By Jim Sabella
I can’t tell you how many times, as an engineer; I have encountered clients who expect me to make magic come out of a train wreck. This is a pretty normal occurrence in any field of professionalism (make-up artists, hairdressers, photographers, auto detailing. Etc.). There is only a certain degree of improvement you can put on any one thing. I’m not just talking about having great quality; I’m talking about having the right equipment. Make-up can only hide wrinkles to a certain extent, but there is always that time when you just need a face-lift.
Now let’s get back to the studio. Having high quality instruments is one of the easiest and most important ways of getting a great sounding recording. If you take a cheap guitar and plug it into an inferior amp and mic it with a great microphone, (i.e. Neumann U-47 Tube) plugged into a superb console, (i.e. old Neve) and recorded onto a great format (like a vintage Studer tape machine, considered one of the best sounding) you have an excellent recording and representation of garbage. The thing that amazes a lot of young bands is that the best recording studios in the world, only capture the sound of the instrument being recorded. What you put in equals what you get out.
This is not to say that you don’t need the best recording gear, because you do. But you must remember that you are only as strong as your weakest link. When you are dealing with high quality studios, the weakest link is usually your own equipment.
Let’s get equipped! How? Take care of your own sound. Although a lot of first-rate studios are equipped with there own gear, it may not fit the sound of your band. If your drummers prefers the sound of 24” kick drums with extra long power toms and a 13” x 3” brass piccolo snare, he should not use the studios standard size set and then (during mix down) explain to the engineer the size he wants each individual drum to sound like. It should be planned out ahead of time. It may be tempting to just say “with Pro Tools, can’t I just replace the kick?”…Yes you can. Remember though that those plug-ins are designed to ‘touch-up’ parts if a drummer say hits the snare weird for one hit. If you just replace an entire drum kit, it’ll sound like a drum machine…and if that’s the sound you like, may I recommend kicking your drummer out of that band?
Spend the time and the money to find out what equipment will give you the sound you want. If your keyboard player likes the “Choir” patch on the M-1, don’t sit in the studio for three hours trying to recreate it on the Yamaha DX-7. That’s not how it’s done.
Guitar players must know and be able to create the sound they want. Sam Ash (I was not paid for this) has more than enough guitar amps and effects to make any good guitar player establish his sound. As an engineer I am constantly bombarded with guitar players asking for the sound, like the sound of the last (insert band name here) CD. I can usually tell them what it was, and if we have it here, or how they can get it. But, you can't walk into a session with a Service Merchandise guitar, a Gorilla practice amp, and tell the engineer “Make me sound like George Lynch!!” Sorry.
A lot of the time spent recording of many of the big budget bands (Metallica, Nickleback) is spent on getting the right sounds of the guitars & drums themselves. Although they will try different miking techniques, 9 out of 10 times if the sound isn’t happening, they will change the instruments, (i.e. Guitar, amp or drums) not the mics.
The instrument is the source of the sound. If you want to sound like the Beatles you use a Rickenbacher and a Vox Ac30; Guns & Roses a Les Paul and a Marshall; Eric Clapton a Stratocaster; Boston a Rockman; you get the point. Mic choice and placement is really secondary. I don’t care what mic you use and how you EQ it, you’re not gonna make an Ibanez through a Mesa Boogie sound like a Les Paul through a classic tube Marshall, you wouldn’t come to a baseball game wearing a football uniform. Would you? Wrong equipment!
It is important to note that the artist plays a vital role in the sound, too. A lousy guitar player can make a great guitar sound like moosh if his technique isn’t up to par. And if the drummer does not hit with a good snap on that $1000 Nobel $ Cooley snare drum, the drum (and your money) will be wasted. You have to know how to get the most out of your equipment. If you play well with good equipment, the engineer will probably just set up a mic though a call A mic pre-amp and press record, saving you lots of money.
For singers, unfortunately, you can’t buy it. Alesis hasn’t put it in a box yet! You have to have the voice. I have some of the best mics money can buy, and they still can’t make a bad singer possess good tone. They’ll just capture your insufficient tone with believable fidelity. Even with today’s advances in auto tune with programs like Melodyne…you need to sound good, otherwise the more processing that needs to be done to fix it, the more mechanic it will sound.
Please remember, it is all too easy to blame the engineer for not getting you sound. If you do your homework and go to a top-notch studio, a monkey could probably get your sound. The difference between having the right or wrong equipment could be the difference between having the shiniest garbage on the block or the next big hit of the year.