Getting the Most Out of Your Kit
Husky punch up their demos from Berlin, and producer Matt Redlich shares his tips on getting three sounds out of one small-room drum recording, and double dipping with analogue gear.
“We were in the thick of things, all day and all night,” said Husky Gawenda. “The best time to get a bit of sleep in Berlin is during the day.” He and Gideon Preiss, Gawenda’s cousin and the other core member of the group Husky, were based in Berlin for eight months in 2015, using its proximity to the rest of Europe to hack the economics of touring the world as an Australian band. “We had six European tours, and two to three weeks between each tour,” explained Husky. “To keep coming back to Melbourne wasn’t financially viable.”
Berlin felt like home for the Melbourne-based pair. “A lot of people say Berlin is quite similar to Melbourne,” said Preiss. “Just a turbo-charged version.” It felt even more like home after one of the band’s first shows. “We met this guy at the show, Oliver,” explained Gawenda. Oliver was a fan of the band and they got talking about how they were staying in Berlin and needed a place to write. Turns out Oliver is a lawyer with a vintage guitar habit and a studio in the basement of his family home. The next day they were riding their bikes over from Kreuzberg to dig a bit deeper. “He showed us the gear — a kit, bunch of keyboards, amps and vintage guitars — then said, ‘I’m trusting you with these keys. Come whenever you want,” recalled Gawenda. “So we did. We’d ride there and just jam for days. It was pretty lucky.”
GETTING A BUZZ ON
It was the beginning of Husky’s latest album, Punchbuzz, a more diverse and electric collection than the acoustic folk-focused Ruckers Hill. The pair struggle to write while touring, so the output from Oliver’s studio was less about fleshing out songs than jumping on instruments and jamming ideas into iPhone voice memos. “A lot of those recordings are shocking, but the vibe is there,” said Preiss. “You capture the spirit with a little jam or idea, and that’s all you need to begin with.”
When they arrived home, Gawenda moved into a share house in an old mansion dubbed The Hotel, and the album really started taking shape. “It’s a place a lot of people were moving through, a very artistic community,” said Gawenda. “Block parties, mini festivals, things like that. I had a bedroom in that place, set up a desk, and started writing. It was a great place to dream up an album, and we demoed a lot of it there.”
Their gear consisted of an Apogee Duet with two lines into Pro Tools, and they used an AKG C414 and a Shure SM57 on almost everything. They worked with sampled drums for the demos, either programmed directly into Pro Tools or recorded using bass player, Jules Pascoe’s Akai MPC. Later on, drummer Aaron Light overdubbed the drums, which is where producer Matt Redlich came in. As well as producing, Redlich plays in the band Holy Holy, and the original members are old friends of Husky.
The demos had taken shape in a completely different order to the band’s normal process; guitar riffs, then drums and bass before any melody or lyrics were written. In the past, the songs would often begin with chords and melody, in a traditional folk method. “It was new for us and produced different results,” said Gawenda. Redlich was the right producer to push them further along that experimental line. “He was always up for going down the rabbit hole, which was liberating for us,” continued Gawenda. “We could explore sounds and rhythms we wouldn’t normally. We could explain things in wild ways and he’d often find it or something that represented that feeling.”
It took a while to build that trust though, and the first sessions didn’t exactly go to plan. The first two songs were tracked at a local Melbourne studio, and they were stress-filled days for a couple reasons. Firstly, Redlich chose to transport and set up all his outboard gear at the studio for a two-day session. Granted, his gear is all in rack cases and technically mobile, but “loading in one morning and loading out the next night, with 12 hours of recording per day in-between was stupid,” he admitted. “Trying to make good decisions was hard.” There were other problems like sound from a nearby rehearsal room bleeding into the space. “It wasn’t causing ‘actual’ trouble,” said Redlich. “It was just killing the vibe because you could hear it.”
The stress only enhanced the stakes of what was essentially a trial period. For Husky it was about getting a feel for working with Redlich, while he was figuring out what shape the project was going to take and what happened when he pushed them to play in different ways.
