Recording your own band doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
Since I first tried my hand at recording five years ago I have engineered all of my own bands, from grimey Knife Crimes to moody Bleaklow, noisy Old Skin, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Won. These sessions often allow me to experiment with weird stuff I wouldn’t risk doing to anyone else’s music, and always teach me some serious lessons (let’s not talk about my first ever attempt to record drums). In early April 2016 myself and Nic decided to take advantage of a last minute cancellation at the studio and start recording a few tracks for Pijn, which would eventually become the ‘Floodlit’ EP.
Just a heads up – this is a bit longer than the normal posts here, as what started as a quick session for some demos soon grew into a maxed out Pro Tools session with ten musicians involved.
Recording Nic’s drums was much like any other session, although I had just watched the Berklee College Of Music video about the making of Converge’s Jane Doe so I tried out the ‘COK’ mic that Matthew Ellard employed in that session as a little experiment. The ‘COK’ (centre of kit- which became our ‘crotch’ mic due to where it was pointed) was a large diaphragm condenser set to omni that picked up a wonderful full sound of the kit. When blended in with the room mics and a bit of the close mics it had a very ‘real’ sound to it – reinforcing the sound of the drums in a way familiar to the person actually playing them, and was one of many small decisions I made to ensure a very different production style to the last time I had worked on my own record. I am on the lookout for a small omni mic for the same purpose now, as the novelty of an expensive mic pointed at your groin wears off after the first few times of it toppling over or getting hit with a rogue drumstick.
Guitars, bass and most of the vocals were all done over the same weekend and were nothing of particular note. Just smacked a few loud amps through some chunky preamps. With the basic tracks down we brought in wider members of the group to add their own particular styles to the tracks. Starting with saxophone during a session in Spirit Studio, I witnessed some mad circular breathing to create drones, and by splitting the signal from the mic into a delay and valve distortion pedal we could create wild feedback, a lot of which unfortunately didn’t make the final mix (sorry James) but they were incredible textures. Saving them for the difficult second record.
Next up was lapsteel back at HQ. Known more for country, bluegrass and hawaiian music, but in this case capable of adding a gorgeous piano-like chime when put into a Fender combo for the clean melodies, and equally capable of searing lead tones through the Marshall JMP (when it worked). There were no fancy techniques going on for this, just a performance that lifted the songs in a way I wish I had been able to write. Nice one Paddy.
The strings. My favourite part of the whole record. In preparing for these sessions I knew that the arrangement would be key in making the strings have the sort of effect that we were after. Myself and Nic had written various ‘call and response’ sections for strings, and from the first practice we kept it in mind that more space should be left for them, or that guitar parts should be simplified for the benefit of what the violin and cello could add. Once the parts were *mostly* written (after I had brushed up on reading/writing music too, very proud of that) we travelled to a few locations to fit in with our string players busy schedules. For Claire’s violins in Bristol, I brought my brand spanking new AEA N22. Although the room was not ideal (small practice space, low ceiling) with the mic just under a foot away from the instrument we achieved a well balanced and natural sound, with the typical ribbon HF-roll off doing me some favours removing any nasty top end, but the extended response of the N22 making sure it didn’t sound like it was underwater. Again, performances were more important than the signal chain, and Claire’s wonderful playing simply blew me away. After a quick ice cream and walk around Clifton Suspension Bridge we packed up and headed north.
As the portable setup had worked so well for violin, I used the same for Maggie’s cello, with the N22 positioned just under a foot from the body and recorded in various lounges in Rusholme. A very classy affair, relaxed and fuelled with a lot of cups of tea. Whilst I would have loved to use a Coles 4038 for it, (everyone I asked said I should, but unfortunately I’m not made of money to just grab one on their whim) we still created a full-bodied sound with the AEA for my favourite, and the saddest, sound on the record. My highlight for the entire EP is Maggie following the drifting chords at the end of ‘Lacquer’, when going through multiple takes and comping to create the most complimentary parts, this simple pattern was more gut wrenching than other melodies we tried out, and sticks out as something I was particularly proud that we had made.
One of the final parts added to the record was piano, and I finally got to use a 4038. I could have used a spaced pair of condensers but at this point in the recording, track count was really starting to matter, plus I just wanted to. The piano up in Spirit Studio wasn’t particularly well tuned at the time of the session, and also suffered from a few keys which didn’t work. This cool set of problems resulted in us recording ‘Hazel’ a semitone higher and pitch-shifting the track down to be in the right key afterwards. Technology is mad isn’t it.
What did I learn over the course of making ‘Floodlit’?
- Maxing out the track count in Pro Tools isn’t fun. I should print stems more often.
- The arrangement was more important than any of the recording techniques I used.
- I would like a Coles 4038.
- Ice cream makes sessions better.
- I can’t listen to my own bands
- Recording your own band doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
‘Floodlit’ was released by Holy Roar Records on 27th January, with the first track ‘Dumbstruck & Floodlit’ premiering on BBC Radio One, and the EP streaming exclusively on The Independent prior to release. It is available on Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp, and I am extremely grateful to anyone who has listened to it so far.