What I’ve learnt from being in recording studios over the years.
For as long as I can remember. I’ve always spent a lot of time in recording studios. There's just something about being in a studio that makes me feel relaxed, comfortable and, above all, happy.
My first experience of using anything near professional equipment was doing sound effects for a theatre production at college. I don't remember what the production was, and I don’t remember the effects we used. But what I do remember is the sheer joy of choosing the sounds (from a library of BBC vinyl!), transferring them to tape (yes, reel to reel tape) and then physically cutting the tape and sticking it together and marking and cueing and preparing everything to play that recording for the play in front of a live audience. By the way, I do remember that nobody even noticed the sound effects, which means we did a good job!
I was also a live sound engineer (well, an apprentice sound engineer, I suppose) and stagehand and lighting tech at my local arts centre, the West End Centre - shout out to John and Jules and the Westie crew - so I was familiar with the whole concept of sound desks and effects racks and how to use microphones properly.
But being in a band and recording in a studio introduced me to a whole new world of awesome recording techniques like double tracking. In case you don't know, double tracking is where you record two versions of the same thing and then you put them in the left and right speakers to create a wall of guitars, for example, or really wide vocals for a chorus. Or just do it all the time like Dave Grohl.
And then there’s backwards reverb.
For the uninitiated, reverb (not ‘echo’!) is that effect you get, for example, in a church, where everything sounds big and far away. It’s an effect that, by its very nature, can only exist after you’ve heard the original sound. But when the band were recording their first 7” single (yes, on vinyl!), I wanted to have this effect BEFORE the vocal and had no idea how to explain it to the engineer other than ‘backwards reverb’. Luckily, the engineer and producer was the amazing Steve Mack (of That Petrol Emotion) and he had a trick up his sleeve.
Here's what you do:
Record the vocal.
Turn the tape over (physically turn the tape over so it’s playing backwards)
Add the reverb and record the reverb to tape.
Turn the tape back over so it plays forwards.
You’ve got yourself a ‘backwards reverb’ effect.
This, to me, was proper ‘thinking outside the box’ and made me look at sound engineering and recording in a completely different way. In that session I learnt recording techniques and tips and tricks for playing in a studio that I still use today.
Anything is possible, you’ve just got to find a way to do it. Remember, George Martin recorded the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper onto 4-track tape (that’s where you can only have a maximum of 4 things playing at the same time).
And with today’s technology, the possibilities are literally endless…