Tuesday, 30 June 2009

How to get your sound

Hello one and all. Sorry for being a bit late with this, I am trying!

This week I’d like to talk a little about a subject that is often overlooked and ignored by musicians (and often engineers) in the recording process and leads to a lot of wasted time in the mix and worse, a lot of unnecessary compromises. I’m referring to the art of knowing what you sound like. Before any session I talk to the band I’ll be working with and discuss what direction and overall sound they want to aim for. Invariably they will have a strong, definite vision of who they would like to sound like, but when they actually start loading the kit in it becomes obvious that they have no idea how to achieve that goal. The guitarist will want to sound like Hetfield but will only have a Strat and a Fender Princeton amp, and the keyboard player will want to sound like he’s playing a Steinway with a £30 Casio.

I believe that a lot of this comes from a lack of understanding of what The Studio is for. Yes, most studios will have an array of preamps, equalisers, compressors and the like with which you can beat your particular sound waves until they submit to your will, but wouldn’t it be better to use said tools to enhance your sound rather than mangle it into something it didn’t want to be? I’m starting the movement now - getting your sound at source is the new black!!!

For now I’m just going to be talking about electric instruments, as I think setting up acoustic instruments for your individual needs is something to be talked about separately another day.

The problem that I see most is when a musician wants a sound he’s heard produced by a hugely expensive pro rig. Invariably the penniless musician will only have the instruments and amps that he can afford, and usually these are nothing like what is required to get the aforementioned ‘expensive’ sound. What I propose is that you (the musician) should give in to fate, accept the equipment you have and it’s limitations and use it to your advantage. Sure you may never sound like The Edge or Jack White, but you will hopefully start to carve out something that sounds like you and nobody else!

The most important thing here is to not get frustrated. Frustration will lead to gear lust which will lead to spending money on kit you can’t afford, debts, jobs delivering pizza, and broken marriages, all to chase a sound that belongs to someone else. What you need to do is to sit down with the equipment you have and learn how to use it! I cannot stress this enough. Learn the sounds that your rig is capable of.
Guitarists - go through each pick up setting on your guitar. Roll the tone pot back and then up again. Roll the volume pot back and then up again. Try different combinations and take note what effect each change of setting has. Set the equaliser on your amp to zero and listen to what each knob does as you turn it up. Then try different combinations of eq, more bass less treble, more treble less bass. Crank the gain up, see how distorted a signal you can get from the amp. Is there a sweet spot for the gain? Listen loud, and (very important) listen quietly. What sounds good loud might sounds terrible quiet and vice versa.
You are now learning what your rig can do, what it is capable of. Forget what anyone else sounds like; just keep experimenting until you get something that you like. Certain combinations of settings will sound better to you than others and this will be the beginnings of your very own sound produced by your very own rig.
Keyboard players – learn what every setting on your keyboard does. Read the damn manual!!! Synthesisers often have hundreds of settings and you are going to have to learn them all. Sorry. What do the filters do? What do the oscillators do? Can you set the portamento rate? Can you assign settings to the mod wheel? Can you turn effects on and off quickly? If you are using a sampling keyboard do you know how assign and edit new samples? Most will have a display with menu functions, so learn what is buried within each sub menu of this. What does the sine wave sound like? The square wave? The sawtooth?

So now you should have a pretty good idea of what you can do with your rig, and what you sound like playing through it. Hopefully you will also have found a unique combination of settings that you feel good about. This, my friend, is what you sound like!
And as you now have an expert knowledge of what each component of your equipment does tweaking it should be a breeze. Does your guitar amp sound a bit dull in a particular room? You should know whether it’s the treble or the presence knob that needs turning up right? Are your synths oscillators slightly out of tune with the track? That’s ok because you know how to alter the tuning right?

All of this hard work will make your life so much easier both in the studio and live. You will be able to adapt your unique sound quickly and easily to fit in with other instruments and to be heard in a mix without having to be kicked through with a steel toe capped boot. And now all of the dark arts of the studio can be used to make you sound as good as you possibly can. No longer will microphones be placed with damage limitation in mind, they will now capture every facet of your dynamic performance! Equalisers will be used to sweeten rather than chop huge chunks of offending frequencies out. And compressors will help you to bounce along in the mix instead of keeping you in your place with a sledge hammer. Happy days and good times for all!


Thursday, 18 June 2009

Getting it together

Hello world!

Haven't been on here for a while,which is mainly due to my inability to organise my life properly. But all that is in the past now, and I have a new system worked out that will help me to blog more regularly. I call it a 'Calendar'. That's right folks i've invented the 'Calendar'. Once i've ironed out the bugs I might let other people have a go on it.

So from now on you should expect to see a new blog every week on either Wednesday or Thursday. If I slack off please feel free to shout at me. I highly reccommend subscribing via the RSS feed so that you don't miss out on my spectacular ramblings. And if you want to follow me on Twitter you can do so here. And there's more!!! Have you often said to yourself, "I wish I could actually see what Kev gets up to, ideally in 12 second bursts"? Well fret no more! Get your self over to my 12seconds channel and your wish will be granted! For those of you who don't know what 12seconds is, just go there and have a look as it sounds really dumb when you try to describe it.

So that's enough self promotion for now I think.

In other news i've been working with Lydia Lunch again. Her new band is now officially called Big Sexy Noise and you can get hold of the first e.p. here. It's only available on vinyl but i'm guessing when the full album is released there will be other formats. I'll let you know when it's all done and dusted, we're mixing it in July so should be out fairly soon after one would hope.

Polar Bear have been back in to finish of the new album sessions. You should check out my amigo Sonny's blog for more on that as it was his gig and I was just helping out. Bloody good stuff though, it was a joy to listen to. Not sure when it's going to be out, but keep you eyes open people!

Talking of which we managed to catch Acoustic Ladyland (whos share two members with Polar Bear) live at the Southbank centre last Sunday. They too have a album coming out and from the new songs I heard in the live set I would say that it will be well worth taking a punt on it!

And on that note, good bye!