chap-7

So, the time has arrived. You’ve gathered yourself a punnet of pretty decent songs that have been demoed, and now you’ve raised some money to go and polish them up in a studio. You might, if you’re really lucky, have a little bit of label interest to buoy you on.

First things first: How do you make your ideas sound professional?

Ok, so we were dead lucky in the respect that our Guitarist, Rich, owned a recording studio (Snug Recording Company in Derby) and doubled-up as a great engineer and producer. Our other Guitarist, Gavin, is a superb live sound engineer. So we were quite set in that respect.

Sorry…

It’s not always that easy I’m afraid, unless you purposefully source a band complete with all recording bases covered. Steve Albini on guitar, Rick Rubin on bass with Butch Vig on drums etc. Though I imagine that might just be fucking impossible. And weird.

Money plays a very big factor in recording – as you’d probably assume. You’re not likely to waltz in to Abbey Road with £7.62 in pocket change and get 48 hours of tracking, mixing and mastering. In fact you’d probably get a fat lip and a police caution.

It really does depend on quite a few factors. How much money have you got? What sound are you looking for? Have you ever been in a studio before?

Money plays a very big factor in recording – as you’d probably assume. You’re not likely to waltz in to Abbey Road with £7.62 in pocket change and get 48 hours of tracking, mixing and mastering. In fact you’d probably get a fat lip and a police caution.

If you’re really strapped for cash then you can try a crowdfunding page to raise the amount for the album. There are several crowdfunding websites, but I found IndieGoGo by far the best and easy to navigate. Plus it gives you the full amount raised – unlike some other sites. Try putting on incentives for cash. For example:

  • £10 gets you the CD album and download on release day
  • £15 signed copy of the CD album and download on release day
  • £20 gets you the limited edition vinyl copy and download on release day
  • £30 gets you signed CD copy, T-shirt and name on the ‘thank you’ notes
  • £50 gets you signed vinyl copy, signed CD and download and included in the thank you notes
  • £50,000 gets your face added to Mount Rushmore. Plus a T-shirt made of pure gold and diamonds. AND… CD, Vinyl, Cassette, Beta Max, Floppy Disk and Teletext versions of the album – signed in the jugular blood of a unicorn.

With all that in mind, the next stage would be to source out local math/alternative bands that have recorded in local studios to yourself, and see if you like the sound. Even if the sound doesn’t appeal, I have seen great producers/engineers, who have been a part of stunning albums, advertise their services on math/instrumental rock pages on Facebook; they might perhaps be mobile and able to come to a local studio near you for a price.

Find out how much local studios charge per hour and calculate how long you’ll need to finish each song. Will you be tracking it live, or individually? Will you be mixing and mastering at the same studio? Get your abacus out for the lads.

No matter how much time you put aside, you will almost definitely run over. That, unfortunately, is a fact.

This is why it’s so important to have the songs, and the individual parts, polished and perfected before you go in. That is vital even if you’re playing a bland Mumford & Sons song, but with Math it is imperative. You don’t want to be sat trying to work out if that 13/9 section you’ve just written a week ago is in F#dim6add9, or F#m7add6 as you pay by the hour, and see your money disappear down the massive drain marked ‘highly foolish and unprofessional’.

So, the first big head-to-head in recording: Click track vs. live tracking.

Click tracks will make your song tighter than a butler’s cuff. They also make overdubbing and editing a true breeze. So, click track, yeah? Sorted.

A Guide to Math Rock | MetronomeWell, they are all well and good if you’re playing in 4/4, but if your songs are as complicated as I expect, and kind of hope, then sudden, choppy time signature changes and tempo shifts can be the stuff of nightmares to program a click to. Plus, it can be very time-consuming if the engineer/producer has never heard your songs before and now has to endure a full-on mental breakdown trying to add that singular bar of 15/9 followed by two bars of 7/4.

Remember: you’re paying for this time, and now you have 10 songs to de-construct.

