Record­ing Tips

ROB LONG EX­PLAINS HOW TO GET YOUR TUNES INTO TUNE.

Australian Guitar - - Contents -

In the last is­sue, I dis­cussed the im­por­tance of tim­ing, feel and groove, and looked at var­i­ous ways to as­sess the project and deal with the is­sues at hand. In this one , I’d like to look at the equally crit­i­cal ‘sis­ter’ is­sues of tun­ing and pitch­ing, which I’ll treat sep­a­rately.

It could be broadly stated that be­tween pitch and tim­ing, it’s tim­ing that is more flex­i­ble. Feel and groove are highly fluid and genre-spe­cific el­e­ments of mu­sic. Tun­ing and pitch­ing, on the other hand, tends be more uni­ver­sally un­der­stood and agreed upon, ir­re­spec­tive of genre.

It’s typ­i­cal for an in­stru­men­tal­ist to tune their in­stru­ment, but it’s far less typ­i­cal for them an­a­lyse their rhyth­mic per­for­mance against a grid in a DAW. Gen­er­ally, peo­ple will no­tice tun­ing is­sues long be­fore they’ll pick up on tim­ing is­sues.

Even the ca­sual non-mu­si­cal lis­tener can usu­ally tell that there’s some­thing not quite right, even though they may not have the lan­guage to ex­plain it. Need­less to say, if you make com­put­er­gen­er­ated, auto-tuned mu­sic, scroll on! There’s noth­ing to see here!

CHEW­ING OVER TUN­ING

Hav­ing said that, I’d have to say that I spend a lot of time help­ing per­form­ers of var­i­ous stringed in­stru­ments work­ing through the finer de­tails of tun­ing. Nine times out of ten, they can’t hear the prob­lem!

TRACK­ING ONE HEADPHONE OFF

To a cer­tain ex­tent, this is un­der­stand­able. So many peo­ple treat an elec­tronic tuner as ‘ the fi­nal word’, tun­ing at the begin­ning of a re­hearsal, gig or record­ing, and that’s it. They fig­ure that the tuner looks happy and then sign off on it. End of story. Fac­tors like play­ing at high vol­ume and the cho­rus­ing ef­fect of lots of in­stru­ments play­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously tend to mask the finer tun­ing prob­lems.

Per­son­ally, I’ll tune be­tween songs, record­ing takes, every time I put on a capo or re­move it... All the god­damn time. When record­ing, I’ll take it even fur­ther – I work through the chord shapes I’m in­tend­ing to use, one at a time, and test for dis­crep­an­cies and ad­just as nec­es­sary.

Peo­ple work un­der the as­sump­tion that a good in­stru­ment with healthy strings will, once tuned with an ac­cu­rate tuner, will be in tune at any point on the neck, and will stay that way. They can then re­lax and en­joy per­fect in­to­na­tion and

never need to give it an­other thought. In essence, they stop lis­ten­ing out for the hic­cups.

Un­for­tu­nately this is rarely the case. Hav­ing put su­per high-end, col­lectible in­stru­ments through their paces, I can at­test that the in­stru­ment’s price tag does not as­sure per­fect in­to­na­tion – the most im­por­tant as­pect of good tun­ing is the player’s ears.

Pos­si­bly the big­gest tell­tale sign of a tun­ing or in­to­na­tion is­sue is when ei­ther uni­son or oc­taves notes are played. If it’s not bang-on, you’ll soon hear an un­pleas­ant dis­so­nance. Hence, I’ll al­ways tune an open string against an oc­tave on an­other string, as dis­crep­an­cies here will be more no­tice­able.

CAPO GUI­TAR

If a capo is be­ing used, al­ways tune with­the­capoon , and the tuner in chro­matic mode. Putting a capo on a gui­tar or banjo neck changes ev­ery­thing! The player’s tech­nique is an­other can of worms. It’s so easy to sharpen a note by press­ing too hard on the fret­board, or to throw a whole chord out by bend­ing one string, but peo­ple of­ten don’t re­alise it’s hap­pen­ing un­til it’s un­der the stu­dio mi­cro­scope.

Get­ting in­to­na­tion cor­rect is a dark art, and many (ar­guably most, to be hon­est) in­stru­ments are sim­ply be­yond ever be­ing per­fect. Gen­er­ally, the po­si­tion of the bridge and sad­dle is the most crit­i­cal el­e­ment. But the depth of the nut slot has a huge ef­fect on the in­to­na­tion of the first five frets – too shal­low a cut will mean you’re fret­ting sharp up that end of the neck .

IN­TO­NA­TION

So, of­ten it be­comes a com­pro­mise, to the point where it’s ac­tu­ally plau­si­ble in some cases to al­ter a par t or ar­range­ment in or­der to avoid weak spots on the in­stru­ment.

One lit­tle trick I of­ten do is to sim­ply lay down a pi­ano or key­board track, even if it’s not nec­es­sar­ily for keeps, purely as a tun­ing ref­er­ence. It should only take around 10 or 15 min­utes to lay down the ba­sic chord pat­terns – sim­ply turn the track off once it’s no longer re­quired.

WHERE TO PITCH IT?

It re­ally pays to lis­ten to the singer work through a song in the con­trol room with the track, or play­ing camp­fire style with a gui­tar or pi­ano be­fore send­ing them into the fray. You’ll learn a lot about sim­ply hear­ing them per­form acous­ti­cally in the room with you, with­out the tech­ni­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal mine­field that is the ‘red zone’. They’ll be more re­laxed, less likely try and im­press ev­ery­one in the room, and you’ll hear the nat­u­ral tim­bre of their voice that you’re about to try to cap­ture.

