Mandala – Recording Journal
GEEK ALERT – What follows gets pretty technical in places. Though the recording platform I used for this album has since been surpassed, many artists have found my story helpful for general hints. The recording process is an ongoing adventure, and since I’ve had lots of help along the way, I enjoy sharing my experiences. This journal was created before blogging platforms were prevalent, so please forgive the arcane formatting.
While Mandala is a solo album, featuring material I’ve written, there’s no way I can take credit for everything. There are many people involved behind the scenes that are making this possible. What follows is a chronicle of the process of building a quality release. Since I probably won’t have a large amount of space in the CD insert, this web page will help tell the story.
Joe Schrum – Drums: Joe has played drums with Messiah Prophet (Christian Rock), Rogue (Classic Rock) and Cadillac Jack (Country Rock). Joe plays very powerfully and creatively. Joe is a very solid drummer with a tasteful style and has truly added a new dimension to my previously written songs. Better than most drummers I know, he has been patient as I’ve learned to speak drum-ease. Joe owns both a modern Roland electronic kit and a large acoustic kit. We’ve been experimenting with both in the recording process.
Jim Nowak (aka Jimmi Trax): Jim is a guitarist, and has his own band (still not named), but has been kind enough to accept the challenge of helping record drum tracks. Jim and Joe recently played in a band together. Jim has an ear for production, a drum kit and a selection of mics which have come in handy. So far Jim has been a technical consultant, but I’ve made the offer for him to play lead guitar as needed later in the process.
Lou “Daman” Ontko: A long time friend, guitarist and songwriter, Lou will be adding his vocal and lead guitar talents to my project. We met a long time ago in a heavy metal band, but since then we have both grown and influenced each other musically. But there’s a twist, Lou now lives in Florida, so I will have to wait until his next visit to do any recording.
Matt Homiak: Better known to us as “Funky Amish Dude”, Matt is a 6-string fretless bass player with a passion for his instrument. We met while we were attending PSU Hazleton, and later hooked up with Lou in a brief musical performance project . Still later, Matt taught me a lot about recording when he was attending the recording program at Lebanon Valley College. Matt has openly offered his talents to my project while he continues to play in 3 or 4 bands at a time!
The Disclaimer: What you are about to read is a very stream-of-conscious – reverse chronological – snapshot of the recording process. I have several reasons for documenting this journey, mainly to keep track of things I could do better if/when I decide to do this again. Besides that, hope to help others who might be interested in doing their own recording of a similar nature with similar resources.
No one I’m working with considers themselves professional musicians right now, including myself. We all have day jobs, and some of us have families. Finances are modest, but nowhere near record company size, thus the homegrown approach. However, I am professionally minded about every aspect of how this recording. I’m not afraid to ask for help, and certainly have done my share of research.
One thing is for sure, we’re going to make mistakes. And the reader should be warned: this is not necessarily the BEST way to do things. One of the recurring things thus far has been: rules where made to be broken. The point, for me, is this: There are people who watch things happen, and there are those who make things happen. I decided some time ago that I’d rather MAKE them happen. What follows is the result.
MANDALA RECORDING JOURNAL 1998-1999
8/9/99 – End of project – Ed and I proceeded with mixing and mastering into mid-September. We played the finished mixes from the Roland into Cakewalk, applied processing with WAVS Plugins for mastering, and spun the songs out to WAV files. The WAVs were later used to build the CD, first with CD Architect, and later with Easy CD Creator (Architect gave me some trouble, so we opted for the cheaper solution.)
We had to replace Ed’s soundcard once, and had to add memory to it so it could handle the DSP processing. Much attention had to be paid to overall EQ of the album, and some songs required special attention to correct problems that occurred during the bounce into Cakewalk.
A healthy dose of backup (Cakewalk bundles, project files, WAVS, etc.) was performed by yours truly, just in case of disaster.
The project was shipped to Oasis Duplication and arrived safely before the end of the month. My production manager, Alex, has not called me with any problems yet, so keep your fingers crossed. Tentative ship date is Oct 17-23, give or take a few days for last minute delays.
I am now in the process of some serious healing, both physically and mentally. A year and a half of recording can really take it out of you, and now it’s time to get on with life.
6/26/99-8/9/99 (Yoda says) Light at end of tunnel there is…
Since I last checked in, I’ve done a lot of lead vocals and track clean up. Ed had knee
surgery in July, so that left me without an engineer for a couple weeks. That gave me
some much needed time to get things together.
Ed and I have mixed each song at least once to get all of the bugs ironed out. Most
sessions went pretty smoothly, with Ed making EQ adjustments while I gave him my
vision for the production. And in some cases we kind of shared the duties when certain
problems popped up. The energy and focus of another human being can’t be beat,
especially when you wear all the hats.
We’ve decided to keep everything digital via an optical cable and use the mastering tools he has in his computer. I guess the biggest accomplishment has been using the automix features of the Roland. This has helped tremendously. I really don’t know how we would do it without the automix.
To save time in York, I’m going to strip the song files down to only the v-tracks we need, and I’ll dump everything else. That should cut the file sizes down to 300 or 400 MB and allow 4 or 5 songs to be in there at once. The final Mastering sessions of all the mixed songs should only take two nights.
Graphic design has been going pretty well also, with everything just about finished
except for the track times.
Anyway, I’m hoping I’ll get the opportunity to share some insights with other musicians
at the next Folk Alliance conference. You can read any book you want, but nothing
prepares you for the ups and downs of a project like this!
Look for a completely re-designed web site in the near future, along with a separate
section of detailed (and I mean detailed) information about MANDALA, musically and
4/18/99-6/25/99 Overdue – “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” written by Water Pater 1839-1894 in his book “The School of Giorgione.”
When I last checked in, I was driving a Dodge Dynasty, had much more time, and in general things were going along rather smoothly. Then a car accident put me without a car for about a month, in the middle of the usual insurance problems, and on the hunt for another car. Luckily, there were no major injuries.
After the car accident, I took some time to rest and did data backups. I also mastered a seminar from the Folk Alliance conference, and sent it to the panelists. That took about 3 days. I didn’t actually start recording the project anymore until nearly a week later. All of these distractions were good for me though. I really needed a week off. And while a car accident isn’t the ideal way to get you started, it was still good for me. Now I’m driving a Chevy Corsica and I’m trying to get this project done before it kills me. I simply MUST finish it soon or I will go fucking crazy.
Technical Notes: I have made considerable progress in the area of compressors. Part of my problem was what I was using, and how I was using it. I opted to just try another unit, the ART Tube PAC (preamp + compressor), and I’m doing much better now. I may keep the Levelar though, because I found it works well for guitar and bass. But for vocals, the Tube PAC is much better. What I really needed was a preamp.
Most instrumental tracks have been recorded using the VS-1680, and have turned out quite well. Concentrating on the vocal level is difficult. I’m finding I’m getting caught up in the technical side of “is my signal OK” while the performance is suffering. Never mind I’ve sung these songs uncountable times already. The shame of it is, I think I’m at the point where I’m singing the best. This is due to all the multiple takes I’ve been doing. But in the process I’m killing the vibe of the songs.
