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Smart Session Plans

By Al Schmitt
I am often asked to discuss the important elements to successful recording. Obviously, there are many. I'll devote a number of columns to a discussion of these elements. Then I'll talk about mixing. And finally, I'll talk about other elements, like 5.1 Surround Sound.

The first important element of recording for me is the planning process prior to the actual recording session. The better this is done, the smoother the recording sessions are going to go.

At the outset, I'll talk to the producer and determine what he is trying to do and what it is he's after. Is this music to be part of an album or is it for a single? Is it going to be done in layers, meaning recording rhythm, then maybe the vocals and background parts, then overdubbing the strings, brass, guitars, etc.? We discuss how we're going to record this music: whether we're going to use 48-track digital or analog (some producers have strong allegiance to one or the other) and if analog, whether we're going to use Dolby SR.

Depending on the type of music to be recorded, we'll decide the type of tape we're going to use (lately I've been using BASF 900), and at what levels we're going to record. If I'm recording non-Dolby, we will record at plus 6 over 185. If I'm recording Dolby SR, we'll record at plus 3 over 185.

After making these basic determinations, I talk to the contractor and find out how many musicians are going to be on the date and who they are. This is important to me because, having worked with so many of them for so long, I often know how they play and what their sounds are like. For example, I may know how many toms they have on their drums (whether it's two, three or five) and this helps me plan my mic setup. I'll contact the studio and get a list of their microphones. And I own a large compliment of mics. Together, I usually have what we'll need. But I determine up front if we'll need to rent any.

Then, I begin visualizing how I'm going to set up the studio and what microphones I'm going to use. I'll plan how I'm going to lay out the board as far as what mics are going to go in what positions on the board. I usually start by putting the bass first, then the drums, then the keyboards, and then the guitars. So all the rhythm section would be first. Percussion might be next. If there is brass, I'll set up the saxophones, the trombones and the trumpets. Then I'll have the ambience mics for the brass. If there are strings, I'll put the harp first (if there is one), then the violins, the violas, the celli, and the upright basses.

Once the board is set up, I'll think of how I'll take these instruments and put them to tape. For example, if I have a direct pickup on the bass and a microphone on the bass, I will combine them and put them to track 1. Then drums will be next. I will put the kick to track 2; the snare to track 3; the high hat to track 4; and then depending on what there is, I might put the toms next and then the overheads or I might combine the toms and overheads together. This will depend on how many tracks I have available and on how big the session is.

Next, I will put the keyboards, whether it is acoustic pianos, Rhodes or synths. All the keyboards will be together or close to each other on the tracks. Then, I'll put the guitars, then perhaps the vocal, the ambience mics, the saxophones, the trombones, and then the trumpets. Then it'll be the strings and, depending on how many tracks I have left, I will determine how I lay out the strings. I may use two tracks for the violins, one for the viola and I may use just one track for the cello and basses. Again, the layout of the strings depends on what my options are as far as number of tracks remaining.

So, that's how I lay out the board. I'll also set up all my echoes, which are merely for monitoring purposes at this point. If I'm doing a live date, the chances are I will have enough space on the board to use two or maybe three echoes. I'll set up an echo for the vocal, maybe an EMT-250. I'll set up an echo for the strings, and then the brass.

If I'm working at a studio like Capitol, I'll use a live chamber. I'll use a separate chamber for the drums, and for the brass and saxes. I'll use these merely for monitoring purposes. They will not go to tape. I'll print everything dry.

Echoes will be added during the mixing. I'll get a setup sheet from the studio and then discuss it with my assistant, Bill Smith. We'll talk with the studio assistants -- one or two depending on how big the session is going to be -- and discuss what we're going to be doing, how we're going to lay out earphones, where the instruments are going, what mics we're using with what instruments and where the mics are going to go. This sets everyone on the same page before we even begin. Then, about three hours before the downbeat, we set up the room.

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Related Keywords:recording, mixing, 5.1, Surround Sound


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