Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tracking for Third Party Mix (part 1)

I often get approached by bands to do their mixing for them. Sometimes I have an offer to do mixing.  I enjoy it and I think it is a good opportunity to get another set of ears on a project.  Or maybe you are tracking your project at home, to save some money. 

This is the first part of a series that will talk about getting tracks ready for another engineer.  This first part will be about tracking techniques that many engineers use, but many don't.

Most of these is what I call "insurance" so I do them anyway, even if I am mixing. But basically it gives the next engineer a lot more options and can make up for some of the pitfalls of smaller/home studios.

So here are some things to think about when tracking:

  1. Crap In = Crap out: This applies to performance and instrument quality. DO NOT depend on "We'll fix it in the mix."  So strive to get the best sound you can dry.  If the mix sounds pretty awesome with just the faders up, then the final mix will really sound awesome.   You can refer to this: Bare Minimum Preparation for the Studio.  But your performances really need to be solid, that is probably the most important part.
  2. Drums: This is the foundation of a mix. The kit must absolutely be in tune! Also make sure the heads are new (or at least not totally dead) and that all the squaks, rattling, and excessive ringing are taken care of.  With remixes I tend to do a lot of sample blending or replacement. In rock and metal it is pretty much mandatory.
    1. I like to try and get the kit to sound pretty good with just Overheads and Kick. Then the other mics are just extra.
    2. Mic every drum.  I prefer dynamic cardioid mics because they give a distinct transient that is great for sample replacement if necessary.
    3. Mic snare top and bottom. This is handy to get some extra snap.
    4. Mic HighHat and Ride. Since these tend to get buried, I like to have them just in case. 90% of the time I don't actually use them. But the 10% I used them, I really really needed them.
    5. Room mic, these are really handy and can add a lot of extra ambience. Even if this is a 1-room live tracking session, that room mic can really fill out the mix.
    6. Be careful of mic phase!! This can be a huge deal.
    7. Name the Overheads in regards to Hat and Ride. DO NOT use right and left, I have no idea what perspective that is from and it can be a real PITA trying to figure it out.
  3. Guitars: Make sure they are in tune and intonated. Can't fix bad tuning.
    1. Take some time with mic placement to get a good tone from the amp. Please don't just "throw a mic" on there unless you aren't trying for good tone.  Even modelers are fine here which leads me to #2.
    2. Take a straight GUITAR DI. This is insurance so I can re-amp that signal later.  If the pickups are passive, ideally you want an Active DI box with an Input Impedance of 1M Ohm or more. Active pickups you can use anything as long as it isn't noisy.  But I will take what I can get.
    3. Effects DI. This is if the guitar player uses a lot of wah or special effects before going into their amp. 
    4. Amp FX Loop out DI. This is essentially the amps preamp out. Again this is insurance for tonal options. I can run this signal through "Impulses" of acoustic spaces and speaker cabinet mic combinations. This can help make up for non-deal rooms, cabs, and mic combinations.
    5. This is a lot of DI's and a LOT of tracks. Many studios don't even have this many DI's. So the most important is the Guitar DI track or the Effects DI depending on the player.  Most I can use just the Guitar DI for most of the stuff. Then I will do another set of takes with Wahs, which I consider leads. With Wah's definintely take a DI after the wah. But most stuff like Delay, Reverb, Compression I handle in the.
    6. Ideally you want the best sound you can from the mic and the amp. It is just insurance. I don't know how many times I have gotten a band to mix and the amps just sound like rattling plastic in a cardboard box.
  4. Bass: Yet another foundation of the mix. Depending on the player and the bass, this can be the easiest and the hardest to get right.
    1. Use a good DI right from the bass. I will use this for re-amping or sometimes just as is.
    2. Mic the cab.  I like to use a large diaphragm dynamic for things like kick drums and floor toms. Then I will use an SM57 for attack.  This is especially true if the player likes distorted or overdriven bass. The DI will just not capture that.
    3. Listen very carefully for intonation and out of tune issues. Also listen for tightness with the kick. This can make the difference between a really punchy sound and a sorta punchy sound.
  5. Vocals: Performance is everything here and again shoot for a good sound without any mix magic.
    1. For mics, use a large diaphragm condenser at least. Don't even care about the brand. But better brands are much nicer. Ideally you really want to spend the time to find a good mic and pre combination that captures and accents the voice.  
    2. Try to minimize excessive echos, noise, and bleed from headphones.  
    3. Minmize the ssss' and the pop's. Use a pop filter and rotate the mic a bit at an angle.
    4. I can do some atrocious things with pitch correction and fixing timing, but I can't add feeling or angst or sadness or whatever you are trying to portray.
That pretty much covers the foundations of rock and metal. For other instruments it is all about capture.  There are a million different ways to capture all instruments. And no way is right, and no way is wrong.    The DI's and close micing are just insurance and give the mixing engineer the most options.

But have fun, that attitude shows on a recording.  Don't rush, get solid performances, that is the most important.  Back in the early days, recordings were done with the equivalent of coffee cans and boom boxes, and those sounded amazing because the performances were awesome and the musicians were awesome.

Also be realistic to some degree. You won't sound like a grammy winning band by paying your tracking engineer a few hundred bucks, mixing engineer a few hundred, through your cheap amps and cheap guitars, in a basement or garage with some foam lined closets. There are exceptions of course... But grammy winning songs are still grammy winning songs.

No comments: