Red Room Recordings Recording Blog


Session Blog: 5 Tips to Recording Great Cover Songs

Photo Credit: Jonny Kearns – Enclave Design

I spent a cold Sunday in February 2013 tracking some cover tunes with Aisling Doolan, and Dane Franklin (guitarist for the Coyote Kids) and the results were pretty spectacular.

The version of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” that we put down that day was so epic, that Aisling won a cool $1,000 to spend at Long & McQuade Music – and all without a single social media post.

So what were the key elements that made this cover so enjoyable to the contest voters? Better yet, what does it take to make and record a great cover song?

I’ve played and recorded cover songs since the early 2000’s and in my opinion, there are 5 things you can do make your cover tunes stand out.

1. Stay True to Your Style

The best covers take a great tune and do something completely different with it – When an artist takes someone else’s song and plays it in their own style (as Zeppelin themselves were known to do) the results can be pure magic.

Aisling and Dane’s take on “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a great example of this:

Check it out below:

2. Stay True to the Original

So you need to make a cover your own – but at the same time you need to make sure that your version is still capturing the emotional energy of that great song you’re trying to pay tribute to.

Jonny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is a great example of this, and one of my favorites – Hurt is a song about (wait for it) PAIN!

Every syllable of Cash’s vocal conveys the agony he is feeling.

Maybe someone could do an upbeat synth-pop cover of “Hurt” and make it work, but I certainly wouldn’t want to listen to it.

3. Keep it Simple

This is a tip that I think applies to all elements of music production, but is definitely exemplified in both of the cover songs above.

When you play or record a classic song in your own  style, you should be careful not to clutter it up with too much instrumentation or production trickery.

The spirit of the original will have an easier time coming through with a minimalist approach.

The countless punk rock covers of polished pop songs that are out there are a testament to this approach.

4. Hire a Recording Engineer who Loves the Music

I had a blast working on this session, and when I’m having fun, I do better work.

This is another one that can be applied to your own music – If your engineer is a fan of the song, they will be able to help you produce it in a way that brings out the soul of the original and highlights your own stylistic impressions in a flattering manner.

Hiring a professional to help you record your music is an investment in your art – in fact, Aisling got a 10x return on her investment – she used a $100 Gift Card for this session, and brought in a cool grand with her contest win!

That said, your mileage may vary 😉

5. Practice Makes Perfect

Make sure that when you hire someone to record your project, you practice your ass off before you get to the studio – Be sure to check out these other Tips for preparing for your Recording Session (Part 1 & Part 2).

A crappy performance will result in a crappy recording, 100% of the time (unless you want to pay the engineer to spend hours on editing and post-production).

When you’re doing covers, this is even more important – people already know the songs, so they are going to hold you to a higher standard – make sure you’ve got it together before you hit the red button!

 

 

Session Blog: Coyote Kids – Our Life EP – Part 2

Late Night’s and Neon Lights

This past weekend was a solid one for the Coyote Kids – after closing out the Wakestock Dean Blundell kick-off party on Friday night, we tracked the last two songs for their updoming EP.

MOAR MICROPHONES!!

We followed a similar tracking setup technically speaking, as the last session, but with a few extra mic’s (hi hats and a room mic in the upper loft for good measure).

The condenser we threw up in the loft above the drums (along with the intro recorded at a recent gig) went a long way towards getting the desired “live performance” vibe on Butterscotch Parade

 

Laid Back…

This session we took things a little slower, only finishing two songs in a day as opposed to four – this resulted in a much more relaxed session and in my opinion, even better performances than the last session as you can see from the video below.

Tips for Maximizing Your Recording Time – Part 2

Get the Most Out of Your Recording Session

A few more words of wisdom for how to slay tracks during and after your session. This is a continuation of last months post on How to Prepare for your Recording Session.

