Below, recording and mixing engineer Taylor Tatsch shares his approach to capturing performers at their best, as well as navigating the balance between producer and engineer.
How do you get the best performance out of someone? How do you help the artist sound great? How do you keep the session productive when the going gets tough? These questions have plagued engineers ever since recording became possible. How we answer these questions will determine if a recording is well received, whether it’s something to be proud of, and whether an artist will return to our studios to make more recordings. Our answer will also determine the recording’s commercial potential and influence its chances of one day becoming a classic.
The following methods and opinions are just that—opinions. I know that everyone does things a little differently. I have built my recording philosophy around my personal experience with producers I have worked with, studios I have worked in, and artists I have recorded. Some things are common sense, and others may be suggestions you can incorporate into your sessions.
Making a sound recording can be separated into three distinct processes: recording, mixing, and mastering. They are all extremely important. You cannot begin with poorly recorded material and expect to fix it in the mix. You can improve it, but it will never live up to the potential of a well-recorded tune. Likewise, you can make a great recording only to have the mix fail to do it justice. Or, what’s worse, the problems that were not addressed in the recording remain unresolved in the mix.
Mastering, the art of applying final EQ and limiting to the completed mixes, is definitely not the stage to alter content. Mastering should make the project sound better, more radio or streaming ready, and more balanced from song-to-song. But it can’t fix problems originating in recording or mixing.
Let’s take a closer look at the first stage of the musical production workflow, recording.
Recording is my favorite part of the process. It is here that the artist and engineer develop the critical framework that will come into greater focus over the lifespan of the project, and its here that the feeling of the record takes shape. Usually, the songs originate out of one main writer, although there are situations where songs develop spontaneously with a group of band members. It’s important to know which applies to the song you’re working on. Some bands, like Queen and the Beatles, have songs originate from one band member and that song is his “baby” even though the other members contribute to it. Arriving at an understanding with the songwriter about how to approach the recording and what feeling the song should have is the first step before a note is recorded. If the song originates from all members, be ready to accept equal input from everyone and to manage multiple perspectives.
It’s important in the “pre-production” phase to get the form right. Sometimes it is impossible to do a seamless edit later, so make sure your arrangement makes sense and keeps the listener engaged the whole way through. Cut that intro, talk about solo lengths, and don’t simply assume the song will conclude with a fade—write a proper ending.
In today’s independent recording world, the producer is the recording engineer, so it is very easy to go immediately to your mics and instruments and start thinking about what wild drum sound you want get before you even have a clear idea of what the SONG needs. Song is king. Song will tell you where to go. If available, it’s a good idea to reference a practice room demo to determine the vibe of the song before you waste time setting up drums for a Led Zeppelin sound. Perhaps Steely Dan drums are more appropriate.
The Polydogs record I recorded last year was a prime example. They are a somewhat heavy, blues-based rock band and it would be easy to record them as such. However, we had discussions before recording each song about what drum sound we wanted. We used a mono drum setup on one, a wide stereo roomy sound on a couple, a tighter “New York” drum sound on others, and my son’s toy kit on another. Simply changing out a snare or tightening a tuning is not sufficient to really get into each song’s personality. One must move mics around, change complete kits, and use any tools at your disposal to make things distinctive. The sound of the band comes from the players, most often, not the equipment. The equipment is there to make the parts of the song sound right, not for vanity’s sake, endorsement opportunities, or nostalgic indulgences.
That said, I must emphasize that you need to put the producer hat back on if you find yourself playing the role of engineer too long. One role of a producer is keeping the session moving. Understand that if a band is sitting around waiting for hours for you to get that 200Hz up a db in the floor tom, they will get bored, tired, (and maybe drunk!). Get to your sounds quickly and get moving. Part of getting sounds quickly is having a basic understanding of what things will sound like when you place a mic or make a decision. Most of this is experience, but it really helps to do some research.
- Read up on phase and don’t be afraid to utilize your polarity switches on your preamps to get the punchiest sound.
- Don’t mess with your high end too much even if it initially sounds good to do so. Let your mic and pre do the work. Things get weird and swishy by the end if you are jacking up the high end.
