Recording an EP: sonic DNA

When I was growing up, all of my favourite records had a consistent sound running through them. The way they were produced, the guitar sounds that were used, the drum sounds, the vocal treatment, the way they were mixed. There was always a consistency across the songs that made them sound like they firmly belonged to the same album. Some examples would be The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion (by The Black Crowes), Vs (by Pearl Jam) and more recently Royal Blood (by Royal Blood). It was important to me to try to achieve a similar result with this record, hence the need to think about the overall sound beforehand.

So, before we get onto the details of the recording process in the next few posts, it’s useful to talk about the over-arching philosophy we had for the record as a whole. I like the term “sonic DNA” as a way of referring to the basic building blocks of the sound we were aiming to achieve. The Oxford Dictionary definition for DNA in this context is: the fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable.

So, what makes up your sonic DNA? Good question! Here are some of the key elements that we decided on:

  • A live band feel for the record. This affected how we recorded the drums in particular and meant that we didn’t use click tracks or any sequencing (sequencing is basically “cut&paste” for music, and common practice for many modern records).
  • A small number of musical layers. In keeping with the live band philosophy, we had an aim to keep the number of musical layers to a minimum. The focus was on recording fewer parts as well as possible.
  • A core sound that blended acoustic and electric guitars. I wanted to achieve a well-balanced mix using a single acoustic and electric guitar as the core guitar sounds for each song – more explanation below.
  • Minimal guitar solos. While I love to hear great guitar playing, and it was important for me to get some cool stuff down on record, we went with the “less is more” approach.
Faith Venus acoustic guitar (left) and Gretsch Duo Jet electric guitar (right)
Core guitar sounds: Faith Venus acoustic guitar (left); Gretsch Duo Jet electric guitar (right)

The decision to record without click tracks presented some challenges – particularly for The Flood, which has a pretty relentless acoustic guitar part that needed to be recorded in a single take. Although I tend to play a Fender Stratocaster when performing live (I love the sound and how comfortable they are to play), I wanted to use something more distinctive for the main electric guitar sound. I decided to use a Gretsch Duo Jet (pictured above), which represents a more unique voice to my mind, while maintaining some broad characteristics of the Stratocaster sound. The decision to blend acoustic and electric for the core guitar sounds (rather than just use electric) was partly to maintain some sound/textural continuity between the record and solo live performances, which are often played on an acoustic guitar.

Next time we’ll get onto the recording process itself, starting with drums..

Before going into the studio, we thought pretty hard about what we wanted the “sonic DNA” to be for the record.

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