I’m always surprised by the people who want to come and record music in my humble little laboratory. Nothing that walks out of here is ever going to sound super slick or mainstream radio-ready, but maybe some artists are after something more human, without all the character airbrushed out of the frame, and maybe in some of those situations I’m not the most off-the-wall choice out there. Just the second or third most off-the-wall choice.
The most recent visitor was this talented human here. She came over on Friday and we recorded a whole album live off the floor in an afternoon, except for one ukulele song that wasn’t quite live.
As a rule I like to record vocal tracks as an isolated thing, separate from whatever instruments are being played. It wasn’t always like this. I used to be all about keeping everything live and unembellished. Then I got better, more sensitive microphones, and I found there was a world of difference between recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time with, say, a Shure SM57 and an SM58, and some hyper-sensitive condenser microphones that will pick up the sound of a squirrel throwing a tantrum six miles away. Once I wasn’t using dynamic mics on acoustic instruments anymore, when I did try to record guitar and vocals in one shot I found the bleed too difficult to control, phase issues too tricky to avoid, and centipede visitors not prevalent enough during daylight hours.
Jess writes songs that blur the lines between folk, indie rock, soul, and punk. They’re wonderfully dynamic, with a lot of unpredictable shifts in tempo and intensity and some great, evocative lyrics.
Not exactly the sort of thing that lends itself to piecemeal recording. We tried, but it was clear from the start it was going to feel pretty awkward for her if we tried to separate guitar and voice. You can do all the takes you want, but in the end the best performances are going to come when the artist is relaxed. Sometimes that’s only going to happen if they can play and sing at the same time.
I thought I’d slide the Shure SM7B in there as a vocal mic and we’d be set. I should have accounted for the way my SM7B seems to pick and choose when it wants to cooperate with me. Friday was one of its testy days. No matter what preamp/compressor configuration I plugged it into, the thing wouldn’t pass sound. Even after I routed it in what I thought was a pretty foolproof way, I still wasn’t getting any signal. It got to the point where my face was covered in sweat and I was starting to think whatever recording knowledge I once possessed had been stolen from me while I slept, sucked out of my brain through one of those plastic syringes they give you to fill with water so you can keep the inside of your mouth clean after wisdom teeth removal surgery.
Right about then, I noticed the compressor I was using as the last piece in the signal chain wasn’t turned on.
After wiping off my face, I told the SM7B to go to hell in the nicest way I could and swapped it out for my trusty Pearlman TM-1.
I know everyone and their Chia Pet will tell you it’s important to audition different microphones on a singer, especially when you’re dealing with a voice you haven’t recorded before. You never know how a given mic’s frequency response is going to respond to something as varied as the human voice. And that’s sound advice. But I’ve lost count now of how many different singers I’ve stuck in front of the TM-1, and it’s never been the wrong choice. Not even once. It always sounds like the truest representation of that person’s voice I could hope to capture, whether they’re screaming their head off or barely breaking a whisper.
It was the right choice again on Friday. Because I was able to mic up the guitar amp with dynamic mics that are much more directional than those insane Neumann small-diaphragm condenser fellas I would have been using on an acoustic guitar, the only bleed I had to worry about was what the vocal mic picked up from the amp. And while there was no way to avoid it, in a strange way I think it helped, making everything a little bolder and more exciting, capturing some room sound where the SM7B would have been maybe too dry.
There’s good bleed, and there’s bad bleed. My ears told me this wasn’t bad bleed at all. It was bleed you’d be glad to take out for a night on the town.
Jess brought her very cool Danelectro electric guitar with her (it looks like a U1, but I’m not sure). She plugged into my Fender Twin and I invited her to adjust anything on the amp she wanted. She did something to the bass and mids that was subtle, but it made an immediate difference for the better. I think I’m going to leave the EQ just the way she set it until the end of time.
She also dialled in a bit of reverb. The problem I’ve always had with the spring reverb in this amp is the hum it introduces the second you turn it on. The more reverb you want, the louder the hum gets. At a lower volume it wasn’t awful. Still, I thought we might later find ourselves cursing the hum when it called attention to itself during some of the quieter moments in her songs. I turned off the reverb on the amp and stuck the Strymon Flint in the signal path. It just happens to have a spring reverb setting that sounded to us like a dead ringer for the real thing in the Fender Twin, minus the extraneous noise.
With just the TM-1 on her voice, and an SM57 and 421 on the amp, I think we got a good three-dimensional representation of the way things sounded in the room. Recording the guitar and vocals separately might have given me a little more control come mixing time, but I don’t think it would have sounded better. And this should still be pretty straightforward to mix.
Technical stuff aside, it was a great afternoon full of clementines, tea, and good music. Jess is one of those people who fills up a room with positive energy. She makes this sort of thing feel less like a job and more like you’re just hanging out with someone who happens to be playing some music. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun recording someone other than myself.
Hopefully I can take some of those good feelings and carry them over to my own work, which has been feeling a little neglected and unsure of itself lately.