Your Heart'. The demo version of the song (found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TSfcInPIE0) featured some textural drums that were played fairly softly, with beaters rather than sticks, an electric bass, two piano parts performed on the same keyboard, and Fran's lead vocal, backed up with some hums, "oohs” and "aahs”, courtesy of the other musicians in the band.
Guy discussed the track with O'Hanlon in advance of the session itself. He didn't think the structure of the song, or the basic instrumental arrangement, needed to change particularly, but he did feel that the drums should develop more, and that the track could benefit from the addition of a small string section. Fran explained that he liked to play piano and sing at the same time, and Guy agreed to record both together, along with the other piano part, bass and drums, effectively making a 'live' recording of the base track on which the overdubs would be built.
With this in mind, Guy planned to get the basic track completed and edited on the first day, and booked a four‑piece string section to play on the morning of day two. The final afternoon was set aside for further overdubbing and experimentation. A Musser vibraphone was hired to use for one overdub idea, and one of the band also planned to bring along some woodwind instruments to try.
Guy felt it important not just to capture the track as it stood, but also to use some of the time for creative experimentation. "Fran is quite into static noise and glitchy stuff,” he told me, "which I'm also a big fan of, so [I thought] it would be nice to get some electronica on there somehow — but do it in a very old‑school way that doesn't involve programming. It would be nice to generate something ourselves, like taking the tape speed down to 7.5ips, recording something and then speeding the tape back to 30ips.” He earmarked some of the afternoon of day two for this.
The session began at 9am on Saturday 28th June in AIR Studio 1, with AIR's John Prestage acting as Assistant Engineer. Also present was Fran's bassist Ben Helm, pianist and woodwind player Mark Broughton, drummer Matt Hardy and, of course, Fran himself.
On the demo, Mark had played his piano part on the upper octaves of Fran's piano, but it was decided that for this recording Fran would perform on the studio's Bösendorfer grand piano, while Mark would use the Grotrian Steinweg upright that had been hired in for the session. Although this meant the interaction between Mark and Fran might suffer a little, the greater degree of separation would mean each part could be given its own level and treatment in the mix — and that kind of flexibility could become particularly important when the proposed vibraphone and string overdubs needed accommodating.
The two pianos were set facing each other, although the height of the upright meant that Mark could barely see Fran when seated. Ben the bassist shared the same space, but his cabinet was screened off in a small sound booth to avoid spill. A fold‑out, sliding, soundproofing wall was pulled across the end of the live space, directly opposite the control room, creating a large, acoustically isolated area for the drum kit to occupy. Again, this was done to prevent unwanted spill finding its way into the piano and lead vocal recordings. Importantly, each of the wall panels contained a large window, which meant that drummer Matt could see the rest of the band, and vice versa.
Guy's plan to record drums, bass, the two pianos and Fran's vocal all at the same time meant that getting the overall setup right before recording was vital. Obviously each instrument had to sound right in itself, but it was also important to ensure that the spill from one piano was not mixing with the recording of the other.
In a setup like this, getting enough separation between the vocal and piano mics is important, as is the phase relationship of the mics. Getting this right can take considerable time: positioning mics, checking for phase issues and applying appropriate processing in the control room took most of the morning.
Fran's piano was arguably the most important instrument on this track, delivering as it did the melody around which everything else was arranged. Guy wanted to capture what he called the 'depth' of the Bösendorfer in as much detail as possible and for this chose two original AKG C12 large‑diaphragm multi‑pattern valve mics, set one increment tighter than cardioid. These were positioned in the space between the slightly open lid and the strings, roughly in the centre of the piano. Then a Shure SM57 dynamic mic was used at the front of the piano, about 18-inches above the strings and central to the keyboard. This was only a few feet from Fran's face, so a large padded board was placed on the piano top, to prevent too much of his voice getting into the SM57. A useful secondary effect was that the board helped stop a little of the piano sound reaching the back of Fran's vocal mic (of which more later).
Slightly surprised that Guy didn't seem to have many concerns about spill before the session commenced, I asked him about this. "I don't worry about it too much,” Guy insisted. "There will be more piano spill on the vocal mic than vocal on the piano mics, and I'll just make sure that the phase relationship is good and the spill in the vocal mic makes the piano sound better. You have got to get it right at the beginning, so the piano sound becomes part of the vocal sound and vice versa, but then if you do three or four really good takes and edit them together you have got your backing track and vocal, which is cool!” Finally, Guy draped the Bösendorfer's vinyl dust cover over the top of the lid, just to isolate the piano from the room a little more.