Here’s what I tried (with the AKG 414): Re-worked signal path; decided to forgo the compressor and tube preamps completely; restructured my monitor mix; experimented with the 1 and 2 db pads on the mic; used all of the various mike patterns (The bi-directional patterns sounded best, but were hard to control with clips); experimented with mike placement (usually with the mike above me to some degree, pointing at the floor); sing across the mike when appropriate; went back to the SM58 for a take
After getting very frustrated, I considered my options to get the project finished:
1 Finish vocals here – master in York (possible, but a large compromise)
2 Finish vocals and master in York (most desirable – more time-consuming)
3 Finish vocals here and master here (least desirable)
4 Finish vocals at another studio in my area and master there as well (least time-consuming)
I opted for #1. And so, Mixing/mastering has officially begun with Ed Debes. After doing some vocal tracks with the AKG and an improved compression scheme, Ed and I decided the vocal tracks are good enough for our purposes.
What Ed has been able to do really has made a difference, and we’ve only mixed two songs. Of course it took us 4-6 hours to mix each one, but we are getting somewhere. The test mixes we did got lots of compliments so far.
Ed has to get used to my machine, and I’ve got to get used to him. We’ve had some rather interesting moments where questions were raised, and suggestions were given – we both have to be careful how we do either. I’m burnt on the project, but I know what I want. He’s new to my methods, and I’m new to his. It will be interesting. I managed to learn more about the automix function. It’s still a bit rusty, but it will save us considerable time.
I plan on making an instrumental mix of all the songs, in no particular order, as we work through the mastering stages of each song. I’m toying with the idea of using a CD for backing tracks when I play live. So I’m hopefully going to kill 2 birds with one stone here. This is a taboo in a way, but I saw people in Vegas doing it pretty well, and recently saw it at the local ARTSFEST. One opinion is that I can sell more CDs that way. We shall see…
Graphics & Duplication: After much consideration of other options, I decided to go with Oasis for the duplication for this project.
Can you say negotiation? That’s what I’ve been doing for the last several months, gearing up for this project. I’m licensing use of a special image from a photographer in Switzerland, as well as several text quotes (from 3 different publishing companies.)
The graphics for this are going to be somewhat involved. I have a local designer (www.smilingotis.com). I trust him since he’s done this before. He will be providing complete artwork via Zip disk. I recently got some proofs back, and they look very good.
_________________________ VS-1680 Problem __________________________
I’m including this here in the hopes that someone from Roland might read it since their tech-support is so bad.
I’ve been using my VS-1680 for almost a year now. I’ve done just about everything with it, and I wanted to bring to your attention a problem that I have run into several times.
(Note: The examples below involve song files that are anywhere from 300 to 1200 MB, recorded at 44.1 with MT1.)
Sometimes, tracks 15/16 become locked completely and there is no way to set them to play back. I’ve tried everything, including checking my solo status, mute, etc. You can’t even get the track indicator to turn green.
If there is data on 15/16, you can see it in wave view, but you can’t play it back, or arm the track for playback at all. This is very frustrating when you’ve got an important part on those tracks and you can’t get them back.
I was only ever able to fix the problem by un-linking 13/14 and 15/16 and by going back and forth randomly until the machine “let go” of the tracks. But usually, as son as you link 13/14 back up, 15/16 become inoperable again.
I am trying another option that seemed to work also, but it’s a major pain. If you import all of your tracks to a new file with the same sampling rate parameters, you can sometimes get 15/16 back.
3/2/99 – 4/17/99 “Are you done yet?”
That seems to be the question I get most often these days. Everyone I know seems really excited about hearing the results of my efforts, and they are eager to hear the finished product. The encouragement is good, but the pressure to do well and finish up is starting to mount.
Jim recently helped out on some guitar tracks, adding yet another dimension to the album. Jim is an incredible guitarist – probably the best in his style that I’ve ever met. It was fun to work with someone who could just pull out great riffs right away without too much practice. In two separate sessions we worked on two songs using a combination of miked amps and direct signals from an ART effects processor. The ART is amazing, and combined with his selection of Ibanez guitars, made for some serious guitar sounds.
The ART was so impressive that I’ve considered borrowing it for a couple other songs to do parts I’ve written. Chances are this will take place in the final pass as I go through each song to decide which tracks are going to make the album.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… The main challenge I’ve faced has been with regard to vocals.
Recording Vocals My vocal tracks are lacking the dynamics and warmth I would like. So far I’ve had some very good vocal performances, but they’ve been ruined by clipping or bad dynamics or tone. I’ve been working with a very basic direct recording technique, with a variety of mics, and nothing has come close to the sound I wanted, or need. Specifically, the problem is presence and gain control. I’ve had trouble keeping a good vocal level without clipping. Either the performance is good and the signal is bad, or the signal is good and the performance is lacking.
After hammering half the songs with this rather poor recording technique, I decided I just wasn’t happy with the sound. I knew I would have to add a piece of off-board gear, or at least become more proficient with the on-board presets. The on-board limiting and compression presets were hard to control, difficult to hear, and quite metallic anyway. Since they are digital effects, they sound like digital, and since the recording medium is also digital, there is really no room for warmth. Still, this experimentation paved the way for what was to come.
I studied several units on the market. Compressors, preamps, levelers, limiters, and every combination in between. Keeping a rather pathetic budget in mind, I opted for a unit made by ART called the Levelar. The Levelar is a one-channel tube compressor/limiter. I’m a bit disappointed though. All the ads claim this unit is clean, quiet and “transparent.” That should mean you can’t heard any noise, and that the difference between the active and bypassed signals is difficult to distinguish. Unfortunately there’s a good bit of noise (hiss) when the circuit is active. So much noise, that when using it for soft vocal passages, the noise is obvious on tape (disk).
Considering this, I reserved the option of returning the Levelar. In the mean time, I purchased another ART unit, the Tube PAC preamp and compression. THIS is the right unit for the job! I may still keep the Levelar though, because I found it worked pretty well on Hi-Z signals, like my Strat.
Other news I’ve started gigging again, taking shows as they come, but not actively pursuing shows. The minute I said I really didn’t want to perform, and that I wanted to work on the album more, that’s when the phone started to ring. Luckily I’ve been able to keep my schedule pretty open, but this is starting to get crazy. Let’s just say that the overwhelming sense of completion I will feel when this is done will be unbelievable.
I did the photo shoot for my portrait, and have been tied up in a number of other non-audio details. There are several pieces of text from a book I would like to quote. I only recently discovered that I will need to contact 3 separate publishing companies to obtain the rights. This will add to the delays I’ve already experienced.
I’ve scrapped parts of songs that I must have been crazy to have recorded, and have generally done a lot of self-editing to raise the bar of the entire project. Taking all this into consideration, I am under the impression the project will now run into June. I’ve pretty much conceded that A) it’s not healthy to rush through this, and B) I don’t want to spend all summer on this. There has to be a balance there somewhere.
Musically, I am quite happy with many of the arrangements. But I’d say I probably “wasted” a month in tracks that I ended up tossing. But nothing is truly wasted – whatever it takes I guess. As my friend Steve reminded me: Charlie Chaplin filled cans of film with trials until he got it right.
2/1/99 – 3/1/99 Moving right along… To say that a lot has happened since my last journal entry would be an understatement. Let’s just say things are really starting to come together. As I write this, I’m doing a data backup of one of the last songs to which I’ve added electric guitar tracks. One more song is in store, then I start the process of truly refining the songs and putting the final vocals down.
The past month presented several challenges, not the least of which was managing the time well enough to stay on schedule. Data backups are now my biggest foe when it comes to time, eating up anywhere between one and three hours at a shot. The toll on recording time was drastic when I did a full backup which took somewhere around 16 hours spread over several days.
