How should a band prepare for their first session in a pro studio, and what can the producer do to help? We went to Kore Studios to find out.
Three-piece rock band High/Low have been self-producing EPs and albums since their formation in 2011, but they’d never before set foot in a professionally designed recording environment. In May this year they decided they’d spend a day working at a ‘proper studio’, to see if they could take things to another level, and chose to work with producer George Apsion at his well-equipped Kore Studios in West London, which boasts an impressive array of high-end gear.
George and the band invited SOS along to the session, as they felt it would provide a good opportunity to show inexperienced bands how best to approach their first big-studio session, and to explain to aspiring recording engineers how they might manage the sort of one-day session the band had booked. George kindly agreed to take us through the techniques he used on the session too, explaining his approach and gear choices.
It was very important for the band to have a conversation with George before the big day arrived, and one of the first things he made the band decide on was what they wanted to get from the session. “Generally, for these one-day band sessions,” he explains, “I find that what works is to either focus on one thing and really use the day effectively to get the best of that thing, or do something quite rough and ready, by setting everyone up and playing through several tracks, looking at it as a really well-recorded live session.
“In the past I’ve found that people run in to trouble when they try and get two or three songs really well recorded in one day: it’s too stressful because there’s just not enough time. I call it ‘binge recording’, where we are watching the clock and we’ve got to get as much as we can out of the time, and it is never a good vibe because people leave with the feeling that they didn’t achieve what they’d wanted.”
Given the options and possible outcomes, High/Low decided to use the day to work on a song that they’d previously recorded as a demo. They sent a copy of the track (called ‘Tell Me Something’) to George, and with that as a guide, he resolved to set the trio up in the studio to capture a good live performance, and then overdub vocals, backing vocals and certain guitar parts, as and where necessary.
The next thing everyone had to decide on was whether or not to use a click track as a means of keeping the timing tight and making editing and overdubbing easier. “Whether I use a click or not depends on the style of music and how the band feel,” explains George. “If they want that very polished, commercial sound, then a click will help because people are now used to music being very metronomic. What I’d never do is make a band play to a click if they’re not used to it. If they’ve never practiced with or had experience of a click, then nine times out of ten it’s a nightmare for them and puts them in a bad space. So I pretty much leave it to the band to decide. As a producer, I don’t have any objection to things speeding up or slowing down — I think that makes it exciting — but it is also about time management: it’s easier to edit and chop things about with a click.”
To help prepare for the day, George also asked High/Low if they would be bringing any audio loops or samples with them, and suggested that if there was a specific percussion sound that they liked to use as a click, they should email the sound file to him or bring it with them. (On this occasion the band were happy to start from scratch in the studio.)
Another objective of George’s pre-session conversation was to brief the band on the day’s schedule, so that they could arrive fully prepared and without any misconceptions: “A band should ask the studio owner how the day usually runs,” insists George. “They need to know what time it starts, if the person on the phone is going to be the one engineering and if there’s going to be an assistant engineer there to help.”
And he points out that bands shouldn’t make assumptions about the availability of gear at the studio: “If there are specific bits of gear and equipment that have caught their eye and they know they want to use, they need to check that they can use them, because in a studio with lots of gear certain things can be broken or not working, or something might not be there anymore.
“The other thing is setup time. Always ask the engineer or studio owner if it’s included in the day rate or not, and how long the studio expects setting up to take. A nice, friendly studio manager, like me, might try to get a few bits and pieces up and running an hour or so before the band gets there, just so they get a bit of a head start. I’ll have an idea in my mind what mics I’m going to use and what I’m going to plug it all into and I’ll have made a start on all that beforehand. But that whole thing of setting up in a studio can be a stumbling block for some people, because they think their time starts when the engineer first hits record. Obviously that’s not the case, but there is a middle ground.”
The remaining advice George gave to High/Low was to help them ensure that their equipment was suitable and primed for the big day. “For drums, we have a studio kit that we re-skin pretty much once a month, so bands can use that if they want, but if they are bringing their own kit I’ll have a polite conversation with them, to find out if they have experience of tuning it. We’ll probably talk about what sort of cymbals they want to use and it’s ideal to have two or three snare options. So there’s a bit of a conversation about backline.
