Immersion Music Method Session – April 2014

I’ve been looking for a way to kickstart some songwriting. I come up with parts here and there, but haven’t been putting things into song form. My friend Eric had recommended a book he checked out of the library called The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook. He mentioned their Immersion Music Method for helping to try to break through writers block. It sounded cool, so I picked up the book. After reading a bit, I was convinced and excited to give IMM a try.

The immersion method is very cool. The concept is to dedicate 12 uninterrupted hours to songwriting. The goal is to write 20 songs. They don’t have to be complete, long songs or even any good. This puts some pressure on you to keep moving forward and not spend too much time on one thing. I know many musician’s inner-critic will trash a song idea because they spend too much time analyzing, criticizing it or trying to make it sound a certain way. This method is meant to keep you moving forward before the inner-critic has a chance to catch up. The book recommends doing this as a challenge with at least one other musician. The idea is that you both do your 12 hours separately, then get together at the end of the day to share the results. The more people you get involved, the more fun this can be. As a result of this method, songwriting “lodges” have formed all around the world.

I gave it a try with Eric and have to say, the results were great. We both had a blast. I found myself feeling free to experiment as much as I wanted without being as critical or worrying about the result. At the end of the day, we got together and listened. As we listened, I heard stuff I had forgotten I recorded and really liked. When I didn’t know where to start, I would just try to come up with something that would make Eric laugh or tried to shoot for some kind of sountrack-ish progression. Some of the silliest stuff turned out the best.

Below, I’m sharing the results of my experiment. Keep in mind many of this stuff was one-take, so there are mistakes everywhere. Also none of this was mixed. Simply dumped to stereo tracks at the end of the day. Enjoy!

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/30858625″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

  • Song 1:
    This first song was written and recorded at 6am, so I wasn’t very warmed up. I wrote the progression on acoustic guitar as I walked down the stairs to the basement. I started with acoustic, added bass, then omnichord and vocals. I attempted to write some lyrics but quickly realized that if I took the time to write lyrics to everything I’d never get close to 20 songs finished.
  • Song 2:
    Song 2 was a goofy song that started with the omnichord for the progression. I then added bass. For the percussion, I just tapped my fingers on the wrist-rest of my computer keyboard. The lyrics were one-take and must have been inspired by watching my cats eat their mushy cat food while I was recording.
  • Song 3:
    This one was my attempt to be a synth shredder. All done in Ableton.
  • Song 4:
    Started with a capoed electric and the goal was to create an triumphant, anthemic sounding sound.
  • Song 5:
    Started with acoustic guitar. I wanted to create a spooky feel. Organ bass, tremolo electric and surfy whammy bar dives.
  • Song 6:
    I came up with this chord progression on the omnichord and thought it sounded like an old time “station sign off” from when radio and tv stations would go off the air in the old days. Added a synth and stylophone, then quick fade.
  • Song 7:
    Started with my six string banjo and wanted to create an authentic sounding country romp. I call this one “Hatchback Cowboy”. I really like how this turned out and may have to put some lyrics to it.
  • Song 8:
    This was my second shot at a genre specific song. I wanted to go for a Dethklok-style, cookie monster metal tune. I’m not ashamed to admit that I bumped up the tempo a bit after recording this one, though everything was first take. There are no lyrics, I mostly grunted or read off off the posters in my studio. Then I pitched the vocals way way way way down 🙂
  • Song 9:
    Another acoustic ballad type. Needed to mellow out after the metal song. Started with acoustic, added bells, then melodica. I’ll probably use this one and put some lyrics to it.
  • Song 10:
    This started as the guitar riff panned to the left. Then I programmed some drums and came up with the harmony guitar part. I really dig this. Some sour notes, etc, but all first take.
  • Song 11:
    This one is just weird. Just started plugging away on the synth and this is what happened. All done in Ableton.
  • Song 12:
    This song started with just recording and looping the kazoo part. I then played an electric bass in and converted it to midi. The conversion wasn’t great so it’s a bit fragmented, but sounded cool. I then doubled the kazoo and pitched it up for the harmony. Then I tripled the kazoo, reversed it and dropped the pitch for the other part. The percussion was the only premade loop that I used.
    I was intentionally trying to make the most annoying song I possibly could.
  • Song 13:
    This song started with the bass line. I then programmed the drums and just started playing guitar. First take on everything. It ended up kinda sounding Minutemen-esquey, which is cool.
  • Song 14:
    This is probably my favorite song that came out of this session. I started with the organ part, then figured out the progression that I’d use behind it. I ended up using these cool hand drums that my wife and I made in a class from deer hide. I really dig this and will probably end up using this as a tune. It’s kinda spaghetti-western-esque, which I love
  • Song 15:
    I was shooting for a 70’s cop/suspense feel for this song. I kind of dig it. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere for a while, so I abandoned it. I accidentally slowed the tempo curve instead of the volume curve, but liked it so left it.
  • Song 16:
    At the end I was starting to get desperate. I wanted to create a cool 8bit song and came up with this. It’s pretty cool, but I didn’t have time to sync the arpeggio on the main synth and the tempo of the song so some of it sounds odd. It ended up sounding like music from Rygar which was my favorite game.

