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By Bobby Z
The other night, while I was semi-comatose, half-watching the 10 oclock news, the phone jerked me to full consciousness as it rang wildly just inches from my ear. It was my old friend, Jimmy Matheson, from 35th St. Studios calling. Jimmy calls from time to time and we talk about bands, guitars, amps and his life as a sound tech and recording engineer. This call was typical of many calls before and, Im sure, many to come. The interesting thing about a conversation with Jimmy Mac, as friends refer to him, is that I always come away having learned something valuable with regard to our parallel involvement in bands as guitar players.
Jimmys lifelong experience, as both a professional sound engineer and a guitar player in several bands, has given him the knowledge and insight of what it takes to be the best sounding, most productive guitarist in both the studios and the clubs and concert stages that we frequent. This most recent conversation eventually turned to a couple of subjects that effect most guitar players at some stage in their careers.
Nowadays, if your band wants to break out of the basement or garage and play in front of a real live audience, chances are that you will either approach a club or an agent hoping to get a foot in the door.
Most clubs and booking agents will want a demo of your band before booking you. These people need a quality sample of what they are buying. Your job is to provide as good a sample as you and your band can afford to supply.
I am not going to talk about how to shop tapes around to get booked; rather, I am going to relate some stories, ideas and suggestions that came about from my conversations with Jimmy Mac that will ultimately save you some money and maximize your efforts.
Jimmy related a story about a young band that came into the studio to cut some tracks recently. While setting up for the session, it became evident that the guitar player just couldnt get his guitar to stay in tune. After about 20 minutes of fumbling around, Jimmy had to take the guitar and do a basic setup job for the guy -- strobe tune, bridge adjustment, and set the intonation. All this time the meter was running. The band was paying good money for studio time and the studio time was being used to adjust the guitar! For a band on a budget, this was money wasted. These things should have been taken care of long before entering the studio.
LESSON #1. Have your guitar in top condition before setting foot in the studio. For guitarists, have fresh strings, proper set-up, intonation set, good cords, amp working well, picks, slides, and accessories you need, ready and in perfect working order. This applies to bass players, as well. Drummers should pop some new skins on so they can be tuned to obtain maximum tone and timbre.
Another session Jim told me about began with a guitar player getting set up and punching out some chords and riffs while sound checking the lead track about to be recorded. However, every time this guitarist flicked a boost switch on his guitar, the sound farted out on him.
Frustrated, he bitched that their must be something wrong with the switch. Jimmy came out of the mixing room to see what might be wrong. He asked what was happening and the guitar player said, Every time I kick in the built-in preamp on this guitar, it sputters out!
Jimmy thought a moment and asked, When was the last time you changed the battery?
The guitar player looked at Jimmy wide-eyed and said, Battery? You mean I need a battery in this guitar?
Jimmy said, Yes, you do! How long have you had this guitar?
The guitarist said, About two years.
So you didnt know that your guitar needs a battery and youve had it for two years? Jimmy asked.
I guess so! said the guitarist.
With that, Jimmy dispatched an intern to the local Walgreens to get a couple of fresh 9 volts. A half hour later with a fresh battery installed, the guitar player revived his dying axe and breathed new life into his sound.
LESSON #2: Know your equipment and what it is capable of. The studio is not the place to start reading your owners manual. Like buying a new car, you need to familiarize with all the features of your guitar and amp. With a new car, an owners manual will tell you what oil to use, which spark plugs are required, how to open the hood, check transmission fluid and change a fuse. If you familiarize yourself ahead of time, it will save you time, money and aggravation, should a problem arise.
Your guitar and amp will usually have an owners manual, which you should also familiarize yourself with. If something requires batteries, you will know it. If you require a special tool to adjust a nut or bridge, you will know that, too. If you have special features on an amp, you will need to know how to use them. Features like line outs, power soaks, effects loops and proper adjustment of them are explained in the manuals. Read them and learn how to use your tools. At $30 to $100 an hour, you cant afford to chase around town for batteries.
Another time, Jimmy told me about how, after a band came in to lay some rhythm tracks, they took a copy back to the rehearsal studio so the band could rehearse with the tape. When they returned to the recording studio for some finishing tracks, they were well prepared and knew exactly what they wanted to record. The parts had been figured out and just needed to be committed to tape. End result: Less time spent -- money saved!
LESSON #3: Have your game plan ready and in place. If you go on a trip, you follow a map to help get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. This applies to your trip to the studio. Your demo is a journey that begins with a list of tunes, an idea to record them and a concept of what the finished product will sound like. You will also have a budget within which you need to accomplish all of the above.
