Six Things to Consider Before Hiring a Recording Studio

Happy Christmas Everyone!  The seasonal break has meant that I’ve had a bit of time to do a blog post in what can really now only be described as an occasional series of articles.

I saw this excellent article on “Six things to consider before hiring a recording studio”, so I thought I’d answer the questions in it from Zinne Studio’s point of view:

https://ask.audio/articles/six-things-to-consider-before-hiring-a-recording-studio/p1#article

Q1. How do they bill?

I prefer to only bill based on the final product.  We’ll agree the scope of the project before we start, and wiggle-room will always be left for the project to expand.  If it expands seriously beyond initial agreed expectations, we might have to talk again about pricing, but we’d agree this between us.

The reason I prefer this is that things often take longer than we expect in a studio.  Sure, we might get a great guitar sound very quickly, but it might not be the one you’re looking for, and it might take some time to get the one that’s just right for you and the song.  I believe we should be able to take this time if we need to, without anyone watching the clock instead of being creative.  Furthermore, you know how much you have to spend on recording, and this should be a pleasure without nasty invoice-related surprises.

The linked article goes on to say that:

There’s nothing wrong with this [charging by the project, not the hour], per se, but you will want to be clear up front with how you will both determine a song is ‘done’. How many times will you be allowed to make changes? Will you be present during the final mix down (don’t assume you will be)? Will the file be properly prepared for mastering, or will some form of mastering even be included? These are all things that you’ll want to address before you agree to pay for a ‘finished’ product.

This is all quite right, and we’ll look to agree this before we start.  I am not a mastering engineer, but I know some very good ones, and I always recommend to clients that they go to a dedicated mastering engineer and studio if their budget can stretch to it.  I can run tracks through a bit of a mastering process if they are simply to be used as demos and so forth, but all I’ll really be doing is making them sound louder, and maybe cutting a little mud, but a good mastering engineer, with the proper room and kit will do much more than that to enhance your tracks.  Supplying tracks ready for a mastering is included in the price, and I’m happy to supply ‘pseudo mastered’ and ‘mastering ready’ tracks.

As for mixing, firstly, I’d hope to get a good sense of how you want the final mix to sound before we’ve even started, but also from the rough mixes we do as we go along.  I like to do a  first good mix on my own based on artist’s views about the rough mixes we’ve done and reference tracks they’ve supplied, and then send it for the artist to listen to and think about.  Then they can send me changes to make, and I can have a go at making them.  For me, that’s the point that it it really helps to have the artist come back in and sit with me while we tweak the mix together.

Why don’t I like to have clients present when i do the first good mix?  Well, the mixing process involves quite a lot of stuff that’s time consuming and extremely boring to sit and watch, but that has to be done.  For example, I may spend quite a lot of time getting the bass and kick drum to sit well with each other, or editing vocal passages, which are important, but dull to sit and watch me do.  Not only that, but clients can get quite the wrong impression of how things are going to sound from hearing instruments in isolation.  For instance, it’s very common to thin out rhythm guitars, and particularly strumming acoustic guitars in a big mix quite drastically at the low end so that they stay out of the way of the bass and kick drums and feel more present.  Nobody likes to hear their beautiful, full guitar sound thinned out, even if it’s just the 3rd guitar, but the important thing is how things work in the overall mix, and not in isolation.

On the question of how many times we can make changes, the answer to this is as many as necessary within reason.  If we are going round in circles though, I’ll let you know that we need to discuss  how to firmly get to the end point.

Finally, any playing you might want me to do – guitars, keyboards, bass, etc. is included in the price we initially agree.  Obviously, if you need session players, you will need to pay them directly.  I have a list of outstanding session players I’ve worked with though, and I can help you find the right one.

Q2. What DAW do they utilise?

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation, and refers to the recording software we’ll use.  I use Apple’s Loxic X.  The industry standard has been Pro Tools for a long time, but I have some serious issues with how the producer of Pro Tools, Avid, go about their business, which I won’t go into now.  It seems a lot of other people do as well, and Pro Tools, while still by far the most popular, is loosing market share.   If you have a Mac, you probably already have Garageband, which is really a dramatically cut-down version of Logic, and if you’re making Electronica there’s a good chance you’re using Ableton Live or Cubase.

All DAWs basically do the same thing, and it’s largely a matter of preference and familiarity, but the important thing is that they are not all easily compatible.I am totally happy to put the entire logic project on a disc or USB drive, but preparing for your tracks to be imported into another DAW is quite time consuming, so there’s an extra charge.  If you are not likely to want to take your source tracks away, and just want the final stereo mixes, this shouldn’t concern you, but please let me know if you are likely to want someone else to mix (which is totally fine) or otherwise want the source tracks in a form that other DAWs can use.

We also have a great selection of additional plugins to help find the sounds you want.

Q3. What back line do they have?

Put simply, we try to have stuff you might not have.  Most electric guitarists will have an excellent setup that they’ve worked over time on getting to sound and work how they want.  This might form the basis of their sound, and we might record this rig for the main sounds.  However, using an identical rig for multiple layered parts often doesn’t sound great, so it’s good to use different guitars, amps and pedals to get different textures.  We don’t, for example, have Strats or Les Pauls.  If these are central to your sound, you almost certainly own one already.  You might however need a particular solo to be particularly stinging, to have a modern metal sounding rhythm guitar on one track, or want to double a baseline with a baritone, without buying a Tele, EMG-loaded shred guitar or a Baritone.

Therefore, we have a big selection of guitars and pedals, and a smaller selection of carefully chosen amps that I know will record well and can be manipulated into a massive variety of sounds.  Use of anything here is included in the price, and I can and will help in suggesting different setups and finding sounds.

The same goes for acoustic guitars and basses.  Your beautiful gibson Hummingbird might not be the thing that a certain track needs for a finger style part, or for a bright strumming part, or you might fancy a bit of dobro or lap steel even though you don’t have one.  in my experience, bassists really have their own number one instrument, but even then they might want just one track with fretless or a retro sounding hollow-body thunk.

For drums, we have a basic kit which records very well, but drummers should bring their own snare and cymbals (and anything else they particularly love the sound of of theirs).

