Case study: recording an electric guitar

4 06 2012

I recently went to Nashville for a high profile studio job. I already knew the studio because I had worked there countless times. Your typical big Nashville studio…
No need to familiarize with the gear they have. As a recording pro with years of experience under my belt I can tell you: I know my LA-2A, believe me.

I had the studio techs put the mics where I wanted them and ordered the guitarist to play some riffs so I could make my basic settings and simply get in the mood. It soon turned out that this guy was not exactly a session cat, I can tell you that much. His playing was sub par to say the least.
His clumsy and unoriginal riffing was of the sort that makes you want to become a guitar player yourself. Just because he makes it sound so easy. Because it is. At least the stuff he was playing.

To top that off, the guitarist did not care to have his guitar tuned when he showed up for the session. The reason he gave me: ‘my guitar tuner is broken.’ Now, back in the day this might have been a superb excuse, but nowadays, in the age of http://www.org.net this certainly does not cut it.

There is a website for everything. There is a website solely devoted to Eb tuning and how it affects the sound and the feel of the guitar. And finally there even is an ‘online tuner Eb (E flat)‘ giving reference note that you can tune up against.

As a musician, and even more as a recording engineer, you have to utilize the power of the internet. There are so many great sources of knowledge, like this very site, where you can learn in hours what would normally take a lifetime.

If all the knowledge I give away for free here, would have been given to me when I started out…boy, I don’t know where that would have led me! It is beyond all imagination.

So, the guitarist played his riffs and the first thing I did was to engage the high-pass-filter of the SSL console. This way less of the guitar signal is coming through, which is exactly what I wanted.
But this only affected the lower frequencies, of course. To target his signal from the high frequencies as well, I used a low-pass-filter in an old tube EQ they had lying around there. Now he was cut from both sides. No escape here.

I then engaged the Massenburg EQ and cut some 18dB at the 7kz range. This put a serious dent in his sound.

To get the sound I was going for I dialed in at 2kHz with a Q of .5 and lowered that by 9dB.

I then grabbed the fader and started to lower it until the guitar signal was barely discernible. I was looking for the point where you couldn’t tell the guitar is there, but when you mute the track, you can tell something is missing.

Needless to say the guitarist did not like the result, because he thought he should be clearly audible. As a pro recording engineer it is you has to make the decision. And you have to be ready for it. No messing around. If you have envisioned the sound, you have to go after it.

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Finding the right plugin for the job (Part 2)

17 05 2012

Let’s say you have recorded the first track and you are pretty proud of yourself. You listen to your recording and the first impression is kind of OK.

Then you will start to listen to the recording again. And again. You will listen to it over and over and over, because, let’s not kid ourselves here, you’re not a pro. You’re a beginner. And that’s what beginners do. Your brain needs time to adapt and comprehend all the information given in this tutorial series.

After you have listened to your recording in Cubase for some time, you will notice a slight difference between you recording and your favorite commercial recordings. But..wait a minute. WAAAIT A MINUTE!!! What did I say here? Yes, you are correct, you should always compare your recordings to another recording which you choose as a reference. This reference recording should be made by a true recording pro. Do not try to get away with less. In order to drag yourself out of the mud, you have to mess with the best. Or you will die like the rest!

So now that you compare your recording to a pro recording you will probably find, that your recording is lacking a certain something. You might not yet have the words to describe what it is exactly that your track does not have, but you feel that there is something slightly off. A little itching in the back of your mind tells your, that there might be something missing here.

That something are effects!

Effects are necessary for a professional music production today. You will simply not find any commercial production these days that doesn’t use at least SOME effects. Even if you’re not able to hear them. Your ears are not yet accustomed to the subtle details, and don’t blame yourself. These skills take time to develop. So even if you think that a particular song does in fact have no effects on it whatsoever, you are probably wrong.

The different types are plentiful and complicated. It takes a lifetime to really see through the plugin forest and use them to fullest. As a recording pro with years of experience under my belt I use can say that I now have achieved this state. Actually I achieved it a couple of years ago.

But for an ordinary recording engineer to look at the vast amount of compressors, limiters, EQs, delays and all that, for such a person not to get confused takes some time and dedication.

Another thing is that nowadays people start out recording with digital tools. They never had the chance to learn the craft from the ground up. They never worked in a big major studio, where the huge stars would record their legendary albums. Here they would have learned how to use effects. Believe me that. Talking about school of hard knocks.

Finding the right tool for the job is paramount. But it is also hard. In the next section of this hands-on pro-tutorial I will share some secret tips and tricks about how to pick the right plugin. These surprisingly simple rules of thumb will make your life a whole easier. So stay tuned…