Recently I’ve been in talks with a band that’s been searching for a producer, and that band is Faith And Bullets; a Glam-Rock band based in California. If you’re not familiar with Glam Rock, think of it as the modern equivalent of 80’s “hair metal” – that hallmark of rock where the sound of soaring vocals like in Welcome to the Jungle paired with bad-boy rebel attire and big hair.
Faith And Bullets is fresh onto the Glam-Rock scene trying to build a name for themselves. While they may be fairly new to the music scene they certainly have the drive, passion, and commitment to want to succeed as a band. They have a solid image, a great repertoire of cover songs and growing arsenal of originals. They’re actively gigging shows and have bigger plans in the works. The fact that they have a manager and a small crew speaks volumes about their dedication. They certainly have experience with what it means to be a live band. The next step in the commitment is investing in professional recordings to not only build their catalog of music but also add to their merchandising line. Any serious artist or group will attest that in today’s music economy, having as many avenues of monetization is the only way to survive, let alone thrive.
This exposé is to see inside the experience of modern studio productions for bands by sharing the experience of this band and studio.
Faith & Bullets (the band) booked their first session with The Press Recording Studio in Stockton CA. I had arrived shortly after most of the band as they were unloading and setting up in the studio. Typically the first chunk of the session is Load-In and setup. The studio engineer, Matt Young got the session rolling right away.
Drums are typically the first instrument to be recorded as they provide the backbone to which the music flows with. Matt set up his microphones after drummer Ryan McKinley had finished setting up and dialing in his drum set. He then proceeded to find out how the band wanted to progress through the song. Ryan would play with accompaniment by bassist Abel Lynch, and Guitarist Rikk Alexander.
Having two other instruments in the same room as the drummer allowed them to get a much more cohesive performance. Engineer Matt had provided them scratch tracks so that drums could be recorded in the live room without any other instrument bleed. After setting them up with a small hiccup of solving a signal issue getting the guitarist's signal into Pro Tools, Matt was able to sit in the control room and start dialing in the drum mix and get nominal levels on all of the hardware. Drum tracking was a smooth affair once everything was dialed in and a faulty mic swapped out.
The first segment of the song started out with a clean guitar sound and would abruptly transition to hi-gain guitars which would remain through the rest of the song. So Matt decided to work the group to a click track and find a steady tempo for them to track to, with the accompanying instruments recording scratch takes just to give the drummer reference to keep track of his place in the song and get into the groove.
After a couple of rough passes through drums everyone was satisfied with the performance and sound. Next on the list was bass. Bassist Abel Lynch was ready to dive in, so Matt hooked him in direct and set him up to tune.
The band was curious if Abel had replaced his strings with a fresh set and it was apparent he hadn't as the tone was a bit dull by the time he was ready to track. After a few passes into the verse of the song Abel was finding it difficult to figure out what to stay in the groove with between the drums, the click track, and the scratch guitars. I asked what he normally listened to when playing to keep in sync with the song and the answer was guitars. So, instead of fighting to keep tracking bass and get the best performance without a proper guitar track, everyone agreed to move on to tracking guitars and then come back to bass before moving on to vocals.
Matt began to set up the vocal room with the guitar cab and brought Rikk's Marshall head into the control room to patch things in. After setting up the microphones of choice, he headed back into the control room and began working with Rikk to dial in a solid tone. Rhythm guitars are usually the first order of business, with overdubs for leads and solos coming later in the process.
While Rikk does have a particular tone he's used to for live, in studio a majority of the time less gain and drive is favored so that the guitarist's articulation in the note changes and strokes are heard more clearly. This also allows for quicker decay and more dynamic playing. After a minute or two working to find a good balance for Rikk's rhythm guitar tone the first guitar track was cut quite fast.
On the second rhythm track Matt asked if Rikk would like to change the amp and guitar for a different tone, and they did so. Matt even brought out a drive pedal to help get some more tone control and character to further differentiate it.
After laying down the rhythm tracks Rikk had a solo section and some lead overdubs over the chorus sections in the song. For this tone he went back to his favorite guitar and the engineer asked if he'd like yet another tone option. The studio has a pretty decent backline selection of amp heads and for this one we used one of the engineer's favorites, with his drive pedal helping bring up some character and soften the peaks before sculpting the main tone of the guitar in the amp head.
For this tone I got to help Rikk, as he wanted more sustain from a driven sound to hit the harmonics he had written for his solo part. The sound was already pretty huge but dry. Rikk was particular about a specific sound he wanted to hear in the final version and after discussing what kind of creative effects he wanted, Matt was able to deliver by quickly sculpting some sonics in the lead with delays and reverbs and spatial processing before we moved on to tracking other elements.
After finishing up all the guitars, Abel resumed to finish laying down the Bass. This time opting to try the studio's bass which the band ended up liking the tone and character of. Bass was fairly easy, especially now that Abel was able to hear the references he needed and everything was in time (no more scratch tracks).