Zen and the Art of Mixing in Death Valley

(I wrote this about a month ago after taking a trip to Death Valley Junction)

Zen and the Art of MixingAfter reading my new favorite book, The The Daily Adventures of Mixerman I immediately ordered Mixerman‘s next book Zen and the Art of Mixing. Just from reading “The Daily Adventures of Mixerman“, I knew that any of his other books were going to be entertaining and chock full of great info. I had the chance to read the entire thing during a trip to Death Valley Junction last weekend and I was right.

Over the years, I’ve read or perused hundreds of books on recording and mixing. Some of them were very technical, which can be useful, and others were very formulaic in their approach. I’ve also gone through periods of researching how certain albums were recorded, different techniques and read tons of information on how to get certain “sounds”. At a certain point I realized that, while this stuff is interesting, it doesn’t really help you mix. In almost every book or article there’s a point where the author admits “none of this information matters, as long as things sound good”. This is the number one rule I try to follow. For me, Zen and the Art of Mixing picks up at that point and goes further into how to approach all the different aspects of mixing. It’s not so much “this is how you mix”, it’s more about “this is how you approach mixing”, if that makes any sense. The info in the book is useful for any style of music, instrumentation, recording format or individual personality.

I also like Mixerman‘s approach to the business in general. I never once felt like he was trying to sell me on certain gear or specific way of doing things. Sure, he goes into detail about how he does things or what kind of gear he uses, but he always backs it up with explanations as to why he does it that way or why he uses that gear. All of these decisions are to enhance the music, not to look cool with the latest or most expensive vintage of gear.

My biggest takeaway from the book was how to let the production, the arrangement and instrumentation dictate how a song should be mixed. When I’ve succeeded in throwing out my preconceptions in the past, I’ve been much happier with my mixes.

I’ll be ordering Mixerman’s Zen and the Art of Producing next, but for now, I’m psyched to get on with some mixing.

Crunksters 2013

I recently finished up this track called Crunksters 2013. This was a collaboration between my wife Jackie and I and our neighbor J. Sizzle. J. Sizzle is had stopped by one night a few weeks ago and we were talking about working on a hip-hop track together. He mentioned that he had always wanted to use the Munsters theme song as a sample in something. We adjourned to the studio and kicked it out. Crunksters 2013 is the result. Enjoy!

 

K.I.S.S. Lesson 1: Monster jungle-gym drum rack cage

I’ve been reading The Daily Adventures of Mixerman, which a friend of mine gave me as a birthday gift a couple years back. I’ll probably post further about this book later, but it got me remembering some of the crazy studio shenanigans I’ve dealt with in the past.

When I was studying audio engineering in college, one of my classmates asked for a couple people to assist with a recording session he had booked for the weekend. The band that was coming in were friends of his so he offered to record them for free for some practice. If I remember correctly, the band was described as a classic rock/prog-rock three piece. I was anxious to get more time in the studio so I volunteered to assist along with another fellow classmate. I planned on being there the whole session, while the other classmate was going to come in around noon. I expected I’d be running cables, placing mics, baffles, etc.