We don’t (unfortunately) have a load of analogue synths lying around.  This is partly because I’m mainly a guitarist myself, and therefore not an expert in this field, but also because synth players tend to come with their own patches ready on their own kit.  We have loads of nice software synths to play with though, and nice feeling midi keyboard.

There’s a list of the back line and instruments we have available for you to use at the end of this post

Q4. What does the mic closet contain?

We have lots of excellent mics, but, I’ll be honest with you, we’ve stayed away from simply splurging on a few Neumann U87s and other classics. We are a small studio, and try to fill a gap between what people can do at home, and what the very excellent but also rather expensive bigger studios do.  For that reason, we don’t set out to compete against the big studios; what they do is outstanding, but we can’t have our prices and have the cupboard full of vintage German and Austrian handmade mics that they might have.  Instead, we have a carefully assembled, and ever growing selection of mics that I have worked with extensively and have something particular about them that sets them apart.

As with backline, we try to have a wide variety of stuff you might not have, and some unusual stuff.  This is particularly important as every voice is different, so taking the time to try a variety of different mics with different characteristics.  We might need tube presence, toppy bite to cut, through, clarity and detail, rock focus or retro warmth.  All of our mics are good, but different, so I’ll never just put ‘the best’ mic up and expect it to work for everyone.  Sometimes, it is a surprisingly humble mic that works best for a particular singer on a particular track.  It’s worth remembering that Michael Jackson recorded ‘Thriller’ and ‘Billie Jean’ with a Shure SM7 that can be picked up for about EUR 350, for most of Back to Black Amy Winehouse was singing into an SE 2200 that cost less than EUR200, and Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ was recorded with a Rode Classic 2 that, while not cheap at around a grand, still comes in at less than half of the cost of many of the established studio standards, and a quarter of the cost of some.  The important thing is not the price, but that the mic, the room, the technique, and the performance are the right ones that day for that artist on that track. We also have a great selection of instrument mics, some standard, some more interesting or specialised.  We’re also constantly acquiring new mics as we go and as we find interesting stuff.

Much more importantly though, we have excellent acoustic treatment.  If you are recording at home at any serious level, acoustic treatment is the number one thing you should consider investing in.  Even the very best mics will sound awful in an untreated room, while even a very cheap mic can give excellent results if used carefully in a well treated room.  This does not mean an acoustically dead room necessarily, but a room carefully treated with multi-band absorption and diffusion, bass-trapping, and parts of the room more lively than others.  Perhaps a point for another blog post.  A list of the mics we have is at the end of this blog post.

Q5. How knowledgeable does the engineer seem?

This is a very important question.  While the studio has only been running full-time for around 18 months, I’ve been recording for over 10 years part time, and have been a musician for over 20 years.  I have not been to college to learn recording – I am self taught over many years in other studios as a musician and tech, and here recording myself and my friends.  I’m still learning though, and I expect to be for the rest of my life.  If we need to do something I’ve never done before, I’ll research and experiment with how to do it, and get expert advice.  I will never just try and blag it, or pretend I know what to do when i don’t.  Some things may be beyond the possibilities that me or my little studio offer, and, if that’s the case, we can work together to find additional venues or personnel for the project.

However, I believe that the most important job I have is to capture great performances well, and therefore the whole studio is set up with a homely, cosy and relaxed feel.  I will never dictate the pace of a session.  If you want to go fast, we’ll go fast, and if you want to go a t a more chilled pace, that’s cool by me.  If you’re not feeling the vibe for a vocal track, we can work on something else and come back to it.  If you have a great idea you want to try for a part, we’ll try it.  If it doesn’t work, no harm is done.

I have had some frustrating times in studios, against the clock, being chivvied to get a part right, and not having time to experiment or work through new ideas, and this does not bring out good performances.  As an engineer, I’ll make sure we get the performance recorded, and recorded well, but you’ll never be pressured to work any way other than the way you want to.

Q6. Where are they located?

We’re in Ixelles, Brussels.  Parking’s not great to be honest, but this is made up for by being close to Metros, trams, shops, bars and food places.  If you have a great space you want to record in, I can also bring my kit to you and work in your space if it is suitable.  I’m happy to discuss any possibility!

Kit – This is not everything, but should give you a decent flavour

Mics:

  • SE Gemini 5
  • Sontronics Helios
  • SE 4400a (x2)
  • Shure SM7b
  • Rode NT2K
  • EV RE320
  • Groove Tubes Model 1
  • Audio-Technica 2020 (x2)
  • SE R1 Ribbon mic (x2)
  • SE 1a (x2)
  • Sontronics Halo
  • Shure SM57s, SM58s and Super 55
  • Senheiser e602 (kick drum)
  • Senheiser e609
  • Beyerdynamic Opus 83
  • AKG D12
  • Heil PR20
  • Electro-Voice Raven

Amps:

  • Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue
  • Marshall Vintage Modern 2×12
  • Vox Night Train
  • Vox AC4TV
  • Laney LC12R
  • MarkBass 1×12 combo

Electric Guitars:

  • Fender Telecaster ’52 Reissue
  • Fender Telecaster ’72 Deluxe Reissue (Bigsby)
  • Fender Telecaster ’72 Custom Reissue (Bigsby and Bare Knuckle pickups)
  • Fender La Cabronita Telecaster
  • Fender Jaguar (MIJ)
  • Burns Marvin Anniversary
  • Eastwood Airline ’59 Deluxe
  • Epiphone Dot (Bare Knuckle Pickups)
  • Reverend Buckshot (Bigsby)
  • Reverend Flatroc (Bigsby)
  • Charvel Skatecaster (EMGs, Floyd Rose)
  • Gibson Melody Maker
  • Danelectro Baritone
  • Odd lap-steel thing

Acoustic Guitars:

  • Taylor 310
  • Washburn Anniversary Parlour
  • Washburn 000 size
  • mid-‘70s Ibanez Conchord 12-String
  • Regal resonator

Basses:

  • Fender Jaguar bass
  • Warwick Corvette (fretted and Fretless)
  • Warwick Alien Fretless Acoustic
  • Ibanez Artcore hollow-body
  • Squier Bass VI

Pedals:

Too many to mention, but including Z.Vex, Emma, Electro Harmonix, Malekko, Lovepedal, Groove Street, Xotic, EBS, MXR, Caitlinbread, HAO, Digitech, Van Amps, Red Witch, Dunlop, Danelectro, Diamond, Ibanez, Tech21, Maxon and (of course) Boss.