With Abel, bass was a simple affair. The bassline is really just meant to bridge the melody and the rhythm together and provide bottom end to fill out the sound of the song. That being said, having bass performances that are in sync with the rhythm of the kick and snare (most typically the pocket of the grooves are provided on the counts that those two kit pieces play on).
Another key element of bass performance is knowing your instrument. With electric basses, whether passive or active (though there can still be a difference in the sound) the lowest string due to it's thickness can also provide the most prominent loudness without much power behind the performer's playing. Whether it's finger picking, plucking, or otherwise, knowing how much volume and attack you can get out of the strings and get the sound you're after depends on how much experience you have playing in those various styles.
It was something Abel asked about during the playback while tracking, and because of the difference in the volume between the strings he was playing the bassline on, an easy approach to quickly taming those volume differences was to use a volume automation tool. Luckily Matt has the studio equipped with a good selection of Waves plugins, and one such favorite is the Bass Rider. Just as the name suggests, it rides the bass levels after it's set for a particular "sensitivity" level. This helped even out the performance's volume between the most powerful low notes and the higher ones that had less power behind them.
Finally, it was time for vocalist Stevie Mayhem to provide his lead vocals for the track. Matt quickly set up and dialed in Stevie's setup and gave him headphones and proceeded to close the vocal room up. Matt is particular about his vocal chain, his go-to microphone a Manley Reference running into a Slate Audio Dragon .
After the first couple of passes which were a bit rough I took the opportunity to ask the engineer if he wouldn't mind switching the mic position up and let me stand in the room with Stevie and help him out a bit in between takes. Vocals in music quickly become the most important element as they not only deliver the message of the song, but as human beings we're used to hearing voices; it's the most ubiquitous sound we become familiar with. As an engineer, there's a lot that can be done at the microphone and with the room and the performer alone to sculpt the sound or make it easier to sculpt later on in the mix.
Today it's most common to find cardioid mics "on-axis" with the singer by pointing it directly at the singer's face. Also, modern productions and music have made the particular sound very familiar to listeners to hear the voice in this fashion even though there can be a lot of processing and equalization to correct or overcome the characteristics of recording in close proximity to the mic in this fashion. The most prominent being the low-end and explosive whooshing from plosives like when P's and B's are pronounced. The air being pushed out of the singers mouth even when using multiple pop filters or wind screens can still be noticeable especially with a very sensitive microphone.
In order to get Stevie to deliver on projecting the volume that felt natural and right for the performance, backing the mic away and upward a few inches so that the microphone is above his eye line and angled downward like a spotlight shining from the bridge of his nose down to the center of his chest allowed some changes not just with the performance but with the sound of his voice in the recording to happen more naturally. This means less corrective effort in post.
We steadily made our way through the whole song, doing sections at a time with me giving input occasionally. After making a complete pass through the song, we listened back to the beginning and fixed parts that still felt rough compared to the more recent takes where Stevie had reached a peak in his performance and found the zone the needed to be in. Another good tip, considering that it takes time to get warmed up to the song, and the character of the performance may have changed by the end of the song compared to what the vocalist sounded like in the beginning.
Gang vocals were the final elements in the song. They wanted a crowd-like sound so initially everyone in the band piled into the vocal room around the mic and proceeded to do the gang melodies all at once. The first set of passes through the song the group had a hard time sounding in key enough to pass for pleasing. They wanted to try again, as their performance also sounded more akin to Gregorian chant than an energetic crowd hyped by the music.
I stepped into the room with them and wanted to get them in the mood to get the particular character in their voice that they wanted to hear. To do this, in the spirit of comfort with the band and getting to know how they interact, they needed to have the aggression and power behind their voice as that was what they lacked before. I went around the group and asked each one of them to show me what they were doing on their own. Originally they wanted to do the gang melody with a perfect fifth split between the group. I ended up advising one to sit out and not provide his part.
The reason for this was because with so many people singing into one mic - and all wearing headphones, it would get really hard for each individual to keep track of themselves in the midst of the group overall. As backup singers they were all less experienced in singing than Stevie, so less voices made it easier for them to hit the notes once we started tracking the new passes.
I also advised to sing in unison instead of in a harmony. This helped sell the chorus effect and get them in to a pleasing tune with the song. Matt also played around and experimented with an alternative microphone and position in the room relative to the group's singing positions which helped sell the sound of the "crowd" even further. To add to all the elements in the equation coming together, overdubbing multiple times with a smaller group provided the best results and still allowed them to achieve the effect they wanted to hear.
After all was said and done, Matt asked the group to take final listens to the completed song to make sure there weren't any parts they felt they needed to re-do or anything that they left out. By the end of the session, over 7 hours had passed without any real breaks on no just the band but the engineer's ears as well. The stress was starting to wear on the group wanting to push themselves harder to stay on-time and within budget, but overall the session had gone really well.
Recording is an entirely different beast to performing live. Stay tuned for more upcoming articles where I interview the band about their experience, and also Matt Young about his career as a studio engineer.