I rolled into the studio the next morning and met up with the fella who was going to be engineering that day. The band was just arriving, so I started pulling cables and mics out and helping get stuff ready in the control room. I got as much stuff as I could setup and decided to hang out and shoot the shit with other folks in the control room while the band continued setting up. After about 20-30 minutes I decided to see how the band was coming along setting up their gear. I glanced through the window on my way into the room and witnessed the drummer constructing what appeared to be kids jungle-gym in the middle of the recording room. I went in to investigate further and started chatting with the drummer while marvelling at the monstrosity. He informed me that he had so many drums that this giant drum rack cage was the only way he could mount them all. I asked him if he ever set this thing up for live shows. He said that he did indeed, but that several venues had asked him to never bring it again and he had been forced to use the conventional, antiquated cymbal and tom stands. In hindsight, I’m sure the clubs he brought this drum cage to probably never booked them again. The damn thing itself was bigger than some stages I’ve played on.

This isn't the actual drum cage, but this is pretty close to what it looked like

This isn’t the actual drum cage, but this is pretty close to what it looked like, only this one is much smaller.

After watching him tinker with building this thing for about an hour, I made the suggestion to the drummer that he possibly only set up the drums that were required for the 2-3 songs they were going to track. He took great offence to this suggestion. I have to assume I’m not the first person to ask him this, since he had a well prepared spiel he went into about how he uses every single piece of equipment that he sets up and that they all must be at his disposal so he can fully express his musical vision. I later asked the lead engineer whether he thought it was a good idea to have the drummer set everything up or just the essentials. Judging by his response I could tell he had been subjected to the same spiel I heard. Apparently, the drummer was the new guy in the band and the lead engineer didn’t know him all that well, but was aware of his insistence on setting up the entire “kitchen sink” before the session started. At this point, the drummer had constructed the cage but only had a two kick drums in the middle of it. I looked over the rest of his drum cases and boxes of percussion and knew we were in for a long day. I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat and watched as this guy set up 4 toms, 2 floor toms, 2 kicks, 2 snares, too many cymbals to count, various cowbells, woodblocks, windchimes, roto-toms, congas, and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t even identify. I was actually surprised that the guy didn’t hang a gong behind him in the cage, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he had one at home. I imagine that he struggled getting it into the van and had to leave it behind.

I had no idea how we were going to mic this thing up. First of all, the school didn’t have a huge quantity of mics. Secondly, the drums were crammed in there so tightly, I wasn’t seeing much space for getting the mics on the drums. I suggested to the lead engineer that we just get a couple close mics on kick and snare and then try our best to get a good stereo mic setup for the rest. I made the mistake of suggesting this in front of the drummer. He was furious at this suggestion. He wanted all of the toms miked and close mics on everything we possibly could. I was just the assistant, so I left it up to the lead engineer to decide how to approach this. We ended up miking up as much as we could with every microphone that we could scrounge. This was going to be a phase cancellation nightmare.

After 3 hours of drum setup and mic placement, the lead engineer and I retired to the booth to have a listen. The lead engineer instructed the drummer to warm up and play as he was going to play on the recording so we could adjust mics and get levels. The drummer started going to town striking every piece of kit with serious fury. The guy was pounding the crap out of everything. As I suspected, there were tons of phase issues with the numerous mics being in such close proximity. I made the suggestion that we focus on kick and snare and get a good stereo overhead placement. Then we could either…

  1.  Pull all the other mics out and get them out of the way.
  2.  Leave the mics, but only track the overheads, kick and snare
  3. Track everything, but make sure we have a good stereo overhead track in case we need it.

We ended up leaving the all the mics and doing a stereo submix for all the extraneous percussion.