I’d recommend that, if do want to keep it super-tight and play to a click track, you pre-program them in preparation at home. That is reliant on you having a good programme available (Pro-Tools, Logic etc.) and the skills to know what you’re doing in the first place. Most importantly in this click track process, you need to have a drummer who can play along to one. It’s really not easy at the best of times, but in a stressful recording environment it can be a truly frightful experience.

This process will allow you to track the song in sections (rather than in one go) with a bit of cheeky crossfade, of course (as long as your drummer plays the exact same cymbals at the end of one take as they do at the start of another). You will lose a live feel a flow by doing this, however.

Recording live (whether it be full band, or just bass and drums for rhythm) is definitely the more common math rock practice, and is certainly the quicker, more natural sounding option. The issues here though are mainly around timing.

Drummers naturally do two things in life: complain and speed up. That is a fact. So when the guitarists come to lay down their parts, it can be very hard if the stops aren’t correctly counted, or parts completely fluctuate in tempo.

If you do want to record the whole lot live then you’ll most likely be separated in booths, or by baffles (screens). This is to prevent bleed (the sound of one instruments mixing with another through the microphones). So you’ll be probably be playing with headphones on. This is where getting a good mix is vital! Make sure you can hear everyone clearly.

We recorded both our albums and EP without a click track and it was very frustrating at times. Not for me – I did my parts first and then spent the rest of the experience drinking cans of beer, whilst scoffing at the rest of the band as they swore and struggled with the timing issues I’d unintentionally created.

We generally tracked the drums first, along with rough direct input (DI) bass and rough (DI) guitars. The drums would then be roughly mixed and the bass could be re-recorded properly using microphones and an amp, cranked to 11. We’d also DI the bass, so the two sounds could be integrated. Then the years upon years of guitars parts could be painstakingly tracked.

Listening back to our albums now, you can hear certain songs speeding up quite a lot (the very end of ‘More Than One Seamless’ is a prime example). I guess that’s the live feel, but it can make the flow of an album a little jerky. You see, when it comes to recording, it really is what you feel is best for you, all things considered.

Ok, so what sort of sound do you want? What albums do you agree on that sound fantastic? You probably will never agree on this. There’s a vast difference between the production of, say, The Strokes and Steely Dan. It definitely helps if you have a few examples ready to play your engineer, to illustrate how you would ideally like your album to sound. They can then have a listen and reference through the exact same speakers they’re using to mix your album.

I’m odd and listen to songs all the time and think things like: “that snare sounds awesome, I wonder what mics they used, and what head was on it?” or: “that distortion impact is immense, I wonder what amps they used, and is that a valve pedal I hear?” Yeah, I’m aware, it’s very sad.

Drummers naturally do two things in life: complain and speed up. That is a fact. So when the guitarists come to lay down their parts, it can be very hard if the stops aren’t correctly counted, or parts completely fluctuate in tempo.

I’ve always adored the sound of My Vitriol’s 2001 album, ‘Finelines’. I mean sure, it’s probably a tad overproduced, but that drum sound through a good set of speakers, or headphones, is pure sex! The first 3 Biffy Clyro albums also sound brilliant and sharp, with maximum impact. Basically, I discovered I was a huge Chris Sheldon fanboy. (He engineered and produced a lot of albums that I adore the sound of).

So with that in mind, I’d have been very disappointed if Critical Meat sounded like an MC5 record. Or St.Anger.

Incidentally, if you are in any way interested (and you’re probably not), the best drum sound I have ever heard on a recording is from Canadian band Wintersleep on their excellent song ‘Jaws of Life’. It’s absolutely unreal. Have a listen. I can only surmise it was recorded on the side of Mount Olympus, where it was engineered by Jesus, with Allah producing.

The other factor to bear in mind is what equipment you have. I mean, if you have a Stagg drum kit with cracked Tiger cymbals, Encore guitars with Park practice amps and Zoom pedals, and a Rockburn bass complete with a 30w unbranded amp acquired from Argos, then it’s fair to say that your record is going to sound really shit, and no amount of polishing and additional glitter is going to prevent that.

