So, you want to record some stuff yourself. Maybe you know a guy who will mix for you, but you want to save money and track everything yourself. You’re living in a good time to do that! Good job, you. My band, Mischief Night, is planning on doing some of our own recording soon and it’s been making me think about what a bunch of half-drunk dudes in a metal band can do to make the process better and the results more awesomer. I’ve been recording myself for almost as long as I’ve been playing guitar (thanks for that first SM57, Uncle Matt!!), so I’ve figured a few things out. That said, I’m no pro and I’m used to using some low rent stuff. I’m also frequently drunk. I have decided that this combination makes me an ideal candidate to write this. Good thing I have my own blog.
ALEX GRIM’S RECORDING TIPS FOR IDIOTS AND DRUNK CHILDREN
First off, I’m going to assume you’ve recorded a few things before and own at least some gear. There are a lot of beginner guides, buyer’s guides, and tutorials out there, and I even ghostwrote some of them. Don’t need to do that again. This is going to be more like tips and improvements, food for thought, and me swearing a lot. Strap in, bitches.
- Don’t let your interface clip. Ain’t no good. In your DAW, aim for an average level of, like, -8db or -6db or so. Try to keep the peaks below 0db. On some instruments, like bass, this is where having an outboard compressor can be helpful.
- Don’t be afraid to break up an instrumental part into a few segments. For example, it’s going to be hard to get a good level recording a clean guitar and a dirty guitar all in one go. Or if there’s a slap bass section or something, go ahead and record that separately from the regular fingerstyle bits.
- Use a goddamn metronome.
- If you are sending these tracks to someone else to mix, PLEASE zero them out. Just drag the edge of the little box to the beginning of the song so that every track starts at the same time. There is nothing more annoying than trying to figure out the exact millisecond a guitar solo is supposed to start or trying to line up six background vocal tracks using a mystical combination of eyeballing, ears, and gin.
- In a similar vein, label the damn things. Is this the main guitar? The one you want in the left channel? LABLE IT
- Playing around with mic placement is great because it’s fun, rewarding, and educational. But sometimes you ain’t got time for that. Take an SM57, put it an inch away from the grill cloth at a point close-ish to the edge of the speaker and angle it about 45 degrees towards the center of the speaker cone. Do a test track and have a listen. If it’s too bright and fizzy, move the mice towards the edge of the cone. If it’s not bright enough, move it towards the center.
- Generally speaking, ribbon and dynamic mics are preferred for electric guitar because condensers are just too bright.
- Don’t forget that some amps have a headphone out that can sound pretty damn good. I’ve got a blackstar HT1 that I record with all the time using the headphone out.
- If you’re sending your tracks to get mixed by a person who isn’t you, try to get a clean DI signal so whatever poor bastard in charge of the mix has some options. If you’re using a software amp, this is obviously super easy. Depending on what you’re recording, you might just plan on recording your parts using the GarageBand shit and sending the dry tracks to your mix dude/tte so s/he can re-amp it at their leisure. I’ve gotten guest guitar solos this way with good success.
- Use a DI. Just do it. You can totally mic a bass cab, but you probably want to use a couple mics, especially if your cab has a tweater in it. Bass cabs don’t always take close-mic’ing well, because the waves are so long and the instrument is super dynamic. If you’re amp is at all modern, it should have a nice DI XLR output on the back. You can also plug straight in and use a software amp or one of the many preamp pedals out there. I use either an Ampeg Scrambler DI or an Amplitube model of an Ampeg SVT. It’s about 50-50; I find the pedal does low and mid-gain better, while the software does fuzz better, but that’s just me.
- Bass has a *huge* dynamic range, so if you set your levels to deal with fingerstyle and you start slapping, you’re gonna see some meters go red real quick. Keep this in mind and break up recording accordingly.