Your road map will combine all of the above elements. Your trip should have as few stops as possible. Ideally, you should only have to stop for gas. However, if you get lost, you need to stop and ask for directions.
Getting lost in the studio could mean changing guitars, adjusting mic position, changing a guitar string, going out of tune, etc.
The key here is to get directions from the engineer or producer. They can hear defects in the sound, point them out and correct them. Since their job is to make you sound good, you should listen to them. Sometimes, we think we sound better than we actually do.
When you stand in front of your amp jammin away, you probably think that it sounds great -- lots of sustain, good tone, fat sound! But the microphone might hear it differently than your ear does. If the engineer suggests rolling off the gain a bit, try it! The experienced ear of a producer or engineer can tell you if your interpretation of your sound will be the same as what shows up on tape.
Since our ears have limitations that do not exist on electronic equipment, only experience will tell how a part will sound on tape. Live does not always equal Memorex.
LESSON #4: Be willing to accept direction. A slight change in your settings could greatly enhance your recorded sound. Utilize the knowledge and experience of those working the dials to make you sound better. Get an objective feel from them and accept any criticism constructively.
Once all the parts are recorded, its time to mix.
Mixing involves putting all the parts together to form a finished product. Assuming that all parts are satisfactory, you may want to add effects such as reverb, panning, flanging, etc. My advice is to keep it simple. If you are making a 10 minute demo to give to clubs or agents who book clubs, keep it simple, quick and to the point. Most will listen for 3 to 5 minutes before popping in another tape.
Use your best material. Hit em fast; hit em hard. Its the old saying, you dont get a second chance to make a first impression. Make your demo as good as you can for the budget you can afford.
If you can, make sure that you keep the masters. It may cost more, but if you need more copies, you can have them made from the masters rather than send out third generation tapes.
When you have a completed demo, you have shopped it around, and finally get a booking, all your effort will have been rewarded.
Now, its time to think about keeping a good sound in a live situation.
One of the key concepts that Jimmy taught me years ago was to use as low a stage volume as possible to still hear yourself, but not overpower anything else. Let the PA system feed your sound to the crowd.
I generally use smaller amps or amps with master volume controls that have great tone. I set my volume loud enough for me to hear, but quiet enough that not much bleeds directly to the crowd. My amp is miced and I let the PA pump out my sound. During sound check, I will go out to the board, because I have a wireless system, and listen to the EQ as it comes out the PA. This allows me to suggest to the sound tech any adjustments I feel I need.
Ive seen Jimmy do this at his live gigs so often, I dont even notice it anymore! When playing an outside festival, Ive seen Jimmy walk out into the crowd with his wireless guitar to get a feel of the sound from every corner of the audience.
LESSON #5: Let the amp produce the tone and the PA provide the volume. A small club doesnt need a 100 watt Marshall going full tilt. It may only need a tweed deluxe on 6 with a mic in front to crank it out. Try to blend with the rest of the band, not compete!
When playing a club, if they have their own sound system, they will usually have a sound man. More often than not, that sound man knows the strengths and limitations of the system and how to best utilize it. If you have your own sound man, it may do you well to have him to cooperate with the house guy. Granted, sometimes the house guy is nothing more than a bartender who has the night off, but a competent house guy who knows his system will usually do more good than harm. But, be sure to advance the gig with the sound man in order to give him a fighting chance of doing your show the way you want it. If you have any special requirements, let him know. Provide a set list, vocal list and any notes on where you need special effects. Provide the sound man with enough advance info as possible to help him or her do the best job possible.
There are so many variables and events that will shape countless studio sessions into either successful outings or outright disasters. Theres no doubt that during the course of time Jimmy will call me and tell me some more war stories and I can pass them along to you.
If someday you find yourself on the way to the studio to do a recording session, I want you to ask yourself a few questions:
Is my equipment in top working order?
Am I totally familiar with the workings of all my instruments and accessories?
Do I have a master plan of what I want to do in the studio?
Am I willing to listen to and follow direction and take advice?
Would Jimmy be satisfied with my level of preparation?
If you answered yes to all of the above, then you are on your way to a successful session.
If you answered no to any of these, then Im sure my phone will ring and it will be Jimmy with another war story, possibly about you! But if all goes right for you, please take the time to grab a copy of your demo and drop it off someday at.... The Guitar Shack!
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