One never knows when or where creativity is going to strike. Limiting creation to the studio is confining - you really want to be able to act on creative impulses whenever they should decide to hit. For me, as a touring artist, that becomes pretty difficult - I am away from home more than half of the time, with nothing more than my travel mic and an audio box.
I have had to record in countless hotel rooms, houses, and even green rooms … you can’t ever let that inspiration get away from you! It’s useful, as an artist, to be able to work out guerilla techniques for when inspiration strikes in an inconvenient place.
At the beginning of this year, I got to put this into practice in a huge way by recording an entire album in a little house in a town in the far north of Iceland.
I was on a pretty small budget, and it was a six-hour drive over tiny dirt roads to get to the little fishing village where I was shacking up, so having a full studio set-up with nice, professional equipment wasn’t really an option. I had to work with what I had in the house in order to get really great sounding vocal, percussive and instrumental recordings.
Going in, I assumed I would need to re-record certain parts when I got back to my studio, but through the use of all sorts of naturally acoustically absorptive materials (couch cushions, comforters, rugs, etc.), I was able to get source recordings that sounded so good that aside from a couple of one-shot lyrical changes, I didn’t have to re-record anything.
From that experience, I walked away with a few key ideas that are crucial if you want to get a good sound in an abnormal place.
VISULAIZE YOUR TRACK
The first key to getting a great sound in any situation is visualizing what you want the source recording to sound like. Think about each aspect of the sound, and imagine how you want it to sound.
If it’s an acoustic guitar; Do you want a sharp, twangy sound that is going to cut through the mix? Do you want a full, warm sound that is going to stand on its own?
Try to find an acoustic guitar recording that sounds similar to the way you want yours to sound, and listen to the characteristics of the sound; How much string sound does it have (the strumming/plucking/sliding noise from fingers hitting the strings)?
How much weight do the plucks or strums have? How much of the actual underlying harmonic tone of the strings is coming through?
Listening hyper-critically to every detail is very important – making a mental note of all the tonal and textural characteristics. First of all, it gets your ears into a hyper-alert and detail-oriented state, which is going to be crucial for the next steps.
Secondly, because our brain has a tendency to adapt to whatever sound we are hearing in order to make them sound best. Almost like a built-in EQ, if our ears are hearing a lot of sharp high-frequency sounds, our mind starts getting accustomed to them and sets them as the baseline average.
The same thing happens with our eyes all the time - it’s the reason that a white wall still looks white to you, even if the lighting in the room is bluish or yellowish. Our brain finds the average and adjusts the rest to suit.
If we use a reference track and listen critically it gets our ears accustomed to the levels of different characteristics of the instrument relative to the rest of the mix.
REMOVE THE SPACE
Though there are some exceptions, reflections are generally your biggest enemies when recording in abnormal situations. Sound naturally reflects off of the objects around it, which gives our ears a lot of information about the space.
We can hear how big a room is, what material the walls are made from and how far away the sound is all based on its natural reflections. It’s an important tool for our ears to use in daily life to locate different sound positions, but when recording, we need to avoid those reflections at all costs. For instance, if a vocal recording has reflections in it, it takes away your ability get a really nice upfront, compressed sound.
When you compress it, it will also compress the reflection, causing that room effect to be blown out of proportion. You, as the producer, want to have control over where your sound is placed in space so that you can create the space manually with reverb, delay and so forth.
Room treatment is one of the most important parts of a home studio, so it would seem like it would be almost impossible in a hurry and on a budget. But the reality is, it’s a lot easier than you’d think, as long as you are willing to do some atypical things.
A simple comforter tacked to the ceiling in a square shape can serve as a pretty effective vocal booth, and takes two minutes to set up.
Couch cushions spread throughout a room can dampen a lot of the naturally occurring reflections, and even a simple closet filled with clothes can provide an almost acoustically-dead room to record acoustic guitar or small percussion. Look at the makeup of the objects around you, find things that absorb sound, and get creative with them.
USE THE SPACE
Of course, all rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes the coolest thing about recording in new places is actually using the character of the room you are in.
In Bildudalur, the entire living room of my house was lined with wood - wood-paneled walls, wood flooring… I fell in love with the idea of having almost all the percussive and instrumental sounds I recorded for my album placed in that space.
It was so uniquely Icelandic and it gave it so much character. The downside about recording like this is that you have to fully commit - you aren’t allowing yourself any room to change it later.
As such, you have to make sure you get a good source sound. The easiest method for this is to put some headphones in, set up a mic and crank up the signal until you can hear it live through the headphones pretty well.
Get someone else to sit where you are going to sit and play the instrument or sing, and then move the mic around while listening carefully to how it sounds (this becomes much easier when you do it right after listening to your reference material, as I mentioned in the first section).
When recording with room sound, it’s all about finding the sweet spot. An acoustic guitar can sound like a muddy mess or a warm and crisp beauty based on inches of difference in mic position.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with having the mic a lot further away than you are typically comfortable with. It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it you can get some really incredible sounding stuff that requires minimal EQing and compression.
THE RIGHT GEAR
One of the easiest ways to make sure your experience recording on the road is miserable is to use equipment that is poorly suited for the job. As much as I love the sound of tube mics, a nice large diaphragm condenser is going to be 10 times easier to carry around and set up without worrying about damaging it.
Similarly, as much as it’s great to have a big motu rack with 18 inputs when you are in the studio, when in the field or on the road, you aren’t always going to be able to find an outlet to plug in your audio unit. Using a small 2-in/2-out bus-powered unit is going to make your life much easier.
Another great piece of equipment to get is a field recorder. I personally love the Sony PCM M50. With a nice pocket-sized field recorder on deck, you naturally start hearing really cool sounds in the world all around you. Anytime you hear something you like, you can just whip it out and capture it. The PCM M50 has a very nice sound even with factory defaults that I’ve opted to used it in place of my normal equipment in the studio.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT
One rule of thumb I like to follow is to make sure I get at least one experimental sound from every recording I make. If I’m recording a bunch of electric guitar, I’ll make sure to also get interesting clips of weird string bends, feedback, or running another object against the strings.
If I’m recording some percussion, I’ll make sure to grab some random objects at the end and see what strange sounds I can find. Go outside, use a field recorder, grab different kinds of sounds than you would normally use. Sometimes those can be the coolest, and be the signature sounds that define you as an artist.
The same thing goes for in-the-box, when you are mixing and editing the stuff you’ve recorded. Have a weird reverse reverb plugin? Try throwing it on your bongo drum.
Always wonder what a grain delay does? Throw it on your vocals and play around with it. Go out into the world, record things, be brave! Don’t be afraid to make it raw. Take risks with your art and it will pay off big time.
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