Our engineer battles the clock while keeping the artists at ease, to capture seven tracks in a single weekend.
This month, I want to take you through a recent recording session at Half-Ton Studio with Claudia & The Braidy Bunch playing live as a band, and offer some advice about approaching live recordings in the studio more generally.
Singer-songwriter Claudia and her bandmate/partner Marcel Kunkel have a sophisticated recording setup in their own house and are more than capable of getting excellent-sounding results by themselves. They got in touch with me, however, because they were keen to try and get the foundations of their new album recorded as live as possible, and also wanted to have an objective set of ears around to help make some initial production decisions, and to allow them to focus on the music and performances. They would then take away what they had from our weekend together, don their engineering hats, and look to finish the project by themselves.
The initial plan was to find a larger room to work in than the main live space at Half-Ton, but it proved difficult to secure such a space at the right time and within the available budget — so that’s where we found ourselves on the day. The challenge was to set up Claudia’s four-piece band (consisting of vocals, acoustic guitar, upright bass, keys, and drums) so that they could record completely live, while still offering some choices when it came to mixing.
I always enjoy the prospect of live recording very much; I’m always pleasantly surprised by just how much it challenges my understanding of — and perhaps assumptions about — microphones, acoustics and people. So much of modern recording is undertaken in modular fashion these days, for many different reasons, but for some styles in particular, the inevitable cost in musical feel for the precision you gain can be really disappointing. It’s a case of ‘horses for courses’ of course, but there have been numerous occasions on which I’ve sat there while the bass player insists he re-does a part he’d tracked live with the drummer, then thought the original ‘felt’ better.
That said, it takes real commitment from the musicians to record live — and while I get quite a few inquiries about such recording sessions at Half-Ton, experience has taught me always to do a little probing as to what people actually mean when they say they want to make a live recording in the studio. Often, it becomes clear that people think recording live is simply a cost-effective way of recording more songs in a short period of time. Another reason might be that they felt their last studio session resulted in a track that sounded a little ‘sterile’ and they believe that a live recording will capture the sound more as they perceive it when playing a gig. These are all valid reasons, but unless you discuss this up front, you might find yourself creating something that will disappoint; I don’t want people walking away from my studio with a glorified recording of a rehearsal unless I’m absolutely sure that’s what they want!
The biggest obstacle to a successful live recording session is, of course, the musicians themselves. If you feel that a performance isn’t quite cutting it, then (unless you’re in an old-school production role where you can hire and fire musicians at will) you can only hope to steer people in the right direction, generally helping them feel at ease while performing to the best of their ability, without eating up all the time you have available.
Thankfully, I had some great players for this particular session who, helpfully, have a solid understanding of what the pros and cons are of this style of recording. The biggest issue for us, then, was how we’d resolve the great separation/bleed dilemma, and how to make anything other than the drum kit sound good — if you’ve any experience of recording a live drum kit in a smallish room, then I’m sure you’ll have an appreciation for just how loud it can be and how the sound of the cymbals in particular gets everywhere!
In a larger room, it’s possible to get a little more distance between the musicians and, with some clever use of screens and positioning, you can manipulate the spill between the instruments to your advantage. The other thing you can do in a bigger space is manipulate the volume between the instruments somewhat. A drum kit being played full whack is obviously going to be a lot louder than an acoustic guitar or upright bass. You could, though, use amps or a small PA to achieve a more natural balance — one that might also mean you can work without headphones. If things get even remotely loud in a small room, though, it can be difficult. It can all turn very quickly into a big soup of a sound that does nobody any favours.
The Best Laid Plans Of Mics And Men...
The line-up for the session was straightforward, and Claudia hoped to get seven songs recorded over the weekend. On all the tracks, Claudia would be playing her acoustic guitar and singing and Marcel would be playing keyboards. We then had Edd playing an acoustic upright bass on four songs, and an electric bass guitar on the remaining three. Paul, the drummer, was playing his full kit on four of the songs and his cajon and conga on the rest.
