Toney Rocks is a man of many talents and we’re so lucky he’s sharing some of his tips and tricks with us today on the blog. He’ll be touring soon, showcasing this new album, so check out dates near you.
Making a record on your own can be a complex affair. A ton of things are going on and you’ll be required to wear several different hats. It’s one thing to play an instrument. It’s a whole other bag trying to best capture that instrument so that people will want to listen to it over and over again. My new album, No Road Too Long (release March 2016), was recorded in pretty much the same way as my last three records except this time I had access to a full-fledged studio. That meant I could record all night any night of the week. I sure took advantage of it! I used a great deal of my own gear as well as the equipment available in the studio.
Because I play every single instrument on my albums, my recording methods are pretty broad in spectrum. There are hundreds of blogs that will tell you how to record an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. Therefore, what I’ve tried to do is give guitarists who are interested in being their own session players some insight on how I achieve my results. Hopefully, with practice and time you’ll be able to self-produce your own records with little to no outside help.
UNDER YOUR FINGERTIPS
Any time you’re looking to record your own songs or a part on a song, the first and most important step is to know the songs. This will save you a ton of agony during the process and spare your feelings after you’ve completed the recording! It’s a simple idea really. What’s the point in putting something under a microscope if you don’t feel comfortable with the material? In recording “No Road Too Long”, I was playing all but two songs night after night around the country for a year before even thinking about recording a record.
IN THE LOCKER ROOM
While recording a live stream at a studio in Evergreen, Colorado, I had a conversation with the engineer there about microphone and preamp choices. All of us know what a microphone is, but a preamp (simply put) is what brings the low output signal of any microphone up to recording level. When I started talking about all the gear that I wanted to add to my studio, he suggested that I focus on getting a few great microphones and a great preamp. He was correct. However, by “great” I don’t think he meant I needed a $5,000 vintage Neumann microphone.
A lot of engineers are borderline OCD about microphones and preamps. Though I enjoy getting caught up in the allure and wow factor of expensive vintage microphones, I always keep in mind that the person buying the record doesn’t give two shakes if I’m singing through a Shure 57 or a Neumann U47. All they care about is the record sounding great. That being said, I try my best to mic each instrument as simply and effectively as possible. The least amount of microphones on a source, the better in my book.
With vocals I’ve found that I gravitate towards two microphones: a Neumann 103 or a Shure Beta 58. The 103 is one of Neumanns latest editions of more cost friendly condenser microphones and the Beta 58 is a industry standard stage mic for vocalists. At the studio where I work, there are a few other options but, through trial and error, these have given my voice the best results.
When it comes to instruments where multi-microphone applications are common, I revert back to what I said above; keeping it as simple as possible. It’s not that I’m lazy or don’t like the sight of 100 microphones… my major concern is minimizing phase issues. Phase cancellation is a sure way to destroy a recording right from the start. This happens when two mics are not in phase with each other. When this happens it can either totally cancel out one of the signals or produce a swirling out of phase anomaly. Because there are usually four or more microphones in close proximity, a common place this happens is with drum overheads, snare top and bottom microphones and stereo pairs on piano or guitar.
So, most of the time I’ll only put one mic on an acoustic guitar, usually at about the 12th fret either angled in towards the sound hole for more bass or straight on for less bass. For most songs, this is typically a large condenser like a Blue Bottle. When I need less low end information or more attack from the guitar, I’ll opt for a pencil condenser, again depending on the song. I also enjoy the Audio Technica 4050s because I can change the pattern from omni to figure 8 or cardioid. Stereo pairs on an acoustic is a rarity due to phase and not wanting to create more work for myself in the mix down. For mandolin, it’s almost always a pencil condenser to attenuate the highs. For electric guitar, I started off this record with a two mic set-up; a condenser and 57 (Shure SM). As I got further into the recording process, I began to take away the 57, favoring the shimmer and body of the condenser–typically a Shure KSM42 or a 4050 (Audio Technica) placed about 6 to 8 inches from the speaker.
