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Tracking a Band in a Single Room…

This post focuses on the classic challenge of how to record a band in a single room and not have it sound completely awful.

Lots of us have small production studios and tons of bands have single room practice spaces.  Inevitably the question arises: “How can I record the band live in a single room and not have it all turn to mush!?”  There are some strategies for accomplishing decent results from this situation and, although it won’t sound like a record that was recorded in a multi-room facility or overdubbed, for some music that’s for the best.  It’s an incredible challenge that can be really rewarding.

Bleed?  So what? Bring. It.

Generally the biggest difficulty is getting a decent drum sound that isn’t completely overwhelmed by bleed from the other instruments.  One of the ways to deal with this is to decide that it’s not going to ruin your day.  For certain types of music such as low volume jazz or punk rock it can sound pretty natural to have a very blended ‘live’ sound.  Usually placing performers in a circle produces the best results, as you can point sound sources away from each other more effectively this way.

Some things to consider with drums:

  • Moving the overheads closer to the drums will reduce bleed while increasing the presence of the drums.  Cymbals will probably get harsher.
  • Close mic as many of the drums as possible starting with the snare and kick as most important.
  • Try a room mic placed about five feet in front of the kick drum so you can dial in more of the room sound to blend as needed (using a very directional shotgun mic can be really dramatic here).
  • Sound barriers (such as moving blankets or ‘cubical walls’) to the left and right of the kit can help prevent bleed from the drums and to the overheads.

Things to consider with guitars and bass:

  • Try using DIs.  Some musicians work well with them and cans, others absolutely need live amps.
  • If the musicians need live amps, try splitting the signals to DIs as in my guitar multitracking post. At least you’ll have something dry to work from.
  • Using isolating cabinets for guitars really really helps cut down on the noise in the room.  You can build your own or buy one.
  • Shove amps in closets if they’re available.
  • Turn amps at 90 degrees to other live mics.  Open-back cabinets have sound dispersion from behind but not to the side.
  • Use baffling in front of the amps and on the walls to reduce room reflections.

Things to consider for vocals:

  • As this isn’t a ‘pretty’ session, use hypercardiod dynamic mics such as 57s or 58s to reduce bleed.  Point those mics away from the drums and live instruments.
  • Try to get two room mics above the vocalist, pointed away from any other sound sources.  Blending these mics in can sometimes help make things sound more cohesive.

Production philosophy:

  • Get totally into the live vibe and get the band excited about performing together.  Turn the limited situation into a chance to produce really raw, ‘real’ feeling recordings.
  • Getting the right sound during tracking with mics is insanely important because any EQ added after the fact will affect not only that instrument, but all the other instrument’s bleed.  In other words: heavy EQ on these tracks will sound like everyone is performing in a corrugated cardboard box.

In the mix:

  • Try to use minimal EQ and compression because any changes made to tracks will affect the way the other instruments sound as a result of the bleed.
  • Try to maintain the image as it would appear to sound in the room.  Totally rearranging things will sound really weird because, well, that’s not how the mics heard the performance.

Don’t let this sort of endeavor scare you.  It can be a whole lot of fun and, when done right, can be extremely efficient.  The benefit of working this way is getting a true, live performance.  We don’t hear too many of those in pop music these days…