THE GRASS IS SOME­TIMES BLUE

ROB LONG DIS­CUSSES THE OTHER STRUM-ABLE STRINGED IN­STRU­MENTS AND HOW BEST TO PLUCK THE BEST SOUND.

Australian Guitar - - Home Recording -

Over the years, we’ve watched the walls be­tween gen­res grad­u­ally crum­ble. This is a very healthy de­vel­op­ment, as it al­lows artists to draw upon a wider set of in­flu­ences, have a broader pal­ette with which to cre­ate, and gen­er­ally keep the mu­si­cal gene pool alive and grow­ing rather than shrink­ing and mu­tat­ing!

From a record­ing point of view, this of­ten means the in­tro­duc­tion of in­stru­ments other than the stan­dard gui­tar, bass, drums and key­board setup of the com­mon rock or pop for­mats. Acts like John But­ler, Mum­ford & Sons, The Lu­m­i­neers, Imag­ine Dragons and Ju­dah & The Lion have all in­cor­po­rated more tra­di­tional acous­tic in­stru­ments into their styles, and ef­fec­tively brought the sounds of the moun­tains to the big cities in a whole new way.

If you’re a com­poser or mu­si­cian work­ing on your own ma­te­rial, learn­ing how to cap­ture these in­stru­ments to get what you want out of them is im­per­a­tive. Like­wise, if you’re engi­neer­ing for clients (live or in the stu­dio), it’s even more crit­i­cal that you have some sense of where to start. I have been in many sit­u­a­tions where it’s painfully ob­vi­ous that the en­gi­neer can’t even name the in­stru­ment they are about to mic, let alone have any clue on where the sound comes from or how to cap­ture it! The ul­ti­mate DIY course would in­volve a ses­sion with a com­pe­tent player on the in­stru­ment in ques­tion, where you take time mov­ing a mic around the in­stru­ment and the space, and get fa­mil­iar with all the pos­si­bil­i­ties be­fore you jump into track­ing on a song.

Elec­tric in­stru­ments can be fairly for­giv­ing in many ways: The amp of­ten pro­vides half the tone, and you can get away with cheaper in­stru­ments and bend them to your will. Acous­tic in­stru­ments are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. There’s noth­ing to hide be­hind, so purists spend top dol­lar on their gear. It's also worth not­ing that tun­ing cheaper acous­tic in­stru­ments is of­ten more chal­leng­ing than it is to play them! THE SUN CAME UP AND THE DEVIL WENT DOWN

Play­ers tend to fall into two main groups – acous­tic mu­sic spe­cial­ists who are fully fo­cussed and pro­fi­cient on their weapon of choice, or rock/pop play­ers who have picked up a new in­stru­ment as a se­cond or third op­tion.

The spe­cial­ists will tend to have much more de­vel­oped tech­niques, more ex­pen­sive equip­ment, a more thor­ough knowl­edge of the in­stru­ment’s ca­pa­bil­ity and legacy through­out mu­si­cal his­tory. On the other side, they are of­ten very picky about what mu­sic they want to play and how it should be done.

Those who pick up more tra­di­tional in­stru­ments to add a "string to their bow" of­ten have su­per bud­get mod­els, very ba­sic tech­niques, and tend to ap­proach their se­cond in­stru­ment in the same way they’d ap­proach their first one. There’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong with that. On the con­trary, cre­at­ing a new or un­usual sound from a tra­di­tional in­stru­ment is of­ten the goal, and can add flavour to a track that a vir­tu­oso may not! Some tracks re­quire that smooth, pro­fes­sional edge that a spe­cial­ist ses­sion player can pro­vide. Other tracks scream for some­thing more un­usual, edgy and unique. Of­ten the song­writer makes the best con­tri­bu­tion, as the ideas are

more sym­pa­thetic to the track. It’s about the song, not the in­stru­ment. Learn the rules, then burn the rules!

Go­ing for the high res, rich, nat­u­ral sound on acous­tic in­stru­ments of­ten calls for high-end gear, or at least a very spe­cific and tai­lored chain to suit the in­stru­ment in ques­tion. To find out what the top guns use, look no fur­ther than the fine fel­lows who track the elite blue­grass, jazz and world mu­sic artists around the globe. They, of course, have ac­cess to all of the ‘to die for’ good­ies un­der the sun. Bud­get aside, let’s take a quick look at some con­ven­tions.

Like any­thing stu­dio re­lated, there are so many vari­ables that it’s dif­fi­cult to gen­er­alise, but re­gard­ing mi­cro­phone choice, there’s al­ways the good old LCD for high-fidelity, full fre­quency range and ele­gance. How­ever, you’ll soon no­tice that en­gi­neers of­ten tend to lean to­wards the smaller, pen­cil-type con­densers rather than their larger di­aphragm broth­ers. These tend to cap­ture a tighter, flat­ter and more fo­cussed re­sponse. The smaller di­aphragm re­sponds more quickly to tran­sients, mak­ing SDCs ‘faster’ mics. Om­ni­di­rec­tional mics tend to sound more nat­u­ral, as they don’t ex­hibit the prox­im­ity ef­fect (un­nat­u­rally in­creased bass re­sponse from close prox­im­ity to the sound source).

