Recording The Levee Breaks at Mission Studios, Warrington

On Monday 17th August I took blues-rock function band The Levee Breaks into Missions Studios, based at the University of Chester's Warrington Campus. As well as the band, I had Dafydd Cartwright - my good friend and drummer from Secret Shows - as my studio-hand for the day; he really made the session a lot easier. Cheers Daf!

Before I go into details, take a listen to the results:

The Studio

Mission is part of the Arts and Media Campus at the University of Chester's Warrington site. Installed 15 years ago, before the University took ownership, it remains in excellent condition and shows a remarkable amount of thought was invested as to how to create a versatile and great sounding live space.

The control room revolves around a Yamaha DM2000 digital desk, a desk which was used for James Taylor's most recent album, Before this World. Monitoring was provided by Dynaudio, and I tracked directly into Logic 9.

Micing Up

Arriving at around 10am, my first task was to set up the drums and then mic them. Once I was done, the kit looked like this:

As this was my own band i was recording, I decided to experiment with an unusual overhead technique, seen used here by educator Mike Johnston. In this scenario the overheads are actually at ear level with the drummer, placed either side, facing the kick/snare for good polarity and stereo image. With the benefit of hindsight, I'm not sure I'd do it again in a big room, I think its better in a smaller iso-room where there might not be the ideal space for a natural sound, or not enough inputs for a room mic. It's very effective in the small room I compose in at home. Here's the mic layout for the kit: 

  1. AKG D202 inside the Kick
  2. Home-made Subkick outside the Kick
  3. Beyer M201 for batter side Snare
  4. Shure SM57 for the resonant side Snare
  5. Audio Technica ATM63 for Hi Tom
  6. AKG D112 for Mid Floor Tom
  7. Sennheiser e902 on the Low Floor Tom
  8. Original run Rode NT1 for Overhead Left
  9. Original run Rode NT1 for Overhead Right
  10. Neumann TLM103 for the mono Room

I really like the AKG D202 for inside the kick; I'd heard it only a few weeks previous when sessioning for Martyn Peters with Russ Hayes at his studio on the North Wales coast, and it just so happened that Mission had one in their cabinet. Its actually perfectly serviceable on its own, but really shines when paired with a subkick. I'm also really fond of the AKG D112 on low toms; I think its better suited to that application than kick drums. I wish I'd had two for the session, as my Sennheiser e902 didn't really perform as I'd liked it to on the lowest floor tom.

Guitars were recorded with a Sennheiser e606 against the grill, and an AKG C414 in figure-of-eight pattern about 3ft from the amp. Most of what you hear on the record is the e606, but the C414 adds that little bit of grit and definition to give the guitar sound a nice edge. Alan was using a Mesa Nomad 2x12 and a Blackstar HT40 1x15, both full valve amps, that really sounded great. 

I had the bass set up with an ATM63 on the cab which wasn't ideal, and in the end only used the DI signal which was plenty good enough.

Scratch vocal was recorded with an SM58, with master vocal being recorded with the Neumann.

Performance

For this session, I really wanted to record the band live, to capture the energy of a live performance. Whilst this is great in theory, the reality is dealing with overspill, and either embracing it or trying to avoid it. I opted to try a bit of both, isolating the singer and the bass but not really isolating the guitar. It ended up like this:

There was a surprising amount of spill in the bass mic, and equally surprising was the lack of spill in the drum mics; the other instruments are barely audible even in the overheads and room mic. This will be due in part to the excellent layout of the room at Mission; it is one large room but with a vaulted ceiling at the wooden floor end (shown here in yellow) and a lot of ceiling dampener above the carpeted end (shown in blue). The room proves to be incredible versatile; providing a very dead and tight sound at one end and plenty of reverb at the other, with varying degrees in between. In future I'd be tempted to completely box off the carpeted end with panels to create two rooms to track in.

Despite arriving at 10am, we didn't start tracking until 1pm, which goes to show how quickly time can go when setting up in a studio. This was my first time here as well, and the desk was foreign to me, but at least I'll be prepared for the next session. We did about 3 takes of the 4 tunes; which took us to around 5pm.

Overdubs

I elected to double track the guitars for extra meat, so we swapped to the Blackstar and recorded all the right channel material for the guitar, as well as solo overdubs and some feedback sounds for 'Whole Lotta Love'.

I'd also planned to record a master vocal with the Neumann, so set up our singer right in the middle of the wooded area of the room, and near the entrance set up the C414 and Rode NT1 in a Mid/Side configuration to capture the room. All the reverb you hear on the vocal is coming from these two mics, and the only extra time effect is the delay on Whole Lotta Love. Vocals were recorded through a TL Audio 5021 Compressor.

Eventually we were finished by 9pm, nearly a 12 hour session. I'll cover the mixing and mastering in another post; in the mean time check out these dodgy photos from the session. Enjoy!