During the Session

There are lots of things you can do during the session to keep the flow going strong, or totally derail the mojo – these tips will help you to avoid the latter:

Authorized Personnel Only

In order to keep the flow of the session going, only those persons critical to the recording process should be present at the session (i.e. no friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, fans etc). Having non-essential personnel in the studio can cause things to get crowded, and can really slow down productivity.

The Click is Your Friend (Part 2)

Click tracks will make your recordings sound better – the idea that they take all the magic out of music is a myth created and continued by lazy amateurs who aren’t skilled enough to lock in to a metronome – more on this here

Quiet on the Set!

Don’t jam or play between takes or songs. Tune up or sit quietly. In fact, tune up every few takes minimum (don’t worry, I’ll remind you).

Keep it Clean

Start takes clean – Keep strings muted or turn up your volume knobs etc. once tape is rolling. At the end of a song, let your final note sustain (or not, depending on the song) and resist the urge to cheer excitedly at the end of a wicked cut. Give it like 8 seconds at least.

Mix Things Up

Stage settings don’t always work in the studio – try to be open to trying different things, including changing amps, recording direct into the board and adding effects later, or whatever other craziness we come up with. Go with the flow and you’ll have more fun, and make better music.

Chill Out

Screw-ups happen. Just relax and try it again. If you’re not feeling a song after a few attempts, its probably time for a break. Be open to change as well, a “Screw-up” sometimes sounds awesome. Maybe you didn’t hit the note you wanted, but the one you did belt out sounded great!

Post Session Review and Mixing

Try to be as objective as possible when you listen to the first mix I send you after the session. Have a listen to bands in the style you’re going for and try to think about what sounds different.

Need more chest-punch to the kick? Less reverb on the vocal? Vocals too loud or soft? More edge on the bass? Move the lead guitar more to the left or right?

Take detailed notes, I promise to go through them and do what I can to get the sound you want.

BONUS TIP: Bring a CD or USB key with samples of your reference tracks to the session!

Tips for Maximizing Your Recording Time – Part 1

How to Prepare for Your Recording Session

A few words of wisdom for your preparation in the days leading up to your session. This is cobbled together from my own experience and that of older, grayer and wiser engineers.

Ground Rules

Here in the Red Room, I have a few rules which need to be followed at all times. These rules are meant to maximize the productivity of the session, and to ensure the health and safety of all involved. If you get kicked out for violating these rules, don’t expect a refund – These are pretty straightforward:

  1. Respect the Studio and all people, equipment, furniture, etc. within its walls. I’m happy to share my amps, guitars etc. as long as they are used in a professional manner. You break it, you buy it.
  2. No Smoking inside the Building or Studio – If you smoke outside, please clean up your butts (empty cans/bottles are great for this).
  3. Nothing wrong with having a few drinks during the session, but keep it reasonable, see the first point above, and don’t drink and drive.
  4. Rock out and melt faces like a boss.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are a few tips to get the most out of your session before, during and after the tape rolls:

Pre-Session Preparation

Getting your act together before the session is the most important part of any recording project – treat your session like its the biggest show you’ve ever played, and keep these tips in mind while you’re getting ready to go into the studio:

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice only the songs that you’ll be recording for at least 2 days before the session. Practice with the last two beats of your count in silent (i.e. “1, 2, …, …”)

The Click is Your Friend (Part 1)

If you’re a drummer, practice with a metronome or click – you can even get metronome apps for your smartphone like those listed here

Spare Parts/Strings

If needed, put on new strings and drum heads at least 2 days before the session. Bring extra batteries, tuners, strings, sticks and cables, just in case. I’ve usually got some on hand, but better safe than sorry.

Sleep It Off

Go to bed early the night before the session, eat a good breakfast that morning, don’t party too hard. On drugs and drinking; Some people play better when they’re wasted, some don’t. Check with the rest of the group to see which category you fit into. See Rule No. 3 Above.

During and After the Session

The next post in this series deals with how to successfully slay your session and mix reviews.

