Archive for August, 2008

Blocking when tracking

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Sometimes when a novice begins a recording project they don’t stop to consider the usefulness of recording the performance in bits and pieces and then assembling those pieces together to create the illusion of a live, single take performance. In an ideal world overdubs and multi-tracking would be largely unnecessary because each performance would be perfect on the single live take and all of the levels would fit just right and everything would be fine. In reality there are a few challenges to overcome with tracking a performance for a commercial release.

For starters there’s the room that one is tracking in. While a certain reverberant character might be suitable for tracking drums, it might not work ideally or as well for vocals or guitar and bass. So the engineer finds herself in the predicament of having to put instruments that are supposed to be playing together in separate rooms because of the desire for the ambiance of the performance space to fit the tracking goals for the instrument. While it would be ideal if every recording facility had the option of having many rooms to work with simultaneously, each with a different character that would suit each instrument in any given ensemble, this is not always the case. Along with the performance space being a challenge, there’s also the ability of a performer to remain consistent in their level of performance accuracy and feeling throughout the entire song, which is a difficult feat to achieve. Another issue to contend with is dynamics in a performance. Dynamics, refers to the changes in the perceived volume of a piece. While ideally all dynamics of a song arrangement can be performed in one take, in practice it’s difficult to get it all right at once so for all of these problems we find ourselves separating the parts of a song into sections. I call this specific practice recording in blocks or simply blocking.

Essentially blocking is taking the piece to be recorded and tracking the instruments that have to be captured in a certain way separately from everything else, in their own little arrangement block. Instruments that you want to be captured with a reverberant space are recorded in a reverberant space by themselves. The same goes for other types of room ambiances. Also, you break the song into manageable performance pieces so that the performer doesn’t have to remain consistent from start to finish of the song. They play in sections that allow for them to focus on the difficulties of the particular section at hand until they get it close to perfection. Finally, you break the song arrangement down into the quieter and louder sections so that you can allow for the adjustment of instrument settings and effects. This allows for the dynamics to really jump out at the listener when the need be. It also allows an engineer to keep a better handle on tracking levels, because they can adjust the preamplifier settings for each section.

What blocking does is allow for more control over the song elements. That’s a very good thing when a wide audience is the target. It’s always helpful to be able to tweak each element to the fullest if the need be. What you will end up with is a lot more tracks to mix but that’s generally not a big problem once you get used to it. I have always found that it helps to have the extra tracks to work with when I need it.

Happy recording,

Liz Corin

The ’secret’ of getting great drum sounds

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

People all over the net ask “How do I get my drums to sound professional”? Often, these people have a low-end or mid-level kit, record amateur drummers, and have sub par gear on which to record them. How do I know? I was one of these people.

Here’s my three keys on having a good drum sound in order of importance
- Have a good drummer
- Tune the drums properly
- Have some good drums

Ok, here’s why….
1. Good drummer
A good drummer can make a bad kit sound decent. A good drummer can also make a badly-tuned kit sound better. A good drummer can set up in a room, allow for mic movement, cymbals higher/lower, moved drums, clicktrack, dynamic control, etc. That means once mixing starts, it’s simply turning a golden sound into an even better one. Makes your life SO easy. Even if you have to replace a kick drum with a sample, snare enhancement with samples, etc at least the original drums in the overheads and close mics will be in time and sound dynamic!
I’ve had a crappy drummer on a well-tuned $6k DW custom kit that hit like a pansy for metal music, and it was stupid. I’ve had 17 year old kids who can play my studio mid-level kit and I was able to get great sounds with minimal work.

2. Good tuning
A well-tuned crappy drum set can sound absolutely usable. No doubt. However, an amazing $6k kit tuned like a piece of horsepie will definately make your mix a challenge.  Put a great drummer on a well-tuned kit and you’re almost golden.  Almost.

3. Good Kit
This is last because you can get away with a bad kit when having the first two items and still get a usable drum sound.  But if you put all three of these things together, then you just set up your mics, get healthy levels, and press record and smile.  But without either of the first two, this last item is worthless IMHO.

So many a-newb do not want to hear ANY of the above.  Why?  It takes work and/or cash to get each of these keys in order.  It takes work to get good at drums, and we can’t always tell those who we have as clients to practice more before they enter the studio.  It takes work to learn to tune drums, and even still each drum is different.  It takes money and knowledge to get a good drum kit!  So that’s why it often takes awhile, in my experience at least, for a new person interested in recording to really admit why they can’t get the drum sounds they want.  There ain’t no magic process to get a great drum sound.  Tricks and tips to help?  Yea sure, but the honest truth is: You can’t shine a turd.  Everyone’s read that, and there’s a reason people say it.  You gotta get the basics down first, meaning a good musician on a good instrument.
Obviously, having some good mics and preamps… gear in general… will help.  I upgraded from Behringer to Mackie to API preamps.  Huge step up each time.  Same with conversion from Delta 1010 to Lynx Aurora 16.  Mics from chinese Apex to Shure LDCs, 57s, Audix, and Sennheiser.  I can’t afford to have a mic selection that will not get used, so I carefully selected the best mics I can afford for the stuff I record… which is heavier rock music, metal, etc that have full drum kits and large amps, and loud vocals.  Thing is, I can use a lot of my mics for multiple things.  But that’s another topic (one that is rather important for small project studios I might add!).

Also, a good/great room.  My studio is fairly popular with those who have played in it.  Drummers love it cause the drums sound huge, even though it’s a fairly small room.  I guess they are used to playing in boxy rooms that sound like hell, but I know how to use my room and it works for me.  But once again, without the first 3 things up there, the room means squat.

For anyone who thinks I’m full of hot-air, here’s what happened recently:
I recorded a young hardcore band.  They tried to do stuff on their own, then came to me.  Cool.  We tracked the drums and they were pumped, as was I because the drummer had a nice vintage kit, tuned properly.  He was also a fantastic drummer, especially for a 17 year old kid!!!  Super mature and well-behaved, and played well and hard, which you need for the type of music.  So we got a great sound.  I got some samples from his kit just in case.  I told him what I was doing cause I don’t hide the fact that some things may need enhancement or replacement.  I EQ’d the kick in a standard fashion with a UAD 1074 and compressed with an 1176LN, mostly so we could get a close sound to what we wanted to hear after things were done.  Also known as, the metal clicky kick ;)

They came back the next day and the drummer says “Wow man the kit sounds huge!  What did you replace with samples?”
I replied, “Nothing man, that is all you.  Exactly what went down yesterday.”

That’s all there is to it.  I could have left the drums as-is.  In fact, after tracking said band, I could have given them the rough ‘mixes’ the last day of tracking and they would have been happy.  Why?  Cause I get things to sound good before processing… get things good while tracking.

I’m still learning, as is anyone else.  If you have anything to add to what I said, or if you care to discuss the order of importance feel free to comment on the forums.  Maybe I can learn a thing or two from those with more experience.