Recording in the Highlands
Tricks of the Trade


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Some tricks and tips for recording at home or in the studio

Tricks of the Trade

Help, I've run out of tracks!

Running out of tracks happens less often today as one has so many tracks. In the past, every decision about what kind of sound to go for had to be made in advance. If you didn't like it afterwards, tough. You were either stuck with it or you had to re-record those tracks.

But if you are using a recorder with a limited number of tracks and you have laid, for example, twelve tracks of drums, but do not want to commit yourself to one sound just yet, do a couple of stereo mix-downs of the drums back onto the multitrack. The first should be totally compressed and gated, to get a really artificial sound. The second should be totally open, using no dynamic effects. Now you can erase the originals and still change your sound by mixing from 'plastic' to 'open' drums - and you will have just used four tracks.

Help, the T and S sounds on vocals sound as if someone is spitting!

This is called 'essing' and is cured by 'de-essing.' Most larger multi-effect machines have de-essing programmes as presets, but you can cure this problem by just using the eq on the mixing desk.

Cut the highs off carefully until the essing effect disappears. This is best done during recording and with a low-pass shelving filter that totally cuts all the highs off after a certain frequency. Also, don't use cheap phantom-powered mics on vocals as these are most prone to essing. If de-essing does not give you enough highs for the mix-down, add highs using an exciter (see below).

If in doubt and the problem persists, use a good dynamic mic instead. The results will not have the presence of a good phantom powered mic, but the essing will stop.

How do I get that 'breathy' sharp edge to vocals that one hears on nearly all records today?

This effect is done by a machine or software programme called an exciter. It was first pioneered by Aphex with their Aural Exciter (you have to love that name!) back in the 80s. In their 204, Aphex have married the Aural Exciter with their Optical Big Bottom - and don't you just wish that all product names were that good! These effects create harmonic distortion above (or in the case of the Big Bottom - below) the original sound. Like all effects, it should be used carefully and sparingly.

Help, other noises keep getting into the mics! What can I do?

In two words, contact mics. Many years ago, we were asked to record antique instruments such as a hurdie-gurdie and a harpsichord in a museum. The insurance refused to let us remove the instruments to a studio (and we did not relish the idea) and the museum could not close to the public, so we used C-Ducers, a type of contact mic that is stuck to the body of the instrument. We recreated the ambience of the museum (a converted church) with a Lexicon 480. Today, one would use a 960L.

How does one get a slightly distorted 'bluesy' sound on vocals?

Use a guitar effect such as The Pod, but don't overuse it! You can also use a mic pre-amp and feed a guitar valve amp, taking your signal from the direct out at the back. Also try using a stage mic like the SM 58.

We need some good 'hooks' or gimmicks on a song, but we just end up overloading the song with the usual effects. What shall we do?

Hooks should last only a few seconds. Make them strong and keep them short. Go back to basics and use the old faithfuls like echoes and reversed reverbs. Overdub vocals with a subtle whisper. Introduce the song with a sound effect. Make one instrument or voice sound as if it has been played down a telephone for a few seconds. Don't overuse chorus, autotune, reverbs, etc.

How can I make the vocals stand out, without just turning them up?

You can add an edge to them with an exciter (above) and also by using a little bit of doubling. An effective and subtle doubling effect can be achieved by mixing in a bit of automatic pitch correction. Several multi-effects have this and of course the Autotune is the leading dedicated device. You could also try adding just the tiniest amount of flanging to give the vocals a bit of edge.

I've got all these chorus samples, but all they say is Ohhh and Ahhh. How can I get real words without hiring a real choir?

Get one or two good singers to sing the lines you want, two for harmonies. Then feed the whole thing through a massive reverb and don't use any of the original signal. It takes pratice to get it right, but it is more then worth it.

Have you got a good tip for getting just that right sound in a recording or concert? Email us here and we'll include it.