Recording and processing live instruments with cut&dry and Nahko And Medicine For The People

Oregon-based music collective Nahko And Medicine For The People recently released their latest album, Take Your Power Back.

Produced, engineered, and mixed by production duo cut&dry, the album employs an effortless blend of genres including folk, pop, rock, and R&B to explore narratives that span grief and trauma to self-love and acceptance.

In a world where electronic drum kits, synths, and sampled performances are increasingly prevalent, the album stands out in how it brings an organic band-first sound into the modern era. Driven by acoustic drum kits, guitars, electric bass, piano, and horns, the arrangement of many of the songs feels timeless, but there’s something in the way the performances are recorded and processed that make them feel modern and fresh.

For those who are interested in venturing into the world of crafting live instrument-centric records themselves, Adam Korbesmeyer of cut&dry sat down with us to discuss the tools, techniques, and philosophies they implemented when creating Take Your Power Back.

How to approach recording live instruments

Considering the value of recording live performances

Korbesmeyer tells us how while songs such as “Part Problem” and “Twisted” were recorded part-by-part, others were recorded live, with individual elements like vocals overdubbed for any extra production. While remote sessions are more common now than ever, when possible, putting musicians in the same room and recording them simultaneously allows for the nuances and synergy that come with collaborative performance to shine.

Using a combination of close miking and stereo pairs

That said, it was important for cut&dry to ensure that they could have isolated recordings of each instrument, so that there would be flexibility when it came time to mix. Korbesmeyer explains that as a result, “for the most part, things were close miked, and digital reverbs and delays were used to get depth.” For instruments that inherently have a stereo presence, a combination of stereo pairs and close mics was used: “Drums had multiple room mics (both XY and spaced pair), and for piano, we had stereo close mics above the strings, a mic at the base of the piano, and two sets of stereo rooms,” he recalls. “One set was an XY for getting a close room sound, and the other was faced away from the piano to get the reflections off of the wall and ceiling to make the room sound even bigger” (more on this later).

Capturing a classic vocal sound

Other elements like vocals required their own individualized approach. “If you want that classic ‘record’ sound out of your vocals, a great condenser microphone is the most important piece in your chain,” Korbesmeyer posits. “At my studio, I have the Telefunken AK47, which isn’t very expensive, but sounds great on most singers. For a few songs, we used a Vintage Telefunken 251, which is a ‘holy grail’ microphone. My favorite vocal chain is a Neve 1073 into a CL 1B. This is my first pick for vocals in any studio I go to.”

It seems that Nahko was a natural when it came time to record. “We would record around three takes and then comp,” Korbesmeyer says. “Having your levels set from the jump is really important, as the first take usually has the magic in it. For comping vocals, we would just listen back to the takes line by line and pick our favorite. If we didn’t get a line, Nahko would pop in the booth and get it real quick. Then, we would move to doubles, harmonies, various backing vocals, or whatever we thought was needed. When Nahko gets out of the booth, the parts are done and we can listen back.”

How to approach processing live instruments

Balancing surgical and creative decisions

While the magic undoubtedly lies in the performances, how they were processed was also pivotal in bringing out their full potential. Of course, some of the processing revolved around standard surgical enhancements: “The obvious things applied were EQ (FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3 is a favorite) and compression (Waves’ C4 multiband and CLA compressors were used often) to shape the sound,” Korbesmeyer tells us. “We used FabFilter’s Pro-R as our go-to reverb, and for coloration, we used PSP’s Vintage Warmer, Soundtoys’ Decapitator, and FabFilter’s Saturn. EchoBoy was used on every session as well.”

Other processing decisions were less expected: “My guitar pedals are a big part of the ambient tones on the album,” Korbesmeyer notes. “Hitting the Neve 1073 with a strong signal plays into the harmonic characteristics of each track as well. We would run tracks out of JL’s laptop (ex. drums, pianos, soft synths) into a Vintech 573, and then back into a stereo audio track in Pro Tools to get additional coloration.”

All this said, it can be hard to get a sense of how all of these tools and techniques were applied without hearing how they sound in practice. Nahko and cut&dry have generously shared some stems from Take Your Power Back with us, so that we can get a more intimate look into what goes into processing live instruments. Below, we highlight four stems featuring various live instruments, and how cut&dry applied processing to make them release-ready.

A deep dive into processing drums (“Part Problem”)

Here’s how the dry recording for the drums in the track, “Part Problem,” sounded:

The recorded drums with no processing

“After we got back to our studio, we needed to sculpt the drum kit to work with our programmed drums,” Korbesmeyer explains.

The programmed drums

“We mixed the live drums and bounced them into a stereo audio track. We decided that for this song (and a few others), we should chop up and treat the live drums as if we sampled them off a record.”

