‘’By stripping down their recording techniques to the bare essentials, we have captured a truly organic sound, the essence of what Heather Waters music is all about!’’
An Article by Briers Coetzee, Audio Engineer on the new album
THE CAMPERVAN COLLECTIVE. Volume 1
As many artists do, Heather Waters has been searching for years to achieve a distinctive recorded sound for her new album. Many artists go into studio without knowing or understanding how to create their own sound as it sounds acoustically or with their band. As a result their recordings can often be manipulated into a stereotypical, clinical sound, created by the studio and engineers involved.
In today’s easy accessible high tech world and South Africa’s fast growing music industry, the trend to use all the latest technology in the recording process also often results in extremely clinical sounding recordings.
Heather was looking for exactly the opposite. An organic, old-school-sound without it sounding, for the lack of a better word, cheap or gritty. We spent many hours listening to music, collecting reference material and analyzing it to understand how different sounds are created resulting in the best possible quality.
The Universal Sound
I understood that Heathers music is already a well-developed acoustic folk rock-style and Heather also has very distinctive sounding voice, these were both to contribute to the universal sound of the album. But we were looking for a new approach to recording her music, to find a specific universal sound birthed from the actual recording process.
I came up with three concepts; first we decided to use only one specific microphone for the entire recording (like drawing with charcoal instead of colour), secondly we concentrated on the drums and backing vocals taking us back to the roots of recording: using traditional miking methods (as with the likes of The Beatles and Rolling Stones).
The SM57 Project
Choosing one microphone was quite easy. I decided to stick to what I know and choose a microphone that I have commonly used in the past to mike up the most variety of instruments, namely the Shure SM57. I have used the SM57 in live environments on drums, bass amps, guitar amps, brass, vocals, acoustic guitars etc with decent results. It seemed like the obvious choice and we thought it was a great theme for the project. I thought it may also be a first for the South African recording history.
We did not want to over process the recording therefore the room acoustics was significant and principle to achieve the desired live sound that we were looking for. We decided to record at Alex Power’s Farmyard Studios in Gordon’s Bay. It is a humble but spacious wooden Wendy-house set in a relaxed and creative environment. Of the three rooms available to us, we chose the console room which gave us the room sound we were looking for.
One of the largest contributing factors to achieving the live, organic sound is the capturing of the drum sound. Heather had a specific drum sound in mind: we really liked the drum sounds of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, so I decided to take a similar approach. Instead of close miking the drums I placed three SM57’s around the kit to get a more realistic sound (what the drums actually sound like when you stand in the room). Almost happy with the sound I decided to mike the snare drum and kick drum separately to have individual control. The only thing missing was the bottom end on the floor tom so I placed a SM57 at the bottom of the tom to achieve this. To help with the organic feel, drum sounds were left open to ring and were not gated.
‘’It is said that if your instrument sounds good and you have captured it correctly you should not have to do any processing to make it sound any better.’’
We captured everything as real as possible. Originally we wanted to record everyone at the same time but because of logistics and finance (we financed the project ourselves) we could not achieve this. So we went for the next best thing: Final drums were recorded with the whole band playing to the metronome, thereafter the metronome was taken out and all other instruments final tracks were recorded to the live drums.
Another technique that I used in the album was the X/Y technique, or stereo miking technique. It worked very well on the backing vocals and harmonies. Instead of sending one person in the booth at a time to record his or her harmony/backing vocal, we had all the singers standing next to each other and used the stereo miking method (still only using SM57’s). This resulted in a natural stereo spread of vocals as they were standing in the room, instead of individual vocals tracks panned to replicate the effect. The song ‘The Money Came In Today’ is a good example of this.
Because we used the same microphone for the entirety of the project and were using traditional recording techniques, I was concerned that we might pick up phasing problems along the way. To avoid this I applied the 3:1 rule and constantly monitored the recording through a mono output on the desk, carefully moving microphones until reaching the desired result.
Moments of doubt
We had many mixed responses of hesitancy from various musicians and industry friends when hearing we were going to use an SM57 on the vocals too. Personally I did not share the same feeling and felt the warmer, analogue sound of the SM57 was exactly what we needed. Together with the warmth of the microphone, I used a Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster Pro pre-amp on the vocals which achieved a clear, crisp sounding effect, which we were very happy with.
The Finishing Touches
It was important to us that we approached editing and mixing with the same minimalistic approach as we had in the recording process. It is said that if your instrument sounds good and you have captured it correctly you should not have to do any processing to make it sound any better. We kept copy/paste to the absolute minimum. Tracks were grouped together and I only used multiband compression on the groups and only one type of reverb on the vocals. The SM57, recording methods and the room we recorded in served as the rest of our processing.
As I was involved with the project from pre-production stages, we planned to send the project off to a mastering engineer. Howard Butcher from Peace of Eden studios in Rheenendal was our first choice. We had noted that Howard specializes in acoustic folk style recordings and we felt that he would understand best what we were trying to achieve. His reputation precedes him, and we were not disappointed! We didn’t want to lose the essence of the album through the mastering process. Howard supplied us with, what I call a ‘neatly wrapped package tied up with ribbons’. We requested only a few minor adjustments as we were very happy with his results; he had kept it very organic and un-processed. However, it was so un-processed that we asked him to process it just a touch more – looking for more of a middle ground. Since the SM57 rolls off at 40Hz we asked for a little help on the low side to add some body, just enough so to not lose its essence. After that he widened the mixes just a little bit more and we were satisfied.
It was a great experience being a part of this unconventional recording project. By undertaking a project like this, it has required a lot of out of the box thinking for me and as an engineer, I found it has inspired one’s creative side which was a breath of fresh air.
Over the years a lot of magic in music has been lost, an original project like this has reminded me of why I decided to be a part of the music industry in the first place.
Live and Studio Sound Engineer
Helderberg, Cape Town