Case Studies in DIY Recording with Jason Lustig
Case Studies in DIY Recording
By Jason Lustig
Case Study # 5
Well, this column was supposed to be monthly, but you know…life. Sorry about that. I had a fun project recently that presented one of the most fundamental challenges in mixing. It was a hip-hop project where the tracks I received to mix consisted of (for most songs) a mono drum track, a mono instrument track (made of one or more samples/loops), a lead vocal, and some backing vocals (doubles/ad-libs). So, to mix in mono or not? If simulating stereo from the mono tracks, do you worry about mono-compatibility?
As with all recording/mixing/mastering, please start by asking yourself the question: “What is the purpose of this project?” Put another way: “What is the artist trying to emotionally communicate?” Remember, all your gear are just tools, and you are an instrument of the emotional need of the music. Your job is to help the artist effect the listener as strongly as possible in the way that the artist intends. So if mixing in mono is the most effective way to communicate the intent to the listener, then don’t hesitate. However, with this project, I know that the artist was going to be played on Pandora and wanted to sonically compete with the bigger names. I felt that a mono mix would be a dead giveaway to their budget level, particularly with the prevelance of headphones/earbuds as the primary listening method these days. Headphones/earbuds will always make a stereo mix sound wider and a mono mix could feel that much smaller by comparison.
So, now that I decided I was going to mix the tracks to create some sort of stereo feel from the mono tracks, I had to decide how important to make their mono-compatibility. Given that these were going to be exposed to lossy compression coding (MP3, streaming formats, etc…) I felt that mono compatibility was going to be important. Also, and this comes from my more formal training, I just find that preserving mono compatibility whenever possible is good form. Additionally, this group would use the instrumental mixes for their live shows and my guess was that the majority of house PAs would be running in mono, probably summing the outputs of a stereo or iPod to mono, therefore mono compatibility would save me from having to do separate mixes for their live shows (definitely not in the budget).
Okay, fake stereo – check; mono-compatibility – check. On to the technique I used. This is definitely not the only way to accomplish the above two objectives, but it’s a quick, easy, and effective method that I’ve used to great success on several projects over the years.
Starting with the mono drum track. On most songs, this consisted of a kick, snare, hi-hat and usually not much else. Sometimes there were additional drums contained in the loop on the instrument track as well. So for the drum track, I created two identical copies to give myself three tracks of drums, one panned left, one right, and one center. If these were played back as is, they would just be the mono track but louder, so here’s how I made them stereo while still holding down the middle.
1) The center track was compressed leaving the transients largely in tact and with a full low end and meaty attack on the snare. This was done with some eq and some low end enhancement (I often use Waves RBass but a BBE or just eq will do). The compression was set up to let the initial transients through while bulking up the sound. I feel in this fake stereo technique it is important to keep your center channel drums with strong transients to root the listener’s ear to center.
2) The right and left tracks of the drums were compressed and eq’d differently from each other and differently from the center track. I used two different compressors on these with drastically different settings so that they would impart their own unique sonic characteristics on each side. Perhaps a SSL bus compressor on one and something like the default Nuendo compressor (like a DBX 166xl) on the other. Both of them were run aggressively to squash transients, but by choosing two very different compressors each side pumped and breathed at different rates and with different qualities of distortion. From there each side was EQ’d a little differently, perhaps the right side was a tad brighter to move the hi-hat to that side (audience perspective – sorry drummers). I also usually rolled off or dipped the low eq on the sides to leave the kick’s low end firmly centered in the mix.
So with that, we have a transient, full sounding center channel, a left channel which has been “destroyed” with compression on the left, and another similarly “destroyed” but with a different sounding compressor on the right. What started as three identical mono tracks is now much wider thanks to the differing compression artifacts and EQ. Play around with the ratio of the “side” channels to the center channel to suit your tastes (I’m often about 2:1 center to side). (Please read the note below on latency and delay compensation. Whenever doing this type of “parallel” compression it is a good idea to check your system and know if you need to do any workarounds to prevent comb filtering which can occur.)
Going further, you can set up two or more reverbs, each panned hard to one side or the other, and then feed the left drum channel to the left verb and the right channel to the right verb (with different sounding rooms naturally) to further create artificial space.
Next up is the mono instrument/sample/loop track. I was planning on keeping the lead vocals centered and with the drums having a strong center channel in their new form, I don’t want my music crowding that out. So for the music track, I create just a single copy. I pan one left and one right, no center version.
