Bloomsburg to Bangladesh – Tech
GEEK ALERT – This is not easy reading…
Recording format: Roland VS-1680 (harddrive)
My first vision of a Bloomsburg to Bangladesh album was a selection of acoustic songs, mostly because that is what we do live. Bulu had a more layered approach in mind. As we progressed through song selection and recording, it was evident that we would end up with something in the middle.
Departing from a completely acoustic presentation meant the technical side of things would be more complex. Recording required extra juggling, scheduling and focus. Multi-tracking meant that I would be using up more hard drive space, which meant additional backups were necessary.
Some of the songs make use of my project studio’s sampling and sequencing capabilities, things that hadn’t been used very much in the past. The collaborative nature of the project also demanded additional time to get the best results.
Most of the instrumentation was familiar to me from recording Mandala, and Cadillacs & Tarantulas. Acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, bass, and mandolin were all familiar territory. Tablas were a bit new, though I had worked with samples before. During 2003-2004, Bulu and I did a fair amount of performing, either as Bloomsburg to Bangladesh or as Moonlight Masala, and live recordings revealed some arrangements that later worked in the studio. Bulu and I did a preliminary recording session at my house with Tom Dennehy. While it didn’t provide much usable material, it shed some light on the best way to mike the tablas. I also referenced numerous recordings of tablas from Zakir Hussain and other artists. I had also been exposed to Topan Modak, a tabla player from NY who attends the area Bengali New Year celebration in Bloomsburg. Of course, the whole time, Bulu guided our ears.
I didn’t keep a recording journal per se, so what I’m posting here are highlights of the process. Listed here are the largest challenges or most interesting items. Even still, these are technical notes, so they are not going to be exciting for non-musicians or non-engineers.
The Tablas: In our music, tablas are meant to be very audible, in front of the mix. Since they are my favorite percussion instrument, I definitely wanted to do the tablas justice. Every opportunity to record with Bulu was a once-in-a-life-time event. Changes in weather and our own creative energy meant that each time we met required our focus and attention to detail. Like any drum, the tablas require a lot of stamina to keep playing for long periods. I had to be mindful not to miss a take because it might be the only one we had time to record due to scheduling constraints. A very humid summer and lack of air conditioning were a challenge. Many days it was just too hot in my studio to do much besides a little mixing.
In several cases we were working with songs that I had written and recorded previously. For those, Bulu overdubbed his tablas. In other cases, as with Teasing the Toad, we played our parts together.
Microphones: The tablas were recorded with several different setups, depending on the song and the arrangements. Two CAD M177 condenser mikes worked very well in some cases, but they tended to be too sensitive. The best combination was an SM57 on the treble (Tabla), and SM58 on the bass (Dagga or Banyan). Most of the time I ran the mikes through a small Behringer Eurorack MXB1002 mixing console, tweaking the EQ there, but then sending the signal directly to the Roland. On occasion I used a Presonus BlueTube preamp.
Bulu’s Voice: Bulu doesn’t consider himself a singer, and he rarely sings at shows because he’s usually concentrating on his tabla playing. I very much wanted to do Bistirno Dupare to showcase his voice, but it was especially challenging for me to record. Bulu did a great job, but I had a lot of difficulty getting his voice to sound right. The song is very dynamic, with soft and loud parts intermixed. We were plagued with clipping despite repeated observations of the recording levels. We tried live recording (without close miking), various mike setups, compressors, etc. Nothing worked very well, and it looked like we were doomed. Then I did some research into the Sound Forge tools at my disposal. Before too long I was able to work some mojo on the vocal track, though I am still not sure what I think of it from a philosophical point of view. I took the backing tracks and dumped them to Cakewalk, and then separated the vocal so I could create a WAV file. Then I took that vocal WAV file into Sound Forge, did my thing, and brought it back into Cakewalk, then back to the Roland. (see The 44.1 khz problem below for more on the reason for this roller coaster ride.)
My main guitar was a Taylor 314ce Ltd edition (Koa back and sides). Some tracks also feature a fairly cheap Alvarez that I keep strung with silk and steel strings. This was particularly nice for songs like Bistirno Dupare and Prothom Bangladesh recorded with two capoed guitars.
Samples and loops were managed with Sonic Foundry Acid Pro 3.0. In most cases, the loops were arranged in Acid and then the dumped to the Roland via an MTC sync. For the song Men At Sea, the entire stereo mix from the Roland was imported into Acid Pro and placed on the timeline so that the various sound effects could be lined up appropriately. Men At Sea was mixed directly to a WAV file via Acid’s render feature (no real time mixing needed once levels were set.)
