Even Frank Sinatra Recorded In Awkward Places

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I think many home studio owners get caught up in the fact that they have to record and mix in a non ideal space. They believe that it is a huge limitation, whether they admit it or not. I can understand the thinking. When compared to a million dollar commercial facility your spare bedroom isn’t designed for the same purpose.

But take it from someone who has recorded in a wide range of random places both in and out of studios, you’re not as limited as you think.


TRR220 Even Frank Sinatra Recorded In Awkward Places

Via Randy OHC Flickr

The Awkward Capitol Studios

One of my TRR readers recently reminded me of a great article in Sound On Sound magazine last December featuring the behind the scenes look at the tracking of Frank Sinatra’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ with engineer John Palladino. One section in the middle of the article is particularly relevant to many of us. Listen to the words Palladino uses and see if it doesn’t sound like what we deal with on a daily basis.

Studio A was a very awkward place to record. The stage didn’t provide us with enough space for a lot of our setups, but we eventually learned how to use it, taking advantage of the size of the rest of the room to get the right sound.

In those days, it was pretty hard for someone to design a studio and be sure he’d done it right, so the record companies would often just find a hall, a church or some other big old place that they’d then try to adapt to their needs. That happened a lot on the East Coast, and in this case it also happened in LA. – John Palladino (Engineer)

Adaptability Is Paramount

We can take a lot away from Palladino’s statement above. The biggest thing would be the importance of adaptability in any recording environment. Just like with a home or project studio, in the 1950s engineers and producers still had to work with what they had in terms of recording space and “learn how to use it.”

It’s far too easy of an excuse to blame your unsatisfactory recordings on your tracking space. If you instead put your energy and focus on how to get the most out of your “awkward” space or how to find a temporary better room, then you’ll get farther.

Simply Solving Puzzles

So much in life is about perspective. There is great freedom in the home studio the moment you stop looking at all the “disadvantages” you have and instead consider them simply puzzles that need solving. If you have this mindset then no tracking or mixing session will every catch you off guard. You’ll expect to show up and have new puzzles to solve and you’ll be chomping at the bit to solve them.

For many of us, one big puzzle is the recording space. I’ve written before about how to best maximize even the worst tracking space (like my first project studio next to the highway). Stop looking at your room as a drawback and instead see it as a challenge. How can you get the most out of it? How can you learn it better?


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33 Responses to “Even Frank Sinatra Recorded In Awkward Places”

  1. Phex

    I also think it doesn’t always HAS to be perfect. Take good ol’ Tom Waits as an example: Great sounding records, but with so much character, and so far from a “perfect” record and mix. In my opinion records that are not perfect and have a unique sound to them are mostly the better ones.

  2. Luke

    Right now I’m not able to have studio monitors. I have to use headphones. Every person will tell you not to, but you know, I can’t just sit around not making music. I love it. The phones aren’t ideal, but I’m learning to cope for now, and each mix is getting better.
    Screw it, make some music!

  3. Dinosaur David B.

    Regarding “I think many home studio owners get caught up in the fact that they have to record and mix in a non ideal space. They believe that it is a huge limitation”

    Really? I don’t believe it can really be that many who “believe that it is a huge limitation.” They wouldn’t be getting into home recording if that was the case.

    If someone is interested in the subject of recording enough to know any history of it at all, they would know that many of the best albums ever made were NOT made in recording studios. Exhibit A. The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Which was driven all over the world to record some of the most famous albums of all time. Zep 3 at Bron-Yr-Aur, an 18th-century cottage in Gwynedd, Wales, Zep 4 at Headly Grange (a house). Machine Head at the Grand Hotel in Montreaux. Exile on Main St. at a rented villa in Nice. I could go on.

    Sure, Home recorders may get Gear Acquisition Syndrome for better studio gear, but before they spend their first dime, they certainly KNOW they are working out of their homes and that they will just have to do the best they can with what they have. There is ample evidence these days that PLENTY of people are making GREAT recordings out of homes. That’s why we do it. If everything coming out of a home studio sounded like crap, no one would bother doing it.

    I understand the desire to bang the drum about themes like:
    – work ethic
    – using what gear you have
    – not lamenting about what you don’t have
    – not letting self-made obstacles prevent you from working

    These are all valuable concepts, but it starting to feel like a drum solo of late. People who want to work will work. People who want to find reasons NOT to work, will always find them.

    • Graham

      If you got all the emails and questions I did on a daily basis you’d continue to address these issues 🙂

  4. Nick Burman

    Luke said it best – “Screw it, make some music!” I think that’s key. Can you imagine using 1950’s gear with all its limitations instead of what is available now? We’ve romanticised the old recordings so much that we think we need Abbey Road and Neve consoles.
    Use what you have and amaze us all!

  5. Dan C.

    Let’s not forget Foo Fighters’ recent “Wasting Light”. Recorded at Dave’s house/garage. Or even their 3rd and 4th records, both recorded in Dave’s Virginia basement.

      • Jordan

        If you really think THOSE things are the difference to making a great album, you’re deluded.

        He could have scrapped the analogue gear, and still made a killer record. Consequently, someone can have all the warm analogue gear and be tracking in Abbey Roads, and still come out with a shit record.

        It’s performance, not gear.

        • Sue Rarick

          A. The point was that Dave was using top studio gear.
          B. If you had ever recorded onto tape with limited channels you have no idea how important performance is. Try recording Drums/Piano/Bass/Guitar onto a single tape track – and you only had two to work with. Back in the 60’s that’s what most demo studios worked with. The rooms were usually silly small with bleed into every mic. You got it right or you did it again.
          C. I do agree it is the performance not the gear but given equal performance a great board tied to a great tape machine is better.