Rib­bon mics re­ally hold their own here as well, though, espe­cially on in­stru­ments which are a lit­tle harsh, bright, squeaky or oth­er­wise a lit­tle too right­eous and need some smooth­ing and body. Re­gard­ing ribbons, think ‘nat­u­ral, warm char­ac­ter’. A few years ago, I did some track­ing in a lit­tle bou­tique Nashville stu­dio that spe­cialises in blue­grass mu­sic. I was gob­s­macked when I re­alised they only owned three con­denser mics and a cou­ple of dy­nam­ics – the rest were a mix of ribbons of all age and man­ner!

The use of stereo mics is very com­mon. The goal is to cap­ture enough va­ri­ety of tone and tex­ture from a blend of two mics to avoid hard­core EQing. Ex­per­i­ment with a high pass fil­ter on one mic to min­imise fre­quency over­lap from one mic to the other. And of course, as al­ways, check the phase for can­cel­la­tion.

Gen­er­ally with acous­tic stringed in­stru­ments, one mic is used to cap­ture the body of the in­stru­ment, whilst an­other is placed to cap­ture the top end de­tail (i.e. string, pick, bow, bridge, fin­ger or fret­board noise). Larger in­stru­ments like gui­tars and basses can project ex­ces­sive boom from the sound hole and should be miced off from a dis­tance, if at all. Smaller in­stru­ments like vi­o­lins and man­dolins are more for­giv­ing, and mic­ing closer to the sound hole (or ‘f’ hole) can warm things up.

RUN! I HEAR BANJOS!

De­spite the clichés, the banjo can be an in­cred­i­bly ver­sa­tile in­stru­ment. They can be played del­i­cately – al­most harp-like – and can make you weep for all the right rea­sons! But of course, banjos can also get loud – banjo roll pat­terns are of­ten 16th notes, mak­ing them busy. This, in turn, re­quires all the elec­tron­ics to be fast in or­der to cap­ture the tran­sients well. The sound tends to need space to de­velop. Hence, close mic­ing of­ten gives a lim­ited per­spec­tive on the in­stru­ment’s full tonal range. For starters, try a con­denser 50 to 100 cen­time­tres out from the spot where the neck meets the body. Have a lis­ten to the tone ring as well – this could be a good spot to put a se­cond mic, or some­thing a lit­tle more ‘pointy’ like a solo mic. If the sight of a banjo makes you feel the need to pad­dle more quickly down­stream, try feed­ing one through a wah pedal into a quad stack!

FID­DLING WITH VI­O­LINS

The tech­ni­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween a ‘fid­dle’ and a ‘vi­olin’ is zilch! The dif­fer­ence is the player, the tech­nique, and the genre. For ex­am­ple, 'vi­olin' is a com­mon term in clas­si­cal mu­sic, whilst 'fid­dle' is more in tune with coun­try or folk. But from the stu­dio per­spec­tive, it can also be the way you track it. Like banjos, vi­o­lins can pro­duce lots of vol­ume when played a cer­tain way, and they in­ter­act a lot with the space. Again, it's typ­i­cal to see the mic placed 50 to 100 cen­time­tres

above the in­stru­ment, of­ten aimed at the point where the bow meets the strings. For more de­tail, use con­densers. These can make cer­tain play­ers and in­stru­ments sound a lit­tle scratchy and harsh, though. If you have a rib­bon, this would be the time to give it a run.

Of course, there are many play­ers who have ditched the tra­di­tional sound­ing vi­olin for a much more flam­boy­ant ap­proach, go­ing as far as treat­ing it like an elec­tric gui­tar by us­ing stomp ped­als, amps and elec­tric fid­dles. When you com­bine clas­si­cal chops with some psy­che­delic in­spi­ra­tion, the sky it the limit!

A DOBRO-YDIAN SLIP

Do­bros and res­onator gui­tars can sound in­cred­i­ble across a range of gen­res in the hands of the right mu­si­cian. Ba­si­cally, the sound em­anates from two points: the sound holes, and the res­onator (metal speaker-like cone) sit­u­ated un­der the bridge. Tra­di­tional blue­grass play­ers use metal banjo picks, but some­times you’ll want to avoid the click of the pick as it can be dis­tract­ing. Other times, though, it might add some colour. The same ap­plies to the scratchy sound of the slide against the stings – it can re­ally add at­mos­phere, or on the con­trary, sound like an au­dio glitch. It de­pends on what you're go­ing for!

Once again, the play­ing style will in­flu­ence the mic setup. Gen­er­ally, you can al­ter the ‘zing to warm’ ra­tio by mov­ing be­tween the sound hole and the bridge, or of course, go the dou­ble mic setup and find a blend that works. Some res­onators have a mag­netic pickup in­stalled to feed straight into an amp. It's party time when you start fool­ing around with a blend of elec­tri­fied and acous­tic sounds. I even once re-amped the miced stem back through an amp when the com­poser de­cided the take was per­fect, but needed some chilli!

A MAN­DOLIN OR AMANDA LYNN?

Man­dolins can re­ally add some sparkle to a track. They blend well with acous­tic gui­tars in a left-right con­fig­u­ra­tion, or you can use them as a fea­ture. SDCs are your friend here; you can get in quite tight and find a sweet spot that grabs some sound hole warmth and some string or pick­ing de­tail. Trad play­ers use the fa­mous ‘chop’, which acts like a snare pattern on the 2 and 4 of the bar. Tran­sients are big and fast, so be pre­pared!

Whether you go for the ‘nat­u­ral’ ap­proach or go the path less trav­elled, some more tra­di­tional in­stru­ments can re­ally lift a track. Don’t be afraid to ex­per­i­ment – just make sure you warn the neigh­bours first!

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