A Saturday in the studio
Mary-Suzanne is taking a recording tech class at Portland Community College. This is the third semester of the class, during which the students are required to find and record a band. Mary-Suzanne's team had originally intended to record a chamber-rock group, but the schedules didn't work out.
On Saturday morning LCW (the trio consisting of Stephen Caird, Joe Williams and me) arrived at the studio at 8:45 am. The lab tech arrived about 45 minutes later to open the studio. Set-up took about three hours. We started recording at 12:30, broke for lunch at around 1:30, resumed at 2:30 and finished at 5:30. That's four hours of actual recording time, during which we recorded - with breaks for auditioning tracks, adjusting mics, etc. - a total of about 12 minutes of material (4 tunes).
The first scratch recording was a very "rock" kind of sound, not really appropriate to our music. The kick, especially, was very prominent. I said that the kick was intended to be more sensed than heard: you should notice if it's cut out, but shouldn't really take note of it otherwise.
Their lab tech has a reputation for putting his own "imprint" on the student projects. He seemed to me to be fairly hands-off during this session. That may have been because Mary-Suzanne's team put in hours of planning and knew exactly what they wanted to do and how to do it, or perhaps because the tech arrived with an infant in tow. Whatever the reason, he seemed to be pretty good at staying out of the way of the team.
During the band's downtime for lunch, the tech suggested that putting a mic near the fretboard of the cello would pick up a bit of finger and bowing noise, which could be interesting in context. The team gave it a try, but the gobo behind the mic screwed up the acoustics, so the team ditched the mic and gobo after auditioning the first take.
I'm told that the tech also suggested, while the band was at lunch, that the team should take an active role in "producing" the band in order to create a particular sound. The team politely declined. Although the team did many things well, we (the band) are particularly impressed with the team's decision to honor our wishes to capture the vibe of a live performance.
We recorded to 2" 8-track tape using an X-Y pair of Royer mics above the drum kit, an AKG D112 on the kick, and an old Sennheiser on the snare. The team took quite a bit of care in placement of the guitar and bass amps to pick them up in the overheads, including some clever reflection tricks with the guitar amp; they also took DIs from the guitar and bass amps. Stephen used his pedalboard on the Ned Steinberger bass cello and played through a Yamaha head into an Ampeg cab. I used my Tech 21 Boost R.V.B. reverb pedal instead of the reverb in my AER Compact 60 - I'm used to playing with the Tech 21's reverb sound.
A lot of the first hour of recording went into adjusting the instruments and amps for a good sound in the room. Long story short: we cut out a lot of bass from both the NS and my guitar. Since we were recording "live" - no baffles, iso booths, headphones, overdubs, etc - we needed to basically print straight to tape the sound we wanted to hear.
We had a talkback mic in the room so the folks in the booth could hear us. Since we weren't wearing headphones and there was no cue speaker in the room, we relied on hand signals from the booth to start a take. We'd play, finish, then count off ten seconds of silence using hand signals.
One of Mary-Suzanne's members recorded the number of takes for each song: 4, 5, 4 and 1. It seemed like more at the time. We had a couple of bad starts, but most of the scrubbed takes were dropped because of a missed grip, an unfavorable inflection or a timing hiccup. A few were scrubbed due to technical issues.
Y'know, it's tough to record a "perfect" take as an ensemble. I guess we need to practice more...
The playback sounded quite good. Mary-Suzanne's team has about five weeks to do the mixing at about two hours per week. They have the option to bring band members back in for overdubs (they were pretty excited about doing something with MIDI guitar), but it really doesn't seem appropriate at this point to layer something on top of the live recording.
Three of the mixes should be straightforward once the team decides on the proper balance. One of the mixes is going to take a little bit of choreography to alternately feature the NS and the guitar in different sections of the song and to tame the sound of the snare "stirred" with brushes.
It was a long day, but we had fun and the preliminary results sound promising. I'm looking forward to hearing the final mixes.