Romain Berger //

Music Production Tips part. I

17 Jun 2014

Besides being a developer, I make music. I write and record a lot of stuff, and from time to time it happens to work.

Even though my music never got that much attention, I regulary receive messages of people asking me details on the gear and the techniques I use to record. So I thought I could write a few articles about that. I'm not even sure they will actually be several articles yet.

They are by no means supposed to be tutorials. Everything I do, I do it from stuff I've learned reading books on recording / mixing / mastering, and from a lot of experimentation - and I probably do stuff I shouldn't be doing. It will be more about the methods I use and that seems to work. I will start with general infos on my setup and what I do, then I might go into more details for differents parts in future articles. We'll see!

Home "studio"

I started recording music pretty much as soon as I started playing guitar. After months on a cheap acoustic guitar, I got an electric guitar and a 15w marshall amp. Almost immediatly I tried recording myself. When I think about what I was using back then, that was ridiculous. I had a pc running windows xp, where I plugged the marshall amp from the headphones' out to the computer mic input.

It sounded like shit, I felt like a rock star. I recorded on a demo of a crappy software. The demo was limitated to 4 tracks. To overcome this limit, I used the "ping pong" technic: basically you record 3 tracks, then mix them in one track. And bam, you have 2 other tracks. You can do that until you're done, or more often until it sounds like shit because you can't undo what you did.

So that was the initial setup. I lost everything I've recorded back then, but believe me it wasn't good. The sound was bad, and I was a bad guitar player.

I then got more gear: a line 6 interface, Ableton live, and later an iMac. I've used this setup for years, and recorded several albums with that. For the drums I first got Easy Drummer 1 from Toontrack, then Superior Drummer. All the albums I've released are made with this.

Then, as I was playing in band, I got a real amp: a Laboga Mr. Hector. Damn I miss that amp. I bought a couple of mics (shure SM57 and shure SM7b) and recorded it. You can say whatever you want about modelisation and Axe FX and Pod HD Pro, but for me nothing is better than real warm tubes. I would set the amp in my bedroom, mics positionned carefully and cover the whole thing with blankets to avoid reflections on the recording. And obviously I put sticky notes everywhere to make sure nobody would touch a thing to prevent loosing the precious mic positions.

I was pretty happy with the sound I got with that. I've recorded a few songs (shred stuffs) and used this setup to record a couple of EP for friends (Yurakane and Hrethgir even though the last never saw the light of the day sadly). I also recorded bass with the sm7b and the direct out from a few bass amps: Ampeg and Mark Bass. Surprisingly good sound (but I know good bassists so it probably helps).

But then I moved to Paris. And going from a 300m2 house to a tiny appartement, I couldn't keep recording with a 100w amp. So I bought a Line 6 Pod HD Pro. So nowadays my setup is pretty basic:

  • iMac with Ableton Live
  • Superior Drummer for Drums
  • and Pod HD Pro for guitars

I also have a full battery of VSTs, Izotope plugins for mixing/mastering, Waves for mixing (and a guitar amp stuff that I often use for clean sound) and a bunch of virtual instruments when I need orchestra stuff.

Current home studio setup

Global sound

I have a basic session that I use as a boilerplate to record or compose pretty much everything. I've set it as default session in Live so in a few seconds I have everything I need to start working.

It's composed of groups with several tracks in them:

  • Drums
    • Superior Drummer 2 (+ Metal Foundry with a custom set)
    • Kick drum from Superior Drummer - different output for different post processing
    • Kick drum - external sample synced with SD.

I use a second kick sample because I don't really like the SD sounds. They are a bit too boomy, too "real". So I use another one really clicky. The two mixed together gives me what I like.

I also use a return tracks for a parallel compression. I am not going to go in details on what it is, but to explain quickly, you use a dry track and add another track and compress the crap out of it. Then you mix the two. This way you get a compressed sound but keep more dynamic than if you would have just compressed one track. You can learn more here or google around.

  • Guitars
    • 2 tracks (left/right)
    • 2 other tracks (left/right) with a lower volume.

Like for the kick drum, I don't have one guitar sound that I find perfect. So I like to record four tracks with 2 different sounds. One more high frequency, and the other more low-mids bass.

And that's it, at least when I write songs. I often add leads or clean tracks when I need some. I pretty much always record guitars in stereos (2 tracks). Also when composing I want to focus on writing stuff and not mixing, so I use a soft compression and a limiter on the master to even everything a little bit.

Stack everything

One of the basic thing I've learned over the time is not to be afraid to stack sounds. At first I was trying to get the best of one snare, one kick, one guitar sound. But sometimes it works to just use two sounds (or more) that will complement each other.

As described above I use two kick sounds. In my SD preset there are two different snares, and I sometimes use another one, an external sample from Andy Sneap. Sadly there are no dynamic, only one sample, but holy cow, that attack. For guitar I also use four tracks, and often use 4 or more tracks on clean guitars.

To be continued?

So here is a basic description of how I write and record music. Even though it's not specific and there are no revelead secrets, I think it can show that you can have a decent sound with no so much gear (my current setup must cost around 4000€ for everything new - from monitoring to amp without the prices of guitars, which might seem a lot but I got everything through several years).

The most important is to learn how the tools work: read specialized books to learn and understand the basic and necessary knowledge about recording/mixing, and above that, experiment. Even though there are rules and best practices, it's the same for everything: you can break the rules and sometimes good results can come out of experimentations, and even from errors.