It’s also im­por­tant to as­cer­tain

ASAP whether the vo­cal part is ac­tu­ally set, ar­ranged and fin­ished. Are they im­pro­vis­ing or chang­ing it every time they sing it? Are they at­tempt­ing to recre­ate some demo from eight years ago when their range was two tones higher? Are they mak­ing it up as they go and never quite nail­ing it? If so, they’re more likely to be fo­cussed on cre­at­ing a part than singing well.

The old ‘one headphone off’ trick is an oldie but a goodie. It al­lows the singer to hear at least a per­cent­age of their voice nat­u­rally. Head­phones cre­ate an air­tight seal around the ears which greatly al­ters the nat­u­ral, free-field lis­ten­ing en­vi­ron­ment which peo­ple are used to.

If it’s a a capella piece, sim­ply play a drone as a pitch­ing ref­er­ence. It’s su­per quick and easy to set up, and just helps the vo­cal­ist(s) from wan­der­ing too far off the mark. If the piece be­gins with a solo vo­cal en­try, make sure you lay down an in­tro chord. If you for­get, sim­ply copy and paste a bar from some­where in the track.

When things re­ally aren’t go­ing well, some­times it’s nec­es­sary to reach for the big guns. This could mean lit­er­ally play­ing the melody on a key­board, us­ing a suit­able sound such as a flute. Some pro­duc­ers will go as far as to auto-tune a vo­cal take to use as a ref­er­ence. Ob­vi­ously this is fairly ex­treme, and does rail­road the vo­cal­ist into a try­ing to per­fect ‘set part’ – but it’s a so­lu­tion! MELODYNE

Mon­i­tor­ing is ob­vi­ously crit­i­cal in any record­ing sit­u­a­tion, but never more so than track­ing vo­cals.

Al­ways have a good lis­ten to the headphone mix you’re send­ing. Don’t rely on the per­former to tell you what’s go­ing on – they may not have the ex­pe­ri­ence to know what’s ‘nor­mal’. Even if they are ex­pe­ri­enced, they may not be fa­mil­iar with your setup or head­phones.

You need to know that ev­ery­thing is work­ing as ex­pected be­fore you go chas­ing your tail with some­one who may have a whole dif­fer­ent lan­guage for de­scrib­ing what they are hear­ing. I don’t know how many times I’ve had some­one say, "It sounds great," only to re­alise they are singing a semi­tone flat be­cause all they can hear is a muddy mix through the talk­back mic.

Get­ting the vol­ume right is im­por­tant. The genre will guide you – it’s hard to rock out at ‘el­e­va­tor’ vol­ume. Like­wise, don’t blow the folkies out of the room! When the vo­cals are too loud in the phones, many singers will ac­tu­ally back off and project less, which can cause them to sing flat. If the vo­cals are too quiet, some singers will sing too hard to hear the vo­cals prop­erly, caus­ing them to hit the notes sharp.

It’s of­ten ad­vis­able to sim­plify the mix, thin­ning out com­plex, dis­tract­ing el­e­ments which in­hibit more than they en­hance. If the singer nor­mally plays an in­stru­ment, fo­cus the mon­i­tor­ing around that and make them feel at home.

Try skew­ing the headphone mix to give the vo­cal­ist some au­di­ble sepa­ra­tion. Pan the back­ing track pan left by 75 per­cent and the vo­cal track right by 75 per­cent or sim­i­lar.

Al­low­ing vo­cal­ists to sing along with the track and find their pitch well be­fore a punch-in point is far more de­sir­able than a tight drop in, where they are forced to sud­denly pitch per­fectly from a cold start.

Some­times head­phones sim­ply just don’t fit the bill. It could be the genre, or it may be their vol­ume or singing style. It could just be that the vo­cal­ist feels like they’re wear­ing a sonic chastity belt!

Us­ing stu­dio mon­i­tors or even set­ting up a small PA to mon­i­tor them isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Send a mono mix to two speak­ers on ei­ther side of the mic . Put one speaker out of phase and the sound can­cels at the mic ( once you get the place­ment cor­rect). Then, the singer can dis­pense with head­phones and just sing to what they're hear­ing through the speak­ers.

There will be some bleed of mu­sic onto the vo­cal track depend­ing on how loud you run the speak­ers, but it’s of­ten no more than you would get from some­one run­ning loud head­phones while they’re do­ing a vo­cal track.

Like­wise, for some gen­res, it’s a mat­ter of feel and per­for­mance style. Chang­ing the vo­cal ses­sion from a ster­ile ‘ stu­dio cap­ture’ with a big in­tim­i­dat­ing large di­aphragm con­denser into a live per­for­mance us­ing a more fa­mil­iar hand­held dy­namic mic could be the ticket.

Most of all, build con­fi­dence! Sup­port is of­ten the game-changer. Nerves cause a singer to tense up and cre­ate an ef­fi­cient breath flow. So praise them when they nail it, and sup­port them when they strug­gle. If they get some of it right, they can get all of it righ t!

Rob Long is a multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist and pro­ducer work­ing @FunkyLizardS­tu­dios in New­cas­tle.

LEFT: AL­WAYS KEEP AN OPEN EAR

ABOVE: A CLAS­SIC TUNER FOR SOME CLAS­SIC TUNES

ABOVE: GET YOUR STRINGS INTO SHAPE

LEFT: SCREW THIS!

ABOVE: WHEN IN DOUBT, DAW IT OUT

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