- Published Mar 7, 2014 in In The Studio
- Read time: about 6 minutes
You don't need a big budget to get a good sound. Sometimes the key to great bass, acoustic guitar, drum and vocal takes is right in your very own home.
Greetings Sessionvillains! I spend a lot of time pondering topics that would best suit the needs and questions of the studio pro. Usually I look at the technical end of a studio project or the engineering aspect of a recording. But today I place myself inside the mind of the home studio owner, looking for the best sound he/she can possibly get from a space that's… well, let’s just say less than adequate.
If you are tracking in a room that barely fits a drum kit; a space that multitasks as your kitchen, living room and bedroom; or a playroom with an infant swing and a highchair, you may want to check out these winning cheats for the home studio nerd.
I bring you my top 5 favorite production hacks:
1Nobody puts Baby in the corner.
In whatever room you can physically set up your kit, place the drummer in the corner facing outward, looking diagonally into the opposing corner of the room. Now set up two microphones in an X-pattern, approximately 8 feet in front of the drums. The mics should be 6 to 8 feet off the grand and 8 to 10 feet apart. The X-pattern should have a point of intersection approximately 3 feet in front of the kit, at the height of the drummer’s head.
Put your drummer in the corner, set up your mics in an X-pattern and make sure you put some sound dampening materials behind the kit.
Behind the drummer in the corner of the room, pile as many pillows and blankets you can find to help control the low frequencies, which are unidirectional, and will ultimately bounce around making the drums sound muddy.
In The Mix
One way to mix this would be to pan these tracks hard left and right, doing a 60 Hz roll off, and dipping 1kHz-3kHz slightly. Boost a wide Q from 5-16 kHz. Next, copy said tracks, panning them both at center. The first copy track should have a wide Q bumped from 600Hz to 1 kHz, a sharp Q dip at 200 Hz and a roll-off at 60 Hz. This track will help to enhance the snare and the click of the kick.
On the second copy track, roll off 3 kHz and up, and take a narrow Q from 200 Hz. This track will accentuate the kick drum. Feel free to sweep your EQ for "sweet-spots" on either of these, as the frequencies I suggest are ballpark.
I usually send these four tracks to a bus, apply a "responsible" amount of compression, and push it to a nice reverb send. At this point, your drums should sound pretty mean for being tracked beside a snuggy-puppy bouncy seat.
2 Everyone loves a fat bottom.
In a perfect world, you would have the cabinet of your choice with the best DI box money can buy. But the reality is, it isn’t a perfect world, and you are dealing with a bass player who doesn't have a cabinet, or a house/apartment where rattling the china cabinet is not going to fly.
You can color the tone if you like, but I generally prefer to go into my DAW "as is," leaving me the ability to contour my sound after the mix.
So here is the skinny for a fat bass sound: If you can get your hands on a small bass combo amp—or even rent one for a few hours from a local music shop—you can use the built in preamp as your DI.
Now simply send the direct-out of the amp to the input of your audio interface. You can color the tone if you like, but I generally prefer to go into my DAW "as is," leaving me the ability to contour my sound after the mix. Then, using an SM-57 or anything comparable, point the mic from the bridge down the neck of the bass. Make sure that the player is wearing headphones, and the room is as quiet as possible, because what we are looking to capture are those clanks and clacks of the instrument.
*** (If no amp is available, go directly into your interface, and put some mild compression on the input channel to fatten the sound up.)
In The Mix
To mix this: layer, blend and EQ the two tracks to your liking, and route them to a bus, applying some bus compression and tube saturation. You can even add a small amount of reverb that is EQ’d to only affect the upper frequencies. (Reverb on the lower frequencies can make your mix tubby and muddy.) This should land you a bass track that can stand up against the best of them.
3 All great ideas start in the bathroom.
Electric guitar is pretty much a no-brainer these days. You can plug your ax directly into your interface and pull up a plethora of amp simulators that can be tweaked ad nauseam. But the acoustic guitar still remains elusive in dialing in from just a DI input.
To get that super crisp acoustic sound you're looking for, let’s look to a household room we all have in common: the bathroom. We are going to use a three input method to track our guitar player. Your first input will be a standard DI to the interface. (Like with a bass, you can use a DI box, thread through a guitar amp’s direct out on clean setting, or just go right into your interface).
The second input will be an SM-57 or comparable mic directed towards the sound hole at roughly a 30 degree angle. Feel free to play around with placement of this mic to find the right tone you are looking for.
