Opium Winter released our first EP on April 1. You can grab it on Bandcamp or stream it via the usual suspects (Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, etc). We’re pretty proud of this work and hope everyone out there enjoys it as much as we enjoyed making it.
I’d like to take some time, over a couple of posts, to go over how this EP came to its final form.
In The Beginning…
Opium Winter has been around since 2015 or so. We’ve written songs, played a few shows but we’d not seriously recorded anything. We did get the soundboard tracks from a show we played and put together a super rough mix of a song, but in early 2018 we decided it was time to get an EP done.
After some discussion between going to a studio and trying to do it ourselves, we chose the latter.
Most of us in the band have recorded in studios in the past so we knew the drill. Studios could be expensive but you usually were guaranteed a decent result. This time, bang for the buck was the big thing as we didn’t have a huge pile of cash to spend. The best studio deal we could find with the money we had would have only gotten us two songs. We have a band fund and the main idea was to not spend anything outside of this. Being greedy and wanting a couple more tunes we understood that this would have been pretty much impossible. We decided to put what we learned from past DIY projects and record the EP ourselves.
Those past projects, The Unavowed’s first EP in 2007 and the White Lake Mountain demo in 2013, resulted in various degrees of success.
The Unavowed EP was recorded on a standalone 8 track digital unit which you could only record two tracks at a time. We tried to mic up the entire drum kit via a 16 channel outboard mixer which we squeezed down on to two tracks. The guitars and vocals were recorded separately and the whole thing was exported from the recording unit hard drive onto a USB stick, imported into a PC, and mixed in Adobe Audition using hardly any plugins.
It turned out ok for what it was: a little lacking in low end, a little shimmery, the playing sloppy but listenable. (You can grab a zip of the EP here if you’re interested.)
For the White Lake Mountain demo, we used an 8 channel PreSonus firewire unit going straight into a Mac recording into Reaper. We setup in a small space and recorded the instruments off the floor (4 mics on the drums and a mic on each of the guitar amps, each going into its own track). The problem was, thanks to what became an ex-guitarist that insisted on constantly cranking up his volume knob, we played LOUD. Feedback inducing, ear splittingly LOUD. The instrument tracks all bled into one another so a coherent mix was simply out of the question. The vocals were recorded separately but it didn’t matter in the end.
That same ex-guitarist and I split mixing duties. After I had added some EQ and compression to each track (not perfectly mind you; I used the stock Reaper plugins and presets) he took what I did and slapped a pile of Waves plugins on top and …. well….
The finished product sounded like muddy shit.
So while we were a little skeptical in our abilities to do the Opium Winter recording ourselves, we decided to forge ahead anyway. And in order for this recording to not sound like shit, we needed to deal with a couple of things:
- The best bang for the buck recording interface available locally.
- Types of microphones and what they work best for.
- Proper microphone placement.
- How to use the rooms we have access to.
- How to properly mix.
I started researching.
Pompousness & Pretentiousness: Equipment.
I’m not going to spend time going over what I learned as far as what equipment I researched. That information can be found online. Need to know what mics work best for recording snare drums? Search online. Need to know how to position mics when recording guitar amps? Search online. Don’t want to record amps in favour of using software emulators? Seach online. It’s all there.
However, watching YouTube music production channels, and reading gear forums you’d think the only way to get gear is to go out and buy it (or “win” it in contests where you provide your email, Facebook name, Twitter handle, and firstborn child). Every single thread or video and, especially, the comments to the video, seems to be little more than dick swinging competitions. Everyone has an opinion on what to buy and the suggestions are usually on the expensive side. I mean, you have to have a top of the line thing to do the thing, right?
What’s odd is that no one, it seems, wants to talk about renting equipment.
When you rent, you get the chance to use equipment that you may not ever get the chance to own. Renting allows you to try out, for example, various mid to high range mics for a few days or a few weeks for a fraction of what it would cost to purchase them. Want to record with a real Gibson Les Paul rather than the Chinese knock off you currently have? Rent one for a few days. And if you rent a piece of equipment and end up not liking it, you’re not stuck with it. Take it back and rent something else for a week. An added bonus is that most places will let you keep renting indefinitely and then let you purchase the item(s) and the store will discount what you’ve paid in rental fees.
I’ve rented in the past and love it. I’ve purchased a couple of items this way as well.
For the Opium Winter recording session we rented the following for a month:
- PreSonus Studio Live 16.4.2 Firewire unit.
- A matched pair of Rhodes NT5‘s for drum overheads.