From here, I usually choose two different compressors, maybe from an LA2A, SSL bus comp, Fairchild 660, even an 1176, Waves RVox (best bang for the buck) or RComp just to name a few. Try and choose two that have sounds you like but are quite different. Play around with different combinations of them, one left and a different one on the right. Play around with driving them harder or softer. For the most part, with the types of tracks I got, I did a medium level of compression, nothing too drastic, but enough to bring out some details and even out some discrepancies. For these two, I would subtly eq each side differently and feed each side into a different reverb, each panned hard left or right. Very similar to the drum sound but no center channel and not pushing the compression as hard on the sides.
Bringing these up with the instruments and then using the mono button on the master section of my console I could flip back and forth between the fake stereo and the mono sum checking for two things: 1) mono-compatibility (are there weird artifacts or losses in frequency response – AKA comb filtering) and 2) Was all that work an improvement over the mono sum. As always, I do these comparisons with my eyes closed and I rapidly hit the button over and over until I can’t remember which I’m on, then I use my ears to pick which one I like best. Thankfully, I liked my fake stereo better, it create some noticeable depth and spread without sounding like I was just throwing things around (I guess I could have panned the drums to one side and the instruments to the other and called it a day – but this was meant to be modern Hip-Hop not a 3 position stereo recording like Brubeck’s “Take 5” or something).
I added in the vocals, did some panning with the adlibs and create a mix that wasn’t quite as complex as a mix where I had access to each track individually or stereo stems, but wasn’t bad considering all I had to start with was a mono drum track and a mono loop track.
A note on latency/delay compensation – The one thing I haven’t talked about is the implications in computer based (in the box) mixing when duplicating tracks but utilizing different plugins. In the analog world you can basically ignore the processing latency of the outboard gear you use, so this won’t apply if you use these techniques with analog gear, but in the computer, each plug-in you use takes a different amount of time to process and spit out the changed sound. All modern DAW software has plug-in automatic delay compensation which SHOULD account for the different plug-ins in use throughout the project and adjust the output timings to counter the varying latencies/delays created by the processing. I say SHOULD because in a multitude of tests I’ve done, I’ve found that this is almost never the case in actual practice.
Here’s how to test your system’s delay compensation. Pick a relatively full spectrum sound (distorted guitar is often a good one). Duplicate the track. Put two different plug-ins on the track, make certain they are ON but not actively changing the sound (for instance, compression ratios of 1:1 or EQ flat) then pan each track center and play back at the same time. If you reduce each tracks volume by 3db when you combine it, the combined sound will the same volume as the original track. When you combine them do you hear any changes to the frequency response compared to either track alone or compared to the original track with no plug-ins? If delay compensation is working then it shouldn’t make any difference. However, if each plug-in is spitting the sound out at a slightly different time and the DAW is not compensating, the waves will not line up exactly and the result will be comb filtering and usually a loss of low end with a very “Real Audio from 1998” watery like sound on the top end.
Think your computer doesn’t compensate. Here’s what you do and how to check that it is working. Let’s say you have a guitar and you want to process it with parallel compression (2 copies of the track with 2 different compressors but blended together). With delay compensation working this is no problem, but to do it without delay compensation, or just to be on the safe side, make your copy of the track, put your first plug in on track 1, go to track 2, load that same first plugin but make certain that it isn’t doing anything (again like a compression ratio of 1:1 or flat eq…), then load your active 2nd plug-in on track 2. Go back to track 1 and add that same second plug-in to track 1 making certain that it too is not doing anything. This way you have the same two plug-ins on both tracks so the output delay will be the same but only one plug-in is affecting the sound on each track. If you sum to mono or pan to the same side you shouldn’t hear any of the combfiltering. If you remove one of the dummy plug-ins you should hear the sound change – that’s when you know that your system doesn’t do delay compensation well and you need to use this work around.
So there you have it, faking a stereo mix from two premixed mono tracks with good mono-compatibility and adjusting for poor plug-in delay compensation (a must with this type of fake stereo). Thanks for reading.
Learn more at http://jasonlustigrecording.com
Copyright 2012 Jason Lustig
Case Studies in DIY Recording
By Jason Lustig
Case Studies in DIY Recording
By Jason Lustig
Well, it’s been quite a while, sorry about that. Between wiring a custom SoundWorkshop Series 34 sidecar (8 channels) and planning a new mixing/mastering room for my home I’ve had plenty of projects and not much time to write about them. But before we get to me, how about you? Is everything going okay?
