How to Make Music Made of Instruments
Today’s challenge is “How would you record a jug band?” Do you even know what a jug band is? In case you don’t, a jug band is comprised of a jug (an empty glass or stoneware jug that is played by blowing air into it with pursed lips resulting in a trombone-like tone) and other assorted and eclectic homemade instruments like a washtub bass, washboard, spoons, comb and tissue paper and sometimes more traditional instruments like a banjo, a kazoo, a standup bass or a piano, and don’t forget the vocalists. Jug bands are a uniquely American concept and have influenced early rock bands like The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Grateful Dead. While not really a jug band, Mungo Jerry’s classic song, “In the Summertime” does feature jug playing just to put a picture to the words.
Circling back to our question, how would you go about recording such a band? In today’s music, so much of it is either created electronically, or played with electronic instruments like electric guitars, bass guitars, keyboards, etc. that a jug band which is comprised completely of acoustic instruments can present a real challenge. To further complicate things, often times the jug player plays an additional instrument.
Before You Record
The first thing you’ll want to do is determine which instruments the Jug Band uses and if any of the band members play more than one instrument. For our hypothetical Jug Band recording session we have a band that is comprised of a jug player, a washtub bass, a washboard, spoons and a banjo plus a lead vocalist and three backup singers. For both economic and performance reasons, our approach is going to be to record the jug band as a “live” performance—in other words, rather than recording instrument by instrument in separate sessions, we are going to record everything at the same time i.e. “live on the floor.” We will put each instrument on a separate track. The vocals will all have their own tracks as well.
This requires at least nine microphones. Which microphones get used for which instrument is going to depend a lot on which microphones you have available for use. The biggest concern would be recording the jug. Since playing the jug requires the performer to blow into the jug there will likely be a fair number of plosives. In normal circumstances, these can be eliminated with a pop filter. With a jug however, this can get tricky, as to be effective, the filter is placed between the mouth and the microphone which leaves little room for the jug.
Source & Minimize the Bleed
Another consideration is with the exception of the banjo, all of the instruments are rather low volume in terms of the dB level they play at. This means you’ll need to isolate the banjo to some extent so that it doesn’t bleed over into the other instrumental tracks. This can be accomplished by placing baffles around the banjo player, or placing the banjo in an isolation room. Keep your fingers crossed that the banjo player isn’t playing the jug as well. In all cases, you will most likely want to use highly directional microphones to maintain separation in your tracks.
The key takeaways for recording a jug band are to figure out band member placement inside your studio’s live room and microphone selection and placement. Once you have everyone and everything situated, run a “sound check” by recording a song run-through. On playback you’ll want to make sure each instrument sounds right and that there’s no bleed through of other instruments on its channel.
Then there are the vocals. Our fictional jug band has a lead vocalist and three backup singers. For a “live” on tape recording, this means you’d need four vocal microphones. You should plan on doing some additional recording of the vocalists after the “live” track is laid down. This will allow you to use fewer microphones at a time as well as use a vocal booth for better audio.
The preceding is one way to record a jug band. While chances are you’ll never run into a jug band as an audio engineer, you should take a few minutes and think about how you would record a jug band session as well as bands with non-traditional instruments like tabla, didgeridoo, basoon, vibraphone, theremin, harmonica, cello, oboe, trash can, triangle, cajon—this same thought process needs to be applied to any recording session with at least one non-traditional instrument and is good preparation for the unexpected which somehow always seems to make its presence known in nearly every recording session.