Other challenges included broken guitar strings, manic depressive guitar tones and worries about whether I’d still have a place to live after making all of this racket. The neighbors are going to be just as glad as I am when this is finished. Still, things have gone pretty well, and the songs are coming together more each day.
I suppose the lesson over the past month has been that you can’t always be sure how a song will work out on tape until you seriously sit down and work with all of the parts. Several songs presented unique problems that had to be solved with special arrangements. Other issues demanded simpler arrangements than originally conceived. And despite the age and familiarity of some of the songs, some parts were written on the spot to melt into the sound of the overall album and production qualities.
I spent approximately two weeks recording Ovation guitar tracks, and another two weeks with electric guitar (Stratocaster.) Overall the Ovation was a disappointment, but in some cases served the songs well. The Strat, however, provided a much needed texture to the songs, both with direct and miked settings. and despite the almost totally digital production, the best sounds came from a Blues Junior tube amp.
Some time was also spent re-doing some acoustic rhythm guitar tracks that had previously been labeled finished. After dusting off an old Dean Markley magnetic sound hole pickup, I found I could get some very good sounds. In tandem with a Sure SM57, the Alvarez with silk & steel strings came alive. Experiments with the Washburn were not as successful, since it is much too bright to begin with and the pickup only made it worse.
Not all of the progress of late has been with audio. The graphic design is coming together nicely. I’ve got a graphic designer, a cover photo (on special order from Switzerland) and a solid design concept. I expect most of the graphic design to come together by late March, early April.
The next two weeks should be concentrated on vocals, which will be recorded with two of the mics I previously borrowed. Vocal warmups are in order, but it will be interesting to see what I come up with now that the final arrangements are down and I can experiment with mood and phasing.
1/15/99 – 1/30/99 Phase III – Bass tracks – In most cases, if I recorded with a live band, bass guitar would be recorded by now. In my case however bass has been approached as an overdub.
Background: Ironically I started out as a bass player in my earlier musical projects, so naturally I’ve got a certain point of view toward the instrument. I don’t play the instrument much anymore, except for recording. I favor guitar when it comes to writing, but I’ve always liked great bassists.
I’m no Jaco Pastorius or Michael Manring, especially with my lack of practice. Still, I think my approach to bass is a little different than most songwriters. As a former-bassist, I want to hear and feel the bass much more than is often allowed in the type of music I do (whatever that is.) I don’t think of bass as simply a rhythm instrument. One of my pet peeves is listening to music (including my own) where the bass is buried and can only be heard if you strain the ears.
Looking at the material I have been recording, I knew I’d be faced with a lot of work when it came to bass lines. Many of the songs already had a bass line from previous recordings, but none of them were set in stone. Having live drums would also change my perception of the bass lines, and I knew I’d probably end up re-writing some of them. I hadn’t played bass in some time, so my calluses hadn’t been built up. So I knew I’d probably be dealing with some blisters, at least initially.
Keeping all of these variables in mind, I approached the bass lines for this project with the attitude that the bass would be a very important and functional part of each song. I had no intentions of burying it in the mix, and I wanted to experiment with sounds. I also didn’t want to get carried away, and preferred capture something that upheld the groove well. This might be folky music, but it can be funky.
The first issue to address was the instrument itself. I own a 4-string Washburn with active pickups and a 4-string Fender Precision-style Stinger (made by Martin). Both of these basses are good practice units, and the Washburn functioned well as a performance instrument for most of my highschool, college and recent years. The Washburn also records fairly well, but due to improved workmanship in newer basses, doesn’t seem to be capable of the tones I’m looking for these days. With a new set of strings the Washburn does pretty well, but even then you only get a couple days out of it.
Luckily, Jim (who has been tremendously helpful and generous) happened to have a Carvin 5-string (fretted) that he was willing to loan me for the project. As long as he didn’t needed for his band’s rehearsal, it was good to go. Better yet it had new strings on it.
Recording technique: My two main options were running the bass through an amp and miking it, or running direct. A third option would be combining the direct and miked signals. I had done some experimenting with these methods earlier last year while putting down reference tracks, and I had a pretty good idea of where I’d start. From there it was just a matter of improving on the sounds.
Once again Jim came through with a great Audio Technica 4050CM5 Multiple pattern mic for the bass cabinet. Jim uses the mic for some impressive guitar tracks, and it seemed to have the necessary range for bass.
Material: With 12 songs to record, I started by forcing myself to NOT try to record them all at once. So far this recording project has had one consistent theme: take frequent breaks and evaluate what you’ve done. Keeping that in mind I knew I’d have to break the bass recording sessions up into at least two parts. Tackling 6 songs at once would give me enough variety as well as enough focus to keep me interested and not to burnt out.
With a plan, an instrument, and some ideas, I set forth into the world of bass.
My first attempt was with a direct input because I started in the evening and didn’t want to disturb the neighbors. Using an on-board noise gate and compressor, I got some satisfying sounds. The next day I experimented with an idea for a miked sound that I had been dying to try: My walk-in closet would be a perfect place for a bass isolation booth! This would be necessary not only to get a clean bass sound with no incidental noise, but also to isolate my headphone mix from the amp.
I cleaned out my closet and proceeded to make a functional isolation chamber, complete with damping (my clothes.) The construction of the closet is such that none of the walls face an adjacent apartment, so I would be reasonably safe from neighbors’ complaints. I later added a large pillow to the dampening for extra measure.
Placing my amp in the corner of the closet at a 45 degree angle, I then placed the Audio Technica directly in front of the amp, about a foot away from the speaker, but not directly in the center of the cone. It didn’t take long before I was getting some pretty good bass sounds. Most of it was due to the Carvin and the mike, and no further processing was necessary.
With the bass chamber constructed, I proceeded to record tracks for 6 songs over 3 days, alternating between the miked sound during the day, and the direct sound at night. Matt Homiak also sat in for two songs with his 6-string custom Carvin fretless. Another week of sessions with the Carvin, and I was done with all except one song. I obtained a collection of takes for each song and would take breaks to edit my work. I’ve found that listening to the same song too many times can cause brain damage, so it really took a while to focus on what needed to be done. The blisters that were created from the sudden strain of playing the instrument also demanded that I take frequent breaks to avoid totally messing up my hands.
Looking into the future of my own project here, I can see that I may tack on an extra month to the recording/mixing process. I’ve lined up a mastering engineer, and I’m getting the graphic design together. Right now, I am realistically looking at mid-March as a starting point for mixing/mastering. There’s a lot of variables, but overall I think it’s reasonable to get 12 songs done over the course of a month, ending in mid-to-late April.
12/10/98 – 1/3/99 Phase II and Space Platforms – It’s been a while since I made an entry in this recording journal, mostly because things have really picked up speed. After finishing the drum tracks it was time to take stock of what was done and move forward into the world of overdubs.
I spent the end of November and beginning of December taking care of non-recording issues, mostly in the areas of graphic design, marketing, and planning. I also did a good bit of listening to drum takes, deleting bad takes where necessary to free up space. The songs were starting to reach 300 MB each, or larger depending on how many drum takes were stored. I tried to find “the” drum take to use for each song, and experimented with some editing techniques. Many of the songs had several takes, which was good, but they were taking up space, so I had to decide which ones to keep and move on, or combine takes for the final.
For purposes of overdubs, I decided it wasn’t necessary to make much fuss over the drum mix at this point. All that would be needed was a reasonable monitor mix to feel the groove. I would worry about EQ, effects and panning later. With the virtual tracks, I could still keep all of the individual drum parts anyway, so I simply bounced a good stereo mix to two tracks and moved on.