Sequencing: Mikey Might and Mangalam both feature sequenced Acid loops and MIDI sequencing with soundfonts from Cakewalk. The keyboard parts for Bistirno Dupare and Visions were not sequenced via MIDI. The soundfonts in Cakewalk were triggered with a Roland D-20, but the parts were layered using digital audio tracks in Roland VS-1680. This was due to a technical issue that was later solved (well, sort of). So when I got to Prothom Bangladesh, I used MIDI sequencing, but rather than dump the MIDI to the Roland via the digital (optical) pathway, I had to use an analog connection.
The 44.1 khz problem: Cakewalk ProAudio 9.0 serves as my main sequencer whenever I want to transfer audio or do stuff with MIDI. While I could do more with Cakewalk from a digital audio mixing perspective, I prefer to mix directly on the Roland, which gives me physical faders, and a more stable storage environment (the Roland is a dedicated unit, whereas my PC is used for many other tasks and is subject to more risks.)
The 44.1 khz problem is based on how my Soundblaster Live Platinum soundcard links (or rather doesn’t link) to the Roland when I use a 44.1 khz song template. Using the 44.1 khz Roland template allows audio to leave the Roland digitally, but not come back to it. On the other hand, if I use 48 khz, I can go both ways with the audio. I believe this to be a quirk of my PC or the soundcard – not the Roland. Of course, once you have a song fully recorded at one sampling rate, the Roland can not convert it to another, so you are stuck. The main lesson here is to always start the song using 48 khz. Of course the down side is that 48 khz uses more space, so it is a trade off either way, and really depends on what you intend to do with the song. If you don’t plan on sequencing at all, this is a non-issue.
Prothom Bangladesh was recorded live at the Sengupta’s home, second floor using my Tascam DAT recorder and two M177 condenser mikes. The mikes were placed about a foot and a half off the floor using short table-top mike stands and goosenecks.
The rest of the instruments, including tabla, were overdubbed at Mothership Studios (my place) after transferring the DAT signal to the Roland.
Backups: With previous projects, I approached backups by processing an entire hard drive partition (up to 2 GB) at once, usually spanning three CDRW disks. However, as I gradually learned, spanning the songs like that was wasteful. There were many times when only one song needed to be backed up. Management of the process just became cumbersome because retrieving from or storing to spanned disks isn’t something you can just let run by itself. You have to be present to swap disks.
This time, I decided to move to a one disk per song backup procedure, with an additional rotated backup for each song. So at any one time, I’d have two separate backups for each song (on separate CDRW disks), one being the most recent, and the other being the prior backup date. Smaller songs were easy to manage this way, and even larger songs of 600MB+ were manageable. I always had the comfort level that I could go back to something fairly recent if something went wrong, and it wouldn’t take me forever to load the data. And since no swapping was necessary, I could let things run while I went out, re-strung guitars, did PC work, etc.
Mastering: Sound Forge was used for audio mastering. A smooth compression algorithm and volume maximization to –0.5 was done for each song except Bistirno Dupare, which I purposely mixed a little lower for contrast and because the dynamics of Bulu’s voice required a different touch. (Special note: I do not claim to be a “Mastering Engineer” – I have basic recording and signal processing knowledge which expands with each project. I also use my ears. If it sounds good, it is good. I simply enjoy the process of learning the art and science of recording. I have a great respect for true Mastering Engineers, but also do not think they are always needed.)
Oasis manufactured the CD from a master made with Nero Express.
The Artwork: Our concept for the artwork was very straightforward. We knew we wanted something bright that showed our faces. Russ Cox, from Smiling Otis, did a great job on my first CD, Mandala, and on the 2004 update to MINDSPEAK.COM, so I knew I wanted to work with him again.
During the summer of 2004 I began working with local Bloomsburg photographer Marlin Wagner. I had some of the best luck working with Marling, so when it came time for album art, Bulu and I scheduled a shoot with Marlin in June. This included some time in Marlin’s studio, and some time in an alley by Hess’s tavern in Bloomsburg. Someone was power washing the front of the building, so we didn’t stay too long, but we got some nice shots. The live shot is from the yearly Renaissance Jamboree celebration in downtown Bloomsburg (April 24, 2004).
The harmonium image is a picture that I took of Mrs. Amin’s practice harmonium, complete with Saregam markings on the keys. We thought about editing the markings out, but thought they added some character.
Blue Buddha logo is recycled from previous releases.