- Sweep through your mid bands and get rid of trash that sounds terrible to your ears, but remember, if it is supposed to sound aggressive, it may not need to be too pleasing.
- Be careful with compression when tracking, especially on close-mic drums. You can get yourself in a jam and all of a sudden your cymbals are louder than your drums. Your high end will sound terrible due to phase cancellation and comb filtering between your close mics and overheads.
- If your tom or snare is not sounding right, you must address it at the source with a new snare, new tuning, dampening, or other means. Simply compressing or applying eq should be a last resort. Those resources should be taking it from good to great, not bad to salvageable.
- If at all possible, have the drums be the only noisemaker in the room while tracking. Put amps elsewhere, and don’t even think about miking up that acoustic guitar or piano in the same room! There are exceptions, of course, like a Jazz combo or something that must be live in the same room. But, 9 times out of 10, you don’t want wrong notes, alternate takes, or wild resonant frequencies messing up your drum takes and tracks. It’s well and good to entertain the romantic idea of “all together live,” and you should set everyone up to play live, but you must do your job and cover your bases, sonically. Rarely do singers feel confident in their live take even if they say they want to track that way. Same goes for nearly every instrument. Bass and drums usually get takes together, but even then, the sound is drastically improved for both if you do not have bleed between the two.
I try to get back into producer mode quickly if I find myself getting bogged down in engineering. It is important to listen to your performers and give them the emotional support they need to make a recording happen. As much as we all like to act tough, we musicians are a sensitive breed and need positive feedback, gentle encouragement, and constructive criticism. I have always hated it when a producer acts disinterested in a band or song. Someone is paying good money to record and it means something to them. It can always be better and it’s the job of everyone involved to make the recording as good as it can be, especially the producer. If the instrument sounds bad, don’t say, “well that sounds terrible,” you must address it in a way that keeps the performer in a good frame of mind and eager to perform. Suggest a new amp, pedal, or guitar. Get them excited about the possibilities of inspirational new sounds. Tell them what you like about their performance, and what you’d like to hear different. If the bass player has bad technique and is clacking like a freight train, help him with his technique and show him how to avoid that sound. If you think you are above giving a quick bass lesson, you are wrong. The record deserves a good track.
Editing is very important in today’s recording processes. We all like to wax nostalgic about some mythical era where bands recorded all on tape and got amazing, groundbreaking takes all the time. What we sometimes fail to recognize is that back in that golden era, most studio tracks were handled by a handful of amazing studio musicians. Watch the Wrecking Crew documentary and see how these musicians played on everyone’s tracks from the Beach Boys, Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and literally everybody out of California. Even as the ’70s rolled around, it was largely studio musicians forming the iconic bands we know and love. Led Zeppelin is a good example. My point is, back then you didn’t get a chance to record at all if you weren’t at the top of your game. You could not edit and separate much, so takes had to be nailed quickly and sometimes all together. True, there are exceptional musicians now, but the availability of recording equipment, shoddy work ethic, and an over-saturated rock market creates bands that aren’t chock full of Purdies, Jamersons, and Carltons.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say, however. On the contrary, rock and roll is a feeling as much as it is a technical practice, so it is my job as a producer/engineer to help get down what they want to convey. I could throw my hands up every time I had a drum tack about 80% of the way there and say, “It is what it is!” but that’s not what I’m paid to do. I’m supposed to make the best record I can, so I get down to editing. Identify what the performer intended to do and, if he or she can’t do it, make it happen. Swallow your pride.
As a producer, you must save everything that happens. Sometimes that first take has a great bit of feedback or a wild scream that will never happen again. Almost every record on I work on, I end up comping together a guitar solo from sometimes up to 20 takes. Unlike guitars, vocal takes are essential to get right. Utilize your playlists, clip gain, slip, grid, automation, and subtle tuning if you must, but it has to be right. Don’t be complacent. The big thing is, don’t let your hang-ups about editing, digital recording, or really anything at all get in the way of making the record the best it can be. Song is king.
In part two, I will discuss more about the role of the producer in helping a band define their sound, as well offer more engineering techniques. Budget home recording will be emphasized. Till next time!