PS Indepth

Does a Studio Always Offer Better Results?

[Pictured above: Matt Rogalsky. Photo by Benjamin Nelson]

Matt Rogalsky is an associate professor in the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, where he teaches sound art, as well as various courses on recording, mixing, and post-production. He is also a location recordist with Memory Device, often recording Kingston-area artists in unique locations.

Rogalsky spoke with Professional Sound about recording three albums with popular indie rock duo PS I Love You: 2010’s Meet Me at the Muster Station, 2012's Death Dreams, and 2014's For Those Who Stay. The first two, which were both long-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, were recorded in acoustically-poor jam spaces, while the third was recorded in The Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Recording Studio. Based on those experiences and considering the cost, did a professional studio offer a significantly better end result than a DIY approach? Let’s find out…

Paul-NGB-2010
[Pictured: PS I Love You's Paul Saulnier while recording 2010's Meet Me at Muster Station in their first jam space.]

PS: On the first and second albums, what were the locations and conditions for recording?

Matt Rogalsky: [For Meet Me at the Muster Station] they had one room in this gigantic building as a jam space and it was basically just a concrete cube with very little in the way of windows and very poor air conditioning and very poor heating in the winters. So it was extremely rough and ready…

I had a very basic set up with just an eight-channel interface, but they’re just a duo so it was pretty stripped down and easy to do live-off-the-floor with a very minimal set up. Everything is close-miked, the amps and stuff, and so the space is almost – I wouldn’t say irrelevant because it’s very relevant for the drum sound—but it’s easier to record loud music in a bad space…

[For Death Dreams,] this other jam space is much better than the concrete room, but it’s still a very kind of junky, but in a good way I’d say. It’s just littered with bands’ equipment and it’s under a peaked ceiling, which is pretty low. The room soaks up more sound than the concrete block, but it’s still rough and ready and we’re close-miking everything. So we’d typically do a first round of stuff live-off-the-floor with the drums and the amps all in the same room. Honestly, I was always amazed at the separation I could get between the two… I found that I was able to, even with drum overheads, keep the amps out of it to a large degree. There is some bleed there, but whatever bleed there is seemed to be good.

PS: What was your rig like on those two albums?

MR: It was pretty simple. I have a 16-channel Focusrite rig, but then I’ve been favouring this Audient [iD22 audio interface and ASP008 eight-channel mic preamplifier] because I just think they’re pretty amazing quality, at their price point especially. I think if you measure it up against anything, it’s pretty great gear. So it was one or the other rig, but I’ve been using pretty typical mics on drums. Like [Sennheiser MD] 421s on toms and I’ve got this JTS kick mic that I acquired at some point, which I think is a knockoff of one of the Shure kick mics, but it serves me well. There is another Sennheiser, I think an e602, as a kick-in mic. I think at that time I was using some ribbon mics as overheads, which I’d got in Germany. They were kind of a no-name brand, but they’re very much like the Fathead mics. Also, your typical [Shure] 57 on a snare and for guitars. I like to over-mic guitar amps for choices later, so there were always two or three extras in addition to something basic and reliable like the 57.

Paul-guitar-overdubs--Ben-listening
[Pictured: PS I Love You while recording 2012's Death Dreams in their second jam space.]

PS: Were you adding acoustic treatments to the rooms?

MR: No, we really didn’t. I set up the band symmetrically with all the amps facing the drum kit and just pointed the mics away from each other and got pretty good separation. If you’ve ever heard PS I Love You live, it’s really loud. So I find at that volume, it seemed easier to get good results and keep things separated. I always had a couple of omni room mics set up way over on the sides of the room to fill in the sound for the live bed tracks…

You know, you could think of things like bleed as limitations, but for a band like that, that didn’t seem to be a drawback. Any extraneous noise from the environment didn’t play a role because it just wasn’t audible underneath the band.

We always double-tracked guitars and we usually did the bass keyboard as an overdub. We always recorded the songs instrumentally, so totally without vocals, and that helped because I like doing live-off-the-floor stuff but as soon as there is a vocal mic, it kind of ruins the whole sound. I found I could get a really nice, tight sound even under those conditions. But that, I guess, is just a factor of experience with this mobile rig and knowing how to work with it in different situations.

PS: For the third album at the Bathouse, was that a pretty typical studio set up?

MR: Yeah… I accepted that this would be a different experience and left it up to [Nyles Spencer, Bathouse’s head engineer,] to take care of the miking and a lot of the choices of preamps and stuff because he knows the studio really well. Then I tried to take more of a producer-type role rather than hands-on engineering.

It was a pretty typical set up. There was a drum room and we were able to isolate amps and everything and do that really nicely. Definitely taking advantage of their nice old gear, the API stuff and so on, and they have a lot of outboard gear, too, which was fun to work with because most of the stuff I do is in-the-box. I have a background in analog studios but in general I don’t have that luxury…

In terms of workflow, it was a challenge for me because I’m used to being on top of everything from beginning to end and being able to spend endless amounts of time going back to mixes and tweaking things and making it more of a process over a longer period of time, going through a set of songs and tweaking them and coming back to the beginning and doing another set of mixes. At the Bathouse, we couldn’t do that because the mixer has no recall or anything. It was a really traditional mix with sometimes several of us moving faders. That was a lot of fun, but it meant we had to work fast and commit to mixes as we went.

Ben-drum-rig
[Pictured: PS I Love You's Benjamin Nelson while recording 2014's For Those Who Stay in The Bathouse.]

PS: When you compare the final results, would you say that the professional studio offered a significantly better final product than the more makeshift approach?

MR: So this is ultimately the interesting lesson I learned, or I think I learned, out of working with PS I Love You at the Bathouse and comparing it with the results with the first two albums. I think that it was great to have the experience of taking time and hanging out at the Bathouse, but I think if you go and listen to those three albums, the third one that was made at the Bathouse is not appreciably better in terms of the sounds that we got or the mixes. I think that we did good work there, but I was surprised to realize how much we got out of a minimal set up and a very inexpensive production process for the first two. I think anybody who listens to those three albums, you’ll hear a difference in sound, but if you were to give those three to somebody and ask them to identify the one that was done at the Bathouse, it might be hard to pick it out.

PS: What are the main tips you’d give for recording a loud band in an acoustically poor space?

MR: Understanding how to get the most out of what you have and positioning things in the room so that they interfere with each other as little as possible once you’ve oriented the mics; that’s been my tactic. It is just to make the best out of whatever situation I’m in and just understand the limitations of whatever I have at hand…

I tend to over-mic so that I have lots of options afterwards. So in addition to sticking typical close mics on drums and amps, I’ll always have a few extra mics to get the room sound and get some other perspectives on the drums, like a mono kit mic. But having four mics on Paul’s guitar amp was not unusual, just so that later there would be a wide choice of different colours and being able to pan all those sounds around and get a big guitar sound. So over-miking is not a bad strategy if you’re working fast and in a raw space. You might then decide later on that only one of those four mics on the guitar amp really does justice to this particular song, but you still have the other ones as colour that you can add in as needed for different sections of the songs.

To hear the sonic differences between the songs Matt recorded from each PS I Love You album, he suggests these tracks:

  1. Little Spoon, from Meet Me at the Muster Station

  2. Sentimental Dishes, from Death Dreams

  3. Advice, from For Those Who Stay