- This is the hardest one, logistically anyway. You can get a great drum recording with just a mic or two (just ask Bonzo), but for that nice big metal sound, you need to get up in some close mic action. For a normal five piece kit, you’re looking at seven microphones, and that’s not even getting fancy. I’ll go piece by piece:
- Kick: If you can get your hands on something actually designed for a kick drum, use it. You *can* mic up a kick with an SM57, but ugh. I hope you like EQing. So get your kick mic and stick it right up close to the resonant head (the one the beater *doesn’t* hit). If it’s a ported head, even better: stick that fucker right on in there. This will give you more “click” from the beater while still giving you plenty of body. Experiment with turning the beaters around and see how you like hitting with the plastic side versus the felt side. For metal, I usually like the plastic. More attack.
- One thing you will 100% notice is that your kick doesn’t sound as badass and thumpy as you think it should. Ignore this. You can solve the issue, as many better engineers before you have, by wiring a big old speaker up to a ¼” cable and using it as a microphone (Yamaha makes one of those you can just buy). Or you can save yourself the hassle and just use a low frequency generator triggered to the kick drum. Reaper comes with one. It works great. The Reaper one defaults to 50hz and that’s just fine. Don’t get carried away.
- Snare: An SM57 is a pretty great snare mic. Just point it somewhere about halfway between the edge and the center of the top of the drum and keep it out of the way of flailing sticks.
- Toms: mic them about the same way you do the snare. SM57s are fine on toms, but as they get lower, it’s not the best mic out there for the job. It’s fine, though, so don’t worry about it too much. Again, make sure your mics aren’t in the way. If you have too many toms, you can pull the mic back a little and get two at the same time, or cover three rack toms with two mics or whatever you need to do. Just try to make sure that no toms are getting too much mic relative to the others. If you record a test track and hit each one in turn, they should all have about the same level.
- Cymbals: The easiest way to get cymbals to sound good is to use a pair of overhead mics. I like to use small diameter condenser mics, though some people prefer large diameter mics for the job. If you have to mix and match, that’s fine, though people will say a matched stereo pair is better. Do the best with what you have and it’ll be fine. A large diameter mic with tend to soften the treble some while a small diameter mic with be brighter. Dynamic mics are really not that great for the task, because they tend to lack the high-end detail and the transient response needed. Ribbons likewise are warmer and smoother in the top-end than most people prefer.
Some Extra Thoughts on Overheads
There are a couple of different ways to do your stereo overheads. Personally, I like to have the mics pointing straight down with one sort of high above the drummer’s left side (where the hi-hat and main crash usually live) and the other lower over the ride cymbal and the other crash. Obviously kits differ. I like this setup because the ride is quieter than a crash but is also a time-keeping cymbal. Keeping the mic closer to it balances it against the crash. On the hi-hat side, most drummers play their hats so damn loud you could mic it from a different room and it would be fine, so I keep it high to, once again, balance with the crash.
Whatever your kit looks like, this part is important. Since the overheads will be picking up the entire kit, you need to eliminate phase issues. Make very sure the distance between the *center* of the *snare* head is the same distance from each of the two mic capsules. I usually just use a mic cable to measure. In an ideal word, the kick drum is also the same distance from the two mics, but if you’re close mic’ing the kick you’ll be ok.
BUT MASTER GRIM, WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE THAT MANY MICS?
Go to the store, you fool! Or check out something called the Recorderman technique. I don’t know who the hell Recorder Man is, but he wasn’t an idiot. It’s a two mic setup that does a good job of getting the whole kit easily. –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeH8VsaUwV8 <– Here’s a good video demonstrating the setup and how to add to it if you have say, three or four mics. Mohawk there also demos a few different mics so you get an idea of how different they sound (and why no one loves SM57s on overheads).
- Keys: Generally, there are two approaches to recording keyboards. One is using the sounds made by the keyboard, and the other is to use the keyboard as a MIDI controller. If you’re using the on-board sounds, just plug the headphone out from the keyboard into your audio interface. If your sounds do stereo things, like chorus effects or some slight panning, it behooves you to split the stereo output into a split mono pair (https://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=601051 you’re welcome. Or just fucking go to RadioShack, whatever).
