Monday, February 18, 2013

Song A Day 2013 2/11 -/2/16

Gold Standard (2/11)

This was a quick toss-off of a song, but I like how it came out. The guitars are extremely close miked with the U87. I think the vocal was pretty good sounding, and it was pretty much first or second takes on everything.

What's it about, anyway? I had been listening to Goldfrapp's Seventh Tree album in the afternoon and imagining what it would be like to record Alison Goldfrapp's voice. I wondered how they engineer those vocals. Which mics? What's the signal chain? One thing I'm pretty sure of, which is the absence of AutoTune being used on any of the tracks. She's just a fantastic singer and would probably sound great through a ratty old SM57 through a Mackie mixer preamp and captured in Garage Band through a 16-bit converter.

So the song is about being that recording engineer, but unfortunately he does something really stupid during the session and will probably get booted out of the control room once Alison realizes what he's done.

Goodbye (2/13)

I took the previous day off from Song A Day, so when Thursday 2/13 rolled around, I was dreading having to come up with a song. This song came to me while driving home from the BART station and was mostly finished by the time I settled down to make a new recording. Lyrically, I'm expressing my frustration with the songs I'm writing this year. Next year, if I participate in Song A Day 2014, I have to find an entirely new musical direction, because I'm tired of writing pop songs.

This song turned out to have a lot of chords, making the acoustic guitar track difficult to complete. I'm completely incompetent on piano, so I probably spent over an hour rehearsing the parts before recording any takes. The vocal track was good  - no complaints.

Rehearsal for a Musical (2/15)

I struggled with the simple piano part. Darin could have played this with his feet. I Set up two mics in a stereo configuration and performed the director's part walking back and forth across the room, talking and waving my arms around. The way that Hal the pianist sings Paula's part is pretty much what my voice sounds like when I'm singing alone in the car or in the shower.

If I had time to work on it some more, I would have re-recorded Hal's vocal using the same mic configuration that was used for the director's track. I also should have collapsed the piano's stereo spread to create the illusion that it's being miked from a distance. I was somewhat reluctant to upload this one to Song A Day because it's mostly spoken dialog with a song in the middle.

Personality Shop (2/16)

Hurrah for Saturday! I worked all day on this one. The biggest decision to make was choosing a key. I ended up using a capo on the second fret of the acoustic guitar, which put the chorus section slightly out of reach for my voice. Singing it was extremely challenging, but I kept at it until I had some usable takes.

I wanted a dry drum sound, so I moved the top mic as far down to the rack tom as possible and used 3 MoonGel pads on the snare. I disengaged the 'fat' mode on the Bock mic (for the overhead) just to see how that worked out. This thinned out the drum sound considerably, so I will stick to 'fat' mode on most future recordings. I left it disengaged for this recording, however.

I increased the tuning pitch of the kick beater head and was pleased to discover that it resulted in a fatter kick sound. Also, I've abandoned the beater head muffler ring, probably for good. The kick sounds way better without it. I think this is the first time in 6 years that I've achieved a decent kick sound.

The snare didn't fare as well this time around, and I had to do a lot of EQing and messing with compression settings to make it usable.

I used the new standard bass recording setup: Fender Jazz with bridge pickup full on into the Boss graphic EQ stomp box, then into the SVT (bright channel, bright switch engaged, midrange frequency set to 200hz, bass and midrange at 3 o'clock, treble at 2 ). 10" speaker captured by the Bock with fat switch disengaged and pad engaged. The U87 is aimed at the 15" speaker from 3 feet away.

I ended up with an anemic bass tone this time. It just lacked low end. Disappointing, but I'll be sure to get a fatter low end on the next recording.

The piano and organ parts were fun to record, though I went through the usual long period of rehearsal for both of them, especially the piano.

Bad Art (2/17)

I wrote this simple 3-chord rocker as an excuse to work on some weak aspects of my recent recordings.

After much experimentation, I discovered that the Bock mic works well as a drum overhead when positioned very high above the kit with the 'fat' mode engaged. I'm beginning to understand that even if a mic has high headroom, the diaphragm can still be deformed to the point where it compresses the low and midrange bands. Also, when positioned very far from the kit, it captures a bigger sound. I moved the U87 away from the floor tom as well.

I only recorded one drum take, just to see how it sounded upon playback. The performance was terrible, but I decided to stick with it and move on with the guitar parts.

