March 10th, 2016
I was approached by some life long friends of mine to discuss the possibility of working production, engineering, mix and master for a new project they were working on. These three lads had all been in bands I grew up playing shows with and coming out on tours with my own band, so the prospect of recording their latest venture was very exciting to me. Two weeks, hanging out and tracking new music with some of my best friends… what could be better?
… and so starts Recording Studio Project 1; ‘Guillotine’.
When the band approached me I had known they’d been working together secretly for a while and had been putting together a load of demos and song ideas, what I didn’t know is what these demos sounded like. We chatted, files were exchanged and it only served to extend my excitement for the project. The songs were great, the demos were decent and the bands enthusiasm was strong. They told me what they were hoping to achieve, sent me off with a playlist featuring several reference points, booked in dates and we were ready to begin.
The songs themselves were particularly well written so in terms of song production it was really just a case of finalising a few unsettled debates between members regarding minimal guitar parts and vocal lines. We loaded into the studio on day one and set about setting up for tracking drums.
The band had said they’d wanted a classic punchy, open and natural drum sound but with a hint of the more modern drum production sound for rock. To be honest, to me, these two types of sound couldn’t be further from one and other as the ‘classic, open & natural’ sounding drums are just that… ‘Natural’ where as I find more and more the modern rock drum sound is heavily processed, over compressed and slammed to the wall. Now I have love for both sounds but finding a medium point that has the best of both worlds is a challenge.
I set about micing the kit. Mics and drums listed below:
Given that the live room at my studio isn’t by any means the worlds largest, the two sets of stereo room mics might have been slightly over compensating but I decided that if I was going to achieve that ‘open’ sound, there was no harm in throwing up another pair of room mics.
I run my Snare Top mic through a vintage Joe Meek VC1 channel strip and lightly compress on the way in using the channel strips built in compressor, somewhere around 2:1 ratio and a fairly high threshold. Roughly 0.5 – 1dB gain reduction just to take off that real peak end. This particular preamp features a unit called ‘Enhance’ which in essence adds high frequency harmonic content to enhance the top end. Really excellent for vocals and acoustics but having tried to use it on snares, it mostly just brings out the spill from the ride.
My Overheads run through a custom build API stereo preamp clone manufactured by a UK based company called fClef Audio. It’s a very basic unit, input gain, 10dB pad and Phantom switches. I find however that the high end clarity with these preamps coupled with the SE3’s is superior to any other of my preamps.
As for everything else, each channel runs through either my Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 or Octopre. Both units running synced via ADAT.
With this particular mic set up and the selection of drums used to form the rather Frankenstein esq drum kit, we were all very happy with the unmixed/edited drum sound. Before we started tracking, I made James (Drums) multi sample every drum on the kit at 10 different velocities. I will come back to why when we talk about mixing.
When it came to guitars, we had a lot of toys to play with. The instruction from the band was simple.
‘We want them to sound big but we want to hear every note played’
Naturally, like most people, the guys were prepared to track stack each part as many times as needed to get the parts sounding larger than life but I recently heard of something much more simple and ultimately 100x cleaner sounding in terms of ‘hearing every note’.
Run one guitar into your pedals (if you are using any) then from the output of the pedal chain, split the signal using a DI box, run the input through to one amplifier and the link output to a second amplifier. Mic both cabinets up in your live room, check for phasing as you would anyway and there you have it. Two completely different and unique tones but you only have to play the part once. What you end up with is a perfectly synced performance but with a huge amount of tonal blending options.
There is an issue with this however, the use of split signal using the DI box does tend to cause a lot of ground noise and I am certain there is a better/cleaner signal way of doing this but as for now, it is working great for me.
For those wondering, the mics and cabinets for guitar tracking are listed below:
Bass was simple. I like Bass.
Personally, when it comes to Orange bass amplifiers, I think the DI signal for recording is pure gold. I always take a DI straight from the head and 9 times out of 10 it’s what ends up being used for the most part when it comes to mixing. I mic the bass cab up ultimately to ensure I have the tonal option for blending with the DI. I also find that micing a cabinet tends to produce a lot of low end which can really benefit when blending channels.