While the drummer was warming up we were rolling tape to hear how it sounded. We then started to hear something odd in the booth. There was a strange resonant tone that was constantly ringing while the drummer played. We had him stop and played back the practice recording. Sure enough, the freaking drum cage was vibrating creating this loud resonant hum. The fact that we had a million mics on the kit only served to amplify the tone. We called the drummer into the booth and had him take a listen. He didn’t seem to care about it. He, of course, asked if that was something we could fix in the mixing. No. We again asked if he could just set up some conventional drum stands and only setup the kit that he needed for a particular song. He flat-out refused. He said that he didn’t spend 3 hours setting up and tuning up his kit for nothing. We tried pulling out the extraneous mics, which helped some, but the hum was still there. We then moved the mics around a bit to see if we could minimize the ringing. Again, it helped a bit, but we then ended up with mics that weren’t ideally placed to capture the best sound. We then set about the task of duct taping towels, clothes, cardboard, moving blanket and foam to the cage in an attempt to deaden the ringing. It helped, but it was still audible on tape. By this time, we were 5 hours into the session and we hadn’t even started working on guitar and bass.

The lead engineer decided to go with the set up we had, hoping he could use a notch filter to minimize the ringing during mix-down. The other assistant engineer showed up around this point. He took one look at the drummer’s cage and burst out laughing. He wouldn’t have thought it so funny if he had spent all morning dealing with this jerk and his drum kit. Luckily the guitarist and bassist had pretty minimal equipment and had it all set up and ready to go. We threw up the mics and were ready to start tracking finally. We settled in the booth and told them to do a practice take of the first song they were going to track. They started up and the drum sound was practically inaudible. I looked out the window to see what the drummer was doing and sure enough he was playing, only he wasn’t wailing on the drums like he had been during set up. The guy was gingerly tapping the hi-hat, snare and kick, throwing in a cymbal hit here and there. He barely hit the toms and didn’t even touch 90% of the gear mounted on his cage. At this point, I had had it. These guys were recording for free, I wasn’t getting paid, nobody valued my input and the lead engineer was letting the drummer run the session. The drum mics were going to have to be repositioned yet again due to the soft touch he used on the drums when he’s ACTUALLY playing them and not just beating the crap out of them. I threw up my hands and said to the other assistant “You are now the first assistant on this session. I give up” and left the building. I heard that they spent most of the rest of the day trying to get a good drum sound and were there most of the night tracking the 2-3 songs. Apparently the drummer’s attitude impeded progress almost every step of the way in the recording process.

This was my first practical lesson on K.I.S.S. in the studio. KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID! I’ve found this to be the best approach during tracking, mixing, editing, etc. I’ve spent an hour trying to mix a guitar part and not being able to get it to sit right, only to retrack the song in 5 minutes with the sound dialed in properly and the mic placed right. Making due with the least amount of gear or complication possible is the best approach.

ULGM – “Con Las Barbas” release

The project that monopolized much of my free studio time for the past year has finally been completed and released. “Con Las Barbas” is now available on Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify, with other digital outlets to follow. Check it out and let me know what you think and, if you feel so inclined, purchase a copy to help us recoup some of the costs of distributing the album. I’ve mentioned this recording project in past posts, but thought I’d do a retrospective summary of recording of the album. I’ve described the recording process for the prior ULGM EP and wanted to document the process for “Con Las Barbas”… Continue reading

“In the Thicke of It”

I’ve always been a big fan of TV theme songs. When I was in high school, my friends and I started a band called The Grumpers that recorded nothing but TV themes, commercials and video game songs. A couple summers ago I started recording a solo album of only TV themes. I never finished it, but may some day.

On the drive to work this morning, I thought about how fun it would be to put out a 7 inch record called “In the Thicke of It” featuring two songs written by Alan Thicke. Most people may recognize him as the laid-back, feathered-hair father from the 80s TV show “Growing Pains”, but you may not know that he’s also a composer and wrote several television theme songs. Two of my favorites in fact, “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Facts of Life”. In fact, I have already recorded most of the tracks for a Diff’rent Strokes cover. I could sing that one and have Jackie sing “Facts of Life”. It would be sweet to press a limited 7″ to sell at shows. Maybe this is corny, but I think it’s rad. Would anybody actually buy this?

