These tracks were recorded on a 16 Channel Onyx 1640i analogue to digital desk in my 2 room studio, in the garden of my home in Blackburn Lancashire. Warren, my guitar guru, recommended the desk. It gives the feel of old fashioned analogue recording but with the flexibility and quality of the fast PC, running Cubase, which it interfaces.
The first problem we had to tackle was getting a decent drum sound. I’m a drummer so there was no way I wanted to use Samples on my songs, at least until I’d mastered the real thing. Samples definitely have their place but I don’t think there’s any substitute for the real thing if you’ve got it. We deadened the room sound by adding velvet curtains. The best sound proofing around that doesn’t involve building! Old, thick quilted velvet from floor to ceiling. I stapled them to a couple of walls and left some nice looking pleats. The echoes and ring of the room disappeared immediately. You add them until you get the sound you want.
To get a decent drum sound, you need a good drum kit. These are expensive. I chose a Pearl Masters Studio Birch Kit from E-Bay. But the wood and the hardware are superb so I took it anyway and didn’t haggle. It’s one of the old ones. You can tune it anyway you like and it still sounds great. I bet the knob that sold it bought a shiny new something or other that isn’t a patch on this one. Selling a Rolls for a hi-tech Skoda! Yeh! Right! And he thinks he put one over on me with the smaller Bass Drum. The hardware was worth what I paid for the kit. Superb engineering. A pleasure to use. If you are looking for a drum kit and you need a bit of help – just hit the toms one at a time. Listen for a clear sound on every tom, with not too many ringing overtones. Good kits are often heavier – thicker wood, and just look carefully at the joints and the quality of the metalwork. Any expensive kit is a joy to behold. You can see the love that went in to the machining and the finishing. If the lugs look like they were cast in someone’s kitchen, it’s probably some cheap copy. You’ll hear overtones that are louder than the tom tom’s pitch, and you’ll have to work like hell at the mixing desk to get a nice sound.
I was actually looking for a Maple drum kit because these seemed to be the standard. Then I read that the Birch kits were the older, ringing Jazz tones that are a bit out of fashion now. But that’s the sound I grew up listening to, so sod fashion! The longer I use the kit, the less damping I’m using. Now I just damp the snare drum because it rings like mad without, and I leave the toms to sing out. For damping I use some sticky blue inch long squares of stuff called Moongel which is superb. You put them on the skins and move them around till you get the sound you want. On the front bass drum skin I installed a plastic horn called a Kick Port which helps get volume and projection. Recording drum kits is an art in itself. I’m getting there. Eventually, when I’m skilled enough, I will be able to fully capture the quality of that wood.
The difficulty with drums is how and where to position microphones. We settled for close miking on the toms and snare; plus stereo overheads to capture the whole kit sound –including cymbals and hi hat. What you need to avoid is Cross Phasing, where the sound of one mic cancels out the sound on another and you can’t use both or either successfully. So you try and make sure the mics don’t point at the same place. We struggled most with the bass drum mic, which kept being cancelled out by the overheads. Eventually I found a sweet spot just beside the Kick Port, but pointing downwards, away from the overheads and snare mic. I use an industry standard AKG Bass Drum mic, a Shure SM57 on the snare and a Sennheiser tom mic, with an SM58 and a Beyer TGX58 on the other 2 toms. They are all different, but I’m not made of money! And they’ll do until I get rich. The Overheads are budget Rode NT5 s, which are great for the price. If I make any money I will splash out for some very expensive overheads and you will hear every nuance of that sweet wood. Ho hum.
Anyway, you can’t obsess about recording. You can spend weeks messing with tom mics, then realise you only hit that tom tom once and its covered by a Bass fill! The trick is to get the most out of what you have. I like things to sound real and human. Sometimes I make a mistake and leave it in. At least that bit doesn’t sound like a drum machine or a Sample. But do that sparingly! You have to balance off freshness against accusations of incompetence. If it still sound cool, then you can leave it in, otherwise, do it again you lazy sod! And be self-critical. Because everyone else will have a go if you don’t. I think my drum parts are a bit too busy. But they don’t sound Sampled so I leave them that way.
Once I’ve played a part that I’m happy with, I immediately add Compression and Limiting. This evens out the dynamics a bit. Then I clean up the leaked sounds on the tom tom tracks by processing silence in the gaps on each track. Sometimes I do this with the Snare and Bass Drum too The standard way is to Gate them, but this changes the sound and feel and in order to get rid of every leaked sound, you can also end up taking out some grace notes that you played. I’d rather take the time to make a clean track and then you just have to concentrate on tone. I start off getting a nice sound on each overhead, then mix in the Bass Drum and Tom mics to get an overall sound. Bass drum and Snare in the centre and toms panned across the mix. When I’ve got a good drum track the difficult bit is done and the rest is just routine. Direct in with the bass guitar. Compression and Limiting again. Mess with the acoustic or electric guitar sounds to get them sounding nice. Compression and Limiting again. Then start stressing over the lead vocal for a month or two.
