An Airing of Grievances
When the Song Recording Process Hit’s the Fan
While it’s not really that special time of the season yet around the holidays where we typically perform some of the more well known “Festivus” traditions such as gathering around the undecorated aluminum pole, feats of strength, or eagerly awaiting the next Festivus miracle, I have decided to move one Festivus tradition up a few months and undertake the sacred rights of the Airing of Grievances in this post. “I got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about ‘em!” (note—if you aren’t a Seinfeld fan, you may skip directly to the list). I’ve chosen to do this, well, because I have a lot of grievances at the moment regarding the recording process. If you’ve been following along with the Monthly Newsletter—and I know damn well you all haven’t been…I see the numbers---you’d know that a large part of our last few months has been dedicated to working on recording several new songs for an EP, Album, or hell, a Triple Album at this point.
Unfortunately, as is life, the recording process has not always gone as I hoped it would. Strangely enough, it seems that the more I have learned about recording over the past several years, the more difficult it gets to simply lay down a song and move on to the next. Gone are the days of recording my guitar parts in one take and seamlessly sliding into the keys and misc instruments to cap off the tune. Instead, I find myself staring confused and lost at 42 tracks on the screen wondering why on earth I’m trying to incorporate a digeridoo into a modern rock track, but then I think, if Men at Work could do it, so can I. Whatever the cause, I have found myself flailing in the past few months trying to put together fully produced songs and projects to a professional level I’m satisfied with, and if you’re reading this blog and are mostly likely a songwriter yourself, I’m sure you can sympathize with the problem; You have that perfect top ten hit, but the more time you spend on it, the worse it gets from a recording standpoint. With that depressing acknowledgment in mind, I thought it may be helpful to some out there—and again, I see the numbers of people reading the blogs, I’m watching you --- to run down some of the biggest issues I’ve faced recording over the years and what I’ve done to try and correct them.
5. Over-amplification and Buzzing in the final mix
If you’ve listened to any of the demos we’ve posted to the website or social media, you know precisely what I’m talking about here. A loud ugly hiss that lacks the nice refined subtly of a wax album crackling around the Victrola, but instead a monstrous humming sound that starts and ends the track telling the whole world “this is not a radio friendly recording.” Worse yet, it’s not simply only on the bookends of the track, it’s muddying the waters throughout the entire song. There are many causes for this most hideous of annoyances---recording tracks with dehumidifiers running, fans running, the computer itself humming, too many tracks (Me), and too many plugins (definitely me).
I’ll admit that I didn’t come up with a solution for this problem until recently, and the fix that I finally reached is so laughably simple it’s somewhat unbelievable that in my 17 years of recording, I hadn’t found it sooner. Use a Gate plugin stupid! I’m not going to get into the technical engineering behind the settings in this post, but if the problem I’ve described above is something you struggle with, look to the Gate plugin my friend. It may not solve all your issues or eliminate all the buzz (especially if the buzz is from an external factor such as a fan or something the mic is picking up in the background), it will definitely cut back a large portion of the hiss if used properly.
4. Guitar Tones/Getting even mix or blend
I’m not sure this is really a problem or simply more of a time issue that, to put it bluntly, takes patience and a willingness to work on something without seeing a lot of progress. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been a “sound guy” per se. I’m a “plug in a Les Paul to a Marshall with some treble-heavy distortion” type of person. Unfortunately, such a philosophy doesn’t carry over from live music to recording so well, and thanks to Auggie and his continuous purchases of guitar amp suites, I’m instead left with literally hundreds of plugins in our system to mix and match virtual cabs and heads with infinite possibilities trying to simply find something that sounds as vibrant and condensed as the radio tracks I desperately try to recreate. It also doesn’t help that Auggie himself is a bit of a guitar tone elitist who is constantly in my ear about the “harsh” tones I’m using.
My simple answer is to send it to someone with patience (not me) who will wade through the endless tones to find that perfect match---you can tell I’m not a sound engineer at heart. And while I have tasked Auggie at certain times to find the perfect tone, the sad truth is that the only real answer for this particular issue is to try, try again, try again, try again, and finally, try again. It comes down to trial and error. (Note—there are professional engineers out there that can within seconds zone in on whatever sound you describe to them you are looking for, but I’m just not one of them, much as I imagine most novice songwriters or home studio owners aren’t either---If you are out there---I’d be glad to work with and pay you for your services). That said, the best advice I have is to simply keep researching, reading, and most importantly, listening every day to develop an ear for what sound you are looking for.
3. Technical Glitches
Whether it’s forgetting to turn off the mute button, properly bussing the inputs and outputs for each track, or simply having the computer or software fail, it happens, and usually at the worst possible time. Coming from someone who has lost more writing and recording progress over the years with crashed computers than I care to admit (I’m notorious for blowing up computers and never having backups of any of my work). Regardless of what the issue is, unless you are running a real expensive processor and are gifted with computers and software management, the technology itself can become overwhelming. Every software update, every new plugin purchase, and every recording session itself can easily become an hours long battle (ask Auggie how many times he’s had to reupload plugins to my computer after they crash) that instills pure rage within.
