Column: [Can't Make A Living] – An Ode to Minimalism Pt. 3
Even though I enjoy making records the minimalist way, I don’t often get to do it – the situation needs to be just right. The band has to be on board with the idea, they need to be prepared and rehearsed and confident with both their own abilities and my talent as a producer. As I mentioned in PART 1, I’m not “anti-modern recording techniques”; more often than not, I find myself employing the same “sound collage” techniques used by the majority of recording artists today.
One record I did where I did employ a minimalist aesthetic was on VISTAVISION’s debut EP. J.M., Dave and Andrew were really enamoured with some of THE WALKMEN’s latest releases: You and Me (2009) and Libson (2010). These records are a beautiful homage to the retro sounds found on early 60s pop and rock recordings, but the music (its feel and content) can only have been written in modern times. VISTAVISION’s music, I felt, could benefit from a similar treatment: what if an amazing band like VISTAVISION could go back in time and record their music from 2012 in 1963.
VISTAVISION are not a typical band – they are vocals, drums and two guitars (no bass). Dave’s guitar is a baritone – the strings are thicker and the tuning is lower than a typical guitar, giving it a bass-guitar like quality while still retaining many of the rhythmic aspects of a standard guitar. Dave’s role is to provide a driving rhythm while holding down the bottom end. To this end, he splits his guitar rig into two – one channel goes to a bass amp (like an Ampeg SVT) while another goes to a conventional guitar amp (like a Fender twin). J.M. does vocal duties while playing traditional rhythm guitar through an old Ampeg Rocket amp (very popular in the early 60s). Andrew plays a very heavy sounding drumkit with an over-sized 24″ floor tom.
Before entering into an agreement with the band, I saw them play live a few times and then once we decided we would work together. I attended a few rehearsals, made some notes and gave them some minor suggestions but otherwise felt that they were ready for the studio.
With the assistance of my favourite engineer and co-conspirator Jay Sad, we set the band up in the live room as if they were on stage, with the two guitar amps on either side of Andrew’s giant drumkit. We did a little bit of baffling around the amps, but not too much. Before we set up any of the typical “close mics” on the drums and guitar amps, I set up a stereo array of microphones (three in total: two in XY pattern and one mono) about five meters away from the band, centred on the drums. I got the band to run through some of their loudest numbers and listened to the stereo array in the control room. Jay and myself made adjustments to the volume of the guitar amps in the room, by actually turning the amps up and down (not the mics), until the amps and drums sounded “balanced”. Basically, these three mics made the majority of the sounds on the record, so I had to get the levels in the room just right.
Because bass frequencies are less directional than high frequencies, I decided to isolate the bass amp side of Dave’s setup by putting it in an ISO box. To separate the bass tones from the treble tones in Dave’s sound, I rolled off all treble sound in the bass amp and delayed the signal going to the bass amp by about 20 milliseconds (using an analogue delay pedal). I close-mic’ed the slightly-delayed bass amp using an nice Austrian tube condenser microphone.
So, with four microphones I managed to get a nice balanced sound of the whole band playing live. Then we added a bunch of mics on the amps and individual drums (about 10-12 more mics) in the typical places to add a little “punch” where I might need it later – mostly the drums. We set up J.M.’s vocal mic and some headphones and built a nice mix in the headphones for everybody. J.M. sang along during the performance, but both he and I knew that we would go back and overdub his real vocals after the fact.
The band tracked all 6 songs, live off the floor over two days of studio time. We were tracking onto analogue tape (two-inch, 24-track) and kept only the best two or three takes of each song. I tried to keep the number of recorded takes down because I wanted to track the vocals to tape but knew that I might have to comp together or edit together a few songs. I kept notes during the tracking, marking which parts of which takes were “best” so I knew where to record vocals and how to edit the takes together later.
The third day was spent recording J.M.’s vocals to tape. I used my favourite German large condenser and vintage tube preamp: the sort of stuff they were using in 1963. Because I had a lot of extra tracks on the 24-track machine, we could do about three vocal passes for each “best” segment of each keeper take for each song. This allowed me the luxury of comping J.M.’s vocals (thus keeping the best portions of each take). All the while I analyzed the performances and I kept meticulous notes so that I could create a composite edit of all the vocal takes at a later time with relative speed and ease: this is easiest when someone else is running the machine.
Once J.M.’s vocals were tracked, I “dumped” all the tape into the computer for composite editing. I like to do the edits myself in a computer (as opposed to cutting and splicing tape) for two reasons:
1) I can reuse the tape
2) It’s way, way easier!
The cool thing about digital is that it doesn’t colour the sound at all – but tape does. So once the tapes are safely “dumped” into the computer that “tape sound” is captured there forever — it will never go away.
Once in the computer, I re-recorded J.M.’s edited vocals through an analogue chain of compressors and reverbs (one plate and two springs). We did a few overdubs at this stage: some percussion, Dave’s backing vocals, and a few extra guitar parts – just to reinforce some dynamics – but otherwise, the record was fully tracked and ready for mixing.
I mixed Vistavision in the computer (in Logic, “in the box” as they say) but summed the finished two-track mix through my analogue console (the one I used to track the record through) with some added stereo compression on the end. I didn’t have to do too much in mix, just basically get balances with the “faders” in the DAW and do a few corrections using a few EQ plugins (mostly high-pass filtering) and compression plugins (mostly soft limiting). The record basically sounded “finished” before it even touched a computer (except that it had to be spliced and edited together).
So there’s one example of a minimalist approach in modern recording. “Wow,” you might be thinking, “it must be nice to have all that fancy gear, a control room and tape deck and all, but I can’t do that with my recording set-up.” Well, I admit that the best place to attempt a minimalist approach is a proper recording studio with a good producer, but it is also possible to bring this aesthetic to the home studio environment and that’s what PART 4 will be about.