Over the past few months, many of the articles that I have worked on and industry pros that I have interviewed, emphasise how working life has changed drastically since the start of 2020 lockdown. With that in mind, it would be great to explore how we can successfully manage our recordings remotely now that we are all having to work with a greater degree of isolation.
And who better to speak with than 2 industry powerhouses?!
Johnny Thirkell (longtime friend of this website!) has performed on trumpet on over 6000 recordings, including over 40 top ten albums and 23 UK Number One records. Tina Turner, Jamiroquai, David Bowie, George Michael, Bruno Mars, Pet Shop Boys, Level 42 … the list is endless!
Grammy Winner Josh Blair is the ultimate ‘Producer and Engineer to the Stars’ with credits including Adele, Lady Gaga, Jamiroquai, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Duran Duran and Take That.
I understand that, in these locked-down, Covid times you’ve managed to shift your studio recording career to your home. How does that work?!
Actually, it’s really quite straightforward. The Producer will email or send a link to a rough stereo mix of the track which I just import into Logic and, within 5 minutes I’m overdubbing trumpets. It’s so much easier and more convenient than schlepping into town and enduring the bun fight that is the London Underground and I can record more or less at my convenience. So long as I get it back before the deadline, I do it when it suits me.
Isn’t that expensive and complicated to set up?
I guess that depends on how far you want to take it. For me it’s really quite basic. All I’m ever going to do is record trumpets over a track, so my equipment needs are pretty minimal. When I send back the recorded trumpets the Producer wants them totally flat – no reverb, no EQ, nothing. So, I don’t need any outboard gear like reverb units or equalisers. Which is just as well because I would have no idea how to use them! My entire rig consists of my MacBook Pro, Logic, a digital interface (I use the Apogee One) and my trusty Royer 121 microphone – for me the truest sounding mic for the trumpet I’ve ever used. Bar none.
In terms of expense, I think it’s always best to get the best you can – particularly the mic. You can be the greatest player in the world, if you’re playing into an awful mic, it’s not going to do you justice. If you’re short of cash, skimp on anything but the mic. The Royer is about £1500 but, trust me, it’s worth every penny if you’re serious about it. From a room perspective, I don’t really have a massive amount of soundproofing but then again I live in the countryside so the occasional squawking Red Kite is about the worst of my problems. If you live in a more urban area then I guess you’re going to have to think about good soundproofing. Bear in mind though, that the inherent volume of the trumpet means that your mic level will be relatively low anyway so it may not pick up faint extraneous sounds. Main thing is though to make sure the room has little or no natural reverb. Keep it as dead as possible because once any natural reverb gets recorded, it can’t be taken off.
And how about technical knowledge? What if you’re something of a technophobe?
Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. I run the recording procedure very much on a “monkey see, monkey do” basis. I know what I know and that’s about it. If I run into something I don’t understand then there’ll be a YouTube video to help me through it. I’ve learned there are some cardinal rules to apply and, so long as I do that then I rarely run into problems.
And they are?
First of all have a starting template. I have a template in Logic where everything is set up ready to record. There’s a stereo track for the backing track and a bunch of mono tracks ready for the trumpets or flugels. The levels are pretty much set, as is the routing of channels etc. I got someone to help me set it up initially and I’ve hardly ever had to change anything since. Obviously the record levels have to change depending on what it is I’m playing but so long as you make sure that what you record never goes into the red, you’ll be fine. The other thing is sample rate. An engineer will be able to explain the technicalities but basically it seems that some people record at 44.1khz and others at 48khz. Make sure you know which one it is and adjust the setting accordingly in the Audio Settings page. I’ve been caught out by that one. Earlier this year I recorded 10 tracks of trumpets on the BTS single ‘Dynamite’ only to realise that I had the wrong sample rate set and had to do them all again!
How does the recording process differ from when you are at a pro studio?
Well, the most obvious difference is that, as well as playing the trumpet, I’m also the engineer. It can get a little awkward having to press record and then play – especially if you have a tight drop-in – but you develop the knack pretty quickly. In terms of mic technique, I would say this would be dependent to a certain degree on what mic you are using. Something like the Royer will take a lot of air pressure so you can get quite close to it but it’s one of those things where a little experimentation will produce great results. Record different things at different volumes and different distances and make a note of the resulting sound. That way you will build up a library of options to wheel out depending on what it is you are recording. Other than that, it’s much the same.
