Australian Guitar - - Home Recording -

When I’m asked, "What’s the most com­mon chal­lenge you face in the stu­dio?" I usu­ally re­spond within less than two sec­onds – usu­ally de­pend­ing on whether or not I have a mouth full of cof­fee – "Tim­ing!" This usu­ally prompts the re­sponse, "You mean find­ing time to record?"

Well, yes, but no – I mean get­ting peo­ple to play in time!

I couldn’t say how many times I’ve sat in the con­trol room and lis­tened to a solo per­former, some­one over­dub­bing, or an en­tire band and thought, "This is fan­tas­tic – great song, great tones, great ideas and parts... I wouldn’t change a thing... Ifon­ly­it­was­in­time!"

And thus, it be­gins... No, I can’t sim­ply sit back and watch this all go down, en­joy­ing the grooves, the lock, the sure-footed tight­ness, the seam­less join­ing of mu­si­cians work­ing as one en­tity – in the pocket with the zip done up!

No! Now I’m go­ing to have to re­ally earn my money. Most of the time, I’m go­ing to either have to find out if there’s some cred­i­ble rea­son why this is sound­ing like ev­ery­one’s play­ing in a dif­fer­ent band, or if the per­former has just for­got­ten to put their head­phones on.

If there’s no tech­ni­cal ex­cuse for the sloppy tim­ing, then I’m left with three sim­ple choices: ig­nore it and keep smil­ing through the glass, re­solve that I’m go­ing to need to spend a lot of time mas­sag­ing the tracks later, or raise the point with the artist and – as­sum­ing they are re­cep­tive – see what we can do to tighten things up!

Ob­vi­ously, there are types of mu­sic which re­quire ab­so­lutely clock-per­fect tim­ing with no com­pro­mise. But then there’s the nat­u­ral push and pull that oc­curs when nor­mal hu­man be­ings play and vo­calise to­gether. Of course, there’s su­per lazy, swampy, 'see ya when ya get there' stylings. Some gen­res are go­ing to work with a click track, whereas oth­ers need to breathe like a liv­ing crea­ture.

There are no rules, but there are con­ven­tions. The thing is, a jazz band would pack up and leave if the pro­ducer sug­gested they use a click. They may well push the tempo and feel all over the shop in the course of one piece, but you can bet that they make it sound like the mu­si­cal for­est has grown from one seed – and ul­ti­mately, that’s the kicker.

It’s not about the clock – it’s about in­ten­tion, sync and groove.

Good play­ers can do any­thing. Less ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers need to work a lot harder, and they are of­ten the peo­ple smaller stu­dios are deal­ing with. If you’re pro­duc­ing, it’s your job to be the po­lice­man for such things as tun­ing and tim­ing, and to help steer the piece or project in the ap­pro­pri­ate di­rec­tion.

The first step is to make a call on ex­actly what is ap­pro­pri­ate for the genre, the peo­ple in­volved, where the project is be­ing pitched and the rel­e­vant ex­pected out­comes. Is the ‘loose­ness’ within ac­cept­able bound­aries for the piece or style? Or is the au­di­ence go­ing to feel slightly sea­sick lis­ten­ing to it?

Once you’ve as­cer­tained that there is a ‘bit of an is­sue’ at hand, it be­comes a case of how best to deal with it. The great­est sin­gle stum­bling block is that nine times out of ten, the mu­si­cian is bliss­fully un­aware that there’s even a prob­lem, though they’ve come to you to record or pro­duce their work and have handed you part of the re­spon­si­bil­ity to help bring it home.

So, break­ing the news can be tricky, but that’s part of the gig!

So of­ten, peo­ple us­ing stu­dios are writ­ers and singers first and fore­most, and ‘play­ers/mu­si­cians’ by de­fault. By na­ture, these creatives tend to play mostly alone, or with other mu­si­cians who are not nec­es­sar­ily out there ev­ery week­end pol­ish­ing their craft.

Thus, they of­ten strug­gle to play parts that they’ve in­vented them­selves, but don’t re­alise un­til they get un­der the mi­cro­scope of the stu­dio and get some feed­back from peo­ple who do it ev­ery day. Re­hearsal spa­ces, like live gigs, of­ten mask the more sub­tle is­sues with the ‘wall of noise’ ef­fect.

Gen­er­ally, I find the is­sues tend to cen­tre around tran­si­tions. To use an anal­ogy, straight roads are fine, un­til there’s a bend. You have to read­just men­tally and phys­i­cally to make smooth tran­si­tions. Most peo­ple will be able to sit nicely on a groove, and even play the next groove well – but mov­ing from one to the next seam­lessly is of­ten where the cracks ap­pear.

