Anatomy of a Recording
(Forgive me if I get a bit too technical here, for the benefit of all the other musicians/techies out there I'll be listing names of the mics and techniques we're using.)
We set up camp at Rahails house, henceforth known as the Cathouse, simply because Rahail has three very large, very furry cats. (They shall henceforth be known as Fat Cat, Black Cat and White Cat. Will post pictures soon).
The biggest hurdle we were going to have to overcome was recording drums live. These days it is common practice to have a microphone set up on every part of the drum, i.e., one for each snare/tom and then two overheard condensor mics to catch the "room sound". With our soundcard and mixer, we were only able to use four microphones, so we recorded using the "Glyn Johns" method of drums. I was pretty pleased about this, since this was the way my drumming heroes John Bonham from Led Zep and Keith Moon from The Who had recorded. Basically we set up a Shure SM57 microphone on the snare, a Shure Beta52A on the kick drum and then we set up two condensor microphones as overheads. (One Audio Technica AT2020, and one Studio Project mic). The result was a drum sound that sounded very large and roomy, and very live, but probably not as precise as a modern recording.
Rahail and I spent a day figuring out the best positions of the microphones and then we had Giles come in and test it. We were pretty elated by the results, it also helped the Giles is a fantastic drummer who plays every part of the kit loud and consistent. Working things out on your own in a studio can be really frustrating but the rewards are sweet when an idea or experiment pays off and we wouldnt have had that kind of freedom or been able to afford that kind of time in a pro studio.
We all settled into our roles as producers in a couple of days, with Rahail manning the controls at the computer, myself figuring out the microphone positions and recording setups and Ali coming in with the overall inputs on sound.
The first song we attempted was "Hum Na Rahey" because it was one of the more straightforward beats. I first laid down a scratch vocal and scratch rhythm guitar along to a click track. Giles then played the drums along to these tracks and then we re-did all the guitars on top of him.
This is where the hard part of recording live drums comes in. Giles is a fantastic drummer, more pro than any of us, but even he had tiny ups and down in the rhythm, even though he was playing to a metronome. Now this is barely noticeable when we play live but when you have to record over a live track, you end up having to match those same dips in timing that the drums have played.
This made tracking the guitars a nerve racking experience. I think we all agreed that recording electric guitar is the hardest , and least fun part of the recording process. Electric guitars are by nature pretty noisy, or at least they're supposed to be in a good loud rock song. I went into the process thinking I could simply replicate what I play live in the studio, but as we discovered, that's simply not the case. One can get away with play a noisy distorted guitar live, but in the studio, you really have to be clear with your parts and make sure they are melodic and fit the song. You can't simply strum barre chords along with the rhythm, the rhythm playing has to be extremely precise and at the mercy of several decisions. Should I play open chords or barre chords? Do I play up-strokes or down strokes? And then of course there is tone.
The hardest thing is to translate the guitar tone that you are hearing in your head into what you are hearing in the recording. I spent hours trying to get the "tone" right. It doesn't help that with the electric you have such a wide variety of gadgets available to alter the sound, and everything makes a difference. You have to tweak the distortion level, the amp volume, the trebles, mids and bass and then decide if you want effects like delay and reverb or chorus and phaser. Then you have to tweak the individual settings of all the effects. Even then at the end of the day, you're still never completely sure of the tone. While I had an easier time setting my own guitar tone, it was harder for me to set it for Ali since I had to get what was in his head out onto the amp. This is where our nerves got shot and our patience tested as each band member has their own ideas on how to solve things. You get there eventually, but its a real test.
To record the guitar, we went through a Line 6 POD X3 console and then went into a Marshall AVT100 amplifier. I had to fight Ali and Rahail on this, they were briefly in favor of simply recording directly from the POD. I feel that a loud amplifier just sounds more natural and aggressive. You can't just capture the signal coming from the guitar, you have to capture the "air" and that just makes the guitar sound warm and alive. Eventually we ended up using the amp, and I think everyone was happier for it. We recorded using two microphones, a Shure SM57 right up against the amp grille and the AT2020 condensor about 3 feet away to capture the ambient sound.
Within a couple of weeks we had laid down the tracks for "Hum Na Rahey", "Likhta Nahin Mein" and a new version of "Sultanat". The other two tracks went by fairly quickly compared to "Hum Na Rahey", I guess we got better at recording more efficiently. But the entire process is an emotional rollercoaster. Here are the stages I went through pretty much with every song.
1) Record drums. Feel pretty good about song.
2) Listen to drums next day. Conclude drums are shitty. Hate song.
3) Come back to fix drums. Feel pretty good. Like song.
4) Record guitars. Spend hours on figuring out guitar tone. Hate song.
5) Record more guitars. Think song is becoming shittier. Despise song.
6) Rahail sends render of all work on song so far. Think song is not so bad.
7) Rahail records bass on his own. Song begins to sound pretty good.
8) Record vocals. Song sounds amazing.
9) Listen to recording for week. Song sounds increasingly better for first 3 days. Then starts to suck.
10) You start hearing tiny mistakes and glitches in the song that make you want to stab yourself. Hate song again.
They say most bands break-up over money or recording. I don't think we ever came close to breaking up but we've definitely had some tense moments. Recording can be especially soul crushing. You consider yourself a decent musician, and you've played these songs a thousand times before. Yet when that little red light goes on, you find yourself trying to play a simple guitar part over and over again just to get it right. After a while, your ears fatigue and you cant tell whether anything is good or bad anymore. You simply have to go on the word of your band members and your own faith. Opinions clash, people get frustrated and it become a matter of trying to keep everyone's spirits up and making sure everyone keeps their eye on the prize. But for the most part, Rahail, Ali and I were on the same page, and I had new respect for the other guys. Both of them came up with some pretty smart solutions and inspired musical ideas. Once we started trusting each other and were able to put our egos aside things started happening much more efficiently. The best bits would be when we tried something out, like a new guitar part or an effect and it worked in the song. These rare moments were truly rewarding, and kept us going.
Having said that, I think we've done a fairly good job so far. We're definitely getting better at it. I can't say when we'll have these tracks out, I don't think it will be any time soon, but I'd like to give myself till before June as a personal deadline. Till then stay tuned guys, I'm really excited about this work, I hope it'll be worth the wait for everyone.