Thursday, March 5, 2009

Song A Day 3/05/09

2/27/2009 Contest Winner

The crowd noises were taken from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (the title track). You can hear bleed-through of Paul's bass during the fadeout.

2/27/2009 Nothing Is Impossible

The lyrics are either expressing wide-eyed optimism or vicious cynicism, take your pick. It's not a particularly good recording. Drums were recorded using a modified Glynn Johns mic setup, but with a 414 as the main overhead. As a (failed) experiment, I recorded the bass using a close mic (U87) plus a distant mic (414 - about 6 feet away from the speaker cab). Both mics picked up a muddy, indistinct bass sound. On the other hand, the electric guitar (Jay Turner through Tremolux, no effects) came out nice.

2/28/2009 Lincoln Ought to Be

I wanted to end song-a-day 2009 with a hard rock song, and here it is. The meter changes from 7/4 to 4/4 and back again, which adds a bit of variety to what is otherwise a straightforward tune.

The guitar tracks were Les Paul and Jay Turner into a VVT Earthquake 5.1, a frighteningly loud and powerful hand-wired, all-tube monstrosity that was custom built to Peter Johnson's exacting requirements. Thanks for letting me borrow this amp, Peter! It's got 3 separately controlled gain stages in 'lead' mode, so I spent a lot of time tweaking the knobs until I found the kind of tone that was right for the song. Note that I used the middle position on the pickup selector for the solo to get a smoother, less strident kind of 70's guitar sound.

Drums were recorded using the Glynn Johns mic setup, with a 57 as the main overhead. Bass was a combination of tube DI and U87 miked 4x10 cab through the SVT. As an experiment, I tried to get a low-mid kind of bass tone through the amp. After mixing everything, I think it's usually better to get more of an upper-mid, thinner kind of miked sound.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Song A Day 2/27/2009

We're nearing the end of Song-A-Day 2009, which is a huge relief. I've delivered 19 songs so far, which is a decent amount of output.

2/22/2009 DCA

I tried something different for recording the drums on this one. Rather than using the 414 as drum OH in a modified Glynnn Johns configuration, I used a Shure SM 57 instead. The idea was to increase the amount of snare drum attack and impact by using a dynamic mic rather than a condenser mic (which tends to compress loud transients) and to attenuate the high frequencies of the cymbals. When the OH track is soloed, the sound is typical MS 57, thin and peaky with with a lot of high mids. However, when blended with the U87 mic positioned near the floor tom and aimed across the snare at the rack tom, the overall result is pretty good.

I had left the U87 on the Omni pattern by accident from a previous recording, but I like how it picked up the room sound, which was exaggerated by the drum buss compression. Accidents like this can be very cool.

As another experiment, I minimized the amount of snare drum muffling (used a single moon-gell) to get more tone out of the drum so that the compression would bring it out to create a more powerful snare sound. It worked! Only other weird thing I tried was to remove the rack tom from the kit completely. Why? Laziness and fear. It takes 1 full minute to attach it to the kick drum, and I didn't have a minute to spare.

The two guitar tracks were Les Paul into the Tremolux, cranked to 10 and passed through a THD Hot Plate to reduce the output level. No effects were used, as usual. I aimed the U87 directly at the center cone of the closed back, bottom half of the 2x12 cabinet (loaded with 65 watt Celestions) in Omni mode. I tried using Cardioid as well, and that sounded maybe a bit better to me. I'm not exactly sure whether I ended up using Omni or Cardioid in the final recordings, but the difference between them was very subtle.

I'm not thrilled with the lack of low-mids that I can get out the amp/speaker/guitar combo. I'd like to get more of a meaty, low-mid grind happening, similar to what Chris gets on all of his guitar tracks. With very little time available to experiment, I tried moving the mic around a bit (further back from amp, off-axis to the speaker cone, etc), but ultimately preferred the close mic'ed, center-cone approach. Used some EQ during mixdown to dial in some low mids.

Experimented with the bass recording by using an old Fender Bassman instead of the SVT and mic'ing with the 414 instead of the U87. I used the neck pickup on the Rickenbacker and played with a thin guitar pick. As usual, the felt mutes were carefully adjusted to provide the right balance of pick attack and sustain.