Current project update

Over the summer I’ve finished production on the forthcoming ULGM album, “Con Las Barbas”. We’re currently waiting on the licensing approval for the two cover songs on the album, Gaffa (Suspended in Gaffa, by Kate Bush) and Cupid (Sam Cooke). This is the first time I’ve dealt with licensing for cover recordings, and I’ve learned a lot about the process. This is a good thing as The Little Black Bottles are working on an EP of cover songs and the knowledge will be useful.

The tracklist for “Con Las Barbas” is as follows:

  1. The Way
  2. Dragon_Age
  3. Cucaracha
  4. Gaffa
  5. Captain_Pepe
  6. Freedom_Archipelago
  7. Old_Politician
  8. Cupid

Tracks 1, 6 and 7 are re-recorded versions of the tracks from the original ULGM EP. We wanted to document how the songs evolved from the original recordings. Track 4, as mentioned above, is a cover of Kate Bush‘s “Suspended in Gaffa” and track 8 is a cover of Sam Cooke‘s “Cupid”. Track 3, Cucaracha, is a version of the traditional Mexican song and is entirely in Spanish. Tracks 2 (Dragon Age) and 5 (Captain Pepe) are some of the newer tracks we were working on before calling it quits. I believe Dragon Age is about the video game of the same name. Captain Pepe is about Captain Pepe.

For this album, I tried my hand at mastering myself, mostly due to lack of any funds for this project. I think it turned out OK for my first attempt at mastering an album. There are things that still stand out as issues but, honestly, I’m too burnt out to do much more work on this project. I’m ready to move on.

And so I shall. Jackie and I are working on recording a couple of Little Black Bottles albums. As I mentioned above, we’ve laid down some scratch tracks and started overdubs for our EP of cover songs. This will provide a fun break and good segue into working on our forthcoming full length album (which we’ve started tracking as well). I’ll hold off on a track list for the EP since I’m not sure which licenses will get approved at this point. I did spend some time recording myself digging a hole in the front yard, which will provide the rhythm track for one of the songs. For the EP, I’m shooting for a bit of a more organic, stripped down feel. I really want to focus on getting quality tracks from the start to work with, since most of my previous tracking sessions have been rushed or recorded under less-than-ideal conditions. For the LP, we’ll probably be incorporating more electronic sounds. Since we now use backing tracks, we’re going to embrace the technology and make the coolest stuff we can with whatever tools fit the bill.

Early stages of acoustic treatment, before covering the panels.

I’m really looking forward to tracking the new stuff. Since the last album I recorded, I’ve done some acoustic treatment to the mixing end of the home studio, which helps tons. I’ve also constructed some sweet TNT Stubby stands for my monitor, which also had a significant positive effect on my listening environment. I’ve also added Presonus Eureka mic preamp to my arsenal. I’ve had a chance do a few electric guitar tracks through it and I’m very happy so far. I’m excited to get it on some vocals and acoustic instruments soon. I also purchased and Electro-Harmonix Voice Box. Jackie and I spent a couple hours playing around with it and it’s a great tool with lots of awesome potential. I also picked up one of these sweet melodicas that I’m going to incorporate into a few songs.

I have a few potential projects on the horizon as well, recording some friends musical endeavours. My friend Jillian has been working on some songs she’s written that should be a lot of fun. She’s got a really unique, soulful voice that will be a great test for the Eureka preamp. My longtime musical co-conspirator and honorary LBB member, Eric Petterson also has a new band that have been working on some songs. I stopped by and checked out one of their practices recently and really dig the sound. Eric’s a great musician and songwriter, and an adept engineer in his own right. I’m looking forward to collaborating with him again and handling the mics and knobs. Creamcity Cowpokes are also working on some material, which will be fun to record some time in the future. My buddies from my previous band Caril in CO have also started playing again, which is great news. We’ve discussed doing some recording off in the future at some point. I’d love to haul some gear down there for a week next spring to do some tracking. It would be sweet if they could trek up to the NW, but that may be more logistically difficult. I don’t have anything booked in stone yet, so I’m going to just keep plugging away on the LBB recordings. I’m really excited to be playing and recording music right now. I’m always looking for some new interesting projects to work on, so if you or anybody you know is looking for some cheap recording, mixing, etc., send em my way!