Each song was then given its own rewritable CD on which I would be doing most of the work for each song. This eliminated the need for constant CDR backup. CDRs would take up more physical space and in the long run cost more than CDRW backup. I also did some rhythm track overdubs in the short time I had before Phase II
Phase II: I considered my prep work, and my work with Joe (the drummer) Phase I of the recording process. The next major step in this project was to have friend and musician, Lou Ontko, appear and record guitar solos and backing vocals. Lou’s participation fueled the need to get drum tracks done by the end of the year because I figured he might visit during the holiday season. If I missed that window of time, I would be forced to find other personnel or do the tracks myself, neither of which appealed to my vision of the songs.
After cutting the drum tracking short due to scheduling problems, we were still on schedule. Had I tried to hammer more drum tracks out, I probably would not have been ready for Lou. Since Lou lives and goes to school in Florida, we needed to find a time when he could both be free, and a way to get him here. We tossed the idea around for months via email, and eventually it was agreed he would fly into Harrisburg around 12/20.
For a short time, it seemed like he might not be able to make it, but eventually we worked it out so he could come and stay for two weeks, leaving just after New Year’s. This was much more time than I originally thought I would have with him, so it was an extra bonus. It was a good thing too, because I knew with the holiday would probably take a chunk out of our time.
With his arrival confirmed, I sent Lou some rehearsal CDs made on the Roland from previous radio programs and current rough drafts of the songs. He was already familiar with most of them, and had many parts worked out that I liked. There were two newer songs that would require extra work. Lou received these in time to put a few nights into concentrating on the parts and brushing up on his licks.
I moved the song data around to get ready for Lou’s arrival, making sure to do a full CDR backup of all the songs prior to our sessions together. This would be important if at any point a song was corrupted, accidentally erased, or just plain messed up. Since the working copy would be on CDRW, it was important to have an incremental CDR backup that would be permanent. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary, but it was still a good precaution.
I also constructed a general timeline for his visit and tentative goals for the sessions we would have together. Because of the holiday, our recording time was going to be cut into two sections, one before Christmas, and one after, with another night off for New Year’s Eve. In the middle of these two main sessions, I planned to do a full backup to CDR again in case any problems occurred in the second half.
Two last things were needed to make Lou’s visit productive, and that was a killer mic, and new strings for all of the instruments. Once again I arranged to borrow the Sure VP88 stereo mic from my friend Ed to be the main vocal and acoustic guitar mic. I stocked up on new guitar and bass strings as well, enough to last two or three changes if necessary.
Lou’s arrival was safe, and right away we discussed what was ahead of us. While Lou had parts prepared for some of the songs, he warned me that he would still do a good bit of improvising. This was fine with me since I wasn’t interested in dictating every note, but trusted his judgment as a player.
There was going to be a large amount of time during the days I was at work where Lou would be at the apartment alone. This was a necessary evil since I had no more vacation time to use, and could not take off from work. It worked out well for both of us, since Lou wanted to do some recording of his own. So, the first three days, Lou spent some time with my Alesis drum machine sequencing drum parts, and experimented with the Roland and Cakewalk.
Lou wanted to get a clean demo of 3 songs before he went home, and drums were needed to all of them. Unfortunately the Alesis proved to be limiting as the drum sequencer in several ways, and I recommended Lou use Cakewalk to sequence his parts. It would allow for easier editing, and because of my particular MIDI setup, would be easier to use as a sound module than as a sequencer. Lou had never used Cakewalk before, and had to get a crash course in sequencing, but his musical sense and knowledge proved useful, and he acquired a basic proficiency soon enough.
So for the first three days, Lou composed by day, and at night we worked on my songs. We managed to get through 6 of mine. I knew we’d probably come back and redo some parts, but this was pretty good progress. Guitar parts were be recorded with my Strat, using the onboard effects in the Roland for our guitar sounds.
Each night ran fairly late. In combination with earlier than normal work hours, I was loosing sleep fast, but held up fairly well. Because of lack of physical space in the apartment, I didn’t have the luxury of leaving mics and amps set up. I also had to do incremental backups of each song every night. Usually I would take advantage of our dinner time to load songs into the machine, while using the night time ritual of breaking down for backup. All of the loading and saving took time away from actual tracking, so I was thankful for the length of time Lou would be staying.
Two songs that we attempted turned out to have problems in the rhythm guitar and reference vocals that prevented us from successfully doing overdubs. I wasn’t sure how I would fix this in the time we had together. I was trying to spend as much time getting Lou’s tracks done, and didn’t want to spend as much time on my own parts since I knew I could do everything after he was back in Florida.
But bad rhythm parts were only going to make everything else worse, so we worked out a plan. Lou wanted to visit his relatives during and after Christmas if possible. If he did, I could return to Harrisburg to do the necessary rhythm parts. So the plan was set: Audra, who was going back to see her family a second time after Christmas, would take Lou with her and bring him back for the second phase of our sessions. We would have one day in between with which to work.
So, just as we got on a roll, Christmas came and we went to see our families in NEPA. The holiday was a mixed blessing. We could really use the time to focus and rest. Lou had begun to contract a cold of some sort and as a result, his vocal overdubs were suffering, and I needed some sleep. While we couldn’t record, mentally it was good for our sessions because we had the opportunity to leave the project for a few days… completely with no chance of sneaking into the studio to listen. I was hoping that it wouldn’t blow our focus totally though, since that wouldn’t be good either.
The night of 12/24, and all of 12/25 were spent in NEPA. Dad got me some much needed CDRW that would prove useful later. We returned 12/26 after a reunion with some highschool band mates (see Amethyst in my bio). It was nice seeing the guys (minus one – our guitarist could not be located for comment). Matt Mariano, our keyboardist from the old days, reminded me of the benefits of MIDI sequencing and drum machines, and I think I’ll be going that route in the future.
Returning to Harrisburg, we used the evening of 12/26 to do the incremental backup while Lou wrote MIDI parts for his songs in Cakewalk. The time was made even more productive as I re-strung some instruments.
On 12/27 we got much accomplished, and even made time for some more of Lou’s work. While he wrote MIDI parts on the computer, I went over some parts in the kitchen, creating a mini-studio with just the VP88 and a pair of headphones. This allowed me more time to deal with the rhythm tracks that were still needed this late in the project.
Later that night I made Lou a rough mix of the material he was working on so he could arrange his parts for the Roland after he got back from his second trip to NEPA. Then he left for NEPA to see his family while I stayed in Harrisburg to do more rhythm tracks. So, for the first time in a week I had the studio to myself after work. For the next two days I used the VP88 for vocals and rhythm acoustic guitar, and it performed very well.
After work on 12/30, Lou was back in Harrisburg and we picked up from where we left off. Lou’s cold was still present to a degree, so we concentrated on guitar parts. New Year’s Eve was not very productive for the project because I was at work until 4:00. But Lou had a chance to finish up his MIDI work while I was at work, and then we took a break for a New Year’s party.
Note to self: Don’t have a party in the middle of a recording marathon! I had several drinks, making up for the lack of alcohol intake last New Year (long story…) I just wanted to let go, I guess. Everyone had a good time, and Lou didn’t have much, if anything to drink, but I paid for it in the morning with an upset stomach. I was lucky I did not hurl. I nursed myself back together New Year’s day while listening to our neighbor blast some type of Mocarina music that played at half-hour intervals. Audra had contracted the flu bug that was going around, so the combination of the party and the germs threatened to dampen our productivity.