Impressions: The bassman didn't do much for me. I really prefer the clarity and tone of the SVT. The 414 was pretty much a disaster. I positioned it a couple of feet away from the center cone of a speaker in the 4x10 cabinet, but the track was dull, muffled, and weak-sounding. I used a LOT of heavy EQ and compression during mixdown to create a decent bass sound. The DI track was mixed about 50/50 with the amp track.

Vocals were handled the usual way, with the U87. Overall, I'm happy with the mix, the song and the performances.

2/23/2009 Lillian

Straightforward acoustic ballad with a bit of Alesis QS6.1 piano thrown in at the end. Although I tend to use Propellerhead Reason pianos for most recordings, I'll use the Alesis when I'm in a big hurry or if I want the out-of-tune, thick piano sound it provides. Used the U87 for guitars and vocals.

2/24/2009 Bagel

This throwaway piece of garbage features the old Harmony Rocket into the Groovetubes DI and U87 vocals. Nothing else.

2/26/2009 Dig Deep

I really, really like this song, but the recording represents a major step backward in terms of sound quality. Sometimes, things just go wrong and there's no time to fix them.

Although I recorded the acoustic guitars through the U87, for some reason the sound was especially dull and wimpy. For one thing, the strings on the Martin are pretty much dead - not surprising given the heavy use of this guitar all month. Secondly, the mic was positioned a bit further away than my usual set up of 10" -6" from the 12th fret. Also, I aimed the mic more at the guitar body than the spot where the neck joins the body (in hopes of getting more low-end in the recording). This certainly didn't help. In the end, I added gobs of EQ to save the guitars, but they sound horrible.

In my frenzied attempt to finish tracking before 2:00 AM, I threw up the vocal mic with no time spent on positioning to get a good sound. Rather than using the time-tested approach of having the mic at forehead level and aimed slightly downward, I ended up singing more or less directly at the diaphragm. I should know better by now! Results were muddy and wimpy sounding, just like the acoustic guitars. Again, I loaded on pounds of EQ and compression to salvage the vocal tracks. Yech. For Song-A-Day, it hardly matters. Nevertheless, the takeaway lesson is this: always strive to get the best possible sound directly from the mic, with no effects or sweetening. You really can't 'add' clarity to a muddy track.

On the positive side, the bass track turned out great! It's the Rick into the tube DI with 1167 compression and aggressive EQ used for mixdown (added a big midrange peak and a bump around 150hz). It's a bit on the boomy side perhaps, but somehow I just love the sound.

Used the Alesis for piano again.

For guitar parts, I ran the Jay Turner into a Bad Monkey overdrive and the tube DI. The strange 'honky' midrange tone of the intro lick was achieved by selecting a combination of the first and second P90 pickups. Neat sound!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Song A Day 2/22/2009

2/17/2009: Welcome to Pleasanton

This number has a lounge-jazz kind of feel up until the chorus, where it switches to more of a Loving Spoonful type of sing-along song. I plugged my 1968 hollow body Harmony Rocket into the tube DI (Groovetubes Brick) and used the neck pickup to get a bassy, 'bloopy' sound. U87 used again for vocals.

2/19/2009: Solid Ground

Another acoustic ballad. Used the U87 for everything. At this point, I've worked out a simple production template for these kinds of songs. I aim the U87 at the 12th fret of the Martin M3SC acoustic guitar and add some gentle compression (usually the Urei 1176 UAD plugin) and (depending on my UAD cpu 'budget'), the Pultic EQ to add a bit of 8-10k and 3-5k. For vocals, I position the mic stand to the left of the workstation monitor, with the U87 aimed downward somewhere between my nose and my mouth. I'll either use the UAD Fairchild 670 compressor or the Waves Rvox plugin during mixdown. For reverb, I add a touch of Plate 140 (another UAD plugin). I master using the UAD UltraMaximizer plugin, using the moderate 3-band limiter setting.

2/20/2009: Waiting

Ho hum, another acoustic ballad about Disneyland. It's just too easy. Added a melodic bass part using the Rickenbacker 2003 directly into the Groovetubes Brick. For bass, I prefer using the 1176 compressor plugin, though I've used the Teletronix LA2A (UAD)plugin. 9 times out of 10 I'll use the Waves Renaissance EQ to tame boomy low frequencies and add a midrange peak.

