Fix It in the Mix: Recording a Rock Band

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Category: Pulse! Pulse!

December 2021

Last time, I talked about recording solo artists and duets and offered some general advice about recording. This time I’m going to focus on recording a standard rock band: drums, bass guitar, guitar(s), keyboard, and vocals. Working with a band requires more experimentation, and it will challenge you to come up with more creative solutions than recording and mixing smaller acts. But in my book, that’s part of the fun. So this time, I’ll concentrate mainly on process and production tips to help make the final product (your music) better; they may also save you some time and a few headaches. I’ve already covered some basics on microphones and how they “hear” in prior articles, so if you haven’t read those articles, now’s a good time to catch up.

Time is the biggest advantage of recording in your own space, but it can also be a project’s undoing. Having the time you need to get it right can sometimes lead to endless tinkering and ultimately culminate in the life being sucked out of everything. At some point you have to say, “It’s done.” The perfect is the enemy of the good, as the saying goes, and that applies here, too.

Microphone

In modern pop music, the rhythm section—drums, bass, and guitar—generally serves as the song’s foundation, so it’s usually recorded first. To approach this, I say go with precedent: whether you’re recording pop, rock, or hip-hop—it’s about building that foundation. Lock it in early or you’ll just end up with a mess: imagine a coffee shop in Seattle and a guy who’s on his fifth double espresso trying to talk to another guy who’s consumed a couple of pot brownies. Completely out of sync. A click track, which I’ve mentioned in previous articles, is also important so your performance always has a touchstone for tempo. It makes editing different takes together much easier because the tempo will always match (for instance, if you’re replacing an otherwise great first verse from one recorded performance of a song with an even better first verse from another recorded performance of the same song).

Assuming the $5k studio limitation of having eight mikes/inputs and two headphone feeds available at one time, I recommend recording the drums and bass guitar together first. The number of mikes (of the up to seven) you’ll want to dedicate to recording drums will depend on the drum kit, the musical style, and mike technique used. You could go for the Glyn Johns Method—the four-mike setup illustrated below. Who’s Glyn Johns? Well, he recorded some bands you’ve probably heard of, such as The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, to name a few. So, he seems like a guy who might have some good ideas. You could go simple and use just two mikes, one a few feet above the drums (an overhead mike) and one on the bass drum, and then go back and re-record the drums with more mikes on separate tracks. You could do a jazz setup (with bass drum, snare, and stereo overhead mikes) or use a small analog submixer to go full prog-rock overload and mike everything. The submixer, which is just a small, inexpensive analog mixer, would be used to mix all the toms and other percussion elements down to just two tracks/outputs panned left and right. You can find a decent analog mixer for around $500. Most people go for some variation on bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, and toms, with a pair of overhead mikes to capture the cymbals and some of the room’s sound. You can find details about this in the countless YouTube tutorials currently available. The bass player can plug directly into one of the high-impedance (“hi-Z”) inputs, with no amp needed (or desired at this stage). You can also record the rhythm guitar through another hi-Z input at this time, but this means you’ll lose an input for drums and need to split one of the headphone outputs with a “Y” connector. It’s a good idea to get multiple full takes of each song. Even the pros do it that way because a single perfect take is about as common as a flying space unicorn—one that grants wishes. Hard drive space is cheap and plentiful, so use it.

Microphone

Once you’ve laid the foundation for the song, you’ll have a workflow decision to make. Do you keep doing more songs with the rhythm section, especially if they’re hot, or edit and build on the song you just started? If you’re keeping the same sound for everything, it’s probably best to just knock it all out in one go to save time and effort. Even if you move nothing and come back two days later, somehow it’ll sound different and you won’t be able to get the old sound back. On major-label productions, it’s someone’s job to make sure the drums and guitars maintain their tuning. The studio will maintain constant temperature and humidity, unlike your house or rehearsal space. Scheduling is also something to keep in mind. Unless you’re changing out the drum set and modifying the sound a lot, I’d try to get everything done in as few sessions as possible and leave everything set up between sessions. Also, take pictures of everything, in case something gets moved. Even if you get it all done in one day, take lots of pictures so you can recreate the setup if you have to (things happen, so be prepared). You probably won’t get everything back to exactly where you were sonically or spatially, but having some idea of where everything was means you’ll be able to get it close enough with a lot less time and effort.

