Mixing

Finally, we have reached the fun part. Mixing.

To discuss the technicalities of a specific mix on a platform such as this seems like a ridiculous idea to me. You can’t hear what I’m hearing, so even if I list off a bunch of settings you will never know why I did what I did. For this reason, I am going to avoid the specifics of mixing these two songs (sorry). Instead, I am going to discuss my thoughts and aims when approaching each mix, and I’ll say if I achieved th sound in my head or if I had to compromise for some reason.

Stranger:

When I sat down to mix Stranger I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted the track to sound like. It is clearly the more pop sounding of the two, so that played a role in my thinking, but most importantly it has an awesome groove which I was determined to emphasise.

I started with the drums. Building the sound of the drumkit with the pop sound in mind, but trying to be interesting and true to the bands more prevalent sound of Blue/Rock. Next, I moved onto Bass. The bass was very important because it was one of the main components of the groove that I mentioned before. I tried to make sure that it sounded full and consistent but still cut through the mix enough to be heard as its own element. Next, I started to work on the Guitars. I wanted the guitars to be super consistent in the track, so even though they were already distorted and therefore pretty compressed, I compressed them a bunch more, and it worked. Once I had all the instruments nice and solid and sounding good I went to work on the vocal. I made sure that it was clear and present as any good pop vocal should be, but that it still had the signs of the Rock side of the band.

When I had finished the mix, I still felt as though some of the transitions from verse to chorus were slightly lacking. To solve this I automated the fader on my Master Buss to turn up by 1dB during the choruses, giving the little extra energy lift that was needed to bring the mix together.

The Victor:

The Victor is a hard hitting full and aggressive Rock song. I knew as I started the mix that this had to be the goal. I started with the drums, going the extra mile to make sure that they hit super hard and consistently. I knew if I got these right then I’d have a good base to build the rest of the track off. If you ask me, I nailed it. The turning point for the drums was putting a tape emulation on the drum buss, which saturated the transients and made them sound full and fat. Then I moved onto the bass, which I knew also needed to sound huge, to keep up with the drums. I achieved this by using parallel distortion to make the bass sit up in the mix, without overpowering the guitars. Next, I came to guitars. In this track, the guitars didn’t actually need much work, so I spent a lot of time deciding on the level that they should be at so they sounded full but didn’t overpower the drums. Again, once the instruments were done I moved onto the vocal. The vocal sounded great, just overly dynamic. I worked pretty hard to get it to sit well in a mix that was already so full and loud. In the end, I got it to sit really nicely.

Overall the mixing of these two songs was a huge amount of fun. I think this is mostly due to the fact that I put a lot of effort into the tracks at the recording, editing and production phases so that by the time I mixed, I had already done the hard yards and could focus on being creative.

The songs should be coming out in late June 2017, so keep a look out for them.

If you have followed along with this series then thank you so much for doing so, it’s been a lot of fun. If you’re just joining now then I encourage you to go back and check out some of the other content.

As always, if you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

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Production

The Production phase, as I understand it, is the time between editing and mixing, although it will often blend into both the former and the latter. This is the time to take a step back from the song and ask yourself “is the song really ready to mix? Is it the best version of itself?” Often, in the context of modern contemporary music, the answer will be no, and this is the time to change that. Sometimes it will be as simple as adding a shaker or a tambourine to a chorus to give it a lift. However, sometimes you will need to do more overdubs of vocals and guitars perhaps, possibly layered with a load of synth tracks. How far you go during the production stage is really up to the producer.

On the two tracks that we did I didn’t do a huge amount of additional production once tracking was done, but I made sure that what I did counted and drastically improved the tracks.

When I came to the end of editing stranger I found that the choruses were lacking something, something important. I had always planned to put a tambourine loop in the choruses so I did that, but it wasn’t the whole solution. A friend and I started playing around with additional instrumentation to fill the gap. Eventually, we settled on adding a small brass section in the choruses, between vocal lines. This worked wonders for the song and took it from feeling a bit “meh” to vibey and interesting.