LBB History – Recording the Werewolf of Moncton EP

The Werewolf of Moncton EP kind started out before we even had decided to start The Little Black Bottles. The EP could be seen as three different recordings:

LBB at an early Halloween show

Jackie had been playing ukulele for a couple of years and had written a handful of songs that she wanted to record. I had just started getting back into home recording after a couple years and it was the perfect opportunity to work on my engineering chops. She started playing me the songs and I was seriously impressed with the songs and how quickly she picked up the uke and started writing.

My buddies and ex-Caril-bandmates Jason and Kirk had started a game development company called Plastic Games. They were working on a prototype for a zombie themed survival game at the time. While visiting in Colorado, Jackie had played Zombie Romance for them on her uke and they loved it. When we got back to Seattle they asked if we would record a quick version of it that they could use for a demo video of the game. They wanted it pretty quickly so we went into the studio and quickly busted out a recording. I laid down a scratch midi-percussion track for Jackie to play along with and just laid down the uke and vocal tracks. I also laid down some guitar, some theremin-esque keys and some zombie growls for good measure. In one night it was done:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=db28Y0CGkbI]

Unfortunately, the game wasn’t funded and never finished. We shared the recording with our friends and people seemed to dig it. Our friend Shelley from the band The Heels asked Jackie to play a show with them at the Monkey Pub in Seattle. There was no band at the time, but we decided to officially start a band and hence the birth of LBB. We followed the same formula for recording Unlucky in Love and uploaded both songs to our MySpace page. Both songs were recorded entirely with an SM57 on everything through my newly acquired Presonus Firepod interface.

Around the same time we started recording Jimmy the Hideous Penguin Boy. I had the idea of recording Jackie’s uke and vocals, then laying down lots of soft synths and midi instruments to flesh it out into a circus-band kinda feel. I did play some Variax-banjo on it, but the rest is all midi and soft-synths. It was an experiment, but I think it turned out great. We brought in our buddy Bret to recite the barker monologue which turned out sounding rad.

The show with The Heels resulted in another show at the Monkey Pub a month or so later. My old friend Jamie Thompson came to the show and we reminisced about the old days of playing music together in The Calculus Affair. Jamie said he was hearing bass lines in his head while we were playing and asked if we’d be interested in him playing bass with us. Jamie is a talented musician and a kick-ass drummer, so we got together and started playing. Jamie came up with some great melodic bass lines and we continued playing acoustic sets with Jamie on bass.

Joy in Sundae Funnies

At this point, we had most of the songs for Let Them Eat Red Velvet Cake written and were performing them. We started laying down tracks for the rest of our songs with Jackie and I tracking our parts to a click track and Jamie laying bass over top. We had scratch tracks for most of the songs and I started to go in and program drum parts. Once Jamie heard the drums I was programming at practice, he said he might be interested in switching over to drums if we could find a bassist. We agreed this would be cool and started tossing around names of people who could step in on bass. 30 minutes after leaving practice, Jamie called me and told me he had found our bassist. Jamie’s mother, Joy Wood, was something of a local rock star. Back in 1966-1970 she played bass and sang in the band Sundae Funnies. I had seen some old Super-8 footage of Joy rockin’ out back in the day and I was sold. We invited Joy to our next show at Cafe Racer and asked if she’d like to get up on stage and play some percussion during our set. I would have been nervous in that situation but Joy got up and played some tambourine and we had a good ol’ time. Joy jumped into practices on bass and got up to speed quickly and Jamie took his seat behind the drums.

The Little Black Bottles circa. 2010

We already had a bunch of scratch tracks recorded for most of the songs, but wanted to scrap them and start over with the new lineup. We were itching to release something, so we decided to release the existing three songs and a couple new ones until we could record Let Them Eat Red Velvet Cake. We took the scratch tracks for Ginger Snaps and re-tracked everything. For Devil Takes a Girl, I plopped a live recording of the song from a show into Ableton and warped it to tempo, then retracked over that. I was seriously impressed with Jamie’s ability to jump in and play with a click track. This isn’t an easy skill to master, but Jamie pulled it off having never done it before.