The rhythm guitar was Les Paul into Tremolux through the Danelectro graphic eq stomp box. I kept the 'fat' switch engaged on the Bock mic, aimed as usual at the bass speaker in the cab. The biggest change from previous recordings is the removal of the THD Hotplate. I think it improved the sound. The individual tracks (Sennheiser 906 and Bock) each sound kinda bad when isolated, but together they create a fairly realistic approximation of what I heard in the room while playing the parts. During mixdown I'll have to add some upper mids to brighten up the guitars, even though the Tremolux was set to full treble while recording. Maybe I need to move the mics back from the speaker a few inches to reduce diaphragm distortion? I'll try that on the next guitar recording.

The lead guitar was the Jay Turner, this time using the Lemon Drop stompbox for the fuzz tone. Oddly, both guitar tracks sound quite similar. I don't know what to make of it.

I used the new standard bass recording setup, but left the 'fat' switch engaged on the Bock. I also changed the midrange setting to '800' to get more of a rock-n-roll tone and cranked the volume to add some distortion. It's a decent rock bass tone, somewhat different from the kinds of bass sounds I've achieved in the past.

The vocals were pretty much one take each. I had planned on wiping them out and re-doing them later, but ran out of time. Instead, I added distortion to them via a Cubase plugin and that sounded pretty good.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Song A Day 2013 2/6 - 2/10

Let Go (2/6)

Another live performance into one mic. It's really, really hard to sing and play an unfamiliar song at the same time, but it's good for me to do this

I didn't do anything on 2/7. Just wasn't feeling inspired.

Trouble (2/8)

Yet another live performance. Again, it was a struggle to get a usable take.

Remember the Monks (2/9)

Wrote this simple rock song just to test out the Bock mic on guitars. After laying down a scratch track on acoustic with voice, I worked on the drum track. I tried lowering the pitch of the kick resonant head a quarter turn on each lug, but ultimately it resulted in a flabby sound, which I used anyway. Spend time experimenting with tying tea towels to the drums and ended up with half of the floor tom covered. For the snare, I removed all Moongels and let it ring. I pounded the drums with all of my might and ended up sweaty and exhausted.

The rhythm guitars were Les Paul into the Tremolux with the Danelectro graphic EQ as a boost pedal. I aimed the Sennheiser 906 at the treble speaker and the Bock mic at the bass speaker, cranked it up and played. When I listened back, I was mortified at how dull the guitars sounded. It came out kinda mushy and dumpy. Lacking time to re-record those parts, I just applied a lot of EQ and compression to make it usable, but it's pretty bad sounding. What went wrong? I'm suspicious of the THD Hotplate, which attenuates the signal fed into the speaker cabinet so I can get power amp distortion without having to deal with ear-splitting volume. I think it makes the sound soft and dumpy. Also, perhaps I should pull the mics back from the speakers a bit to avoid distorting the diaphragms, which can also dull the sound.

The lead guitar parts were played on the Jay Turner guitar with a weird sounding filter engaged. I applied a touch of Lemon Drop fuzz to the signal and got a really nice sound.

Bass was extremely problematic. After countless takes of muddy, indistinct bass recordings, I removed the internal mutes and plucked with a pick. I also disengaged the 'fat' mode on the Bock mic, thinking that it was adding mud to the sound and used the bridge pickup to get some brightness. Overall, I didn't get much of a bass tone out of this recording. Maybe I should use another bass?

After all of the struggles with the backing tracks, I discovered to my horror that I cannot sing the sing at all. The mixing went poorly on top of everything else, and now this piece of garbage is uploaded to Song A Day. On the positive side, the song has good lyrics.

Live Brains (2/10)

After the disheartening experiences for the previous day, I was determined to make a decent-sounding recording by concentrating on the sound of each instrument. I worked on the composition for some time to make sure it was singable. Lo and behold, when I recorded the guide track with live acoustic guitar and voice, it sounded good on playback. I think that's most of the battle right there.

I liked how the acoustic sounded with the mic positioned 3 feet away and pointing down, so I recorded that first. Then, just out of curiosity, I doubled the acoustic using close miking. Both guitars recorded nicely, so I was feeling confident about this track.