It wasn’t going to be the greatest challenge in live-recording history, then, but it would still require the most important of engineering skills — decision making — to make it work. For me, the key to success with such sessions is spending enough time on ensuring you nail the basic setup. I had initially had some ideas regarding positing and mic choice, and had hoped to be able to try them out, but quickly discarded this notion the night before the session, when Paul, the drummer, realised that his evening gig with another band was actually on the other side of the country, and not just an hour away! We were faced with the prospect of rescheduling a very busy bunch of musicians, and coming up with a quick setup that would allow us to get on with the recordings! I agreed that I’d head to the studio early in the day, and promised that we’d do the best we could manage in the time available.
When it came to the drum kit, there were a few main considerations, the first clutch of which related to its volume: in particular, how to position and mic the upright bass (which was considerably quieter than the drums), and how to capture the acoustic guitar and vocals. I have a large enough control room, with a window looking through to the live room, that it’s no problem at all to record in there while wearing headphones. So if I wanted a usable microphone signal (even if Edd had a very usable pickup on his bass) then it had to be played alongside me in the control room. I debated putting Claudia in there instead but felt that, as it was her project, separating her from the rest of the band would risk losing some of that all-important feel.
With this decision made, I needed to figure out where and how to set Claudia up in the live room. I know from experience of working in my room that the spill going into the drum mics from a vocal or acoustic guitar is nearly always manageable. You can hear it if you listen to the drums in isolation, but it is quickly buried once more instruments are playing. I decided my best bet was to get Claudia as far away as I could from the kit and then use a couple of my large gobo screens to try and offer a little separation. Claudia had a surprisingly good-sounding direct output on her acoustic guitar, which was obviously a positive, but I had to make a very quick call on how I would make this work.
For the drums, I went with some tried and tested mic combinations. I’ve been enjoying ribbon mics as overheads recently, especially since I discovered the joys of the 10kHz shelf EQ on my new Audient ASP8024 console — a little lift with this and any nagging thoughts that you might prefer to use condensers instead are quickly obliterated! I chose to use my Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon mic, as the fixed configuration makes it quick to set up and ensures an excellent, phase-coherent image of the kit.
On the snare, I had a Beyerdynamic M201 (a hypercardioid moving-coil dynamic mic) on top and an AKG C414 on the bottom skin. Toms were also handled by C414s and on the hi-hat I threw up an old Neumann KM84 pencil condenser, which sounded great in this application. For the kick drum, I allowed myself a few indulgent minutes to try a technique whereby a dynamic mic is positioned quite far inside the drum itself, and is paired with a condenser microphone outside. As a crude, but effective, way of ensuring decent phase coherence between these two mics, I use a drumstick to measure the distance from the inside mic to the beater head of the bass drum. I always check the polarity of course, but ensuring the outside mic is twice the distance from the beater that the inside mic is always seems to ensure they support each other nicely.
I make sure that each mic sounds good in its own right too, of course, and I also used a small table to support a packing blanket, which helped take the edge off the cymbal bleed in the outside kick mic. While I’d gone with techniques I knew well, this was still a relatively brisk drum setup — in an ideal world I like at least a few hours to get a kit sounding just how I want, but on this occasion, everything was ready to record within an hour!
Looking at Claudia next, I’d created a nice little cubby hole for her in the far corner of the room, complete with its own heater — it was a really cold day! Walking in and out of the little space, with the drums playing in the room, I was slightly disappointed with the lack of attenuation this offered. It did give a few decibels of reduction and dulled the cymbals slightly, but I made a note to think about how I might better seal off an area for future sessions. Mic-wise, I briefly entertained the idea of using two figure-of-eight mics to capture the guitar and vocals, as the rejection you can get from their side nulls can be seriously useful at controlling bleed. This technique requires quite precise positioning though, and as Claudia was standing up and would no doubt be moving around a bit, this option just wasn’t practical.
