the holy grail and recording with crap gear

I play a nylon strung guitar, one of the gentlest instruments known to man, but I want a sound a mile wide with the groans and grunts of tectonic plates grinding against each other in the subterranean depths and heavenly curtains of harmonics overhead, a Northern Lights in sound. 

Although it may be asking the physically impossible, I want to separate the registers. I’d like bass and treble parts to sound like they’re played on different instruments. At extremes, I want the bass delivered by a Rickenbacker with a Badass bridge and lead by Roy Buchanan’s crusty old Tele.

I like the way Steve Lawson uses digital delay to orchestrate his bass compositions and his music has buckets of ‘spook’. He definitely gets his bass to emulate other instruments. I’m sure his live sound has breadth and depth, although I haven’t gone to see him yet.  However, I am denied the sort of hardware he has. It could be for artistic reasons. It could be because I’m broke.

The MO for recording is determined by two things.  Protocol – I want to get everything down in one hit. Equipment – I don’t have enough of it and it’s not very good.

One advantage I do have is a performance space. Lots of  people can never sing at full voice without disturbing the neighbours. Most bedrooms and living rooms suffer from an over abundance of upholstery and soft furnishings. I have a stone built barn. It’s cold and damp and messy but it does have an acoustic and nobody hears me making an idiot of myself.

Recording is on a basic digital 4 track, an MRS4, courtesy of my younger son. I gave it to him for Christmas when I was in gainful employment some years back. Jesse is temporarily resting from music so the MRS4 has been re-assigned.

 It will only record two tracks live so if I want to add more mics I have to hook up a mixer. I have an 8 channel Behringer mixer which I bought for live work. It was only £100, new. It isn’t noiseless and the EQ is a bit primitive. A techie friend said it is a Chinese knock-off of a respected brand and actually quite good.

Mix down to computer: I’m using Audacity software, which is free.  The recording platform is fine and really no different to other WAV recording apps. The effect plug-ins are a bit more esoteric, not for the uninitiated. You get lots of parameters to play with and precious little guidance. Some of the effects are just plain weird with sci-fi boffin titles. Me, I’d like a few reliable presets. I’d like effects screens to open onto a usable default setting so that you just click and that’s it. But there we are. It is free and lots techies have put a lot of time and effort into it. I’m far from ungrateful and I am getting to grips with the plug-ins…slowly.

Fortunately, the MRS4 does have a small battery of reliable and inoffensive effects which can be applied in mix down. It’s really a very good little machine. More recent versions probably have a better user interface, screen etc..

I have various mics left over from when I used to play in electric bands but nothing specifically for voice and acoustic guitar. Ideally, as I understand it, you would put a pair of good quality figure-of-8 mics on the guitar. After much experiment I’ve come up with the following. Prepare for the bizarre.

I’m not recording purely acoustically. I’m using a Marshall 80w acoustic combo to, as it were, ‘drive’ the acoustic of the stone walled barn. The amp has spring reverb and chorus set at nuance level.  The guitar’s piezo goes directly to the Marshall which set placed at one end of the space, about 3 metres from my chair. The amp is set to a fairly bright EQ.

In front of me I have four mics.

One is a T.Bone SCT700 – a very cheap diaphragm mic with a ‘warm tube sound’ (says the blurb). Yes, it really has got a valve inside, though what that does is beyond my competence to comment.  Reviews on the Net about this mic are mixed. I think it’s got a pretty filthy, bass heavy sound. That’s good. Contrary to advice I’m going to aim that directly at the soundhole of the guitar – which should produce a bit of boominess – normally not desirable.

If that were all – if I turn all the other mics down – I’m getting a sort of plummy, jazzy sound.

A set of drum mics (T.Bone again – cheap) gives me a pair of cardioids to be used as overheads. These are presumably not going to be great for bass – but the SCT700 has dealt with that. They will be good on mids and highs. I’m using these to pick up the room sound as driven by the Marshall amp, the amp itself,  voice and guitar (raw). At first I had these on separate stands but I was getting a nasty cancellation effect on mix down. So a made a bracket so that they now work as a co-incident stereo pair,  firing over my head at the back wall. On the desk I’m boosting the highs from the stereo overheads but not too much because it generates noise.

The vocal mic is a Shure Beta 58, an old faithful that has seen a lot of live action. As far as possible, all the mics are grouped on the same vertical axis. In other words, I’m trying to get them all co-incident to avoid cancellation effects.

One other idiosyncrasy: the vocals go to the desk and are then auxed out to the Marshall combo – which has a vocal channel with the same effects applied as the guitar.  All this adds up to a ‘live’ environment which is comfortable to an old rocker who saw much more time in front of folks than in a studio. 

Working this way I’m spreading the sound of the guitar so that I can record different components of the sound from different sources eg. bass from the large diaphragm SCT700 ,  mids and highs amplified by the Marshall from the stereo overhead pair.

Does it work? It’s a one chance situation. Once the recording is done I can’t fiddle with the sound from individual sources. The balance has to be right before you hit record. I’m still tweaking the settings. But the first trial takes are good – big sound, with separate virtual bass player.

I hope to have some tracks from this setup posted soon. In the meantime, I’d welcome any comments.

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