Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tools of the Trade, Part 2

I thought I'd take a second to talk about the specifics of the second track, as well as correct a rather glaring omission I made from the first tools-of-the-trade post.

In my efforts to provide a complete picture of my recording setup, I didn't include two of the most important items in the studio: my studio monitors and headphones.  Without these, mixing and mastering would be an impossible process.  The M-Audio AV40 speakers and Grado SR60 headphones have been perfect for providing clear, uncolored playback of the tracks.

On this track, I once again relied on my Variax 500 guitar and Variax 700 bass.  Models of the leftmost guitars - a Gibson J200 and Gibson Nighthawk - were used for the rhythm work, and the Gibson ES-335 was used for the lead parts.  For the bass, I used the same Gibson Thunderbird model as last time.

Gibson J-200NighthawkGibson ES-335 red

I didn't use my amp or effects on this track.  I initially sent the guitar through the Pod XT Live, but I noticed as I was mixing it that there seemed to be some noise and clarity issues with the track.  It's possible I just didn't have the levels right at the time.  In the end, all the guitar work was directly recorded to the audio interface.  For the electric parts, I used an amp simulator plug-in - CAPS AmpVTS - which I seem to recall was set to a '59 Bassman.  I didn't have quite the same vibe as using my own amp, but it did allow me to do get some late-night recording done.

Another change with this track was that I ended up using some recorded drum loops rather than Hydrogen.  I picked some up last month from Beta Monkey, who were having a special on their already very reasonably-priced drum libraries.  I didn't get too adventurous with them this time; maybe on the next track.

All guitars images provided by Wikimedia Commons
Speakers/headphones: Marshall Brown, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Second Song has Arrived!

Once again, I am releasing the tune in advance of the deadline as I expect little opportunity to rework it by then.  Without further ado:

Always Something Better

Creative Commons License

As before, you are free to play it, share it, sample it, remix it, soundtrack it, mash it, snort it, bake it in a pie - all so long as you don't steal my thunder, make a fortune, or refuse to spread the love.  Somehow I suspect this won't be a problem.

I actually had a harder time with this song than the first one, at least in terms of writing it. It lends itself well to different arrangements, and while that can be a good thing, it also meant it was much harder to lock ideas down. The initial plan was to have it as a sad and melancholy-sounding solo acoustic tune. There were two problems with that. First, the song was made entirely up of my three weakest areas: my vocals, my lyricism, and my acoustic finger-picking. Secondly, it turns out that sad and melancholy-sounding tunes have a way of sounding sad and melancholy. While there are a time and place for those, I think in the end I just wanted this tune to be a little more light-hearted and fun - relatively, anyway.

It's been fun to venture outside of what I would normally expect to hear from myself, but I feel like it's about time to break out something bluesy, gritty and loud.  Stay tuned.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lessons Learned from the First Recording

While you wait for the next song to arrive - which shouldn't be long now - I'll deliver on the promise I made a while back to share what I learned recording the first one.  I probably shouldn't have left it so long before writing this up, but I don't think I've forgotten much.

The Law Did Rise was the first true recording I've ever done.  I'd run a direct line in with my guitar occasionally just to preserve an idea, sometimes along to a drum pattern I had.  But this is the first time I had done a full blown song.  Needless to say, there were a few bumps.  Some things I learned were:

Take thorough session notes
Settings, levels, mic placement - make sure you get everything down, and make sure keep track when you make changes. Otherwise, you might have a difficult time later when you go back to record new sections or patch things up.

For example, the guitar tone in the song's second solo was from an early take.  I had made a few alterations to get that sound, and I forgot to save or make note of what I had done.  A few days later I made adjustments the structure of the song and had to re-record the guitar parts.  When tried to dial in that sound again, I found I couldn't get it quite right.  I never was able to replicate it.

Record everything
By the time I had finished The Law Did Rise, I had accumulated roughly 1.6 GB of raw audio.  This may sound like a ton, but given the cost of storage space these days, that's a drop in the hat.  So record everything.  Even if you know you haven't rehearsed enough and the take is likely to be bad, you never know what might come out of it (such as the aforementioned guitar solo; it may not be the cleanest take I did, but in the end it had a vibe I liked better than any other).

Compressors are your friend
Good mics and preamps are excellent at picking up on all the subtle dynamics of your playing and singing.  Unfortunately, this also includes the stuff you don't intend.  My slightest lean away or towards the mic, the smallest change in pressure when picking notes on the bass... every imperfect nuance was captured.  Trying to adjust the levels for all this manually would be an absolute mess.  Luckily, compressors help greatly to combat this.  It doesn't take all the feel out of the track; it just lets you keep the emphasis on the stuff you actually intend to emphasize.

If it's feeling wrong, change it immediately
If something isn't feeling right, that's a sign something needs to change.  There was one point in the tune where I often found myself messing up; I always expected more bars between the end of the chorus and the start of the next verse.  Instead of adding more bars, I continued on, telling myself I just wasn't used to it yet.  The result?  I ended up adding those bars later and had to fix the tracks for every instrument.  If I had paid attention to what my brain was trying to tell me when it was still little more than drums and acoustic guitar, I would have saved myself a lot of time.