I record vocals now with my Sennheiser tom tom mic with a pop screen fixed in front of it, which does what it says. Or should that be a stop-pop screen! I did the first couple of songs with a fancy Rode vocal mic in a cool cradle but then in desperate session trying to sound nice with a crap voice, I thought I’d give the Sennheiser a go, because it said on the leaflet that came with it that its ok for voices too. And its great. Probably because I have an unfashionably deep voice and the mic is designed to deal with alsorts of dodgy sounds. It’s perfect for me. Tom tom gob!
‘If you can’t sing, don’t!’ That’s the advice my wife gives me. She’s right of course, but then there’s no one else around to do it for me and the damn sleepdogs won’t leave me alone! So this is how I manage. First learn the darn song properly. Often I write them easily enough. But writing a melody and actually singing it with any accuracy those are very different things. I console myself with the notion that Johhny Rotten sounds worse than me. He sounds worse than everyone so it will work for you too! Ignore your misses and siblings and the rude old man next door, and learn to sing! If you’ve ever listened to Relax, by Frankie goes to Hollywood, or The Power of Love by the same lead singer, you’ll realise that it can be done. The guy can’t really sing either, but he’s found a helluva way to get around it by using voice techniques and technology, so that he sounds great! It can be done if you work at it. Well maybe not in my case! But you could do it! With singing it’s about hitting the right notes in a nice way. It took me thirty takes each to do the first couple of songs. What I didn’t realise was every time I did a take I was learning the tune a little better. If I’d learned it better in the first place, recording would have been quicker. But you need to try the song in several keys. Just a semitone up or down can make a huge difference to your ability to sing it. And you need to try every note in a different tone or volume till you get something that sounds ok. Then do 20 takes instead of thirty. You need to mess with every word and try it breathy, or powerfully or sweetly until you get something that doesn’t embarrass you too much. Then do it again to tidy it up. I usually have 2 versions on the desk at the same time and I go through the song a line at a time. The strongest version of the vocal goes on top with the spare underneath. Then I go through the best version and listen for bum notes or unpleasant bits and delete them. Then I see if that bit is available anywhere else in the song. If it is and it’s better, I copy and paste it. If not I check the spare line and see if there’s a better version there. If not, I make the good version the spare and re-record the vocal. If I’m still not happy after 30 takes, I do it again till I get a version that sounds acceptable. Phew. Maybe my wife was right! But if you can do it better, please email me or ring me and there’s a recording session waiting. But you need to be good looking coz I’m old and ugly and one minger is enough for any band. And I’ll be sat on the drums at the back! Hee hee.
When I’ve got a decent lead vocal I add a harmony, to thicken out the sound. This involves a lot of practice too, but you have the confidence of knowing you just about pulled off the lead vocal, and somehow the harmonies seem easier. If you can’t reach the notes on one bit, get the wife to do it or leave it out. Sometimes the bits you leave out say as much as the bits you include.
When the vocals are done, I use Cubase to add piano, violin or keyboard sounds to polish up the track. I get something that sounds quite decent and send it to my guitar hero Warren. He messes with it for a week and then either comes over to play something or emails me some tracks which I import into Cubase. He is a genius. Whatever is on the track already, he complements it or enhances. And he’s never let me down yet. When I can actually get him into the studio he makes me laugh out loud with his ability. I play him the track a couple of times and he messes around with tones for five minutes and then says in his posh Indian/English twang. ‘Um, Let’s just go for it David!’ And I run it and he starts to play. It is usually beautiful, skilled, incredible, occasionally breathtaking. And while I’m sitting there gob-smacked at the desk thinking ‘Bloody hell! That was great! He usually says.
‘ I’m not sure about that one, David. Maybe delete it and I think I’ll do it again.’
Hell no! When it’s right – leave it. I always say. Once I left the comment on a track coz it sounded so funny compared to wizardry he’d just recorded. But then I lost the sound byte somehow. I’ll catch the next one though.
When all the parts are there I start mixing. Drums first and lead vocal and harmonies. Then mix all the rest around them. I don’t know if that is the right way to do it, but it works for me. When I’m happy I do a mixdown and send it to Warren to check out and also put a version on my phone and on a cd to play in my car. This continues with remixes until I’m happy that I can’t improve it. Then I play it to my family. My son always says something nice. My daughter doesn’t. And my wife always criticises my voice and or the mix or the song structure or something. The only time she ever said something nice was when our Christmas charity single came on the radio and she said, ‘It sounds good!’ So either I get a divorce or I have to make better records. That’s the challenge.