The Victor felt a bit more complete when it came to the end of editing. Again I put in the tambourine, this time playing around with changing from mono to stereo at different sections to create a bit more dynamics.

In addition to this, I did two more things which can be described more like the seasoning on the meal rather than a key element, but I thought that they lifted the track to a new level. The first thing I did was to create a cliche reversed vocal reverb. This is done by first reversing a duplicate vocal, then putting a reverb on it and printing that track. You then take this and reverse it back again. This creates the effect of a reverse reverb sweeping up to the next word. I then chose certain words and phrases that I wanted this effect on and deleted the rest.

The last thing I did was I went back to the tracking session and found the place where we had recorded drum one-shots (single hits of each drum and cymbal) and imported them into the production session. I then cut up a bunch of the one-shot cymbal hits and placed them at places where I thought the drums needed more impact. I mixed these cymbals louder than the rest of the cymbals in the track so that they would act as moments of excitement. I also took some of the cymbals and reversed them to create building sweeps which help transition from section to section.

Overall, the production I did on the two songs was not overly drastic, but it made an impact where it counted.

Thanks for taking the time to follow this series.

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

Tracking #4: Vocals

Last of the primary tracking items on this record was Vocals.

From an engineers perspective, tracking Vocals is both simple and challenging. It’s one mic positioned in front of the singers face, easy right? Well, not exactly. Vocals are by far the most scrutinised element of a song by the average public listener, and so careful attention should be taken to choose the correct mic for the singer’s voice, and then to make sure that the performance is enthralling and emotional.

This being said I had a limited mic selection and my experience coaching singers through sessions is not the most extensive. Lucky for me, The mic that I tried first, the NT2000, was perfect for Talia’s voice. Bright enough to compete in the tracks without much EQ at all, and not overly S-ey (A common problem when you put a bright mic in front of a singer with a bright voice).

When it came to coaching Talia through the session and making the most of her powerful voice I got outside help. I asked my friend Arno Terblanche to take the lead on the “Vocal Production” of the session while I focused on the recording, tone and the general running of ProTools.

Contrary to what I said in the previous post, I actually used a slightly different setup for tracking vocals. I replaced my interface with Arno’s Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 because it has a USB 3 connection and so it can run with lower latency.

We set up a makeshift vocal booth in the room we were using by standing two mattresses in a corner and placing the mic between them. This helped control the sound of the room (which is very live) and meant that we got a nice dry vocal sound which I was very happy with.

With Arno’s help, Talia’s performance was top notch, totally doing justice to her well-written songs.

We decided not to do any harmonies or doubles, so as to allow her voice to stand tall and strong in the tracks.

Overall I was very happy with how the vocal tracking went and (perhaps for better or for worse) there was no significant mistake that I had to learn from on this session.

Thanks for taking the time to follow this series.

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

Tracking #3: Guitars

Next on the long list of things that need to be done to finish a project was tracking guitar.

As before, and as with all the other posts in this series, my setup available for this is the same as described in my post “And then Began the Tracking: Drums”.

If you have read my post introducing the band, then you will know that they have only one guitarist. Because of this, their arrangements didn’t have lead guitar parts already written, and for the most part, the band wanted to keep to a fairly accurate expression of their music (i.e. they didn’t want to layer tonnes of guitars and lead guitars on the record.

We used a different amp on each song, to give them each a unique tone.

The first song we tracked was The Victor. On this, we used my brother’s small 7-watt tube amp made by Fender (although the Fender label is not anywhere on the amp) with a couple of pedals. We tried the Boss Blues Driver and the Ibanez Tube Screamer. In all honesty, I can’t remember which one we ended up going with on the track, but I know for sure that it wasn’t both.

When it came to mic’ing up the amp, I used the Shure sm57 as the primary mic, close to the centre of the cone but slightly turned away to prevent it from being overly bright. In addition to this, I placed the NT2000 LDC right up against the grill, in front of the edge of the cone, to capture a more dull sound with an emphasis on the lower midrange and lows.