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Taking sides – Mid-Side Recording

Left and Right

Most people probably think of stereo recording as having 2 channels – Left and right – and technically most people are correct. The mp3 files on your computer or smartphone do indeed contain 2 channels of audio, and, unless you are using mono equipment, the computer or device will send one track to the left speaker and one track to the right simultaneously. Its obvious really. We have two ears, so have two speakers. The perception of something coming from the left or the right is then caused by it being panned that way in the mix – i.e. it is louder on one side than the other, or, if panned to the extreme, the sound is only coming from one speaker and not the other.

The actual mechanics of this revolve around our brain’s ability to decipher both the tiny difference in the time the sound reaches each ear, and the tiny differences in volume at each ear, and translate them into a sense of where the sound is coming from in space.  Obviously, in terms of natural selection and evolution, this is a fantastically handy trick.  Knowing whether the predator, or, for that matter, the animal you are hunting is behind you and to your left just be sound is a good survival skill to have.

Dead Centre

Have you noticed though, that some sounds are dead centre, and seem to come out of an imaginary centre speaker that you don’t have? For example, listen to the first 30 seconds of Airbag by Radiohead:

The distorted guitar is panned hard right (although for some reason youtube has switched the sides round as the guitar should be on the left here on the CD version) with a cello echoing the guitar line on the left. the cleaner melody guitar then comes in on the left, then the drums come in in the middle. Interestingly though, the drums are still spread out a little, and not focussed just on the centre. When the vocals come in at 0.27 though, they are focussed dead centre and give the impression of coming from a ‘phantom’ centre speaker. This is because both of your speakers are putting out the sound of Thom Yorke’s voice at exactly the same volume as each other. It therefore arrives at both your ears simultaneously, and at the same volume, and gives this ‘centred’ impression. If your speakers are spread fairly widely (say more than a metre), you can test this effect by turning your head towards one of them. Thom’s voice will appear to move slightly in the same direction.

This shows how when making audio you can actually think of there being 3 channels – Left, Right and Centre. In fact, in the old days, recording console would have a L-C-R switch instead of the pan knob that we’re all more used to now.

There is however a third way to think about and indeed treat audio, and that is to think of two channels: Mid and Sides.  This means taking everything that is not dead centre, and everything that is dead centre and treating it differently.

What is the point of this you may ask?  Well, an example came up recently while recording acoustic guitar for Simon Morgan’s Blind Pig Truffle project.  Simon had a track that had a very clear acoustic guitar running right through it, and this needed to be panned centrally with the vocal to keep it as the main musical focus.  He also wanted to add a ringing 12-string guitar as well though.  The difficulty was that we knew that it would sound odd either with the two guitars panned even a little left and right from each other, or for the main guitar part to be central with the 12-string panned off it’s shoulder.

Mid-Side Recording

So, we recorded the 12-string using mid-side (or M-S) recording.  To do this, you take one cardioid pattern mic (see previous blog entry on mic pickup patterns) and point that at the sound source as a the ‘mid’ or centre mic.  This is the main mic, and it’s as important as ever to get this sounding good.  You then take another mic set to a figure of 8 pattern, and place it at exactly 90 degrees to the first mic.  This is the side mic, with it’s null-point pointing towards the sound source, and it’s two sides capturing the room, and the sound made by the extreme sides of the instrument.

Here’s two mics in this setup, from the perspective of the player.  The lower one is the mid-mic.

photo

This shows the set-up from above with the two mics and their respective pickup patterns shown as circles coming from them.

M-d Side Guitar Small

It’s just a phase

So far so good, but the alert among you will be wondering how you then get the signal from one mic to be useable for both sides simultaneously.  The answer to this is that you take the signal from the side mic, copy it to a second track, and then reverse the polarity (or flip the phase) on that track.  What you then end up with is two signals with opposite polarities.  What this then means is that any part of the signal which is identical to each other is cancelled out, and you are then left with the different signals from either side of the figure 8 mic [insert actual physics here please, Ed].  Pan them left and right, and these can then be blended with the centre signal to make the acoustic image thinner or wider.

How does it sound?

In an all time first, we have audio examples.

In the is first example, the first 4 bars are the Mid mic only, the second 4 bars are the Side mic only, and the final 4 bars are them blended together.  You should be able to hear how the bolder sounding centre drops away and leaves the brighter, thinner sounding sides, and then gets fuller again.

In this second example, you should get a better idea of why this technique can be useful.  A six string guitar playing the main guitar part for the song is dead centre.  In the first 4 bars it is just this with the Mid mic on the 12-string guitar, in the second it is with just the sides, and in the third 4 bars it is with the same blend of mid and sides on the 12-string as int he first example

Hopefully, you heard that the the two guitars were getting in the way of each other to some extend in the first four bars.  Then, the middle falls out of the 12 string, and it sounds (unrealistically) wide, but leaves lots of room for the main guitar making it sound clearer.  Then, hopefully, in the final 4 bars, the 12-string returns to an overall nicer sound, but sits behind and around around the main guitar, rather than over it, and hopefully creates a bit of sparkly atmosphere without interfering with the main line.

So there you go.  Yet another useful reason to understand microphone patterns and phase issues.  Thanks to Simon Morgan, who also has an absolutely brilliant beer blog called Thirsty Road, for the lovely guitar playing and patience while I messed about with mics.

Next month – how to make a fully functioning stadium sound system out of old guitar strings and some herring.

Null Points: Recording Vocals, Acoustic Guitar and Cahon together

 

 

Sorry for the massive gaps between blogs.  i thought nobody really read them, but someone mentioned that they did, and that’s enough for me, so here we go.

At one time, recording a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar and singing was relatively simple.  Mic on the vocals, mic(s) on the guitar, move them until everything sounds good, and press record.  Much like this:

Nowadays though, most musicians are completely used to recording everything separately,and building up songs track-by track.  So it’s extremely cool and refreshing to have a client who says “No, I want to do it all together, along with Martin, my Cahon player”, as Karen MacHugh did.  Karen also said that it was important that they could see each other while playing.