Enough small talk, I don’t think you’re here for that anyway. Let’s look at your mic locker and talk about what you really need to get the job done. Not only will we talk mics, but we’ll talk a little about mic technique and how to go through sessions with varying amounts of inputs to your rig (computer or otherwise).
“How Many Tracks You Got?”
That, believe it or not, was a quote, told to me by a professor, from a Russian classical music producer (try saying it with the accent, totally awesome) when setting up for an orchestra recording session with my professor. Naturally, this is a question that comes up all time, particularly with the DIY and indie recording crowd. It started as a question related to how many tracks of tape machine. Did you have 8 or 24? Could you sync two 24 track machines? Now, in the days of unlimited internal track counts in computers, it is about how many preamps and simultaneous inputs do you have for your computer.
I’d like to talk about the essential mics and the ways to use them with limited track counts. Mastering these techniques can be a critical part of your journey. Nailing a drum kit sound with just one or two mics makes doing it with 12 that much easier. The key is having a vision for the sound in your mind at all times, what that same professor referred to as an “aural imagination.” (I said AURAL not ORAL, get your mind out of the gutter!)
Let’s start with mic techniques for limited track counts and move on to essential mics.
Scenario 1: 2 channel USB interface to a computer, punk band (or other similar 3 or 4 piece rock band).
So really, how the hell are you going to record a full band album? There are many ways, from setting up two mics in the room and letting them go at it to starting with drums against a click track and layering part by part over that. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the drummer can’t play to a click, you have no mixer for submixes or headphone mixes (such as having everything but the drums go into the headphones for the drummer, and recording only the drums). You literally have just a 2 channel usb box and 2 mics. Nothing more.
Here’s one solution. Have the singer and a guitarist play through the song each going into one channel of the interface. These tracks will be temporary “scratch” tracks. Then mic the drummer and have him/her record playing against these scratch tracks. Coach him/her to ignore the timing and grove the best he/she can while keeping basically to tempo with the scratch tracks. Your goal is not to have the scratches exactly line up to the drummer or vice versa, but for the drummer to grove while having a reference for where they are in the song.
After recording drums, proceed to overdub the instruments and vocals over the drums. Pretty easy, but how the heck are you going to record drums with just two channels and still get a good sound? There are lots of ways, let’s go through them one by one:
Option 1: 2 mics in the room or as overheads. This gives a nice stereo feel, more reminiscent of a jazz recording than a rock recording and can be very dependent on the sound of the room. Move your mics to balance the presence, high frequency, and attack of the drums. Mics right over the drums will have lots of attack but a thinner/brighter cymbal sound. Mics in front of the kit will have more kick drum, fuller cymbals, but the toms and snare will be pushed back in the mix a bit. Play around with spaced pairs, ORTF, XY, MS, and other mic techniques. This is more a representational recording than a modern, highly produced sound. But very useable if you take your time and listen to where you’re positioning the mics.
Option 2: One overhead plus one kickdrum mic. This is one of my favorite two mic approaches because it requires the least effort later. The kickdrum mic gives you all the presence and reduction in bleed to be able to dial in that modern kick drum sound you’re looking for. With a single overhead, your task is to move the mic to balance the volumes of the various parts of the kit. No small task. I usually prefer over the snare to start because frequently that’s what I need louder than the rest of the kit. Just use your ears. To take this idea further, use the overhead mic as a reference and either use a sound replacer or add samples by hand to add a “direct” snare mic made of samples (of the actual kit or from a sample library). This will give you the real kick, a sample snare, and an overhead. Go one step further and try and resample the toms while you’re at it. Although all this resampling takes time, you can get darn close to a multi-mic sound this way. If time is no object, this is the way to go. Can be done with the stereo setup described in option 1 which will give you stereo overheads.
Option 3: One kick and one snare mic. Let’s be honest, these are the two most important drums for most recordings. If they sound right, it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of the kit sounds like in a rock recording. Here’s some ways to take this technique further.
– Option 3.1: make a duplicate of your snare mic track. Overcompress the crap out of it to reduce the snare volume and raise the volume of the bleed from the other drums. Use this overcompressed track as if it were an overhead and mix it with the close kick and the original snare track. The pumping and breathing on the overcompressed copy can also give you a cool vibe. Try and set the timing to coincide with the grove of the song if you want to get fancy.