Of course, I also took the dry DI signal. This not only serves as a backup for changing the amp tone later but is also a great help for editing distorted guitars which don’t have many distinct transients.

The second song we tracked was Stranger. On this, we used Ryan’s amp and pedals that he uses for gigging. He uses a Boss digital effects pedal, and when he loaded up his “Stranger preset” it sounded pretty good to me in the room. I mic’ed up the amp in pretty much the same way as my brother’s amp and away we went. Unfortunately, I later decided that the tone that we had captured was not the best tone for the song and I ended up using a virtual amp from the Waves GTR3 collection to craft the final tone (thank you DI signal). This was a good lesson to make sure to capture the right tone on recording day, and to be very deliberate about the tone you choose.

As far as performance goes, Ryan was the weakest of the group. This being said he didn’t do a terrible job. He knew his parts well and was determined to play them as close to perfect as possible. We spent about 5-6 hours on guitars in all, and after some helpful editing, the guitars sounded pretty good on the track.

Thanks again for taking the time to follow this series.

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

Tracking #2: Bass

After drums, the next thing we tracked was Bass Guitar.

I used the same setup described in my previous post “And then Began the Tracking: Drums” in terms of interface and software, and I had the same options in terms of mics.

The first thing that I reach for when I track bass is always a DI Box. I know that if I have the clean DI signal then I can experiment with mic placement and amp choice, because if the worst comes to the worst, then I can always re-amp. With that being said, here is how I mic’ed up the bass amp on this occasion.

First I used the Audix D6 in front of the cone, around 6cm back from the grill. The goal with this mic was to capture a nice full low end from the amp that may be lacking in the DI signal.

Next, I placed a Shure SM57 in front of the cone next to the D6. This was very much an experiment since I had the mic right there. Unfortunately, it didn’t sound particularly great, and after trying three different positions I just left it where it was and didn’t end up using it in the mix.

The last mic that I used was my Røde NT2000 large diaphragm condenser, I think it was in Cardioid (mostly because that’s what it was in from drums and no other particular reason). I placed this quite far back from the amp (about 1.5m) to get just a little hint of room in the bass sound. This also had the added effect of picking up the sound of the bass player playing in the room, which I thought was kind of interesting.

When it came to performance the bass player, Liam, did a fairly good job. For the most part, he knew his parts and played in time. There was just one thing that happened which I want to make a point of, because I think it’s a lesson well learned. There was one part in the one song where the band had changed one of the chords in the week leading up to recording day. Liam didn’t remember this when we were tracking, and I didn’t know about it. When we came to record guitars the guitarist spotted the issue and I had to do some on the fly editing to get the parts right to continue tracking guitar. The lesson I learned from this is to always have the guitarist at least somewhat present in the bass session, especially if you get the feeling that the bass player might be missing something important.

Thanks for taking the time to follow this series.

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

And Then Began the Tracking: Drums

Tracking for the Wax Lyrical record was done over two days at my home studio. (If you want to learn a bit about the band and about the pre-production that we did leading up to the tracking phase, then take a look at my previous post “Introducing Wax Lyrical”.)

As I said in my previous post, we chose to do the tracking at my home studio rather than at my College’s studios for two main reasons. The first is that at my college I am limited to booking sessions of only three hours, and only one session a week. This would mean that we would have to break up the session into multiple parts and work under constant time pressure. At my home studio, however, we would be able to work at a pace that suited the creative flow and enjoyment of the session, and we could get all of the tracking done in one weekend, as we ended up doing. The second reason is more workflow related. The setup I have at home is fairly simple (A MacBook Pro, and a Roland Studio Capture interface with twelve mic preamps). This means that there are fewer links in the signal chain that may require checking during troubleshooting, and I know the links that there very well because I’ve used this setup extensively and I set it up myself every time. At my college on the other hand, although it has world class studios with amazing consoles, outboard gear, mic preamps and microphones, I do not know the setups very well at all. This is simply because I have not spent an enormous amount of time troubleshooting in the studios there and the setups are far more complex than mine at home. In addition, the rooms are in constant use by other students, and so you can never be sure what someone else has changed with regards to signal routeing or software settings. This can lead to spending two hours of a three-hour session trying to get a signal in and out of ProTools in order to record.