I tuned the kick drum up slightly on the resonant head. It's still not great sounding, but I went with it. I learned that the Bock overhead (in fat mode) works best if positioned fairly low above the kit and phase aligned with the U87 that is aimed across the floor tom at the hi hat (classic Glynn Johns mic setup for drums). No need to visually align the tracks in Cubase anymore! I simply invert the phase of the mic below the snare and everything sounds right. I left the tea towel half covering the floor tom because it reduces ring and sustain which interferes with everything else. For the snare I used two Moongels and increased the pitch of the top head slightly. I also brought the under-snare mic closer to the drum, being careful not to overload it to the point of distortion.

When I listened back to the drums and acoustic, I was satisfied. I figured it was time to tackle the bass, so I first tried to set up a DI in addition to the mic, but couldn't get enough signal out of it to be usable, so I discarded that idea. I couldn't get the right tone out of the Rickenbacker, with or without the mutes. After some deliberation, I hauled out the Fender Jazz fretless and plugged it in. Yes! That's the sound I want!

I reduced the volume of the Ampeg to avoid overloading the Bock mic and disengaged the 'fat' mode, which I suspect doesn't always work well with bass recordings, especially since the signal is heavy in the low end to begin with. As an experiment, I aimed the U87 (without using the pad!) at the 15" speaker from 4 feet away, above and aiming down. When combining the two mic signals, I get a pretty good bass tone that I can tweak during the mix simply by changing the relative levels. The U87 gets a surprisingly clear low end and depth while the Bock captures most of the treble and midrange.

I added Les Paul through the Lemon Drop at very low volume for the ending section, just strumming the vocal harmony part. I removed the Hot Plate from the speaker too. Got a decent result.

It wasn't too difficult to sing this one. I added some piano and brass parts, mixed it very quickly and uploaded it. I'm happy with this recording.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Song A Day 2013 2/4 - 2/5

One Day After Another

Two acoustic guitars and a vocal track - nothing fancy. I used a capo on the higher pitched guitar part and recorded everything with the U87. I aimed the mic slightly lower to see if it picked up chest resonances, but I didn't hear much of a difference. Didn't bother with a click track for the guitar recordings, which turned out to be problematic when adding the second guitar part. D'oh!

Paul Williams

This was a live performance into the U87 from a a distance of 3 feet. It was very difficult to sing and play at the same time, but it allowed me to change tempo between verse and chorus at will. I wish I could sing in tune. Why can't I sing in tune? And why the hell am I singing about Paul Williams?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Song A Day 2013 (2/3)

He Goes to Disneyland

Having learned some lessons from yesterday's problematic session, I wrote a song that actually works when sung live while strumming a guitar. That made the entire recording go a lot smoother.

First, I laid down some acoustic guitars. As an experiment, I set the high pass filter on the U87 while recording one of them. It's too thin sounding, so I won't be doing that again. The second guitar was recorded with the mic set flat, but I did learn that the mic responds well when positioned close to the 12th fret, even when strumming loudly. For some counter-intuitive reason, this attenuates some of the boomy low mids that often plague strummed guitar parts.

Singing the one and only vocal track went fairly smoothly, though I had to experiment with different vocal techniques until I found one that worked. I dread vocal tracking for this very reason. Why can't I just open my mouth and produce a sound that I like? On the positive side, I verified that the U87 is the right mic for my vocals. It has a smooth high end and full midrange that the Bock mic lacks.

I used the beater head foam ring on the kick drum and tightened up the snare and rack tom. I also added two Moongel pads to the snare and increased the snare band tension to get a dryer sound. Finally, I tried to hit the snare in the center without the usual rimshot technique that I tend to use, just to see how that would work. The top mic (Bock in fat mode) was positioned midway between the front edge of the rack tom and the snare, which improved the balance of rack tom and hi hat levels. This resulted in a better drum recording than what I achieved with Rabbit in the Ear yesterday.

For the electric guitar parts, I used the Jay Turner guitar with the Vintage Vibe P90s into the Lemon Drop stomp box, then into a cheapo graphic EQ and finally into the Tremolux. For all parts other than the lead guitar, I applied a touch of Lemon Drop distortion. The treble speaker was miked as usual with the Sennheiser 906 and the bass speaker was miked with the Bock. Since the idea was to get thin, midrangy sounding guitar tones, I ended up muting the Bock tracks in the mix. For the lead guitar, I cranked the distortion setting to get a fuzz tone and used both mics in the mix. Overall, pretty good sounding.