– Option 3.2: use the snare track’s bleed as a guide to hand sample tom hits and cymbal hits (you probably have enough high hat in the snare track as it is >_<). This takes a lot more time like option 2, but can give you a nice sound. Use cymbal hits recorded in stereo to give you a wider feel.
Scenario 2: 2 channel USB interface, 4 channel sub mixer, punk band (or similar combo).
This is similar, but has some important new possibilities from the previous scenario. Let’s go through them:
Option 1: Record scratch tracks (free hand or against a click) like the above scenario, then use the 4 channel mixer to create a stereo mix out of a kick drum mic, snare mic, and stereo overheads to be recorded into the two channels of the USB interface. Try to do as much EQ as you can on the board during the submix as anything you do after will affect all four channels (in your 2 channel down mix). I prefer to have the kick and snare considerably louder than the overheads. I can always use various compression techniques to raise the volume of the overheads in the stereo mix later if I need, but it is much harder to pull the kick and snare up from the overheads if they are too quite in the 2 channel mix. This is a classic, and very important technique. The more detailed and dense your scratch tracks, the easier it will be to judge the levels on your drum submixer. Practice this technique, it really is important to be able to record things balanced to tape.
Option 2: Use the mixer to send the other instruments (either DI, or amped in another room, or even in the same room) to headphones for the drummer. Record the drummer only using one of the two channel approaches from scenario 1 while he/she is listening to the other musicians play. The advantage to this is the drummer and band are playing together and responding to each other but you have somewhat isolated drums on tape.
Addendum to Options 1 and 2: You can of course use tom samples, and any other samples you need, to further flesh out these sounds. Particularly with option 1, you can add tom samples to go with your kick, snare, and overhead mics, as well as additional kick and snare samples (easier to do here than above because you have direct mics on the drums) to further shape the sound or add additional volume.
These are just two of the scenarios for rock. Since most overdubs can be easily accomplished with one or two channels, it is the drums that present the problems for those with limited inputs to the computer. I won’t go into classical recording techniques here, but learning about ORTF, XY, MS, and spaced pair recording techniques is a must. To be an accomplished engineer you need a wide range of tools to draw from and knowing these techniques is important. Even if you just do popular music, you will be asked to record acoustic instruments, sting ensembles, brass sections and other situations where knowing classical techniques comes in handy.
Now on to which mics for a small mic locker.
Scenario 1: I can only afford two mics. Here are your options:
– two dynamic mics. These tend to sound fine on vocals, guitars, drums. They don’t have a lot of top end for overheads, but you can always add extra crash samples for shimmer. These are safe and versatile choices.
– one dynamic and one condenser (preferably large diaphragm). This works really well with the kick drum plus overhead mic technique plus you’ll have a dynamic for later electric guitar recordings and a large diaphragm mic for vocals and acoustic instruments. Plus, try a dynamic on an acoustic guitar for a very different sound that can sometimes really work in a mix.
– two condenser mics (preferably large diaphragm). I find large diaphragm mics more versatile than small diaphragm mic. This combination works well for the two overhead approaches described above as well as for any acoustic instruments, string sections, vocals, etc… but can be more difficult to get the electric guitar and bass sounds you might be accustomed to hearing. If you only have a 2 channel USB interface, money is likely an issue. I like MXL mics for the money. They frequently go on sale. The MXL v67g (green and gold) mics sound very similar to the original RODE NT-1 for about ¼ the price when on sale.
Scenario 2: I can only afford four mics.
– This is pretty simple. Two dynamics and two large diaphragm condensers. This lets you do stereo pairs with either type of mic. You can choose different dynamics for kick and snare and buy two of the same condensers for use as overheads and on acoustic instruments you want to mic in stereo (although you really don’t have to use the same two mics to do a stereo recording, it will just have a different sound). Avoid the all-in-one drum mic packs. If you have the money, I like a AKG D112, SM-57 (or the 57 clone from Orange County Speaker – available on EBay), and two large diaphragm mics.
So there you have it. Some cheap and dirty ways to get a lot of functionality out of just a two channel interface and a couple of mics. You can pick up a cheap four channel mixing board (something from Behringer or whatever) for less than most mics. Play around with positioning, and master these two channel techniques. Suddenly your first 8 channel interface will seem like heaven, and just wait until you have 32 or more inputs…
© 2012 Jason Lustig
Wow, number 3 already, thanks for reading! A quick recap on my philosophy:
It’s not the gear that matters, it’s you and the band that matter. You need a great song, engaged musicians, a good ear and a willingness to do whatever it takes with whatever gear you’ve got. No amount of expensive gear will make your project a hit. High quality gear is icing on the cake, but it’s the cake that fills you up (although icing is awesome). So take the gear when you can get it, but never blame it for the failure of a project. That’s just lazy and delusional.