***

Now to the tracking itself.

We chose to track drums first. This was for a few reasons. The first is mostly a matter of taste for me, I like the process of recording drums, and I like to get that hurdle out of the way early on, as it is often the most difficult part of a record, in my experience. Before we could start tracking, however, we needed scratch tracks for the drummer to reference while playing. (Scratch tracks are recordings of key elements of a song, such as vocals and guitar, that are recorded in a very rough manner with the primary focus of good timing so that the musician tracking can reference them to know where they are in the song. These are generally replaced later by the final recordings that focus on sound and performance.) If you have good demos then you can use these as scratch tracks for the drummer, but in our case, we had made some changes to the arrangements since the demos, and so the scratch tracks had to be done again. We did just guitar and vocals as our scratch tracks.

Conversations that audio engineers have about recording sessions generally go something like this, in my experience: “Hey, how did that session go last week?” “It went really well thanks.” “That’s great! What interesting gear/technique did you use?” “Well …” Considering that I think of myself primarily as an engineer, even though I was also the producer on this project, I will spend much of the rest of this post discussing the setup I used, although I will touch on performance briefly near the end.

Let me start by saying this; the setup that I have at my home studio is not super advanced or especially expensive. Every mic that I own was used on this drum recording, and that is because when I started recording I simply bought the minimum gear I needed to record my drums at home. Since then that has always been enough. You do not need expensive gear to get good results!

My setup starts with a 2015 Macbook Pro 15” which has 16Gb of ram and a 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7. On this, I am running OSX 10.11.6 El Capitan with ProTools 12.7.0. This connects via USB to my Roland Studio Capture audio interface, which has 12 mic preamps and 4 line inputs. The drum-kit we used for recording is my personal one, which is the pdp X7 with just the 10” and 12” rack toms and the 16” floor tom setup, with a Black Panther Snare “The Phat Bob” replacing the standard snare. With these went mostly Zildjian Cymbals including an 18” china cymbal. (If you’re a drummer and would like more details on the kit then I would be happy to expand the description in the comments.)

The mics I used are all in the “Affordable” category, but they probably won’t be surprising. On the kick drum, I used an Audix D6 positioned inside the hole in the resonant head, positioned close to the shell of the drum, pointing towards the point where the batter head meets the shell. (If you don’t know anything about drums or drum heads a quick google search would be advisable, however, in short, the batter head is the one that gets hit and the resonant head is the other one.)

This mic placement was not one that was particularly intuitive to me, as it seemed to ignore the important parts of the sound, but it just seems to work. The funny thing is that I discovered the placement quite by accident on this session. We set the mics up on the kit the night before recording. Sometime between when the mic was positioned and when we hit record, someone must have bumped the stand or the cable in such a way that it moved the mic from the fairly central position that I’d had it in, pointing at the beater, to where I described above. I only noticed when we had finished the first song and we decided that we wanted a bit more low end in the kick for the next one, and so I went to move the mic. Since then I’ve recorded drums on three more occasions and I always keep coming back to this placement for a good pop/rock kick sound on my kit.

On the Snare drum, I went with very common choices of mic, the Shure sm57 on both top and bottom. This decision was an easy one because other than the D6 I used on the kick, the only other dynamic mics that I have are sm57s and the other condensers that I have already had important roles elsewhere on the kit. The placement of the bottom mic is not particularly interesting. Perhaps I am simply not far enough down my path as an engineer, but I find that the placement is not very important, and the sound that the mic aims to record is usually very much supportive in the sound of the drums in the mix. For this reason, I simply aim to have it roughly the same distance from the bottom head as the top mic is from the top (In an attempt to get good phase, however, there are many more issues with that which I can discuss at another time).