Sadly, there is not a real good answer here other than to accept that it’s going to happen. Inevitably, one of the key elements of the intricate recording process is going to break down on you, and you can react in one of two ways; keep a cool head like me or lose your mind. (Again, I’ve broken more pieces of technology than I’d like to admit). The best answer I have yet to come up with for this irritating conundrum is to realize it will happen (see my answer to the number 1 problem below). There may be a temptation to throw money at the problem, but coming from a guy who has been fortunate enough to have access to some of the latest and best “so called fixes,” saving the money and understanding that it's part of the process is sometimes the best path to take.
2. Getting Vocals to sit properly in the mix
This, by far, has been the biggest struggle for me while home recording music. Guitars can be blended, condensed, distorted, etc.. to get the right sound (or at least one that doesn’t rattle the ear too much), but vocals are the key element of any song and stand out---simply put---you can’t hide them no matter how many digital effects you apply to them. In live performances, you just need to be able to hear the vocals and understand the words that are being sung, but that is not the case with recorded tracks. Vocals must not only be audible and coherent, they need to “sit” in the mix properly so that it sounds as if the entire band were playing together and not being recorded piece by piece even though that may be the case.
I’ve read books, blogs, hours of online material, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that I don’t have a one size fits all answer. Many novices will immediately tout the miracles of reverb when it comes to vocals, yet I’ve never found this alone to be a sufficient answer. While reverb definitely is key to moving and filling space within a mix, I find that most novice recordings go over board with reverb on the vocals and start to create tracks that sound like they were recorded in an echo chamber. In short, if you do turn to reverb to put a bandage on the mix, do so minimally and methodically. That said, and realizing that I’m not doing a great job providing answers to my own questions, here are few ideas that have made a noticeable difference in my own mixing techniques as I’ve learned more and experienced more through trial and error:
1. Layer vocals --- Unless you have Adele in the studio, very few singers with one single track of their voice can create the thickness and fullness of a radio produced vocal track. (If you get a chance, go to YouTube sometime and search vocal only tracks of popular songs. It is really remarkable the first time hearing them how processed, layered, and robotic they sound on their own without the music accompanying them.)
2. As mentioned above, don’t be afraid to process your vocal tracks with effects (especially on the layered or backing tracks. The key here is, like the reverb, don’t over do it.
3. If your singer is able to do so, have them sing harmonies to their own lead vocals. Professionals do this all the time on your favorite top 40 hits. Taylor sings a song in one octave and then lays a track down in a lower or higher octave or harmony to, again, thicken the vocal track to provide that fullness that is expected on the radio. Though there are plugins and effects that do this very thing, I’ve found that physically having the singer themselves record the tracks in different octaves and harmonies sounds far more natural and pleasing to the ear.
4. Have a basic understanding of EQ and what it means to “pull” certain frequencies up or down in the mix. Certain instruments naturally have similar frequencies as the human voice, and if they are placed together, they drown each other out. Good Sound Engineers will literally do this on a syllable by syllable basis in order to clear up vocal tracks and make them as clear and crisp as possible.
5. Start with a good singer. Even though there is some truth to the “magic” button in the recording industry (especially when you take an unprocessed listen to some of the top 40 singers out there over the years… Tom Delong, Nelly, Me), the better the foundation you have with a talented singer, the easier it is to naturally make them sound good in the studio with minimal effort and effects.
This one faces most people, and I’d be willing to bet, at some point or another, it faces every person who has set out to do something creative. I can’t count the mornings I wake up so excited with the prospect of creating a radio friendly track that day. I’ve mapped out exactly what I need to do, I’ve planned ahead and know precisely what sounds, plugins, and tracks I’m going to focus on, and yet, five minutes into the session, I’m already depressed and staring at countless tracks on the screen overwhelmed by what I’m looking at and how to manage it. Undeterred, I start slowly adding my plugins and mixing the tracks together for the next couple of hours reasoning that even slow progress will be progress. And then it happens---I sit back and listen to what I’ve been working on as a final product and sink deep into my chair in despair—“what the hell was that?” It sounded worse than it did unprocessed, and it certainly didn’t sound radio friendly; now what?
Take a step back for a few minutes, hours, or even days. As with most things in life, I’ve come to realize that I’m not going to get anything productive done while I’m frustrated and dwelling on the negatives of a project. It won’t do any good to continue to sit there for the next three hours and push through and “fix” the problems---I’ve tried it, and it only makes things worse. Furthermore, taking a step back generally allows me to place things in perspective. I’ve found that coming back to the project later in the day, or even later in the week, tends to make a huge difference. I’m in a better mood, but more importantly, my ears are hearing everything fresh again. This may sound like idealistic nonsense, but it has honestly led to some of my best breakthroughs while recording and even songwriting.
Know your limits. I’m not a sound recording engineer and simply won’t be able to create the production that a trained professional in the industry could. Work with what you have. Whether it’s a cassette player with a single tape, a physical 4track unit, or a modest home recording set-up—the key is to utilize the most of what you do have and take pride in the efforts that come out of it. Some of my favorite recordings are honestly on my phone when I recorded a melody or lyrical idea sitting at a piano with my phone recording right next to me. The tracks won’t wind up on the radio someday, but they are saved and eternalized, and that, after all, really is why the majority of us write songs and music to begin with.