Thursday, November 12, 2015

Preparing to record vocals

Your vocalist is most often the "selling point" of your band. The vocals transmit feeling and mood on a level unparalleled by the instruments in your band. It's also the first thing people concentrate on when listening to your songs. This is where the sheep are separated from the goats. Let's dive into the world of getting ready to record vocals, be it growls, clean singing or something in between. This is the most important phase in recording music. Make it count.

A singer is pacing back and forth in the studio hallway and doing his warm up exercises. He is clearly stressing the situation, although he is making his best efforts to not let it show. I'm setting up a bunch of mics in the live room. I have a faint idea of the vocal sound that would be suitable for the songs and the style, but we'll see. It's always impossible to say beforehand which mic suits the singer the best.
We go thru six mics singing from verse till the end of the chorus. The specific song is selected so that it has most of the prominent vocal styles of the singer. It's important to make sure the mic suits the low growls in the verse as well as the high pitched squeals in the chorus. Or maybe we need to track those separate with different mics for both. Let's investigate.
After fifteen minutes of going thru the mics a sudden realization hits me, somehow I'm not getting the vibe from the singer. He sounds wimpy, although he is a full bearded and long haired viking with arms as thick as my legs. I've heard him on shows sounding like a Balrog and at the moment comparing him to Gollum would be stretching it. He is clearly stressing the situation and not feeling it. I ask him to come to the control room. I start a casual conversation about his past recording experiences and what he is used to. After a few minutes of chatting, I tell him to grab a few beers from the fridge as I fetch the SM7b from the live room. I give the mic to him, hit the space bar, crank the monitors, he starts growling and lo and behold: suddenly he sounds just like he looks. A 260 pound viking is attacking thru the monitors. Great! Now we are talking.

Recording vocals is often much more of a mind game than something overly technical. Here you have a few tips on how to calm the turmoil in your head and start bringing out the best in you.

  • If you like to hold the mic in your hand, at least try out a mic that is suitable for that
  • Try out every mic before making a decision. To pick out a SM57 from a lineup filled with really expensive mics is not at all that uncommon
  • Don't listen to what anyone else says how things should be done. Try it out, compare the tracks  with honesty and open mind and decide for yourself. For instance cupping the mic can sometimes sound good if done right (Randy Blythe and Phil Anselmo come to mind). Just record a pass both cupping and without, listen, and make up your own mind.
  • Have your lyrics printed out for yourself and the engineer. For starters it'll be much easier to find the correct spots from the song when the engineer has a roadmap. The communication will be a hundred times easier.
  • Drink room temperature water while singing
  • It's not advisable to be intoxicated while tracking, but again, don't listen to what anyone tells you. If you need to loosen up to give your best performance, have a beer or two. The feeling is much, much more important than the technical aspects. Just don't be too drunk. Slurring up the words does not sound very good, unless thats something you are going for.
  • Remember to practise your parts thoroughly. Singing is not something magical by nature. Repetition makes you good in anything you are trying to achieve.
  • Make sure the mood in the studio is right. If you are singing a soft ballad, cranking the monitors and having a half empty moonshine bottle in your hand is probably not the way to go. But then again, who knows.
  • SING YOUR HEART OUT!   <--  This is the most important thing of the whole recording. And I'm not referring to just the singers part, it is THE, MOST, IMPORTANT, THING, OF, THE, WHOLE, RECORDING. *Sorry, had to drive that one home =)
So there you go. Have fun singing and let the feeling shine thru. That's the reason why people buy albums and sing along at your shows. Just shoot me up if you have any questions or horror stories of engineers concentrating too much on engineering.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Getting ready to record electric guitar

Electric guitar can easily make or break a Rock/Metal recording. If the guitarist plays like a wimp and without precision your songs will sound uninspiring and bland. Let's find out if there is anything you should be considering before the recordings to make sure this won't happen. And while we are at it, let's explore some of the often undermined effects of amps and cabs to your sound.

