Record­ing Tips


Australian Guitar - - Contents -

One is­sue that comes up time and time again, on ev­ery record­ing I do, is know­ing how far to take the pro­duc­tion process and in what di­rec­tion – where are we go­ing, and how do we know when we’ve ar­rived?

Like any art­form, once you be­gin to work on a piece – song, video, paint­ing, sculp­ture, etcetera – part of the chal­lenge and skill is know­ing when you’re look­ing at or lis­ten­ing to the fin­ished prod­uct.

Take the anal­ogy of bak­ing a cake, then having an en­tire cup­board full of top­pings and dec­o­ra­tions at your dis­posal to dress it up in a thou­sand dif­fer­ent ways. Sud­denly you’re faced with vir­tu­ally in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties – an over­whelm­ing prospect!

Do you put one cherry on top? Do you cover it so the cake it­self is in­vis­i­ble? Who is go­ing to eat the cake? A room of scream­ing kids, or one spe­cial per­son with some very spe­cific tastes?

With today’s dig­i­tal record­ing rigs, even hum­ble set­ups can pro­vide more op­tions than a so­phis­ti­cated stu­dio did in the mid-to-late 1960s. So, it fol­lows that once you’ve got your­self a mod­est setup hap­pen­ing, you’ll have an au­di­ble world of pos­si­bil­i­ties at your fin­ger­tips. But does that mean you need to use them all?


Back in the day, when this crazy in­dus­try we call the record­ing busi­ness be­gan, it was ac­tu­ally just that – the busi­ness of record­ing a per­for­mance in its most sim­ple form. You might pos­si­bly do a few takes, then sim­ply choose the best one. That was it!

There was no over­dub­bing, no drop-ins, no edit­ing, no mix­ing, no pro­cess­ing – just raw per­for­mance cap­tured live and unadul­ter­ated. You ei­ther had some­thing or you didn’t.

The pro­duc­tion, as such, was all in the artis­tic prepa­ra­tion, pre­sen­ta­tion and per­for­mance – the right singer, song, mu­si­cian(s), key, tempo, ar­range­ment, style, chem­istry be­tween per­form­ers, and so on. The magic was in the mu­sic, not in the stu­dio or the post-pro­duc­tion.

Ob­vi­ously, there are peo­ple who still strive to write, per­form and record this way. We see so much video footage of peo­ple per­form­ing live in the stu­dio, al­most as a re­turn to the hey­days of early record­ings. Peo­ple are vis­ually show­ing that this is a ‘live per­for­mance’. There’s very lit­tle post-pro­duc­tion or stu­dio trick­ery – just clever ar­range­ment, good per­for­mance and good en­gi­neer­ing.

This is re­fresh­ing and very pos­i­tive, but it’s not go­ing to work for ev­ery ses­sion. I’d say I do one al­bum per year that is lit­er­ally what I’d call a ‘live cap­ture’ of what is hap­pen­ing in the room(s). The post pro­duc­tion for such a project is min­i­mal, and I’ll of­ten stem the en­tire set of songs into one sin­gle DAW project, thus mak­ing mix­ing sim­ple and stream­lined.

I can set up a mix/busses/FX for the first song and sim­ply do mi­nor tweaks for each song af­ter that. This works well for solo or duo per­form­ers, up to small en­sem­bles – say, a tight three-piece out­fit – with min­i­mal over­dub­bing, a gui­tar solo, some back­ing vo­cals and a bit of tam­bourine here and there.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, I’ll get a larger en­sem­ble want­ing to track 100 per­cent live – in­clud­ing live vo­cals – but un­less they're sea­soned pros, you find cracks start­ing to ap­pear, fa­tigue sets in and there are com­pli­ca­tions with tun­ing, spill, mon­i­tor­ing... They usu­ally end up split­ting things up and over­dub­bing parts to keep the qual­ity high.

So, at one ex­treme, we have the ‘live cap­ture’ that, like a sim­ple line draw­ing on pa­per, is vir­tu­ally com­plete as it stands; frame it and hang it on a wall! At the other end of the spectrum, we have com­pletely com­puter-cre­ated, sam­ple-or-loop-based tracks that are lay­ered, edited and oth­er­wise ma­nip­u­lated to within an inch of its life. There’s no right or wrong, and

each to their own. In today's busi­ness, so much mu­sic is made where the only ‘in­stru­ment’ is the com­puter. But re­gard­less of the con­tent, record­ing medium, in­stru­men­ta­tion or genre, you still have the same is­sues: when is it fin­ished? Is it ap­pro­pri­ate for the tar­get au­di­ence?

Re­turn­ing to the more com­mon, mid­dle ground projects, the typ­i­cal sce­nario is an ar­tis or act who makes the most of the sounds they want on their record­ing when they play the piece live. With a de­cent live cap­ture of the ba­sic el­e­ments and a small amount of over­dub­bing, the piece is pretty much nicely cooked and ready for some ba­sic work in the mix­ing and post-pro­duc­tion phases.


