How To Get “Your Sound” In The Studio

Recording Studio

Q: I was recently listening to your newer album and was really loving the tone you get. Can you talk a little about how make sure to get “your sound” in the studio? Also, any general tips for recording in the studio would be helpful, too. I’m about to record our band’s first album and want to make sure I’m happy with my tone!

A: Thank you for the kind words! I’m glad you’re digging the album (and my tone).

First I’ll speak generally about what I do in the studio and then I’ll tell you what I did on my last album, Within Sight.

I generally keep things pretty simple in the studio. In an ideal world, I’ll run multiple channels to get a few different tones, which can be combined (or not) to favor one sound or another. In the past, if there is an available isolation booth, I’ve set up my Aguilar rig in one room to try and get some of my “live sound” in addition to running through a quality direct box. More often than not, I favor the direct sound unless the engineer can really capture my amp’s sound, in which case I’ll likely still use a blend of the two. If using a booth for a live rig isn’t an option, I’ll usually just run through a few different DI’s to get different interpretations of my sound (often using one tube DI and one solid state).

Nine times out of ten, I’m just running one or two DI’s, though.

There are a handful of things that I bring to every session:

1. Shure SRH440 Headphones

I detest being at the mercy of whatever headphones are lying around. If it doesn’t sound good while you’re playing, it can be difficult to really sink into the music and react the way I want to. The Shure 440’s aren’t the most expensive or fanciest headphones in the world, but I like the way they sound in the studio. I also have gotten quite used to the way they sound, so I know what to expect.

Using closed back headphones with a good bass response is key, for me (especially because I like to be in the room with the drummer. I’ll speak more about that in a bit).

I know a lot of folks that use Beats in the studio. While I’m not a fan of those headphones generally (and certainly couldn’t imagine mixing with them), they do have a ton of bass response, which can be good for a bassist in the studio. It’s the one time I can see using those headphones but I much prefer the Shure close-back headphones. Much more comfortable and they sound better to my ears.

2. A Designs RedDI (Tube DI)

This is the gold standard for a lot of studio musicians I know and I love the sound I get with this DI. If I only run through one thing, this will be it. Nothing but an input, multiple outputs and a gain knob. Tone for days.

3. Basswitch IQ/DI

I usually run this second DI because the EQ section is incredibly clean and responsive. It also has multiple effects loops, if you are running pedals. This DI sounds absolutely wonderful. This DI is also what I use on the road when using in-ears.

4. Basses

I typically record using my Skjold 6 string. It’s passive, sounds incredible and also has two volume knobs instead of a pickup pan. I’ve found that this gives me way more control over my sound and I can get most any tone I want out of it. I’ve used this bass on more folk and songwriter sessions than you can imagine. You might think you’re hearing a 60’s Fender but…

When doing session work, I tend to load the car with basses, depending on the session. For example, on Jackie Greene’s last album, Back to Birth, I brought pretty much every bass I had in addition to using a few the producer (Steve Berlin) brought with him.

I used:

  • Jerry Jones – Fell in love with this bass (Steve Berlin’s contribution). It sounds like a cross between an old P-bass and a Hoffner. Great thumpy, old-school tone
  • Skjold 6-string Catacomb – passive, has the greatest open, woody tone and, when palm muted, can do a great tuba impression. I can also get a pretty good Steve Swallow like tone out of it.
  • Skjold 6-string fretless – I told them to “trust me” when I pulled it out of the case. This was a down-home, groovy, roots type of album and while the bass didn’t look the part, it sounded incredible
  • Skjold 4-string “Skjold Slayer” – just great tone and a variation of my 6-string. A little more burp in the tone.
  • Eminence electric upright
  • Marleaux with Aguilar P/J pickups – Great P bass sound for the guy who doesn’t have a vintage P bass!

For my more recent album, Within Sight, I either played my Skjold 4 string or my Skjold catacomb 6. I’ve been really favoring the 4 string lately, so I used that on 90% of the tracks unless I wanted a more acoustic vibe or needed the extended range, in which case I used the 6.

I ran two channels, one with the Basswitch IQ/DI and one with the RedDI. We usually wound up favoring the RedDI with a touch of Basswitch (70/30 split, or thereabouts).