Check out Part 2

 

Session Blog: The Coyote Kids – Our Life EP – Part 1

Another month, another epic session.

The month of March found me rocking out with Collingwood’s Coyote Kids helping to craft their second EP – One of the hottest bands in town right now, and with good reason.

 Coyote Kids Slayin' it

The Coyote’s are a “Band of Brothers” in the literal sense. These guys have a sound that blends all kinds of subtle rock and pop influences (and some slightly more obvious ones) and then filters those tones through a lens of skilled, collaborative songwriting to craft a sound that is truly their own.

They take the emotion and dynamics of the old school (think Rush, Zeppelin) and blend it with contemporary sensibilities.

I’ve dubbed the energy behind this sound as “Vintage Modern,” and its something I’m hearing in a lot of the new music that I love, from all corners of the globe!

I say “energy” because in my opinion, no two “Vintage Modern” bands necessarily sound alike, but when you FEEL the “Vintage Modern Vibe”, you know it right away.

Back in My Comfort Zone

No, not sitting in the relative coziness of the Red Room, but trucking all my stuff to a log cabin, and slaying tracks in close proximity to animals, tree’s and water, all with the glorious acoustics provided by a wooden structure.

I had met up with the boys in their jam space for a pre-production meeting, but having seen and been floored by their live performance, I knew my mission here was to capture that same energy and fist raising mojo that I saw down at the Casbah a few short weeks before, when they decided to take the plunge and hire me for an EP.

The songs they had chosen were right up my alley – punchy songs with plenty of dynamics, vocal harmonies and raw energy – working on projects like this is the REASON I got into this recording gig in the first place.

Setting Up

We got started around 1:00 PM and took our time setting up – I’m a firm believer that an extra hour moving mic’s around to really get the right tone out of that amp or the perfect amount of room sound in the drum overheads is the key to having a great recording.

Setting Up

Getting set up – The calendar said March, but the weather said “put on a T-shirt”

If you don’t have a good source, all the studio majick in the world is not going to be of any particular assistance, and it will probably make you resort to heavy drinking or strong anxiety medication.

The approach included tracking all three of the boys together, bass, guitar and drums, with bass being run direct into the board, the guitar amp isolated in another room, and all three of them playing in the “drum room” with headphone monitoring – in other words, it was “off the floor” but with good isolation and no vocals.

I used a similar approach for the solar powered Willow Smoke sessions and have always enjoyed the vibe that is created with everyone playing live – It’s gotten so bad that I almost insist on drums and bass being tracked together as a bare minimum these days. Since we had planned this out during the pre-production stage, the boys had already been practicing “sans-vox” and were on the money performance wise.

Rockin' it Off the Floor

Rockin’ it “Off the Floor” with headphone monitoring – best way to keep the vibe intact.

Guerrilla Audio

As anticipated, once we got the tones locked into the monitors, we were able to lay down four (4) keeper drum tracks, and a good portion of the bass and guitars as well.

After a break for  pizza and a necessary coffee following an afternoon of Pabst, whiskey and other treats, we spent the early evening locking in the guitar parts and bass lines through systematic overdubs.

Because these guys have their live tones down to a science, I committed what many engineers would consider a crime, and allowed the guitars to be recorded with the stomp boxes locked and loaded – no DI’s.

It seemed critical at the moment in order to maintain the vibe, and with a nice Fender Deluxe tube amp and a couple of decent mic’s (including one of my trusty SM57’s as a close mic and a large diameter condenser 3 feet back) I was confident I could capture a killer guitar tone.

I have zero regrets and will do the same in the future if it’s warranted, as during the mix I’ve had to do almost nothing to the guitar sounds to have them sounding exactly the way they need to sound for these songs.

We also had some fun getting Dane to change the FX while Kale focused on performance (or vice versa if Dane was playing guitar on that particular song).