With that in mind, and as a framework for my columns, here’s our third case study in DIY recording:
“Made in China, Rewired in the USA”
So as I’ve said for two and a half columns now, it’s not the gear that matters. But you do need some gear, right? You can’t record with thin air; I get that. So I want to talk about a recent experience I had with trying to get the most out of a limited gear budget. I understand that if I’m going to keep advocate for a low cost, high quality approach to recording, I had better throw some gear tips at you in addition to technique tips, right? Right!
One of my favorite hobbies is buying pieces of junk guitars and stripping them down to the wood and replacing all the hardware and electronics with items of my choice and ending up with a guitar that sounds vintage and expensive for only a few hundred dollars. For instance, the guitar that’s been used on more of my client’s records than any other cost me $35 to which I then added less than $200 in parts. I would put this up against any Les Paul, ANY, without a second thought.
That being said, I now own many guitars that play great, sound great, and didn’t break the bank. But what I’ve always wanted was a beautiful looking bass (come on, don’t kid yourself, looks do matter, especially with electric guitars) with a really thick, but balanced, sound. The best bass I’d heard/played for this particular sound was borrowed from the bass player from the band Screw Tractor. It was a Fender P-Bass with some sort of passive (I think) humbucker in the bridge position. I wanted this sound for cheap.
After years of struggling to find this sound with all sorts of pickups and basses, I went on ebay and found a Chinese knockoff Music-Man (TM) bass humbucker for about $15. For that price it was worth trying. I had a cream-colored jazz bass with a red tortoiseshell pickguard (totally beautiful look) that I had been using with a guitar humbucker (not bad, but didn’t pick up the thinnest string well due to being the wrong size). This would be the perfect match!
The pickup arrived and looked exactly like it should, four leads on the pickup, soldered together in pairs. I routed the body of the bass to fit the pickup, soldered it to the volume control (bypassing the tone as I usually do in my instruments – less junk to pick up RF in the signal path), and fired the bad boy up through a little practice amp.
Well, it played… but not well. When I switched over to using the single coil jazz pickup, the jazz pickup was considerably louder and had a bigger sound. This was exactly the opposite of what should have happened. I then proceeded to try re-soldering, different wire, replacing all the connections in the entire instrument, new jacks, anything I could think of. But to no avail. After about two hours, frustrated, I decided to put it down for the night.
The next day I took it out, hooked it up to a direct box, into my console, and put it up on the mains. I instantly knew what was wrong. I couldn’t quite tell through an amp, but there is no mistaking this sound through speakers. The pickup was out of phase with itself.
Humbuckers are essentially two single coil pickups, but wired such that when they are combined they cancel RF that has been induced while boosting the overall output level. This is the same in a balanced (three conductor) cable, when the negative is inverted and added to the positive lead, the RF cancels itself out, while the signal is doubled.
Here it was clear that one half of the humbucker was out of phase with the other half, meaning that it was not properly inverted when it was added to the other pickup. If a signal is added to a reverse phase signal that is otherwise identical, they will completely cancel each other out. But because there is a physical space difference (as well as subtle differences in the way the wires get wrapped) between the two halves of the humbucker pickup, their respective signals are not exactly the same and opposite. These subtle differences contribute to the more robust sound when it is working properly. But when the phase is off between the two halves of a humbucker, it just leaves whatever is different between the two halves’ sounds to pass through.
This is what I was hearing. No low end (low frequencies are longer waves and so more easily cancel each other out even if the spacing, or timing, of received sound is slightly off) and very indistinct mid and high frequencies (indicative of comb-filtering) resulting from two out of phase signals being added without the reverse phase side being inverted properly prior to being combined. Through a small practice amp, with a limited frequency range and its own internal distortion characteristics, this was all masked. But through a DI on studio monitors, this change in frequency response was very plain to hear.
The solution, then, was both obvious and simple to enact. A humbucker, as mentioned earlier, has four leads (two from each half) that are soldered together to make the two leads necessary for connection into the signal path. All this sound meant was that the leads from one pickup had to be reversed so that the two halves would be in phase for the bass signal and cancel the RF. So that’s what I did, and viola`, it sounded awesome! Although the pickup came from the factory with the same color leads, soldered the same way, as a Music-Man pickup, it clearly sounded wrong. When I recombined the leads with one side reversed, it sounded like it should.