The safe choice for the vocal, then, was my Shure SM7 dynamic mic. It offers a more than respectable vocal sound on most singers, and the way the diaphragm is set back within the mic’s structure allows the singer to get right up close to it. Along with the mic’s cardioid polar pattern, offering some rejection to the rear, this ensures a minimal amount of bleed in a live setting. As the singer always knows to get right up close to the front of the mic, it also ensures a relatively consistent capture of a vocal, and tips the wanted sound (vocal) to spill ratio in your favour.
Embracing The Spill
The acoustic guitar was the real challenge. As I mentioned earlier, I had a decent direct sound from the guitar’s on-board pickup but I still wanted to have a least a little bit of miked sound to play with. Whatever mic I chose, and wherever I put it, I knew there’d be plenty of spill from the drums in the recording. In these situations, you just have to accept that immovable fact and then think in terms of making that mic work for both the sounds that will be captured — the sound it’s there to record, and the drums that will inevitably be captured too. It’s not so bad, as spill really isn’t always the ‘problem’ you might think. I’ve even run live sessions where a vocal mic, effects and all, has successfully provided a large part of the final drum sound!
In reality, then, this mic would be as much a drum room mic as it was an acoustic guitar one, so with all this in mind I decided to use one of my ‘better’ condenser mics for the job. Although I could have captured a tighter acoustic sound with, say, a hypercardioid dynamic mic, I wanted to make sure the off-axis sound was as good as possible. I chose my Neumann U87 for the task, and briefly experimented with the optional polar patterns available on the mic before committing to the cardioid setting, whose balance I preferred over the omni or figure-of-eight patterns.
Feeling satisfied that I had the three musicians set up and feeling comfortable in the live room, I headed back to the control room to make sure Edd and his upright bass were in position too. I’ve recently made a point of setting up a good-quality headphone amp with multiple outputs in the control room, as I find myself setting mics up in there more and more often. It’s always nice to record an upright bass, and I seem to get good results from positioning a large-diaphragm condenser mic reasonably close and directed towards one of the sound holes rather than directly at the strings themselves. This, combined with Edd’s nice-sounding pickup, seemed to provide me with plenty to play with.
The session relied on everyone, myself included, using headphones. Despite needing to get a move on, it’s important to make sure this side of your recording session is working as it should be, and that the musicians can hear what they need and at a suitable level. This is one of the areas I like to set up before a band turns up when possible — even something as simple as ensuring all the different headphones have a good, consistent level can save you time when you need it most. I don’t have a particularly sophisticated headphone setup at Half-Ton, and for this session we got by with just one mix for the live room and one for Edd and me in the control room.
With just a few hours to get the songs down, it felt like people were getting a little stressed and feeling it might become rushed. This is definitely one of the points in a session where the engineer’s role is to help — you must use whatever psychological tools you have in order to calm people down and keep them feeling positive. Humour nearly always helps, I find, as does exuding an aura that suggests everything is completely under control, even if that’s not true. In other words, try not to look stressed, because you’ll just transmit that tension to the musicians!
I got the band to play through the first track a few times to get used to the setup while I fine-tuned the mic preamp gains and worked on the headphone mixes a little. As the band would be taking the session away to complete the track themselves, I made a point of getting them to listen to a few things before we started recording properly. I briefly explained a few of my decisions, and it also gave me a chance to double check what we were capturing.
We were then up and away, and pleased to find that the first track went fairly smoothly. This was one of the few tracks that was performed to a click track, and the band had made sure that they’d worked out their preferred tempo before the session. It was interesting for me to note, though, that as the band had been using this song to soundcheck as well, without the metronome, they were playing it a great deal faster than the tempo at which they planned to record it. It’s not unusual for people to revert to their ‘gig’ speed when in the studio, but my worry was that it might be a result of some collective ‘clock watching’ and the need to get a move on, so I tried to offer a few reassuring words — that I felt we had enough time and so on — and generally to offer positive comments about how good everything was sounding. I then got the band to settle into the prepared click speed for a few dummy runs of the take (which I was recording, of course) and just relax into the session.
The next few hours went really well, and the only real issue we faced was debating whether the songs were being played at the right tempo. Usually, we agreed that they were being played too fast. With three or four takes of the last track with drums on safely in the bag, the session ended, with drummer Paul’s other band literally banging on the studio door to take him off to his gig! I wonder if Glyn Johns had to put up with stuff like this...