Here are some thoughts on my personal preferences as well as some general good practices in the studio:

  1. I prefer to be in the room with the drummer. This allows me to feel the drums while also keeping them low in my headphone mix (or off altogether, depending on the intensity of the music). Worth noting: being in the room with any mics also means that you need to be aware of noise. Don’t tap or stomp your feet when playing (or sit on a rug and tap lightly, if you just can’t help it).
  2. I don’t bother making sure that I can hear every little thing in my mix but rather make sure that I can hear everything I need in order to play the song well and lock into my rhythm section mates. I take the same approach in my in-ear mixes on the road. On a pop hit, I will strongly favor bass, drums, rhythm guitar or keys (depending on the music) and will often have any horns and soloists much lower so as not to clutter my focus. If it’s a jazz hit, that’s a totally different thing and I’ll likely want to hear everybody pretty well because interaction and awareness are the name of the game. But if my job title for the day is “pocket protector”, I’m mostly focusing on that.
  3. Insure that everyone has good sight-lines and keep your head up so you don’t miss any cues.
  4. Take the time to get a good sound for yourself. It’s hard to play well if the bass sounds too thin, etc. Don’t be shy about asking the engineer for an EQ tweak or a touch of reverb, if that’s what it takes to make it sound reasonably well in your headphones. It’ll never sound like your 410 cranked up high, but you can keep it from sounding too dry and brittle, at least.
  5. Have fun, but don’t waste time. Studio time is expensive and it’s best to find a balance between feeling relaxed and enjoying yourself without blowing hours of studio time or partying. Keep the stress low but also stay focused and on task.
  6. Don’t beat the horse to death. If a tune isn’t coming together, move on and come back to it. Every session is different. I’ve worked with songwriters who have budgets and will spend multiple days just getting rhythm tracks for one song, and I’ve also recorded 22 tracks in one day (personal record set while replacing pre-existing bass tracks for a double album). My general time/track gauge usually works out to 1-2 hours per track. If you are getting a track every hour or two, with listening, etc., you’re doing alright. One track an hour is blazing right along. It generally doesn’t go much faster than that if the full band is recording but when I am simply recording bass tracks to a pre-existing session, I might get the whole album before lunch. It all depends.
  7. Keep it sober. Keep focused, eat healthy and drink lots of water (and coffee, of course). That’ll keep the energy up and allow you to work efficiently. Every situation is different but this thing is going to be around until the end of time, once it’s done. Personally, I want to play as well as I can!
  8. Listen to some isolated bass takes. Take note of any unintentional noise you may be making. Also make note of your lines, tone, attack, approach. What works live doesn’t always work on a record. Play to the medium.
  9. This is a personal preference but I have a theory with regard to why analog recordings seem so much warmer and richer than digital recordings. I think that it’s because silence has a sound in the real (analog) world. In the digital world, noise is completely silent. This sounds sterile to my ears. I bring this up because I don’t think it’s worth obsessing over a little noise, hiss or hum. Actually, I like just a touch of white noise. Not enough to be clearly audible but, once the band is playing, a little noise seems to warm up the sound to my ears. I’ve actually asked Gino Vannelli’s monitor engineer to keep noise in my in-ear mix when I caught him trying to change gain structures in order to eliminate it. I found that I liked the sound way more than a dead quiet signal. Food for thought before you spend 3 hours trying to eliminate a touch of hum from your guitarists amp, for example.

So, long story short, take the time to get a good sound, play it on the healthier side for your energy and focus, don’t rush things, don’t dawdle, just have fun and focus on the music. If you’re having fun, it will translate on the recording, and it’ll be fun to listen to!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to simone masina Cancel reply

  1. Kewp

    I always get ridicously nervous recording. I’m my worst critic and hear every note I didn’t hit dead on. I worry I’m tacking too much time, didn’t hit that string as hard, my pick slipped….. This last time, the engineer ran a long cable and I recorded in the control room with the track playing through the monitors instead of headphones and my bandmates laughing, using camera flashes in my face, and generally trying their best to distract me. It made it feel like I was just playing along with a CD and I nailed every song in one take.

  2. mbka

    Damian, I loved that off hand remark about noise. That’s also my pet theory on digital vs analog. There is a deeper side show here on the nature of digital recording. Due to the quantization process, very soft sounds aren’t actually proportional in digital recording. In the most extreme case, the signal jumps from 0 to 1 to 2, which are all “hard” jumps. Now, we have dithering to get around this problem, aptly named “noise shaping” but that’s basically technology creating a made-up signal where there is no “true” noise floor with a natural (continuous) spectrum. In the same way as fluorescent light does not have a natural continuous spectrum. While in the analog process, signal progressively emerges from true random noise.

    Related, or not – as a boy I used to listen to an old radio late nights. It had the highest noise levels ever. At typical night sound levels in the room, half the program was noise. And and music or speech would just emerge from the noise like shapes out of the fog. I found this oddly satisfying.

  3. Calen

    Damn Damian. This is a good one. Thanks man.

  4. simone masina

    Thanks a lot, this is very useful!!!