Vocals were remarkably simple. Callum was really confident and once he’d got into the swing of things it was a straight road the the end. I had made sure that for the entire recording process there had been a vocal mic set up and ready to go at any point. I have found that when a vocalist is ready to sing it’s best for them to just be able to do it there and then. By having that mic ready to go at any point meant Callum was able to just hop up when he wanted, no pressure and bust out some lines.
All vocals running through an SE x1 condenser mic, into the VC1 with the Enhance unit switched on and compression not dissimilar to that of the snare recording.
Mixing this EP was great fun. In the past, I have slightly dreaded mixing projects but I think what changed this time round was simply that from the very start of this project, everything used from the space to the preamps everything belonged to me. I have never before used a single space and all my own gear to complete a project and the difference on this was astounding to me. I think having the comfort of using your own gear in your own set up allows you to forget about how the gear might behave or what problems you may have to overcome and means you can just become fully immersed and creative.
It was the first time I got to engineer a record tailoring it for the mix. As a team we wanted to utilise the instruments and gear available to us to capture what was in essence going to be the finished product with just a few bits of extra tweaking ‘in the box’.
We’ll start with drums because, as a drummer myself, the drum mix is the back bone of any full mix. I tend to always start the same way; level tracks & pan. Over the years I have been told that getting levels right is half the mix. When I was a lot younger I didn’t pay much attention to this but having been working professionally with audio for a fair few years now I can fully see why good levels are so important.
Once I have got my levels and pan set, all my individual drum tracks are outputted to a stereo bus which is in turn sent to a second stereo bus. The first bus is my main drum group. This features as standard a tape emulation plugin, in my case Steven Slate’s Virtual Tape Machine (www.slatedigital.com) and is followed by compression and finally, but not always, master EQ. Compression on my drum bus tends to be the Focusrite Red Compressor and EQ is either the Neve or SSL EQ found with Steven Slate Virtual Mix Rack.
The tape emulation is just for some added harmonic distortion. It really gives a beautiful warmth and low and low mid boost without making the bus too muddy, the compression adds the glue that brings the kit together and the EQ is really just to focus the high frequency. On this bus, I use very little of each, just enough to bring the kit to life.
Bus two is my ‘Drum Slam’ bus which features either Steven Slate ‘The Monster’ or SKNote’s ‘Disto’. The Steven Slate ‘Monster’ plugin is currently free and I can’t recommend it highly enough and the SKNote plugin comes in at roughly £25.00 again, highly recommended.
The slam bus is exactly that. Designed to really over compress your drum signal it sounds awful on its own but blended with the full drum group, the difference in energy is ridiculous. I set the send from the drum group at 0dB and use the channel fader to blend the signals together.
I mentioned earlier that I made James multi-sample his kit during tracking. The reason for doing so was a forethought of mine to attempt to achieve that overall drum sound the band were going for. By having individual multi velocity samples of the full kit used to record the EP, I was able to process the drums completely isolated and really go to town on the compression & EQ to make them sound larger than life before loading them into Trigger (www.stevenslatedrums.com) and blending the highly processed samples with the original files. Although most drum replacement programs have a ‘Blend’ control typically I find this doesn’t give you enough control so I duplicate any track I want to trigger, put the plugin on the duplicate and set the blend at 100%. This leaves me with two separate tracks that I can blend and edit completely independently.
On this particular project, I used this drum enhancement only on the Kick and Snare.
I try to mix each instrument via busses. I don’t like to have too many plugins on individual tracks. I don’t feel it adds an awful lot to the sound but it adds a lot of stress and takes a lot of CPU. If you have tracked well to begin with, you shouldn’t need to have plugins on every channel.
For drums, I typically have a compressor and EQ on the kick channel, snare channel and I gently compress and EQ rack and floor toms. Everything else tends to remain left alone and is taken care of through the drum groups.
