James Pannell - Guitar
Michael Sandford - Bass Guitar
Peter Hodge - Drums
In June 2016, I produced/engineered/mixed Moon Hovel, the first EP by Sheffield jazz trio, Biscuit Kiss.
I've known of the members of the band for quite a few years, being a fan of their last project, Flamingo Love Parade, but it's only been over the past couple of years I've got to know James really well through our weekly forays out into the Peak district on our pushbikes.
There's nothing quite like getting to know a person through regular three-hour-lycra-clad-chat-rambles interspersed with the silent suffering of racing each other up hills. Through wind, rain, snow, wind, sun, wind and rain, our talk often centred around our musical common ground. James is a proper jazz aficionado, a fully fledged guitar nerd, and was full of invariably awesome recommended listens. On one of these rides, I put it to him that I should produce their first EP. We'd do it old-school, Blue Note-style. Live, but polished. Warm and real. Microphones in corridors. The full works.
The fact that Mikey, Pete and James have played together for close to ten years becomes apparent when you see them live. It's bit of cliche, but it's the first time I've recorded a band where there seems to be a fairly tangible telepathic musical link between the three of them - pushing and pulling at the same time, bouncing off each others' dynamics and phrasing, and leaving each other space. Each musician complements the others. Pete's one of the most sensitive drummers I've ever had the pleasure of recording, I think what really sets him apart is his ear for space and dynamics, never too busy, always playing just what the music requires with a rock solid technique. Mikey's bass lines alternately lock in with Pete's kick, riff in unison with James, hold down counter melodies, or go on wild forays up the fret-board. Again, what comes across is his ear for space, coupled with a colourful and effective choice of notes. James is a tone junkie with a great technique, and his guitar lines and huge range of sounds intertwine beautifully with bass and drums. This is a band capable of the quietest, emptiest moments of beauty , through full-on, heavy unison riffing (both apparent on Biscuit Sweetie), to virtuosic wild soloing (the endings of Biscuit Bonk and Cuban Perfume).
The live room at Sounds Like Screaming wasn't big enough for what we needed, so we decided to do a remote tracking session and relocated to Sheffield's Hybrid Studios. It was a nice sounding room, all wooden floors and high ceilings, but what swung it for me as a REALLY great location was the amazing sounding stone corridor just outside the door. With some canny mic placement, and experimenting the door's level of ajar, all manner of ambient reverb would be available.
We were to track six songs in a day. Hybrid Studios also doubles as rehearsal rooms, and the first band were due to arrive at 17:00 (none other than friends of nicholas alexander, Dead Slow Hoot). With this deadline firmly in our minds, we went for an early start.
As is always the case on these sorts of projects - location recording with a tight deadline and lots to get through, planning and set-up was key. We had a decent pre-production rehearsal earlier in the week, and knowing that the room didn't offer much in the way of isolation, we made sure we came armed with plenty of duvets and cushions for the session. We took our time getting everything in place, knowing that, once we'd got the sound right, the band were well-rehearsed enough to rattle through a few takes of each track until we got performances we were all happy with and excited by.
As you can see from the video above, we set up the drums centrally in the room, although slightly closer to one wall than the other. and placed the bass amp to the left and the guitar amp to the right, facing towards Pete. I chose this spacial arrangement as that's how I wanted the final stereo layout to sound on record. the bass would be on the opposite side of the mix from the floor tom, to avoid a bass-heavy imbalance, and the guitar would be on the opposite side of the high hats, to get as much separation between their competing high frequencies as possible.
On these sorts of sessions, I find that bleed between instruments, frequently cited as something to avoid at all costs, is often actually your best friend. Guitar and bass bleeding into the overhead mics, for example, far from destroying the sound and making it unmixable, actually adds to the whole vibe and glues the mix together. Especially as, wanting a natural open and jazzy sound for the drums, I knew that I wouldn't be smashing the overheads with compression (which can lead to bleed getting completely out of hand and uncontrollable). Which is not to say we didn't seek to control the bleed, but that we left as much in as we dared. Another factor here was that the band were so used to performing in a room where they could all hear each other clearly, and I felt that adding headphones into the mix may well adversely affect their performances.
The main thing I had to keep an eye on was phase management and placing mics accordingly. With the drums, it was the usual case of aligning the overheads so that kick and snare reach each at the same time, adjusting their height to get the right mix of cymbals and drums for the sound we were after, getting out the tape measure when required, close-micing to taste, and then flipping the phase on selected channels, checking everything was full and punchy in mono in the monitor. Guitar and bass were slightly more tricky, but with careful mic placement - using the mics' dead spots to reduce the drum bleed to manageable levels - liberally applying cushions and duvets, and then observing the three to one rule as much as possible in the space we had, we ended up with a really, really nice sound. I had talked with James about the possibility of re-amping the guitar if needed (more on that shortly) so along with two mics on the guitar amp, I also took a DI feed before his pedal-board just in case. I also took a DI feed from the bass to have the option of using it alongside the bass amp mic in the mix. The final piece of the puzzle was the ambient corridor mic. With a bit of experimenting, I got it into a sonically pleasing spot, and when it was pulled up on the mixer, everything came alive!