By this time, I had acquired a compressor, a tube mic preamp, and a PPA LD-1 condenser mic. This improved the quality quite a bit. The previous tunes had all been recorded in Sonar, which I found to be sufficient, but the interface at the time seemed unintuitive and I had difficulty getting my MIDI controllers to work properly with it. I had switched over to Ableton when recording the ULGM EP and imported all the existing tunes into Ableton and did the remainder of the work there. This sped up production quite a bit as it worked immediately with my midi control surface and controllers and the session view made quick work of outlining the song structures. For Devil and Ginger Snaps, we ended up micing the drums using a method similar to the 2 mic Recorderman setup, but we added some mics. We basically had one condenser mic directly in front of Jamie’s head pointed straight down, one condenser over his left shoulder, and a dynamic on the top snare and kick. This worked out OK. We didn’t get a huge stereo image but it was acceptable. We did have some issues with the snare sound since we only miced the top of the snare. I ended up using the gated snare track to fire another snare sample which I blended in on Ginger Snaps to thicken things up. These two songs were a bit of a departure for me as I normally played acoustic at our shows and I tracked mainly electric guitars. Live I ended up just playing my acoustic through a Rat pedal which actually sounded pretty awesome.

Once the tracks were mixed, we then had Mike Bruce at Auricle Mastering do his magic, which helped punch things up and bring out more presence. I intended to write a brief summary here, but got a bit long winded. Most of these details probably aren’t of much interest to most people, but it might give some good insight into making the best of the equipment you have on-hand. I think we ended up with a darn good album.

Next up: The Recording of Let Them Eat Red Velvet Cake

Unknown Stuntman (Fall Guy Theme Song)

Here’s a little something I came across today. A couple summers back I started working on some covers of TV theme songs. The first song I tracked was Unknown Stuntman, or the Fall Guy theme song. Lee Majors actually sung the theme song. I always loved how laid back and nonchalant he sounded in the song. Here’s my take on it. I never did mix the song, so what you hear here is the rough tracks.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/49695555″ params=”auto_play=false&show_artwork=false&color=000000″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Mixing poorly tracked drums

I’ve been plugging away on and off for a few months mixing the latest ULGM tracks. The way we went about recording this was kind of an experiment that I won’t repeat if I can help it. We basically decided to mic up all of our instruments in our practice space and track all of our weekly practices for two months. We also decided not to play to a click track (against my better judgement). The idea was to capture some of that magic that occurs during jam sessions which might not happen doing overdubs. We knew we would be sacrificing some quality, but thought it worthwhile for the benefit of getting some of that magic. We definitely did get some magic recorded which will make it into the final mixes, but I don’t think it was worth the trade off. We also ended up with hours and hours of half-assed takes to weed through to find usable tracks. This was difficult since we would have some tracks where one instrument was slightly out of tune or the there was a drum flub. If we had played to a click we could have mix and matched a bit to get a good take. Since we didn’t we ended up having to go through and pick out the tracks that had the best drum take and then overdub as necessary.

ULGM rockin it live

Before each practice we would go through and reposition the drum mics and do a quick sound check, but we still didn’t get optimal tracks. We were using a Digital Reference DR-DRM7 Drum Mic Pack on most of the drums and an SM57 on the snare. We were tight for space and mics so we only miked the top of the snare. I would have preferred a better kick mic, but I had used the one from the Digital Reference pack before and gotten decent results. We close miked the three toms & kick and did an X-Y configuration with the overhead condensers to try to eliminate phasing.

A couple months later I started digging into the tracks and here are some of the problems I found. Note that these aren’t a fault of the drummer or anything just a fact of life for the way we decided to record.