  6. Noah Copeland

    I was thinking to myself before reading this, “Gee, I wish I could record vocals but I don’t have the space.”

    If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go make it work. thanks!

  7. Robert Moehle

    I never worried about studio quality space except when I had a studio briefly in college.

    Nowadays, I get a good sound from recording into a corner! I set the microphone in the corner of my living room, about 3-4 feet from the side walls. The walls are at angles to the mic. I face into the corner when I sing or play. The mic is a cardioid condenser mic and points out of the corner. The sounds I have gotten are lively and very usable. It’ll probably give a pro a spasm of horror, doing it that way, but it works. and pretty well, too.

  8. Grae

    If you read some of the stories of recordings completed in Abbey Road in the 70s, there were vocalists using the toilets as vocal booths (and queuing for them!) so it’s definitely not all about the ‘perfect’ sound booth. Some of those recordings feel the most organic I’ve ever listened to.

  9. Chris

    I’m not tickled by uber polished recordings anyway, so sterile and lacking character I think. Was tracking vocals last night and during playback, heard in the background my dog barking, my AC kick in and EMT sirens going off. At first I thought the takes were ruined but in the context of the mix, it didn’t matter. Really!! Sometimes it helps to occasionally take off the critical engineer helmet and put on the emotional music fan doo rag and simply feel the vibe

  10. Andrew Bauserman

    Even when Sinatra had a very nice studio, particularly in the early years, there was no comping or click-tracks; no auto-tune or automation; and a reel of tape cost real money and had hard limits on time and track count.


    The recordings sound as good as they do because an engineer who really knew the available equipment tracked a performance that didn’t need to be fixed in the mix.

    The good news is we have better, cheaper technology. The difficult reality is technology can’t beat an engineer who knows his gear tracking a performance that doesn’t need fixing.

    Thanks, Graham, for teaching, encouraging and pushing us to grow in the craft, and make the best of what we’ve got.

  11. Mitch

    I have two studio spaces, one is in my garage where I track bands and have a 16ch set up. The drums are in the corner with office partition leaning up against the walls (got them free on Craigslist) which I use to defuse the reflections. Still trying to solve the overhead issues but for the most part they sound good with some EQ. My other studio space is an 10×12 office space I rent from a local dance studio. I could have continued working in the garage but I ended up getting this place cause I have a wife and kid and didn’t want random clients coming to my home anymore. The actual dance facility is 20,000 sqft with lots of huge dance rooms. I use one of those rooms to host a free monthly songwriting workshop. Good way to let songwriters know about my studio. It’s also a great way to get clients in the pipeline. The challenge with this office space studio is the competing sounds from the other dance rooms. Mostly low frequency sounds from the dance music pumping through the pa systems they have in those huge rooms. Most of the classes cater to young children which means the classes are usually done by 7pm ish so I try and schedule session after 7pm. If I have to do it before I’ll just add a LPF on the EQ. Haven’t had complaints from any of my clients which ultimately is the goal. You can check out my recordings on soundclound http://soundcloud.com/mtg-recording-studio Most of the instruments where recorded in my garage and most of the vocals where tracked at the office.

  12. Jeremy James Hager

    There’s is “Tracking Environment” and the “Mixing Environment, let’s not get the two confused. I know for most of us they are one in the same. However, when we look at most “label” projects thinking back over the years, the ones recorded on location (i.e. House, Church, Castle, Mobile Recording Rigs…etc), not all were mixed in that environment. Most were mixed back in a professional acoustically treated mixing environment, allowing the engineer to compensate/fix any issues that would arise from not recording in a professional recording felicity. Not to mention a different enginner with a different set of ears listening with a fresh new perspective on the mix its self.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about gear and the mojo of recording, since I’ve recored all most everywhere from the studio to live, and I love the way things sound in the moment. I feel thou that this topic starts to lead us down a different path to the topic of “acoustics” and how know matter what environment you are tracking and mixing in instead of reaching and buying that next big plugin, outboard piece of gear we should looking at the simple and cost effective ways to improve our tracking and listening environments, like most of us I mix in a spare bedroom or office space in my house. This is just my humble opinion however.

  13. Sue Rarick

    I was just doing a scratch vocal and used a common Sennheiser dynamic mic and I was singing into a hard surface wall (it was just a scratch vocal). Turned out that spot had a natural doubling reflection and the vocal turned out so well it became the finished vocal. It was so natural sounding no plug-in could replicate that sound. I just found a new sweet spot to add to my arsenal.

  14. Durwood Walker

    I think a lot of our preoccupation with our recording space is similar to the preoccupation with “new gear.” I used to feel I had to move up to the most recent version of my DAW as soon as it appeared. And in the back of my mind, I KNEW I’d finally create that greatest song once I got it.

    And a lot of that is based on fear! At least that’s my feeling. Instead of getting down to making music with what we have, we procrastinate, telling ourselves we must have that next new gear of that perfect recording environment.

    This article is quite revealing.

  15. Smurf

    It seems like there are a lot of arm chair pros coming out for your posts anymore Mr. Graham…

  16. David

    This is just what I needed to read. It helps me think of recording with a sense of adventure again instead of feeling bad about the uncertainty of not using a studio. Thanks a million.


    The beauty of this SOS article is that it just goes to show that even amazing studios, the kind we all dream about, still face the same challenges we do as home recording engineers. Even the “Big Guys”, with essentially unlimited budgets, still find themselves wishing for more toys or better spaces to work in. At the end of the day, despite all of this, they still get fantastic results., and so can we!

  18. Niklas J. Blixt

    I think that’s one of the more fun part of being a producer and session drummer as I am, to trying to get the best out of every situation. Try to make the best of what you’ve got available at every session no matter how “bad” things look or sound, if you decide to make the best out of it you’ll almost always end up with great recordings.



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