“Delectably unique music”
Most people think about production or producing as something that someone else does after a song or musical composition is recorded. The truth is, this is something best thought through as part of the writing process, rather than some unseen magic that will turn it into a hit after the event; which is all too often like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Developing a killer hook riff or melody before you even go near a studio is much more likely to pay dividends. What instruments play, and when, is very important as the right arrangement will make a great riff fantastic and even what may be considered an album track more than acceptable.
The beat and bass line in sound and tempo is all important. If you get this rhythm section right people will accept almost anything melody wise as being cool because they 'get it' due to the rhythm section being openly accessible to them.
If on top of all that you write a melody people can hum or sing along with, you may well have written a hit. Just remember that ultimately, all these elements need to converge to make a product the public will pay money for.
If you ever get the chance of working on a project with a top producer it is likely they will look at your material and pin-point the best riffs, hooks, and melodies and help you develop them, while arranging the band solidly behind the main idea so as to enforce it.
Tightening all the music that surrounds the hook, particularly any bridges that lead from one section to another as these are always notoriously tricky and must sound effortless to create a truly professional product, rather than something the music industry would most certainly dub as a demo.
Why not try this when next recording your own material rather than leave it to chance, or waiting for someone else to come along and do it, and see how much more professional the results you can achieve.
This is not, as many people believe, down to having the best equipment, although this sometimes may be a contributory factor. You just have to make the best sound with the limited facilities you have. The Beatles recorded great stuff with only a couple of mikes and minimal overdubs, but the tunes were well rehearsed and arranged before they ever recorded.
Whatever instrument you play, make sure you get a sound you're happy with before you record, as this will create a much better end-product and allow you to play at your best.
With all the plug-ins that go along with computer recording there is a myth that you can fix anything with a bit of digital editing. This has made people almost forget about the most important thing which is getting it as good as is humanly possible before you chop it up and rearrange it.
The more superior the original sound source, playing and arrangement, the less that needs to be altered later which leads to a more natural sounding product which will have far greater longevity in the market place.
You only need look as far as Jimmy Hendrix, Elvis, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, for examples of stuff played right in the studio by live musicians with out digital correction. Point being, this stuff lasts and lasts.
One of the best pro tips I've come across is if you're playing funky chords, riffs, or lead not requiring open strings tie a duster or sock around the strings to damp any unwanted noise to obtain the perfect, totally noise free take. Don't use it as an excuse for poor damping but as an aid to make it sound super human in its sharpness.
When preparing to record electric guitar remember to stand so you can hear your guitar amps speakers accurately before adjusting the EQ and making pick-up selection. Continue tweaking the sound until you're happy you have created the finest possible result with the limited control on the amp and guitar alone.
The finer the sound you create utilising this method the greater the final recording is going to be. Remember recordings are just snap shot representations of what you and you gear sound like in a given space.
When working in a commercial studio the engineer or producer may stand next to your amp with a pair of head phones on and move the mikes as you play and also change the tone on your amp to create the finest recorded sound.
Next time you record, try this and you will achieve much improved results over switching your amp on, setting up some mikes and hoping for some magic to occur in the mix.
When miking one of the speakers on you guitar amp experiment with position and which speaker is miked if more than one, as some may sound much sweeter than others. This way you will learn by trial and error what sounds outstanding and what doesn't.
Most professional engineers will have learnt their craft by experimenting. In the long term this allows you to achieve the right sound fast and not to waste time with something that probably won't work in the final mix.
When recording a guitar amp I generally use a couple of mikes. A dynamic set as up close as possible pointing at right angles to the baffle in directly towards the edge of the speaker cone to make the most of the proximity effect, and a condenser for the ambient sound, which gives the listener the unmistakably, unique sense of the space it was recorded in.
N.B. Miking a source close up makes the sound deeper and is termed the 'proximity effect'.
During the mix the two can then be panned to create a sense of spatial position or summed to create a unique sound. Also if you DI the dry signal you can re-amp it later. So if you're not happy with the result during the mix you can change the sound with out re-recording the part.
A direct inject or DI is when you plug you guitar directly to the recording device via a microphone preamp on a mixing desk using a DI box to balance the unbalanced signal of your guitar or bass. This gives a very clean noise-free sound which is ideal for acoustic guitar, bass guitar, or creating that super funky, clean and sparkly, electric guitar sound.
Sometimes I combine a mike'd-up amp with a DI or, a mike'd acoustic guitar with a DI and then mix them together later to create the required sound. This leaves lots of options for the final mix down.
There is a myth that when you record you lay it down as loud as possible with the meters bouncing off the end stops so that the final mix will supposedly be louder. Unfortunately this usually leads to overdriving preamps at every stage because the meters don't see the peaks. They just read the average peak and miss the split second peaks that cause clipping.