“I always tell the guitarist to make sure their guitar has been set up recently and has fresh strings, and obviously they should bring spare sets too. As for guitar amps, we have some really nice custom-built tube things that we make available. Generally speaking, the equipment of younger up-and-coming bands is not as good as it could be, so we try to have stuff here that will give them a taste of further possibilities. There’s a huge difference between the sound in a rehearsal room, where you’re thrashing away and can’t really hear properly, and how it’s going to sound when recorded in a studio. So a lot of times they’ll bring in the kit that they’re used to smashing away on in rehearsal and it doesn’t get them a decent recorded sound... But I’d never push our backline onto anyone, because people get used to their own instruments. It’s basically just a safety net.”
On the day of the session, I arrived at Kore shortly before 10am to find George and his assistant, James Patrick, had already set in place most of the drum mics they were expecting to use, and were in the process of patching them into the channels of the studio’s API 3208 recording console and testing their levels. The band’s drummer, Dave Pankhurst, had decided to use his own kit rather than that of the studio, so there was a bit of mic positioning for the engineers to do at first. While this was going on, guitarist and singer Steve Weston and bass player Lee Yates had time to set up their instruments and pedals, and settle into the unfamiliar environment.
The band were immediately impressed by the number and variety of mics George was using on the kit, remarking that they only have a limited selection of Shure mics in their studio at home. Specifically, George placed a Sennheiser e602, which was fed to a Chandler Little Devil EQ, in the kick. This was joined outside the kick by a Neumann U47 FET model, but this one was processed with both a Chandler Little Devil EQ and dbx 160 compressor. For snare, Beyer’s robust M201 hypercardioid dynamic mic was used beneath, while a side-address Josephson E22S sat a few inches above the top skin. (Apparently, the E22S was designed specifically for the needs of producer Steve Albini, who wanted an unobtrusive spot mic for kit duties.) Processing of the Josephson was done with an API 550B EQ and an Empirical Labs Distressor.
A Royer R121 ribbon, featuring a figure-of-eight polar pattern, was placed between the two rack toms, with its lobes focused on the drum heads either side, leaving its null point facing — and thus rejecting — the cymbals. Sennheiser MD421s captured the remaining toms and AKG C451s addressed the hat and ride. A pair of Coles 4038 (figure-of-eight ribbons), processed via two Amtec Model 099 Tube Limiting Amplifiers, were employed as overheads and positioned an equal distance from the centre of the snare, using a piece of string as a measure. Outside of these, about eight feet from the ground, was a pair of Neumann KM184 room mics, chosen (according to George) to capture a “wide, bright, splashy stereo” sound, processed via a Fairchild 670 compressor.
Other mics included a single Neumann U67 tube mic at head height near the wall in front of the kit, and fed through two Pye compressors in series, a Royer 121 behind the kit (controlled with a Chandler TG1 limiter), plus a Shure SM57 in amongst the drums, and fed into a Thermionic Culture Vulture valve distortion processor, for use as a “distort mic”. In addition to these, George placed a Neumann U87 (also processed with a Chandler TG1 limiter) in the corridor and played it the kick and snare feeds via a PA speaker. Once the mics were close to their final positions, George asked Dave to play the kit so that he could set the compressor and EQ settings and preamp levels.
George explained to me some of the choices he made: “The Distressor on the snare was set to a slow attack and fast release, with distortion enabled, to give the drum some bite. The Fairchild on the rooms and Amtec’s 099 on the overheads were chosen to create a more cohesive relationship between the cymbals the snare. Both were set quite gently, so as not to sound overly ‘grabby’. The processing on the front kit mic was two channels of the Pye compressor in series, with Channel 1 deliberately overloaded so as to distort. This was fed into Channel 2 which was set to heavy limiting.
“Both the rear and corridor mics were set to heavily ‘pump’ using a TG1 limiter. All drum mics used the API 312 preamps in the console, because they’re snappier and more forward-sounding than others. They do have a very hot level, though, so I use in-line level pads to attenuate the signal from the mics before they hit the preamps — this sounds better to my ears than using the pads on the preamps themselves.”
Setting up the guitar, bass and scratch vocal was a simpler and much faster process. For both the guitar and bass, George moved the musicians and their respective pedals and instruments into the main room with the drums, where they could easily make eye contact with one another, but left the speakers and their mics in the booths and behind closed doors. Each musician was given a set of headphones and mixer, from which they were fed a band sub-mix comprising drums, scratch vocal and the bass and guitar cabinet outputs. This approach allowed the three to jam together as a band, even though there was quite a degree of sound separation from one musician’s rig to another. As we discovered a little later, the separation was vital to the production process. George’s aim was to re-record the bass, guitars and vocals later on, at which time he could focus more closely on getting a performance from the musicians, and a bigger and better sound from the various amps and processors that he had at his disposal. The drums would act as a foundation on which to build the rest of the recorded song, so it had to be free of spill from the soon-to-be-replaced guitar and bass parts.
