Our engineer shows that there’s nothing wrong with living-room recordings if you approach them in the right way.
As a producer and studio owner, I’ve noticed a shift in the way many people seem to want to record in the last year or two: more and more artists are putting together projects outside of traditional studio setups before seeking the input of an engineer. Although affordable, good-quality recording gear has been available for several years now, many people resorted to this approach at least partly out of necessity, of course, with recording budgets shrinking all the time, but increasingly it seems to be the approach of choice. Whatever the reason, we professional engineers and producers are having to adapt to and embrace what, for many of us, is a different and more creatively collaborative way of working.
This month’s Session Notes is a case in point. I’ll describe the process behind the production and mixing of a track from the album House Music by Steven James Adams. This project is Steve’s first attempt to put an album together without a settled band to support him, and it was originally intended to be a stripped-back affair, with Steve keen to record the majority of the record in the front room of his house in London. As we worked on the initial demos, though, it quickly became clear that many of the tracks on the album were suitable for ‘filling out’ with extra instrumentation, and Steve decided to invite several guest musicians to contribute. Much of the work on these sessions centred on managing these guest contributions both in person, by recording them in Steve’s house, and by incorporating remote contributions by file transfer — an increasingly common approach, which presents its own unique challenges.
To learn anything from this project, you’ll need to understand more about the general approach Steve and I adopted; I’m sure it will be familiar at least in part to quite a few SOS readers. Steve has both a full-time job and a young family, and rather than use precious holiday time booking a block of time, he made the decision to work on the album over a number of months, spending blocks of one or two days on it at a time. I would make the short drive from Cambridge to North London, taking my small mobile recording setup with me, and we’d get some things recorded, do a bit of listening together, and then go our separate ways. The project would then develop, with the aid of emails and the odd phone call.
The starting point for the track I’m writing about here — and for the whole album, actually — was Steve singing along with his acoustic guitar. Working to a click track, which Steve is very comfortable with, I recorded the acoustic guitar and the vocals at the same time, just to get an initial version of the track down quickly. At this point, I didn’t intend this for use in the final record, but rather to capture a useful reference point that Steve and I could use as we considered the song’s evolving arrangement. However, experience has taught me to respect guide tracks as far as possible, so although I worked fast, I made sure I captured the performance fairly well, using a Shure SM7B dynamic mic on the vocals, and an AKG C414 large-diaphragm condenser to capture the guitar.
I knew both mics would give me a decent result, even if I might have spent more time on mic choice and refining the placement for something I knew would be a final take. But I listened carefully: this part of the process can be a good time to see how a particular mic is pairing with a vocalist or guitar, thinking about things like sibilance and others issues that will make your life easier when recording in earnest later on.
Because we’d worked to a click track, it was very easy for me to mock up any arrangement changes that Steve was considering, and we played around with a couple of options relating to the length of the instrumental section before settling on a plan. With the track mapped out in this form, we started to think about what other instrumentation would work, and we felt the guide track was in good enough shape for Steve to send to potential collaborators. The first stop was to put some drums in place, and Steve was keen to get his friend Stephen Gilchrist (also known as ‘Stuffy’) to play on this track. Stuffy plays drums for a number of artists and bands, including Graham Coxon, the Cardiacs and Charlotte Hatherley, and has a drum-recording setup at his own studio, so after a little discussion regarding style and drums sounds, we were able to send him the rough version of the track with tempo information and wait for the results.
The files arrived via an online file-sharing site, and we were presented with three drum takes to choose from, along with a few variations on fills and style. I downloaded the unprocessed multitrack drum files and, after a small amount of confusion regarding where the takes should start, mixed them fairly approximately in with the guide track. Steve was, for the most part, quite happy to trust my opinion with the drums, so I made what I considered was the best composite take, taking care to really think about the feel that was being established by the slight variations in groove and intensity. When you’re working with a great drummer, this can become very subjective, but even then it’s worth spending as much time as you need to get this right — the drums are just so important to the overall result of most productions. Apart from Steve questioning one fill, which we then swapped out for one from another take, we were both very happy with the part we now had in place.