With drums, I always (without fail) take away the 2nd tom. Because I’m playing the drums, I know that I won’t need it. In my book, it’s just another phase hazard and sound to clog up the mix. Cymbals are at a minimum too. I’ll usually only use two; either two crashes or a ride and a crash. Though it varies from song to song, my normal mic set up for drums is: Kick, Snare Top, Snare Bottom, Rack Tom, Floor Tom, Mono Overhead, Hihats, and Stereo Rooms. Depending on the song, I’ll opt for stereo overheads and an additional kick internal mic. Recently, I’ve been avoiding the kick in mic because it sounds like a basketball bouncing. You can get a great drum sound with two microphones; one on the kick and one overhead.
If you’re just starting, you probably won’t have access to this much stuff and it’s completely okay. You can get a killer drum sound with two mics PLACED CORRECTLY. Get your hands on a quality condenser for vocals and a dynamic mic for drums and you’ll be able to record any instrument between those two.
KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES
I think it’s safe to say that every recording artists has their nemesis when the red light comes on. Recording a full drum track in one take… no problem. Nailing a burning guitar solo on the first pass… happens all the time. Low and behold, as soon as I put up a vocal mic my whole life falls apart! It’s been this way since my first vocal record in 2009 on the Tate Music Group label. Out of my own pocket (this is how this show biz thing works), I caught a flight to their studio in Oklahoma City, OK for three days of tracking. Mind you I had already produced the music in my studio back in Delaware. Uncertain of my ability to capture quality vocals at home, I cut a check to pay for an expensive lesson.
After three days of recording vocals over these tracks, I flew back home elated at what I had accomplished. Then I took at listen… whatever I heard before I left that studio had somehow been replaced with this hideous, out of tune whaling vocal performance times 9! Every single song was horrible! I was devastated. But this is why I love how I do things. The blame could be placed on one person. Me! So, I recut the vocals; this time at home. It’s at this point that I learned the first secret of my weakness. I record much better at home or alone than I do in front of people.
So I’ve just grown used to knowing that a: it’ll take me a complete session just to focus on vocals and b: I have to track vocals alone. Typically one song a day; however, there were a couple of sessions where I was able to knock out 2 or 3 vocal performances! Whatever your weakness is, make sure that you’re honest with yourself about it and take extra care with dealing with it. Whether it’s singing, playing support instruments, or mixing, make sure that you’re prepared to put in the extra work needed to get over the hump.
EVERYTHING & THE KITCHEN SINK
One of the most frustrating things about self-producing was not having all the tools that I would have liked to have had. This is more so during the mixing process where I was constantly combating the thinking of, “if I just had this or that… everything would sound so much better…”.
Of course, running each source through an API 1608 console would have been great and would have sounded absolutely amazing. Or even having the whole Waves plugin library for that matter. The truth is, I didn’t have access to any of those. In fact, I didn’t NEED any of those. What I had was Apple Logic (not even Logic X) and two great old Roland VS-2480 HD Hard Disk multi-track recorders that, I must say, gave me most pleasing results.
So, in reality, we don’t need everything and the kitchen sink to make pleasing records. It’s all about quality over quantity, but nothing beats knowing how to use the gear that you have to the best of your ability. Famed mix engineer, Jimmy Douglass (Justin Timberlake, Al Green, John Legend), said in a recent interview, “most of you can do what I do with the gear you have… you just don’t know it.” Words like these keep me constantly exploring the gear that I do have because I know that there’s so much more I can do with what little I have.
One trick that I started using with this album is to try to emulate class EQ’s and compressors within my Logic setup. For example, I took the stock Logic compressor and set it up using the metrics of a LA2A compressor. Did it actually sound like a LA2A? Absolutely not! But at least I was tapping into that slow knee opto style of gripping compression that works especially well on vocals and bass. The same thing was done with my mix buss compressor where I set the logic compressor to emulate the settings of the glorious SSL mix buss compressor. Again, nowhere near an exact replica, but it gave me more of that vibe than I had before.