Those are the big ones that come to mind.  I'll likely have some more in the future (the new tune will almost certainly yield a couple).

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    What's Next?

    Well, now that I've done a bit of behind the scenes on the first song, it's time to move on to the next one.

    For this one, I'm not setting any particular rules and limitations on myself, other than to say I'll have something out by month's end at the latest.  The one thing I am trying to do with this one is to write it with nothing but me and my acoustic, focusing on the root and melody of the song.  Whether this will stay a solo acoustic piece remains to be seen, but that's the way it's started.

    I'm not going to reveal too much right now, as I'm just getting underway, but I will say that it's not going to be as detached as the last piece was.  This one is personal, so I want to make sure I do right by it.

    Tools of the Trade

    This isn't going to interest everybody, but for those who are interested in just what sort of equipment it took to make a recording like the last one, this is for you.

    The Guitar

    The guitar on the left is the one I used for the recording; it's a Variax 500 from a company called Line 6.  It was a gift from my wife, and it's been invaluable to me.  It has the ability to mimic the sounds of more than 25 different guitars, which is incredibly handy when you have a specific sound in mind.  The two guitars to the right of it were the ones it emulated to do this recording, a Martin D-28 and a Gretsch 6120.

    The Bass

    Like the guitar, the Variax Bass 700 models a variety of basses.  The picture on the right is the model I selected, a Gibson Thunderbird.

    The Amplification/Effects

    While the acoustic guitar and bass were fed straight into the audio interface attached to my computer, the electric guitar work went through the Egnater Tweaker shown on the left.  For effects, I used the Line 6 Pod XT Live (yes, I'm a bit of a Line 6 nut) shown on the right.  Like the guitar, this board does have the ability to emulate the sounds of a variety of amps, but for this recording I decide to stick with just using it for effects.

    The Mics

    These two microphones - the Shure SM57 and SM58 - are two of the most common microphones around, for good reason.  They're fairly inexpensive, but the quality of them is excellent.  The SM57 is geared towards micing guitar amps, but there have also been cases where it's been used for acoustic guitar micing and vocals. The SM58 is typically used for vocal performances, but it can do a decent job in a studio setting as well.

    The Audio Interface

    And this is what it all went into, a Focusrite Saffire LE. I picked this up during a blowout sale at a Toronto music store (though it was very reasonably priced to begin with), and it was money well spent.

    The Software

    My studio computer runs Linux Mint and uses free and open software for music production. I do this not because it's free (well, somewhat) but because a) I believe in the value and power of free and open software, and b) I'm a great big geek. The main pieces of software that made this recording possible were:
    1. Ardour - Often compared to Pro Tools. Everything was tracked and mixed in here.
    2. Hydrogen - The drums were done using this software drum machine.
    3. Jamin - This program was used to master the final tracks
    4. JackRack - An effect plugins host. I used this several times to host compressors
    5. Jack - The sound layer that ties all these applications together.
    And that's pretty much it. All in all, there isn't really that much hardware involved here. Hopefully someone found this interesting.

    Martin D-28:
    Gretsch 6120:
    Gibson Thunderbird:
    All other images: Marshall Brown, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    How It Came To Be...

    I promised to let you in on the creative process behind the first song (which for any who missed it is in the post right before this one), so I'll tell you how it grew from nothing into something.

    As I hinted at before, it started by coming up with the basic premise of the lyrics, an Old West marshal. At that point, it was pretty clear to me that it was going to have some sort of country/bluegrass/rockabilly feel.

    I began with the drums. I left them relatively sparse in the verses/solos, leaving plenty of room for the guitar work and vocals to be the focus. To add a bit of flavor, I threw hand claps in the solo sections. At least my drum machine called them hand claps. I tried doing the claps myself at one point and it actually sounded worse; maybe a different microphone would've helped. I knew I wanted a thunderous sounding chorus, and the toms and crashes seemed to achieve that.

    Once I had basic drums down, the acoustic guitar was next. I went for a fast-paced, aggressive rhythm, like something you might hear in Mumford & Sons or Spirit of the West. The clean electric guitar parts followed, providing a punchy but slightly haunting theme to the verses. The acoustic and clean guitar in the chorus was almost non-existent, as I knew the gritty, distorted guitar was going to be the focus. I added a rough clean guitar solo in the first set of versus just to establish the feel of it.

    At this point, I switched over to bass and finished up the verses. I wanted the bassline to provide a sense of motion, and the passages I came up with had a galloping feel much like the toms in the chorus. I may have had Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly somewhere in the back of my mind.

    The distorted guitar parts of the chorus were then recorded, along with a distorted version of the verse melody for the second half of the song, and a rough solo.

    After that came the vocals. My first attempt at writing the lyrics actually had about twice the words. When I attempted to sing them, I found I had a hard time cramming all the words in and realized that many of the lines were adding needless detail that actually made it boring. I cut out half the lyrics, leaving only what I felt was essential to tell the story; this approach made more sense and I had an easier time giving a melody and rhythm to the words.

    Everything after that was going back and touching things up; everything I just described was the way the song went from nothing to a full, rough cut. It'll be interesting to see how the next song compares to this one as it comes together.