Getting your next record to sound like it does in your head can be one of the hardest things to achieve in the studio. This is especially the case if you are recording from home, or if you are working with limited resources.
It's obviously helpful to have good recording gear, because the bells and whistles can take your recording to the next level - but what good is that Neve 1073 preamp if your source sounds and tones aren't cutting it, or if your gear is just not up to scratch? Or maybe you have the gear, but you aren't sure how to shape a sound you like?
Well - here's a basic rundown of the process I use to choose the right gear and find the right sound when I'm recording in the studio.
Make Sure Your Gear is Up To Scratch
First of all, if you have a drum kit with thrashed drum skins, or a guitar with year-old strings, you have immediately set yourself back from getting the best sound possible from your playing. If you are a drummer or a guitarist (and that includes bassists), have a look at our drum recording checklist and our basic guitar setup guide before you head into the studio.
A studio session is also a great reason to get some new gear that will suit your recording. That could be new cymbals, a new effects pedal… or hey, even a whole new guitar or drum kit if you’ve been putting that off! Borrow stuff from friends instead of buying it if that’s easier – basically, just do some thinking and research, and make sure you’re prepared with the right tools for the job you’re about to do.
Remember, your recording will ever only be as good as your source tone – and if your instrument sounds good in the room, it can only sound better once processed.
Check Your Technique
As the old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat (don’t worry animal lovers, we here at Island are too). The same idea applies to how you play your instrument of choice. Even something as simple as the way you strike a cymbal or the way you hold your pick (or not using a pick at all) can make the sound you’re looking for. At the least, it can surprise you by opening up a broader range of dynamics in your playing.
Obviously, you don’t want to be playing uncomfortably – so always consider your body – but sometimes briefly experimenting with methods of playing outside your usual technique can create desired effects. Talk to your engineer or other knowledgeable musicians around you for guidance and ideas.
On the flip side, if your technique is too rigid, it can stop you from getting a particular sound, or capture particular licks smoothly. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with a tutor or a friend who could help you refine and expand the techniques in your locker, and open some doors in your playing. Once again, your sound is only as good as the source – which all starts with you and how you play your instrument.
Look Into Instrument Features and Materials
Something that can really help you set one song apart from another is knowing how different instruments themselves create their sounds, and using that knowledge to inform your gear choices. For example, if you want a thicker snare drum sound, you may want to look into a deeper wood snare drum over a shallow metal one. If you want a chunkier tom sound, check out some 2-ply drum skins, or even hydraulic-style drum heads for maximum thickness and minimum thud. If you want a bright guitar tone, look for a guitar with twangier single-coil pickups and an amplifier that can deliver a top-end chime.
Raw materials have an effect too – a birch drum will have more attack and a naturally scooped ‘V-shape’ tone compared to a mahogany drum, which will have more response in the low-end frequencies due to the wood's darker and drier nature. Likewise, different woods and body shapes are also a big factor in the tone and presence of acoustic guitars.
Remember (and hopefully you’ve already caught onto the theme here) your recorded sound is only as good as its source.
In your quest for ‘the tone’, make sure you properly play around with the gear that you have. For example, don’t expect your guitar pedal to do what it says on the label just by kicking it on… get down there and turn the knobs to all sorts of different points and see what you can get happening. Whether it’s a brand-new pedal or an old one you’ve nearly given up on, proper experimentation is what will lead you to the missing sonic link you’ve been looking for.
And one last time, remember… the sauce.