Have you heard of the phrase “chronological snobbery”?
It was coined by the famous British author C.S. Lewis (of the popular Chronicles of Narnia series) and as he put it it referred to “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”
I believe in many ways this is true in the realm of audio recording and mixing. What’s old gets discredited. We’re all about modern techniques and modern music making.
But today I want to share with you four wonderfully brilliant and simple tips for recording that are born out of an old school approach that the legendary Al Schmitt used on Bob Dylan’s recent Sinatra cover album “Shadows In The Night”.
My hope is that even if the music you make is “modern” be definition, you’ll learn from these tips and find ways to implement them in your own home studio sessions.
Old School Tip #1 – Find The Best Place In The Room
In the above linked-to Sound On Sound article, Grammy winning engineer Al Schmitt shares some “comically simple” approaches to making Dylan’s latest record.
All of them are so simple, but so profound, that it makes me scratch my head and say “Why don’t I do that?!”
This first tip is no exception.
When Dylan stepped into Capitol to explore the studio and plan the album, he walked around the live room and asked the best question he could have ever asked: “Where would be the best place for me to sing?”
Together they discovered just the right spot for Dylan to sing, and that’s exactly where they placed him on recording day.
Dylan understood rule number one when it comes to getting a great sounding recording: find the best sounding place in your room to perform.
Do you do that?
Even if you have a small bedroom studio, have you found the best sounding nook or cranny in that room? Have you done that for each instrument you record?
If you take a few moments before a session to locate your recording “sweet spot” then your microphones will have an edge when it comes to capturing your source in the best possible way.
Old School Tip #2 – Get The Technology Out Of The Way
Dylan’s manager communicated something interesting to Schmitt that dictated his mic technique and approach. In Al’s words:
Jeff told me that Bob did not want to see a lot of microphones around. So I had to use as few as possible, and to try and disguise the ones that were there as much as I could. I don’t know why this was. Perhaps because he wanted to have more of a very relaxed, living-room atmosphere, with him and the musicians not so acutely ware that they were being recorded. – Al Schmitt
This is just so gutsy.
Dylan (clearly a musical legend with much studio experience) didn’t want him or his band to be so focused on the fact that they were recording. Instead he wanted them to relax and focus on playing great music.
His request to minimize (and hide) microphones is more of a metaphor in my mind: microphones galore signify the science and technology creeping into what is really a more artistic and creative endeavor.
Dylan knew that in order to give his best performance (which always leads to a better recording) he had to feel like he was just with his guys, making music. The microphones were a visual block for him. So he wanted them minimized as much as possible.
I think a takeaway for us is that we should go out of our way on recording days to make our space (no matter how big or how small) as comfortable and creative as possible.
This can be done with lighting, candles, clearing the clutter, hiding cables, or simply getting microphones out of your way and putting the musician before the mic placement.
There’s a reason why many young musicians choke up in the studio – it’s stressful and non creative.
Make their (and your) job easier by getting the technology out of the way of the music making.
Old School Tip #3 – Use Fewer Inputs And Tracks
Even though Capitol Studio B has a classic Neve 8068 console with 56 tracks, only 8 of them were used on the entire album.
So the console was basically a glorified 8 channel audio interface. Sounds like something us home studio folk have lying around.
The entire album was tracked live, without any overdubs, so those 8 inputs were really the final track count.
According to the studio diagram, there was one mic for vocals, one for acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel, double bass, a stereo mic on drums, and one ambient mic placed in the center of the band in omni mode.
So why is this a tip and not just a subjective choice on one particular album?
Because there is wisdom in this approach.
When you use fewer tracks and inputs, a couple of great things happen: your mix comes together faster (as we’ll see in a second), you have fewer phasing and masking issues, your stereo spectrum becomes wide and clear, and in the digital world you’ll likely have more headroom.
It’s amazing to me how many home studio tracks these days have over 24 tracks in them, when in reality most of those tracks aren’t adding anything of significance to the mix. In fact they are likely taking away a good deal from it.
Old School Tip #4 – Record In Full Takes Whenever Possible
For this Bob Dylan album, the entire band was tracked live. And at only 8 channels, that’s totally doable for the home studio (assuming you have the physical space).
This gave them that real live vibe and chemistry to the recordings that makes a song so compelling. Al Schmitt explains:
[Back in] those days you could not edit or fix things, and so you had to do the take when things were emotionally right. And you chose the take that had the feel on it. This is why so many records from back then are so much more emotional and touch you so much more deeply. – Al Schmitt
Great point Al. But for the many (or majority) of us who overdub (i.e. record one instrument at a time) there is another great application to this concept.
Record in whole takes and long chunks as often as possible.
Quit all the punching in. Hit “record” and let your singer sing the entire song. All the way through.
Let your drummer play from start to finish, even if he flubs an important fill or two.
Let the guitar player listen to the beginning of the song, even if he doesn’t come until verse 2. It’s that context of the entire song that draws out a real performance, and not merely a mechanical recording.
It’s so subtle and nuanced, but amazingly obvious when you hear the difference it makes.
I try my best to record in whole song chunks, and capture 2 to 3 takes of most things. That’s it. You can always choose the strongest take and edit out any major issues later.
Record So That Mixing Isn’t Even Necessary
In closing, I want to point out one of the most powerful results that can come from applying these four old school recording tips.
If taken seriously and applied with passion and diligence, it is possible to end up with tracks that for all intents and purposes don’t need to be mixed.
On Dylan’s record, seven of the songs were given only modest volume fader adjustments in the “mixing” phase (no effects added) and three tracks were sent to mastering as is – straight from the live performance, no mixing at all!
That’s so crazy old school it gets me pumped to go record something!
And that’s something powerful I want to leave you with. Why record as if you plan on “fixing” it or “making it better” later?
That’s just laziness. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Instead, try to record in such a way that your goal is to warrant mixing a complete waste of time and unnecessary at best. It may not happen every time (or ever) but the worst it can do is force you to churn out really, really good recordings.
And that’s not such a bad thing, now is it?