Recording ‘Back to The Drawing Room’ – Interview with Aled Jenkins from Smokey Bastard

I’ve known the band Smokey Bastard for some time now, my old band shared a stage with them a few times, they played at my 30th Birthday party and I helped with their previous album artwork (my typography work even appears on one of their T-shirts). I have always admired their exceptional talent and musical abilities with just a mere hint of jealousy.

Now they have a brand new album out (which I’ve been listening to a lot and am loving the direction they’ve taken with it) so I took the opportunity to grill Aled Jenkins, who’s a member of the band but also a skilled sound engineer, about all the work that went into producing it. 

SmokeyBbanner

Hey Aled! Let’s get right to it… I know you guys pretty well already but my readers may not so, first off, how would you describe the band and what is your role within it?

Smokey Bastard is a Reading based Folk Punk band that has been going since about 2007. I went to school with some of the guys and I knew the others before the band formed. The band started off playing celtic punk music – basically ripping off Flogging Molly, but the sound has progressed over the years and become slightly heavier with more diverse influences. I recorded and mixed the band’s first EP in around 2007/2008 and also recorded their first full album, Propping up the Floor in 2008/2009. At that time, the line up of the band was drums, bass, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, fiddle, penny whistle, accordion, mandolin, banjo and bouzouki. I joined the band in 2009, playing a combination of banjo, mandolin and guitar after their accordion player left. Since then I have been involved in song-writing as well as production and recording and mixing of the 2011 album, Tales From The Wasteland and recording and production of the new album, Back To The Drawing Room.

I’d like to talk about the new album. It’s been quite DIY to a certain extent. Could you first give me a general overview of the process; which parts you did yourself and which parts you had done elsewhere or had help with?

As with the other albums I did all the recording myself. A big part of this was down to cost – I have a decent recording set up in my flat and that basically meant that we could record the vast majority of the album for free. For the louder bits like drums and guitars we had to find somewhere other than my flat, as I didn’t want to annoy my neighbours, but again, we tried to find a way to get the best results for the smallest expenditure.

The current line-up of the band is drums, bass, electric guitars, banjo, mandolin and accordion, often with three-part harmony vocals, so there’s a lot of stuff going on. On the first album, the folk instruments tended to play the same thing for a lot of the time, but with the new album, we put a lot more time, effort and thought into the orchestration and arrangements of each song. In order to achieve this, throughout the writing process, I made demos in Pro Tools for the songs and either got the rest of the band round to record rough versions of their parts, or just learnt the parts myself from phone recordings at practices and recorded them myself. I programmed the drums using Kontakt and Native Instruments Abbey Road drum series and used Native Instruments Guitar Rig for the guitars and bass.

This meant that as we were writing the songs, we could hear a which sections needed to have something added, which bits sounded too busy and we could check that every part worked together. You get a lot more clarity through making demos that you do in real time in a practice studio. It also made it easy to experiment with moving sections of the songs around or cutting/repeating parts. Essentially, we were doing recording pre-production during the writing stage, which meant that when we came to record, everything was in place, and we just needed to capture the performances.

There so much more to mastering than making a track loud. If you’re working on a single, a DIY job may suffice, but the pros know how to make a whole album sit together as a whole.

We recorded all the drums in 2 days at White House Studios in Reading. They have a dry-hire rate, so I engineered it myself using a combination of their mics and my own to keep costs down. They have a Pro Tools HD rig and a good collection of mics and preamps, as well as a well treated room. The folk instruments and vocals were all recorded in my flat. The guitars and bass were DI’d straight into my interface and we reamped them later (which I’ll explain in more detail later).

After the recording was all finished we had the album mixed by Mat Leppanen at The Animal Farm in Bermondsey and mastered at Hafod Mastering by Gethin John. There were a few reasons why I didn’t mix the album myself – firstly, by that point, I had been working on it for nearly 18 months, so I had lost a bit of perspective. Secondly, we wanted this album to be the best it could be and we figured that as we’d scrimped and saved on the recording, it was worth splashing out on the mixing so we’d know we’d done all we could to get the best results. Finally,  having a member of the band mix the album means that there’s always a tendancy to want to tweak things. The process goes on and on and it gets to the point where every time you “fix” one thing, it has a knock on effect on something else and you end up chasing your tail. Giving it to an outsider means you have a fresh pair of ears to give each track more focus. It also gives you a time limit. Obviously, you have the opportunity to tweak, but the album was essentially mixed in 4 days, and that forces you to think about what’s really important to the track and what is just added decoration which can be left to sit back in the mix.

Again, for mastering, I’m a big believer in leaving mastering to an experienced mastering engineer. There so much more to mastering than making a track loud. If you’re working on a single, a DIY job may suffice, but the pros know how to make a whole album sit together as a whole. It takes experience and skill to make an album feel sonically balanced and cohesive without losing the identity of each individual song. I’m not saying mastering can’t be done by a mix engineer, but I think there’s a reason why there are still specialist mastering engineers, and it’s never a bad idea to get fresh pair of ears in at the final stage.