They both immediately went away on tour after the two days, giving them time to assess the situation. When they got back, their fresh ears were happy with the results. The silver lining of the Sound Park trial was the realisation they didn’t need to go to a studio to track live instruments. Matt was sharing studio space at The Aviary in Richmond so they decided to try recording drums in his small room. It wasn’t going to cost them anything more than a session fee to find out if it would work. If it did, the cost-saving was going to be helpful. “As crazy as it is sitting in front of a drum kit, then turning around and listening to speakers in the same room, it’s also amazing for communication,” said Redlich. “You’re metres away from the musician and getting vibes straight from them as well as seeing exactly what they’re doing. We did three songs that first night, and we thought it sounded better, all in all. Most importantly, it felt really good.” They had been angling for a small room, dead drum sound anyway when recording in the drum room at Sound Park. Redlich said he wouldn’t have even considered the idea if they were going for a big room sound.
When I put it back in the computer, it had this analogue ‘thing’ that just won’t go away, dammit! As much as I hate to admit it
DRUM MIKING TRIPLE THREAT
They recorded drums for three songs that first night, and only had to come back once more for another three. Between the two sessions, Redlich says things would have changed with the tuning, dampening and miking. However, he’s found some sweet spots for drum mics. He walked through the song Cracks in the Pavement, which has three completely different drum sounds derived from the same setup. In the verse, he mostly used two ‘overheads’ and a ‘kick in’ and ‘kick out’ setup to capture a ‘clickety-clackety’ drum sound, muting all the other channels. He reluctantly calls the placement of his two large diaphragm Neumann condensers — a CMV-551 and U47 — overhead, because they’re usually quite close to the kit and sometimes not over head at all. “I almost never do true stereo overheads,” he said. “It’s essentially that Glyn Johns setup. If you record drums, you’ll end up at that point some time as a good way to capture drums. In a room like this there’s no point having high overheads. If you had a very high ceiling it might be different. Up high you’re essentially miking the ceiling even if you point them at the kit.”
On the kick, he often places a Bock iFET on the resonant head: “It’s the perfect fader for low end sustain.” He then places a Shure Beta 52 inside the kick for click and attack. “Increasingly these days I’ll put it right inside, close to where the beater is,” explained Redlich. “I often find it sounds good if you angle it randomly as if it wasn’t set up properly.”
Later on in the arrangement he introduced the other elements of his drum sound, which included a snare mic and his kit mic. The kit mic is more often the centrepiece of his sound than the overheads, but in this case he saved it for the chorus.
“I’ll often put two totally different kit mics right above the bass drum,” he said. “If there’s two, one will be pointing more at the snare, and the other at the low tom or down at the kick. Usually it’s a U47 and a Beyer or Royer 121 ribbon mic. In this case, it was just a 121, quite close to the kit. It’s compressed — for a good time — and EQ’d to taste — sometimes to extreme — on the way in. They’re like the vibe mics, you should be able to solo them and have a drum sound. Ideally, you want the phase relationship of that mic to work with the close bass drum mic and the close snare mic, but sometimes it doesn’t and you can’t get it to gel properly while you’re tracking. There are all sorts of things you can do later to figure it out. Usually it’s out of phase with the fundamental of the drum but in phase at high frequencies, or partly out of phase with the kick, but mostly in phase with the snare. You end up with a weird matrix of possibilities that you can change with EQ. If you cut or boost a band, it will change the phase of that band. Ideally, it just works, then you can use the close mics to add a bit of extra definition, punch or crack in the snare, or focused low end in the kick.”
The other positive side effect of using less mics to make up your main image of the drums is the onus it puts on the drummer to balance the kit. “You can’t hide from it,” said Redlich. “If he’s hitting the hi hat too hard, or the low tom is ringing out too long — which is pretty much always the case with both of those things — then you’re going to have to deal with it.”
PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE MIX
The third drum sound in the track happens towards the end of the track and was a hybrid of the in-the-box drum mix and a parallel passive analogue mix Redlich had been playing around with. He has a passive four-into-one mixer wired into the back of his patch bay, and one day when he was having trouble getting a mix right he decided to break out of the box and see what he could come up with when he had his hands on some real knobs. “The mixer itself is virtually free; you can make it with five dollars of parts,” said Redlich. “Then you can use the gear you’re already using in the recording chain. It’s a great trick for getting double value out of your gear.”
He broke out the kick, snare, kit mic and tom through different hardware compressors, EQs and channel strips he has in his rack, including Universal Audio and Hairball 1176s, UBK Tweakers, a Distressor, various JLM Audio gear, and an Undertone Audio MPEQ1 channel strip. He couldn’t do true stereo, so he would process it in mono and do one pass with the high tom on the left, then switch the track feeding the stereo input and record a pass with the low tom on the right. “Then you’d have a stereo field — unlinked, but whatever,” explained Redlich. “It only took half an hour to do, but as soon as I plugged it in it sounded and felt really good. Plus, it was really fun. When I put it back in the computer, it had this analogue ‘thing’ that just won’t go away, dammit! As much as I hate to admit it.
“The truth is, on some songs the computer was better. The setups that worked in the computer were the ones that had taken ages to get balanced and were more complicated or subtle in the way they worked. Whereas, the analogue ones were more straight up, bigger and bombastic. There might be something to that. Also, I was having a good time, which introduced a positive energy and momentum into the whole process.”
He showed us the gear, then said, ‘I’m trusting you with these keys. Come whenever you want
Redlich used to be a die-hard analogue-only engineer. Up in Brisbane, his studio was based around a 16-track analogue tape machine, but he moved to mixing in the box “around the time plug-ins started sounding a lot better.” These days he’s heavily invested in Universal Audio’s UAD platform, with a mix of Apollo interfaces and UAD Satellites giving him a total of 24 DSP cores.
On the hardware side, he’s got enough high end preamps, dynamics and EQ processors to cover his tracking channel count, as well as a handful of outboard effects units. His requirements for real-time DSP are a lot lower than most entering the UAD game, so for Redlich it’s all about the sound of UA’s plug-ins. While he has the real gear to compare the plug-ins too, Redlich reckons it’s almost impossible to do an accurate comparison; whether because of internal gain structures, accurately analysing output levels or matching the true levels represented on controls. Although he’s technically minded, he mainly relies on using plug-ins a lot and asking the question, “Does that plug-in make me feel good and reach for it again, or skip past it on the list? I don’t think any 1176 plug-in I tried up until that point made me feel good or not forget about it. A lot of UA plug-ins have captured enough of the mojo of the original gear that I wouldn’t be upset if I had to use that. It’s past the threshold. However, I still feel there’s something the computer doesn’t have yet, especially when set at extremes.”
Redlich also loves the UA Console software and the ability to easily copy plug-in settings across to your DAW. “It’s like they use their own gear,” he said, noting that he’s also had no problems with updates breaking his system. “In pretty much every way, they are the gold standard of audio companies,” said Redlich, except for one point… not giving exact setting values. “Especially on the tape machine adjustments, which are some of the most important ones. You almost can’t tell if it’s moved. I guess their argument would be that you should listen like it’s a real piece of gear, but it’s not a real piece of gear and never will be. By that argument you should only be able to run one instance of the plug-in as well, so give us the features. They allow it on the Softube UA ones, because they program them differently. It’s so much better because you can note that you are at ‘2.81’, then try something else, but be able to return to that setting.”
He rarely prints plug-ins on the way in, except when he’s cranking a compressor for effect, or using an effect as part of a sound. “The sound at the beginning of Cracks in the Pavement is a synth through a Space Echo, printed and then reversed,” explained Redlich. “There’s no reason not to do that. Think of it like putting a pedal through an amp. You’re not going to record a clean amp signal then effect it later.”