While the band worked their way through a couple of songs from their repertoire, George was busy in the control room, switching between various mix busses, solo channels and whole band mixes so that he could tweak levels and processor settings, occasionally sending James, his assistant, into the studio to refine a mic position.
When he felt satisfied with the sound, and confident the musicians were comfortable with their headphone mixes and the studio environment generally, George asked them to check their tunings and do a trial run through the song. This rehearsal enabled George to establish a tempo for the click track and make any necessary final adjustments. Once done, George immediately began recording, hoping to capture a performance while the musicians were still fresh and loose. It turned out that the trio were very consistent (which really helps in a one-day session), so only three takes were needed to meet the objective of capturing at least one really solid take before thinking about overdubbing.
The takes were recorded to Pro Tools 12 HDX at 24-bit, 96kHz resolution, but George planned to mix down 48kHz files for the band to take away at the end of the day.
A quick review of the material showed that the first take was the best, despite a few minor timing problems and one or two fills that could have gone better. The other takes were not wildly dissimilar, but seemed to lack a tiny bit of that all-important ‘vibe’, perhaps due to the musicians starting to focus too closely on their own parts or the rhythm of the click. When the band were invited into the control room, they agreed that the first take was indeed the best, and with that settled, George invited them to take a break while he made some edits.
One of his main concerns was the phase relationships of all the drum mics. Some timing issues were sorted out using Eventide’s Precision Time Align processor, and a couple of slightly better fills were lifted from the rejected takes. By the time the band returned from their break, the whole drum performance was feeling tighter and more positive, but still nice and natural.
Before moving on, George took the precaution of recording some single hits of the kit pieces so that he could lay them back in to the mix later on. He asked Dave to play different velocity hits on each drum and allow the sound to die out every time (so that he could capture a clean sample tail). He also asked Dave for a double crash with kick combination of the kind that’s often used at the end of a song.
For the bass and guitar overdubs, George instructed James to bring three amps into the control room and set them out on the desktop above the processor racks, where they would be in easy reach from the API desk. One of the amps was sent to a speaker cab in the hall just outside the live-room door. The other two amps were routed to cabinets in the guitar and bass booths respectively. The idea was that the amp, speaker and mic combinations could provide very different ‘flavour’ sounds from one another. These were supplemented with a neutral fourth feed — an unprocessed DI, routed straight into the API desk.
The technical problem of taking the guitar and bass signals and splitting them four ways was solved via a Little Labs PCP 3.1 Instrument Distro, which is a one-in, three-out box with an additional DI socket on the back. This sat on the desktop, alongside the amp heads and a little in-line guitar tuner that was used to check tuning between each and every take. This time, George elected to go with his vintage Neve 1073 and 1081 mic amps, judging their sound as being ‘fatter and richer’ than those of the API 312 preamps he’d used on the kit, and therefore useful for getting the guitar and bass sounds to sit comfortably alongside the drums.
He started by recording Lee’s bass line, with Lee standing in the control room next to the desk. This time, the mix was played from the large Exigy studio monitors instead of through headphones, to make it a more pleasant listening experience for the musician. Specifically, the setup comprised an Audio Kitchen Little Chopper amp, which drove the same company’s cabinet placed in the hall. This was miked using a Sennheiser e609, which is a specialist cabinet mic with a super-cardioid pattern. This channel was tuned to provide a highly distorted sound. Simultaneously, a relatively clean sound was produced by an Ampeg SVT II amp head fed to the bass cabinet in the recording booth, this time paired with a vintage AKG D30 dynamic mic.
Lastly, an Audio Kitchen Big Chopper (providing the ‘middle’ sound) was fed to a 4x12 guitar cabinet, which had one of its cones close-miked by a Royer R121 ribbon and a rare Primo UD 324 dynamic (described by George as being like a Shure SM57 but with “a bit more meat to it”).
