Creating a ‘band sound’ when recording individual session players
One of the most common problems I encounter when producing a track is the lack of a ‘real space’ sound. Most self-recording artists are trying to make the best out of what they have. What they usually have is a small room with home recording equipment. Sometimes it is easier and more feasible to have a musician record a separate track individually instead of a full live band. In dealing with this situation I’ve found a few ways to create a full band sound out of these individual session player’s tracks. The greatest obstacle to overcome in recording tracks separately is maintaining a natural sound. We always need to remember that some styles simply aren’t meant to be recorded separately. Try recording a jazz trio individually and you’ll soon find it’s a mission impossible. In the end, some albums were just meant to be recorded live.
First and foremost, when I’m trying to create a “band sound” the style of the music must be decided. This is important in order to ensure the authenticity of the song. Deciding on the style will help the session players generate the same mood for the song and make more efficient use of time. I usually listen to reference tracks beforehand in order to gain a better understanding of what kind of sound will be reflected in the song. Think about how the music was recorded, what types of instruments, amps, mics, rooms, were used in producing the track.
Sketch It Out
After choosing the style, an initial sketch will need to be created. I’ve found it important to give the sketch to the individual artists. This will keep everyone on the same page and help them feel out the desired vibe of the song. This sketch should be kept perfectly in sync with the click track. Keeping in sync with the click track is more important when recording separately as when recording together. When recording live, the players can see each other. Part of creating that full band sound, as if they were able to see each other, is to make certain that all the players are referring to the same sketch.
Making charts is another way to guarantee synchronization. Even though the players cannot rehearse together, they must know the structure of the song perfectly. Arrangement mistakes should be avoided and repeat takes should be reserved only for exploring different feels or ideas. Most experienced session players will know how to make a professional chart, so just ask! It will be ten minutes well spent.
The easiest way to begin recording is to start with a rhythm instrument over a perfectly synced or even quantized scratch track. For example, the first live instrument to be laid down can be drums and then add the bass. Hold off on vocals, keys, and harmony instruments until the end. Provide the same atmosphere during every session throughout the project in order to maintain consistency. Check that the players are following every break, off-beat and dynamic part to guarantee a cohesive sound. Keep those reference tracks close at hand; they will help to ensure everyone performs with the same desired sound in mind.
When I’m mixing tracks it is very important to know what part is going to be the most prominent element. The singer will most likely be the lead component, with the rest of the band filling in the other frequencies and places in the sound field. Two instruments that play in the same range should not be situated in the same spot. That would be akin to two people talking at the same time to the same person! If this situation occurs, spread the tracks in the sound field using panning. Panning an instrument even a few degrees to the side will give the mix a new dimension.
Placing the players in the sound field is probably the most important task in generating a full band sound from individual musicians. Each player should be placed separately using panning, reverb, compression, etc. If you record at home, room mics are not as efficient in this setting due to lack of acoustic reverberation. However, using artificial reverbs on close miked instruments will help you mask these acoustic problems.
In order to optimize the room sound, try adding room reverb on the drums that are dominant in the 500-2500 HZ such as the snare, toms and floor. Applying reverb on the overheads or hi-hat will sound unnatural since large rooms do not resonate at the same high frequencies that they do for snare, toms and bass drum. If you are adding reverb on the overheads, make sure to cut the high frequencies of the reverb so the cymbal will stay sharp and tight.
When you are mixing, make sure you get a quality sound for your track dry before you start adding effects. My personal choice is starting with the room reverb, to compensate for the lack of room sound. Then I move on to some gated or hall reverbs depending on the style. For example, when recording a rock song, I choose a room reverb with about 0.9 seconds of time, a delay of about 0.8 seconds will create the feeling of a mid-sized room. Later, I add a gate-reverb of about 1.8 seconds. I always try to cut back on the long reverb on snares. That will date the track and take away from the freshness of the music.
Compressing the snare top channel with a long attack/long release compressor is a mix engineer’s best weapon. This is a great way to get an attack of the snare drum while bringing more room noise back into the mix. Achieving that ‘in-your-face’ sound is very popular in the rock and pop genre of today’s music. But be careful! Overcompressing your snare leads to an excess of high hat in your mix.
To finalize my mixes, I like to compress the final output with a 20ms attack at a 1:3 ratio. This helps me tighten up the drum and bass with the rest of the tracks before I send the song to mastering.
Making your individual session players sound like a full band isn’t hard to accomplish, even in a home studio. Try out some of the techniques I use to create a live sound whenever I am recording individuals vs. a full band. There are no rules to recording. Be creative and have fun.