While recording Youth in the Bedlam Six studio house, Louis put a few questions to the album’s engineer, Dan Watkins. Apart from his role as the band’s bassist, Dan is also the technical director of Debt Records and the co-founder of WR Audio.
Noise is obviously an issue. There’s the risk of annoying the neighbours with drums and instruments, plus noise from outside getting into our mics. Acoustics is the other problem. Normal sized rooms in houses with plastered walls tend to have a boxy, almost twangy sound to them. This can be combatted using acoustic baffles, and it’s astonishing how effective it can be just to hang a humble duvet hung behind the microphone.
What do you take into account when investigating each space?
I basically just go around clapping. If you know what you’re listening for you can gauge the sound of the room from a couple of claps. Any metallic twang is generally bad. We chose the library for most of our work and to act as the main control room because all the books, plus the fact that it’s got almost no flat surfaces, make it a very neutral dry room. The hallway is also good as that has an big, bright, interesting reverb.
We spent a lot of time getting the drums right during recording. What are the actual differences between the various shapes and sizes of microphone clamped onto the kit?
There are three basic types of microphone:
Each has its own character and every mic within those three general categories sounds different to each other. Condensers are sensitive and detailed; ribbons are warm with a rolled-off top end; dynamics can deal with high sound pressure levels and have become synonymous with certain sounds. Bass, snare and tom drums suit dynamics, generally speaking; condensers are better for cymbals and an overall drum kit sound. We didn’t use any ribbons, but they can work well as overheads.
In the past we’ve struggled with recording vocals in a way that completely satisfied us. Surely it’s not that difficult? What’s the problem and have we solved it this time?
You (Louis) have quite an aggressive voice. In technical speak, when you sing louder the frequencies around three to five kHz become very pronounced. A lot of mics that already have a natural presence peak at this frequency, so when these two factors are combined it results in a very strident sound. The mic you now use for our live shows has a very small presence peak compared to most live mics. In the studio, however, we’ve ended up using two mics at the same time to get the detail and warmth we need. We also tend to lean on dynamic EQ to dip those frequencies, but only when they’re loud enough to set off the processor.
People seem to have a fascination with the particular microphone pre-amps that studios use. I get asked a lot whether I have this pre-amp or that pre-amp. In truth – and this has been proved in a number of blind tests – modern pre-amps are almost impossible to tell apart. The room in which you record and mix is the key. Great studios have great rooms, quality instruments, a selection of good mics and – probably most importantly – top engineers who know what they’re doing. These days even the most basic recording set-ups are capable of better results than on most records from the ’60s and ’70s, so it really is down to the person operating it. Oh, and the musicians, of course – they make a difference!
Why do people still favour expensive studios rather than just finding a decent room and investing in some good mics (or getting someone like you to help them for a fraction of the price)?
Because they’re playing at being rock stars. There’s also a presumption that a fancy studio equals a great result. In reality, of course, the principal limiting factors are time, effort and ability rather than the studio you use.
Would the recording set-up in the Bedlam studio house suit all bands, or are there some genres that need a different treatment? Would you recommend this process to others planning to record an album?
I would always recommend a process in which musicians live and work together. The process of one musician recording their part, then another, then another without them ever being in the same room tends to suck all the life out of a recording. As for the specific set-up, I think it would suit any band playing instruments from any genre – though electronic and dance music tend to have different tech requirements.
Are there any problems you expected before we started? Did they manifest themselves as predicted and, if so, how were they overcome? Any nasty surprises?
I tend to over-plan everything. I hate not having detailed technical specs of bands before a gig and, in the same vein, I will plan a recording session down to every eventuality, so generally speaking most surprises end up being good ones. It helps that we know this set-up backwards by now and that we check all the equipment and wires work properly before we leave for the session – it saves on tracking down faults when we get on location.
All that’s left is for everyone to stay friends for the duration of the recording process!