Steve’s guitars were fed through to the same amp, speaker and mic chains, but George changed the purpose of them somewhat, so that the distorted chain, featuring the Little Chopper, became clean (for added note definition and detail), the clean Ampeg channel delivered a more coloured sound than before, and the Big Chopper received the output from Steve’s array of effects pedals, and acted as the main guitar tone.
Unlike the bass and drums, which retained the same sounds throughout, the guitar part came in three distinct sections, which Steve described as the clean, chorus and heavy sections. For each one, George made amp and processor adjustments to create different sound characteristics, and encouraged Steve to alter his pickup selection and tone balance. He also provided Steve with the studio’s Fender Telecaster for use on some sections, which gave a slightly different tone to that of his Fender Jazzmaster. To thicken the wall of sound even more, George double-tracked most of the guitar parts using slightly different sound setups for each. Ultimately these were panned left and right in the mix.
Overdubbing the bass and guitar parts was a surprisingly pain-free process, partly helped by the musicians’ familiarity with the material, but also by the relaxed control-room atmosphere. Once the channels had been setup, George was able to work very quickly and it was obvious that the three-amps-plus-DI overdub working method was something he’d spent a lot of time perfecting.
By this stage, the arrangement was sounding very full so no further instrument overdubs were deemed necessary. George therefore asked the band to take another short break while he sorted out the best takes and mixed the new material in with the drum track.
Upon their return, work began on the vocals. These comprised a double-tracked lead performed by Steve, plus a few lines of harmonised backing vocals, also sung by Steve. This time, Steve worked in the main studio, with the mix fed to him via headphones. George elected to use a Shure SM7 dynamic mic for its ability to cut through in heavy and dense arrangements — like this one — and processed it first though an Empirical Labs Distressor and then a Hairball Audio 1176, the idea being that instead of having one processor doing everything, the two units would share the load, with the Distressor providing edge, grit and presence, and the 1176 applying the bulk of the gain reduction.
The vocal parts turned out to be pretty straightforward, largely because they were designed to be performed while playing guitar. George asked Steve to redo a number of isolated lines towards the end, where he’d heard tiredness creeping in — that’s always something to listen out for! — but otherwise several takes of each part were all that was needed. Afterwards, the band were given another break while George compiled the takes and applied the necessary processing and effects treatments. A little tightening of the tuning was done using a standalone version of Melodyne, followed by the addition of some reverb, delay and distortion.
With the vocals in the bag, George made a start on the mix. His first action was to reset the desk levels so that they wouldn’t be too ‘hot’ when it came to exporting the stems. For the drums, he gated the kick, snare and toms using Eventide’s Ultra Channel plug-in, then began setting up some sampled kick and snare sounds, layering them under the live drums using MIDI notes generated by Massey’s DRT drum-replacement plug-in. Some of the samples included the one-shots played by Dave earlier in the day, but it was mainly the ambient mic feeds that were used, rather than those from the close mics. The reason for this work was to help create a punchier mix, in which things weren’t fighting for space quite so much. To this end, Dave’s solo hits provided the spill-free cleanliness that was needed. George also introduced parallel processing for kick and snare, using UAD 1176 compressor plug-ins, set aggressively to provide additional excitement and movement to the kit.
The four bass channels were summed and processed with a combination of Waves RBass and UAD 1176 Compressor plug-ins. For the guitar parts, George cued up the UAD EMT140 Plate for space, the Eventide H3000 Factor for width and tackled equalisation issues using the UAD Helios EQ. And for vocal effects, George turned to his Soundtoys 5 Effect Rack bundle and Eventide’s Harmonizer and Ultra Channel plug-ins, and applied a variety of modulation effects.
When he was happy with the mix, George took the stereo bus feed from the API via a Heritage Audio Neve 2264JR Compressor and Neve 1081 EQ, and fed it back into Pro Tools alongside 16 stems sourced from the desk channels’ direct outputs. The stereo mix was then treated to a little mastering, using Waves Kramer Master Tape, Waves Multiband Compressor, Kush Audio Clariphonic EQ and Massey limiter plug-ins, with the intention of adding both volume and a little brightness.
At the end of the session, George gave the band his mix of the track, but asked that they leave it overnight and listen in the morning with fresh ears. The plan was for them to call him at 10am with their verdict so that he could make any necessary changes before moving on to another project. In this instance, only a few tweaks were needed, after which George reprinted the song and mailed it to the band.
