Column: [Can't Make A Living] – An Ode to Minimalism Pt. 4
We’re back to my Ode to Minimalism, and here’s the final installment: Part 4, Minimalist Techniques at Home (or Anywhere).
So let’s assume you want to make a record outside the confines of a proper studio but in a minimalist way. This final installment will cover the basics of such an endeavor.
Space constraints won’t allow me to go into all the technical details, but I assume that a lot of you have some knowledge of recording techniques and equipment or know someone who does. Basically, I’m going to make a laundry list all the thing you will need and why/how you will need them. So here goes:
1. The Personnel
In order to make this kind of record you need to have all the right people involved with the right attitude. This includes a willing subject (read band or ensemble) with the right musical material and the know-how and skills to pull off many great takes. This also includes one producer who is willing to take the responsibility (and risk) of guiding the band through the process of making a “mostly live” record and a keen engineer who has complete working knowledge of the technology, understands the limits of that technology and is detail oriented. These two people should get along and work well together because they’ll be solving a lot of problems together.
It is the producer’s job to communicate to the band about the limits of the amazing journey they are all about to take. Something along the lines of: “What we hear in playback is basically what we get, so if you hear something that rubs you the wrong way, please speak up.”
It the engineer’s job to make the producer aware of any sonic concerns or technical issues during the session and (if the producer agrees) to try to fix them. It’s amazing how hard it can be to get creative types to communicate their concerns/wants/needs in a direct way – the sign of a great producer is someone who can “tell it like it is”. This could be the topic for an entire installment in itself.
It’s the producer’s job to a) make sure everyone feels comfortable, to make tea, to adjust the lighting or heat; b) make sure everyone can hear what they need in their headphones, to make sure he/she can understand what’s actually being captured on tape or HDD; c) determine the “best” takes, keep track of them and note future editing requirements, to guide the band towards those takes, and give musical advice; d) have a full working knowledge of the technical limits of the process; and e) to make sure everything sounds great in the end.
The engineer’s job is to a) plug everything in and get it working; b) explain every and any technical detail to the producer; c) keep his/her ear open for any “audio anomalies” during tracking and while getting sounds, possibly as a result of phase cancellation or even what/how the band is actually playing; d) to make sure everything sounds great in the end (or as good as it could be); and e) to let the producer take responsibility for his/her decisions by letting them have final say.
2. The Environment
You can’t make this type of record just anywhere. The environment you choose is of vital importance because the space will have a profound effect on the mood/vibe of the band, which will affect their performance and unless there are no acoustic instruments in the ensemble the space WILL get captured in the recording itself. Chances are your apartment or house may not be well suited for the task at hand (if it is, you are very lucky indeed).
When choosing your environment look for outstanding acoustic qualities and the possibility of creating some physical separation between what will become the “live/band area” and “control room/production area”. Places like cottages and barns make great environments because they are usually physically isolated from psychological distractions, sound echoic in a pleasant way and often present opportunities to create real physical separation. Other possibilities include vacant industrial complexes, commercial lofts, (such places can be rented, temporarily) certain venues like a church hall (e.g. Trinity Session, by COWBOY JUNKIES, 1988) or even a concert venue.
3. The Gear
Let’s assume that we are recording a basic four-piece rock band (guitar, bass guitar, keys, drums, vocals, harmonies, etc.). You will need a multi-track recorder or Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) with at least 16 tracks of simultaneous playback (even if they all come out the same two-channel mix output) and at least the ability to record eight tracks simultaneously – the more I/O the better.
In addition, you will need a mixer or “console” with at least 16 input rails and eight sub-mix rails with separate outputs and one or more auxiliary sends. The console is vital because it will allow you to a) sum multiple microphones down to one or two sub-mix outputs (connected to tracks or DAW inputs); and b) create the right monitoring situation for both the band (via headphone mixes or monitors) and the producer (via control room/mix output monitoring). I’m not going to name specific console brands here – it’s all a matter of taste and budget, but the ability to do these two things is vital in minimalist recordings.
Here’s a simple track/mixer breakdown for our four-piece band:
We have a 16-channel console with eight sub outputs connected to the eight inputs on a DAW. We use six mics to record the drums: kick, snare, tom, floor and two overheads. We send the kick and snare out subs 1 and 2 (so they have their own tracks) the rest of the four mics are summed to subs 3 and 4 as a “stereo image” of the drums. The bass gets two mics which are summed to sub 5. The guitar amp is also mic’ed using two mics which are summed to sub 6. The keys are both DI’ed and then amplified so a combination of the direct and mic’ed amp sounds are summed to sub 7. The lead vocalist gets a mic too, but she will not come out a sub and get recorded. She will just sing along to help the band and facilitate the vibe. The real vocal takes (and harmonies and percussion) will be overdubbed later. This leaves one last track for something “special” – perhaps a room mic to capture the great acoustic environment the producer has chosen.
Notice we have used a total of 14 out of 16 input rails on the mixer and all eight sub outputs. The last two input rails can receive a stereo mix from the DAW and be used as a “playback” channel when listening back to takes. The headphone mixes for the players can be created using the “Aux/Monitor/FX” sends on the mixer [these signals would be connected to the headphone amp(s)].
Notice the band does not hear what is actually coming off the DAW or tape – this setup is a “live” monitoring situation. The producer and engineer, on the other hand, should be listening back through rails 15 and 16 (all eight tracks being mixed in the DAW) so they can hear what’s “actually” getting captured (in the case of analogue tape, they will need more input rails and tracks or do more summing). In most situations, the producer will have to take many “playback breaks” in order to create some much needed mental separation (see Separation in An Ode To Minimalism Pt. 2) while he/she and the engineer are getting sounds or calling takes.
Later, the console connections will be re-routed for overdubs. In the interest of maintaining a minimalist vibe, the producer may opt to have the backing vocalists record their harmonies simultaneously (either summing them down to one track, a stereo image pair or keeping them on separate tracks). The same approach can be attempted with other overdubs such as percussion (having multiple people playing multiple instruments at once). Even singular overdubs, such as the lead vocal can be comprised of several tracks (a room sound mixed with a direct sound, mixed with an amp’ed sound, etc.) – the possibilities for experimentation are endless.
Of course, this is just one example of a minimalist approach outside the studio. The engineer might have more tracks or I/O and a much larger console at his/her disposal. The producer may choose to record the ENTIRE band (vocals and all) live off the floor and eschew all overdubs. The environment might be bone dry (near anechoic) and thus not translate at all to tape or could be obtusely echoic to give the record a distinctive sound.
There are no rules.