The top mic, although not revolutionary, is to me the more interesting in terms of placement. When I place a snare top mic I generally have two goals, capture the sound of the drum in a way that suits the sound of the kit and the song, and minimise the amount of bleed in the mic from other elements of the kit, with the primary culprit being the hi-hats. Where you point the mic depends entirely on what sound you are aiming for and what drum and drummer you have. I ended up, in this case, pointing it about halfway between the centre and the rim, with the capsule about 2-3cm (1”) away from the rim.

The main thing I want to discuss is where I placed the mic in relation to the other elements. I have often seen people place the snare mic between the hi-hats and the first tom. This seems the most obvious place to have it, especially if your drummer has an aversion to spreading his kit out a bit (which it seems, unfortunately, that most drummers do). Now, this placement is fine and means that the toms won’t bleed much into the snare mic and neither will the kick. (This is a generalisation, however in my experience it is generally true.) However, it means that the hi-hat ends up right next to the mic and somewhat inside its cardioid pickup pattern, increasing bleed. I prefer to place the mic directly under the hi-hats pointing slightly down towards the snare, so as to put the hats directly behind the capsule and in the rejection part of the polar pattern. Although the mic ends up closer to the cymbal, the polar pattern does the work, and I generally end up with a very usable snare sound which doesn’t need gating or sample replacement because of bleed. (I am not a fan of gating drums at all, but we can discuss that more in the mixing portion of this series.)

For overheads, I used a pair of Røde NT5s. I like to use my overheads as “Kit Mics” as opposed to “Cymbal Mics”. For this reason, I generally have them quite high, so as to capture a better overall image of the kit. The important thing is to keep the mics the same distance from the snare drum so that the snare is in the centre of the stereo image.

On toms, I used sm57s again, mostly out of necessity. I placed them on rim mounted clips and then pointed them almost straight down, close to the rim. These were the only drums that I wasn’t 100% happy with their sound after recording. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice on recording day, and so I was stuck with the mistake.

On the hi-hat I use the Røde NT55, similar to the NT5, but with a changeable capsule so that you can change the polar pattern. I have it placed on the side of the hats that is opposite the snare, above the top hat, pointed straight down. This I find gets the impact of the top hat as well as the sound of the hats hitting each other.

The last mics to talk about are the rooms. I used my Røde NT2000, my only large diaphragm condenser, in the back of the room, in cardioid mode, pointed at the wall to capture the room sound of the drums in mono.

In addition to this mono room, I used my last two sm57s one on each side of the kit about 1.5m (5ft) facing the kit at about chest height to get a stereo room sound. This experiment worked amazingly well, and those two mics ended up being the primary room element in the mix of Stranger.

In terms of the performance, Dylan (the drummer) played very well. He knew all his parts very well, and his timing was impeccable. When I looked over the recordings later, I saw that although he wasn’t on the grid for most of the songs, he was never more than a 32nd note off.

Overall I was very happy with the sound of the drums after we were done recording them. The only let down was the tom sound, but with a bit of work, they will still fit in the track well and most likely will not need replacement.

Thank you for taking the time to read what again became a very long post. Hopefully, the next ones will be a little shorter, but drums are the most complex thing that I recorded on this project.

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below.

Have a great day!

Rob

Introducing Wax Lyrical

For my very first project of the year, I get to work with a really cool young band currently known as Wax Lyrical. (More on their name later.)

Meet the Band:

They are a band from Cape Town, South Africa that plays an interesting kind of Alternative Rock music. The band is made up of four members.

The lead singer and only girl in the group (although she more than makes up for it with her stage presence) is Talia Bernhardt. She is a powerful young singer who has a voice well worth a listen. With a style heavily influenced by Blues and Jazz she brings an old school flavour to the band.