I wanted to improve the bass recording, so I spent a little time experimenting. First, I flattened the Boss graphic EQ controls and added some midrange. I also backed off the Ampeg SVT bass control slightly and used the bridge pickup on the Rickenbacker bass. This produced a usable tone that didn't require much in the way of post-processing during mixing. I'd like to use the neck pickup in a future song, but it will take some more experimentation with the amp tone controls to achieve clarity without mud.

The mix was pretty easy this time. Spending a little more time getting usable sounds - and having a simple song to mix - makes a big difference. I'm relatively satisfied with the outcome.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Song A Day 2013 (2/1 - 2/2)

Song A Day 2013 Preamble

This was a simple acoustic guitar and voice piece, recorded late at night. Used the new Bock Audio 195 mic for vocals and discovered that it isn't quite right for my voice. It has a lot of low end (in fat mode) which I have to filter out, and the high end is kinda grainy and harsh. Also, the midrange response is lacking. To give it a fair trial, I'll use it again on the next song and see if I like it any better. Recorded acoustic guitars with the U87 because I already knew from mic tests conducted earlier that the Bock doesn't work that well with acoustic guitars.

Rabbit in the Ear

For my first full production piece for Song A Day 2013, I wanted to test the Bock mic on a variety of sources. I had one full Saturday to write and record the song, so I decided to stick with whatever results I got for each track. I know that doing this results in bad sounding mixes, but that's the nature of Song A Day recordings.

While recording the piano track, the mic stand with the heavy SE Reflection Filter Pro rig and Bock 195 mic toppled over onto my back and knocked me off the stool. I landed with a thud, tangled up in the mic cord and suffering a cut and bruise on my back. It took some time to disassemble the Reflection filter to see what had happened. Turns out that there's a spring-loaded hex screw that wasn't tightened properly, so the rotating arm that holds the filter and mic had popped off the rig and triggered the collapse.

After laying down the piano track, I spent hours recording the vocal parts. There must have been a dozen or more tracks to complete and all of them were beyond my technical ability to sing. This is a recurring problem I have with full production pieces. It stems from the way I arrange parts, which is entirely in my head. The sounds coming out of my mouth never live up to my imagined arrangements.

This reinforces something that Seth Freemen has told me on at least two occasions: you should be able to strum a guitar or piano and sing your song along with it. That's how you know that you've written a song rather than an arrangement. To this end, I actually recorded a guide track of Rabbit in the Ear with guitar and vocal as a live performance. When I listened back, I was really disappointed. However, this being Song A Day, I had little choice but to press on and complete the recording.

This was a full test of the Bock mic on my voice.... and it failed spectacularly. So much for that; I'll use the U87 for most - if not all - future vocal tracks.

Following Chris Greacen's advice, I removed the foam ring pad from the kick drum beater head and tuned both heads up a semi-tone. The results were overall pretty good, but the low-mid tones in the resonances are muddying up the overheads. It does sound good in the room, however.

I used the Glynn Johns mic configuration, but the result was underwhelming. Part of the problem is the snare tuning, which should be higher. The rack tom also would benefit from tightening the resonant head. I removed all Moongel pads from the snare and kept the snare bands loose. I liked the snare sustain this produced, but my personal preference is for a tighter, dryer tone.

While playing the drum track, the heavy cymbal stand crashed to the floor with an awful racket. I put it back together and tightened everything up. At this point, I was worried that all of the gear was falling apart on me. Recording is not only difficult, it can also be dangerous.

The drum performance was marginal at best. That's what happens when I only play drums for part of one month out of each year; I forget how to play! Same thing is true for keyboards, guitar and vocals.

I bashed out the acoustic guitar track quickly and instantly regretted not having spent a little time trying to get a decent sound or performance, but it was getting late and Amy was losing her mind listening to my studio work all day.

I stuck the Bock mic in front of the 4x10 Ampeg cabinet and completed the recording in a couple of takes using the Rickenbacker 4003. The sound seemed kinda dumpy, with no clarity or deep bass, even after switching to the bridge pickup. I had completely run out of time by this point, so I would have to fix it in the mix. Famous last words.

The mixing process was frustrating. Bad sounds, bad performances, overly complex arrangements, etc. Hopefully, I'll learn from my mistakes.