A Box With A Hole In
We spent the remaining part of the first day listening back to the takes we had captured and doing a little editing between our preferred versions. For the second day, we had Paul back for a few hours again; I met him at the decidedly un-rock & roll time of 9am at the studio, where he was standing in the rain with a large can of energy drink in hand. He assured me that, despite having had just two hours sleep, he was good to go, so we set about getting ready to record the three songs for which he’d be playing cajon and conga.
While the cajon can sound lovely at times, for me it’s rarely proven to be the most satisfying instrument to record, but I had an idea for a slightly different way of capturing what is essentially a wooden box with a hole in the back... Marcel had brought one of his new PZMs (pressure-zone microphones — a half-omni boundary mic) to the session. With his permission, I gaffer-taped it to the side of the instrument and this brought a really nice sense of attack and ‘slap’ to the sound. I combined it with my Earthworks SR25 kick-drum mic, which, placed just outside the hole, lent the cajon sound a nice, full low end. I still had the mics I’d used the previous day on the drum kit set up and ready to go, so I moved the hi-hat’s KM84 small-diaphragm condenser to the conga and adjusted the Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon to provide a stereo image of the whole percussion setup. I was really pleased with how Paul’s minimal percussion setup was coming through the speakers and I made a mental note to try more PZMs out on future sessions.
There’s no getting around the fact that this session was completed in less than ideal circumstances, but that’s often the reality of recording sessions when time and budget are limited. Doing such live-style recording sessions in a small studio does present certain challenges and — with respect to any live-sound engineers who are reading this and wondering what I’m complaining about — you always need a little time to ensure you get top-notch results. Sometimes you get lucky, and everything just falls into place, but this is usually with a group of musicians who have a natural balance, and where the style and performance lend themselves to a simple setup.
Despite the challenges, we got some great takes in the bag over this weekend, and I also felt that I’d been able to give the band some good sounds that would allow them to continue building on the project. The drum-kit sound and the upright bass were the key ingredients for this sitting, and these were sounding really solid to me. The keys, which I’ve not mentioned, were captured via DI so they could decide whether to keep or redo the live takes, and almost certainly the guitar and vocals could also be ‘touched up’ if necessary.
I talked a little with the band after the session about how I hoped they’d resist the urge to go in and try and redo as much as they could from the sessions. That’s entirely a matter for the artist to decide, of course, and I completely respect and look forward to hearing how Claudia and her band continue with the project. However, it’s always worth remembering that the urge to go in and ‘perfect’ all your parts after a live session can seem irresistible — but it won’t always make the end result better, and it can result in frustration!
I always try and make a mental note of any ‘learning points’ I feel a session might have thrown up, and although they weren’t earth-shatteringly revelatory, I did take a few points away from this session. First, somehow (anyhow!) you really do have to buy yourself some time to set up properly. I went in an hour early on both days, but I could easily have used another half-hour at least each time — particularly on the first day.
Second, although I was forced to wear headphones during this recording, I think the session really benefited from me doing so. Not only did I feel much more a part of things (because I was hearing what the performers were hearing), but I found that I spent much more time fine-tuning the headphone mixes than I normally would have done, and this no doubt helped the musicians, which gives me food for thought.
Finally, I was reminded just how important finding the right tempo is to a successful recording — even if you do no other pre-production work at all, you should definitely work on getting the speed right. Oh... and I’m also thinking about banning energy drinks from the studio: not only can I not stand the smell, but they make people play too fast!
Featured This Month
Claudia & The Braidy Bunch is the musical vehicle of singer-songwriter Claudia McKenzie. Alongside her vocals and acoustic guitar are Marcel Kunkel on keys, Edd Evans-Morley on a variety of bass instruments, and Paul Richard on drums and percussion. The band play a colourful, uplifting selection of styles with hints of soul, jazz, folk and general acoustic goodness. You can find them online at:
Some audio excerpts from the session are available to download here: