Drum Breaks, First Takes + Jaffa Cakes: Part 2
How to record an EP without spending any money (except on Jaffa Cakes!)
The more noise you make, the more the sound waves bounce around in the space you’re recording in, reflecting off walls and being picked up by the microphones you’re attempting to capture the sound with. This isn’t really a problem if you stick a mic right up against the speaker in a guitar amplifier and turn the volume up to nausea-inducing levels, but gets awkward when dealing with the overhead or room mics on a drum kit, or recording the singer. The traditional way of dealing with this is to get an acoustician to spend lots of your money designing a sympathetic space to record in. This can cost a LOT of money. Some of the truly great studios would set you back millions if you recreated them today.
Our way of dealing with it was to remove as much interaction with the space we were recording in as possible. In practice this meant that all the guitar and bass parts were recorded by plugging our instruments into the audio interface and then simulating the interaction between speakers and microphones. I’ve got a very nice all-valve amplifier that has one of the best speaker-emulated outputs I’ve ever come across. Every single electric guitar part on the EP was recorded through my Blackstar HT-5 amp head straight into my audio interface. Rhayn DI’d his basses by connecting his Mark Bass Little Mark III amp up via its DI output, which I then tweaked while mixing by adding an amp & speaker modelling plugin.
Anything that sounds like an acoustic guitar, isn’t. Sorry. It’s a Line6 Variax – a guitar that digitally models other guitars, 26 in fact (plus a banjo and an electric sitar for good measure!). There are a number of models of 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars lurking inside it’s electronic innards that sound quite convincing. Pianos and other keyboard sounds were again recorded straight in courtesy of Gareth’s Roland digital stage piano and synth module. In fact if I could only convince Gareth to undergo minor surgery and have a USB socket grafted to his larynx, it would make my life a hell of a lot easier!
We started off recording Gareth in the same studio that Vinden tracked his drums in (thanks again, Viv!), but after getting Exalted Star and Full Flow in the bag, we ran into scheduling conflicts that would have held us up even further had we continued down that route.
The issue, you see, is that Gareth can’t help himself. If there’s any way he can crowbar three-part harmonies into an arrangement, he will. In places he stacked up whole choirs of his voice (particularly in the outro of Enigma). Now Gareth is both accurate and precise (a very rare combination) when it comes to laying down vocal parts, but it still takes time to do it. And while the rest of us can soldier on through fatigue, illness and the general malaise that is tracking parts at 10am, a singer IS his instrument. If they’ve got a cold, forget it. If they’re worn-out or stressed, they aren’t going to hit the notes with the same pizazz. And there is a limited window of opportunity to get a great vocal take. They can’t just keep churning it out, take after take, until everyone’s satisfied. I tend to work on the principal of keeping vocal sessions to a four-hour maximum. Any more than that and I find you only have to get them back in to repair stuff anyway. So we decided to try and find a way to track the vocals in the comfort of my house, too. By adopting a DIY approach we ensured that Gareth could track the vocals when HE felt like it and I would have more control over the engineering (at one point during the tracking of Exalted Star, Gareth ended up with his back against the live room wall, singing into a microphone 10 feet away!) I always record his vocals through a compressor to control the dynamic range and adjust the gain control depending on how loud he’ll sing a particular line.
It took a bit of effort – and some ingenious hoop-jumping – but we managed to get everything else recorded at home. I also learnt some valuable lessons in how not to record things, and ultimately we’ve gained enough experience to never need to use a ‘proper’ studio again.