Recording a band in the studio – Part 1
I want to share my technique for recording a band in the recording studio. This will be a 3-part series starting with setup and things to do first to make sure that the session stays on track. I will then talk about the actual running of the session before concluding the series with the mix.
If you haven’t already then take a look at the studio FAQ page. This has lots of valuable information on preparation you can do ahead of any session. Proper maintenance and care of your instrument is so important when trying to get a good tone.
The time spent getting the sound right at the source pays dividends when you come to mix. Some of the best records I’ve produced involved great musicians using good gear. These were also projects that needed less processing and seemed to mix themselves…
Using a recording template
I use Pro Tools HD in the studio. I also rely on pre-prepared recording and mixing templates. That’s not to say I rely on similar processing for every song though. I use a template that already has tracks setup to cover most bases. This creates a quick workflow and a repeatable method for recording.
In my template I already have tracks setup for Drums, Bass, Guitars, Keys, Percussion and Vocals. I always use the same colour for tracks as well which helps me navigate around larger sessions. Red is for drums, blue for bass and green for guitars. I then use orange for keys, programming and anything that is orchestral and purple for vocals.
VCAs are a huge help when working in Pro Tools. They can help you re-balance when required and you can also use them to record enable lots of tracks at once. I have a VCA setup for each group of mic channels and I colour VCAs yellow so it is easy to spot them in the session.
Aux tracks are also setup ready to go. These include a couple of reverbs and delays as well as some parallel compression. I set these up at the start so I can begin to make decisions about reverb to set the tone for the record. All auxes are light blue and are together at the bottom of the arrange page.
I prefer mixing through analogue outboard so my mix bus also has a few inserts and plugins ready to go. I use a Kush Audio Clariphonic EQ into my DIY-Racked DR-609. This is a clone of a Neve 33609 and sounds terrific on everything! I also use a second insert through my pair of CAPI BT50 EQs set to a high and low shelf. This way of working means I can record and mix into the compression and EQ so I need less on each track.
The actual tracks in the template are already setup with inputs pre-selected. I favour certain mic preamps on certain sources so these are all setup and ready to go. More on this in the second part of this series…
Before the band arrive
It’s important to get things setup early so that you’re not keeping the band waiting around. This can kill creativity so it’s best to be ready. If possible I like to have mics ready on stands and headphones laid out and tested before the band arrive. Each band member gets their own headphone mix and I try to keep everyone on similar brands of headphone. I usually use Sennheiser HD 280 headphones while tracking.
When the band start to run through the songs I can get a quick balance going as well as starting headphone mixes. The Avid C|24 is great at creating headphone feeds on the go – flipping aux sends to faders allows a very quick workflow. This is also something I do while tracking lead vocals. I put a set of cans on and set up a basic mix using the faders before the singer even enters the room!
It’s very important to set levels while listening to the whole song. That was you can keep an eye on your mix bus from the very first downbeat. This is even more important if you’re utilising outboard while tracking. Analogue gear works best when you feed it sensible levels and a high output from a DAW can often overload it.
Listening to everything at once also lets you hear how sounds are blending and what is or isn’t working. There’s nothing worse than crafting a beautiful guitar tone if it doesn’t serve the song. Also you can hear how the bass guitar and kick drum are working together.
I’m not afraid to EQ and compress things while recording so this is the time when I patch gear in and use it if necessary. I’m usually taking things easy – gentle high-passing and mild compression but I do dig in harder when I can. For me a snare drum sounds more like a record when it’s hitting an 1176 compressor. I’d rather commit to this tonal choice when recording and propel the session forward.
Naming and Notes
Naming tracks before hitting record is so very important. Receiving tracks to mix that are all named Audio_1 is a huge headache. Someone else might be mixing my tracks so I make sure my sessions are easy to navigate and import into other DAWs.
I also make notes in the comments section of the Pro Tools arrange window. This can be things like the recording chain and mic used in case I have to re-record at a later date. I also use this to write recall notes for analogue gear I may have used.
It is also worth having some white insulating tape at the ready. I use this to make it clear which preamps and outboard are being used per instrument. This ensures you’re reaching for the right track when setting gains and don’t make errors.
Further to this point I also use colour-coded patch cables. I try to keep these the same colour as the track colours in Pro Tools. At a glance I know which channels connect to which pieces of outboard gear, saving me time if I need to re-patch.
The only thing left for me to do at this point is get the coffee on and stay focussed. If you can take care of the technicalities of a session early on then you can focus on the music. Nothing breaks your creative concentration quicker than a technical problem. Check all mic cables work before plugging them in and keep your gear well maintained. This will pay dividends when you start to gain a solid reputation for getting results in the studio.
Next week I will continue this series by looking at microphone and outboard choices. I will also try to cover some of the problems you might face mid-session.