Southern/Classic Rock

The above track is 1 of 7 tunes recorded in one day back in December on the stage of Lovett Auditorium. Lovett is such a great place to record because it is like the big recording rooms of old: high ceiling, wood floor, and a spacious main “room.” For a session like this, the players do most of the recording at the same time, in the same room, while listening to each other through headphones. The separation of sound from each microphone is mostly the result of the distance between musicians (they were spaced out evenly in a big circle), the close proximity of the microphone to its sound source, and the type of microphone.

It is of utmost importance that the reader realize who was being recorded here. Rob Ickes played dobro and lap steel guitar, for one. Rob is the International Bluegrass Music Association’s most awarded instrumentalist of all time. He is a grammy winner. He is quite literally one of the best 3 dobro players in the world (I made sure Rob was UP in the mix). Josh Coffey played fiddle. Josh is a seasoned player who studied music classically and took lessons from Chris Thile. Jason Lee McKinney is the songwriter and vocalist. He and the rest of his band have played hundreds of shows and toured nationally and internationally.

All that to say, it sure helps out the recording when the overall vision, song, arrangement, parts and players are rock solid. If any of those things are shaky, it will probably come through on the recording. The guys were professional musicians and they came ready to record, which is both a rarity and an absolute joy.

TRACKING

The drum set was captured with one large diaphragm tube condenser as an overhead, a SM57 on the top and bottom of the snare, and an AKG D112 on the bass drum. There were mics on the two toms, but those mics were almost never used as the overhead caught plenty of the tom sound.

The upright bass was originally recorded with a direct box, but was later re-recorded via a large diaphragm tube condenser in the studio. A collection of SM57s were used on the electric guitar amp, lap steel, acoustic guitar and a DI box for the keyboards.

The vocal was recorded with a Shure SM7b, which is another flavor of dynamic microphone. The purpose of all the dynamic microphones (rather than the pricier, high-end condenser or ribbon mics) was to reduce the sensitivity and the sound bleeding through from sources other than the one the microphone was set to pick up. Even when using a bunch of $100 mics, things can still be made to sound pretty decent.

MIXING

When mixing a session like this it is not always apparent what sort of sound each individual instrument ought to assume. It takes a lot of listening and experimentation. One safe bet is that there is usually too much low end bass energy in almost every track. EQ-ing the low end out of a track can, and probably should, be overdone. Then it can be undone right up until it sounds right in context with the rest of the mix. [It is interesting to note that not all EQs sound the same. Some have a certain quality that makes them more sonically appealing even though they are, for all practical purposes, doing the same thing as any other EQ. For example, when I use the stock Logic EQ, it never sounds as musical as the EQ in my Izotope plugins.]

There is a phenomenon called “masking” that is very important to consider when mixing. Masking is when one element in the mix is covering up or obscuring another element. A good example is when the bass seems to be either too quiet or too loud, but never quite right. It may be that there is another element (acoustic guitar, fiddle, keyboard, et cetera) that is masking the bass. When this occurred on the track above, I found that I needed to remove some additional frequencies in the acoustic guitar. The result was not a quieter guitar, nor a louder bass… but a more transparent mix in which more of the bass could be heard.

I spent a lot of time comparing this mix to professional mixes. Jason Isbell’s Southeastern to be specific. I wasn’t trying to copy the sound of Southeastern, I just didn’t want to bounce back and forth between the two and feel that mine was the clearly inferior mix. This technique was once referred to as “Kentucky voicing” – but it is really as simple as picking some reference mixes and trying to compete with them as best you can.

MASTERING

I opted to make this mix sound a bit less bright. Unfortunately, because Soundcloud converts all audio to 128 kbps mp3, you can’t quite appreciate where the full resolution wave file really left the final EQ curve. But if the reader compares Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and the iTunes lossless version of this (once it comes out), I think it will be apparent that the overall tonal signature (at least on the upper end) was influenced by Southeastern as opposed to many of the brighter mixes that are out there. I used Izotope’s Ozone and ToneBooster’s ReelBus on my master bus.

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