We finished the session in good time and the band and myself were pleased with the takes we'd managed to capture. They played really, really well on the day, bringing the magic of the live shows to a fairly sterile environment is never easy.
Once I got the tracks back to my mixing room, It was obvious that we could gain a lot from re-amping the guitar. Using the live room at Sounds Like Screaming, coupled with the ambient stairwell here, I thought we'd be able to achieve a much fuller guitar sound, and James could have a bit more fine control over the tone he wanted for each section of each song. Taking the DI before the pedal board meant that James could re-perform all of the pedal changes, and make micro adjustments as and when he needed.
For this session, we set up in my control room, sending the original DI signal to the pedal board there, and then the signal was fed from the pedal board into the amp in live room. This was captured using a phase EQ close-mic setup to give a few more options at mixing (as the guitar is fairly exposed at points), and a mic in our fairly lively stairwell here at Sounds Like Screaming. In this way, we spent a fun few hours re-tracking the guitar parts, and, at certain points, even completely changing the feel of certain sections of songs. For example, the end section of Cuban Perfume was initially no where near as heavy. But listening back, we loved how Pete really tore into his kit during the final section, and I felt as though the guitar tone could be way more aggressive to match what Pete was doing here, we turned everything up to 11 and let rip. We found a really warm, crunchy, driven and dirty sound which brought a new life and excitement to this ending.
There was one final piece of the puzzle to fit in. Mikey really wanted some percussion over Pete's incendiary drum solo during Cuban Perfume. We pulled out the SLS percussion box and got busy. We decided on wood block and cabasa. We close(ish)-mic-ed with a stereo pair in the live room, and bolstered this sound with the stairwell mic for some natural ambience. Pete played the cabasa, and Mikey the woodblock. It added a level of depth to the drum solo that was really pleasing, and I think the addition of the percussion keeps the listener's sense of pulse grounded while Pete plays fast and loose (well, fast and tight) with his virtuosic, polyrhythmic, assault on the ears.
Aside from the excellent music-making, my favourite part of this session was that the whole band turned up on bicycles. Indeed, as Flamingo Love Parade, they prided themselves on being super energy efficient, and often used to cycle to rehearsals and shows together, towing equipment behind them on specially made trailers. Heroes.
James suggested beefing up the solo at the end of Biscuit Bonk with a synth which would follow the bass line. I wanted it to be super-tight with the bass, and just an addition to that sound really. I used a great feature in Cubase which enables you to convert an audio file into midi data, and then fed this into a synth and printed the result. I had to tidy up the midi slightly as it has a tendency to turn fret board squeaks into super-high midi notes, and rumbly note changes into super-low notes, but nothing that a bit of fiddling with the midi-map couldn't sort.
And so to the mix. With so much nice natural ambience captured at the recording phase, and whole performances captured at source (there were just a couple of moments where I needed to edit in short sections from different takes), mixing this EP was an absolute pleasure.
I opened all six tracks in the same project (see screenshot) and worked for a few hours on getting everything sounding right and nicely balanced, and riding the levels of the instruments as and when it was needed (you can see the volume automation in the screenshot, KICK and SNARE in RED, DRM AMBNT mic in YELLOW, GTR in BLUE, GTR AMBNT in LIGHT BLUE, BASS in LIGHT BLUE) just to emphasise the ebb and flow of the tracks. The kick needed a bit of fattening up, but I liked the high-tuned, open jazzy feel of it. I used a bit of parallel compression on the kit. The bass was a mix of the mic and the DI, with a bit of virtual re-amping, and a heavier re-amping used a two points through the EP (again, visible on the screenshot as the middle of the three bass tracks). The guitar was a case of riding the balance between the phase EQ set-up close mics for tonal changes, and the riding the overall volume of the close mics and the ambient mic. The thing that brought most life to proceedings was riding the volume of the corridor and stairwell mics. The start and end of each track needed a bit of careful editing with the corridor mic as it was fairly noisey when everything else was quiet because I had to have the gain up fairly high on the pre-amp. nothing that a bit of nifty editing couldn't sort though.
L-R? Or R-L?
The most contentious point was how to set out the stereo image. Do we go from the audience's perspective (with hi-hats right and floor tom left) or from the drummer's perspective (with hi-hats left and floor tom right)? Pete was keen to hear both, which I duly obliged, but I made the exec decision to go from the audience's perspective. My thinking is that this is how I first experienced them, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do this record was how much I loved their live performances.