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The Case of Knowing Your Gear *Warning: Long, Nerdy Post*

Over the past couple of days, I’ve had some free time, and so I’ve been putting my gear through its paces. I’ve been testing out guitars through guitar amps, and swapping out different preamps in the process. What I’ve realised is that you can get a vast array of tones just by changing one variable.

For the tests, I just had an SM57 on the centre of the cone, and just wanted to see how much difference in tone I could get from just swapping out one variable at a time. By having the 57 on the centre of the cone, this gave me the brightest tone possible, and was a good starting point to base everything else around. I started out by swapping out mic pres when I had a re-amped signal feeding my Fender Champ. Swapping out the pre alone made a huge difference. I started out with my A-Designs Pacifica, as I’ve found I’ve really been enjoying the sound of this pre on lots of sources recently, but never put it through its paces on guitar. Characteristically, the Champ is chimey, bright and punchy; something you would expect from a Fender amp.

Fender Champ

With a 57 on the centre of the cone through the Pacifica, and the re-amped signal being a Fender Telecaster, this only accentuated the brightness of the amp itself. The Pacifica in itself is quite an open mic pre with a little bit of an extended bottom end. If something’s buried, the Pacifica can really bring things to the top of a mix with ease, and doesn’t particularly get crunchy and gnarly when you push the gain pot a bit. In this case, the Pacifica didn’t work well for an already bright amp. I then moved onto the Great River ME-1NV, somewhat of an opposite direction to the Pacifica. While the Great River gave more bottom end, it still had a clear top. Pushing the mic pre’s input stage and dialling back the output added more lows until it just got crunchy whilst retaining the top end pretty well. The impedance button helped tame the high end a bit, but not overly so. I went to my Hairball Bronze which was quite like the Great River, but not overly heavy on the bottom end, but just extended and somewhat of a shaved top end. Again cranking the input and dialling back the output just got crunchy. Finally, I went for my Warm Audio WA12. By padding the input signal and hitting in the tone button, this added a thick gooey mid range that the other pres didn’t, which really worked well for the chimey Champ and 57 combo.

Amp Maker PP18

I tried a couple of guitars through the Amp Maker. First off, I tried my Les Paul. I think I started off with the Great River, which I found sounded really cool with the input stage dialled back but cranking the output stage. It kind of rounded off the top a bit whilst adding just a little bit of low end presence. Really quite hard to describe, it just sounded really cool. I tried out the Hairball Bronze which didn’t have as much the top end of the Great River, but still a good competitor either way, and sounded really quite similar on this application. The WA12 shaved off the top end a bit too much for the amp and the forward, gooey mid range didn’t really work for an amp that is already accented in that range. Finally, I tried out the Pacifica, which sounded absolutely phenomenal on this setup. The upper mid range presence really brought out the best qualities of the amp and guitar, whilst retaining just enough bottom end to know it’s there. The Amp Maker PP18 is a classic sounding amp, a pretty apparent bottom end with a clear top when you dial in the tone knob. Would definitely work for Rock but would also sound really cool for Punk and Hardcore bands as well.

Jet City JCA22H

Keeping with the Gibson, I thought the Gibson through the Pacifica would be a good starting point. The JCA22H has more of a mid range bark than the Amp Maker PP18, and is definitely more gainy at lower volumes. With the gain on 1.5-2 and the master volume on about a 6-7, the amp had enough gain to rival the Amp Maker. To get the volume, I pushed the master up to a 7-8. Pushing the amp further than this just made the gain overly saturated with no defined string note which was remedied with the presence control on the amp. This amp would definitely be great for modern Rock, Metal, Punk and Pop Punk styles. The Pacifica did pretty well with this amp, although I think the Great River probably would’ve added more of an apparent bottom without sacrificing any of the top end. Turning the bass knob on the amp all the way up didn’t really do what I wanted, and the Pacifica didn’t really add anything to the bottom itself. Playing with my Telecaster through this amp resulted in less gain with more high mid apparent. The 57 through the Pacifica and a Telecaster didn’t really work with this amp, but the Warm Audio WA12 probably would be a good choice to shave off the top slightly whilst thickening up the lower mid range.

Conclusion

I really wanted to get to know my equipment better and what it does. I’ve got a lot of equipment which I’ve never really known what it can and can’t do. It’s incredible how different the tone can be without swapping out a mic, but rather swapping out the mic pre, amp or guitar. By moving the mic a bit too, you’re certainly able to get 80% of the tone you want before reaching for another mic or mixing without the need for more mics. I usually shove a couple of mics on each speaker on a 2×12, aimlessly plug them into my favourite pre at the time and just see what happens. Going through this process has made me more aware of what my gear actually does and will give me a more informed choice when I record stuff in future. Really informative process.

