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In the Studio: Part 3 – Aural Communication

Mixing board

Today, we continue where we left off in this “In the Studio” column series. Be sure to check out part one and two of this series.

Mixes

In my experience, (unless you are all in the same room and not using headphones) it is extremely beneficial for each musician in the studio have their own personal mix going into their headset. What the drummer, for example, wants to hear coming through the headphones will likely vary from what the singer or bass player wishes to hear. Having the appropriate mix coming through your headset is not just an issue of comfort, but it allows you to connect with the music appropriately. This, in turn, raises the level of your performance, which raises the level of everyone else’s performance and the general level of the group. While some issues are personal preference, others are of a more practical nature. Consider drums.

Even with great isolation headphones, most drummers will hear the live sound of his drums bleeding through. As result, the drummer will hear more drums than will the musicians outside the isolation booth. To accommodate the mix for the drummer, the drum track may need to be reduced. However, as a bass player I want plenty of drums in the mix. To accommodate me, the drums would need to be raised. One of us is going to be unhappy and uncomfortable, making our job more difficult. With a single mix, in the end, both of us will be probably unhappy with what we hear and neither will be able to perform at our absolute best. The more comfortable the musicians feel, the more they hear clearly what they need to hear, the better they will play. The better they play, the better the recording.

This is just one example of the types of conflicts affecting performance that can arise by having a single mix run to all the performers. At the very least I suggest two mixes, one for the drummer and one for the rest of the musicians.

Of course, not every situation is ideal. Perhaps you have no visual communication and only a single, bad, mix. Even this situation can be worked with successfully if you play with a “click.”

Playing with a Click

It always amazes me when a musician cannot play with a “click.” Excepting a few unusual situations (like a film score, or music with complicated tempo or time signature changes) a “click track” is generally nothing more than a metronome.
Every musician should be more than comfortable playing with a metronome. If not, they simply aren’t comfortable keeping a beat. This is a problem. Especially if they play music that is supposed to groove, swing or rock. Whatever the style of music, the implications of a performer’s inability to play with a beat (i.e. metronome) are far-reachingly unfortunate.

The inability to play with a click also means you can’t adjust your playing to what you hear. This is a major problem. If you can’t adjust to a click, then you can’t adjust to a drummer, or anyone else for that matter. Unless you are performing “solo,” this is a substantial deficiency. Every musician performing in a group should be constantly adjusting to the other performers. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow, but you always negotiate and adjust. Of course, there are occasions when you might not want to play with a strict beat (classical music, jazz ballads, etc.). In most cases, however, you should practice with a metronome and record with a click.

While recording with a click will help your tempo be absolutely steady, it is primarily recommended for its benefits when editing. It makes editing easier, cleaner and less obtrusive. It also saves time, which saves money. Perhaps you have a group with impeccable timing and you plan on recording a “live” performance without edits. I still advise a click, if appropriate and feasible. Life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Perhaps there is an electronic glitch, or some undefined noise creeps into the recording. As a result, maybe just a few bars need to be redone. This edit can be done well, and easily, without affecting the flow of a piece, if you have recorded to a click. If you haven’t, you may face an unsalvageable take. Even if you only have to make one small edit, recording to a click will help ensure that the edit is smooth, inconspicuous and doesn’t detract from the overall performance.

Some people don’t wish to play with a click “on principle.” There are exceptions, but I generally fail to see the beauty of this “principle.” Often, it is just some sort of misplaced heroism. I suppose this is fine if: The music is of an appropriate nature, the musician’s time is first rate, they can rip out a full performance of something in a single take, and they don’t mind some tempo fluctuation. Otherwise, they may find themselves playing a tune 10 times trying to get the one acceptable take. Don’t be that guy/girl. Practice with a metronome. Record with a click.

In short: Be prepared before you walk in the studio, make certain you have visual contact with the other musicians, get an individual mix sent to your headphones and (most of the time) play with a “click.” This will set you up for success. The worst situation would be that you have poor preparation, no visual communication, inappropriate mixes and no click. I’ve been in that situation. If you are too, I wish you luck. You’ll need it.

Photo by Ben Adamson.