 

This was clearly going to be a challenge.  In addition to getting the right sounds, the key issue when recording instruments together in a room is always going to be bleed.  This is when the sounds of one instrument ‘bleed’ into the microphone that you have pointed at another instrument.  Why should this be a problem?  Firstly, you want to be able to have some control over the levels of instruments at the mixing stage.  If there is a lot of bleed from instrument B into the mic on instrument A, then turning up instrument A int he mix is going to lead to Instrument B also being louder, whether or not you like it.  The second issue is the sound quality.  The response of most microphones (Cardioid and super cardioid ones, we’ll come to that) tends to vary considerably ‘off axis’  That is to say that when sounds come at the mic from an angle, they will sound different.  As mics are optimised to make the thing they are pointed at sound good, the sounds coming from things they are not pointed at tend to sound either thin or wooly, depending on a few different factors.  This means that, having got the Cahon sound just right in the Cahon’s mics, you then have to contend with the altogether different, and usually very sub-optimal, sound of the cahon coming through the Acoustic Guitar mic, and vice versa.

How can you get round this then?  The answer is that you can’t, but there are some ways to mitigate the effect.  The first  way is to put some moveable acoustic screening, or ‘gobbos’ between the instruments.  I did this, but could only do it up to head height as it was important to maintain a line of sight.  This helps a lot, but has limitations, as sound will bounce off surfaces and find ways around the acoustic baffles.  It did help though.

The second way is to utilise what are called the ‘null points’ of a microphone.  To understand this, its important to understand that microphones have different ‘pickup patterns.’  a pickup pattern of a mic is the pattern in which it will pickup sound, and all but omnidirectional mics have directions in which they pickup the most sound.  Here are the main patterns:

The majority of mics are Cardioid, picking up what is in front of and to the sides of the mic. Taking the cardioid mic as an example, this means that the mic will not pickup sound from directly behind it, and that is what is called the ‘null point’.  This is used all the time in live-sound.  for example, the Shure SM58s that are by far the most-used mic for live vocals are cardioid, and so the rear null point is pointing at the stage monitors in front of the singer to avoid feedback.

The idea for this session therefore, was to setup Karen and Martin facing each other, with the null points of the mics for their respective instruments pointing directly at the other’s instruments.  I was also using a Figure-8 or bidirectional ribbon microphone (almost all ribbon microphones are figure-8, due to the inherent design of a ribbon mic) on the lower bout of the guitar to give a bit of body to Karens acoustic, which is quite a bright Seagull guitar, so we manoeuvred things so that the central null-point of that was also pointing towards the Cahon.

We ended up with something like this:

Karen layout

You’ll notice that the era Cahon mic is actually pointing at the Cahon and then Karen, but this wasn’t really an issue as the Cahon itself and the gobbo were in the way, and it was only just above floor level.  It was also just outside the hole on the back of the Cahon, so picked up very little else.

So far, so good.  The guitar is not being picked up by the Cahon mics, and the cahon is not being picked up (very much) by the guitar mics.

Now the real fun began.  Karen’s Guitar was very nearly as loud as her voice in her vocal mic when she strummed hard or sang quietly.  What’s more, the sound of the guitar in the vocal mic was very tinny, and not al all good.  There was also a fair bit of vocal spilling into the guitar mic.  The first of these was a particular problem due to the way that vocals are normally treated when mixing.  It’s very common to a) give a high-end or ‘presence’ boost to vocals to give them some hi-fi sheen and air and b) compress them significantly so that quieter and pounder lines, words, and even syllables sit well together without volume jumps.  The first of these in this case would have also boosted the high end of the guitar’s spill into the vocal mic, which was already a bit tinny, and would give a scratchy, irritating element to the guitar sound.  Adding compression would have made this even worse as a compressor allows the quieter elements of a sound to be made louder, so would give the guitar even more volume in the vocal track.

To get round this (to some extent), we switched to using different patterned mics and positioned them carefully so that their null-points were pointing more towards the source we didn’t want them to pick up.  For the vocals, this meant using a Figure 8 mic (see above) positioned so that the nulls at the sides of it were pointed at the guitar.  Of course, this means that the rear of the fig-8 mic will also pickup a lot more of the Cahon as we have lost the rear-null point in the original setup.  Luckily though, we were using a very cool mic, the Helios by UK mic maker Sontronics.  This has a variable control that allows it to move incrementally between omni, cardioid and figure of 8 patterns.  So, we got it positioned in about the right place and then I swept the control from pure figure-8 towards cardioid until I heard a lot of the guitar, and then edged it back to find the spot that would have the best balance between rear rejection and side rejection.  It also meant that Karen was not addressing the vocal mic face-on, but mics are often turned slightly off-axis for vocals to avoid plosives and sibilance, and it didn’t seem to adversely affect her vocal sound.

For the guitar, the mic had switchable patterns, so i switched it to super-cardoid mode and pointed it down at an angle towards the guitar.  Super-Cardioid is a tighter cardioid pattern (see above again), which does however have a small pickup ‘tail’ behind it.  because of the angle and the baffling though, this didn’t seem to pick up too much of the Cahon.  This is a diagram from a side-on view with the null points indicated by the grey hollow arrows:

 

Guitar-Vox Layout

One last thing was very low-tech.  After a bit of a ham fisted struggle, I managed to attach a bit of acoustic foam under the vocal mic to block out a bit more bleed from the guitar, and this seemed to help as well.  It did however have the effect of looking like a chin-rest for Karen.  Here’s a pic, although note that it was taken before the central acoustic guitar mic was re-positioned.

 

IMG_1809

 

So, how were the results?  Well, Karen and Martin are both brilliant performers, so the performances were predictably brilliant.  As for the bleed issue, it is not too bad.  Of course there is bleed.  It wouldn’t be possible, for example, to redo part of a guitar part as the original would still be faintly audible in the track, but the bleed was under enough control to be able to treat each instrument properly while still checking (as you should anyway) the full mix to see how the bleed from other mics interacts with the now treated sound.  The guitar sound is not quite as good as I could have got it if it was recorded in isolation, as the angling was a compromise between the sound I wanted from the guitar and the bleed from the voice, but the compromise was worth it.