Drum fills are the clas­sic tell­tales. It’s al­most par for the course that peo­ple will phys­i­cally slow down dur­ing a busy part that re­quires more chops and even beat distri­bu­tion, then speed up when things swing up to a beat or two per bar, and they’re not prop­erly count­ing the rest of the beats.

If you’re go­ing to a pho­to­shoot, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to have a good look at your­self in the mir­ror and sort your groom­ing and funky threads well be­fore you let any­one snap you – you should have the same men­tal­ity when it comes to your mu­sic. It’s crit­i­cal to have a re­ally good lis­ten to your­self and your parts (in­di­vid­u­ally and as a group) be­fore you start fork­ing out hourly rates in the stu­dio.

If you’re pro­duc­ing for other peo­ple, en­cour­ag­ing pre-pro­duc­tion is manda­tory. This could be as sim­ple as hav­ing them send you iPhone record­ings of their kitchen ses­sions, and al­low­ing you to trou­bleshoot and pro­vide them with valu­able feed­back in ad­vance.

If you’re work­ing to a click, life will be sim­pler. You can drop in, mix and match takes, and gen­er­ally use the grid as a guide to push and pull things around in post-pro­duc­tion. But this should al­ways be a last re­sort – if you can min­imise ma­nip­u­la­tion and get things down right at the time, you’ll al­ways end up with a more or­ganic sound­ing prod­uct.

Us­ing a stan­dard four-beat click with a typ­i­cal hi-hat or rimshot sound will work okay for some peo­ple. If that doesn't do the trick , try go­ing with eight beats to the bar, as it saves the dis­trac­tion of count­ing on the artist’s be­half.

I find that most peo­ple feel more com­fort­able with some kind of groove – either a drum feel based on the in­tended groove, or a per­cus­sion loop. I’ll still run this as a guide even if the in­ten­tion is to have a

per­cus­sion‑free fi­nal prod­uct, and just ditch it once there’s a solid bed track to build on.

Head­phone mixes are highly cru­cial when it comes to nail­ing parts and get­ting then the pocket. What­ever part of the track is the des­ig­nated ‘God of Time’ must be clearly audi­ble up and over what is be­ing over­dubbed.

Of­ten­times, in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers will sat­u­rate the head­phone mix with their own tracks, then won­der why noth­ing is gelling when they hear it all played back.

Some­times it’s nec­es­sary to an­a­lyse, and then sim­plify a part in or­der to get it down. It could be that a tricky pas­sage can be split into sev­eral parts or to­tally reap­pro­pri­ated.

For ex­am­ple, I once had a drum­mer strug­gle with a change that had him play­ing 16ths on the hats for one part, then eighths for an­other. I sim­ply sug­gested that the 16ths would feel bet­ter and sit more com­fort­ably in the mix if played by a shaker or small tam­bourine. Sim­i­larly, a busy acous­tic gui­tar part in one song was re­placed by an over­dubbed man­dolin, which ac­tu­ally im­proved the tex­ture and dy­nam­ics of the over­all song.

It’s in­cred­i­ble how a lazy or anx­ious vo­cal take can make it feel like the whole track is out of sync. So many vo­cal­ists (at all lev­els) are anx­ious about record­ing and get thrown off their game. Of­ten­times they are sim­ply not used to hear­ing them­selves so clearly, and it takes time to re­lax.

Some­times I’ll grab a vo­cal take and push it back in time a tin y bit, just to get it to sit mor e ‘mu­si­cally’ in the grander scheme of the track. If I think it’ll help, I’ll ac­tu­ally do that while the singer is watch­ing, and then point out the dif­fer­ence.

If they are re­cep­tive (and of­ten, they are putting a lot of trust in you as their en­gi­neer or pro­ducer), you can get a much im­proved re­sult right off the bat!

Track­ing in sec­tions can re­ally help, es­pe­cially when there’s a ma­jor feel change and you can vir­tu­ally hear the ten­sion ris­ing as it ap­proaches. Break­ing things into bite‑sized chunks takes the pres­sure off from that, and al­lows peo­ple to fo­cus on one thing at a time.

For mu­si­cians track­ing live to­gether, vis­ual cues are crit­i­cal. A sim­ple nod of the head, eye con­tact, be­ing able to see drum­sticks or hands lay­ing down a groove, or mark­ing an ac­cent is what most peo­ple are ac­cus­tomed to. The pros can do with­out it, but it still helps peo­ple at all lev­els.

Be­fore you set your­self up for a marathon ses­sion and end up with a ster­ile, life­less track that sounds noth­ing like the artist, try to draw the very best out of them dur­ing the track­ing stage.

You won’t end up with RSI and a caf­feine over­dose, and their ears will be happy!






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