The C12s were panned hard left and hard right, as I'd expected, but the Shure SM57 was used in the centre: "If you're panning hard left and right,” Guy explained, ”you sometimes get a hole in the middle, so the dynamic is there to fill that hole. If it's a big, warm sound, the overall picture of a 57 dynamic will capture what you're missing — if you're missing anything. It just makes [a piano] poke through in a mix a bit better, and gives it a bit more focus in the mid‑range.”
The upright piano was captured in a similar fashion, but this time the matching pair comprised two Neumann KM84 small‑diaphragm condenser mics, and these were set up just above the open piano top, a few keyboard-octaves apart, and pointing down towards the bottom corners of the instrument. The third mic, again an SM57, was pushed up behind the upright, close to the rear panel and centred, both vertically and horizontally.
"The upright is a very different beast to the grand, so the KM84s are what I would normally use,” says Guy. "I just really like the sound of them. They're quite bright and quite directional, and pointing them down inside really picked up the piano frequencies I was after. Most of it was in the mid-range of the keyboard, so they provide a nice little stereo picture.”
Of all the instruments, the acoustic drum kit was treated to the most complicated mic arrangement. After Matt had assembled his relatively minimal kit in the soundproofed partition and tuned it to his satisfaction, Guy addressed the overall kit sound with a pair of Coles 4038 ribbon mics which fed into a GML 8200 EQ and Neve 33609 compressor. Their final position was about five feet above the ground, directly above the kit. Guy also set up a pair of Neumann TLM170s to capture the room sound, and these were positioned either side of the kit, about six metres apart. They were routed to a Smart Research C2 compressor which, as Guy explained, was used to "bring the room up a little bit”.
Deep inside the kick was an AKG D112 mic, and this was joined outside the drum by a Yamaha NS10 speaker cone attached to a mic stand and a Shure SKM353 ribbon mic. "The one inside is for a bit of attack,” explained Guy, as he set up. "The NS10 cone is there for the sub‑harmonics. The Shure just sounds great as it is; it's a mic you can use on everything. It can handle high SPLs, so you can stick it in front of a bass drum, bass cab, guitar cab on full, and really loud vocals. It starts to break up on loud vocals — but in a really good way. It might be that we just use that, but I put them all up just in case.”
AKG C451s were used as spot mics on the hat and ride, Sennheiser MD421s were placed top and bottom on the two toms, and Beyerdynamic M201s were used top and bottom for the snare. Guy continued to explain his general approach:
"I always try to double‑mic toms because you get more depth from them. Similarly with the snare: top and bottom. But overheads, for me, are the key. If you can get a good overall sound [with the overheads], then feeding in your spots just gives it more focus. I'll record them but whether or not we'll need them I don't know because the drum part [for this track] is very minimal.”
"When double‑miking toms,” he continued, "you usually have to flip the phase [polarity] of one of the mics on that tom, but it's also a question of seeing which phase relationship works with the overheads. They also have some nice old EMT plate reverbs here, which I'll send the close mics to.”
The drum sound actually came together quite quickly, although a distracting rattle, coming from somewhere on the floor tom, took a lot of time and experimentation with bits of tape to sort out.
Ben was playing a Fender Precision Special bass plugged into an Ampeg head and cabinet. The cab was placed in a snug, concrete‑walled sound enclosure, and Guy miked it up using a Neumann U47 and Sennheiser MD421, with both pressed up close to the speaker front. These were mixed down to a single channel on the Neve console, with a UREI 1176 limiter patched in to level things out a bit. Guy explained that the U47 was there to provide 'depth' while the MD421 contributed some 'mid‑range poke'. A DI signal was also recorded and left unprocessed, the idea being that this would only be used for re‑amping if required, or if the main bass sound needed more focus.
There was, unfortunately, a noticeable hum being produced by the Ampeg amp. The cause was probably poor earthing, but rather than spend valuable time tracking down and curing the problem, the head was replaced with Guy's own Audio Kitchen Little Chopper (reviewed in SOS April 2013: https://sosm.ag/audiokitchen-littlechopper).
For Fran's vocal, Guy decided to use a Neumann U67, which he described as his favourite mic and the one he finds works for most vocalists. It was positioned in front of the Bösendorfer, so that Fran could sing and play at the same time, and processed with a Roger Mayer 456 analogue tape emulator.
"Sometimes, a U67 just works with a vocalist, but they're not particularly bright; they are quite dark‑sounding,” Guy remarked. "But I had a feeling that the 67 would be great with Fran — and it was!