- A couple of SM-57‘s for the snare and guitar amps.
- An ART Headphone amp (so we could record the drums and not get any guitar bleed).
- A set of Yorkville studio monitors.
- A pile of XLR cables.
All this cost us a little under $300.
To round out the list, Mesner, our drummer, has a set of drum mics. I have a three decent Behringer dynamic mics, an SM58, and the kick ass Behringer C-1 large diaphram condenser so we were good to go equipment wise.
The last thing that was required, for me anyway, was to keep in mind that this was not going to sound anywhere near professional. Yes, I said above that you can find tutorials on pretty much anything online but tutorials do not an expert make. While you can watch steps on how to place a mic on a guitar amp, you have to realize that the people showing you the steps have been recording guitars for decades. They know their work. You simply cannot expect that your first recordings are going to sound like The Back Album.
The main goal is to make the recording not suck. Be patient, keep at it and, above all else, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Drums. Big, Fat Drums.
Mesner’s drum sound was the big thing. He’d done three recordings before this and in all of them the drums were always the weakest part of the final product. This time around he wanted a nice, big, fat drum sound. To achieve this we decided to record the drums on their own. Of course, this is a proven technique. We just never had the means, or the smarts, to do this in the past.
For the drum tracks, we rented out an empty practice at CRS, the place we jam at. The reason for renting a separate room and not recording in our normal one is that we share a lockout room with three other bands. With all the gear stored there, there is very little space to jam in, let alone setting up a recording station and micing a large drum kit.
We set everything up; In one corner was a table with my Mac Mini and the PreSonus unit.
The drums were setup just off centre of the room and we used a few office cubicle dividers that the space on hand; one off to the side for Josh (singer) to stand behind for scratch vocals – two behind the kit to cut back on reflections.
We mic’d up the drums:
- NT5’s as overheads as a spaced pair.
- Drum mics on toms and kick (halfway through we swapped out the drum mic on the 16″ floor tom for an SM57 as we found the drum mic was a little hollow sounding on that particular drum).
- SM57 on the snare.
- C-1 about four feet out from the kit at my head hight; not so much a room mic, but a “full sound” mic as if you were standing in front of the kit while Mesner was playing.
For scratch tracks, the guitar and bass were run through DI’s* plugged straight into the PreSonus unit and the vocal mic was straight in.
I set up the tracks in Reaper, hit record, Mesner counted us in, and we were off.
1: My god the Rhodes NT5’s are amazing. The raw sound for the overhead tracks these things produced were simply killer. In a pinch I probably could have come up with a decent drum sound just using these mics.
2: Next time, I need to ensure that we have a proper kick drum mic stand. I forgot to add this to the rental list so we ended up using a standard boom (you can see it in the picture above). This lead to a problem as the kick mic is heavy and the boom stand tended to move around a little. This led to some rattle in the kick tracks due to the mic touching the sound hole. While we managed to fix this for the most part, the rattle did show up here and there during mixing.
3: Have made a note to get samples of the individual drums before we start recording the songs. They could come in handy later.
4: If you’re listening back in the same room you’re recording in, don’t trust the monitors and be prepared for the tracks to sound completely different when you listen back in the room you’re going to mix in. The drum tracks sounded big and boomy when we gave them a listen at CRS. When i got everything back to my place all of a sudden the kick mic rattle was very noticeable in places. I could hear that the drum mic set was more for live than recording as those mics were more “dead” sounding than the Rhodes or the SM57s. I know it can be next to impossible to have a separate control room outside of a studio setup, so I just want to add this to the list of things to keep in mind.
All in all it was a great day. We managed to get multiple takes for the four songs we were planning to have on the EP as well a take each of three other songs. We had rented the room at CRS from 10am – 10pm and this was just enough time to setup (including tearing down the drum kit in one room and setting it up in the other), record, take breaks, eat lunch, listen back, and pack up.
We now had decent, workable drum tracks and it was time to start planning guitars.
* For DI’s I used two guitar pedals:
The Aphex is a neat pedal for tightening up your bass sound but I rarely use it in my current setup. That being said, it has an XLR direct out and it works perfectly as a guitar DI. They don’t make the Bass Xciter pedals anymore so you’d have to hit up second hand shops or search online.
The Behringer pedal is a goddamned gem. I can’t say enough about the BDI21 especially considering it costs around $39 CDN. If I were to pick only one pedal in my chain to use this would be it. Not only is the amp modelling simply stellar, it also features a dual DI mode that is kick ass for recording. I’ll be gushing about this pedal more once I get to recording the bass tracks.