And then, how do you get the finished results back to the Producer?
There are a couple of things you can do to make the process nice and smooth. Firstly, make sure you have the tempo set correctly before you start and that the backing track starts at Bar 1, Beat 1. Then, when you are finished, put a piece of blank audio on each trumpet track which also starts at beat 1. Then you can merge all of the various sections of each trumpet track into one file so that, when the Producer gets them, he imports them to bar 1 beat 1 and everything will line up. Simple (??!!??). Although the backing track may have been sent to you as an mp3 (quality doesn’t matter for that as it’s only a guide for the trumpet) you should send back the files as WAV or similar high quality.
So, what would you say were the pros and cons of recording at home rather than at a commercial studio?
Well, I would say that flexibility is by far the biggest advantage. Being able to work around your own schedule is very liberating. You can basically go anywhere in the world and your whole recording setup can go with you in a small rucksack. I’m currently riding out the pandemic in Granada and working on some tracks for Jason Derulo – something which I would have had to pass on in the old days. The downside of course is the lack of interaction. Part of being a muso is the social element and you do miss mucking around with your pals in the studio. I don’t miss the Tube, though!
How has your working life changed in 2020? Are you doing a lot more work remotely with musicians? How have you found this as a process?
Session (ensemble) sizes have been a lot smaller due to covid restrictions and I’ve been doing a lot more remote work and archive mixing for one of my clients. It can be a bit tricky to get the same sound out of a smaller section but It’s been a nice challenge.
What are the most common requests that you make of trumpet players when you are in the studio with them?
I normally don’t try to make requests of them or any musician for that fact. I’ve been very lucky to work with some amazing musicians over my time and my philosophy is for the technology to get out of the way so they can concentrate on the music not me fussing about them or asking endless questions.
In your view, what is the essential home studio setup that a trumpet player should have in order to record and send you adequate quality audio. And what format should this audio be in?
Decent mic, decent headphones, decent preamp. There’s a lot of great gear out there today and quality equipment prices aren’t too prohibitive. I always like files as BWavs. Sample rate/bit depth should be a question you ask the producer or engineer.
Best mics for recording trumpet?
I’ve always liked condenser mics on trumpets. Some people like ribbons. They’re cool too but on a budget I feel its easier to get a better quality Condenser than Ribbon for the same money. My philosophy is simple, If it sounds good on a voice it’ll sound good on most instruments. You just have to be careful of the SPL as brass can be quite loud. So choose a mic accordingly. Neumann, DPA, Royer are all great brands.
For someone just using a click or guide track in their DAW and recording a limited number of tracks of audio, have you any top tips for improving workflow etc?
A few simple things…
1. Don’t record too hot to the DAW.. Once it distorts its very hard to ‘fix’.
2. Learn how to do some basic editing so you can sort out the parts you’re sending and only send the ones you need with some nice x-fades between the edits.
3. Once you have all your parts, bounce the tracks out all from the same starting point along with the guide track so whom ever is receiving the parts knows where things go.
4. Don’t add any reverb to your tracks (unless requested). If you like some FX you’ve used print them on separate tracks so the Raw (un-processed) tracks are available. I tend to record 5-6 sets of OH mics on drums for one of my clients… Not because we’d use all of them at the same time but as the production changes over time we wouldn’t have to re-record the drums we could just use the different mics to get a different flavour that suited the new direction.
What are the most common mistakes that people make when recording and sending you stuff?
Number one is distortion. Number two is the mic’s too far away or there’s too much “room” on the mic. Tuning and timing I can fix.
Do you think that remote recording is going to play a larger role as we hopefully move out of this pandemic?
Yes and no. There’s nothing like the sound of a group of people energising the air in a room together. However, now everyone knows how simple it is to be remote we might see more of that kind of work.
Any other general advice?
Always try to find the joy in what you do!
To find out more about Josh Blair, please visit his website: http://www.joshuablair.com
To read more about Johnny Thirkell you can click here: https://www.johnnythirkell.com
You may also be interested to read some of the other articles that Johnny has contributed to: