Heavy music legend Kurt Ballou offers advice for taking your recordings to the next level
With an established career under his belt playing guitar for veteran US hardcore band Converge, you could excuse Kurt Ballou for being content with the influence he has already had on the heavy music scene.
With a career spanning nearly 15 years, and eight universally respected albums under its belt, Converge is undoubtedly one of heavy music’s most revered bands.
However, the music industry isn’t what it used to be, and with bands unable to command the financial rewards they were previously through album sales and label advances, most have to look for alternative income streams.
For Kurt, this was a blessing; after parting ways with his ‘day job’ as a biomedical engineer, he was able to make the move to being a full-time producer. With a healthy severance settlement in hand, Kurt took the plunge and in 1998 God City studio in Salem, Massachusetts opened its doors.
The list of bands which has recorded at God City, including Kvelertak, High on Fire and Skeletonwitch, as well as Converge themselves, reads like an almanac of metal credibility and influence.
Now, as recording equipment becomes more affordable and barriers to entry are removed, there’s been a revolution in what can be done with even a basic home recording rig. Artists can now produce, with complete creative control, recordings which they can use to help promote themselves and attract new fans.
But as more and more artists and bands start self-producing, so it figures more and more will want to explore techniques for creating higher quality, more professional sounding tracks.
Dawsons caught up with Kurt to ask his opinions and advice for artists who want to take the quality to the next level.
Dawsons: What are the key differences between recording on a laptop and recording in a pro-studio – seems an obvious question but it would be good to get a definitive answer from a professional.
Kurt Ballou: “There’s two big differences – gear options and acoustics. Typically laptop productions are in spaces with fewer microphones, mic pre-amps, compressors, eq’s, instruments, pedals, etc to choose from than conventional studios. That doesn’t mean you can’t make great music, with those limitations – you just need to be creative!
“The acoustics of make-shift spaces can however be hard to deal with. Ideally you want to treat the space with proper bass trapping and diffusion (foam is useless for music production.)
“Working in a familiar, properly designed acoustic space, with great monitors, makes the job of an engineer much easier. But, if that’s not an option, get a great pair of headphones that you trust and use them, along with conventional monitors as a way to help overcome the shortcomings of the room.”
Dawsons: What specific skills does a pro producer have which can only be developed through experience and time?
Kurt Ballou: “I liken skills as an engineer/producer to skills with language. The greater your vocabulary, the better you’re able to communicate. People with small vocabularies can still have great ideas – but sometimes they have a hard time translating them efficiently. Gear and techniques are just tools, but you’ll be better at your job if you know how to use them well.”
Dawsons: Is it a pre-requisite these days that bands should have at least one member who is competent at recording basic demos?
Kurt Ballou: “Yes and no. It depends on the sonic aesthetic of the band and if their sound comes from production or the sound they make in a room. Anyone can plug and mic into Garageband or whatever and document an idea, but if there’s some production involved in establishing what the song is, then it’s helpful to have someone with those skills in the band.”
Dawsons: What advice, or pointers, would you give to bands who record themselves on a basic setup?
Kurt Ballou: “Sound starts at the source. Good sounding, well tuned and maintained instruments, played by great players who pick appropriate tones and parts for their songs is the most important thing. A good sounding acoustic space is also very important – both for the players and for the engineer.”
Dawsons: What are the key items required for any band looking to develop their sound in the studio? Assuming they have a computer of some kind, what gear will they absolutely need and which (if any) brands would you recommend?
Kurt Ballou: “Start with great monitors and well thought-out acoustic treatments for your control room. After that, take whatever money you have left over and get a small quantity of high-quality mics and mic preamps.
“As far as mics go, you’ll want at least one large diaphragm condenser mic, two small diaphragm condensers, and a variety of dynamic mics. If possible, look for mics made, or at least partially assembled, in the first world by companies with a reputation for quality. This is especially true for LDC’s (large diaphragm condensers.)
“In terms of mic preamps, there’s millions to choose from, and they all sound a little different (transformer-less can be more transparent, transformers can be weightier, tubes can do distortion more smoothly,) but as long as you have something professional to work with, you’ll be fine. Moving a mic 1/4″ makes more difference in the sound than switching from an API to a Neve preamp.”
Dawsons: Players of which instrument tend to have the best ear for producing?
Kurt Ballou: “Someone who can play at least a little bit of everything! As an engineer/producer, you need to be able to empathise and communicate with the people you’re recording. What better way than by understanding the mechanics of what they have to do to perform?”
Dawsons: Finally, what was your first ‘eureka’ moment when you started recording?
Kurt Ballou: “I don’t know… probably when signal routing on a console finally clicked for me. There was a time when I would just keep hitting buttons randomly until it passed audio. Once I finally understood which buttons to press I felt like a champ!”
For more information on God City or Kurt Ballou, check out the his Facebook page here.