The clock is running sadistically small numbers in between 10:00am and 11:00am. With somewhat dreary eyes I'm finding my way to the dungeon (an "affectionate" nickname for the studio). We are supposed to start recording the rhythm guitars for a black metallish group and I'm trying to make it down to the lair a bit before the guitarists turn up. I find myself taking a few running steps now and then 'cos I'm not quite sure how precise the guys are. I get in and head straight to the coffee machine. Once I get the coffee going I start to assess the situation. I have both of my amps all ready to go and I'll just need to set up the cab in the live room and throw a few mics in front before the guys get here. Just as I get everything close to set up the phone rings "Räihä" I answer with an upbeat. "Sorry that we are a bit late. There was a bit of a situation before we got driving... But we are at the door". I'm already walking to open the front door "I'll come up" I conclude.

The guys come in with a pile of guitars and a few amps (with some weird issues and old tubes, I have been told). We shoot the shit for good ten minutes and start making a wall of the amps we collectively have gathered for the session. I urged the guitarists to bring every working amp they had any positive feelings about. I also strongly advised to leave the beat up 2 x 12" Harley Benton at their rehearsal place. Not that I have anything against cheap gear but let's just say I've been there and done that. And besides, I happen to have a great 4 x 12" that'll give the sound the kind of importance and weight we are after. We look at the guitars the guys brought in and I ask which guitar brings the most joy when played. Both guitarists take out their number one axe and I quickly scan thru the pickups and the overall condition of the guitars. The other one has EMG81 in the bridge and the other one has a Duncan JB in the bridge. Excellent! The stars are in alignment. We can start out with the stuff the guys are most at home with. I just hate talking musicians out of their main instrument but sometimes it's the only real alternative. You should see some of the "guitars" and "pickups" that come in.

After a quick tuning we go thru every amp and try to find settings that compliment the bands music the most. At this point it's essential to listen to the sound in context. Isolated sounds do not interest me the slightest. The most important thing is that everything fits together. With this specific project our work is a bit easier 'cos we have already decided that we are shooting for a raw tone that lets the "touch" of the player be heard. So two tracks of main rhythm guitars it is. Now all we need is a sample of each amp and then a brutally honest comparison and an open discussion of the sounds. One more round with the best ones (to our ears for this specific project), little tweaks and off we go. Hopefully...

The equipment affects guitar sound immensely. At least the effect is much greater than with other instruments. Here you have a short list of things to consider:

  • Have your instrument set up by a professional. You'll find yourself tuning the damn thing all the time anyhow but it'll make your life much easier. Trust me
  • TUNE TUNE TUNE TUNE! Tune so much it hurts
  • You should tune the guitar to the riff you are playing. If the part has only notes from high up on the fretboard: fret one of those notes, plug it, look at the tuner and tune accordingly. It doesn't matter if the open strings are in tune if you are not playing open strings
  • Tune so that the attack of the note is in tune if you are playing fast stuff
  • Tune so that the sustain is in tune if you are playing slow stuff
  • The pick affects the tone, your picking angle affects the tone, how hard you play affects the tone, the riffs you play affect the tone
  • Play hard and snappy, and preferably downstrokes with a steep pick angle (not parallel to the strings) for that Hetfield / scrapey attack vibe. If you are into that sort of thing. And frankly, who isn't?
  • Mute the strings you are not playing. It is impossible to get a precise and punchy guitar sound if you have constant unwanted noise coming from the guitar. If you should remember and implement only one thing from this blog entry it is this one, hands down. You should practice this alone and fully concentrate on not letting anything unwanted to ring out.
  • Change strings (at least) for every day of recording for both easier tuning and better sound. And remember to wash those sticky fingers of yours before smudging up the strings
  • Make sure you have strings on that are of adequate thickness. That low A note better be in tune when you hit it like it owes you money.
So there you go. Follow these guidelines and be prepared for smoother sailing when recording your riffs. Did I leave out something important or do you disagree with something. Let me know and let's talk about it.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Getting ready to record bass guitar

Bass guitar is the foundation of your songs and should be treated with the utmost of respect. If the bass player is going all over the place with an out of tune instrument, it will be impossible to get your mix sounding heavy and "important". I'll give you a few pointers on how to get your bass tracks and thus your band to sound crushing.