I resisted the urge to do too much mixing at this stage — it’s something that’s always a real temptation, but I often find it counter-productive in the long run. I was keen to keep my DAW session as lean as possible for the time-being, as I knew there would be plenty of switching between my laptop and my main studio PC later. I also think it’s good practice to keep your CPU nice and happy if you still have plenty of tracking to do.
At this point, then, the track consisted of nothing more than the guide acoustic guitar and vocal recording, and Stuffy’s live drums. Me and Steve both agreed how much we liked how the guide acoustic guitar was sitting with the drums and were keen to see if Steve could re-create the same ‘vibe’ with an overdub. Using the guide track was an option, as I’d recorded it in a way that kept vocal spill to a minimum — although Steve was keen to point out that he’d made a few changes to the lyrics since we last got together! At the next recording session at Steve’s house, we focused our attention on trying out a few guitar options. We had a few different acoustic guitars available, and we also planned to see how a clean electric guitar might work. A nice period of experimentation followed, and we ended up with a few takes each of acoustic and electric rhythm guitars that, although not quite as nice as those in the guide track, would provide more than enough options if the vocal bleed on the original proved unworkable.
We were both keen to get an up-to-date vocal part in place and, as I’d liked how it had worked on the guide track, I used the Shure SM7B once again. One of the good things about recording vocals with a broadcast-style moving-coil dynamic mic like this, which is designed for the voice to be delivered pretty close to the diaphragm, is that you end up with little ‘room sound’ in your recordings. I used the old trick of hanging a polyester duvet behind the singer — this usually does a great job of eliminating just enough unwanted reflections from your recordings. It’s not pretty, and Steve hated having my old duvet hanging up in his front room (this became a playful bone of contention!), but I insisted on using it, as I knew we wouldn’t regret it!
Experienced artists like Steve, who have recorded many albums, tend to have developed a particular approach to vocal recording that they’re comfortable with. Whereas I tend to lean towards comping a decent ‘take’ from recordings, Steve is more used to working on getting one vocal take, and then listening back to a section, adding overdubs where necessary to refine it, and then signing off the resulting part. This took me a little outside my comfort zone: firstly, I knew that the time we had together in the same room was quite limited, and I wanted to make sure I had enough to play with and, secondly, it can be a little harder to judge how good a take is when recording remotely with headphones, as I was doing here. As always in such situations, good communication is crucial: doing my best not to unsettle Steve, I discussed my concerns with him. Our solution was to work in his usual way, but with Steve also letting me capture an additional take or two of the whole track, so that I had a few options to explore, should I feel at a later stage that I needed them. As the vocal was being double tracked, this would also give me plenty to play with when I got back to the studio.
At this stage in the proceedings, we sent a rough mix of the track out to bassist Chad Young, whose style we thought would work well with this track, and Steve also sent it off to other possible collaborators he had in mind.
This next recording session at Steve’s promised to be quite interesting. By this time, I’d already done a little work editing the vocal takes and a little basic (not plug-in heavy) mix work, to make sure the track was sounding presentable. We also had a bass guitar in place, as I’d got my fellow Cambridge resident Chad Young over to my own studio to lay down his already worked-out bass part with a minimum of fuss. Chad has decent facilities for recording at his place, but as he lives nearby it made more sense to work in person. It gave me the chance to capture a few different takes and to explore mic and bass-cabinet options (we also captured a DI feed).
Meanwhile, Steve had persuaded a few additional artists to contribute to the track — but all during a single day in Steve’s front room! The first guest to turn up was Justin Young, the singer in a band called the Vaccines. Justin had been brought in to play a lead-guitar part on the track, as well as to contribute some backing vocals. The last time I’d seen Justin was watching him perform on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival, in front of about 50,000 people! It’s great that he’s also very comfortable working in this much more informal type of setup, despite being in a fairly high-profile band.
Our main priority with Justin was to get a melodic electric guitar part down, so once we’d got Steve’s old Telecaster in some sort of tune we set about playing with some ideas. We couldn’t turn up Steve’s little Fender amp too loud — not in a domestic environment like this — so despite it sounding OK with my Shure SM7B in front of it, I took the precaution of splitting the signal so I could also record a DI feed. I used this technique a few times on this album, as it meant I could work with what we liked on the day, but always had the option of re-amping things back at my studio to fine-tune amp sounds and mic placement.