Suddenly it was louder than the single coil jazz pickup, had a tighter bottom, crunchier mid-range characteristics, and an available, but not strident top end. It was everything and more that I could hope for from a $15 pickup on a used jazz bass I bought for $100.
Now, I’m sure that there is still some magical $300 pickup out there for some great $2,000 bass made from the perfect hardwood, but I get 95% of that for $115. Of course, I still can’t play bass very well, so if you refer to my basic premise on recording, you’ll note that I have much bigger fish to fry. However, at least I have an awesome sounding bass for my clients (some of whom can definitely play and take advantage of it) and had a couple hours of soldering and detective fun (I acknowledge that I’m weird).
So use your ears, trust your ears. Making music is about creating and communicating emotion through the ears. As soon as I was able to listen to what was going on through a full-fidelity system that I was familiar with, I was able to make an informed judgment and fight for the results I knew were possible. Yes, I did this with pickup wiring, but it holds just as true for putting up a mic on a drum kit, or a singer, or mixing an instrument within a track, or mixing a whole track. You need to find a way to make informed judgments and then fight until you get what you want to hear. Don’t give up, don’t say you don’t have the right gear or don’t know how to get that sound. Keep fighting. Because if you can imagine how something SHOULD sound, then you have an obligation to keep working until it DOES sound that way (or better)!
That’s the story. Use your ears and you can find great sounding, inexpensive, tools out there to help you make great music. Money isn’t everything, but your ears are. Use them wisely and you can get really useful gear for cheap.
Hope that helps a little. Check in next time for some more case studies in DIY recording.
© 2011 Jason Lustig
Case Studies in DIY Recording
By Jason Lustig
Thanks for coming back! Quick recap on my philosophy:
Here is what you need to make a great recording: A great song, engaged musicians, and a trusting relationship between the band and the production/engineering team.
Here are just a few of the things that are nearly, completely irrelevant to making a great recording: any particular gear or studio. The tools don’t matter! The band, the song, and you matter. How you use your ears matters. How you stimulate a trusting environment for emotional expression matters. That compressor that you just HAVE to have, does not matter at all.
Now that we’re on the same page, here’s our second case study in DIY recording:
“When is a Mesa not really a Mesa?”
We’ll look at what happens when you are on location, far from the comfort of your “go to” amp, and although the band has promised you that they have great sounding amps, they actually don’t!
You say, “Duh, just reamp it!” I say, “Naturally, but how to do it with the best sound quality at the cheapest price?”
The first of today’s two examples of this occurred when I was told by a band that they had a Mesa amp to record guitar overdubs through. The session was going to be held in their house over just a few hour period. The band had no other time or money to record overdubs other than this one shot.
I walk into the house, set down the gear and asked to see the amp. There is was, starring me in the face, maybe even mocking me a little bit: a Mesa practice amp with a six inch speaker with some tears in the cone. Now, I will be the first to tell you that looks aren’t everything, it’s not the gear that matters, and that even small amps can (and frequently do) sound huge when recorded. However, to use one of my favorite clichés: if this amp was the answer, I’d love to know the question. Quite simply, it just wasn’t going to sound like anything other than a practice amp and the session called for a much more typically professional sound. (Because remember, your first option when presented with things that don’t sound like you expect: consider whether they sound even cooler than what you thought you wanted – it just wasn’t the case here.)
Now, as we talked about last week, protecting the ego of band members can be important too. I didn’t want to insult his baby. I’m quite certain he believed his amp sounded just fine. But what I needed to do was capture his performance in such a way that I could reamp it later on the sly. So, as many of you are suspecting, I hooked up a DI box (Direct Injection for those who haven’t looked up what the acronym stands for yet) and told the guitarist that this was just an insurance policy in case we weren’t getting what we needed when monitoring with headphones in the same room as the amp (not a lie at all, and frankly, you need all the insurance you can get on these location sessions).
We then recorded both the amp and the DI for all tracks. When I set up to mix the project the next day (in a library no less – but that’s for another article), it was clear that the tracks had to be reamped; the practice amp just wasn’t going to cut it. However, at that time (years ago) I didn’t have any guitar plug-ins worth using and we had no amps (nor could we record one in a library). So I quickly started asking everyone I met in that town if they had a POD.