Live Stompin'

“Guerrilla Recording” at it’s finest – Dane live stompin’ FX to tape!

Sometime around 10:00 PM, we starting hitting the vocals.

The portable vocal booth and my AT2050 performed admirably as always, and with a bit of carefully timed whiskey shooting, we managed to get some solid lead vocal takes on tape – although we tracked them clean, in the mix phase we decided a bit of filthy distortion would really fit the bill.

Once 2:00 AM arrived we were all getting a little burnt out. We called it a night and reconvened at 8:00 AM to lock in the harmonies – daylight savings time caused us to start a bit later, despite the best of intentions.

At the end of fourteen (14) hours, we had just about finished four (4) songs – definitely a record for me and living proof that practicing like crazy before a session is absolutely worth your while if you are serious about getting some quality recordings made without totally deflating your wallet.

Has this blog left you thirsty for rock? If so, why not check out the finished product?

The Coyote Kids – Our Life (EP)


Track List:
1. No Way, Jose  (3:05)
2. Our Life  (3:39)
3. When To Stop  (6:11)
4. Butterscotch Parade  (4:51)
5. Win Some You Lose Some  (3:49)

More photo’s from the session can be seen on the Coyote Kids Facebook Page

Read about the second day of the EP session: Continued in Part 2

All photo credits go to Troy Franklin of the Coyote Kids except the band shot by Jolly Randall

Adventures in Solar Powered Recording – Part 2

 

Back Wall of Live Room during a take.

Not Your Typical Recording Studio

There was nothing typical about the Willow Smoke sessions up at the Motherpine Camp – Except maybe for some of the recording gear we used – other than that, this session was a straight up anomaly as far as recording music is concerned.

The first and most obvious difference is the building itself.

This was a solar powered log cabin out in the woods (The advantages of solar power are covered in Part 1 of this Blog).

The lack of sound treatment – other than my hand-crafted, portable “vocal/drum booth” shown in the pics – was more than made up for by the geometry and materials of our chosen ‘live room’.

 

View of Front Wall

View of the Front Wall – Also the view from my desk for the week – it was hard to leave.

Rockin Room Geometry

We decided to set up camp in the second floor loft. The back wall was flat, but the roof angled down on either side of the rear windows to create a trapezoidal room cross section.

This was great because it meant a lot of the left/right (as opposed to front/back) direct reflections would be bouncing around at all kinds of angles, and would create a live sound without the danger of standing waves or room modes being created.

In addition, the front walls came to a point in the centre of the room, creating a concave wall opposite the flat rear wall – again, this was great because it meant another “non-parallel” surface in our live room, and the front/back (as opposed to left/right) reflections would not be an issue either.

Better yet was the fact that the front wall was a good 12 feet beyond the edge of the loft, so alot of sound got pulled down into the kitchen area – in fact it sounded so good on the main floor that we decided to set up our room mic down there!

The Wood Makes it Good

Not only was the room geometry extremely conducive to recording, but every single non-glass surface was 100% locally cut Canadian Red Pine. It was like recording inside of a giant acoustic guitar.

This is definitely one of the best sounding rooms I’ve had the fortune to record in, and it has a very distinctive character compared to the relatively “controlled” sound of my carpeted, dry-walled, drop ceiling-ed studio live room.

Audio Technica Room Mic  – the pop filter on top was to block the wood dust falling from the constantly rocking floor/ceiling beams.

Monitoring Systems

Monitoring was between the nearfield monitors – which are pigs for power and will not be used next time – and the 4-channel headphone amp pictured below – I monitored from the board. I sincerely believe we could have rocked for an extra couple of hours each day if not for the draw from those monitors.

The headphone amp was also critical in ensuring that the bass player and drummer could play and record together without any bleed,  with a click for the drummer, but not for the bass player, and with both of them able to hear each other at appropriate levels.