Peter told me that the opening riff sounds identical to Led Zeppelin's Going to California. He's right, but it wasn't intentional. Call it unconscious plagiarism.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Song A Day 2/18/02

2/08/09: I Am the Man

Wrote this one while ice skating in Dublin, CA. It's an homage to Seth's Peace on Earth video and song that was making the rounds on Facebook (and elsewhere). That song made me realize that it's okay to say what you're thinking in a lyric, even if it exposes your political/philosophical views to a hostile world. Now everyone's going to think that I'm a tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart liberal who is naive enough to believe in things such as 'we are all one' and 'love is the answer'. On the other hand, I'm very much a lost soul who stumbles blindly through life, with little interest in anything other than E-ticket rides at Disneyland and a properly-cooked steak. I'm no activist.

Anyway, I'm trying to write songs that are completely out of my comfort zone in terms of lyrics, so tackling this kind of subject matter was very difficult - painful, even. I have a fear of what I call the 'Neil Pert Lyric Syndrome', where horrible, unmentionable words such as 'society' are used in lyrics without a sense of irony. It's especially egregious if the singer didn't write the lyrics; otherwise, the 'Niel Young' effect may mitigate the this effect, whereupon the singer is considered to be so sincere that we forgive forays into self-righteousness and usage of words like 'society'. In any case, I applied what I call the 'John Lennon' effect, where a sardonic tone makes any words or sentiment acceptable, regardless of whether the lyricist and the singer are one and the same.

I used the U87 for recording everything. This is one of my very first attempts at recording a lead vocal that is not doubled throughout. I'm becoming interested in the idea of 'naked' singing, which eschews the usual production sweetening effects of doubling and heavy processing. So what if I'm a lousy singer. I'll get better.

2/12/09: Taxonomy

Wrote this piece of nonsense while serving jury duty, including the arrangement. Recording was straight-forward; a couple of acoustic guitar tracks and some vocals. Used the U87 for everything.

2/13/09: Hawaii

This was an improv with Emma singing and yours truly strumming a ukulele. Her performance was brilliant; I absolutely love the lyrics (especially the punch line at the end), though I was startled by the line about 'fancy drinks', which is an odd thing for a 6-year-old to sing about.

For this recording I used the U87 in an omni pattern. Later on I added some light kicks on the kick drum - picked up by the U87 in the omni pattern.

2/14/09: Monkeys and Clowns

This is an old-school 'Beanpole' type of track. I was still feeling uncomfortable with the process of writing lyrics for I am the Man, so I thought about other subjects and words that are unacceptable for most song writers. And this is the result.

The weird vocals following the first verse are intended to imitate the one instrument that I associate with both monkeys and clowns: a pipe organ. I picture an organ grinder with a giant handlebar mustache, cranking away at the organ strapped around his neck while a clown juggles a few rhesus monkeys before a few disinterested tourists at Pier 39 in San Francisco.

2/15/09: All You Can Eat Buffet

I slaved over this one for the entirety of a 3-day weekend, save for a few hours that I spent producing tracks for my very talented singer-songwriter-playwright friend John Hamilton on Sunday. I wanted to go for a full production on this one, so I went nuts with the tracking.

There's a basic harmonic/structural concept behind this song. It has two parts: A and B. Part A has choruses that never properly resolve before moving on to the next verse or bridge. This is because Part B does nothing other than resolve the chord sequence introduced in Part A over and over again. Given some more time to master the track, I would fade out Part B, which would further reinforce the chord resolution concept.

Drums: used the modified Glynn Johns mic setup (4 mics) as usual, but left the floor tom mic (U87) in an omni pattern rather than cardioid. The new Remo Blackdot head has improved the snare sound tremendously, though I want to get more of the percussive impact of stick hitting drum that what I'm currently getting with the two overheads and the under-snare mic. It's all still too mushy. I'll add a 57 as a top-snare mic the next time I record drums. I worked on the drum tuning for hours and it was well worth the time spent, particulary the kick. Adding a new Evans EQ Pad kick drum muffler (plus a pillow) seems to help too. I think the new wooden 'stage' has improved the overall mic response to higher frequencies as well.

