Noisy heaters - the new cowbell?

After reading Larry's "Eliminate Variables" End Rant from last issue, I was compelled to write a response. Don't get me wrong, I agree completely with everything he said; so before you read any further, revisit the back page of issue #92.

I understand the need to keep a session on track, with surprises at a minimum, as he described; but I feel that part of the engineer/producer's role is to also recognize - and maybe even help create - mistakes when working in the studio. We need this now more than ever, with tools like computer editing, pitch correction, and plug-in presets making it all too easy for recordings to be just a bit too perfect, a bit too sterile.

So, like Larry's tips for eliminating variables, here are few thoughts on putting some chaos back into a session:

  • Try at least one piece of gear you've never used before on each new session or, if that's not feasible, implement an older piece of gear in a unique way. Maybe place a mic over the drums that you haven't utilized there before. Use the compressor you always put on bass and try it on the piano. Record guitar with the weird $37 mic you bought on eBay. These tricks can help change up a session while keeping everyone involved, excited, and creative. Just keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way; it's probably best to stick with what you know on the lead vocal.

  • Use a different instrument for a part than the one you initially planned on. Play your electric bass lines on a synth. Transpose a guitar part to mallet instruments, or a string section. You can always use samples to test it out and see if it works before going to the trouble of finding the proper musicians or instruments. Having extra instruments around the studio can really help with this. For example, I bought a cheap acoustic guitar for my studio and strung it up with a "Nashville tuning." It gets quite a bit of use, and really helps change the sound of a track it's used on.

  • Rather than moaning about how DAWs make tracks too perfect with over-ambitious editing, embrace the fact that they also let you keep mistakes in alternate playlists instead of erasing an otherwise brilliant performance (the way we used to on tape). Rather than waste time discussing a take you're not sure of, keep it and do another; then edit in (or out) the brilliant (or terrible) mistake.

  • Be alert to new sounds asking to be in the mix. Once I was mixing a track that someone else had recorded at my studio, and our fairly loud gas heater had been left on during some, but not all, of the lead vocal track. It was just loud enough, and frustratingly intermittent, during the first part of the song. I was stumped on how to deal with it. I also felt the track lacked a bit of a build going into the same section. I ended up making a loop of the heater noise and turning it up even more than it had been in the track. Then, as the second verse developed, I ramped up the volume until it was quite loud in the mix and then abruptly muted it out at a key moment. The sudden lack of noise focused your ears on what was left: a section of the vocal track that didn't have any of the heater noise.

"Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them." - Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies

You get the point; but if you still want a few more ideas, I'll steer you towards some folks who gave this subject a fair bit of thought: Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno [Tape Op #85] came up with a brilliant set of "suggestions" for the recording studio, and presented them as a set of cards known as Oblique Strategies. (Curiously, it's subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas.) You can easily find these aphorisms online or in apps for your phone, pad or tricorder devices.

Now have fun messing everything up for the better.

Sun, Apr 20, 2014 - 1:58PM
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Wed, Feb 13, 2013 - 1:06PM
Karl Keefer said about this:

If a person has a DAW with "unlimited" everything (tracks, eq, plug horsepower, etc), why can't they intentionally do a production that is a digital simulation of an 8-track tape production? Eight tracks, man, you could really make a record on that!

Don't underestimate the effect of a team on a production. A one-man production will be greatly limited: you just can't do everything yourself, and even if you could, should you? Get some co-conspirators other than the musicians featured. It'll be fun.

Pick a studio from a time period (1969 Vancouver Washington Bob Gibson Productions, where they recorded "Where there walks a logger, there walks a man" on RIPCORD Records mono). Don't use any gear more fancy than they had (a couple of 2-tracks, a limiter, and a couple of mono decks?). Don't lament that you don't have a tube console, Fairchild mastering eq, and a closet of U-47's, just get to work. You have access to acceptable microphones just like they did, so find a singing logger or howling banshee and record it.

Take some pictures for the sleeve to answer: "what made that sound?".

 
Mon, Mar 11, 2013 - 10:31PM
Michael Maughan said about this:

I really like many of these ideas. I love the other comment in looking for limitations. I did a session a few years back with the idea of the 40's and 50's in mind. I placed everyone around a stereo mic and messed with positioning. It was very fulfilling to do this and the band loved it too. They also hated it because it showed some weaknesses in some playing. Nothing to hide it or multitrack edit it away. They just had to play.

Later they came back and it was like another band. They really hit the woodshed and nailed what they wanted with this same technique.

Messing around with audio is extremely fun and can lead to opening up to new ideas and sometimes it is just what is needed to end up not in a music factory churning the same stuff out day after day.

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