Let’s face it; it’s hard to record a full drum kit in a bedroom. Even if you can physically fit the kit, you then need room for all the mic stands and then there’s the neighbor downstairs to contend with – the last thing you need is a police officer interrupting your take, right? Not to mention that you need lots of cables and a multi-track interface with at least 8 inputs to capture the performance. But since you can record lots of other things at home with just a mic or two, why not complete many of your songs’ tracks in-house and then bring that project to the studio later?
KEEPING THE BEAT
So let’s say that you have a song that you want to start recording at home. The first big question is whether or not to record to a click. To answer that question you have to answer two more questions: 1) can your drummer play to a click and 2) can you perform to a click and get the right feel? Playing to a click for many drummers is a challenge (read – not going to happen). We’re not passing judgment, we’re just saying that in our experience the majority of drummers don’t have this skill, so when they try to do it for the first time in the studio, you either don’t get anywhere or you get a very stagnant performance. Many drummers will even have trouble laying down tracks to a pre-recorded mix of the song, either because they are used to being followed by the band or because they have trouble recording with headphones.
Having the right headphones and headphone mix can sometimes solve this last problem but many drummers just don’t know why it’s not working – it just doesn’t work when they get into the studio to try it for the first time. So do some “homework” and have your drummer try to play along with a song mix with headphones in their own rehearsal space before you spend money and time in the recording studio. Make sure you record this practice performance (even if it’s just with one or two mics) and then listen to it carefully with critical ears. See if there are any rough spots (does the drum track stay tight through the fills?) and keep rehearsing while making slight adjustments to the headphone mix until everyone is happy.
Now to the second question – can you perform to a click? Would it be better to find a MIDI or audio drum groove and spend a few minutes laying out the parts so that you have fills at the right places and drums that “feel” right when you record your parts? We like Submersible’s Drumcore and XLN’s Addictive Drums plug-ins because they capture performances by real drummers but still allow the user to change the tempo and drum sounds/mixes. In fact, you might be able to eliminate going into the studio to lay down drums altogether using these tools. Wait, did we as recording engineers just tell you that you don’t need us? There will always be times when you need to record real drums, but these tools are great for some projects.
KEEP IT CLEAN
The whole idea of recording at home and then finishing in a studio is to get the best of both worlds. You can sing those vocals when your voice is prime in a comfortable setting without any pressure. You can run that guitar solo a hundred times if you want to, without having to watch the clock. But the mistake that we see all too often is that those tracks may not be recorded up to “studio standards” and there’s only so much magic that can be done. So follow a few simple rules and you’ll be off to a good start.
Invest a few bucks in a microphone pop filter and use it (we like double screened 6-8” screens like CAD EPF 15A for about $25). A plosive “P” on a vocal take can usually be cleaned up in the digital realm but it takes valuable time. The less “pops” on your takes, the more time you have to focus on other aspects of the mix. You can even add a foam mic windscreen or turn the mic about 15% off axis if a pop screen still isn’t cutting it, as some of us are more plosive than others. Another great accessory is the Auralex MudGuard ($100), which mounts behind the microphone to help deaden early reflections in a sub-standard recording space.
Put on that engineer hat and keep the trim for the pre-amp within reach as you get levels. We recommend getting a compressor and using it as a limiter when tracking so that you won’t have to worry as much about levels. Without a compressor, if you belt out an amazing performance, you might end up with digital distortion on the peaks and those just can’t be corrected. If you set the levels too low to accommodate that big belting part, you might have a track that is so soft that later when you boost it in the mix you might get too much ambient noise (read: refrigerator). A solid choice for this job is the 2-channel DbX 166xs Dual Compressor/Limiter ($239) which has XLR and 1/4” inputs and outputs. Stay tuned next month for part two!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA. He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at zac at nighttrainstudios dot com.
Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios. He is also a talent scout at Black Cloud Productions. Reach him at brent at blackcloudproductions dot com.