  • The snare was definitely missing that “snap” to it due to no bottom mic. It sounded like a super punchy tom.
  • There was at least one track where a tom mic must have been touching the head. There was a constant buzzing from the head vibrating and it was hugely distorted when the tom was hit.
  • There were a few spots where either a drum stick was dropped or a fill was flubbed.
  • No room ambiance. This was due to the fact that we were trying to minimize bleed from other instruments/vocals.

Of course, the best method for dealing with these issues is to not have them in the first place. One of the first things anybody learns as an audio engineer is to get the sound you want while tracking or to record your tracks as if they aren’t going to go through any mixing stage. So, here’s how I dealt with some of these issues.

Compensating for the lack of bottom snare mic
I tried my best to compress and EQ the top snare mic to get as much snap out of it as I could, but it still didn’t sound natural or stand out in the mix enough. I was going to leave it as it was until I heard something Alan Parsons said in his Art & Science of Sound Recording. I don’t remember the exact words but what I took away was that the focal point of any pop mix is going to be the vocals and the snare. Listening again to the mixes, the snare was seriously lacking. To make up for this I decided that I would try to create a track for the bottom snare mic that didn’t exist. I had some tracks from a previous recording of Kevin’s drums that did include a bottom snare mic. After listening to the track, I found that the bottom snare hits were pretty uniform in velocity and sound. I found one hit that sounded the best and used this as my sample. I then fed the output of the snare track into a new track and used a drum trigger/drum retracking plugin to fire off the bottom snare hit. There are bunch of different drum replacement plugins out there such as Drumagog, Replacer, KTDrumTrigger, and Trigga2.   I was skeptical about how well this would work, but as I turned up the fader I found that this was exactly what was missing. I didn’t even have to blend too much of it in with the top snare track to make a huge difference. I then recorded the track and applied some compression and EQ as I normally would for a bottom snare. Some of the fills didn’t track very well but it still sounds way better than it did.

Microphone making contact with tom drum head
There’s not much you can do with this. I considered just junking the track and hoping that the overheads would pick up enough of the tom to sound OK. I did end up using the track though. The first thing I did was to edit out everywhere the tom wasn’t playing (which I do on most tom tracks anyway). Then I EQ-ed most of the high end off of the tom to try to get rid of the buzzing and distortion and cranked some of the low end to get the boom of the tom. This worked OK as the overheads picked up the attack of the toms with the messed up tom track providing the boom. This wouldn’t work on a snare or kick very well.

Fixing stick drops or drum fill flubs
This was pretty straight forward. If we had played to a click, I could have just found another bar where there was no mistake, copy & paste and call it good. Since we didn’t use a click it was a bit more difficult since the first verse may not be the same tempo as the third verse. With a bit of creative editing and Ableton’s awesome warp engine I was able to overcome this with reasonable success. There were also a couple of drum fills that I had to creatively rebuild that turned out great.

Lack of room ambiance on drum tracks
This is fairly common in home studios, especially if you’re trying to isolate the drums from other instruments. I think the key here, depending on the style of music and the song, is to use your overheads as your primary drum tracks and use the close mics to add the color of the individual drums. I also then would put some additional reverb on the drum bus of the overheads or the entire drum submix depending on what sounded best. We did end up with some scratch vocals in the drum overheads, but you can’t hear then much anyway once the lead vocal track is brought up.

After all of this, the drums still didn’t have that “in your face”-edness or punch that I had hoped for. I then applied some parallel or NYC compression to the drum submix and this really helped punch it up. The basic idea is to run the drum submix to another channel, compress the hell out of it and blend it in with the original drums. Ben Vesco has a great article on his site that explains this in more detail and gives some good recipes for starting points.
Update: 06/13/2012 – I just saw that the awesome AfroDJMac has posted an NYC compression rack in his awesome free Ableton downloads. I haven’t had a chance to try it out, but his other racks are awesome so I suspect this will rock as well.

When I first listened to the tracks for this album, I was almost prepared to do a quick “live” mix and call it done. After applying the techniques above I think I ended up with some usable sounds that will greatly improve the final mixes. The nature of ULGM is very live, loose and experimental and I think we’ll end up with a recording that sounds good and reflects those qualities.