Used the Les Paul through Tremolux setup again, but the results were kinda lousy. To hide the intonation problems, I slapped a flanger/chorus plugin over the guitar tracks. I used a multi-band compressor with a lot of low-mid boost to provide a bit of meatiness to the tone.

Note: I spoke with Chris to find out his secret sauce for capturing such thick, meaty, powerful guitar tracks. Next time I record rock guitar parts, set the U87 on omni mode (to minimize proximity effect) and aim at the closed-back bottom half of the speaker cabinet rather than the open-backed top half. This should add some beefy low-mids to the sound. Also, Chris uses a low wattage ZVex tube amp. Because output is so low, the mic diaphragm is able to capture all of the impact and detail of the waveform without distortion. I'll just turn down the volume on the THD Hotplate unit that I've borrowed from Peter.

Bass came out pretty good. Split the signal at the tube DI (Groovetubes Brick) into the SVT, and positioned the U87 in front of the 4x10 speaker cab. I tend to prefer this cab to the 1x15, simply because the bigger speaker pumps out too much sub-lows for my purposes. For a change, I used the bridge pickup on the Rickenbacker 4003 to get a plucker sound. It's not thin-sounding ... especially when blended with the DI signal. I've finally overcome my fear of the Rickenbacker's bridge pickup.

For vocals, I positioned the U87 about 3 feet away from my mouth and sang upward into the diaphragm. I'm beginning to understand how to use this mic for my vocals. In a nutshell: never use the bass rolloff switch, control low-end response by moving further or closer from the mic, and aim the mic down at my nose rather than parallel with my face (improves clarity). Usually sounds good with the UAD Fairchild 670 compressor plugin with the Release switch set to position #2. Sometimes I may add a bit of hi-mids or lower-treble with the Pultec plugin - depending on my UAD cpu 'budget' for a particular project. At last, I'm starting to like the U87.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Song A Day: 2/10/2009

02\06\09: Me and the Pope

I had some time on Saturday to write and record a rock song, so I worked very quickly. Threw down the guitar tracks first, consisting of:

1. Jaguar clone (Jay Turner) with 3 P90s (Vintage Vibe) into '63 Tremolux w/ 2x12 Celestions.

2. Les Paul Custom into same amp.

Aimed the U87 at the center cone of the top speaker.

Recorded the vocals (U87). Used a modified Glynn Johns miking configuration for the drums (414 OH, U87 just above the floor tom and aimed at the rack tom, D112 in kick (with front head removed) and SM81 below the snare.

I constructed a 1" deep wooden floor out of 4x8 OSR planks, complete with metal brackets to prevent the kick drum from sliding forward. Drum sounds have improved as a result. I'm not very happy with the Evans EC head on the snare, however. It makes the snare drum sound too boxy and timbale-ish for my taste. I've already ordered a Remo Black Dot (single ply) as a replacement. Oh well.

Bass was recorded through a Bad Monkey overdrive into the Groovetubes DI.

This needs to be properly mixed.

02/07/09: Second Life

Used the U87 for vocals and the same mic setup for the drums. The mix that I uploaded (around 2 AM Monday) isn't quite right, so I plan to upload a better mix once Chris sets up the track editing feature in the admin tools.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Song A Day: 2/06/09

Song-A-Day: 2/06/09

Jury Selection

Jury duty is a worst-case scenario. The selection process, which I must attend daily from 8 AM to 1:30 PM 5 days a week, may drag on for weeks. Once jury selection is over, the trial phase is expected to last another 7 weeks. I swear that if anyone tells me that jury duty is justified because it is my 'civic duty', I will place that person's head in an electric pencil sharpener.

I used a completely different process to write this song. First, I sat down and wrote out some lyrics. Next, I noodled around a guitar while speaking the words aloud until a basic melodic shape began to take form. Then it was a matter of polishing the melody, lyrics and chord sequence until it all made sense to me, followed by a quick recording session (mostly first takes).