But in a way it worked out. I was out of it on New Year’s day, so I let Lou work on his material while I straightened some things up and ran a few errands. By the end of the day we had his 3 songs tracked and mixed down to DAT.
Jan 2nd was to be the last productive day we would have. In the morning I burned a CD of Lou’s songs, and brought the song data into the machine that we would need for the afternoon. We listened to previous takes and went over things we didn’t like. There were many good moments we forgot about, and some other not-so-good tracks we’d rather forget. The time to reflect on what we did was very valuable, and I’m glad we did it. We caught some of the less-than-perfect background vocals that resulted from Lou’s cold and were able to redo them. We also labeled the track sheets in more detail with notes about the quality of the takes. When it comes time to come up with the final mix, I’m really going to be grateful we did this.
After listening to some songs 10 or more times in a row, I was fairly burnt by this point. I knew I couldn’t last much longer and that the project would suffer if I pushed too much harder. Lou was burning out too. So once we were satisfied with our work, we packed it in and watched some TV.
The past two weeks were two of the most intense, educational and productive two weeks I’ve had for the project. Lou was fairly well prepared with his vocal and guitar parts, and we had a good bit of fun pushing the limits of the Roland with our ideas. After combining my work with teaching Lou how to use the studio, needless to say I was fairly burnt, and – out of necessity for this type of work – insane. So what have I learned:
Regarding rhythm tracks, I am still disappointed that more of this work could not have been done earlier. Some of this can be blamed on not having the right mics at the right time (most of which are borrowed) as well as the length of time it took to do drum tracks.
Don’t have someone else do tracks you know you can do better. There was one song that I asked Lou to do a rhythm guitar part for. There was a special rhythmic thing that he couldn’t articulate the same way I can since I wrote the song. It took me several takes before I realized “Why the hell am I having him do this?!” and we moved on.
As far as the Roland goes, it has performed wonderfully so far, but the time lag that we ran into with data backup and loading was counter-productive. You almost have to have a huge harddrive and an overnight backup system in place to do this kind of work efficiently. In any one day I loaded 2.0 GB into and out of the machine. Still, the rewritables saved me lots of money so far, so I guess it’s a trade off.
It definitely paid off to have Lou here, not only as a musician, but as another pair of ears for suggestions and criticism about sounds.
COMING UP: I lucked out and have been able to keep the VP88 for an extra week. I’ve decided (somewhat reluctantly) to take two days off to distance myself from the recording and to get some much needed paperwork and email done. But before the end of the week I’d like to have some more tracks done.
11/19-20/98 Wrapping it up (the drums,that is…) – Things have been crazy the last few weeks. Scheduling problems again raised their nasty heads as we closed in on the final tracks needed to complete the drums. Discussions with personnel, and an inventory of resources and time proved that I would need to wrap it up soon, especially with the holidays coming. As a result, I decided to omit two songs from the roster and replace one of the weaker songs with a stronger, more upbeat tune.
Two important distractions were also eminent: The opportunity to acquire a multitrack copy of the York session from the Spring of 98, and the NE Folk alliance Conference.
The conference proved to be enlightening in many ways. I met fellow singer-songwriter, Charles Parente who just completed his debut CD, recorded with the Roland VS-880, the little brother to my machine. This only boosted my confidence that this project would be a success. We’ve stayed in touch via email, and I am learning a few things that should make the rest of the process go well. I’ve ordered a copy of Charles’ CD, and I’m looking forward to comparing it with my own progress so far.
During one of the workshops at the conference, I was somewhat relieved to find out that my approach to recording my project isn’t at all foreign, though some have criticized my approach from the beginning. All of the work I am doing, from click tracks, reference tracks and planning, seems to be in line with what the pros do. so I guess all that homework and observation has paid off!
After the conference, I loaded the necessary tracks and reworked the folk song from the previous November session. I also had to create a tempo map for the new song I was adding that would replace another song I had thought about recording. I double and triple checked these because I knew I’d probably only have one more opportunity to get the drum tracks down before the holiday season.
So with the last three songs ready to go, and an opening in the schedule, Joe and I got together for what would probably be our last session for a while.
Luckily, we were able to do a 2-day session as we had done at the beginning of the project. This allowed more time to set up and get levels. It wasn’t long before we had some good takes down for the three songs I brought.
We decided to make the second day more experimental, taking advantage of Joe’s congas and marimba. This was a great idea and added a lighthearted feeling to two of the songs. The marimba was easy to record, but we may re-record it at my apartment in a more quite setting. In Joe’s basement, there are a number of noises that usually don’t affect our recording. But with winter setting in, the heater comes on more often, and we got a lot of noise when we miked the marimba. The Roland has built in filters, but they color the sound too much.
Joe and I may get together to re-do one or two songs as I progress and listen to the ones we haven’t heard in a while, but most of the drum takes are ready to go. The Roland’s virtual tracks have allowed me to keep many takes and versions for the songs, and if necessary I may do some digital editing to get the best performance.
So, with the drum tracks finished, I can now venture into the world of overdubbing. Rhythm acoustic guitar and vocals are going to be my next priority, and I will be borrowing various microphones to get the best signals to disk. My guitarist friend Lou has been in touch, so it’s possible we’ll be doing some lead guitar and backing vocal work around the holidays (part of the reason I needed to get the drums done by then.)
All things considered, we’re on schedule.
10/30/98 & 11/6/98 Tempo Trouble – This session involved two ballads, a folk song and one rock song. The latter had been attempted during our first sessions. I had since re-mapped the tempo and what I thought to be a happy medium, but in practice, the songs still did not flow. The ballad and folk songs were also too slow and had to be re-mapped as well, breaking this session up into two days.
Part of the problem with the Roland is, no matter how you record, there’s only so much it can hold at once. My CD backups throughout the project have helped me get around the problem to some degree, but they also open problems of their own. Many of my initial reference tracks were backed up to CD in early September. Since then I have moved a lot of data in and out of the machine, and have been distanced from many of the songs. So when I brought some of the older songs back in, I was surprised to see how lethargic some of the tempos were.
Eventually I reworked these tempos and came back to Joe’s for another session. Without too much trouble we were able to get through the songs satisfactorily, but I think the rock tune is still lacking in consistency, mostly due to the tempo changes. This song may be a candidate for a future touch-up session, but for now I’m going to plow ahead and see if the current version grows on me. Time constraints prevented us from finishing the folk song, which would have to be finished in the next session.
An important discovery was made after these sessions: The CDRW capability of the Roland and the burner works! This will open up some possibilities for saving disks and money later, since I’ll be making frequent backups of the songs with my overdubs.
10/8/98 & 10/17/98 These songs rock! – This recording session was broken into two days due to scheduling problems and prior commitments. The first day we nearly nailed 3 songs, but later listening proved that we would need at least one more pass to really get good takes. In many ways the songs we were working on now were simpler than the previous batch, but that also meant they were going to be more transparent to the ear.
One song, which changed tempo in several places, gave me a lot of trouble, so much so that I had to re-map the tempo after our first session. The tempo changes were intentional, but the click track I had developed didn’t sound natural.
After our first session on the 8th, I took a close look at the tempo and re-mapped it several times. We had recorded this song once before in York without a click track, just by playing together live. I liked the feel of that version so much that I was trying to get that same thing, only with a click track to make everything a little more tight. So I decided to try an experiment. I dumped a stereo mix of the version from York into the Roland. Then I used the tap marker feature to place markers on every beat of the song. The idea was to use the Roland’s tempo map conversion features to find the actual tempo of the version I liked, including any natural fluctuations that resulted from our live performance.
