What I learned while recording my song Driving

A blog post about Andrew Healey's song Driving.

After a rough start, the recording of my new album is well on the way. I kicked things off by working on a song called Driving. Let me tell you how things are going.

When I got back into songwriting — after a long hiatus — I purchased an audio interface with Protools software. I had an inkling that my venerable Dell laptop, with Windows 7, would struggle, but, hell, I have an aversion to spending money, so I resisted an upgrade. Well, guess what? My laptop couldn’t handle Protools. So, defeated, I purchased a shiny new one with Windows 10.

Everything works fine now. I feel good — for me, recording and mixing music is one of life’s great pleasures.

Spoiled for inspiration

A lot is going on in the world right now, like COVID-19, racial conflicts … oh, and let’s not forget that cretin in the White House. Consequently, there’s plenty to write about, and I’ve got a stack of songs on the go. Although spoiled for choice, the songs I’ve written so far are about my positive experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown. As yet, I haven’t delved into the murky world of politics, but I might. We’ll see.

Driving is about a road trip my partner, Kathy, and I took soon after the lifting of level-3 restrictions in New Zealand. The lyrics (in spoken word) are a montage of the sights and feelings Kathy and I experienced during our first taste of freedom in several weeks.

A simple approach

At the beginning of my project, I made a decision: There will be no attempt at big production. And, actually, that was an easy decision to make: I don’t have big-production money — or advanced audio-engineering skills. Also, I’m a purist who dislikes a lot of effects and studio ‘trickery.’ I’m an acoustic musician, and my songs will reflect that.

So, I have a sparse palette to work with — my voice, three acoustic guitars, a ukulele and any percussion instruments I can get hold of.

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Recording acoustic guitars

Eventually, I intend to record some guitar parts in stereo, and soon, I’ll buy a pair of Rode M5 small-diaphragm condenser microphones. Having these will enable me to capture more of what you hear when listening to an acoustic guitar unplugged. In the meantime, I’m making do with one large-diaphragm condenser microphone, which sounds fine.

I began by placing the microphone about 9” away from my guitar with the diaphragm pointed towards the left-hand side edge of the soundhole (see fig. 1). From what I’ve read, pointing the diaphragm directly at the soundhole can result in a boomy sound, which isn’t good, due to air escaping from the guitar’s body.  

I was initially pleased with the result (there was no boominess); however, while mixing, I noticed a strange harmonic noise that occurred every time I shifted from a C to G chord. It isn’t that audible when the guitar’s unmiced; however, with a highly sensitive condenser microphone nearby, the harmonic noise becomes magnified.

So, I tried a different mic position. This time I placed the microphone in front of the soundhole with the diaphragm pointed towards the left-hand edge of the soundhole (see fig. 2). Consequently, the troubling harmonic became less obvious.

The microphone is placed about 9″ in front of the guitar with the diaphragm pointed towards the left side of the sound hole.

The microphone is placed about 9″ to the side of the guitar with the diaphragm pointed towards the left side of the sound hole.

Mixing

For the guitars on Driving, I used a shelf filter to cut all frequencies below 100 hertz. Doing this reduces unwanted rumble and improves clarity. I also applied a mild 3:1 compression to keep volumes consistent. I panned the main guitar to the left of the mix and then added a 50 ms delay, which I panned to the right at about 25% volume. The idea of having the guitar mainly on the left side of the mix with a little on the right is to create a wider, spacious sound.

A pleasant surprise

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of drum programming — at least not for my brand of music. That doesn’t mean that my songs won’t have rhythm, though, and I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of percussion.

For Driving,  I wanted a kick-drum-like sound to provide a low-end pulse. I tried tapping one of my guitars at various areas of the front and back of its body, but nothing sounded right. Then I had an idea: I’d try muting the strings on the guitar neck with my left hand and beating the strings over the soundhole with my right. Whalla! I’d achieved a kick-drum sound that was better than I expected.

An update on my G.S. Mini

In my last post, I wrote about my newly acquired Taylor G.S. Mini. I said that I didn’t know how it would handle a live gig, but I was keen to find out. Well, a few days after I published the post, I performed my first gig since lockdown, and I used my G.S. Mini.

The gig was hardly a big deal. In fact, it was a one-hour set at a retirement home, of all places. Although entertaining the elderly isn’t normally what I do, it was an enjoyable experience and a nice was to ease back into live performance.

How did my G. S. Mini go? It was great. I loved the rich mahogany tone, and at no time did I feel like I lacked the fire power of a larger instrument. The way I feel right now, my Mini may become my main gigging guitar.

A new song idea

Incidentally, performing at the retirement home inspired an idea for a new song. You see, during my set, care workers would push some of the elderly residents in their wheelchairs in time with the music. That’s how they danced! So, I thought of the title Dancing Wheels. I’ve written about half of the song so far. I’ll give you an update when it’s finished.

What happens next? To find out and keep up to date with my musical journey, please subscribe to my blog in the form below.

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