- If you’re going the MIDI route, just connect your keyboard to your interface with MIDI cables and record the MIDI and use whatever sounds on your computer you want. This gives you more flexibility in both sound and editing, but can also be a pain in the ass if you decide to be mad OCD about everything. You do you, honeyboo.
Oh man. The human voice is such a pain in the ass. So much so that I’m not even going to try to wrestle with MS Word about bullet points for this section.
Because it’s one of the things we’ve evolved to hear with the greatest detail, having your vocals sound wonky is way worse than you’re guitars being a little weird in the mid range. You *will* hear that shit. Most people like to use a nice, large capsule condenser mic for vocals, though the Shure SM7B, a large diaphragm dynamic mic, is pretty popular too, especially for death growls.
An SM57 is not an especially good vocal mic…except for when it is. The louder your singer is, the more likely an SM57 is going to be ok. I’m pretty sure Bono uses one in the studio a lot. If you’re tracking, like, Maynard screaming, it’d probably sound fine on your webcam mic, under a blanket, and somehow stoned. I’ve recorded my voice with a bunch of different things, and by far would pick a large diaphragm condenser as my first choice, every time. That said, I’ve had good results even using the mic on an iPod.
USE A POP FILTER
Yeah, some old skool guys will say that you don’t need one with proper mic technique (point the mic at the singer’s mouth; don’t point the singer’s mouth at the mic). Trust me, you’re gonna fuck it up, or your singer will fuck it up, or you’ll want to get half an inch away from the capsule to do something breathy or whatever. Get a goddamn pop filter. Get one of those metal ones, not the silly one that looks like a hat for your microphone. They’re at Guitar Center for like, $25. Caveat: if you’re using a stage vocal mic, like an SM58, it already has one built in. I hate SM58s and personally recommend the Sennheiser e835.
Ok, so you’re tested out all the mics you own and found the one that works best with your singer’s voice. You’ve got a pop filter. Where are you going to record? Intuition might suggest someplace reflective like a bathroom or a stairwell. This can work really well, but you have to remember that any ambiance you get from your location is going to be permanently part of the recording. This is not inherently a bad thing; Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska in his fucking living room on a four-track cassette and transferred it to a normal cassette using a boombox that he had dropped in a lake by accident. It sounds amazing.
You’re probably not The Boss though.
If you don’t have an isolation booth for some reason, hop in your car. Cars keep unwanted noise out pretty well, have no parallel surfaces inside, and the seats absorb other reflections well. Your singer might complain that it’s harder to sing sitting down, but you have to weigh that against where else you can record. A walk-in closet full of clothes works well. Hell, aggressive close mic’ing can do the trick, especially with a dynamic mic. The goal, if you can’t find the ambiance you love enough to commit to, is to reduce ambiance as much as possible.
Vocal Monitor Mix
This deserves its own section because the human voice is weirder than other instruments, and is also more delicate. You need to make sure your singer is comfortable with what they hear in their head and their ears. Most people hate the sound of their own voice, so this can take more time than getting a guitar monitor set up. I think everyone wants to hear reverb on their voice. It makes it sound less…wrong. Until you’ve tried to record yourself singing, it can be a little difficult to understand, so have some sympathy and patience.
- Note to singers: until you’ve tried to engineer a singer, it can be difficult to understand how much of a pain in the ass you’re probably being. One of the best things you can do to help is learn some basic engineering stuff so that when something isn’t working for you, you can identify what and/or why it isn’t. For example, find out what it feels like to sing with too much compression on your voice, and figure out what kind of reverb you like to hear. That way you can actually use words to describe what’s wrong instead of waving your arms around and getting frustrated when no one knows what you mean by “squishy” or whatever.
Personally, I like to hear a little bit of compression, a sort of long, darker reverb, and delay *if and only if* the song should have it. I think getting the delay right before you hit record is helpful because it lets the singer play with it during their performance.
