Published in Canadian Musician, July/Aug 1999
Recently, I received an e-mail from an owner of a small recording studio in the States asking for advice. He was about to start an album project with a singer/songwriter and had some concerns about the way the artist wanted to do things. Some of his concerns were:
The studio owner who was also engineer for this project assumed that both of these concerns would make it impossible to record this artist properly.
My advice to this person started with this; in my opinion if an artist wants to record a certain way EVEN IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH IT, you have to learn to put up with it and make the best out of it. If the artist is going to be most comfortable doing things the way they want, then their performance is going to be enhanced and not hindered in any way. Therefore, the way it gets recorded is SECONDARY to the quality of the performance. Not that the above issues are NOT a concern for a recording engineer, but we MUST inspire artist creativity by having them completely comfortable with the recording process.
So keeping in mind that we want to do ANYTHING to keep artists happy, we then have to find ways to make the best out of the not-so-ideal audio situations.
Over the years, I have had to deal with many singer/songwriters who want to play and sing at the same time. Just this month in fact, I engineered and co-produced a new Ember Swift album which was done in this manner. The performances WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN AS GOOD if we did it any other way. One might think the obvious answer is to just use a direct box for the guitar sound instead of a microphone. There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work well. When performing live, there’s nothing like a DI acoustic guitar sound. You can move around, there’s less feedback issues and the sound is usually quite good. However, a DI sound of an acoustic guitar is NOT THE SAME in the studio, it never sounds as good as it does live. So in my opinion, using just a DI is not a good option. At the very least, you have to combine it with a microphone sound.
To increase the chances of getting a miked guitar sound without a lot of vocal bleed, here’s a few things I’ve learned:
The acoustics of a room that the person is playing and singing in is crucial. For the longest time, I assumed that a deader room would be better and have the least leakage between vocal and guitar BUT after several experiments, I found out that it’s the opposite that works best. I have come to the MOST DEFINITE conclusion that a “live” ambient room gives the most separation between the guitar and the vocal mic. In a more live room, the vocal sound disperses and bounces around more than in a dead space where more of the direct sound of the vocal would go straight into the guitar mic. Combining this microphone sound with a bit of DI added in, creates a great sound. Another option is to take a feed from the guitar and route it to a guitar amp set up in an isolated room. That way, between the DI and the amp you have 2 guitar sounds without any vocal leakage.
Another tip from engineer Evan Reeves in Boulder, CO. is to take a music stand, put some soft material on it, adjust the flat part of the music stand parallel to the floor and situate between the acoustic guitar mic and the vocal mic. I imagine you would have to get fairly creative with the positioning of the music stand to keep the artist comfortable, but this tip sounds like a terrific idea. And a final tip that sometimes works is to put the vocal mic in a bi-directional pattern and see if it eliminates any of the guitar bleed.
In an ideal studio situation, everyone would be comfortable with playing to a click track. However, this is not the case. Many artists I know are not comfortable with or have trouble playing with click tracks. When an artist is not comfortable with a click, I think it’s better to not use it rather than force them to use it. The other players will have to deal with the organic ebb and flow of the artist’s tracks, but I have been at many a session where this scenario has been true and we still got great tracks.