The Campaign 1984 Archives - Recording Studio Rockstars

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RSR045 – Roger Alan Nichols – Recording Vocals With Steven Tyler

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR045 – Roger Alan Nichols - Recording Vocals With Steven Tyler

My guest today is Roger Alan Nichols, a producer, recording engineer, rock musician, and songwriter from Nashville TN.

He is owner of Bell Tone Recording in Berry Hill where he produces great sounding rock. In fact when I recorded my record Skadoosh which includes the track "American Winter" on the Mix Master Bundle I turned to Roger for guitar tones, borrowing the Bogner, and Bassman guitar amp heads for my sound.

Roger started out in Nashville with his band Dreaming In English as an artist and later moved to production and engineering after Pro Tools made it possible for him to create professional home studio. He has since moved to this beautiful commercial location at BelTone Recording and records with many country and rock artists.

Some of the Rockstars that Roger has written for, performed with, produced, or recorded are Paramore, Mix Master Mandy, Seal, Ryan Humbert, Robben Ford, The Mean Tambourines, The Campaign 1984, Tyler Bryant, and Steven Tyler

There's no competition for this place [Nashville], LA would like to think that they could compete, but there’s no way. I mean the musicianship in town, the ability to write, the emphasis on recording and the recording arts, the facilities that we have here, the cost of living, it just seems like in Nashville people get to work, roll their sleeves up and do it.”

Roger Alan Nichols
Why Nashville? 

Touring Professionally Early

I toured with this company out of Florida that produced bands that toured high schools. You know as a young songwriter this is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. We did three to five shows a day for ten and a half months straight and it was doing assembly shows in high schools. And one of the things that we had to do is we had to learn a song or two a week off the top 40. Depending on the area that we were in whether or not it was Louisiana, Detroit, or Alaska, wherever we were, we would have to do what was hot in that area. So as a young songwriter we were always learning how to play these songs that were hits.

There were really two things that happened on the road in those early years for me that really helped me understand a lot about songwriting and putting songs together. First being that we had to constantly learn hit songs. You start to identify things in songs as to why it is a hit. Then the second thing that happened in 1981 I had my parents cosign a loan for me for $1,300 and I got a Fostex 4 Track. It was gigantic! I would spend my free time writing songs and I would use the 4 tracks to kind of work on arrangements and guitar parts. As I started to learn how parts worked together and how tones can work together, it was a very interested period and I look back at it. Parts of that time felt like a waste, but some of the stuff that I learned as far as playing the songs and learning the songs and having the discipline to work on a 4 track every night, I learned a hell of a lot.

Musicians Relationship with Technology

With technology providing opportunities for people to record and to write and to create art, the thing that is always in the back of my head is just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. That I think is one of the biggest obstacles right now with music. The fact that technology has allowed us to create really great sounding stuff with no filter. Now from an artist's standpoint, I love that, that’s the way it should be. The way the business is now the gatekeepers are gone and everyone applaudes that. But the bad news is is the gatekeepers are gone. So there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s really mediocre. A lot of stuff that is put out that should be developed better.

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” -Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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The way records are made now is we send files around. I’ll get a track and record a guitar part and I’ll send it off to someone else and then they’ll add something and whenever they start to mix it, whoever mixes it you end up carving the hell out of it EQ wise to make it work in the context of the mix. The way records used to be made is the band would set up in a room, decisions were made about placement of amps and mics and so forth. Then the snapshot was taken. If you solo’d the guitar or something, it might sound really shitty by itself, but in context it would sound amazing. So it was about the complete photograph as opposed to the individual in the photograph

Being A Producer 

As a producer one of the easiest failures to make is to not listen to the artist. I think that is a common mistake especially if you have artistic visions or perspectives. It’s easy to go "Well really what you need is this." I have learned the hard way that is not a good thing to do. You want to be good at what you do, and you want to be able to contribute to the vision, and a lot of times you just stay out of the way and help facilitate the vision. It’s not about contributing to the vision from an artistic voice, but it's creating an environment for the artist to find out what their voice is.

“As a producer one of the easiest failures to make is to not listen to the artist” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Cutting Vocals With Steven Tyler

Steven Tyler is just this spinning top of energy. He’s everything that you would imagine him to be. But here’s the thing that's really amazing, is to first of all be in your room and hear his vocals coming out through your speakers, and to look through the glass to see him standing behind your U47. You go, “Woah that’s Steven Tyler!” it’s pretty remarkable.

The other thing that struck me is how hard he worked. Like he would say "Hold on a second!" and you could hear him practicing the first line into the song and he would be changing his vowel sounds and practicing a couple different approaches, and he’d pick a direction and say, “Alright, let’s go for it.” But he worked really hard and that was impressive to see.

For a guy at his age, really he doesn’t have to do anything, he could just sing Dream On the rest of his life and make more money than most of us could ever dream of seeing, but he works really hard. The second thing that really blew my mind is the first day he was here, his assistant was going, “Hey Steven we gotta go, come on we’re going to be late!” and Steven grabbed that guitar right there and said, “Check this out!” And he starts playing all these new songs he’s writing.

To see this guy so excited about creating music at 60+ years old, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, to see him so excited about making music still was inspiring. He knows exactly what’s going on, he knows exactly how to do it, and he made everyone feel incredibly comfortable and it was really one of the funnest couple of days ever. I was blown away at how amazing it was! 