We’d planned the session based on the theory that one of our busy guest musicians was bound to be running a bit late, so Steve had arranged for them to arrive in fairly quick succession. Of course, for the first time in living memory, all the contributors turned up at the appointed hour! Yet, despite Steve and I being concerned that this might prove awkward, it turned into a nice collaborative session, with singer/songwriter Emily Barker providing a nice backing vocal part, which Justin backed up with one of his own. As well as providing some fantastic accordion parts for another track on the album, Gill Sandell also delivered some great backing vocals.
For me, this session was a real highlight in this project. As Steve’s house got busier and busier, it became more and more difficult to maintain some sort of controlled recording environment, but in sessions like these it’s really important to get the balance right: you can always insist on redoing a vocal part because you can hear the kettle boiling in the background or some niggling little thing like that, but sometimes you need to prioritise keeping the fun alive and making progress! So I just got on with things — everyone remained happy, and the track progressed a great deal in the space of just a few hours.
With the recording sessions complete, my first priority was to make sure that we’d captured everything we needed organised for me to begin thinking about mixing. Because I’d recording DI signals, and gone to the effort of tracking additional vocal backup parts, my DAW session had grown to an unwieldy 85 tracks. I prefer to be able to mix quickly, without decisions about takes and editing getting in the way, so I treated the editing and comping as a separate pre-mix process. For the guitar part, we ended up using a combination of Steve’s original guide track, which sat so well with the drums, and some of his additional acoustic and electric overdubs. For Justin’s melodic lead part, it was a case of compiling the best bits from a few takes, and I also took the opportunity to re-amp the DI’d signal though the Fender DeVille amp, which I have at my studio. We also put in a simple synth part, copying the guitar’s melody under the solo section, which helped create the aesthetic Steve was looking for at that point in the track.
The only real ‘cleaning up’ I had to do was on the backing vocals as, due to the hectic nature of that particular session there was a fair bit of background noise. This was all pretty manageable, though, and what was left once I’d trimmed the sections of audio was adding nothing but a bit of extra ‘vibe’ to proceedings. With all this done, I ruthlessly pruned anything that wasn’t being used, removing it from the DAW session entirely, and was left with a much more manageable 30 tracks. It was ready to mix!
‘Tears Of Happiness’ was a fairly straightforward track to mix, as I’d had the pleasure of working with some great musicians. My main priority was to be careful not to overwork things, which would risk losing the feel we’d worked so hard to create during the recording sessions.
I spent time working to get the most out of the drum tracks, without having to resort to too much compression or additional samples. I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to optimising phase relationships between the different mics used on a drum kit. Typically, I’ll start with the overheads and balance other signals against them. I’ll experiment with inverting the polarity, and then with phase-rotation plug-ins, and will occasionally drag audio regions forward or back in time if required. It’s amazing how much fuller and punchier your drum mixes can sound if you get this stuff right, and in this instance this work meant I was able to removing pretty much all of the low-frequency EQ boosts I’d made to the kick and the snare in the rough working mix I’d been using while tracking.
For the guitars, the main task was to create a nice blend of the different parts. It wasn’t the type of track that needed any great separation between the parts, so I worked mainly on striking a nice balance of the guitars against the drums and bass. I ended up using most of the original guide acoustic guitar, which I panned slightly to the right, with an electric rhythm part balancing this out on the left-hand side of the mix. I could have panned these a little wider, but I wanted to leave room for Justin’s melodic lead part, which enters in the second verse and creates a nice effect as it fills out the stereo field.
A huge part of Steve’s style and appeal is in his lyrics, and it was important to me that they were as intelligible as possible, especially as they’re delivered at quite a fast pace in this track. Some EQ boosting helped achieve this to a certain extent, but only took things so far, as any mid- or high- frequency boosts exaggerated the natural sibilance in Steve’s voice. I ended up doing some quite significant low-frequency cutting, removing everything below about 120Hz with a steep high-pass filter, and scooping out some low-mid frequencies around 300Hz. This enabled me to make the vocal loud enough in the mix without it becoming too much, and a small mid-range boost at 1.3kHz helped with intelligibility. I ended up using a combination of two de-essers to keep the sibilance nicely under control —that’s often more effective than using one on a stronger setting. I also felt it created a really nice effect to delay bringing the double-tracked vocal in properly until the second verse, and then vary the level of this slightly through the course of the track.