I don’t love ‘em, or even really like them. But goodness knows, when I finally found a used one to buy it saved the session (and ended up paying for itself in many funky situations over the years). But before I tell you how I hooked it up for the best sonic results, it’s time for the second story.
On another session, this one in a basement, the band did have actually nice amps. However, despite many attempts, they refused to use them in a humane way; just shrill and thin and raw on the ears and totally inappropriate for the session. So naturally, I used a DI and mic’d the amps at the same time. This time, I was mixing in one of my favorite studios with a great amp collection. The real story is how I hooked things up to perform the reamp.
Many engineers (the same ones who just HAVE to have that compressor) will tell you that to send a line level (+4 or -10) out of a console, computer interface, or tape machine into a guitar amp that you need a super expensive reamping box. That’s baloney. I agree that it generally doesn’t sound great to just stick the line level signal straight into a guitar amp (both distorts unless you bring the level down and has terrible impedance mismatching which leads to weird frequency distributions). However, there is a very simple solution most of you already have at your disposal (especially if you’ve made it this far in the article).
The solution: The PASSIVE DI box.
That’s right, a passive DI is two jacks with a transformer in between. The beautiful thing about transformers is they do one thing when signal flows one direction and they do the exact opposite when signal flows the other direction. They couldn’t care less.
In the case of the POD from story 1, I took the recorded DI track output from the computer and used the appropriate adaptors to send it into the microphone out on the DI (yup, the “out,” not the “in”) and reduced the output volume from the computer by a good 20+ db (best to have recorded at 24bit so that you have enough bit resolution left to reduce the volume that much). Then I took the guitar input from the DI and connected it to the input of the POD (see how I did this, “in” to “in” – the DI is now just in the chain backwards from its normal usage). I also prefer to use the “guitar in” on the POD for this and not the “line in.” In this usage of the DI, the transformer is operating the opposite direction from how it was when used in the initial recording. I then took the POD’s output and sent that into the computer to record the reamped sound.
For the second situation, I did the same thing, took the DI recorded guitar track out of the computer and connected it to the microphone out of the DI box and reduced the playback volume out of the computer before the DI box. Then I connected the input of the DI to the input of the amps (I was using two on this session), mic’d them up and hit record.
I use $10 passive DIs and this has always worked like a charm while avoiding the expense of a dedicated reamping box. I would urge you to record the initial DI track at a healthy volume with 24 bit converters to keep the sound accurate when you ultimately play it back into the reverse DI at reduced volume. But other than that, you just need a couple of XLR turnarounds and you’re set to go.
Reamping is as old as recording, but doing it cheaply while respecting the impedance needs of guitar amps is what we’re really talking about here. And remember: it’s much cheaper to buy insurance than to pay for your own heart surgery; take the time to record a DI along with the amp when you’re on location.
Hope that helps a little. Check in next time for some more case studies in DIY recording.
© 2011 Jason Lustig
Jason Lustig has been a freelance producer/engineer for more than 10 years. He can be reached at: http://jasonlustigrecording.com
Case Studies in DIY Recording With Jason Lustig
Well, this is it, the inaugural entry in to what I hope will be a useful, and occasionally humorous, look at how to make the most out of DIY recording. So to start off, I would like to get us all on the same page before we talk technique.
Here is what you need to make a great recording:
1) A great song;
2) Engaged musicians (note that I did not say you needed world-changing talent);
3) A relationship of trust, love of music, and creativity between the musicians and any production staff.
Here are just a few of the things that are nearly, completely, irrelevant to making a great recording:
1) A multi-million dollar studio;
2) A multi-thousand dollar studio;
3) Almost any gear or space that you think you need.
That’s right. Forget it all. Give up blaming your lack of the perfect microphone, the most acoustically refined recording space, and THAT compressor (you know, the one that if you had would actually, really, make it all come together) for not making a great recording. It’s not about the gear. It’s not about the space. So forgive my Buddhist leanings, but get over that whole desire thing.
You have no one to blame for a less than stellar recording than you and the band. Blaming your client doesn’t go over well, so suck it up and remember this: You are much more important than your gear. Keep that close to your heart and keep pushing for what you hear in your mind no matter what tools you have to work with or what space you are doing your recording in. You must keep pushing for what you want to hear. If you give up on reaching that sound because you think your gear won’t take you there, then you will never make a great recording. You, not your gear, are responsible for the sound and the emotional resonance of the recording. (We’ll get to what to do when the song isn’t very good at another time…)
Now, with all that out of the way (but don’t forget it, it underpins everything about recording) let’s get to our first case study in DIY recording.