Light Fire Down – the last ever session

Yesterday I recorded one last acoustic song for Light Fire Down. We recorded at my house for a change, and I stuck Rich in my DIY guitar/vocal booth in the spare bedroom of my house. We tracked with Rich’s Ibanez acoustic which was mic’ed with an NT2000 and Sontronics STC-1. Rich’s acoustic sounds pretty middley, and the acoustic itself doesn’t have a whole lot of low end. I was initially running both mics through my A-Designs Pacifica, but just found I couldn’t get the low end I needed, so ended up putting the NT2000 through my Great River ME-1NV and cranking the input a fair bit. For vocals I had Rich sing through the NT2000 which went through my A-Designs Pacifica; the Pacifica is a really awesome mic pre on a lot of sources, and having Rich’s vocals go through it just sounded great.

I’ve also been using my NT2000 a lot more recently, as I find my KSM32 doesn’t really provide an up-front vocal sound. It’s kind of sat in retirement for a while as I’ve been using my KSM32s a lot more, but I’ve realised it’s an incredibly versatile and useful mic. Overall the session went great, and I think the acoustic track is a good send off for an otherwise brilliant third EP. By far the best-sounding material I’ve heard from them.

The band have since gone their separate ways, which I’m gutted about, and I can’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia when I think about the past three years. Recording these guys really put me on the local engineer map, and I’ve grown as an engineer like they’ve grown as songwriters. I think you can hear a real progression in production and songwriting from the ‘Lighthouse’ EP up to this latest release. Max has started a new band, and I hope the others follow suit and continue with some musical endeavours.

Kutna Hora – Live Session

Back in early-mid June, I recorded new local band, Kutna Hora, live in a Village Hall close to my house (the same venue where I recorded drums for Summer Drive Home, TATE and Conchairto.

Recording live is always fun, but also precarious at the same time. Everything has to be more-or-less perfect when you hit the record button, as there’s little room for error. The band need to be comfortable that they can play the song live, and the mic positioning in relation to where the instruments have been placed in the room is so important. The guys are quite influenced by Sonic Youth and Joy Division, so this gave me a basis for how it should be recorded and mixed.

For the first time ever, I tried out a tip (which I can’t remember where I heard it from), where I picked up Ian’s (drummer) floor tom and started walking around the room to hear where it sounded best. From there, I let him set up the rest of his kit, and placed amps in relation to where the drums were in the room. I walked around each amp to hear where the biggest null point was, which turned out to be the side of the amps.

I used figure 8 mics where I could, as they generally have the best off-axis rejection. I used a mono overhead placed more towards the shells than the cymbals to pick up a good representation of the kit, the mic used was an NT2000 in figure 8. Unlike other sessions I’ve done, this mic was about 80% of the drum sound. Mics around the kit were generally a standard array; 57 snare and hi tom, 421 mid and floor tom, Heil PR40 kick in, KSM32 kick out (and also KSM32 as a room mic).

For bass, I took a direct signal and also mic’ed with an AKG D112. Andy’s bass tone was pretty boomy through his Trace Elliot, partly due to the 15″ speaker, and also due to the EQ settings he had set on the amp. During the mix, the mic recording was mainly for the beefy low end to fill out the bottom, and the DI for the string note. I’ve realised that the D112’s cardioid pickup pattern is pretty loose and picks up a lot of bleed, so during the mix this caused some issues with colouring the drum sound which I had to address. In the end I sidechained the snare signal to a multiband compressor on bass and ducked the offending frequency.

Guitars were pretty easy, generally. Fred played through his Hiwatt through an Orange 1×12 and Jay played through a vintage Orange head and 4×12 cab. I initially used Cascade Fathead IIs for both amps, but found it sounded horrible on Fred’s 1×12 so I swapped it out for a 57. For Jay’s 4×12, I still used the Fathead II.

Surprisingly, the Fathead II got quite a bit of bleed from the drums even though its null was facing them, and it was also blocked off partially by Fred’s 1×12 which was propped up on his Marshall 1922 cab. During mix time, I again sidechained the snare to the a multiband compressor on Jay’s guitar.

For vocals, we tracked them separately, as it would’ve been impossible to record vocals live with everything else, as Andy’s vocals are soft and more-or-less spoken word. Andy uses effects when doing his vocals live, and to keep with the band’s sound, I decided to track through his vocal effects pedal. I put him in a small hallway which we padded out with drum bags and a roll of scrap carpet which Ian uses for a drum mat.