A nameless bass player (picture unrelated) has been sitting on the control room couch for several days now. He has been sipping his coffee and an occasional beer now and then. He seems anxious to get to work but is forced to endure thru the guitar recordings. I'm quite sure he has always recorded his parts before the guitarists but in this case I have given him enough reasons to let the guitarism happen first. He seems to have read (for once) the "getting ready for the studio" pdf I sent the band because he starts to change the strings as we are finishing up with the rhythm guitars. Then the typical question from the adjacent room: "Is it really that important to change the strings three times during the recordings." I switch to robot mode "It depends. It depends on your sweat, how long it will take to record your parts and what are your expectations for the sound. But it is good to come prepared". The bassists gives two nods with his lips tightly together. "That makes sense." and continues with the string change.

Much of the work for bassists is done prior to recording. Here you have a list of things to consider.
  • Get your instrument set up by a professional. Good intonation is extremely important
  • Mute the strings you are not playing. This is really important. A bass track with hum and ringing extra notes will not sound punchy and articulate
  • Play so that the notes are in tune. Don't press too much or bend unknowingly the strings. If the foundation is out of tune, the whole band is out of tune
  • TUNE TUNE TUNE TUNE! Tune so much that it hurts
  • Record guitars first. It will be easier to listen for the tuning
  • The sound comes from the bass and begins with your hands. I can't stress this enough. Get a good and sound-wise suitable instrument. and know that if you play softly with your fingers the results will be completely different than playing super hard with a pick. One is not better than the other but know and articulate to your engineer what you are after
  • Simplicity is often your best friend. Knowing when there is room for the bass solo is much more important than the solo. Playing fast legato stuff during the power-chorus is likely not a good idea. The part most probably needs the firm foundation. This is what for you are in the band
  • Distortion will give you more definition. Your midrange will "stiffen" and the notes you are playing will cut thru the wall of guitars better
  • Try out a thin pick. This will act as kind of a compressor for the loudest notes
  • Play everything as evenly volume-wise as possible. Practice this separately
  • Try out D'addario Pro Steels for that piano like top end, if you are into that kind of thing
There you go. Have fun and play in tune. Your band will love you for it =)

Do you have a favourite set of strings or do you disagree with something? Drop a line. It would be great to broaden my spectrum.

-Juho Räihä-

Monday, November 2, 2015

How to set up your drums for recording

Setting up your drums so that it feels good to play and sounds good on the recording is no easy task. On your set you may have ten cymbals, six toms, two bass drums, two snares and some windchimes. Do your ergonomics go hand in hand with the sound or is there something worth considering here. Lets find out.

It's the crack of dawn (10am) and I'm drinking my third cup of morning coffee while setting up some tracks on the studio computer. The phone rings. "Sorry that I'm a bit late" she says" But there was a huge traffic and..." I zone out and continue to name the tracks I just created on screen. A moment goes by, then a sudden silence "...great!" I blurt "I'll come and open the door for you". We start carrying the drums in. Not a single case or bag. Everything separate. Ten trips to the car and back later everything is in. Lock the doors and point the drummer to the restroom and then to the coffee.  I'll start assessing the situation. There is a lot of stuff. Most of which will get hit probably once or twice during the session. I already visualize the hour manually finding and editing the three hits we had on that sixth floor tom (on which I used half an hour tuning and the drummer 30€ on new skins).  I start talking with the drummer to get some of the vibe she is after. "I took everything with me just in case. But lets only use what's necessary" I smile in relief, take a sip of my coffee and start babbling about the upcoming Star Wars movie whilst starting to tune the drums.
Once the drums are up and set to the drummers liking, I start squeezing in the mics. "Would it be possible to bring up this crash a bit? I can't get the mic in" "Sure" she replies. "How much?" Maybe the caffeine is kicking in but my morning is getting brighter and brighter.
I then proceed to negotiate to put the crashes, that sound a bit low in volume, a bit higher and closer to the overheads than the, a bit louder, chinas she has. We go thru the whole set like this. And not because it makes my job easier (it doesn't at this point) but because I know we need everything coming in the mics well separated and balanced. The recording will sound much clearer and more "professional" (for lack of a better word). And this way I get the maximum amount of control for mixing. A super loud hi-hat in the snare mic is something that will ruin ones week. If you can't raise the volume of your snare in the mix because of the snare mic being more of a hi-hat mic you are faced with some compromises. And one should never step on that path in making music.

