This weekend I was invited to work with my favourite local band The BlueYellows to produce two songs for an upcoming project of theirs (which is a bit of a secret at the moment, so I won’t be revealing the names of the songs just yet!).
We convened in the beautiful cottage of the super-generous Sheena Bratt from Venus Rising, who kindly lent us her practise space, a cosy little garage set up that was perfect for our needs and yielded a nice natural close reverb sound, especially for the drums.
I’ve been friends with the BlueYellows for years and this is the third time I’ve been asked to work with them on some songs. As an amateur music producer with no formal training, it’s a big risk for them to take, and I really appreciate the trust they put in me and the experience I get from working with a full band; as the only other experience I get is my home recording of my own albums and projects (such as my recent release ‘And Into the Woods’ *PLUG PLUG*).
In the time we’ve been working together, I’ve moved from working with different software; from ‘Magix Music Maker’ to ‘Pro Tools 8LE’ to ‘Cubase 8LE.’
I enjoyed learning the basics of Pro Tools, but I found I ran into all sorts of issues with how it worked on my basic laptop, and it ended up causing more problems than it was worth. So I’ve taught myself the basics of Cubase (God bless YouTube tutorials!) and found it was much more forgiving on my set up, and also seemed to produce a better quality of sound overall.
What I hadn’t counted on however was that I would have to record more than one microphone at once when it came to the first big hurdle – the drums! I told you I was only used to the basics! A quick Youtube tutorial later however and I’d learned about the importance of ‘busses’ when it comes to different inputs etc.. and after a mini internal panic attack we were up and rolling.
I set up three microphones for the drums, a MXL diaphragm mic inside the bass drum (which I proceeded to move further and further away as I realised just how loud the input would be coming in), a MXL condenser mic (definitely the hero of the day) in the middle of the kit to pick up the snare and toms, and a separate Tascam DR-05 stereo recorder, set up high on a camera tripod to pick up the overhead cymbals.
The MXL mics running straight into my M-Audio 2×2 interface worked really well; although a bit loud, I managed to play about with the positioning until I’ve got a pretty good level and sweep of the kit, with the help and guidance of a very patient and helpful drummer Mr. Dave Coomer.
Alas, I had much less success with the Tascam. I LOVE my DR-05, which I’ve used for everything from interviewing radio guests to editing music, recording music and recording basic song ideas. It’s never let me down before and I can’t recommend it enough. However today was to be the day it decided not to work; at least not with the recording software I was using. For some unknown reason, when played back into the software, what I was picking up sounded good EQ wise, but was at a completely different SPEED to the rest of the kit! I’ve still no idea why this is, or how to fix it, so any ideas, let me know!
Thankfully, the other two mics picked up a pretty good spread, and Dave was happy with the results, so I shelved the Tascam for a later date and carried on with what I’d got. Dave was a little nervous of the tunes at first, as one he was used to playing on the cajon and the other was a new track the band hadn’t had chance to work on much. He needn’t have been nervous though, as once he relaxed into the songs he pulled off two dynamite performances which really laid down a tight foundation for the rest of the band to play over.
Next up was bassist Simon. Ever the essence of smooth, Simon wizzed through his parts with no problems. Simon wanted to directly connect his bass to the PC, which would’ve been fine, but I was concerned that some of the great live sound that he gets from his bass would be lost, so I instead used the MXL condenser mic just slightly right of his bass amp speaker cone, and it picked up a nice ‘biting’ rock bass sound going straight in. I decided early on that I wanted to capture the individual sounds I love about the band, rather than changing things too much in the production and putting too much of my own personality on it sound wise. Whether I’ll stick to this as I obsess over the mixing stage remains to be seen, but at least I feel I’ve got a good ‘organic’ and representative sound of the band going in!
Next up was guitars. Jonathan is one of my favourite guitarists, having a great amount of skill and natural feel for the instrument both in rhythm and in lead playing. Being the only guitarist in the band can make guitarists proficient in this ‘middle ground’ between the two disciplines; my favourite examples being Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana).
Jon started off with quite an ‘effects heavy’ sound, but I decided I wanted to get a ‘clean’ sound first, to underpin it and add more of a rhythm guitar sound underneath. I’ve heard of producers recording acoustic guitar parts on even the heaviest of songs, just to give it a bit more ‘bottom’ eq wise, so in the absence of an acoustic, this was the next best thing. Once Jon laid down the clean strat sound it had a surprisingly classic ‘punk’ sound, which really added to the overall sound of the song. Over this he layered some more distorted guitar and then a soaring Jimi Hendrix inspired psychedelic solo lead part which blew us all away!
For the guitars I used two mics either side of the amp, my trustworthy MXL Condenser on the right and a Shure SM58 vocal mic (I’ve no idea why, maybe just to give a very different sound to choose from) on the left. The condenser recorded a volume of at least twice the volume of the vocal mic, but with a bit of tweaking I got a pretty good spread.
Lastly for the instruments was the keys, which were played by the ever patient, grounded and professional Emma, who had by this point sat and waiting for over 6 hours, giving helpful tips and words of encouragement to the rest of the band. Again, like the bass, we considered directly inputting the keys (through Midi), but again I decided to go with sounds that Emma was used to playing live, so instead we connected her keyboard directly from the headphones into the interface and let her control how she wanted to sound as if the performance was live. As I’d expected from previous experience of working with Emma, she had the whole performance wrapped and ‘in the can’ in a matter of minutes, and the keys really helped build the songs up.
Time was getting on at this point and I was worried I would have to come back to record vocals on another day, but with 1 hour left we decided to just go for it and get down what we could. With my trusty Shure SM58, and a committed Jon and Emma, we were able to get through all the vocal parts in that time, including double tracking parts and backing vocals. With no real way to ‘isolate’ the vocals, we packed away what extra things we could, and pointed the mic towards the back wall, so as to produce as ‘isolated’ and ‘close’ a vocal sound as we could. And the results seemed pretty promising, although quiet when put up against the other instruments, which is something I’ll have to work on in the upcoming mixing.
So overall, I found this a really fascinating, fun process. Mentally, it was a real challenge, but thanks to the patience and encouragement of the band, it was a happy experience and one I’d definitely like to have a go at again. I’m under no illusion that I’m anything other than an amateur at this music production lark, but I was reminded just how much I love the challenge of working with great musicians to create a project like this. A huge thank you everyone involved!
More news on the BlueYellow’s upcoming project soon!
Meanwhile, here are some snippets from the day, from my facebook page!
Or on YouTube if you prefer!
Thanks for reading!
P.S – Many thanks to the band for many of these photos!