“What to do when the drummer just isn’t as good as the end product needs but time is extremely limited.”
We’ve all been there. The song is great. The band has a lot of potential. Everyone’s on the same page and having a great time being creative. There are legitimate big hopes for the project that are justified (we’ll have to talk about when this isn’t the case in another article later). But the drummer just isn’t quite tight enough and no amount of takes will really solve that particular problem. What to do?
Normally you could hire another drummer for the studio (if the band is okay with this) or do micro-editing of the drums to get the feel right. However both take time and money to make happen. They also both run a much bigger risk: slowing the session progress down and breaking the creative flow (while also potentially damaging your relationship with the drummer and maybe the whole band).
So how to get top notch drum performances without slowing down the pacing of the sessions with the drummer you have?
Here are the exact details of the session that inspired this little piece: A male/female duo playing all the instruments on their album. They are very talented writers, singers, and players, but the individual playing the drums is just a bit rusty and not quite a professional drummer. On the first day of the session (of what was to be two days of drum recording to start and several days of overdubs to immediately follow) it became obvious that the drummer was writing really great parts but just wasn’t tight enough to pull off the quality of end product that the songs and vocal talent deserved (and the label would need). After two days of drum recording it was going to be essential to start instrumental overdubs immediately to keep on schedule. How to get the quality we needed in the time and budget we had? Here were the options we considered at first:
1) Use another drummer;
2) Do the best we could to edit between multiple takes and go with it;
3) Do microediting of the drums and delay the overdub sessions until all the drums were edited.
No one wanted to bring in another drummer. It was just wrong for this project (and we didn’t have time either). And, unfortunately, this was a session done on location so delaying to do microediting was not a reality – we had to keep on schedule and start overdubs on day three. I felt, in discussion with the band, that accepting the quality we were getting from the live drum takes with just basic editing was going to be a let down. Granted, that could have been a very difficult discussion to have: “Hey dude, sorry, but you’re just not good enough, sucks, but what are you gonna do?” (The drummer wasn’t actually that bad) Thankfully, I had developed a long and trusting relationship with the band (see important things for a great recording above) so we could have a frank discussion and come to the same conclusion that another option was needed since we wouldn’t hire someone else, couldn’t delay, and we couldn’t accept the best we could do with purely live takes and basic editing between takes.
What we needed was the quality of microedited drums (so we could still use the same drummer), but instantly (so we wouldn’t have to delay to do this). Here’s how we solved this problem to keep the session on schedule without sacrificing the end quality:
1) We recorded and edited between drum takes like any other session. We did about 3 or 4 full takes per song, splicing between big chunks and then punching any spots we just couldn’t get from the full takes. For any small scale project, this might have been just fine, but not here.
2) After all the songs were done this way, we spent about 20 minutes per song recording a complete midi performance of the drums using a keyboard and a decent sounding sample set. We made certain to replay the fills and all details exactly as the live drums did. We then quantized this performance and did any tweaks we wanted to get the feel right.
3) Starting on the first day of overdubs (day 3 of the session) we did all overdubs against the midi drums (keeping the live and unedited drums muted) knowing that the timing was exactly what we wanted and that any fills the musicians responded to were the same as the live drums that were muted.
4) In my spare time between parts of the sessions (and over the course of weeks between sessions – and even into mixdown) I microedited the live drums to match the timing of the midi drums so that they could replace the midi drums but not change the feel or timing against the overdubbed instruments.
As an aside: It typically takes between an hour and four hours per song to microedit drums in this way (for me at least, others might be faster or slower) so at that pace it would have taken 10-40 hours that we didn’t have after the initial drum sessions but wasn’t a problem to chip away at slowly over the following weeks.
5) It was time to un-mute those gloriously edited live drums and get rid of those midi tracks! We then mixed the songs with the real, edited drums, that now line up to the instrumental tracks and have a much tighter feel.
We did it! No sacrificing quality or delaying the session timing to get the performance quality we needed while still using the bands actual drummer!
So there you have it. In summary, once you’ve recorded the live drums the best you can, just record and quantize (or otherwise edit) midi drums and do overdubs against those. Then when you have time, edit the real drums to the midi drum timing and bring those edited drums back into the mix. It keeps the session pacing and keeps the band (and label) happy with the quality of the end product.
Hope that helps a little. Check in next time for some more case studies in DIY recording.
© 2011 Jason Lustig