So sometimes more isn’t exactly more. Though, I must admit, at one point in the recording process I had every single electric and acoustic guitar out trying to find the right flavor! Sometimes it takes that, so it’s good to have options, but honestly there were only 1 or 2 songs where this actually happened. Most of the time I know exactly what piece I need to get the sound and vibe I’m going for. Over the years I’ve found that knowing which guitar will do what is one of the best tools I can ever have in my toolbox. I own six guitars, two teles, a strat, and 3 acoustics–all of which I use in different capacities. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to what gets used, it’s just three things to consider. Either the guitar is right for the song, not right for the song, or just doesn’t record well. My roadworn Telecaster falls into the latter. The pickups are just too noisy for recording.
LISTEN TO THE RIGHT SOURCE
One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was to “stop listening to people that have never done what you’re trying to do.” There’s only four sources that I care about. The first is whatever instrument I’m recording. My goal is to thoroughly understand how each instrument sounds and how to best record it.
The next source is from major music releases where I want to emulate the sound or impact. This is usually called a “reference”. I listen to key elements of the songs like track volume relationships, frequencies, delay/reverb effects, and stereo balance. What I do with the reference is listen to the mix, then build my mix from the ground up, NOT bouncing back and forth between the two. Then, once I get my mix to a place where I “think” it’s sounding pretty good but not quite slamming, I listen to my reference. Usually, at this point, I realize how far off I am! From that point, I keep working the mix until I get as close as possible.
The third source I listen to is professional recording and mix engineers through interviews and personal conversations to learn more about how they achieve the amazing sounding records that they do. I try to learn micing techniques, how to compress a signal, EQ a vocal, or apply reverb to guitars. Whether it’s through a youtube video of Pensado’s Place, Mix with the Masters, or in magazines like Sound on Sound, I’m constantly studying the art of recording and mixing music. On my last single, “Man Cries”, I actually emailed Micheal Brauer (famed mix engineer with credits that include John Mayer & Coldplay) to get his opinion on the mix. Surprisingly, he was very supportive of the mix and gave me great feedback.
The fourth and final source I listen to is a few (I do mean few) select ears made up of a group of people that include musicians and non-musicians. The reason for this is that I want a musician to give me biased feedback. Because most musicians are very particular about what they like, they tend to be very opinionated. Which can really get under my skin, but I welcome it. The non-musicians tend to listen differently… for a feel versus for a sound. They usually give very different feedback, like “it sounds old” or “it sounds like so and so”. I value both viewpoints because I want to know if the mix/recording stands up competitively as well as moves listeners to some emotional place.
Considering all of these sources, I always trust my gut and make decisions based on my ears and feeling. If it feels good to me, nine times out of ten it is going to feel good to the average listener.
GET IN THE MIX
This is the last point I’ll make, because it’s usually one of the last steps in the record making process. That’s mixing what you’ve recorded so that people will actually want to and enjoy listening to it. Plainly put… mixing is the hardest part for me. Primarily because it’s not something I’ve been doing since I was five years old; playing an instrument is! However, like I’ve said a few time, with persistence and time I’ve developed working knowledge. At least enough to put out radio quality material.
The biggest tip here is to use your ears. You generally know what you want your record to sound like. Whether that’s a Taylor Swift record, a Punch Brothers record or a club knocking hip hop record, you have a sound in your head. The challenge is going to be reaching that sound. The biggest focal point on a mix, especially when you’re first starting to mix, is balance and frequency. If the balance between your instruments and vocal is correct, you’ve covered a ton of ground. Next, the frequency balance will make or break the record. Too much low end will overdrive radio, ear bud, and car speakers. Too much mid-range will make the mix sound muddy and wooly. Too much high end will make the music abrasive and fatiguing on the ears. If you’ve recorded your instruments well, you shouldn’t have to boost any frequencies. So, focus on cutting the imposing ones. Once you have these two things under control, touch it with some reverb to give it a little space and life.
Without getting into a year-long discussion on compression, effects, and automation (see I’ve already lost you), if you can achieve a well-balanced easy listening release, people will enjoy listening to it. Honestly, it doesn’t have to compare to whatever is on top of the radio charts. Those people have a lot of money behind them to buy whatever it takes to get that major sound. However, you can surely compete on the indie level if you, again, give it enough time, effort and dedication.
Until next time,
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