This distortion all too often does not become apparent until the fine listening during the mixing stage when it's often too late to do much about it apart from re-recording parts.
When recording sharp transient sounds like cymbals and percussion try keeping the level on the meters lower than you may normally expect. Don't set the peak reading to 0db; allow at least 6db to 12db of head room to achieve a much more natural, smooth professional finish.
Bass Guitar is another problem as it can be distorting at times because of excessive low peaks that the meters can't even see because it's outside their range, so set all the inputs in the chain so it's peaking at no more than -9db to -12db. In this way you should avoid any unpleasant flatulence like noises gaining a smooth professionally produced bass sound even when using overdrive across the original source.
When recording percussion like tambourine, hand claps, etc; remember to be at least 2 to 3 metres from the mike as this avoids any nasty clipping sounds in the mike capsule from the high SPL transients (Sound Pressure Levels measured in decibel's or db). For big cowbells make sure it's more like 3 to 5 metres.
This distance allows the sound to develop in the room, so it appears more natural, less harsh and livelier than close miking. If a sound is very loud when you only have a small space to record in, open the door or even a window to let some of the sound escape so the sound pressure level in the space is reduced slightly to a more manageable level.
You will have experienced the phenomenon at concerts or in clubs of to much sound pumped into a given space. Everything is so deafeningly loud due to a build up of reflections, on reflections that it merges into a noisy mass.
In this situation a small drop in volume can have very dramatic effect on the sounds clarity and therefore impact on the listener.
Always remember to engage the pad switch on your microphone if it has one, usually -10 or -20db or on your mixer or on both to help avoid clipping.
I limit or compress almost everything as I record it so as to avoid any unwanted peaks however I don't slaughter it. I also EQ it slightly hopefully to achieve the perfect sound, as with experience you know what you would do to things during the mix, so you tend to partly mix it as it's recorded so there is only subtle tweaking left to do during mix down.
Re-amping is when you take a signal that has already been recorded (preferably a dry DI'ed one) and put it back through an amp in a live space recapturing the sound using one or more mikes to create a wealth of strands in order to enhance the final mix.
Busing a signal out through the auxiliary send on the desk is easy enough but you need to convert the signal back to the line level of an electric guitar output, so I use the Reamp V2 which works much like a DI box in reverse converting balanced line to line level with a very handy gain knob to make fine adjustments with enough range to drive the amp input harder if so desired. This works very well on guitar, bass and even vocals. I would guess that The Arctic Monkeys achieve their dirty vocal sound by re-amping it through a guitar amp and mixing it back with the original dry vocal to create their very distinctive scuffed-up vocal sound.
I use this to great effect on Bass creating a stereo ambient strand mixed with the DI in the centre. This creates a very rich live sound without the need for artificial reverb. I use the stereo ambient strand much like the reverb return setting it so it blends comfortably in the mix creating an unprecedented depth.
On guitars this allows you to use all manner of amps and effects pedals after the live take, with sounds available that are unique and able to suit the individual mix being crafted. Here experimentation is paramount and what magically works may astonish you.
Back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth etc... This is how musical masterpieces were created before the advent of every one using the same plug-in. However if you fancy a more unique sound give it a go, I think you will be stunned by the results.
As they say "there really is no fix in the mix".
After all the instruments have been recorded confidently so as to complement each other, then it comes down to the all important mix stage at which point with any luck there should only be minimal tweaking left to do apart from the addition of any special FX. At this stage I finely compress and EQ the sounds on each individual channel or track so they sit comfortably with one another.
I add any special FX as separate sub-mixes out and then spin it back into the main track so I don't compromise other sounds or run out of processors or processing power.
I often do a sub-mix of the drums so it's all mixed with the Compression, EQ and individual reverbs to a stereo track which gives a solid point to set the overall level of the rest of the mix against.
I do a lot of stereo sub-mixes before I do the main mix as this allows you to be more creative and saves having an almost impossible mix to perform trying to remember which parts you've mixed and which parts you haven't as the little sub mixes just only need their overall level setting.
Also when a part is sub-mixed it's all done so you can concentrate on riding the fader of the main melody to create a smooth mix from end to end. If I discover any of these sub-mixes don't fit as well as I'd anticipated in the main mix I recall the saved auto mix so I can go back and finely adjust these sub-mixes and spin them back in easily if necessary.
The thing that everyone seems to forget is that the fader balance between the sounds is probably the most important thing. This is where great mixes are made; quite simply the very fine balance, allowing you to hear everything in its right place without effort.