LiveAction_BTTDR_lo

Now for some nerdy details… Which DAW did you use for each stage? Pros and cons of this DAW?

I used Pro Tools for the whole project. It was a combination of PT 10 and 11, as I upgraded half way through. Pro Tools is the platform I’m used to, so I’m comfortable with it and fast at editing. During the writing/demoing/pre-production stage I made use of the elastic audio function several times. This allows you to almost instantaneously change the tempo of recorded audio. This meant that we could record a demo with recorded folk instruments and vocals, DI’s guitars and programmed drums, then change raise the tempo by a few bpm to see if it made a positive difference or not. The audio quality is probably not good enough for a final mix, but it’s prefect for demoing.

Another feature which I used quite a lot was Beat Detective. Because the music is fast and often quite technical, everything was recorded to a click track and I relentlessly edited everything to the grid. In my opinion, a recording should be a perfect representation of how the song should go, and that means rhythmical perfection. If I was recording blues or jazz, it would be different, but for this kind of music, I don’t think it loses anything by editing. You still get the feel and shape of the phrasing even if you move some individual notes or hits around. When editing drums, I did try using elastic audio, but I ended up with strange artefacts and phase issues, so I went back to beat detective.

The drumming on this album had a lot of variation and was quite choppy and changed regularly, so it isn’t ideal for Beat Detective, but I still managed to save myself a bit of time using it. It’s a shame that Beat Detective can’t handle time signature changes, as there are some sections on some songs where the time signature changes every other bar. These I had to do the old fashioned way and edit manually hit by hit. The groups in Pro Tools make it very easy to edit things like drums – you can group all the drum tracks together to maintain phase relationships…etc.

Mat Lepannen used Pro Tools HD to mix the album , which meant he could utilise Avid’s HEAT to give all the tracks a warmer analogue sound.

Which interface did you use for recording? Pros and cons?

For recording, I used my M-Audio Profire 2626. It has 8 mic inputs, 2 of which can be switch to DI inputs. It has 2 headphone outputs, so when recording in my flat with no separate control room, I have independent volume controls for myself and the performer (and I can send them a completely separate mix if needed). The Profire 2626 also has 2 ADAT inputs so you can use external mic preamps to get up to 24 mic inputs and an additional SPDIF input to get up to 26.

In my home setup, I have a Behringer Ultragain Pro-8, giving me a maximum of 16 I/O, but I didn’t need that many for this project. The interface uses a software mixer, where you can mix between the live inputs and the output from pro-tools, so you can get round any latency problems when recording with mics. For recording guitars, we needed to use amp modellers from inside Pro Tools, so a small amount of latency is unavoidable.

Any bits of kit that you could not do without?

You can use as many plugins as you like, but if the sound at the microphone isn’t right, you’re never going to be able to change that. A Reflexion Filter definitely makes it a lot easier to get professional sounding results.

One bit of kit which I believe made a huge difference was my SE Reflexion Filter. My flat is not acoustically treated, so without it, all the vocals would have had a boxy slap or unpleasant flutter echoes all over them. It is a bit pricey, but after asking some fellow engineers if it was worth getting the original version (which I think is now called the “Pro”) compared to the cheaper versions or DIY alternatives, the answer was a resounding “yes”.

You can use as many plugins as you like, but if the sound at the microphone isn’t right, you’re never going to be able to change that. A Reflexion Filter definitely makes it a lot easier to get professional sounding results.

Any bits of kit you believe add something special to the process (mics, preamps etc)?

I have an ART Pro MPA dual valve preamp which I bought off ebay a couple of years ago which I used for most of the stuff I recorded in my flat. It has a high pass filter to get rid of any unwanted low end and you can vary how hard you drive the tubes, so you can get anything from clean, to slightly warm to full on analogue clipping. Having that variety means that even thought I used the same preamp for a lot of the album, it wasn’t an identical sound I was getting every time.

There were a couple of mics which got a lot of use on this album – my pair of Octava MK012 MSP6 (matched pencil mics each with a choice of omni, cardioid and hypercardioid capsules), which I used on accordion, mandolin and acoustic guitar, and my SE Z5600 A, which I used on all the vocals and the banjo.

I know you did some re-amping. Can you explain how you went about that and why?

Just to make sure everyone is up to speed with what we’re talking about, re-amping is simply playing a previously recorded track back through an amp and recording the result. In this case, I plugged the guitar straight into the DI input of my interface, and recorded the clean signal, while monitoring using the Native Instruments Guitar Rig plugin. Later on, I played the clean signal into a real amp and recorded it with a microphone back into the computer.

To do this, I used a re-amp box, which takes a line level input and converts it to a signal which is the same impedance as the output of a guitar. My re-amp box also has a volume knob, so you can match the signal level you’re sending to the amp to the signal level that you get from a guitar. This process isn’t limited to guitars, you can do it with anything – you could use a guitar amp to create a dirty vocal, or and grit to a snare or full drum kit, or even play some stuff out into a cool sounding room to get some unique, authentic reverb effects. For this album, we just used it for guitars though.