Many thanks to Karen and Martin for their excellent performances and for their patience while I messed about trying to get everything int he right place, with the right pattern.

I might do something about guitar or cahon mic techniques next time, if I remember.  Or I might do something else.  Anyway, happy music-ing!

 

Month 4 – Details! *sniff*

IMG_1451

 

I’ve learned 2 important things this month.  [Actually, three – having just finished this post, and re-read it, the third lesson is not to write such long, rambling blog posts.] The first is that being off sick with a cold (or man-flu ultra super virus, as this clearly was) is way, way less fun when you really love your job.  In the past, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed being off sick, but there was a certain pleasure in staying under a blanket watching dreadful TV all day and drinking tea with honey, cocooned from the world still flying by outside.  This feeling of cosy, warm, under-blanket couch-lying, with a bit of irritating sneezing of course,  is in marked contrast to the frustration of the studio being closed, sessions being put back a week, and everything sounding like I’m listening to it underwater, with all the lovely music toys to play with just metres away and sitting idle.  Even the mellifluous, soothing tones of Prof. Brian Cox sounded like they’d been fed into a telephone in a cardboard box before reaching prone-sofa-bound Steve.  Still, at least I know how to recreate the effect with some filters, an EQ and a bit of distortion now, should I ever need to.

The second, and more important thing I learned, or rather was reminded of this month was the importance of details in music.  As a lead guitarist, of course, I’ve always known that the importance of the details of my sound and playing cannot be underestimated.  After all, somewhere deep down inside, in a recess only accessed privately, perhaps at midnight at a crossroads, every lead guitarist thinks, nay knows, that the crowd are really there to see them play their solos.  That’s how we justify spending EUR 200 on a distortion pedal that, when opened, contains nothing but a few pots and switches, and a tiny circuit board with components you could get from marlins for a tenner.  But it’s the mojo!  It’s hand painted! they’re only making 200, we cry.  Aye right!  And we know that the audience can tell the difference between the standard stuff and our Germanium, unobtanium, boutique box of bits at 104dB in a crowded pub after 6 La Chouffes.

Of course they can’t, but that’s live, in a pub. Records are different.  Very different.

I’ve realised this month that my favourite records can be broken down into two clear categories, with very little in between:

  1. Very Simple.  These are the records that say “this is the band, no extra shite, isn’t it great!”  The one that comes to mind in this category is ‘Radio One’ by Jim Hendrix.  Just the three experience members, in a BBC studio, sounding about the best a three-piece band can ever sound.  If you don’t believe me, here’s a couple of songs from it, although, it sounds suspiciously like Mitch Mitchell on drums, whatever the Youtube poster reckons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LULQW8hH-wc .  Other examples include The Velvet Underground and Nico, After the Goldrush, Murmur and Strange Days.
  2. Very detailed.  These are the one’s where I find myself still noticing new things in the 10th, 50th and 500th listen.  For example, and to utterly contradict my previous inclusion, not two sentences ago, of REM’s Murmur as a very simple record, I was just listening to ‘Perfect Circle’ from it for, oo, let me see, the 3 or 4 hundredth time, that the Snare drum is panned hard right for most of it but moves to the left at 1:49 with a short slap-back echo panned hard right.  Oh, and again at 2:32.  And something weird happened to the high-hat there.  There’s also the odd little sort of backwards but not bit at the end of the fade out.  Obvious other examples are, bloody obviously OK Computer – the bass in Airbag catches me every time, and how many voices and synths are in the second last movement of ‘Paranoid Android’ ; almost anything by Sigur Ros, but particularly Takk –  the glockenspiel percussion and music box at the start of ‘Saeglopur’ that are panned all over to just surround you, and the massive cymbals coming in at 3:03; Dummy by Portishead -the tiny pause in the tremelo keyboard part at 0:37 of ‘Roads’.

So far, so clear.  But of course it isn’t.  The details in the first set of recordings are still the thing that brings you back and back to them, even if they appear totally simple.  Listen to Neil young’s guitar tone in the solo of ‘Southern Man’.  You don’t just plug in and sling a mic at it to get that.  Listen again to the apparently super simple Murmur.  The whole album starts with phased drums fading in with some odd delay-type noises thrown in.  The reverb-drenched “calling out” backing vocals in ‘Radio free Europe’.  The Snare drum without the Snare in the first minute of ‘Pilgramage’ that has it’s snare put back on, and a massive dollop of reverb by 1:01.  This was not just bunged to tape in the course of a wet tuesday afternoon.  The same goes pretty much for the rest of them, right down to the sound of Jimi’s Strat on Radio One, which has more bottom end than any damn Strat I’ve played.  With a few exceptions, the records that seem to make me want to hear them again and again have detail, even if they are apparently very simple in essence.

The reason this is on my mind is that this month has been very much a backing vocal, percussion and strange noises and effects month. I’ll admit that the first two are not really subjects that I’d spent a lot of time thinking about in the past, and the last one is something I’ve only spent time thinking about in terms of playing guitar.

From now on though, backing vocals and percussion will be something I always think of as an option on any project.  Listening to the outstanding group of Nina Babet, Daddi Waku and Marie-Ange Teuwen doing their thing, moving effortlessly from harmonies, to doubling, to vocal pads of oohs and aahs, exactly according to what the song needs at a given time was a real pleasure, and just lifts the songs up to another level.  Sometimes in the mix, you’ll hardly know they’re there, but press mute and a big hole now opens up where previously there was none.  And this is on songs and mixes that Bai and I were previously pretty happy with. The details!

