Back to the Studio, 27 Years Later…

Audient studio. Photo: Paul Grooveside

I ran a recording studio in the 1980s. The studio was known for getting great performances and sounds from the musicians we recorded. I stepped away from it in 1994 to raise my children. Now, on my MSc Audio Production course, I stepped back into a recording environment to carry out our assignment as a group of five students to record an EP for a band, and as individuals to mix and master one track each. We chose to record the Manchester-based reggae band: E&I Collective. This Soundcloud example is a track they recorded before we met them. It helped us choose to work with them.

This blog reflects upon some things that came to light in the recording process of our sessions with them.

A studio, at its most simplistic, is a few rooms with some audio equipment in them. The nature of studio equipment has changed somewhat over the decades since I was last in one. Analogue recording has given way to digital audio. Tape recorders have become anachronistic museum-pieces, superseded by powerful computers running Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. The ‘technical’ part of the challenge for me, is to make the transition myself from analogue to digital, to go from tape-world to computer-world, from beforeman to DAWman; to learn how a modern recording studio works on a technological level.

Much has changed. I always thought of myself as being technically capable and a good learner of systems, reading manuals on how to operate them to obtain great recordings. I’ve been working on that, and doing well. But the real learning in this assignment came from a different, less expected direction.

A studio can do nothing by itself. It can only record audio when people get involved. The magic only happens when a team with the right combination of skills and abilities works well together with the artist to ‘capture lightning in a bottle’. The team of five students in my assignment began working together with a certain amount of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. We discovered that between us we had the right combination of skills and personalities to make sessions work successfully. Although we all contributed to every aspect of the recording, each of us gravitated towards specific roles in the sessions.

Jordan is a ‘natural’ at the mixing desk. The Audient ASP 8024 and the Solid State Logic AWS 948 Delta desks both require a deft touch, scientific knowledge of audio engineering and understanding of the signal routing required for multi-microphone recording setups. Jordan took to both mixers and managed the signals capably. He provided the artists with individual headphones mixes, set the studio control room monitoring mix and ensured all signals were balanced, dynamically controlled and routed correctly.

Carl’s experience of Avid Pro-Tools recording software meant he ran the sessions’ recording and playback, setting tempo, levels, and recording parameters. He assigned each input to its own channels and busses and managed the quality of what was recorded.

Jordan (left) and Carl (right) at the console. Picture: Paul Grooveside

Argi, Matt and I set up the microphones for each instrument in the session – the drum kit was mic’ed in several ways simultaneously. Jordan wanted to try the traditional Glyn Johns three – mic set up, whilst others wished to use close mics on every instrument in the kit, and to experiment with room mics and floor-positioned boundary microphones. We set up all of those microphone techniques to provide flexibility and a range of options when it comes to mixing. The three of us positioning the mics ensured that each mic or combination was set by measurement and by ear to capture the sound of the drums accurately.

Drumkit mics: Picture: Paul Grooveside

For the guitar and bass amplifiers, sax and vocals, we chose the microphones by setting up a selection of mics, experimenting with positioning and auditioning them, choosing the mic that gave the best sound for each application. It was fun!

Testing vocal mics: Picture: Paul Grooveside

When the session was actually running, Jordan and Carl managed and captured the audio, Argi and Matt made adjustments in the live rooms and instrument booths. I took the session notes and listened to the monitor mix.

The people who were doing the engineering concentrated on the technical aspects of the sound, whereas I was picking up aspects of the music and the performances that needed guidance and coaching to bring out the best in the musicians. For example, the lead singer was singing phrases that sounded disjointed, because he was recording them separately, instead of as continuous takes in the manner he would sing live. I suggested he sang as he would when gigging and the ‘feel’ of the performance improved. The rhythm guitarist was also singing. I noticed that when he sang, his guitar was less rhythmic, detracting from the ‘groove’ of the reggae tracks. I suggested he concentrated on the rhythms of his guitar and did the vocals as an overdub. This brought out a much better performance on his guitar. The reggae toaster was not hitting the rhythm as well as I felt he could, giving a subdued performance. Whilst coaching him, I realised that his headphones mix was quiet, he was concentrating on listening for cues instead of being carried on the beat. The lighting in the vocal booth was also stark and bright, making the toaster feel self-conscious. I turned the lights down and created a different ‘club’ ambience for him to relax and get into the groove better. A change to his headphones mix inspired him to perform much more confidently and rhythmically.

Abdul the Toaster, before the lights were dimmed: Picture: Paul Grooveside

The other members of the team commented that I was hearing things they hadn’t heard, and making the performances much better by the way I was analysing and coaching the artists throughout the session. They said I was getting better performances by getting the artists to ‘own’ my suggestions for their performances, evolving better ways to play or sing without my ever taking over or criticising.

I learned from this experience that my own strengths in the studio are to achieve the technical set-up, then to put technical considerations aside and focus on the musical performance, on the way the musicians felt, and to listen to the recordings critically and musically in ways that complement the engineering skills of others in the team. This is what makes me the Music Producer I am. 27 years later, I discovered that my forte still is to work with musicians and engineers inclusively and coach people to bring out the best in us all. I felt proud to discover that I still have that ability.

It takes a team working technically, scientifically and artistically to capture the magic of music. The team has to work at a personal level in comfort and creativity. These sessions reminded me that each team member has a role and that everyone’s ideas and contributions are what makes the magic happen. They reminded me of what my strengths are, and how I can use them to make great recordings.

Reference: Stinson J (2021) The Glyn Johns Three Mic Drum Recording Setup , (2021) Origins of Toasting

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