The Backup Plan
This is the fourth installment in guest blogger Ryan Hewitt’s series on recording. Today he discusses the value of backup plans. If you missed his last post on staying to get the job done, you can read it here.
Have you ever meticulously planned out your recording setup only to use absolutely none of the equipment you thought you’d want to use? Yeah, me too.
In the days leading up to a big tracking date, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to record, how it should sound, and what I need to make those sounds happen. I think about mics, polar patterns, preamp colors, placement of instruments and players in the room, amps, drums, speakers… And then I boil it down to an input list with all the patches that I want to start with, and a map of where everything should be placed. This is, of course, not a new concept, and this is how sessions have been set up for years (refer to the Recording the Beatles book for examples).
What I consider crucial to a modern recording session, especially one where we’re tracking a band live, is to have backup plans immediately accessible to keep things going should my plans not work out as well as hoped, and also have extra inputs available for last minute additions or changes in recording plans.
We all know that it is important to choose the right mic to get the right sound, but even if you’ve worked in the room before, everything changes when the musician and the instruments are different from the last adventure. What may have worked perfectly last week may work terribly this week, so what’s Plan B in this case? Having alternate mics standing nearby can be a huge time-saver, make the session go so much smoother, and get you better sounds in the end. For the kick drum alone, I have my arsenal of 3-5 different mics sitting in a box near the kit, and I’ve taken to setting up 2 pairs of overheads to have immediate options. No matter how carefully we consider what should work, sometimes it just doesn’t, and having an easy substitute can make it easier to realize this problem and move on to something better.
“Just as important as having the right mic for the situation, is having any mic at all to throw into the ring for a hot overdub as the session is moving along.”
On every tracking date, I set up some “utility mics” that can be do a descent job of recording just about anything that might come along; some 57s, some 87s, some direct boxes. All hooked up to preamps, tested, and patched into Protools, ready to go at a moment’s notice to record the latest great idea. Handclaps? Percussion? Backing vocals? Keyboard? Acoustic guitar? Accordion? Covered. Session moves on. People are happy.
For me, this concept originates once again from live recording gigs on remote trucks. Engineers in the field always specify backup scenarios to save the show in case of a failure. Spare vocal mics, spare direct boxes, my father even going so far as to record a compressed and uncompressed lead vocal track to guard against clipping on early digital recordings. It wasn’t until I got into a session with Jim Scott, a former Record Plant Remote engineer as well, that I saw such practices used in the studio. The speed with which Jim could adapt to the flow of a session having just a few extra recording paths set up was astounding, and the level of creativity unleashed by this flow was literally unstoppable. Having been on sessions where every mid-session change of direction was met by an exhaustive A – B – X test for the absolute best sound possible, I have found merits to both, but I can tell you which sessions were more fun and had great flow, and how many of those “perfect sounds” were subsequently thrown away or buried in a mix.
All of this said, the balance between ideal sound and any sound is so dependent of the intent and vibe of the session… Clearly, if you’re doing a live-in-the-studio recording, the intent is vibe, and so keeping things moving with good planning will maximize both, for the sake of the collective energy of the assembled musicians. Later on in overdub mode, there may be more time and energy available for finding the ultimate sound, testing different equipment along the way, creating another kind of vibe.
Always in record.
Do you have a backup plan in place when working in the studio? Check back next Wednesday for the return of guest blogger Steve Lagudi!
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