"Originally, I was using a Teletronix LA2A to compress Fran's vocal, but I ended up using a Roger Mayer 456 [analogue tape emulator], which has an all‑analogue saturation path. After I put the Mayer in, I didn't need the LA2A, so I just rode the vocal level with the input pot. It's a lower-level output than you'd expect, so the vocal level was quite conservative, but it doesn't matter, you just push your fader up 6dB or whatever it is. It sounds great and I was really pleased with the vocal sound.”
For the basic drum, piano, bass and vocal recordings, Guy decided to record to two‑inch, 24‑track tape, thinking that its qualities should enhance the inherent warmth of the song — but he also wanted the convenience of tracking direct to Pro Tools. AIR's Studer A827 tape machine was set to run at 15ips and with Dolby SR noise reduction applied. The signal from the Studer's repro head was sent through the SR decoder and onto tracks 25 to 48 of the Pro Tools session, thus printing the tape recording direct to Pro Tools, although with the latency that's inherent in using the repro heads. Meanwhile, the group outputs from the Neve console (a customised Neve with 56 Neve 31106 channels and a 16‑channel Focusrite ISA110 side car) were fed straight into tracks one to 24 of the Pro Tools session. Why go to all this trouble?
"We used Dolby SR because it's quite a quiet track and I didn't want tape hiss to interfere,” Guy explained. "We took a digital copy simultaneously, so if I didn't want to use any of the tape elements for any reason I'd have the digital version lined up. We used Quantegy GP9 [tape] at the house level [ie. bias setting], so it was a super high level, and it sounds really warm, and has lots of depth. Generally I like the warmth 15ips offers. In the low end you get a real sense of it being anchored in a way that 30ips doesn't do. I wanted the bass and low end to be really 'buttery' and that's what 15ips does.”
One other major decision Guy made was to record with no click track, reasoning that freeing the band from the constraints of a constant tempo would have a positive impact on the band's performance of this particular tune. As the band were well-enough practiced to perform live, this approach seemed unlikely to prove problematic, although Guy did recognise some risks.
"One concern for me is whether or not we can achieve all those things in the one backing track,” he confided before the session. "If we have to break it down and do the drums and the bass first and the pianos separate, that will lose the vibe a bit, and because the drums are quite sparse, we'd have to resort to a click, and I don't think the track would benefit from that. But if they're rehearsed enough — and it sounds like they are — it will be nice for it to be 'real'.
"If we can't get a vocal live, that could also be an issue, because Fran is quite a fan of live vocals, but he sounds like he's worked on his chops. I don't think there'll be any problems.”
The first full run-through of the track sounded very good, possibly benefitting a little from its rawness. However, Fran and his band were aware of certain subtleties that didn't go right. If anything, the musicians started off too tentatively, partly as a result of them balancing their individual performances relative to their monitoring feedback, but with each take they became more confident and accustomed to the monitoring. The drums in particular (especially the floor tom), needed to be hit harder to achieve the right sound and, similarly, Ben's bass sound improved when he began, as Guy put it, "digging in” a little more.
As the takes progressed, Guy tweaked the levels of the processors and John Prestage, who kept a constant eye on the Pro Tools session, advised him when a signal was looking too 'hot'. John also performed two very important session management tasks. On his Mac Book Pro he was running a spreadsheet document titled Fran Rec Notes, and was filling it with information about every take, including the bar where the take began, the group of mics being recorded, and detail on whether the take was considered a success or not. Then, during recording, John added marker points to the Pro Tools file in real time, so that if Fran or Guy wanted to listen back to a particular section, it could be found in an instant.
Eventually, Fran admitted that he was struggling to get the piano performance he wanted at the same time as nailing a great vocal take, so the decision was made to abandon the totally live approach and focus on the instrument parts first. Fran would then overdub his vocal part afterwards.
This change in approach did the trick, and by the end of the day the basic tracks were finished. The final vocal mostly comprised a single take, with just a few words dropped in here and there, but the end section was recorded separately. The Roger Mayer 456 had been used to provide some very pleasing saturation on the peaks but proved too much on the last section of the song, so the mic input gain was lowered and that segment was redone.
Before leaving, the team finished editing the backing track to provide a stable reference for the string overdubs the next day.
John, the first to arrive on the Sunday morning, immediately booted up Pro Tools and began creating a click track for the string players. Because the main track hadn't been recorded to a click, John had to enter the tempo manually by identifying rhythmic transient events. He explained that although the click was not a strict requirement, string players do sometimes ask for one and from his experience it was wise to have it available.