The venerable SM-57 condenser mic makes a good choice for capturing part of your acoustic guitar sound.
The third mic will be a standard vocal condenser set to a cardioid pattern, placed roughly 4-6 feet in front of the player, 1 foot higher than the sound hole of the guitar. I always sit my player with his/her back to the door, leaving towels hanging on the door for some sound absorption. Bathroom layouts may vary, but the idea is to play out into the room to capture the sparkle and brilliance you will hear.
In The Mix
To mix these tracks, you can layer them on top of one another or even spread them out across the panning field. But, be sure to remember these important notes when blending these guitar tracks:
- Do a 60 Hz roll off on the condenser mic track to keep it clean.
- You may not need reverb, as you have captured the room, but if you must, be careful not to wet down the track so much that it fades into the abyss.
- To blend the tracks, I usually bus them together and do a light compression to tame and glue them into cohesiveness.
- Be conservative while EQ’ing, as the three tracks need to work together. Also, remain mindful of phasing issues, checking your EQs against one another. >li>Remember, you do not have to use all three of these. If you have captured lightning in a bottle with just one of the inputs, stick with it. No need to overcomplicate something that is right to begin with.
4 Mind the gap.
If you can't afford a nice mic preamp but really want that special sound for your vocals, boy do I have a trick for you. Using a standard vocal mic, record your vocal takes directly into your DAW. Be sure to set your levels correctly to avoid clipping while tracking. (Different style vocalizations call for different treatments.) I sometimes will place a very gentle compression on my input channel to keep things from getting hairy and ruining an otherwise perfect vocal take.
Once you have your keeper or a good comp (see #5), get yourself a tube guitar amp. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just free of buzzing and static. Again, borrow from a friend or rent one from a local music store if you don’t already own one.
Route your vocals through the output of your interface, into the guitar amp, out of the direct out of the amp, and back into your interface, recording the looped input for a duplicate track. This will not only create a nice double of your original track, but it will add a nice warm tone to help fatten the vocal sound without sounding too affected.
In The Mix
***Keep in mind: you really don't want to color the sound of the amp. I prefer to keep all settings neutral and clean.
***The new print you have looped through the guitar amp may be behind a few milliseconds as a result of latency, so watch the gap. You can realign with the original to resolve this, adjust the offset to taste, or leave as is if it has the right sound you were going for.
***Bussing and compression will also help to sew the vocal takes together.
5 The hits just keep on coming.
When it comes to tracking vocals, the amount of times you capture a single take top to bottom are not only rare, but few and far between. And in most cases, as you delve into the "punch" game, the vocalist loses steam, feel and objectivity. Being able to coach a singer through a good vocal comp is a must have skill for a producer. I’ve spoken about this technique many times before and honestly swear by it.
In The Booth
Inside the vocal booth—or wherever you may be tracking—take tape and mark the floor where the mic stand will go, as well as a box for the singer to stand in. This will guarantee your multiple takes all have the same sonic properties. Then, have your vocalist warm up to a different song than they will be singing. Have them sing along with their favorite band or do some voice exercises, but keep them away from the real song until it’s go time.
I always require artists to bring in a double-spaced, typed sheet of their lyrics, broken up accordingly by arrangement parts. This will help you to follow the song and speak the same language when referring to lyrics and segments.
Next, cue up the song and have her do a run through, getting your levels right and the headphone mix to taste. Once she is ready, let the singer do the song top to bottom three times through, and then take a break.
*** (Do not audition any of these!)
Be sure to take breaks liberally so as not to overwork your performer.
After the break, cut the song into arrangement portions (like verse, chorus, bridge, etc.). One by one, have the singer do three full takes per section, which will ultimately give us six full takes of the song. Be sure to take breaks liberally so as not to overwork your performer.
Now, verse by verse, chorus by chorus and sometimes even line by line, audition each take, noting on the lyric sheet which has the best performance. Once you have an official comp, go through and listen to the song as a whole a few times through. Make sure volumes, timbre and feel match up smoothly, and that your vocal comp doesn’t sound like a vocal comp. You may not always need to do this, but when it comes to a less-than-perfect singer, a long session or when you're just trying to get that perfect sound, this technique will save your life.
This concludes my top 5 favorite homes studio production hacks. If you have ideas you would like to share, questions you need answered or experiences you would like us to commiserate with you on, please feel free to let us know. It’s been a hoot Villagers. Thanks for reading this week’s Sound Advice!