I used the 414C for guitar and vox. It generates an extremely low output; I had to crank the Groovetubes preamp gain to 11 in order to capture a usable signal on disk. Still, the sound is pretty good. It doesn't have the ugly bass build-up and metallic, shrill presence peak of the U87, nor does it have the slightly attenuated midrange response of the M81. Treble response is pretty good and the midrange is solid. Overall, it lacks the authoritative midrange power of the U87 and the percussive transients of the MS81. I'm happy to have 3 condenser mics with complimentary strengths and weaknesses across the audible frequency range.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Song A Day: 2/5/2009

We're 5 days into the Song-A-Day project hosted at

I wrote down some snippets of lyric ideas last month as part of preparation for this project, but I've far less prepared this year than I was for last year's event.

My plan is to spend minimal time on production, which means that there will be more badly recorded sounds and out-of-tune/inept instrumental/vocal performances than usual. I cringe at every little mistake I hear (especially vocals), but I've decided to accept each and every clam. Song-A-Day is (to me) about cranking out content very quickly, thus bypassing my internal quality control filters that usually prevent me from writing anything at all. Song performances only serve to deliver what matters: half-conceived music and lyrics.

Also, even if a song cries out for an arrangement with drums and electric guitars through a cranked amp, it's unlikely to happen. I may go for more elaborate productions on a song or two before the project comes to an end... time will tell.

I've learned a few engineering techniques that are being put into practice this month. For example, I should never sing directly into the U87. Instead, the mic should be positioned above my nose and angled down slightly, without using the hi-pass filter. I have to adjust the low-end boost (proximity effect) by standing closer/further from the mic.

The U87 adds a slightly harsh-sounding presence boost to vocals that isn't as nice as the high-end sheen imparted to recordings captured by the SM81. On the other hand, the U87 offers superior low-mids and midrange than the SM81. After years of experimenting with both mics, I'm still trying to figure out which types of vocals are served best by either mic.

I'll use the 414C for some tracks as well, just to see how it stacks up against the others. My 414 is pretty old and crusty. Unlike modern 414s, it houses a C12 capsule instead of the standard 414 capsule and doesn't provide a hi-pass filter.

I spent considerable time last year learning how to interpret the frequency response of my Event 20/20-BAS powered monitors in terms of how tracks mixed on them translate to typical stereo speakers. The training has begun to pay off, because the first 4 recordings I've completed this week sounded about right on my Logitech 3-way computer speakers. Compare this to last year's song-a-day event, when I was continually frustrated by tracks that sounded good on the Event monitors while collapsing into a mushy, boomy, muddy mess on the Logitech speakers or a car stereo.

2/1/2009: Song A Day

This is my launch song for this month-long project. Recording notes: 2 acoustic guitar tracks were recorded with a combination of SM81 aimed at the 12th fret and a U87 aimed at top of the guitar body (angled inward slightly toward the sound hole). Used the U87 for vocals. Plugged the bass directly into the Groovetubes mic preamp/DI and played using fingers through the bridge pickup. I'm planning to use DI'd bass for most of these recordings, even though this produces lifeless bass tracks.

2/2/2009: Jury Duty

Tried a different songwriting process for this one. I recorded myself singing and playing guitar 'live' with absolutely no lyric or chord/melody ideas worked out beforehand. I wrote down the improvised lyrics and recorded one more 'live' performance of singing/playing - just one take and without the aid of a click track. I added the bass track immediately afterward, again committing to a single take. I'll probably use these techniques on future song-a-day recordings, though I don't particularly enjoy listening to the results.

Guitar was recorded DI through a Guyatone TZ2 fuzz box. Bass was recorded DI through a Bad Monkey overdrive. I spent no time trying to get usable sounds - or even to tune the instruments.

2/3/2009: Where is Walt

Stuck to the usual writing/recording process this time. This one's about the Disney company's transition of leadership from Card Walker to Michael Eisner. As an experiment, I used the SM81 for recording guitar and vocals.

2/4/2009: Disneyland

Yet another song about Disneyland. I didn't have the time to record an interesting arrangement, so it's pretty sparse - just piano and bass. Vocals were recorded with the U87.

I went for a 1960's kind of plucky bass sound, which is difficult to achieve when going direct rather than miking up a bass amp. The trick is to apply the Rickenbacher 4003's felt mutes and to pick aggressively but cleanly between the neck and the neck pickup, then add heavy compression and EQ.