Secret For Great Vocal Sounds

Secret I got from background singer Perry Coleman. You don’t dare give this guy any instruction because he knows what to do. He’s sung with so many number ones. There’s two things that he does that are really stunning. His phrasing is immaculate. I mean he’ll listen to the lead part and he will match the phrasing to a tee. And then when he sings he does this thing where he self-compresses.

The way he sings a phrase he’ll roll the s’s off, he does all this kind of stuff. If you solo his vocal part it might sound funny, but put it with the lead and it’s brilliant. I’ve never had to tune one vocal that he has sung here. Ever. If he’s singing to a lead vocal part, I’ll tune the lead vocal first so he’s singing to a tuned vocal so I never have to touch him. The really interesting thing that he does is if there’s a lot of S’s or P’s, he’ll sing through his fingers. What that does is it splits the wind and reduces the impact of the diaphragm of the mic and it also reduces the energy that the mic is receiving. It’s brilliant.

Secrets For Great Guitar Sounds

There’s a couple things you can do. Obviously you have to have well intonated instruments. I think that's the most important thing. You don’t necessarily have to have heavy gauge strings, but I’ve found that heavier gauged strings allow you to dig in a little more and keep the intonation in line. It also pulls heavier tones out, sounds like they have more weight to them. All my guitars are at least 11’s.

Again it goes back to your ability to pull the tone out of the instrument with your hands. It’s how to attack the string and how you hold the pick, and how you pull the tone out of the instrument. The biggest misstep with a lot of guitar players is they use too much saturation and they feel like that’s going to give them a bigger, nastier sound. Depending on the part in the song it might work, but if you’re planning on stacking guitar parts, you can bigger sound if you air on the more cleaner sound and stack those parts.

“If you play more instruments it allows you to communicate ideas a little clearer” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Mixing Tricks For Acoustic Guitars

I always parallel compress my acoustic instruments. I blend it in where the compressed signal sits right in the center and the uncompressed signal moves to the peaks and the valleys. You get the articulation and dynamic sensibility of the acoustic instrument. For acoustic instruments there’s a chain I always use and it always sounds amazing. I use a Neumann Gefell 5802 which is a small diaphragm tube microphone, and I use a Telefunken V72 and I use a little bit of the LA2A just to kiss it a little bit. If I’m cutting the acoustic guitar part I use a really light pick and play lightly, what happens is the guitar sounds huge.

Mixing Tricks for Heavy Guitars

I use a lot of filtering, so if we’ve got an intro, verse, chorus, I’ll automate a filter to come in during the verse so that the filter reduces the size of the guitar in the verse then when it hits the chorus the filter kicks off and the guitar sounds huge. I want to make sure that the grind and attitude of the instrument doesn’t change. I love really heavy guitars. I love cutting them so that the downbeat and the step-off notes are tight.

"It all starts with the drummers right foot” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - How things were done. When I was learning how to play, I’d put the needle on the record, listen, play, needle on the record, listen, play, etc. There was no YouTube demonstration of how to play the chord voicing or how to connect these devices with this. You had to find the local hot shot at the music store and ask him how it’s done or sit and observe. There’s something to be said about being able to hear a song and go, “I know what those voicings are, I know what those chord changes are,” because your ear is developed to that point.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- This is what Richard Dodd shared with me a couple of weeks ago, he’s brilliant. "Do you know how you can increase the processing speed of your computer? Learn to type better" 🙂 …. I think the best advice is to shut up and listen and observe.

“Show up prepared” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A -  Right now it’s all about volume and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I like to think instead of dynamic range, I like to think of scene changes. I think that's important because the verse has a whole different scene than the chorus. Again the phrase I always use is "the trajectory of the song."

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 I used to take a polaroid camera and I would take snapshots of everything: mic placements, EQ settings, etc. Then I would have a notebook and give it to the drummer to sketch out his kit and mark the size of his drums and what heads he was using and where mics were placed and keep track of lyrics. It was basically a journal of the record. For me, that was a way of keeping track of the process.

“When mixing a track it’s really easy to think about stuff you don’t need to think about” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A -If I had to use one it would probably be the SSL E-channel (the waves plugin). The EQ is great, the compressor is great, it has a gate if you need it, phase switch, it has a slider on it if you need to trim something.

Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A -I think the most important thing to remember is that if you’re working on a track or writing a song or working with a band and it’s not going well, it’s not the end of the world. If you’re frustrated in the studio one day, don’t listen to music, go home and relax, have a glass of wine and watch a movie or something, and hit it again the next day. The most important thing about having output is you have to have input. If you don’t have input then you aren’t going to have any output. If you’re gonna write a song you have to be able to experience some things in life to write about. Sometimes you have to be reminded it’s okay to have a certain thought about something. If you’re working with someone and they say, “Oh, I don’t really like that,” it can shut down the whole train of thought. That can be a real detriment sometimes. That doesn’t mean the idea sucks, it just means maybe we need to rethink this.

“The most important thing about having output is you have to have input” - Roger Alan Nichols @BTrecording

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - To realize that you probably don’t know how a lot of it’s done. It’s really easy to be in a conversation with people and feel like you have to validate what you’re doing with false sense of knowledge. It’s okay to not know how to do something. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to be curious about stuff. We’re in a business where we’re always trying to qualify something subjective, that’s a horrible thing to try to do.

Twitter - @BTrecording
Music -
Bell Tone Recording

Big Thanks to Alex Skelton & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!