In fact, it’s highly likely to sound like 3 simultaneous lo-fi burps whistling through an empty pipe of Pringles, whilst a tin of Quality Street’s is tapped furiously with a pair of knitting needles. An engineer is a real expert in their field, but they cannot work miracles. So having good equipment makes a very big difference in the time taken.

Having said all that, I don’t expect at this stage that you’ll have an Ayotte Custom drum kit complete with Zildjian K Custom Cymbals, and 1950’s U.S Fender Telecasters, precision basses and huge Orange cabs at your disposal. Studios will often offer great equipment for hire at an additional price, so that is definitely something to bear in mind if your equipment isn’t too good (shite).

Studios do sometimes use samples on top of the original sound to give the drums a bit more clout in the final mix but by doing so, you can lose some of the original feel. Give it a try, but if you want to keep the original live sound, then I recommend going without. I’d suggest putting new heads on your drum kit and pre-tuning them at the rehearsal before your recording time. Get those guitars re-strung and bedded-in also.

So, hopefully by now you’ve found that suitable studio that you’re confident will make your band and your album sound great. You’ve heard music from other bands to come from there and you are happy with how they’ve turned out and you’ve budgeted enough to cover how long you believe it will take to track and mix your album. I’d estimate that if you are tight, professional, competent players who know the songs inside-out, and you’re looking at recording a 10 song album in a non-live fashion, then it’ll take around 30 hours to track the drums. Then maybe another 30 hours to lay down the guitars and bass, and realistically 20-30 hours to mix and master. So I think around 80 hours may just about cover it. It probably will end up more like 100 though.

If you are super tight (from the masses of gigs you’ve recently had) then maybe you can try recording the whole lot live? Obviously if one of you fucks up during a good take then you might feel like murdering them with a plastic spork. But if you’re tracking the whole thing live, then I think you could maybe get it fully completed in around 50-60 hours, as the process is a lot faster.

I’d always save a little money to cover the prospect of the album production overrunning. It most probably will. I’d also book it so that your tracking is done one week, and then a block of sessions are in place for mixing another week. This gives you time to not completely lose your marbles after listening to the same songs over and over and over again.

I would go into detail here about compressors, noise gates, plates, microphone suggestions, plug-ins etc. But I don’t want to bore you, and also I haven’t really got a frigging clue what I’m talking about. This should probably be left to your highly qualified engineer/producer to explain.A Guide to Math Rock | Cans

Modern technology is wonderful. So fear not if during your take you played a kick drum spasmodically out of time, or played a chord that sounds like a humming dog. Your engineer should be able to seamlessly remove the errors and replace/drop you in on another take. Or if you did multiple takes of a song then you can hopefully grab one and splice it in from another.

Once the drums are done it’s essential that you find the best take of the many you’ve completed. Then the engineer can play around with tidying up and roughly mixing. You see, if you’ve not recorded using a click track, there’s no point in taking a random take and recording the rest of instruments over it, only to use an alternative take later on and have everything be hysterically out of time.

As a guitarist, it definitely helps to have your pedals and amp(s) set up with the correct sounds in preparation. That way they can be tweaked, rather than completely starting from scratch, wasting valuable time and money.

There will be times during the recording process when all hope seems lost. You’re on take 37 of that syncopated finger tapping part and you keep catching the bloody B string. Every pissing time! And the more you try, the worse it seems to get. Now your fingers feel like cow’s tits and everyone has gone from laughing with you, to laughing at you, to now wanting to use your corpse as bouncy castle.
This is the time to take a break and come back to it. Don’t stress and get exasperated by a part.

Chances are, you’re going to spend long periods waiting to do your parts, or having already completed them, waiting for others to finish theirs. That’s why I recommend bringing something to help the time move a little faster, like a good novel or large pamphlet.