The quartet comprised Sally Herbert and Tom Pigott‑Smith on violin, Rachel Robson on viola and Ian Burdge on cello. The four were seated in the centre of the room, arranged in a semicircle facing the control room so that they all had eye contact with each other and with Guy.
Neumann U67 spot mics were used on all except the cello, which was captured with a Telefunken U47, while the room sound was captured with a pair of Neumann U49s set to cardioid and positioned in front of the semicircle and at a height of about eight feet. No processing was applied, other than mild compression on the room mics.
The string part, arranged by Sally, featured long, gently modulated chords that began by supporting the lower mid‑range of the track before slowly climbing to a bit of a crescendo and ultimately calming back down again.
Being top session players, the musicians balanced themselves in the room and were able to modify the arrangement slightly as they went, with reference to each other and the backing track fed to their headphones.
The process was a surprisingly collaborative affair, with all four musicians popping into the control room on several occasions so they could review what they'd done and improve certain aspects of the performance.
After nailing a good take of the main progression, the quartet added another layer of strings, this time comprising a couple of crescendo sextuplet runs to give a flurry of movement at certain key points. It was the sort of detail that could easily detract from the vocal, so finding the ideal place for the crescendos to peak took a while.
Immediately after the string players departed, Mark and Ben began singing their 'ooh' and 'aah' parts into a Neumann U67, and with this done it was time for some woodwind overdubs. This required experimentation, because whatever ideas the band had worked on before the session now had to compete for space with the strings. First, Mark tried the bass clarinet, again playing into a U67 positioned a few feet away — but it quickly became apparent that the instrument's abrasive timbre was competing with the piano, bass and lower frequencies of the strings, so Mark moved on to a regular clarinet.
After a few attempts to find something that fitted, Fran took up position on the vibraphone nearby, and he and Mark tried to develop a pre‑rehearsed interactive sequence which emphasised a particular aspect of the piano rhythm. Although the idea worked well enough with the piano, it pulled in a different direction to where the track was heading, so before long Guy was recording a modified vibraphone part on its own, using the U67 at head height and some distance away, supplemented by a pair of Neumann U49s to capture the room sound. Fran's part merged with the piano chords far better and looked to be a keeper.
The next overdub was a flute part performed by Focusrite's Hinako Omori. Fran's instructions were to play very short note flurries, which he planned to use in just one or two places. Once again, a U67 was used, this time set up a couple of meters from the instrument.
After all this work with overdubs, there remained only four hours in which to record some more experimental ideas. The track was already sounding very full, but also quite traditional, and these final additions were intended to give it a little more 'edge'. "I want an edginess that's not there on the demo,” said Guy before the session. "We don't want it too orchestral, although with the strings and the woodwind it's going to lean in that direction, so I'm thinking of using the vibes in a completely different way. We'll throw a few things at it and some will stick and some, though worthwhile trying, will not be what we're after.”
For the second verse, Guy took his inspiration from German neo‑classical pianist Nils Frahm, who often plays piano with beaters to create weird and stylised tones. Guy and the band attempted to try something similar, with Mark holding chords on the Bösendorfer while Fran and Matt beat a rhythm on its strings. Once again, the part was recorded with the C12s, but this time Guy pushed the gain on the desk input so that it was distorting, limited it with a Neve 33609 and then attenuated the top end where it had become very noisy.
Another overdub was a triplet tom part for the verses, which Matt had created for the demo by pressing his finger on the skin to alter its pitch. "In the end,” said Guy, "we took the snares off of the snare drum to use it as a tom, and recorded it with the 421s and the Coles overheads.”
For the vocal reverb, Guy was keen to try out AIR's vintage Binson Echorec PE 603‑TU, using it in conjunction with the in‑house EMT140 plate reverb, hoping to create a sound with a very unique character. "We spent about an hour playing with the EchoRec and the plates,” said Guy. "I sent the vocal to the Echorec and took the Echorec off the mix bus and sent it to the plate, which I then filtered with EQ. Originally, I was going to sweep the filtering so it moved throughout the song, but it sounded gimmicky, so I just drove the Echorec and the inputs to the plate. It sounded quite 'gnarly', but seemed to fit. It's all the way through, but I rode [its level] in the mix.”
Guy's bowed vibes idea was used in the second verse. For the part, Fran dragged an instrument bow across the end of the vibraphone bars, while Matt adjusted the vibrato speed. Once again, room mics and a U67captured the result.
