In early 2016 I snagged a studio internship with Joel Quartermain at Wastelands Studio. The main project was a full length album with the legends from Sydney band Caravana Sun. Read on for key lessons and how I landed the opportunity.
Persistence is Key
After studying for a year (Cert IV composition/music tech) I wanted to continue to learn but I knew that tertiary education wasn’t for me. Following a stint at Debaser I bugged Andy to help line up another mini internship with one of his buds. Being familiar with Joel’s work I jumped at the opportunity. Prior to the album project I became familiar with Joel’s workflow, signal chains, mic choices and placements. The key to both mini internships was persistence!
I’m generally pretty quiet but I am impulsive and do struggle to keep (what I think are brilliant) ideas to myself. The biggest and most important lesson was ‘know your place as a studio assistant’. In the heat of a session, no-one wants to hear your ideas about arrangements or structures or some obscure harmony you hear in your head. Your role as an assistant is to keep things moving, keep an eye on the meters, place microphones, patch outboard gear, pre-empt the next stage and get things ready, run pro tools, etc. My solution was to write down any ideas that popped into my head and if the opportunity arose only then bring it up. Knowing your role is vital to maintaining positive interactions between artist, producer, musician and assistant.
Pre-Production, People Skills and Performances
These are the foundations of making a record and are arguably more important than the technical aspects. Traditionally the production team was made up of a producer and an engineer with the producer focussing on these elements and the engineer the technical. Modern music production has seen these roles merged into one.
Joel spent a great deal of time fleshing out songs in their most basic form. In pre production the focus is on core elements; melody, structure, phrasing, rhythm, tempo, chord progressions, etc. You know you’re ready to start recording when you have crafted a song that is captivating with a melody and simple backing. Getting to know artists personally builds trust and allows you to identify strengths and weaknesses. Hanging out and listening to music is an easy way to see where band members are coming from creatively and for everyone working on the project to get on the same page.
– Beat Detective. You can retain the drummers natural groove if you use beat detective to grab only the kick and snare drum (leaving the hat’s, cymbals and toms). This is especially true for fills and allows you to combine a rock solid groove with the natural push and pull of the drummer.
– To get super clean and punchy drums track the kit without cymbals and toms and overdub later. These kit pieces ring sympathetically even when they aren’t being played.
– Snare top and bottom . To ensure phase coherence, imagine the snare is a mirror. Place the snare top and bottom mics so that are a reflection of each other.
– Centre the drum room mics with the snare. A simple way to do this is to tape a mic cable to the centre of the snare and measure the distance between each mic and the snare.
– Using a de-esser on drum overheads and room mics can tame harsh cymbals. Ribbon mics are a good overhead choice for the same reason.
– Tune the drum kit to the key of the song. The root note and fifth degree of the scale are usually a safe bet.
– Mics tend to move around during drum takes. Make sure the stands are secure, gaffer tape is your friend.
– Slap back delay on drums, especially the snare can create the illusion of ghost notes.
– Get more mileage and create depth by using different combinations of mics in song sections. For example, tight drums in the verse (close mics) vs. big open drums in the chorus (compressed room mics).
– You can get more articulation from a bass by re-amping through a guitar amp.
– When adding bass frequencies on the way in, do so POST compressor. This allows the compressor to clamp down on transients instead of the low end.
– Bass lines often work well as a counter melody to the vocal. Listen for gaps in the arrangement where a melodic hook could be added.
– Think about the best shape (attack, decay, sustain, release) and articulation (slides, staccato, mutes etc) for the part.
– You can shorten the length of bass notes by putting a piece of foam near the bridge of the bass.
– Don’t be afraid of compressing bass on the way in, optical compressors generally sound transparent on bass.
– To make room for the kick, side chain the bass guitar to the kick drum. This way every time the kick and snare are played together the bass makes room for the kick. Works particularly well for thick, sustained synth bass parts.
– Get the vocalist to sing different versions of the song. For example; punchy, breathy, belted, pushed or lazy. You can use these at different moments to best serve the song, e.g punchy verse and belted chorus. Try doing the same with distance from the mic.
– Track the double with a different mic. Choose something that has a different character. For example U87 paired with an SM7B.
– It’s often a good idea to split the vocal take into several different tracks. It allows the engineer to tweak the preamp and compressor to suit the section (especially true for dynamic singers). It also allows the producer and artist to focus on the delivery, contour and phrasing of each section and workshop if necessary.
– The deciding factor when exploring tempo is the melody. Does the artist have enough time to deliver each phrase? Is a faster tempo adding energy or is it obscuring the delivery and message of the song.
– It’s all about phrasing. This is especially true for vocals, sitting just behind the beat generally feels good. Some artists struggle with phrase changes because of habit, if this is the case try nudging the recorded performance ever so slightly behind the beat or edit each phrase during comping.
– 1176 on vocals – slowest attack, fastest release and threshold set for at most 3db of gain reduction is a good place to start when tracking vocals.
– Emphasize certain phrases with harmonies or doubled vocals.
– Check for click bleed when tracking the lead vocal.