Vocals were recorded through an SM58 for the effected vocal, but I took a safety vocal just in case with an SM7B. Vocals went through both channels of my newly-acquired A-Designs Pacifica, which really brought the vocals up front. In the end, the 58 was fine for the mix, so I ended up keeping it and scrapping the SM7B track. Great session overall.

Conchairto radio play

Conchairto got some radio play tonight on Weymouth’s own AIR 107.2. We’re unfortunately not a band anymore, but Billy put some feelers out while we were still together back in November (or something) to see if we could get some air time, and they scheduled us in for today.

I mastered this EP to go against the grain of the typical ‘Loudness Wars’ levels, and the EP has a dynamic range value of about 10dB (around 8dB on the loudest points), I think. Preserving the dynamics means that I retain all the punch and clarity, which has served me well when radio squash our EP so that it has a dynamic range of 5dB! You can hear in some places the slow release time of the limiter as it recovers from the loudest parts of our songs, particularly on the outro of “Weathered Skin” where Max is doing some snare rolls.

Have a listen to the wavey audio of the broadcast that I pinched below.

So, where’s this Conchairto EP?

So, to the very few people that probably read this blog, you may have read my previous posts that I’m in a side project band called Conchairto. You may be wondering where our EP that I’ve written about is. Well, it’s now fully recorded and mixed, and just needs to be mastered. This EP has taken way longer than expected; partly due to life commitments, and partly due to putting it off.

We started recording this EP back in April, and life commitments have since got in the way for me. Juggling a full-time job with its own commitments, social life and this EP has been quite the task. With the other band members, it’s been a case of recording their parts, and that’s it. For me, it’s been a case of recording everyone in the band, recording my parts, mixing and editing everything, and then mastering it all. What should have taken about a few months to record and release has taken almost 9 months.

Having said all this though, the finish line is in sight, and I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved with this EP. I think people are going to like what we’ve come out with. With Christmas fast approaching, we’ll most likely have the EP released in January.

On this day

Everyday I check my ‘On This Day’ tab on Facebook to reminisce on old times. Today marks the 4th anniversary of recording an old local band, Diss, at university. I even wrote a blog post or two about it which you can read HERE and HERE. We recorded 10 tracks in two days in true Punk Rock fashion. Prior to the two sessions we did, I was forever posting statuses on Facebook asking if any bands from home wanted free recording in one of uni’s studios, as it was for an assignment I had to do. A friend of mine, Carl, gave me a call and I told him the details. He found me a band that needed some recordings, and I was put in contact with, what is now, Ash and Dan from Light Fire Down.

They travelled from home on the train with nothing but the clothes they were wearing (and some spares) and their guitars. They stayed at the Premier Inn right next to uni, and I remember Ash having his spare clothes wedged into the front zip pocket of his soft gig bag. Dan was hungover and had another beer before the session in the SU. We recorded it all live besides guitar overdubs and vocals. First day was dedicated to instruments, and second day was vocals. After the second session, I think me, Pete and Dexter went back to Dexter’s accommodation and ordered Domino’s and drank beer until 2am… and had lectures the next morning. Man, I miss uni life.

Sessions like this were awesome to experiment with and try out things that I’d read but never put into practice. We decided to mic overheads in a recorderman array, had an MD421 in the kick with my DIY subkick I’d just made outside. We even recorded gang vocals using mid/side. Guitars were recorded through a Peavey Valve King with a 57 and 421, bass was straight DI.

I find it kind of funny that recording a band that didn’t really go anywhere or do anything turned out to the main factor for recording Light Fire Down’s two EPs because Ash and Dan liked the work I had done for them with Diss. You always hear “never say no to an opportunity because it can lead to better things” or something similar, but this really did happen with Diss. I was given the chance to make a good impression and that band have since hired me again because they liked my work.

Conchairto vocal sessions

So it’s been a really long time since I last wrote a blog post (July, I see). The Conchairto project took a backseat for a few months because of life. This past month, I’ve had the entire house to myself, and have been able to practice vocal warmups without being mocked. I initially laid down vocals for a track called “Vultures”, but I wasn’t happy with them. The best takes I got were whilst I was sat down, which isn’t really the best way to sing. So, I took a step back from the project for a while, and spent about a month going through a vocal warmup routine and sticking to it.

I went back to the project a couple of weeks ago to record, what I thought was, the hardest track on the EP, “Weathered Skin”… I was kinda dreading singing it, as the second verse is pretty high despite having some shouty bits. After spending a couple of hours getting the takes and being completely satisfied. One song is completely finished.

Vocal chain so far has been pretty simple. Shure SM7B > UA Apollo. Depending on Billy’s voice for “Dark Cloud”, I’m most likely either going to use the SM7B, or a KSM32 through the Apollo.