Recording in a commercial studio like Kore is an expense most of us can’t afford often, but High/Low’s session proves that if the material is at the right stage of development, and the artist(s) can perform it well enough, not only can the end result be worth the cost, but it can be a useful learning experience too. High/Low came to Kore having spent several years honing their band performances on stage and in practice rooms, not to mention many hours experimenting with sounds and arrangements in their home studio, so they were ready to maximise their time and the resources on offer. They were also sensible enough to follow George’s advice to the letter, and arrived with their gear properly prepared and a very clear idea of how the day would progress.
For me, it was fascinating to witness the evolution of ‘Tell Me Something’, from a performance with a rough and raw feel to a commercial-sounding production that wouldn’t be out of place on mainstream radio. Time and people-management skills certainly contributed to the success of the session, and it was interesting to see how George kept the recording process swiftly moving from one part to the next without putting pressure on the musicians. Jobs like shifting amps and mic stands and tidying away leads and equipment were handed to James, leaving George free to concentrate on making production and engineering decisions.
And when George had to focus on editing audio or making level, dynamic and EQ settings, the band were actively encouraged to take a break and relax. It was clear that working in the studio helped the musicians concentrate on their performances, which is something that’s not always possible when working at home, so the well-known proverb ‘many hands makes light work’ seemed very applicable. But I’ll leave it to George to have the final word...
“A lot of bands have gear at home and can do some recording themselves, but hopefully they’ll see the advantages of being in a proper room with good signal paths and people who know what they are doing. There’s not the kind of room for experimentation and getting it wrong and fixing it [as there is] at home in your bedroom studio, but it is an event, and great for a young band to be able to say on social media ‘We are working in this studio today, where The Who have recorded!’”
After the session, bassist Lee Yates and guitarist Steve Weston reflected on their experiences at Kore. “The main aim for us was to push it to another level,” explained Lee. “Steve usually does all the recording, mixing, writing and guitar playing and can get a bit bogged down with it. So, rather than buy more gear, we [decided] to save the money and have someone record us. Playing in the main studio took a lot of pressure off us because usually one of us is hitting record, so we were able to focus on the song,” he continued. “The sound in the room was lovely but it was a bit difficult to pick my bit out with everything coming in on the headphones — you’re so busy listening to the click and all those other things that you’re not totally concentrating on what you are doing. But in the control room I could hear a lot better, and felt more into it, and the sound going through lots of different amps gave it extra bite. I completely forgot where I was for a minute and just went for it.”
“We all have day jobs so it’s hard to get a few days in the studio together,” added Steve. “We sometimes get to work on something at a weekend but then we have to shelve it for a week or so. Doing things in your own time is great but often feels like a never-ending task. It was a relief to have a deadline, and a really nice experience having someone else steer things in the right direction — taking all the responsibility.
“Before visiting Kore, George had told me to make sure my guitars were tuned, set up and had new strings. He explained what it was going to be like and talked through the rough process, so that we knew what to expect. He asked us if we wanted to record each instrument separately or play it live, and if we wanted to do one song or a set of songs. It sounded like live was the best way to go because it made things a lot quicker.
“The control room was nice for me, in that the bass and drums were already there and treated by the time I was doing my guitar parts. Dave changed one or two drum fills between takes, so once the edit was fixed Lee and I could be more confident with our lines. It definitely felt more locked in and solid. We could have gone through take after take and got Dave to play it perfectly, but we’d have been wasting our time: George had edited it in the time that we’d had some lunch.
“George has some really nice gear and obviously knows what mics to use for the job quickly and easily. It’s amazing how much difference that can make to the finished product. The amp side of things really opened my eyes too. I usually mic up one amp, but having George play with the different amps and make different sounds for different sections really helped. We sometimes change guitars and pedals for different song sections, but using our Shure SM57s and SM58s on all sound sources is very limiting. The PA and mic in the corridor was a great idea for getting that extra bit of depth. It’s been a learning experience hearing and seeing all these techniques. It flowed so smoothly, and I imagine we’ll be asking him for more time in the future.”
High/Low are a three-piece rock band from Southend in Essex, UK, comprising Dave Pankhurst (drums), Lee Yates (bass) and Steve Weston (guitar, vocals and songwriting). Information about more of their recordings and activities can be found at http://wearehighlow.co.uk.
Steve also designs his own range of guitar effects pedals under the name Raygun FX. Information about them can be found at https://fuzzboxes.co.uk.