The result was pretty ugly, with tempo fluctuations that would need to be ironed out for recording. Still, it gave me a point of reference that, until now, I didn’t have and was only guessing at. I proceeded to level off the tempos and work with the tempo changes. I learned that I would have to gradually change tempo instead of jumping up or down in tempo too fast. Eventually a happy medium was found and I went with it.
I decided to take advantage of the Roland’s virtual tracks and Joe’s flexibility, and recorded two versions of one of my bluesy songs. One version is more swing-blues, and the other is straight rock-blues. The results were satisfying and gave the song a new dimension.
During our follow-up session on the 17th, we decided to tackle some tom-tom problems I noticed with previous sessions. The low tom had been less distinct than the other toms, and I was hearing more “flap” than actual tom sound. We decided an additional mic on the low toms might help, bringing the total of the drum mikes to 7. In addition, Joe fine tuned his low toms. The tom-toms sound so much better that I’ve considered re-tracking some of the earlier stuff as time permits.
It’s safe to say that this session, while split between two days and two weeks, was probably the best sounding and most energetic. Since the songs took advantage of Joe’s natural drumming style in many cases, I think the songs are better for it. I spent far less time coaching on this batch of songs, and that freedom probably helped make it go smoother for both of us.
9/24 – 9/25/98 Ups & downs – Less is more. – Joe and I both seemed to agree that the takes from the previous session (9/18 see below) were good, but could be better. Using the Roland’s ability to back up data, I backed up the drum parts we had in case we wanted to come back to them. Using this method, combined with the virtual tracks, I could keep infinite takes and would never have to worry about losing anything.
There were some issues with fills and builds that seemed to be nagging me, and we thought since we were still technically on schedule, we’d try another run of the same songs.
Again, Thursday was spent mostly on set up, with some attempts at takes on three songs. I forgot my headphones (DUH!), but I was able to operate the recorder and listen to playbacks through the monitors. This was annoying at first, but did afford me a different viewpoint on Joe’s playing. Without headphones, all I heard was Joe and not the reference tracks or click. I could gauge the feel of his performance in the room and hear minor variations that I may not have heard with headphones on. This helped locate some problem areas that were quickly tightened up.
Joe and I are both finding that the studio has its own rules as far as how much you can get away with. A player of any instrument that is used to interaction with players rather than a machine is going to have a learning curve, no matter how good they are. We’ve found it’s better for Joe to just have a rhythm guitar and vocal as a reference track, rather than the loose arrangement of guitars, bass and leads he had been hearing previously.
This last point is in line with my original idea of keeping the reference tracks simple to avoid unnecessary multitracking and production this early in the process. Since many of these songs are new, bass and electric guitar had been added at Joe’s request, hoping the feel of the songs would be more tangible. But it looks like we’ve come full circle with that idea, back to a more sparse arrangement.
We were able to get through three songs, but spent most of our time working out fills and playing with ideas of how to better support the groove. Most of our ideas ended up simplifying the previous drum part, sometimes with less kick or less cymbals.
Friday went very well. I had my headphones once again and could monitor better. Joe did very well working out the fills and rough spots we found the previous day.
The Roland’s virtual tracks are really coming in handy. Once we would get a drum take that sounded good, I could keep it and suggest that Joe try something a little different, or just let him go crazy on it without fear of losing the first take. At one point the virtual tracks even allowed us to overdub cymbal swells for one song, which would have normally broken the groove had everything been played all at once.
One last experiment during this session involved the usage of a Sure VP88 stereo mic that I had on loan from Prof. Ed Debes from York College. I had asked to borrow the mic for some acoustic guitar experiments, but thought it would be wise to try it on the drums too.
I set the mic up on a regular mic stand near a wall with the active part of the element facing the drums. The mic was about 12 feet from the kit, and I used a wide pattern (it has 3). The results were amazing, to say the least. The clarity and ambiance that the stereo mic created was beyond what we were getting by micing individual drums with lesser mics. The catch of course was that a) I could not control separate drums, b) the mic wasn’t mine (Not yet anyway. I’m going to look at the budget.) The mic would be great for cymbals, or just a room mic.
After several hours we were both quite burnt. We had completed three, possibly four songs. As we began to pack up, Joe wanted to play back a song and mix the drums a little. That’s when we notice a problem. We had been using a short, clamp-on type of stand for the bass drum, connecting it to the ride cymbal’s stand. I don’t know how we got through 4 songs without noticing, but on this particular song, as Joe hammered the ride we heard a rather disturbing range of noise coming out of the bass drum mic. It was obviously the vibration from the ride cymbal traveling down through the stand and into the bass drum. Major bummer.
As of right now I haven’t listened to the takes again. I came home and backed everything up to CD and plan to listen to it after at least a 24 hour break. I’ve come to realize just how important it is to get away from the music, just as much as it is to concentrate on it. That is, after all, one of the main reasons I’ve chosen to do this in-house. This way I can always step away and it isn’t costing me anything but time. That’s not to say that time is not precious, but right now we’re going for quality and not quantity.
9/17 – 9/18/98 Improvements and 3 down? – Using the same concept as last time, we used Thursday to set up at Joe’s and get basic drum sounds. The idea was to get at least three songs done for the record, possibly four, saving Friday for the majority of the tracking.
The saved routing presets that I made after the last session were a major help, saving me at least a half hour of routing and tweaking. We got all of our basic drum sounds as we did in the last session, still using 6 mics direct to the recorder with two preset effect inserts on bass and snare.
During our session Jim stopped by with a couple of mics, and SM58 and a Peavey PVM520i cardioid dynamic mic for bass drums. I’m not one to turn down a good mic, so we immediately replaced the SM57 we had on the bass with this new, more appropriate mic. The difference was like night and day. Not only could we hear the bass better, we could feel it more. Major thanks go out to Jim for letting us use this mic. He’s agreed to loan it to us whenever we need it. Cool!
I also changed the way we were monitoring our signals. I had grown discontent with hearing things through the mono PA, so I brought an old stereo power amp and Joe brought his Pioneer speakers down from the living room. Yet again, the difference was like night and day.
Thursday continued with some more tweaking and a few dry runs.
One of the problems that had been identified from the past sessions was Joe’s deviation from the click track. In most cases this was marginal, but at beginnings and breaks in songs it was noticeable. To help Joe we decided the click should be louder than the music in his monitor mix. This way, even if the reference tracks showed some deviation or distracted from the click, he could concentrate on the click easier.
After about 3.5 hours we decided to call it a night and save our energy for the next day.
Friday we jumped right into recording. Since we were satisfied with our drum sound, most of our time was spent refining the performance. We did several takes for three songs and one dry run of another song that was a bit new to Joe. Taking advantage of the virtual tracks on the Roland I was able to save up to 5 takes for one song. I could also use multiple drum takes to cut/paste a final take, but I doubt I will do that. I prefer to have the complete drum part in one shot. Besides, in some songs there are no clear breaks that would allow a clean edit, even with digital.
After each take we would listen to only drums and click track to analyze the groove. We may have finished 3 songs. Until I listen to them further I won’t be sure. I’ve come up with a schedule of how I would like to proceed with the other songs. We’re going to shoot for three or four per month until December, ending at 14.
The next step for Joe will be to learn the next series of songs. The next step for me is to listen to what we’ve done and make the final decision about overall sound quality and performance. From here on, there’s no turning back. Time to step away and return with fresh ears.