Always get a rough balance mix before you start your auto mix as there is nothing more annoying than doing a whole mix only to realise that it peaks at one point and having to lower the whole mix from start to finish because lowering the main fader at this point doesn't cure the problem it just means you can't see the peak on the main output bus meters!
Also make sure all your pan controls are set as you desire at this point as this has a major effect on the overall left-right stereo output bus level.
Creating a great mix balance is easy if you initially mix everything as a flat bed and then raise the melody or vocal by 3 to 6db this method rarely goes far wrong.
Having spent such care in the recording and mixing of Guitar Mashing I decided to settle for nothing less than the best in the business when it came to the mastering as if you get this wrong it can have horrific consequences on the public's perceived quality of the product.
I've been an unsuspecting fan of Geoff's work as when I'd heard Coldplay's material I knew that was how I wanted my new record to sound. It had the clarity of an unmastered 24bit mix and yet I knew I was only listening to a 16bit fully mastered consumer version.
I enquired at Abbey Road about the possibility of them looking after the mastering job of Guitar Mashing quite early on in the project and spoke to Lucy Launder who was very helpful and having listened to my detailed description of the project she recommended Geoff Pesche as the most suitable engineer for the job.
I initially booked a day and took my finally mixed tracks on a Tascam DV-RA 1000 DVD master recorder and span them out via the AES out to the digital converter in the mastering suite this worked fine first time no problem.
Geoff was very easy to work with before the session I have to admit I was fairly apprehensive that he might be a bit and stiff and starchy and look down his nose at my mixing work, but he started by taking the piss (in a very friendly way) as we climbed the stairs to the second floor where mastering suite 5 is located, which broke the ice nicely and so the day was very relaxed in terms of getting the relevant work done as well as good laugh.
When selecting a mastering engineer partly what drew me to Geoff Pesche is the fact that he had mastered stuff for Mike Oldfield, Coldplay, The Spice Girls, Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, Simon Webbe, Kylie Minogue, Athlete, Dizzee Rascal, New Order, Dubstar, Marc Almond, Chris De Burgh, Kenny Thomas, M People, Beta Band, Strange Cargo, Aphex Twin and Therapy among many others.
Once I'd done the initial six hour session and had a reference CD I realised that three of the tracks needed minor rerecording and remixing in order to get the best results out of the mastering process. It's been a huge learning curve for me as you don't know how certain sounds will react with this somewhat rigorous process until it's done.
I returned three more times for one or two hour sessions to complete the process. In between mastering Guitar Mashing Geoff had done all the Music for the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace and the new Arctic Monkeys live album.
When mixing Guitar Mashing I knew that it would be compressed again for the mastering process so I didn't compress the living daylights out of it! I left adequate room for the mastering process. The smoother the mix the healthier the mastering process will be as I found out when I had to remix a few parts due to outlandish filtering that I'd already strapped down as much as I could with completely ludicrous EQ.
I mixed my highest peak readings to no more than -3db at very most with maybe the odd peak at -2db as the level is brought up during the dark art of the mastering session. This defiantly helps to avoid possible distortion and leaves some room for the mastering engineer to play with the EQ without having to reduce the level before even starting.
Keeping the level down is quite difficult as the loudness war is always in the back of your mind even as you record and mix, but the truth is, it almost rules out clipping between digital components as your master recorder may perceive -1db from your work station as an over so keeping the highest levels to -3db where ever possible significantly reduces the chances of clipping anywhere in the system as any over's will rise out of the woodwork to haunt you during the mastering. Geoff is outstanding at getting the maximum level out without killing the dynamic range of any given music genre without shredding, or adding dirty digital distortion which is what Metallica's latest release Death Magnetic has been accused and has been a bitter cause of complaint among the even the most ardent of fans.
I would recommend finding a mastering engineer who is sympathetic to your project as this is probably half the battle because if you're in a Jazz Fusion band and you use a mastering engineer who specialises in death metal then he may not give you the results you desire or indeed deserve.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Abbey Road as their facilities and standard of work is second to none with top notch engineers and equipment to match you'd be hard pushed to do better, besides the world's top artists and record labels can't be wrong.
All I can say is if you're considering using Abbey Road's mastering facilities, do it 'I'm totally over the moon with end result of Guitar Mashing' it was well worth all the effort it took to get there and using the best confirmed my deepest set beliefs in this project. Geoff has really brought a magnificent finishing touch to a spectacular venture. Thanks Mate! (Also thanks for the gallons of tea, coffee and Kit Kats that kept me going through the 4am starts and totally mental return journeys).
To take an exclusive look at my private recording facility visit the 'Acer Studios Gallery page.
For more detailed information on mastering check out Mastering Audio the art and the science by Bob Katz.
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