So, you’ve spent too long tracking the instruments, and you’ve finally nailed that finger tapping part, on take 56. And that four bar breakdown part in the third song that was quite remarkably counted incorrectly on all eight takes, but not noticed until long after the drums had been packed down and taken home, has actually started to sound pretty good. The audio equivalent of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.

So, now it’s time to edit and mix the monster. And believe me, this process can be monotonous, and at times, pretty damn difficult. You’ve suddenly got 24 tracks of guitar to tidy up, bounce down and mix for one singular song alone, not to mention those 12 microphones that were used on the drums, and labelled as things like ‘OH Amb’, KIK Out’ and ‘SNR BTM’? (Senior Bottom?). You’ve also done eight takes of each song, so now it’s a matter of listening through and picking the bits that don’t sound like a Casio chainsaw.

Hopefully, if you recorded the drums separately, then the good takes should’ve been picked out already, and it’s matter of just mixing and tidying up those parts. If you recorded live, then this is where it gets messy. There’s bound to be a little bleed and parts that don’t sound so well-played. You can overdub these bits if the bleed isn’t too bad.

Now it’s about getting a balance. Making sure that the parts gel and sound great together. Hopefully your engineer will have whacked on some gates, compression and effects like reverb. And edited the parts to sound as tidy as possible.

The speakers used for mixing at the studio are quite obviously going to be a lot better and more expensive than the speakers most will be listening on at home. So things can appear to have more clarity in the studio, and then sound muddy and compressed on your little set of Ferguson speakers. Hopefully the studio should have a cheap system available that they can pipe the songs through, so you can hear what it might sound like to the general public.

I’d recommend requesting copies of the rough final mix, so you can take it away and listen to your songs in places like the car, on your computer, and through headphones/earphones, and return with constructive feedback. Make sure you listen with the EQ flat, and bass and treble on zero. There’s no point in coming back to the studio complaining the bass is way too loud and prominent, only to realise months later, when the album sounds tinny, that your amp at home had the bass set to ten.

With any luck you won’t at this stage suddenly realize a whole segment is completely wrong or out of time. Because you undoubtedly won’t have the time, or finances to sort this. I’m afraid if this is the case, then you’re stuck with it. Soz.

Hopefully you’re all grown-up and mature enough to not be fighting like 14 year olds over who is to be the loudest and most upfront in the mix. Listen to a few other comparable-sounding bands and come back to your album so you can listen to how it stands up to others. With any luck you won’t at this stage suddenly realize a whole segment is completely wrong or out of time. Because you undoubtedly won’t have the time, or finances to sort this. I’m afraid if this is the case, then you’re stuck with it. Soz.

Once you’re all happy with the mix, then it can be mastered.

You can master it with the same engineer, if they’re happy to do so, or alternatively you can send it elsewhere to be done for an additional cost.

Good mastering can make an enormous difference to the overall sound of your album. It can completely bring it alive. There are YouTube videos that show the beauty of good mastering, that are well worth a watch. A DDP Image is the best, quickest and easiest format to work with from a mastering engineer’s standpoint.

Again, I have seen quite a few adverts for people offering to master albums on ‘math rock/instrumental’ Facebook pages. I think you should perhaps approach this the same way as you did with sourcing out a studio.

We re-mastered our albums using a reel-to-reel analogue tape deck. Which gave the sound extra warmth.

Make sure you get very high quality 24 bit-wav files (sample rates above 44.1k) for your Soundcloud and BandCamp uploads. iTunes and Spotify tend to deal with 16-bit wav files. Be aware that if proper headroom is not present, some loud masters can clip when converted from WAV to AAC, MP3 and other compressed formats used by online stores.

Now, onto picking the artwork, pressing and releasing your debut album.

If you’re not scared off yet, next time we’ll discuss how to get this mess out into the world. Until then, listen to the fruits of Daz’s labor on bandcamp.