Makin’ somethin’ with next to nothin’

/July 28, 2014
If you think good recordings can only be achieved in a fancy studio, then you’re living in the past.

It’s been a mad month here at The Mill. I’ve been flat chat finishing off album productions, single mixes, EPs and restorations of 50-year old ¼-inch analogue tapes in whatever order they attack me in after I fall out of bed. I’ve been recording metronome samples, harmoniums, vocals, crickets, heavy guitar riffs… even a wind-up penguin… I kid you not. (And if you really want to know, we used a Beyerdynamic M88 on the bird, pointed somewhere at its belly).

I’ve had masters flying in every direction courtesy of Australia Post – I’m making the most of its infrastructure before everyone gets sacked (a three-day postal delivery has been mooted by its CEO, who I’m assuming used to work as a clown). I’ve had the Gotyé Record of The Year Grammy for 2012 here on the piano for a spell, which is nice. I’ve even rubbed everything off my whiteboard and got all organised so that I can see how everything’s travelling without having to keep it all in my head (I’ve tried that before – stuff falls out).

I’m off to the US next week, hence the flurry of activity. By the time you read this I’ll be in Northern California, enjoying a hot summer in the Sierra Nevadas and introducing my son River to the American in-laws.

 

iPAD PRODUCTIONS

I’ve had a few amazing studio experiences in the last few weeks, one in particular being an album I mastered – full of great, tasteful sounds, nice songs, beautiful singing and superb guitar work. The album’s called Beasts of the Field by Pat Lyons. If you’re looking for an Australian record that’s a breath of fresh air, look for it when it gets released in the next few months.

What’s particularly amazing about this record from a pro audio perspective is that the vast bulk of its track laying was recorded by Pat himself via his Apple iPad mic. I couldn’t quite believe it when I found this out. All the vocals, guitars and a wide collection of other stuff recorded with this single (nigh on invisible) mic tucked inside a plastic screen! No external pre’s or fancy converters, just a $300 dollar tablet and a great voice! It’s a real sign-of-the-times recording that mocks the very notion that high-end analogue equipment is vital to every stage of the production process. Some of the vocals do sound a little ‘filtered’ admittedly, but cool because of it. All in all it’s a great sounding record put together on a shoestring budget.

 

EXPECTATIONS

Pat’s album begs the question: what makes a great record? Certainly not always expensive studio equipment, that’s for sure.

But like so many albums like this, it’s the sounds you add to the sonic palette with a proper recording rig during the final overdubbing sessions – in the case of Pat’s album, the drums and double bass – and how you pull it all together during mixdown that makes an album shine. And then there’s the mastering of course…

Without the tasteful rhythm section recorded through decent high-headroom neve mic preamps Beasts of the Field might not have come out sounding quite so sweet, but this isn’t what makes it special. There’s a certain confidence in the playing and freedom in the lyrics that really makes it grow on you. I’ll be playing it over and over for months I suspect.

This is the sort of record that could have gone either way; bad overdubbing and dodgy mixing would have signed its death warrant. As it stands <<Beasts of the Field>> is a great example of what can be done with very little equipment and tasteful production.

 

‘GOOD ENOUGH’ ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH

Which brings to mind another thing that happened along similar lines last week. I spoke to someone who had never made a record in her life. That’s right, this person had never made a record! Crazy to think there are people out there like that.

Anyway, she’s rectifying the situation soon thankfully, and had sought my advice about producing an album of local artists… a compilation of sorts, with each person recording one song specifically for the release. She made an interesting comment at one point during our discussion that really put the cat amongst the pigeons:

“We don’t expect it to be great, just good enough for the local community.”

Good enough for the local community? Was she really inferring that the folks in this ’ere neck of the woods had lower standards and expectations than the rest of Australia? I know some of them like to wear onesies in the supermarket after 10pm, but they’re not that downtrodden surely?

I quizzed her about the comment, daring her to walk down the street in her local town and ask people whether they considered themselves second-class citizens perfectly suited to a poorly recorded album. She wasn’t too keen on this proposal, so I guess I’d made my point: having low expectations before you even start a production is a bad approach. Worse, it assumes that good albums are only made with huge budgets in million dollar studios. Sounds like ’80s thinking to me.

Like I said, she’d never made a record before, but in many respects she’s typical of that ‘low expectations’ mindset, which often produces inferior results, even when the opportunity is now there to make something better. Nothing produces bad outcomes quite like low expectations.

In 2014, there’s so much capacity in budget recording equipment – and in the case of devices like the iPad, effectively no recording equipment – it’s amazing.

 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

There are no excuses any more for recordings that sound like bollocks. If you know what you’re doing, or you can employ someone who does, you can achieve a lot with very little equipment. The trick is to get a professional involved as soon as you’re able. Not only because they can help you achieve a better outcome (even when there’s very little equipment on hand), they help you appreciate that great sounding records aren’t made exclusively by pop stars in fancy surroundings.

Lots of great sounding records get made in the most unlikely of circumstances: in shacks by the beach, in the front room of grandma’s house, in community halls and abandoned warehouses… it’s just that pop stars would prefer to maintain the illusion that everything they record takes place in a million dollar facility, not their parent’s loft.

There are no rules or preferred circumstances any more. All that’s required initially is the right mindset and quiet surroundings.

 

A FEW SIMPLE POINTERS FOR THE TOTAL NEWBIE

If you’re making a recording yourself and you know very little about the process, here’s something to keep in mind. Two things will always wreck a recording, regardless of whether it’s a vocal captured by an expensive microphone or a guitar played in front of an iPad: too much background noise and too much gain.

Most people record at 24-bit resolution these days. If you’re a newbie, all this really means is that there’s a tonne of level in your digital recorder. But if you record too hot and clip the signal you’re stuffed basically. So don’t push the levels too hard: it’s unnecessary and unwise.

And wherever possible get the hell away from background noise. It might be the traffic outside; it might be rain on the roof. The main thing to appreciate, particularly if you’re recording on your own with bugger all equipment, is that any sounds you can hear inside the recording space will likely be made far worse by mixing and mastering compression. That is to say, noisy backgrounds are never good for your music.

So, if you’re recording digitally, keep the recording level modest, steer clear of noisy environments and half the battle is won.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re in New York or New Guinea; aim high with your productions, and never assume you can’t achieve greatness simply because you’re not recording at Abbey Road. It’s very dated thinking and very destructive thinking.

Enjoy the recording process…