Similarly, working with Mara Sottorcornola on her new single, we had the idea just in one part where there’s a particularly long sustained lead vocal part, to ad just two words, spoken, low under the lead vocal.  We didn’t think this part of the song was particularly boring or anything, but the  effect of this part that took about two minutes to add adds interest and a little drama that I’m quite pleased with.  Best not to mention the similarity of the idea to Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Dirty Dream Number Two’ at 1:54 where Isobel Campbell comes in with the line “In a town so small…”

On percussion.  Jon Bradshaw’s EP is coming along very nicely, and we spent a couple of days adding hand percussion such as shakers, tambourine and cabassa to some of the tracks.    Again, I was alarmed at the effect it had on what were already good sounding tracks.  The addition of a bit of interest in the top end of the frequency spectrum seemed to create more space and warmth in the low mids, where things can often get a bit cluttered, and gave a subtle but discernible drive to the songs.  Again, had we never done it, it would not have been a disaster.  The tracks would not have been ruined. But pressing mute on the percussion track now seems to leave a big gap.

Finally, on strange noises, the discovery that Logic X’s pedalboard plugin’s version of the Electro Harmonix Memory Man has speed, filter and time controls that operate just like the analogue originals in real time has opened a new avenue of oddness.  As a guitarist, I’m very comfortable working with guitar pedals, and I found that the controls of the plugin can be mapped to the rotary knobs on my Mackie MCU control surface, and that the control movements can be recorded and automated in the mix.  Best of all, you can run anything through it, not just guitars, and mangle to your heart’s content.  The only difficulty is that, if you’re not careful, everything can end up sounding like the end of ‘Karma Police’.  Kudos to the plugin makers for making a digital tool work so like the analogue original that I’m used to though!

So, a month of adding details to already good sounding tracks, and hopefully helping to put them into other peoples’ favourite categories.

Month 3 – Settling in Nicely Thanks

And so, with the tired inevitability of an unloved season, the blog, having slipped from daily to weekly has now slipped to monthly.  Surely even I can maintain this level of regularity, and fend off the ever present possibility of a further slip to only a brief quarterly missive.

photoThe reason for this is a positive one though.  The fact is I’ve been busy, and much more busy than I thought I would be.  So busy in fact that I’m writing this in between recording backing vocals and getting down to some mixing.  The busy-ness is a good thing of course, but slightly unexpected.  When I started this venture, I had a vision of generally lounging around in the studio, tweaking some mixes, here, recording some vocals there, tracking guitars and so forth, generally for a couple of hours a day.  Maybe after lunch, and just until it was time for a mid-afternoon snooze.  Well, this could not be further from the truth.  Updating the spreadsheet that Anna made me do, I saw yesterday that the average session length is between 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 hours, and that I’m averaging around 4.5 per week.  I have even, on no less than five occasions begun work before lunchtime, which is against everything I believe in.

I have also noticed that, bizarrely for someone who spends all day in a room with lots of guitars, I don’t seem to have the time to practice as much as I used to.  I’m spending more time trying to work out how to use pre-delay on reverbs, get punch from basses, and add air to vocals and suchlike.  The shocking conclusion though is that I’m going to have to get up earlier if I’m going to have time to practice guitar.  Imagine that! getting up earlier for the sake of rock and roll.

It’s also been a hugely various 4 months – again, much more so than I expected.  I’ve recorded drums, acoustic and electric guitars, a horn section, live acoustic performances, backing vocals groups, five male vocalists including a rapper, a female pop vocalist (the brilliant Mara Sottocornolo),  bass, grand pianos, and a vintage Fender Rhodes. I’ve recorded and mixed live performances and recorded voice overs for Radio X and Andrew Mavin, and spent a lot of time with Bai Kamara Jr getting his pre-mixes of his new album ready.  Very surprisingly, I’ve also found myself arranging and playing all of the instruments on Mara’s new single, which will hopefully be out by the end of the year, and played a bit of guitar and bass for, respectively, Shawn Beddows (aka Kwest) and Jon Bradshaw, and keys for both.  The band I’m in, Zinne, has also managed to play gigs in Brussels, Spain and Germany.

I also, thanks to you lovely people voting for me, got my remix of Hard-Fi’s ‘Move Over’ into the finals of a Sound on Sound / Audient mix contest.  I didn’t win it unfortunately, but was very happy to have got a mix even listened to by a panel of people I really respect this early in the new career, so thanks again for all the support.

What I’m really learning from all  this though is the value of learning itself.  Of course, you need to buy some stuff to start a studio, even a tiny one like mine, but the thing is not to just buy kit, but to really learn how to use it properly.  Using the same mics, and basically the same plugins and effects I had 4 months ago, the work now, and particularly mixing, is considerably improved, and I hope it will continue to improve.

Sometimes new kit can really inspire though.  I’ve just started a trial of Eventide’s new UltraReverb, and it is really outstanding.  Just lovely sounding, and totally controllable.  As I start to get the hang of different thing, i find they get incorporated more and more naturally into work.  A good example of this is Waves Non-Linear Summer, which I thought at first did pretty much nothing, but now hate to mix without.  I’ve also been using a great little app called Quiztones which is an ear training app to help you recognise different frequencies.  This is making a huge difference, mainly as I am getting more able to correlate a problem or good frequency in an instrument or a mix with the actual number of Hz, speeding things up considerably.  It also helps to notice stuff, particularly in the extreme high and low ends that I think I was missing before.  The learning continues every day though!

So, I’m settling in nicely.  Thanks so much to everyone I’ve worked with so far, and for all the support and advice given by musicians, particularly the members of Zinne, and other engineers and producers – particularly André Bontems and Matthias Witskold, and of course, to Anna for letting me do this instead of a proper job!

Here are some pics:

Bai, Nina Babet, Daddi Waku, and Marie-Ange Tchai Teuwen discussing backing vocal arrangements:

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An incredible venue in Germany for a Zinne gigIMG_1413

Tracking Piano and Vocals at Avalon Studios with the mobile rig

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Joachim Saerens behind his beautiful vintage Rhodes

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Going fully mobile to record horns a t Salle ColumbineIMG_1286

Jon Bradshaw tracking down and dirty dobro

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The oddest gig yet – live sound and recording for a friend’s Estonian folk/punk band

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Lord Eric of Moens grappling expertly with a crazy Danelectro baritoneIMG_1175

Thierry Rombaux with, as she never tires of reminding me, Anna’s Fender Jaguar bassIMG_1153

Dermot Ryan from Zinne tracking bass for Kwest’s ‘Samurai Swords’ (that Warwick is also Anna’s)

 

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Patrick Dorcean (and an experimental mic setup of two near-coincident ribbon mics that will not be used again)

 

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Wally Bird in full flight (geddit? Bird?)Zinne Studio 4 Jan 2014 015

 

 

Claude, The Shamen, now sadly departed but dearly missed, in a typically non-standard mode

 

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Live Sound for Serve the City’s Annual party – before the rain came and Belgium lost!