This was our solution to not having separate isolation booths or live rooms for different instruments and it performed admirably. Guitars were typically recorded at ear shattering volumes with an SM57 after the bass and drums (not always, sometimes bleed sounds good), but those two were always together, to keep the Willow Smoke vibe fully intact.

My Control Room – Monitoring was done with the nearfields during the day when the juice was flowing, and with a headphone amp later in the evening when we were in conservation mode.

Not Your Typical Recording Process

I don’t necessarily mean the placement of microphones, gain staging of the preamps, effects in the signal chain or any of that stuff – that was all pretty much standard issue:

SM57’s on the snare and guitar amps, B52 on the kick drum, small diaphragm pencil condenser mics spaced equidistant from the snare with Roxul panels to block near wall direct reflections, and bass amp with a DI – all vocals were overdubbed with the Audio Technica LDC which also served as our room mic.

The creative process is where this session really broke the mold.

“Creative” Recording

When we got out to the camp, we had a whole lot of gear (and booze), and a tonne of ideas, but very few fully assembled songs. The whole thing was basically an experiment, as the solar power system had not yet even been tested for a situation like this.

Trapped in the Vocal Booth – Reflections from the Roof added a bit of “room sound” to Vocal Takes.

In a typical recording session, your band is tight, practiced, and ready to lay down tracks as quickly and efficiently as possible. In general, you also have no issues with electricity running out.

In our case, the recording was more-so a means of capturing the creative process. Once the mics were set up, arrangements would be tested, tweaked, and many takes would be done with discussions in between and changes being made between subsequent attempts. People not actively recording went off to the woods to write lyrics or practice acoustic guitar parts. We averaged about two (2) song’s per day this way.

This was writing, arranging, practicing and recording all rolled into one – as the planning for this session had been going on for well over a year (all members of the band live in disparate parts of North America) we had no other real choice.

Song fragments were fleshed out into full arrangements, long-forgotten lyrics were revived and sung by anyone but the writer, and a general good time was had by all. We also pulled together a huge amount of new material in a relatively short amount of time.

Just a Little Taste

I’m still actively working on the mixes and the band is working to get a single released in advance of the album.

Update: January 31st, 2013 – the First Single from this Session has now been digitally released – Check out both the A-side “Video Diplomacy” and B-side “Rattlesnake (The Ballad of Bill Tilden)” at the link below!!

http://willowsmoke.bandcamp.com/

Adventures in Solar Powered Recording – Part 1

Overview

In September of 2012, I went on an adventure – I spent a week out in the woods with 4 of my best friends, and we tracked the debut album for our band “Willow Smoke” in a solar powered, boat-access-only cottage which we have dubbed the “Mother Pine Jam Studio” – It’s located in the middle of the woods of northern Ontario. We were “about an hour by snowshoe” from the Quebec border (using the local measurement system)

In six days, with a day on either end for setup, tear-down, and travel – we managed to not only lay down the framework drum, bass and guitar tracks for 11 songs, plus scratch vocals and a few solos, but we actually wrote and arranged most of the parts for these songs while there.

None of us really know how we did it – We went out there for a vacation, an escape from the monotony of the grind, with the intention of seeing what we could put on tape. We came out with an album in every sense of the word.

We came armed with some of our old material, a bunch of acoustic jams from various campfires of recent years, and a desire to create. All those acoustic songs ended up turning into heavy insane prog/funk rock craziness. None of the originals we have ever played live even got recorded. It was all new, and it all has a common vibe – we tribute this entirely to the venue.

Charging the Guitars

Acoustic, Electric, Sun & Trees – The Perfect Combination!

The Venue

There’s something about going out to the middle of nowhere, with no-one but your bandmates – So long as you can ensure everyone keeps their F***ING cell phones off (I don’t own one), there are zero distractions – the only distractions out there when the amps get turned off are the sounds of the birds and the fish jumping.