While the woodwind and vibraphone sessions were taking place, Guy had asked if the studio had a synth that could produce sub frequencies, and a dusty old Mini Moog was found and set up in the control room. This was used for the final experimental overdub, a sub‑harmonic tone, starting in verse three and continuing into the instrumental section. Mark played the part and Guy modulated it with his Strymon Flint tremolo reverb pedal.
Guy spent a further day mixing 'I've Known Your Heart' at his own Fluff! studio, using a Mac Pro, running OS X 8.5, Pro Tools 11 and UAD, SoundToys and AVID plug‑ins. An AVID Omni HD I/O interface provided access to his insert hardware, which comprised an Alan Smart C2 compressor, two Focusrite ISA 430 channel strips and the Roger Mayer 456 tape emulator he'd used on the tracking session.
The bass was left as recorded, although the backup DI signal was added in at 4 to 5 dB below the amped signal, just to give it "a little bit of poke”. Similarly, Guy removed the plate he'd initially used on the Bösendorfer, to leave it completely unprocessed. The drums were left as recorded, although Guy added a bass drum sample taken from a recording session at Rockfield studios several years previously. "It's very subtly underneath the kick drum,” reveals Guy. "It always seems nice underneath, and just gives a bit more weight to stuff.”
He went on to describe how he treated the vocals in the mix. "The vocal chain is a UAD LA2A leveller, Precision De‑Esser and Mäag EQ4. The Mäag has an EQ control called 'AIR', [a high‑shelf EQ] which can be set between 2.5 and 40 kHz, but if you stick it on 20 and add a shedload of gain, it sounds really beautiful, so I've added some of that. I automated it in places, so where the track gets bright I brought it down. If it gets indistinct anywhere, I ride the AIR up to give it more essence of closeness. And I automated the 160Hz band to de‑pop, or where it's a bit broad in places or there's too much low end I've taken that out. I am doing it at ‑1.5 to ‑2 dB.
"The vocal reverb is the filtered Echorec recorded from the desk mix bus. I chopped it in Pro Tools where I needed it. And then the BVs I've got going to the EMT250, and there's an Echoboy delay as well.”
He gave a few more details on his approach to the other elements, too. "The Moog and Vibes are as recorded, but the bowed vibes are going to a bus with an ethereal Echoboy delay on them.
"I'm compressing Flutes with the UAD 1176, then across the bus I've also got the East West Quantum Leap Spaces plug‑in, which is a pretty cool convolution reverb. Then for strings I am using the UAD Millennia NSEQ‑2 EQ again. I've got it on M/S mode and am adding a bit of 16k on a shelf.
"I've also got the NSEQ‑2 EQ M/S on the upright, taking a little bit of 120kHz off and then widening it slightly at 10k, and at 2k just to give that a bit of 'poke' there. I'm not doing anything with the piano rooms apart from panning them hard left and right. I think they were [Neumann] TLM170s. I used SoundToys' FilterFreak as a band‑pass filter on the beaten piano to scoop out the low and the high, and that is being pulverised by the Kush Audio UBK1 compressor.
"On the mix bus I've got the Roger Mayer box, followed by the Millennia NSEQ‑2 and Ampex ATR102 Tape Machine plug‑in. There's not a huge amount of processing going on there. They Mayer is saturating it a little, and I'm adding a little presence and high top. I did one mix with the ATR on an ultra‑linear mastering setting, and one without it.
"In general, because the instrument arrangement is pretty good, the only things fighting are the flute and those string triplet effects, so I panned them left and right, which leaves room for everything else.
"I always filter stuff in a mix. If the piano is a mid‑range part, I'll filter below 60Hz automatically so it doesn't get too soupy down there, and if there are some low notes I'll automate the filter so it moves lower for them.”
Two weeks after the recording session, Guy's mixing work was done. All that remained was for Focusrite to hire a mastering engineer to finish the job and, of course, for Fran to find a way to use the track to further his career in the music business!
"The band seem really happy with how it all went and I really enjoyed it,” concluded Guy. "We seemed to click and know instinctively what everyone wanted. The arrangement was all there, it was just trying different ways of doing it.”
Fran: "Before the recording, we weren't sure how much the song would change in the process, as it was one we knew well and felt was nearly complete. Over the weekend, I think lots of the elements within it found a place. We've given it more shape and a distinct sound. Guy was fantastic at keeping the session relaxed and getting the right performances from us. We experimented a lot and I'm really pleased with what we've done.”
If you'd like to see a documentary video about this recording session, featuring contributions from both Guy and Ajimal, follow this link to the SOS web site. There you'll also find some audio examples from the session.