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Week 10 – Getting Horny

Weeks 6, 7, 8 and 9 went in a blur of travelling, including decamping the whole of the band Zinne (www.zinne.be ) to Alaro, Mallorca to play at our friends Tom and Clara’s wedding.

 

Back in Studio mode, attention has turned to horns and how to record them.  All but one of the songs on Bai Kamara Jr’s new album will have a horns section (trumpet, trombone and sax, although sax is technically a wind instrument as it has a reed), and recording them in the small spaces we have available here was never going to get the classic section sound that we’re looking for.  Think Otis Redding’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyhL0ioST_U ).

 

So, we moved pretty much the whole of Zinne Studios to the lovely Salle Columban (http://www.columban.be ) in the countryside near to Wavre for the sessions.  This really is in the countryside – this is the view from just outside:

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And here was my desk for two days:

 

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The section for the day were the truly brilliant Stéphane Mercier (http://www.jazzinbelgium.com/person/stephane.mercier ) on sax and flute, Jean Paul Estiévenart (http://estievenartjp.wix.com/jeanpaulestievenart ) on Trumpet and David Devrieze (https://myspace.com/daviddevrieze ) on Trombone.

 

While we knew that the ‘section’ sound was the key, we also wanted to have some control over individual instruments later.  In addition, the room sounded great, but some parts, particularly staccato ‘stabs’,  needed a more direct sound with less sound of the room’s reflections in it.  So, I decided to go for a hybrid setup with stereo room mics in an ORTF configuration (110 degrees split with capsules 17cm apart) and a mono omni mic at the centre.

 

In addition, each of the instruments was spot miced with two mics:

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Why two spot mics you might ask?  Well, lots of the online advice points to using ribbon mics on the trumpet and trombone, as this type of mic tends to smooth and round the top end in a pleasing way.  At the same time though, the songs do not all necessarily need an identical sound, and some of the bright, brassiness, for want of a better word, could be useful at the mixing stage where more cut is needed.
For the Trombone, there’s obviously a lot of low-end content in the sound as well as the bright overtones, so we went with an SE R1 ribbon, paired with the Senheiser e602 that I usually like to use on kick drums or floor toms.  Note also the pop-screen on the ribbon mic to protect it from direct pressure blasts from the trombone’s bell:
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For the Trumpet we used a second ribbon mic, this time paired with the old studio standby, a Shure Sm7b.  The Trombone’s mics were around 1 metre from the bell of the instrument, but we moved the trumpet’s mics back another 50cm as it is a very directional, and extremely loud instrument.  Incidentally, while the sax and trombone were around 3m from the main room mics, the trumpet was another metre further back to allow for the volume difference.
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The sax is a very different instrument to the other two.  While most of the sound from the trumpet and trombone comes from the bell itself, the whole of the sax produces sound.  To capture this, I used an SE4040 condenser mic set to a carded pattern, and aimed it around halfway up the valves on the sax.  With this, and for a more direct sound, I paired it with an EV RE320 large dynamic mic which, while at the same distance from the sax, was aimed slightly more towards the bell.
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The initial results are very good.  The room sounded superb, and me and Bai had spent a bit of time the previous day testing it and finding the sweet spot for the room mics.  They have a good amount of natural room reverb in them – maybe 1/3 to 1/2 a second – but the reverb itself is very warm, with no harsh high-end reflections.  The close mics still have some natural room in them, but far less, and should allow lots of flexibility when mixing.
What was really impressive though was the players and the performances they put in individually, and as a group.  Stéphane Mercier’s arrangements were outstanding, with real sympathy to the songs where needed, and serious power when necessary. We managed to record the parts for a total of 14 (yes, fourteen) songs in two day-long sessions, and rarely needed to go beyond a 3rd take on even the toughest parts.  It’s such a pleasure to get to work with such seasoned, talented pros, who also manage to also be thoroughly nice guys!
Sorry I can’t play you the results – the album is pencilled in for release in spring next year!

Week 5 – Rap, Ruckus and Rain

I’ve been out of my natural comfort zone for much of week 5 recording rap, and doing live sound outdoors.  Thankfully, Ruckus also stopped by to keep me grounded with some proper Rock.

As part of his Samurai Swords EP, Shawn Beddows (aka Kwest) wanted to extend the rap/rock crossover to a bit of folk with a song consisting of just him rapping and an acoustic guitar.  What amazes me about recording vocalists is that a great vocal is impossible to fake.  Sure you can sing or rap the words, but we can tell instantly if someone means it or not.  The acoustic song in question is certainly one Shawn means, and he really put himself through the emotional wringer while tracking it.  The proof is in the pudding though, and the result is a very fine, very moving performance that leaves no doubt that he means it.

Another impressive thong about working with Shawn is that he is very much pushing to move against the traditional rap paradigm of rapping over beats and samples, and instead wants to use more organic, performed music played by musicians.  Of course, this has been done a bit in the past (Ice T and Body Count, Rage Against the Machine, and few metal/rap crossovers), but doing it with just Acoustic guitar is pretty brave.

Shawn had the main riff pretty clear in his head, but, being a huge fan of Iron and Wine and Sigur Ros, I couldn’t resist a bit of layering.  I’d forgotten how much harder it is setting up a session for me to play on and engineering it in between playing.  After a few false starts I lined up 10 empty tracks and got myself settled in a nest with guitar, Mid/Side mics plus a ribbon mic on the lower bout of the guitar, capos, cigarettes, ashtray, headphones, and the iPad to control Logic X.  An hour and a half later the tracks were all full.IMG_1236

 

A few days later, and Viv was in doing some lovely harmonies that are going to sound great.

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We also had Vinh and Eric from Ruckus in after a too-long break to work on some new tracks.  A total contrast from the rap project, Ruckus are a straight ahead rock band with a bit of punk in there as well.  These guys are seriously old school, and , as always, brought a bit of vintage technology into the studio tom play me there rehearsal-room demos of songs.  Can you even still buy C90s?