When the mix was getting close to the end, I found myself spending quite a lot of time listening on my ‘grot box’ speaker to fine-tune the key balances. Once happy, I emailed a mix to Steve and then made a series of minor mix revisions until we were both happy. The track was mastered by fellow SOS contributor Eric James of Philosophers Barn Mastering, and I was happy to follow his suggestion of raising the level of the lead vocal by half a decibel.
I read so many posts on audio forums about people searching for some magic plug-in that is going to bring their mix together and make it sound professional, but I can’t recommend enough investing some time in finding a mastering engineer you trust, and who compliments your style of mixing. As well as the sonic benefits, having another set of trusted ears can help to give you confidence with those final mix decisions like vocal and bass levels, and that helps you work a bit faster and improve as a mix engineer.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I find myself working more and more outside of the studio these days. After some initial reservations about this, I now find myself embracing the approach wholeheartedly. Let’s face it, it’s never been the healthiest of career choices being a recording engineer, and just being able to get out and work in rooms with natural daylight and new surroundings is great! Whether you’re working as a pro or as an amateur home-recordist, getting out, seeing daylight and interacting with other people can have a really beneficial effect on your work!
I do think, though, that there are some unhelpful myths surrounding some DIY productions. Younger bands in particular hear about an artist recording a platinum-selling album in their bedroom — how many times have you seen that sort of story in the press? — but when you scratch below the surface, or bother to read the sleeve notes, you’ll usually see professional names associated with the key points in the process.
It was no different for this particular project. Looking at the production for ‘Tears Of Happiness’, with the exception of a little re-amping and the bass guitar, the whole track was recorded in Steve’s front room, though with the drums provided remotely by the drummer himself. But although I enjoyed the recording sessions a great deal, I had to have a mix or listening space that I knew and trusted to be able to make sense of what I’d captured. Although headphones can get you pretty close, without the luxury of isolated control and tracking areas, I often found myself positioning things by pure instinct, placing mics where I thought they would sound good, rather than actually being able to listen and make changes.
Of course, it helps to have access to the calibre of musicians Steve could call upon, but did I find myself feeling as if the sonic quality was being compromised in some way? Not really. Given the choice, I’d rather mix things, like drums, that have been recorded ‘properly’ in a recording studio. For the rest, if I have to swap tracking in the comfort and security of the studio for recording a quality musician, completely at ease in a domestic setting, I reckon that’s really not such a bad trade!
Although just the drums were provided remotely for ‘Tears Of Happiness’, other tracks on the same album saw several parts on the same track provided by musicians from far and wide such as the Shetland Isles and Canada. It can be an exciting and creative way of working, and can provide access to some fantastic musicians, but you have to tread a little carefully as you won’t always be able to gauge your collaborator’s level of experience and technical skills when it comes to recording. It may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth always mentioning, in a clear but unpatronising way, that you’d like all files to start from bar one, beat one, or from the very start of the rough mix file you gave them. I always make a point of marking and dating where I bounced a particular rough or reference mix from as well, as I don’t enjoy having to line up files by ear. It might also be worth discussing the use of effects. Quite often, it might be a case of getting what you’re given, but it’s worth asking if they can provide you with both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ options. Of course, if you’re paying for someone’s services you can be a bit more demanding, but even then it’s worth discussing some of these points as well as options and time scales for making changes and revisions. I often specify my own preferred way of receiving files too, partly to ensure that the process is as painless as possible, and partly to avoid the annoyance of file-sharing sites that require you to create an account and then bombard you with ‘opportunities’ to upgrade to a paid version!
Steven James Adams was the singer/songwriter/guitarist in the Broken Family Band, who attracted a cult following with their acerbic and eclectic take on country music. He went on to form Singing Adams, a more straightforward indie-rock band, who released two critically acclaimed albums, Everybody Friends Now and Moves. His first solo album House Music was released in September 2014 by the label State51.
If you’d like to hear Steven James Adams in action, a mix of the track featured in this month’s Session Notes is available on the SOS web site. Go to http://sosm.ag/nov14-session-notes-media.