Remember when you brought home your first really nice recorder? Every night you’d spend hours alone in your room with your guitar in hand, marveling at the sound coming out of this magnificent piece of machinery. Soon the novelty wore off, and so you went out and bought another accessory, which kept things interesting for a few more months. But before long your room was filled with dust-covered gadgets while you sat on the couch watching Leave it to Beaver. That’s when it finally hit you: Cutting tracks just wasn’t cutting it for you any more.
With all due respect to my wife, recording can be kind of like a marriage—it can quickly lose its luster if you’re not careful. While it’s fun to have a new toy to play with every so often (end of marriage analogy), as we’ve mentioned many times within these pages, one of the best ways to avoid musical inertia is to simply inject a few untried ideas into the recording environment whenever possible.
A few years ago, the editors at the late great Home Recording magazine (including myself, Rusty Cutchin, Thad Brown, David Darlington, Michael Ross and Arty Skye) assembled a laundry list of creative ideas for the project-studio user, entitled “Top 100 Recording Tips and Tricks” (a DVD version can be found in the clearance bin at your local video outlet). The following are some highlights from that brainstorming expedition, designed to keep you from falling into an irreversible recording rut:
Try overdubbing electric instruments using studio monitors instead of headphones. Doing so eliminates the claustrophobia and ear wear that can result from too many hours of headphone use. Works great for vocals as well; simply position a speaker (smaller is better, to reduce bass bleed) directly in front of a unidirectional microphone. Any leakage won’t hurt, and you’ll probably sing better as well.
Have your gear set up and ready to go. When the inspiration really hits, you won’t want to lose a single minute hooking up mics or messing with MIDI cables. Therefore, set it up—and leave it up.
The P. A. Way: Get a big, live feel in a little room by running bass drum or vocal signals through a P.A. speaker or two. Works great and is surprisingly easy to control.
Use two different mics on the same instrument and then blend them together to control the tone, rather than adding gobs of EQ. For instance, a bright dynamic mic combined with a warm condenser mic on an acoustic guitar can create a nice, full sound; simply brighten to taste by balancing between the two signals. A great combo for miking guitar cabinets is a Shure SM-57 with an AKG D112 (or any other good low-frequency mic). The 57 picks up the essential mid/high frequencies, while the AKG grabs any low end the Shure ignores.
Go for performance, rather than perfection. There’s no better way to suck the life out of a recording than to perform the same part over and over again. Therefore, when overdubbing, give yourself an approximate time frame for each track, then move on. If you need to record drums before the neighbors hit the hay, once 10 p.m. rolls around, just accept the results—even if you think you could have done it better. A year from now you won’t notice any “mistakes,” but you will notice if the track sounds like you labored over it.
Roam if you want to. Take advantage of the various room sounds around the house-and the portability of your multitracker-by recording instruments and/or vocals in the bathroom, in a hallway, under the stairs, in the basement, etc. A great way to add sonic variety to your demos.
Change your guitar and bass strings. Old, dead strings will give you a muddy tone, while nice new strings will be brighter, cleaner, and deliver a better-recorded range of guitar frequencies. The same goes for percussion—if you have a great drum mic but a poorly tuned drum, all you’ll end up with is a good reproduction of a lousy drum sound. Therefore, always start with a properly tuned, sufficiently tight batter head (ditto for the resonant head, if you use one) that’s in reasonably good condition. If there are any surface breaks near where the beater strikes, consider replacing the head before you record.
During mixdown, adjusting the playback speed a good 10 percent or so will help juice the track and break the monotony of your recording (especially if you’ve been at it for several hours).