  • Bring in only what you truly need or an alternative (i.e. a different snare)
  • Have your cymbals high. Cymbal bleed in the rack tom mics is vomit inducing.
  • Have an idea where the snare mic could fit in. That's if you have three rack toms.
  • Have your crash and china cymbals preferably close to one level. Or purposefully so that the louder ones are on the lower layer and the quieter ones higher. The overheads love to hear balanced cymbal arsenals.
  • Separation gives you clearer drum-sound and eliminates rattle (i.e. cymbals hitting each-other)
  • A smaller set records better and is less time consuming (read: cheaper for you)

In the end you should express yourself freely when arranging and playing drums. Don't suddenly lose half of your set for the sake of recording, but have these ideas silently humming on your hard-drive while thinking about the upcoming recording session. It's fun to have a huge drum-set but sadly fun doesn't always equal good sound. Know what you are after and go make better records.

Do you disagree or do you have a horror story of an engineer ruining your vibe messing with your setup? Shoot a line and let's find some common ground.

-Juho Räihä-

Friday, October 30, 2015

Drum head, cymbal and stick choices

Drum head, cymbal and stick choices affect your drum sound immensely. The only other thing on par is your playing. The most expensive mics, preamps and room won't mean a thing if your drums sound like utter crap.  I'll give you some pointers on how to start building the jigsaw puzzle and make sure that those microphones are actually capturing something worth hearing.

I remember too many instances where a drummer has gone out to get drum heads for a session the night before. He/she walks to the music store, asks for the heads I have recommended for the project at hand, the shopkeeper says: "We don't have those 8" tom heads and that snare drum head seems weird. "Let me give you these heads instead (gives the drummer some mythological cow-skin heads). I used these the last time I myself was in the studio and they are superb." He then continues (without knowing anything about the session I might add) "By the way, you really want to use the same exact heads on the resonant side as well".
It's the last possible hour to get the heads. So the drummer just takes what is offered.
Come the morning of the session. I see the skins and think to myself "not again."
I'll be able to work around it, and new skins are always better than those duct-taped ones the poor drums had before. And we need to get setting up. Time is always of the essence. The first problem for mixing has already surfaced. And we haven't even set up the drums yet.

Here are my tried and true, "go to" drumhead choices for Metal/Rock:

  • Remo coated controlled sound for the snare batter if you are a tip hitter
  • Remo coated Emperor for snare batter if you are a rimshotter or just like some good ol' ring
  • Remo Ambassador resonant hazy for the snare drum resonant side
  • Pure Sound Snare Drum Wires (Get the ones with 24 strands or more)
  • Remo clear Emperors for the tom batter side
  • Remo clear Ambassadors for the tom resonant side
  • Aquarian Superkick II / Aquarian resonator (with the kick pad) for the bass drums
Music is definitely a subjective art and your mileage may vary. But if you are open to suggestions, or lost with all the choices, give this set a shot. You won't be far off (for Metal at least). I'll just point out (even with the risk of sounding repetitive) the list above is not be all end all of drum heads. there is no such a thing. But remember that everything needs to fit together. Your bass drum sound needs to sound fitting with the floor tom, snare drum, guitars, your singers voice, the synth pads... the list goes on. The selection above has been cumulated thru years and years of recording, mixing and making music. The list is far from just simply sounding nice in isolation. From the mixing engineers perspective, how the snare sounds by itself simply doesn't matter, at all. It does not matter until every layer has been recorded. Only then you get to hear what is left audible of the snare. Did I drive that one home? Good. Lets move on.

