The Maxims of Guerrilla Sampling

Here is a list of lessons learned through sampling on the go that may help others avoid stumbling blocks. Note that these are not as applicable to professional sampling, but rather apply to the “run-and-gun” Guerrilla sampling discussed in my other blog posts.

Equipment and Gear

  • Don’t be afraid of budget gear, but be sure you get to know it before relying on it for anything of value. If a $200 mic can do the job just as well as a $1000 one while being cheap enough you won’t care of it is dropped or wears out, use it.
  • The nature of diminishing returns means that for gear over $1000, your gains will become much smaller. It is best to keep your entire rig under $4-5K if you want to be flexible but still provide quality recordings.
  • Develop your gear with an objective in mind- low-noise, pleasant frequency response, light weight, high durability, and high flexibility. Seek unusual gear for added value to products (e.g. a cheap vintage dictation mic on Ebay means you can make a “vintage” mic position on your products).
  • The second-best is often the best because it sounds great, but costs less and will set you apart sonically.
  • Develop a setup plan and rehearse setting up your gear. If it takes you more than 10-15 minutes to set up 2-3 mics and your signal flow, you have a grave problem. 5-10 minutes is optimal. Double those numbers for 4-6 mics.
  • However, safety of gear always trumps speed. Screw mics into their baskets/mounts after screwing the mounts onto stands (optimally leave mounts screwed onto stands or use quick releases). Be cautious with quick releases- they may save time, but badly manufactured ones or careless usage of them may result on a tumbling mic (invest extra- I like the Gator quick releases at this time).
  • Speed comes from experience, not knowledge. As much as theory matters, doing things a lot matters twice as much. Rehearse your setup and takedown regularly.
  • Set up chairs/tables, interface/hardware/power, stands, mics, then cable runs in that order. This allows your hardware time to warm up/boot up, particularly important with tube preamps.
  • Avoid using the gear of others, including studios, whenever possible, unless you are familiar with the specific gear or it is well maintained. Using stands is okay, but cables is iffy (a broken cable can cause painful delays).
  • If a cable or mic stand is dead/broken, either fix it properly or throw it out. Do not keep faulty, damaged, or broken equipment, it will cause trouble, mistakes, and slow you down.

Location, Location, Location

  • Always go for a space you know well over a possibly superior space you know very little.
  • Always go for a larger/wetter space over a drier/smaller space when in doubt. It’s easy to isolate wetness, it’s hard to fix liveliness. Never pay extra for dryness.
  • Learn how to use mic patterns, dead spots, moveable barriers/gobos, etc. to isolate sounds.
  • When in doubt, ask about a sound. If someone lives there, they may know about it (e.g. refrigerators, mouse deterrents, computers, power supplies).
  • Use and be aware of your environment at all times to your advantage- a stage may have curtains, a room may have dividers, a home may have folding tables that can be upended all to resolve or reduce noise issues.

Mic Placement

  • Build your mics around your “primary array”, or main pair of mics.
  • The primary array should not typically be wider than your ‘wingspan’ if using AB.
  • The primary array should not be Blumlein or XY; near-coincident arrays are okay, as is a well-executed Mid-side if isolation is not an issue. Spaced pair and Decca tree are standard.
  • The primary array should be no closer than 6 feet and no farther than 15 feet from the sound source.
  • The primary array should be a balance of wet and dry leaning between 60-80% towards the dry.
  • If recording an ensemble, never place the primary array mic closest to your loudest instrument(s)- seek an ensemble blend from the mic position to begin with.
  • Following the primary array, design the rest of the mic placement to either (A) accent (offering the user additional colors) or (B) contrast the primary array (offering the user different directions), depending on your overall design goal.
  • Don’t put a mono mic more than 6 feet from the sound source.
  • Don’t put a close mic on something if it needs space to develop- instead place it more as a ‘spot’ or ‘accent’ mic.
  • Don’t put a mic where you wouldn’t want to sit/stand/float.
  • Never put a mic directly behind a horn unless you want it to sound like the 1970’s.
  • If you’re recording more than one player or an instrument with a large sounding area, matched pairs matter a lot less. Sometimes it may even be advantageous to mic one side of an ensemble with one mic and the other with a different one.
  • Just because something sounds good in person doesn’t mean it will sound good in the recording. Always do a test recording before proceeding.
  • Most mic placements were invented by very creative people living in archaic times with incredibly archaic technology at their disposal (a.k.a. Alan Blumlein in the 1930’s, you know, when people used 78’s and wire recorders, the condenser was 15 years old and the ribbon was 10 years old, and stereo recording was an “experimental science”). Don’t be afraid to break the mold and try something different.

Workflow

  • Just because x worked for someone else, that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Always experiment and find the best way to do something.
  • Keep to as few programs as possible- keeping everything in Reaper, for example, is in your favor, as it seems to be the most favored platform for cutting/editing samples.
  • If the above isn’t possible, use a dedicated waveform editor such as Adobe Audition to keep the BS features low and allow for speedy and easy exporting of stems.
  • Keep your signal path as bullet-proof and simple as possible. Avoid any kind of multi-device routing, mixing boards, complicated runs, existing infrastructure on location, and borrowed equipment if able.

Studios

  • Avoid studios unless you know the owner and/or they will let you use your own gear entirely (hopefully for a significantly reduced price). The space is what matters most.
  • Don’t pay for an engineer to sit there and do nothing for hours while you record- that’s just a waste of your money and their time, not to mention, they’ll probably get bored and start working on something, which, in a poorly designed studio, could cause background noise. You honestly shouldn’t even be using their computers anyway which is more time wasted by setting up a session there, having to set up a talkback system, running back and forth, etc.
  • Avoid studio consoles, patch bays, etc. However attractive the siren’s song, they will only slow you down and provide ample fuel for Unknowns to throw a wrench in your project, not to mention lengthen and complicate the signal path.
  • Avoid studio personnel and their ‘advice’ unless you really don’t know what you are doing. They will also slow you down.

Working with Others

  • Always use working musicians/engineers over trained musicians/engineers.
  • Seek individuals who are first and foremost highly competent on their instrument, but also creative and flexible. Sometimes a less competent musician who is more creative/flexible is the better choice than a less flexible but most competent one.
  • Keep people who do good work happy and they will do better work. Find the best way to encourage each person you work with to do their best, be it humor, timeliness, or simply friendly companionship.
  • Always coach a musician from the same room. Never sit in the control room or in a corner when you should be out on the floor coaching. Sit behind the main array with direct eye contact with the musician for directions, preferably also with a direct line of sight to the interface/laptop to see check levels.
  • Never rely on other people to complete a task until they have shown their ‘true colors’. Plan for failure and delays so releases will come in a timely fashion and you will be continually surprised and pleased by expedient work.
  • Never give anyone else creative control over the project direction except the main musician (if a ‘creature feature’ library) and the UX designer.

Personal Progress

  • If you have to study something to learn it, you probably don’t know enough foundations to truly learn it properly yet. Gain more experience with the foundations first.
  • If making a choice between the conventional and unconventional of near-equal gains, always go for the unconventional. It will almost always be more rewarding.
  • Focus on developing a system rather than goals/milestones. Although it may be helpful to keep goals in mind, they tend to turn into either insurmountable defeatism or appear to others as compulsive lies when broken.
  • Delegate the tasks which you are least qualified to do, but never pass on those tasks upon which the fate of your business lies unless you are absolutely sure of the ability of the delegated.
  • Keep an eye on your competition. You may decide to do what they are doing, or go against what they are doing, and perhaps both at the same time.
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