Over­pro­duc­tion tends to be more of an is­sue when there’s an over-zeal­ous artist with too much money and not enough experience to know that if you live alone, five bath­rooms is pos­si­bly overkill.

I’ve seen ev­ery­thing from the jaw-drop­ping one-take-won­der that left us with an un­re­peat­able, pris­tine take that waited for noth­ing; to the kids in the toyshop who started with some­thing quite re­spectable, then pro­ceeded to bury their own trea­sure in moun­tains of trash per­cus­sion, tune­less ‘roadie’s cho­rus’ back­ing vo­cals, swirls of over-ef­fected Hawai­ian lap­steel played by some­one who wanted to ‘have a go’, and a hellish clap­ping orches­tra from some Gary Lar­son car­toon. You can imag­ine what the mix­down ses­sion was like!

Gen­er­ally, peo­ple tend to want things left sim­ple, and are un­der the im­pres­sion that what they are do­ing, play­ing or singing is fairly com­plete in it­self, and will re­quire min­i­mal mu­si­cal or tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance or en­hance­ment. This is of­ten the case, and is usu­ally the most en­joy­able type of project.

How­ever, of­ten it’s nec­es­sary to build a large track one brick at a time. It may be that you’re work­ing with a solo artist who has ditched the idea of work­ing with a band for a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons, yet still wants to have a prod­uct that sounds like a band. It could be the your client(s) don’t ac­tu­ally play an in­stru­ment at all, and is go­ing to rely on you to co-write parts, ar­range the mu­sic, or­gan­ise mu­si­cians and tell them what to do – hand­ing you a seed and want­ing you to give them back a tree!

I see many artists who ap­proach their project with the phi­los­o­phy that the record­ing should be a neat and tidy ver­sion of what they do live – no fancy stuff, all 100 per­cent re­pro­ducible. This is no­ble and of­ten to­tally achiev­able,

but not nec­es­sar­ily al­ways de­sir­able.

I feel that the record­ing should be a work of art in its own right. Like­wise, the live per­for­mance should stand in­de­pen­dent and com­plete from the record­ing. It’s the artist’s pre­rog­a­tive to in­ter­pret and rein­ter­pret their own work as ap­pro­pri­ate for the sit­u­a­tion. In today’s cli­mate, artists must of­ten be able to present their show in dif­fer­ent sized pack­ages. Having the full monty with all the bells and whis­tles is of­ten only pos­si­ble on spe­cial oc­ca­sions, un­less you’re com­mand­ing large au­di­ences!


If you find your­self bogged down with a client at the 11th hour tweak­ing things that only a trained ear would hear through a $2,000 pair of head­phones – af­ter you’ve told them what to lis­ten for – then you could be into the ‘last two per­cent’ of is­sues, which only the artist will no­tice or care about. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pur­sue it – as a pro­ducer, it’s your job to make the artist happy, but also to man­age time. If you can’t hear the dif­fer­ence af­ter A/B-ing some­thing three times know­ingly in per­fect lis­ten­ing con­di­tions, then it’s un­likely a ca­sual lis­tener will.


So much of know­ing where to pitch some­thing and how much time, en­ergy, ef­fort to put into some­thing de­pends on your tar­get au­di­ence. If you set up a fancy ta­ble on the street at 2am sell­ing $45 mains to the night zom­bies, you’ll risk at­tract­ing abuse! Like­wise, serv­ing up nuggets and dim sims in a five-star restau­rant will fry your culi­nary fu­ture.

It has to be said that some­times the ‘tar­get au­di­ence’ is the artist them­selves, and ‘both of their fans’. What­ever the motive for record­ing, set­ting a rel­e­vant and re­al­is­tic goal be­fore you start is the. Let the in­tended au­di­ence, con­text and mo­tives in­form how you pro­duce.


Work­ing to the artist’s abil­ity is para­mount. The record­ing sce­nario opens up pos­si­bil­i­ties for artists to ex­plore and ex­tend them­selves beyond their nor­mal field or abil­i­ties.

Some­times the best ses­sion­ist is the artists them­selves, as they are in­side the mu­sic more than any­one – as long as they're not us­ing pro­duc­tive time floun­der­ing in an in­dul­gent dream­scape. It’s fairly frus­trat­ing to watch some­one learn how to play a shaker when there’s a paid ses­sion drum­mer out the back mak­ing the cof­fees.

Find­ing the bal­ance be­tween time, bud­get, abil­ity, dreams and re­al­ity is a tricky busi­ness. Nav­i­gat­ing a project through a mul­ti­tude of ob­sta­cles – ex­pected and un­ex­pected – can be chal­leng­ing, as is know­ing when the cake is baked. A trusted set of ears, and even a trial ‘taste test’ with ex­pected tar­get au­di­ence members, is some­times a great way to get feed­back.






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