Redlich isn’t afraid of printing effects live. For Cut The Air, an acoustic number reminiscent of Jose Gonzalez’s finger-picking style with an ambient bed, Redlich and Preiss manipulated two phaser effects pedals in realtime as Gawenda played the electric guitar part. “We split the guitar with a Little Labs STD, one of the best things I own,” said Redlich. “It’s like a cable extender, but it has an active FET part inside the jack end you plug into the guitar. You can plug it into an XLR lead that can be 100m long and just use a short jack lead into the amp. It can also be used as a splitter. So we split it into Mutron and Ibanez phasers, then into my Goldentone and Dr Z amps. Gids and I were on the phaser rate knobs doing what a Leslie does, emphasising different parts. We were listening to him play and as we felt it performed the speed control. There wasn’t a rationale, we’d just swell parts in and out. It was lots of fun.”
It was one of the last songs they recorded, and the only one without a fully fledged demo. “We ended up using drums I’d recorded years ago on my tape machine at my parent’s house,” said Redlich. “Ryan Strathie — the drummer from Holy Holy who used to be in Hungry Kids of Hungary — played all sorts of beats. I’ve got them in the computer, and every now and again I pull bits out and insert them as guide drums. They ended up sounding so good the whole song became built around them and there was no way we were going to replace them. It was also good having drums on a stereo track, because they’re done, you can make them brighter a bit, or not, and that’s it.”
For the most part, the process of recording Punchbuzz involved plugging the demos into Redlich’s Pro Tools session as a guide, using some of the original tracks — Gawenda: “Matt did some magic on them” — then re-recording parts over the top. At a minimum, it would become a base for them to lay some finishing touches on. On Spaces Between Heartbeats, they threw out the demo altogether.
“I had this instinct that the song could work in a totally different way,” said Redlich. “The demo was great, but I thought it was a little straight down the line and not as interesting as the other songs. We took a risk.”
Preiss was concerned that whatever path the song took, it must be definitive and not a remix of an idea. Redlich’s example was Grizzly Bear, who often “write a simple, catchy song then arrange it in a way that hides what the song was. You can do great things with that methodology or rationale. But you might not want to obscure the song like that. I didn’t want it to sound like it was obscuring the actual idea of the song. I wanted to make it more distilled, more obvious, and less distracting.”
Instead of building it completely from scratch, Gawenda recorded his vocals — in one of his and Preiss’ late-night stints — over the original version. Then they muted all the other parts and started again. “I put Gids on the Prophet 6 synth then used a bunch of UA effects live — Moog filter and delay — and did one take of it with the effects printed,” said Redlich. Next, he went against his own advice to print effects that make up a sound, taking them down the exact rabbit hole he was warning of earlier. “I said, ‘Now we’ve got to record it dry so I can put the effects on it later,” recalled Redlich. “It became a nightmare with me trying to replicate a sound we’d already done spontaneously.” In the end, “we just used the whole original take.”
“Matt said he wanted it to sound like you were floating in space or drifting on an endless ocean,” said Gawenda. “He went on to make it feel exactly like that.”
“Matt was great in that you could talk in very abstract terms,” agreed Preiss. “The process was liberating, exactly because you could explain songs in wild ways to him, and he was up for finding it or something different that still captured the spirit.”
“You could say, I want it to sound like ‘early morning dew,’ and he would make it sound like that,” said Gawenda.
Redlich said it wasn’t just Preiss who was hesitant about ditching the demo. When they decided to try a different path with the song, they all weren’t sure if it was the right approach. How could they be? While Gawenda was convinced as soon as he heard the first synth pass, it took Preiss another couple of months to sign off on it. “I loved the demo,” he admitted.
“The thing with Matt is he’s completely willing to stumble upon things,” said Gawenda. “So many sounds and ideas on the album happened that way. There was no fear.”
“Well, I was scared,” said Preiss.
“But he wasn’t,” continued Gawenda. “If something felt good, just follow it without thinking about the consequences. You’re going with what feels good, not what you think it should be.”