The second member to mention is the guitarist, Ryan Hand. Playing an interesting riff-filled Rock style, Ryan brings a lot of groove to the band with guitar parts that will have your foot tapping in no time.

Moving into the rhythm section we get to bassist Liam Girie. Liam is cool calm and collected on stage, never seeming phased by any eventuality. Being able to lock in with both the guitar riff and the drums at different times in the song, he brings an even tighter, more emphasised groove to the band.

Last, but most certainly not least, is drummer Dylan Rowell. Dylan is a talented young drummer with a firm grounding in theory. He has very good rhythm and feel for the groove that the song needs, and therefore is a firm backbone to the group.

The band has been called Wax Lyrical for a long time, and if you ask me it’s a really cool name! However, there appears to be a prominent cover band with the same name and to find Wax Lyrical Cape Town you have to search just that. There is also a candle making company called Wax Lyrical, which comes up first in a facebook search for the band. For this reason, the band is going to have to change their name before the release of their first studio single. At the time of writing this post, they have not decided on a new name, and so until they do, I will continue to call them Wax Lyrical.

The band and I have decided that we will record two tracks in the near future and we will be aiming for a result that is of radio quality. These will be the first high-quality releases for the group, but they have done some demos in the past which can be found on their Soundcloud page. (https://soundcloud.com/waxlyrical_sa) It’s important to bear in mind when listening that these tracks are demo recordings to showcase the songwriting and arrangement, and we will be hoping to improve drastically upon their shortcomings on our new releases. If you want to get in touch with the band, or just want to follow their progress, you can do so through their facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/waxlyricalcpt/

Production Stage 1: Pre-Production

The band and I started on the pre-production phase of the project already. After first hearing the band at their practice space at the beginning of February and deciding that they were, in fact, worth the time investment, I invited them around to my home studio to play their entire catalogue of original songs. While they played I recorded a multi-track recording of every song, so as to have demos to reference later.

The goal of this exercise was twofold. First, to see how the band handled in an environment that they were not used to while being carefully scrutinised by myself and a few trusted musicians and producers. Second, if they passed the first part of the test, it was to choose the songs that we wanted to record.

The process was successful (obviously, otherwise this entire blog post would not exist) and we decided to do two tracks. The first is a song with a really fun groove, called The Victor. The second song was the one that is probably the furthest from their “regular” sound, but it caught my attention right away; it’s called Stranger.

***

The next step in the production process was to have a pre-production meeting to discuss the recording process, finalise the arrangements of the songs, choose a time to have the recording session and to answer any questions the band might have. One other thing that was very important for me to do, was to discuss the band’s influences with them. First, I asked each member who they thought their influences were, and then I asked the band to pick a few as a whole.

The goal here was to understand how they heard themselves, because when they have been playing their songs, in a bad sounding room, with limited gear for so long, the way they hear their own music may be quite different to someone like me, or the final listener.

We spent a large amount of the four-hour meeting working on the song arrangements, because after listening to the demos a few times I had some suggestions, and at the time Stranger was not even finished being written yet.

By the end of the day, we were all very happy with the songs and we started discussing when the recording session should be. We decided to schedule two full days of recording at my home studio, to give ourselves plenty of time to get the songs done; the 4th and 5th of March.

The reason we chose to do the recording at my home studio (with somewhat more limited gear and space) as opposed to my college’s studios (high-class studios with amazing gear and microphones) was so as to give ourselves plenty of time and to be able to have a relaxed working environment. Also, I know my home studio setup much better than my college studios, and so the chance of wasting a lot of time with technical issues is drastically reduced.

On Tuesday, we plan to have a session of just sitting and listening to reference tracks together. So that we can dig even deeper into how each member of the band hears their sound in preparation for recording day.

 Thank you so much for taking the time to read what quickly became a very lengthy post. I really appreciate it!

If you have any comments, questions, opinions or you just want to say hi, then please leave a comment below. I’m excited to discuss the process with you guys!

Have a great day!

Rob