The one other thing I utilise in drum mixing is New York or Parallel compression. This isn’t dissimilar to the ‘Slam’ Bus however this time I use it only on the kick and snare. I normally set my compressor to around 15:1 with an extremely heavy threshold normally around -35dB. I keep the attack time at 0.5 milliseconds and the release extremely fast also. I then bring up the makeup gain and use the channel fader to blend it with the rest of the drum tracks. The idea behind this compression style is to add just another layer of energy and really make the kick and snare punch right out of your speakers.
I have shown a rough idea of settings below:
With the guitars on this record I approached them in a similar way to the drums. We spent a lot of time really getting the tones right for each song/section. This process was made a lot easier by the expanse of guitars, amps and pedals we had available to us but regardless of the gear available to you, this process should never be overlooked. Take time setting your rigs up. Even if you are recording guitars through a tiny lunchbox amp with a bog standard SM57, take time to get the best from it that you can. I promise you that it’ll make the whole mixing process so much more enjoyable when you aren’t having to mess around with EQs to reshape the tone.
Similar to drums, all my guitars go to bus sends. You’ll remember that I recorded guitars using 1 guitar, 2 cabs and 4 mics just playing the part through once. This means that once you have levelled you channels and panned them accordingly, you can process them together and since you’re not going to be trying to create a whole new tone with EQ all you really should be doing is removing any unwanted frequencies and adding a little glue.
My guitar mix bus consists of EQ removing any muddy low mids, rolling off anything below 30Hz and occasionally boosting a shelf at around 10k followed by fairly gently compression. Something around 3:1 / 4:1 ratio, medium attack time, medium release time, with the threshold set accordingly. I tend to reach for the Logic EQ for guitars, occasionally I may use one of the Steven Slate EQs from VMR but I find that for precision frequency cuts, the Logic EQ is excellent. For compression, again I reach for the Focusrite Red or occasionally one of the Steven Slate FG Blue Series compressors.
I should mention, these settings in particular are for distorted guitars, these are not the settings I would use as standard for every guitar bus and I should also mention that I use different busses for Cleans, Crunch and Distortions.
Finding a suitable vocal chain is always tough, that’s just the way it is. Thankfully when you have a confident and competent vocalist life is made a bit easier. Callum is just that. Knows his songs inside out and willing to try anything regardless of how dumb it might sound on paper.
This EP is particularly dynamic both vocally and instrumentally which is why I chose to use a condenser for the large majority. Occasionally on these kind of records I will set something like a 421 up with a condenser and have the 421 set to capture the much louder/shouted parts and the condenser for the quieter, more fragile parts. With this project all the main vocals were tracked using the SE x1, running into the VC1 with some gentle compression running off the really high points.
When it came to mixing the vocals I wanted to hit the vocals fairly hard with compression so I went for an 1176 compression emulation. It has a super fast attach and release and instantly brings so much energy to vocals. (Great for snares too)
Following the compression was a fairly simple EQ. Cut pretty much everything below 45Hz, small notch cut at 255Hz and since I was using the ‘Enhance’ on the VC1 on the way in, had no need to boost any high end.
Most of the lead vocal was sent to a very short slapback delay and blended very minimally as well as a fairly stock ‘medium room’ reverb that I EQ’d to reduce the lows and think I pushed the pre-delay by a couple of milliseconds.
For the parts with louder vocals I made Cal triple track all his vocal parts. This was to enable me to really pile of the grit in the heavier parts by panning the 2nd and 3rd track hard left and right and processing them with a really heavy granular distortion and blending them really low in the mix. I’m not sure when I first tried this technique but I have used it on loads of projects and to my ears, it just does something really great to the overall energy of the mix. It’s subtle, but it works for me.
Overall, for the first project to have come out of a brand new recording studio, I was unbelievably happy with the project and so were the band. So much so, they are coming back to do a few more bits. Stay tuned for the reveal and release of Guillotine. You aren’t going to want to miss it.