The processing chain for the drums in "Part Problems"

The settings for the plugins applied to the recorded drums

“Looking at our plugin chain, we first had FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3. We cut the low end out of the live kit to allow room for our programmed kick. We then distorted and compressed the drums with Soundtoys’ Devil-Loc. Next, we spread the kit out with the Spreader in iZotope’s Ozone. Following that, we took out some more lows and further distorted the drums with a tube setting on FabFilter’s Saturn. Lastly, we pitched down the entire kit two semitones so they were in key with the programmed drums.”

The recorded drums with processing

“This sounds drastically different, but makes sense when you listen to how it sounds when combined with the programmed drums; you can hear how the excitement of the live kit really helps push the groove forward.”

The processed recorded drums combined with the programmed drums

A deep dive into processing horns (“Part Problem”)

Here’s how the dry recording for the horns in the same track sounded:

The recorded horns with no processing

“On this horn riff in ‘Part Problem,’ we wanted an orchestral and larger-than-life horn sound,” Korbesmeyer says. “First, you hear TJ on trombone – we tripled him (he played the same part three times) and spread out the panning by positioning each track at 35 L, C, and 35 R. The subsequent riff Max (the trumpet / flugelhorn player) plays in an octave higher. His trumpet is also tripled and panned a little wider, at 50 L, C, and 50 R. This helped the section feel bigger.”

The settings for the plugins applied to the recorded horns

“To achieve the orchestral vibe, we had to do some heavy processing. On the trumpets, we took out some top end that sounded harsh with EQ. We used FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3 to high pass unnecessary low frequencies, and used the dynamic EQ function at 3 kHz and on the top end to smooth out the horns when they crescendo at the end of each phrase. Next, we added Soundtoys’ MicroShift to thicken up the horns. We also used a good amount of FabFilter’s Pro R to get a roomier sound. From there, we added Avid’s D-Verb, on the ‘Church’ setting. This gives the horns a long tail that modulates, and the pre-delay allows the initial attack to cut through before the reverb comes in. We finished things off with FabFilter’s Saturn to add some tape saturation.”

“Similar to the drums, we also layered the horn with programmed instruments, using Native Instruments’ Symphony Series. These added with the processed horns creates the final result, which sounds like an entire brass section playing in a large concert hall:

The processed recorded horns combined with the software horns

Finally, take a listen to how the drums and the horns sound in the context of the final mix:

A deep dive into processing strings (“Twisted”)

Here’s how the dry recording for the strings in the track, “Twisted,” sounded:

The recorded strings with no processing

“Our goal in processing these strings was to hype the mid range and top end, but keep them tight; the song has a lot of other elements with reverb on them, so it was nice to have the strings feel dry and intimate,” Korbesmeyer explains.

The processing chain for the strings in "Twisted"

The settings for the plugins applied to the recorded strings

“First, we used FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3. We have a high pass to remove unnecessary low end, a treble boost up top, and a few dynamic EQ bands catching resonant frequencies. We then added the Pro-C 2 to smooth out some of the louder dynamics. Next was Waves’ Vitamin – this helped excite the mids and high end, emphasizing the string and bow noise. We also again used Soundtoys’ MicroShift to thicken up the recording. Lastly, we added more harmonic excitement with PSP’s Vintage Warmer.”

The recorded strings with processing

“And finally, you can hear these strings layered with another big stack of strings that are playing more melodic lines over our string pad.”

The final layered strings

A deep dive into processing piano (“Twisted”)

Here’s how the dry recording for the piano in the same track sounded:

The dry piano recording captured by the close mics

“We had a pair of AKG 414s as our main stereo pair, a Neumann U 47 FET at the end of the piano, a Neumann SM69 stereo room mic, and Neumann M49s for a spaced pair of far room mics,” Korbesmeyer recalls. “We pointed the M49s away from the piano so they were picking up the sound bouncing off the wall and ceiling, giving the illusion of an even larger space. Above, you can hear the close mics (the AKG 414s and U 47 FET). Below, you hear the room mics isolated (SM69 and M49s).”

The dry piano recording captured by the room mics

“No additional reverb was need because we recorded these room mics – below is what all of the mics together sounds like.”

The overall dry piano recording

The processing chain for the piano in "Twisted"

The settings for the plugins applied to the piano

“The mics on their own already sounded great, but we needed the piano to cut through the mix better. We first used FabFilter’s Saturn and Waves’ Vitamin to add saturation and excite the piano. Then, we used FabFilter’s Pro-C 2 to compress the piano a touch. Next, we used PSP’s Vintage Warmer to thicken the piano. Finally, we used FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3 to shape it. We high passed unnecessary low end, used the dynamic EQ to catch some muddy notes, and then carved out a section of the mid range to make room for the vocals.”

The processed piano recording

Lastly, take a listen to how the strings and piano sound in the context of the final mix:

We thank cut&dry for taking the time to share and explore these stems with us – hopefully this post gave you some new ideas around recording and processing live instruments. Do you have any questions on any of the topics or creative decisions that were mentioned? Let us know in the comments below.

May 21, 2020

Harrison Shimazu Harrison Shimazu is the editor of the Splice blog and a composer for video games and film.