IMG_1238Having tried a lot of mics on Vinh’s voice,  I think the Shure SM7b is close enough in response to a stage mic to get Vinh more comfortable, but with a bit more clarity and fewer odd frequency bumps.  With Ruckus though, it’s always the guitars and bass I love doing most.  The opposite of hi-fi, the challenge is really to get the raw edge into the sound and get it sounding big.  Lots of double tracking guitars, particularly adding the same part but played on a different guitar pedals or amps.

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The week ended with a lovely job doing live sound for Serve the City’s volunteer week party.  For those that don’t know Serve the City (http://www.servethecity.be), it is an organisation of volunteers helping the most vulnerable in society, including the Homeless, asylum seekers, the elderly and children at risk.  Unfortunately, torrential downpours stopped proceedings early, but it was very cool to do sound outdoors for 4 different bands, right in the heart of the city in Place Jeu de Balle in the Marolles.

I also had a first in that one of the bands, the excellent Red Hot Skillets, don’t have any pickups on their instruments, so had to be mic’ed live.  After a bit of trawling of internet forums and Sound on Sound articles, I decided the best bet was to use small-diagphram condenser mics with a Cardioid pattern pointing directly away from the monitors to reduce feedback.  The reason for this is that all mics have a pickup pattern.  Omni-directional mics pickup equally well from all directions, whereas Figure-of-8 mics pickup sound in on-axis from both sides of the capsule, but have a ‘null-point’ at 90 degrees from the two sides.  Cardioid pickup most from the front and some from the sides, but very little from the back.

Except for a couple of moments, this worked well on Banjo, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin and Mandocello. So , a lesson well learned – remember where null-point of the mic is, and make sure that’s pointed at the monitors.

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Thanks to Zinne and the Zinnerettes for all of the help.  I literally couldn’t have done it without you all!

Here are some more pics:

One Last Song:

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Toy Division

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Zinne Members past and present taking a break from being barked at to get cables by me.

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And then the rain came…IMG_2489

Week 4 – RIP Claude

Week 4 was a tragic one.  Claude, AKA The Shaman, Jon Bradshaw’s drummer/percussionist and friend died suddenly and unexpectedly at home on Monday last week.  He was a lovely guy, and great fun to work with.  I’m really glad to have got the opportunity to work with him.  Just wish we’d had the time we thought we would have to record more of him.

Jon said of him: “No technician , Instead , Claude insisted on knowing every lyric , every nuance , every subtle change . If he felt the song didn’t need him , he’d put down his sticks , roll a smoke , drink a beer and listen . A performer’s dream co pilot…….gonna be missed”

RIP Claude and deepest condolence to his friends, and especially to Jon .

Claude

 

Week 3 – Backing Vocals

This week saw the first of three backing vocals sessions for Bai’s album.  It was absolutely heavenly listening to the trio of Nina Babet, Marie-Ange Teuwen and Daddy Waku do their stuff.  Everything just seems lifted up to a new level with them on it.  True professionals, and lovely people to boot.  I’m very much looking forward to working with them again.

For mics, we really wanted them to track as a group, rather than individually.  At the same time, we wanted to have some control of the blend between the later.  So, we hit on the idea of arranging them in a 1/3 circle around a nice tube mic set to a widened cardioid pattern, but also gave them a mic each as well (SE4400a for Daddy, and the excellent but extraordinarily cheap Audio Technica AT2020s for two ladies the ladies)

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What we then found while doing rough mixes is that different blends and panning work differently  for different parts.  Simple vocal pads and melodies sound best with lots of the central mic and less of the individual ones.  For more rhythmic and lyrical parts though, the extra control we get from the individual mics, even with the bleed that we knew we’d get, really helps to control the width and blend in the mix.

Most of all though, it was a real pleasure to work and spend time with 3 terrific, talented and lovely professionals as they worked their magic!

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Week 2 – Variety is the spice

Week 2 has been a busy one for Zinne Studios.  We recorded final vocals for 2 Bai Kamara tracks, and now have around half the songs for the album ready for the backing vocalists to come in to do their parts this week.

The mobile rig was in use again, as we recorded Andrew Mavin’s 3 Acts, 1 Night for Radio X (http://radiox.eu).    I always love live recording as you never know exactly what you’re going to get, and have to just improvise on the spot.  I now have nearly 3 hours of music and interviews to edit down and mix.  Lots of time planned at the desk:

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We’re also putting the finishing touches to rapper Shawn Beddows’ (AKA Kwest) project ‘Samurai Swords’.  This is a collaboration between Shawn and Brussels rock band Zinne which we’ve spent a good few months working on.  A quick session with Dermot Ryan to replace some guitar parts, and we are now down to perfecting the final mix.  This rock/rap crossover is particularly exciting as it is going to be remixed by US Hip Hop producers to produce an EP with 3 different versions of the song.  Our version is very much Rock, so it’ll be great fun to hear what the Hip Hop guys make of it.

We also had a great session with Shawn himself doing basic tracks for  a very unusual acoustic guitar and rap song that will also be on the Samurai Swords EP.  I was playing on that, and was harshly reminded how much harder to play acoustic guitar is than my usual electrics.

Last, but by no means least, we had a second tracking session with singer-songwriter Jon Bradshaw.  As I’ve mentioned before, Jon’s 2-piece philosophy involves no bass and no kick drum, but we made a sort of exception for one track.  The drums/percussion for it were based around a very heavy floor tom riff played with beaters but we felt we weren’t quite getting a big enough sound from the tom alone.  So, we had the bright idea of flipping the kick drum onto its back and using it like a kettle drum along with the floor tom.  The sound of the two together (after a bit of tuning), particularly in the overhead mics was just huge, and exactly what Jon was looking for.  It’s very satisfying when this kind of improvisation/making it up works well.

So, a busy and good week.  Incidentally, Karen McHugh’s interview with me and retrospective on a year of recording 3 Acts, 1 night is now available to listen to on Radio X’s listen again section: http://radiox.eu/the-best-of-3-acts-1-night-2013/