9/3/98-9/4/98 Progress, Discovery and Reality: After coming back from Vegas, Joe and I proceeding as planned, dedicating the last week in August to charts and basic song structure without any interest in recording or production. This proved very useful and will continue to be done throughout the process.
For now, we seem to work best when we take 2 or 3 songs at a time, going from charts to recording while things are still fresh in everyone’s mind. A vacation day from work allowed some extra time to focus on the recording, and Joe and I made an attempt at getting final tracks for two songs over two days. I took the Roland to Joe’s place and set up on a coffee table much like our previous tech run, this time with a better understanding of the routine that was going to be necessary. While amazing in its own right, the Roland takes some getting used to, especially when you’re pressed for time.
Day #1 consisted of basic mic setup and level checking. We’ve pretty much settled on a 6 input configuration with separate mics on Bass, Snare, Overhead, Hihat, Toms 1-2, and Toms3. We started by recording single drums to pre-eq them and find noises. One noise that had bothered me from the last session was coming from the low toms, which in this case were very large rock-type toms closer to bass drums. Some time was spent dampening, but it wasn’t getting better. There was still too much “flap” in the sound. Later we found a solution.
Another problem that presented itself and drove us crazy was when Joe hit his crash, we’d get a strange digeridoo sound. The culprit was a metal mic clamp that was on the cymbal stand. The clamp was resonating like a tuning fork. We changed miking positions and solved it.
One important difference with this session is that we had my PA there to monitor through for playback. Since it is mono and has a tendency to color the sound, it wasn’t very reliable as a true mix, but gave us a pretty good picture of things.
We did several dry runs with the full kit. The same bass drum and snare effects inserts were used as last time and seem to be key to getting the sounds we want. However, since I use up both effects inserts with the bass and snare, I have no other ability to use compression or gating on the rest of the kit. This could be solved with an off board unit, another effects chip, or perhaps my Alesis. Depending on the need we may experiment with other gear.
Overall the drum sounds we got the 1st day were good, but we each had our own pet peeves. I was still worried about the “flappy” toms, and Joe thought the cymbals were too dark. We called it a night figuring we’d try some more ideas the next day.
Day #2 involved some solitary contemplation on the sound of the drums from the last night. I took some time to really listen, and I got out some albums that I thought have good drum sounds. What I could figure out was that compression and input level have more to do with the overall “closeness” of the sound than anything. This isn’t rocket science, but it is difficult to figure out how to get certain results with the current selection of equipment.
Later in the day, we got together and Joe replaced his mega-toms with two smaller ones he had. These proved to be more like what I envisioned the sound to be for the recording. We still weren’t sure if we liked the bass and snare sounds, so we thought we’d try an experiment with Joe’s electronic triggers to combine an acoustic and electronic sound.
This idea died quickly when we found toms triggering the snare drum sound and other problems with triggers going off inappropriately. I was also running low on input channels (see below), so I couldn’t record everything and compare properly. Looks like acoustic really is the way to go!
The experiment with the triggers brought up a minor problem: I was maxing out on how many channels I could record at once, while also creating the problem of not being able to play back the reference track. The way the machine is set up, you have 8 tracks to work with at once, be they for recording, playback, or a combination. I had 8 tracks set to record and was trying to play back 3 tracks for reference, making 11. I had to make a compromise by eliminating one of my less important inputs. I also had to bounce the reference tracks down to one track. This was a valuable lesson and I’m considering bouncing all of the reference tracks for all of the songs in like manner in order to save tracks and time later.
We did some more runs of two songs, with Joe now concentrating on getting a good performance. We mixed them down quickly and critiqued them. The drums sound good but are not as up front as other recordings. Working at Joe’s without a proper monitoring system is part of my current problem. The PA is not going to be a viable option for tweaking the sounds correctly, so I may need to set up something else. I knew when I got my recorder home, I’d probably hear a completely different signal (I did, see below).
Joe and I are both finding that more time is going to be needed for this portion of the recording than perhaps either of us thought. Joe has recognized how much different this process is from live performance and how much work is involved. I’m stuck between having to teach him the songs and guide Joe through the vision while still maintaining the technical side of things. Still, all of this is understood and within the realm of reason and I don’t think it would be possible to go any faster under the current circumstances. Sure, a drum room would help and maybe some off board gear, but it still comes down to the playing and the experience.
Discoveries: I took the Roland home after our sessions at Joe’s place and listened to the tracks through my power amp and speakers. Overall I am impressed with the quality of the drum mix, even though this quality wasn’t apparent through the PA system. There are key areas like bass and snare that need a little work, but the level and clarity of the kit is good.
Further experimenting allowed me to learn how to use the EZ Routing feature of the recorder which allows me to save my basic drum kit recording setup, mixdown and bouncing. This eliminates the need to re-route everything manually every time I start a new song, and this should save considerable time when I’m at Joe’s doing sessions.
For now I’m going to steer away from drums for a couple days to put down some reference bass lines which Joe says should be helpful for him. I’ve obtained a very helpful recording primer that Shure publishes, so I’m reading up on various techniques for all the instruments. Lot’s of work ahead.
8/11/98 – I’d have to say that despite not thinking I’d get anything accomplished this month, we have in fact made some major progress. 9 songs now have fairly finished click tracks and reference guitar/vocals. Joe is learning more of the songs, and last night’s drum session at Joe’s place proved to be significantly illuminating.
Joe has been trying to make himself a drum demo video to show to prospective bands. Using 4 or 5 SM57s, an odd-ball mic, and my Soundtech powered PA, he’s been experimenting with getting a basic signal to tape. He was mixing all of the mics with the head, then output to a single 1/4 cable, split to two RCAs to accommodate the tape deck he was using, and Viola. During a rehearsal I was really impressed with the sound he was getting, even though he was playing it back through a guitar amp with an 8″ speaker. Testing the tape on the stereo proved interesting. Save some needed EQ in the low end, the sound was good.
Needless to say, the wheels started turning. If it could sound that good (to my ears) under those conditions, what if we tried separate signals into a digital recorder? I decided to use his set up as an opportunity to see if it was feasible to mic his own drum set for the recording. If it worked, it would make coordinating recording time much easier, and would cut down on set up time. Not to mention, the drummer would be happy to not have to travel as much. Works for me.
Last night we put on our Frankenstein costumes and went into the laboratory. We decided to keep Joe’s original set up (outputting only one signal through a 1/4″ plug) just to see what would happen. This signal was impressive, giving a surprisingly good representation of the drums, but obviously wouldn’t allow us to separate anything in the mix. I would still use this for rehearsals, but probably not for recording. So we moved on to separating the mics and went directly to the Roland, with the exception of the cymbals which we left going through the PA head, mixing to one output.
The only reason I we did this is because I ran out of XLR inputs and we didn’t have any more converters. Separate channels for bass, snare, small toms, floor toms and cymbals were set up. We tried a variety of EQ settings both on the inputs and after the track was recorded, but decided on a modified parametric bass drum preset and a snare preset for inserts. The rest of the drums pretty much stayed flat. The bass drum was a bitch at first, but I think we’ve come very close to a usable sound. Everything else is tweakable.
The sound: More than I thought possible given the time (3 hrs), technique and equipment. We’re not using any off board gear, and the mics, while standard drum type mics, aren’t high-end condensers. Separation is still a problem in some cases, where the tom mics are picking up snare, and cymbal mics are getting a little of everything. But since all of the separate channels will get mixed together into a stereo pair anyway, I can deal with that. The overall sound is very good.