Microphone

Once the drums are done, you should be through the input crunch. If you find you need eight mikes to make the guitar sound “right,” you might want to reconsider your approach. The cause could be the guitar/amp/effects, the room, your mike technique, or a hearty stew of all of the above. Something I’ve found helpful is trying to listen to everything more from the standpoint of a mono microphone than the stereo mike that is my head. It’s a simple technique, really: you stick your index finger in one ear and with your other ear, you listen as you move around the area you want to put the mike in. This should get you close to the optimal position, then you can listen on monitors to fine-tune the placement. Don’t use this method with snare and bass drums because undamaged hearing is a nice thing to have. Also be careful around guitar amps. They’re loud too—especially the ones that go to “11.”

Microphone

If you haven’t recorded the rhythm guitar/keyboard with the bass and drums yet, it’s usually best to do this next. If you did, record another track of the rhythm part(s). It can be the full part or just accents, but having this at the mixing stage can come in really handy. Worst-case scenario is that you don’t use it. A choir often sounds better than a soloist, so it’s the same principle here. This way, you can go full “Bohemian Rhapsody” if you like in the mixing stage, and you’ll have plenty of tracks to work with. Keep adding rhythm parts, or start adding more melodic parts, depending on the needs of the song and who can play when. For recording individual instruments adding parts piecemeal in this way is called overdubbing.

Once you’ve got the basics of a song recorded, and you’re happy with the results, you’re ready to add sweeteners like additional percussion, strings, or other instrumentation. A tambourine or shaker playing along with the hi-hat, a muted guitar playing rhythmic accents, or subtle sound effects can all add to the song and the enjoyment of the listener. Because modern digital audio workstations (DAWs) effectively give you unlimited tracks and effects, there’s no downside to trying out seemingly weird ideas, other than the time you’ve invested if they don’t pan out. You can do this before adding vocals, or after—dealer’s choice, as they say. Something important to mention at this point is that production decisions made while intoxicated should always be checked in the cold, sober light of day. I’ve recorded a lot of bands who thought they were having brilliant ideas while they were high. They were wrong about 90% of the time.

Pro Tools

For more control, recording at home or in your rehearsal space is the way to go. You have the option of going for a straight live recording with minimal overdubs, something that’s challenging but rewarding if you can pull it off. The other option—and at least for your first live recording, this might be the best way to go—is to play live, then overdub everything and replace it. Isolation is less important because the live performance will essentially act as your click track, and you can either mute the live performance or add some of it in during the mixdown process if you like the way it sounds. Have the drummer listen to the actual click track through headphones, and have the rest of the band play off the drummer as usual. It may help the drummer to wear the headphones on only one ear, DJ style, to more easily hear the rest of the band. If the drummer’s headphones keep falling off, an elastic headband will fix that. So will duct tape, but try the headband first.

You can do something similar if you take a feed from the mixer during a live performance, which is surprisingly common. Even major-label artists use separate recording trucks and their own mikes, and so on (everyone wants their performance to be perfect). The main problem with using a performance recorded with a live audience as your base is tempo and the fact that there’s usually no click track. You’ll probably be playing too fast—and with an uneven tempo. This makes overdubbing very difficult. If you do this, talk to the club first to make sure it’s okay, and find out what you’ll need to bring (like a USB hard drive). The club will need a digital mixer (and a helpful sound guy to get the music to your storage device), and you’ll absolutely have to replace the vocals—all of them—due to sound bleeding from the stage monitors, guitar amps, and drums into the vocal mike.

If you decide to go the true live route and record from home, you’ll need to do a lot of planning and preparation to ensure things go smoothly. If you’re recording in a house, get all of the performers together in the largest room facing each other, so that everyone can communicate. Since only the drummer and maybe one other person will be listening to the performers through headphones, you’ll have to go by what you can hear in the room, and people will have to get a sense of what everyone else is doing by looking at each other. If you can’t put your amplifiers in another room or around walls, a sofa provides a lot of sound absorption and isolation. Distance also helps a lot. The one instrument you won’t be able to keep out of all the other mikes is the bass guitar—bass literally goes right through stick-framed walls covered with drywall as if they weren’t there. If you can hear it, so will the mikes . . . and you need to hear everything. The most effective remedies for bleed from bass guitar amps are found in the mixdown stage (which is where we’re going next, so stay tuned!). Even if you want to go the full live-at-home route, I still recommend overdubbing things like background vocals and purely acoustic instruments.

System

I hope this series has you thinking about how you can record your own musical ideas and get what you hear in your head to come out of the actual speakers. To further your journey toward this goal, next time I’ll cover how to take all those tracks you’ve recorded and turn them into something you can play on your stereo or upload online: the mixdown stage, or simply mixing.

. . . Mark Phillips
markp@soundstagenetwork.com