How to Capture a Live Feel in the Studio
When bands come to the Sweetwater Studios to work on a project, they’ll often talk about wanting to capture a “live feel” on their record. We’re happy to help, of course, but I’m often amused by the musicians’ reaction when I tell them that the best way to capture a live feel is simply for the band to play the songs together, all at the same time. That’s the short answer: play live to sound like you’re playing live, although there’s more to it, of course.
Most of our bands don’t necessarily want to play their songs completely live; they want to be able to fix mistakes, they want to be able to add additional instruments, and they’d like to be able to add harmonies that may not be possible with a fully live performance. But here’s an overview of how we achieve a live vibe with a band mostly playing electric instruments.
We start by asking the band to be well-rehearsed; if all the musicians know the material well, it’ll be much easier for each member to play without mistakes. Depending on the instrumentation of the band (and which of the band members are singers), we may suggest they practice all their songs without vocals. If the lead singer plays an instrument, we’ll also ask the band to practice all the songs with the lead vocals but without the vocalist playing at the same time. These two approaches cover two possible scenarios — the first is if the structure of the song is easier to understand (and follow) with the lead singer’s voice, it may be easier to have them sing and not play; the rest of the band will hear the vocal cues they might need to play the song live. Otherwise, I’ll go the other way, and try to capture the rhythm section without vocals, and then have the singer add the lead vocals after the band track is done. This way, the singer can concentrate on playing well, and then be able to concentrate on singing without the distraction of playing at the same time.
When we record bands in the Sweetwater Studios, we prefer to set the studio up to record the whole group at one time, with as many people as possible in the tracking room. The drums are set up in the main tracking room, with both close and distant microphones setup (the distant mics have a more ambient room sound that helps reinforce the “live” vibe). The bass player is also in the room, generally with the bass plugged into a DI box. The bass pedalboard in the studio has two DIs; one is a Rupert Neve Designs RNDI with a clean and uncolored sound, while the other is an Ampeg SCR-DI that offers a sound closer to the bass being plugged into an amp. We record the outputs of both Dis so that we can choose to use either (or both) when we mix each song. We also put electric guitar players in the tracking room with the drums and bass, with guitar speaker cabinets in an isolation (iso) booth. If there’s a keyboard player in the band, the piano is in an iso booth; so is the organ cabinet, though the organ itself is out in the room. Acoustic guitars are also put in an iso booth. This is all done so guitar amps don’t bleed into the drum mics, drums won’t bleed into the guitar mics, and neither will bleed into the piano or acoustic guitar mics.
When we have a singer who also plays an acoustic instrument, we may set up a pair of bi-directional microphones (also referred to as Figure 8 mics) that will allow them to play and sing at the same time with a decent amount of separation between the voice and the guitar. This gives us the option of using the live performance or, if the performance isn’t what the singer wants, replacing it. While I’ve occasionally gotten enough isolation with a pair of Figure 8 mics to be able to re-sing without replacing the guitar as well, it’s more common to rerecord both.
Astute readers may note that the above setup is simply our standard band tracking setup. The goal of that setup is to let the musicians see each other while maintaining enough isolation that we can fix any of the musicians’ mistakes, either punching in a section or replaying their whole track without excess bleed. After the basic tracking session is done, our usual method would be to overdub any additional instruments, record the final lead vocal and any background vocals, then mix the project.
So, where’s the “live feel” mentioned in the title of this blog? It’s in the very first paragraph — “The best way to capture a live feel is simply for the band to play the songs together, all at the same time.”