How to Take a Creative Turn: Alternative Recording and Mixing Tips
This being NYC, we’re all about alternative lifestyles. Veganism? Check. Living totally off the grid??? Check! Kitesurfing to work?? DO IT!!!!
While you’re firing up your solar-powered DAW in anticipation of finishing off your project at BB4, we wanted to offer up some of our favorite alt mixing and recording techniques. While some aspects of audio must bend to the unyielding laws of physics, others invite – nay, demand – an eye and ear for the wild side. Remember, some of music’s most memorable moments were borne of rule-busting and happy accidents.
To get to the unexplored regions, it’s all about attitude, and keeping your ears open. “Sometimes experiments fail, and you have to stick with what works,” says Rafael Planten, Founder of BB4 Studios. “But when an out-of-the-box concept hits, the excitement is palpable. That’s something we experience frequently when we’re reamping, for example. It’s always good to open up your options and see what magic might happen.”
Here are some mixing and tracking gamechangers we’ve been enjoying lately at BB4.
At the centerpiece of every song with a singer is the vocal track. When she feels the need to deviate from the classic route on hip hop or rap tracks, BB4 Studio Manager/House Engineer Kiara Mudd will place delay on the ad libs. “It adds space to the main lead vocal on the track,” she says. “I’ll use H-Delay from Waves, where I usually start with the ‘Rapvox’ preset, then adjust it from there.”
Another trick Mudd offers up is to place distortion on electro or pop vocals, then automate the effect. “If you turn the knob on distortion, it can start sounding like an instrument,” she explains. “That can work well for the hook of a song, or maybe from the transition from a verse into a hook. I like to use the AIR Distortion that comes with Pro Tools – that gets me the results I want most easily. While this may sound like it’s the classic ‘telephone’ or ‘AM radio effect, I use this particular distortion technique with an ear for complementing the instruments that are happening within the track.”
For getting extra-groovy with guitar, the aforementioned reamping provides endless (if labor-intensive) inspiration. It can make a real guitar sound like its in a bigger space. If you’re talking MIDI tracks, reamping can bring additional weight beyond simply applying reverb.
Another way to play with the sound is with pedals. In a previous BB4 article we dished on our fave studio stompboxes – try one or more of these babies on your creation, and you could have an instant hit on your hands (the sonic umami that is Passion Pit comes from nonstop pedal experimentation, for example). “Pedals are fun,” Planten says. “You can mess with the knobs and speeds, hands-on, to see what can happen. What you get isn’t always usable, but when it is, it changes the game.”
Working ITB, Planten likes to see what happens via the AIR Filter Gate inside Pro Tools. “We’ll print the guitar track, then have some fun with it,” he says. “We like to shuffle it around, reverse it, EQ it, automate the effects, and more. When we’re done sometimes its not even guitar anymore, it’s something with a spacious and airy sensation.”
Once again, we recommend reamping for revitalizing your low end. OR how about alt amping? Recently we placed that bass through a vintage Peavey guitar amp, miked it up, and came away with an acoustic, old-skool sound that we never expected.
While high pass filter engagement is typically associated with bass, Mudd reminds to not neglect the low pass filter when mixing the instrument. “That way all of the other instruments and vocals aren’t competing with the high frequencies that the bass might have. For sub bass I can go as low as 2 kHz, and for synth it can vary between 5 and 10 kHz.”
Don’t fear the flanger! Or try giving the drums a telephone effect, just on one part of a song, like the bridge. You can try adding that effect to just one instrument in the drum group, but usually we find it needs to go across all of the drums to make an impact.
Free Your Mind
Admittedly, actively seeking to make accidents happen sounds like a bit of an oxymoron. But if you know you need to get left-of-center, it’s perfectly fine to give that notion a nudge.
“When I want to just see what happens, one thing I’ll do is just look through a plugin’s presets,” Mudd explains. “For example, there’s this effect in Native Instruments Komplete called ‘Guitar Rig,’ which has a lot of presets that are good for instruments far beyond guitar. Try applying them elsewhere and see what happens.
“You can also experiment by pushing the level of plugins way beyond what’s considered ‘correct’,” she continues. “Whether its reverb, delay or compression, feel free to take it to the extreme.”
Along the unorthodox way, the best strategy is…NOT to have one. “Don’t worry about whether or not this is a technique you’ll be able to duplicate later on,” counsels Planten. “When you’re in the zone, just let it happen. Creative forces are invisible – magic can happen when you realize there are no rules.”
Got more audio adventures to share? Book a session at BB4 and brainstorm as you track, mix and master – out of the box concepts are most welcome!