The re-amping idea came out of a combination of laziness and thrift. Along with drums, recording guitar amps were too loud to record in my flat, so in order to get the real guitar sound, we’d need to pay for studio time. Also, as we’d already done demos for all the songs on the albums, we had some completely useable takes of DI’d guitars and it seemed slightly pointless to just throw them away if the performance was good. So I bought a re-amping box and we finished recording the guitar DIs in my flat. There are a few huge advantages to this work flow.

  1. You do all the loud stuff in one go, so you cut down on studio time – you can record all the guitars silently with headphones if you choose, and you can spend as much time as you want or need working on that killer solo without feeling like you’re wasting money.
  2. When you record the DI guitar track, you can pay full attention to the performance. The tone is not important at this stage – it’s just about nailing the parts and getting the performance.
  3. The other side of this is that you can spend as much time as you want getting the tone right with the amp later. As an engineer, you don’t even need to guitarist to be there, you can spend as much time as you want trying out different combinations of amps, mics and mic placements.
  4. You can cut down on track count – in the past I have recorded 3 or 4 tracks of guitars from a selection of mics and placements to give me options in the mix. This way, you can get the whole album recorded with an approximate guitar sound using amp modellers then you can spend time making sure you get the sound you want when you re-amp. Re-amping was pretty much the last thing we did before mixing, so by then, you should know exactly what you need from your guitar sound to make everything work.
  5. You can reamp the same guitar part through more than one amp. You can do this when recording live guitars as well, but re-amping does make it easier. For example, the main rhythm guitar sound for this album is a combination of a Mesa Boogie Single Rectifier with fairly low gain, but with a big meaty tone, and a Marshall TSL 100 on the lead channel with the gain cranked. You get the low end richness and grunt from the mesa and the fizz and aggression from the Marshall. I used different mics for each amps to make sure I had all I was looking for. It’s possible to get all this from one amp, but in my experience, it’s much easier to use a blend, and it’s much easier to know what you need to make the guitars sit in the mix when the rest of the track is all there.
  6. You don’t really need to do the re-amping bit. There are a lot of good amp modellers out there. There were a couple of songs where we decided that the amp modelled sounds were perfect or turned out better than the real amp, so we used them in the final mix. It’s always nice to play about with real amps, but technology is catching up with old school techniques, so don’t be ashamed to embrace it.

One negative thing I will say about re-amping is that it is really quite tedious in practice. The album is 40 minutes long. Most of the songs on the album have guitars and bass pretty much the whole way through. Most have double tracked guitars (one panned hard left and one hard right). Most have sections where there are an extra set of double track guitars. Pretty soon, it all starts adding up and you end up listening to the same song at least 5 times plus additional times for each different amp sound you want. It is a long day, and it’s boring. But then again, it’s a small price to pay for recording the guitars for a whole album in a single day.

 

Do you have any recording tips?

Don’t expect to fix things in the mix – it just doesn’t work. Spend time making sure that you don’t have unwanted noises, or bad room reverberations on your recordings. Make sure all instruments are tuned and keep checking throughout the recording session. Make sure drums are tuned as you want them, it will make your life much easier later. These are basic things that can make a recording sound immediately more amateurish. Whatever mics or preamps you’re using, they’ll only sound as good as what you point them at, so make everything sound as good at source as you can before you think about pressing record.

Do you have any mixing tips?

Keep in mind what the focal point of the music is. This will usually be the vocals, but if there is an instrumental section, make sure you give the listener something that stands out as the thing to listen to. If a lot is going on and it’s all at the same level, it sounds chaotic and confusing. If one things immediately draws you in, it helps give everything else context.

One other thing I learnt from watching Mat Leppanen mix, is that an automated EQ plugin can be a subtle but effective way to draw the listener’s attention to something – have an EQ plugin with a small presence boost and keep it bypassed until you want that track to stand out then turn it on. It will jump out just enough to catch you ear, without being overpowering. Turning plugins on and off can be just as useful as fader rides.

Do you have any plugin recommendations?

I really like Native Instruments Guitar Rig the Abbey Road Drum series. Being able to make reasonable sounding demos has been really useful. Mat used a lot of plugins on the final mix of the album which I don’t yet have. I will be saving up to buy the the Slate Virtual Mix Rack and Virtual Tape Machine.

That’s awesome, I’d personally recommend the Slate Mix/Master bundle. Great plugins for a small monthly fee. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions there’s some really fascinating insights into the process here and I’ve certainly learned a few things. I hope the album is as successful as it deserves to be and I look forward to catching the band performing live soon.

Thanks, we’re currently booking a tour and festivals for the new year. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for dates.


Thanks for reading this interview with Aled from Smokey Bastard, I hope you’ve found it interesting and informative. Please feel free to comment or post any questions below. Cheers!

– Stu

What do you think...?