The heads and the tuning have more effect on the sound of your drum than the actual drum itself. So do yourself a favor and don't skimp on this.
Of course the drum and the skins are only a part of the equation. Now you'll need something to hit them with.
  • Use wooden or plastic bass drum beaters for added attack (there seems to never be enough)
  • Use a stick type that on top of feeling good to play with, suits your preferred sound. Remember: comfort doesn't necessarily equal good sound
  • Don't squeeze the sticks. It really does affect the sound
  • Hit the drums HARD and go easy on the cymbals. Seriously, this one is important
Use cymbals that sound balanced (volume-wise) to each other. And preferably use hi-hats that are a bit quieter. Those hats will always be the loudest and most annoying cymbals come mix time. Also playing easy on the hats is of utmost importance.

Be wise and get the skins from your local shop or from Thomann (or where ever) at least a week or two prior to your session. You'll save money, get the right skins and thus a better drum sound. No downside. Just put them on the drums finger-tight the night before recording. You can take care of the tuning at the studio.

Do you have a preferred set of drumheads for studio use? Drop a comment and give me your reasons for those specific choices. I'm always willing to learn and exchange ideas.

Have fun and go make that noise =)
-Juho Räihä-

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Proper tuning is essential for your drums

I have tuned most of the drums I have recorded during the past decade and I have gradually learned my way thru the often mystified art of drum tuning. The truth is that tuning drums just simply isn't as hard as people tend to make it. My conclusion: Go and get yourself an Overtone Labs Tune-Bot drum tuner. Thank me later.

Now that we got that out of the way, here is a few pointers / my starting points where to begin with your Heavy Metal drum tuning.
  • Both Bass drum heads finger tight (because we love that high slap that loose heads give)
  • Snare resonant head tabletop tight (don't bother with the Tune-Bot, use your ears) 
  • Snare batter head to taste (250hz - 350hz lug tension on the tune-bot)
  • Snare wires at a tension best explained on the following video:
  • Tom resonant heads tighter than batter heads (use the Tune-Bot calculator)
When using the tuning calculator: 
  1. Fill in your tom sizes
  2. Select low resonance
  3. Pitch adjustment to -1
  4. Head tuning style: Resonant head higher
  5. Profit
Start with the floor tom and listen how it sounds. With old heads you might want to use higher pitch adjustment values to make sure the head isn't "brumming" or making other weird noises. Once you get the floor tom right, you'll know how low you can go. Work through the rest of the toms with those settings of the tuning calculator.

Remember that patience and practice are key points here. And use your ears to make sure that the lugs really are in the same tension/tuning. The Tune-Bot will lie to you if the lug tunings are too far apart.

Tune-Bot website is your friend with all of its guides.

Tuning is not as hard as you think it is.

Do you have any questions on tuning?
I'm more than willing to steer you in the right direction. So ask away.

-Juho Räihä-

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Of Drummers and Drumheads

Well hello hello!
Welcome to the audio ramblings of SoundSpiral Audio.
Drummers ahoy! I’ll start with you guys.

Change your drumheads before recording. First off, with old heads you won’t be able to tune the drums as low as with brand spanking new skins. And we all love the low rumble of that floor tom don’t we? Also, with your year old heads, stick attack/high end on the drums will be non existent. Trying to eq it back in is like fighting an uphill battle. The tom mics will become additional cymbal mics in no time.
And bare in mind that the skins lose their magic after just a few days of bashing.
Some go as far as re-skinning the set after each day of recording. But that might be a sign of having a little more money than the average Joe.
And yes. The resonant heads too…
-Juho Räihä-