Where to from here? For now, Vegas. Then when I get back some more rehearsal. By mid-Sept, I expect to be doing the real thing. By then I’ll have the rest of the click tracks finished.”
7/29/98 – “Although we’ve made progress on the acoustic drums, I am going to have to say I still like the sound of the electronics. I took some of the stuff I did with Joe during our last session and mixed it down. The way I have everything layered, the drums are kind of subliminal and simply support the groove, but they are very clean and clear. Perhaps some songs will use different drum setups. I’m going to run this stuff past some musicians and non-musicians to see if they notice the difference.”
7/25/98 – “Jim and I met again today and had better results. We took a few ideas from everybody and with a combination of EQ, mic placement and gating were able to get a much better sound than last week. We’re at the point where we really need you there in order to expand on the sound we have toward THE sound. Jim and I are more confident we can get a good sound now.
The Roland has some pretty useful parametric EQ presets specifically designed for drums. Jim also has an off board stereo EQ that has 15 bands per channel, so we ended up using that too. I didn’t even notice he had the EQ, or we would have used it last week.
Overall the bass drum sounds better, and the snare isn’t as abrasive. Toms and cymbals sound very good. I’m looking for more overall drum volume without clipping, so we have to work on the gain structure more.”
7/23/98 – “My first experiment was to make a CD of some stuff my dad and I did that was on DAT. I dumped the stereo DAT mix into the Roland and burned from there. Since I didn’t have a completely blank hard drive, I had to make several passes without finalizing until I was finished.
I had three errors, but there were my fault, not the machine’s. The first error I had was when I did my first pass of 7 songs, I mistakenly had a track marker at the end of the last song. This told the CDR to start recording track 8, when actually, there was no track that followed. I did this twice before I realized the reason. Then, during my last pass of 3 songs, I realized I had forgotten to put track markers between the songs completely, thus instead of getting 3 songs, I got one 15 min. song! Not only that, but somewhere right before I burned that pass, I moved the time/value wheel and messed up the source tracks. Thus I ended up with a 15 min. song with sound only the left channel!
But as I said, these were all operator errors. The drive works very well, and I even bumped the table a couple times. I took the precaution of setting the burner on top of a 1/2″ of rubberized foam available craft stores. I’ve heard of how sensitive these things are, but I understand they have improved. The one complaint I have is that the CDR fan is very loud.. loader than anything else I’m working with.
I did a data backup of one of the sample songs (350MB) in about 30 minutes. I am backing up the second sample song now to free up HD space to work on my own songs. The bundled software runs on Win 95/MAC, so I have another reason to upgrade. From what I understand, the software allows you to use the drive’s re-write capability. It also allows you to record off of regular CDs and rearrange songs.”
7/19/98 – “I met with Jim on Saturday to do a dry run and figure out drum miking. It took us a while to get a half decent bass drum sound, and the snare gave us a lot of trouble. Jim and I discussed your idea of using the Roland’s bass and snare, and using the real toms and cymbals.
Neither Jim nor I can play drums to save our lives, so our results were probably skewed by not having enough power to hit the drums properly to get a sound. Overall, I was not at all impressed with the quality of the real kit vs. the Roland kit. It’s not Jim’s fault, but I just didn’t feel as excited about what I heard. In fact, I think the highlights of the evening were finding out I could actually carry a rhythm on a drum kit, and the ride to Sams that we took in Jim’s ’65 Mustang (hot-red).
I did a run through of one song and kept the take so you could hear what we came up with. Jim has suggested we get together for another session next Saturday, probably after 3:00. It would be a big help to get your input, and while you play we could make adjustments. You also could bring your snare and mics for more options. Consider this next session as still experimental, but definitely necessary. However, if after this next session we still don’t like the results, I will probably not pursue live drums. I don’t see the sense in banging our heads off a wall trying to do it if we have another option that sounds better.
Honestly, looking at what we’re up against, I have begun to consider just using the electronic kit. The only real problem I have with the electronics is the inability to separate instruments. We would have to be absolutely satisfied with the mix before we even record it.
I would like to read the manual and experiment with the Roland drums sometime to see what kind of kits we can build without messing up the kits you need for performing. If we can do an extra-good job of customizing some kits.”
“I’ve done some research into using just the electronic kit if we can’t get good acoustic sounds. This method will not be possible until I upgrade both my software and hardware, neither of which is likely before I go to Vegas. I have to sync the VS1680 with Cakewalk while Joe plays into the computer. Then I would have to play the recorder back synced to Cakewalk to get Joe’s drums in time with the pre-recorded tracks. It’s all very simple with the right stuff, but I simply can’t do it with the current set up. My version of Cakewalk send a sync track, but doesn’t receive one.”
Humble Beginnings: The Production of a Debut Recording May/June 1998 – Just when it looked like it was time to glean the best tracks from all of the above sessions and prepare a master, I decided to jump into the world of digital recording with the Roland VS1680, a 24-bit digital workstation. Now I can take advantage of my home studio to gradually put together quality takes without worrying about scheduling studio time or driving to a studio out of town. I’ve recruited a drummer and plan to start seriously tracking this Fall.
Either way, the release is planned for mid to late 1999, in time for the new millennium. I’m also going to be out and about with a portable 2-track DAT recorder at live gigs this summer trying to get a live blues demo together. A three or four-song blues demo is possible for the Fall.
I am looking forward to the reaction after so many years of hard work. This is an exceptional time to be working on an album. As progress is made, it is quite possible that I will release an interactive multimedia CD (any developers who are reading this and would like to get in on it are welcome to contact me).
So far I’ve used the electronic drums as our primary rehearsal tool for two reasons: a) they’re portable and can easily be set up here in the apartment, b) the volume can be controled, so I don’t get evicted.
As a rehearsal tool, the electronic kit has been incredible. It sounds great too. However from a recording standpoint it has one major flaw. As is, I can not separate bass, snare, etc onto separate tracks. Instead I get a stereo mix right from the drum module which is great for rehearsal, but not flexible enough for my tastes in a final recording situation. This is a problem that has several solutions, and a snag that we will be dealing with in future entries.
I have spent most of my time in pre-production since I got the recorder in May. There were a few weeks of getting to know what the machine is capable of, but finally I was able to get started on arrangements and tempo maps. Just about everything will be recorded with a click track to keep the disc solid. In some cases, figuring out the tempo was very easy, while in other songs I found I either changed tempos mid-song, or had trouble getting the correct tempo.
After I get a suitable tempo map constructed, I lay down a reference rhythm guitar and vocal. These reference tracks are usually pretty bad from a performance standpoint, but they are not meant to be the final takes. They will later be used for Joe to play along with, saving my voice and energy as we run through drum parts. It also keeps things consistent, since there’s a chance that I could add sections in a live performance that I don’t want on tape.
Joe and I have considered recording a song at a time, but I just don’t see that working with our schedules the way they are. I think it would be best for all of us if we concentrated on a full blown recording session and finished it up in one, maybe two weekends. Joe has been doing very well with the click track and preproduction, so I am confident we can really do a good job with the time we have.
After getting a suitable number of songs rehearsed, it will be time to dry a runthrough with a real kit. As I rehearsed with Joe, I started looking at just how I would record the drum tracks. One session with Jim proved that the acoustic drums would be much more of a challenge than I thought, despite our combined knowledge and selection of equipment.
If you’d like to see a process flow of our recording process for rhythm tracks, contact me.