The guys in the band, myself included, are all Engineers. For their final year project, a couple of them decided to redesign the bass player’s family cottage to be a solar powered, off the grid retreat – where a band could plug in all their gear, and play LOUD to no one but the animals and trees.

And then they built it.

Outside of the Motherpine Studio with a literal boat-load of music gear

The venue has been running smoothly for 5 years. Only once or twice has the solar power system been drained in a given day, and very little ‘electric’ music was being made out there prior to our session. Then we came out and pushed it to it’s limits. We drained those batteries every day, and during the prime “power hours” the batteries were topped up, and our amps were literally drawing energy directly from the sun – How epic is that???

A Typical Day

The Morning Ritual

Day 1 was all travel and set up – Rage Against the Machine was our “setting-up-the studio” music, which may seem like a strange choice in such a pristine setting for some people, but not for Willow Smoke, who started out doing RATM, RHCP, Zeppelin & Floyd Covers. It definitely set the mood for the week – or at least the first song we recorded, which had tinges of all four of those bands.

We would start the rest of our days off easy – with the batteries drained from the previous night’s work, we had a few hours to kill in the morning before we could really get in the game, so we would go fishing, take a sauna, jump in the lake, and eat a hearty breakfast of eggs, meat, fish (the bass count for the week was 15), and coffee with Bailey’s. We’d jam acoustically, work on lyrics, and get ready to slay some tracks.

Once the sun was ready for us, we would head up to the studio and start putting down some tunes. We usually did one song in the morning and one in the evening. The details of this process, including the gear used, will be discussed in part two of this blog. I’m also hoping to include some audio samples in that one.

A Learning Experience

A couple of things to note if you ever record on a solar powered system:

1) If you rock hard for 12+ hours a day – you will drain the batteries.

My APC battery backup surge protector saved at least one “perfect” take from deletion every day. It seemed the power would always die sometime between 10 PM and Midnight, and always right as we had nailed that final take we’d been slaving after for hours. We’d go to play it back and boom – lights out. The APC allowed us to save the project, shut down for the night, and go work on some lyrics or whatever over a few pints.

The mighty SM57 sucking up some vibes from a Traynor Stack – and a very relaxed drummer

2) Amps sound better on Solar

Due to the fact that the power is literally “clean energy,” we have found that our amps sound better on solar. Half the time we would forget to turn amps off, because the usual “hum” of the idle amplifier just didn’t exist. There was no noise coming out of these amps, it was magic! Nothing but pure, delicious tone.

I’ve been told this is due to the fact that the power comes in as a perfect sine wave (or Pine wave as we became accustomed to calling it). Grid power alternates – up, down, up, down, up, down – its like a switch being flipped on and off countless times per second. I don’t know the details, but if you were to graph it, it would look like a bunch of spikes – not like a nice clean wave.

3) Cell Phones are Pure Evil

I’ve already gotten into this a little bit but we had a strict rule of cellphones staying off during working hours. There was one incident where someone had left their phone on and gotten a text. Said text arrived during a take, and it just happened to be THE take for that song. The culmination of the ‘morning’ sessions work.

Well wouldn’t you know it, but that burst of signal raining down on us from outer space showed up in the TRACK! We actually have a blip in the take, on every single track, when that text came in.

We’re not sure if we should edit it out – It could serve forever as a reminder to us of how cell phones, texting etc. are the bane of society.

What’s Next?

We are planning to release a single on 31/01/2013 with the album to follow sometime later in 2013 – things are sounding awesome so far!

Click here for Part 2 where I do my best to get into the nuts and bolts of the recording process.

This is by far the coolest project I’ve ever worked on, and I hope you guys/gals are diggin’ it.

Update: January 31st, 2013 – the First Single from this Session has now been digitally released – Check out both the A-side “Video Diplomacy” and B-side “Rattlesnake (The Ballad of Bill Tilden)” at the link below!!

http://willowsmoke.bandcamp.com/

Let there be ROCK!