Your level for your vocal monitor is super important. I remember reading an interview with Hansi Kürsch of Blind Gaurdian where he said that he needed it to hear himself loudly enough that he didn’t push too hard and blow out his voice, but not so loudly that he didn’t push at all. Obviously that’s a little vague. The specifics will depend on the singer, the song, and even the part of the song. Just communicate specifically and frequently. Make sure the singer is paying attention to how their voice feels and accept the fact that they just might not be “in voice” on a given day. Sometimes it just happens, but feel free to berate them if this is their fault (they shouted too much last night, they drank too much coffee, were on the receiving end of a bukakke against all advice, etc.).
Additional General Tips
- Use a goddamn metronome, especially if you’re not recording everything together live as a band. Your drummer might bitch. I do not care.
- Take time between takes to listen back to what you just recorded. Even if you know it’s not something to keep, just taking those few seconds can help keep everyone in the right headspace vs. rushing through like mad.
- Closed back headphones!!! ESPECIALLY for vocals. If you are tracking in the same room as your microphones, use headphones that give you good isolation. I own two pairs of Sennheiser HD280 Pros because they are isolating as hell. They get uncomfortable after a while and they’re not as buttery smooth sounding as my special babies (I have a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pros and I will straight cut you if you even look at them wrong), but they fucking work. You know what makes a vocal track sound a lot worse? Drum bleed or metronome bleed. Some bleed is fine, and is basically unavoidable. A lot of times you can kill it with a gate anyway, but you don’t want some loud-ass guitars permanently on your vocal track or whatever.
- Monitor mix! Does your singer need to hear all of the extra guitars on the second chorus? Probably not. Does your bass player need to hear the kick drum louder than it should ever be heard? Most likely. Give each performer the information they need. Not more, not less. I said use a metronome before, but once the drums and shit are down, maybe your singer doesn’t need it anymore except for that first verse before everything kicks in. If your guitar player needs to hear the main track in the center instead of off to the left of the mix where it’s going to end up, put it in the center. Little things like that can make a huge difference in how easy it is to get a good tack. Whatever you need to do to increase the confidence of the person you’re recording, do it.
Below are some links to things I’ve recorded. I’ve included notes as best as I can recall to give you an idea of how different setups, techniques, and levels of idiocy/inebriation impact the final product. Stay grim, my friends.
https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/dreamy-waltz <– Vocals start at 37 seconds. I had to use the microphone on my laptop’s webcam. I was able to make it fit the song by working with the low quality instead of trying to fight it. The bass is just a clean guitar pitch-shifted down an octave, and all of the guitars are Amplitube. This is a pretty primitive recording, the purpose of which is to show you that you can still get something somewhat decent with utter shit for a setup.
https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/wasteland-demo <– The drums are EZDrummer, the guitars and bass are both DI’s into Amplitube, and the vocals were recorded in my car using my e835. Not quite as nice as a condenser, but not bad.
https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/drumception-hanging-out-with-mario <– the guitars are all my Blackstar’s headphone jack plugged into my DAW.
https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/smyth-swag <– I’m not a good rapper. Everything was played on my iPod in the iOS Garage Band app, and the vocals were recorded using my iPod’s own mic. Doesn’t sound too shabby.
https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/all-of-me-punk <– I don’t remember exactly how I recorded the guitars. The drums I did with a Recorderman setup, probably using one large and one small diaphragm condenser. Notice that you can hear the whole kit, but it doesn’t have that “in your face” sound you’re probably used to. Also, the kick is mad buried, which is why the third mic you add is always a kick mic.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HnAPwFzPzc <– I linked to the video of this song because you can see a lot of the actual recording setup. The bass is going straight into Amplitube, all of the guitars are mic’d speakers, the drums are mic’d how I talked about before, and I’m using my LDC for the vocals. Also notice how goofy I look playing drums.