Saturday, February 7, 2015

Song A Day 2015 - Preparation

As always, I'm trying different approaches to getting drum, guitar, bass and keyboard sounds. Last year, I tried a few things that didn't work out; in fact, they failed.

Failed ideas from 2015:

  • Tuning top head of snare about 1.5 steps (a minor third)  higher than the bottom. About the worst sound ever. I also swapped out my usual snare strands for a super wide 30-strand version, but it never sat properly on the resonant head.
  • Bass through Amplitude rather than the usual '70s SVT through a mic. My goal was to save time and effort without sacrificing tone. Wrong move.
  • I tried a few tracks using Amplitude with electric guitar parts, but the results were less than stellar.
  • Exclusively monitoring the recording and mixing through headphones. Yes, they say you shouldn't do it, but I did. Needless to say, many of the instrumental recordings are sub-par, for which I blame, at least in part, my inability to hear the truth through the headphones. Lesson learned.
This year, I'm trying out these ideas:
  • Tune snare resonant head to a B, then the top head nearly an octave down from that, to a C. I tried it out and was pleased with the results. I can raise that pitch however high that I want, but I want to keep it no higher than 1/2 of the tension of the resonant head. That's my ideal snare sound. Maybe I can try adding the 30 strand snare band again - but why spoil a good thing now?
  • Tightened the batter head on the kick. Immediately liked what this did.
  • Instead of using the Recorderman technique for the overhead mics on the drums, I'm going full-on Glyn Johns this time. Tested it out today and found it to be superior to Recorderrman.
  • Time to completely revise my electric guitar tone. I typically play through a cheapo Danelectro graphic EQ stompbox as a boost, and then directly into my '64 Tremolux. Last year I used a really cool stomp box called the Lemon Drop to generate a dry, raspy distortion based on the Vox 4 and 7 series of amps, which had a solid state pre-amp feeding a tube amplifier stage. This year, I purchased a treble booster, which increases gain as the frequency of the input signal increases. I'll use it in place of the Danelectro stomp box. It was delivered last night, so I only had a moment to play with it. But when that thing is feeding the Tremolux with the volume cranked high, it's beautiful sounding. Reminds me a bit of Brian May's tone; very rich harmonics with bell-like overtones.
  • For keyboard sounds, I bought Garritan Personal Orchestra, a very cheap VST plugin that I can use in Cubase. I'll use it for strings, horns and who knows what else. Haven't tried it yet - I'll install it tonight.
  • Bass recording: SVT 10" speaker - or maybe the 15" speaker.
  • Capture the room sound of the drums with the U87 in figure-8 mode. Compress that channel aggressively with fast attack/release and blend it into the drum buss to taste.
  • Learned through experimentation today that I should probably have a mic on the hi hat. Well, I have the right mic for the job (Shure SM81) and a spare mic stand, but I need another mic pre-amp!!! I'm all out of pre-amps, unless I'm willing to use the ones built into my ancient Mackie mixer. Ugh.
Drum Mic Setup:
  • Using the Bock 521 6" below snare into RNP pre-amp, phase reversed at the console
  • Sennheiser E906 about 3" above snare, aimed at center into RNP pre-amp
  • Beyerdynamic M60 pair in Glyn Johns configuration with a distance of 3' from center of snare into Millendia Media HV-3B pre-amp
  • SM 57 on rack tom into Babyface pre-amp
  • Sennheiser MD 421 on floor tom into Babyface pre-amp
  • AKG D112 on kick into GA Pre-73 preamp
  • Neumann U87 (figure-8 pattern) on room into Focusrite ISA One pre-amp

Song A Day 2013 2/17-2/28

2/17 Bad Art

I bashed the drums with all of my might, such that at the end of the take I was dripping perspiration and out of breath. The result wasn't particularly good in terms of sound or performance, but it was usable.

Guitar panned to the left is the Les Paul into Tremolux through the Danelectro graphic eq stomp box, cranked to ear-splitting volume and captured with the Bock and Sennheiser 906 mics in their usual positions. I'm still not capturing what I want with this mic configuration, so on future recordings I'll experiment some more.

Guitar on the right is the Jay Turner into the Tremolux through the Lemon Drop fuzz. To my surprise, both guitars sounded uncannily alike, which makes little sense considering the vast differences in the instruments and how their distorted tones are being created. This too could be a hint that the mics aren't being used properly.

For the bass part, I used the Fender Jazz fretless and cranked the SVT until it began to distort, then used the U87 mic aimed at the 15" speaker and the Bock aimed at the 10". I played in an open, non-palm-muted style, striking the strings aggressively to get a raunchy bass tone.

I added some double-tracked vocals (very quickly) and it was done.

2/18 Poverty

I wanted to do this one 'live' into one mic, but gave up after a number of failed takes. It was clear to me that it was too difficult to sing and play at the same time, so I overdubbed the vocals and doubled the acoustic guitar.

2/19 Wikileaks

Because of my failure to do a 'live' performance the previous day, I was determined to perform Wikileaks with guitar into one mic. It was difficult to do, but eventually I managed to get a usable performance. It's already a struggle for me to sing in tune when just doing vocal overdubs. It's impossible to do it while I'm also trying to play a guitar.

2/20 The Minute

I wrote this one in five minutes or less and performed it live. Ho hum, yet another song about looking forward to the end of Song A Day 2013. I'm exhausted.

2/21 (no song for this day)

2/22 Carousel by Daniel Berkman

It was time to do a cover of somebody else's song, so I chose Daniel Berkman's Carousel instrumental and re-interpreted it with lyrics and a live performance into one mic. The lyrics actually express my first impressions of what the instrumental piece was about. It struck me as being a kind of narrative about some asteroid floating around in deep space, surrounded by other celestial objects whizzing by it. There's a repeating 6 note motif that represents this asteroid. Eventually the pull of the sun's gravitational field begins to disrupt the asteroid and pull it out of orbit among the other space debri. As the other outer-space types of sounds fade away, the asteroid's 6 note theme builds in intensity. It seems to be picking up speed, perhaps heading on a collision course with the planet Earth? Exciting stuff.

Anyway, I strove for a crazed performance, something different from the usual struggles with singing the right notes and enunciating the words, or playing the right chords. What mattered was achieving the right intensity for the end of the song. I kinda screamed myself hoarse, so by the time I captured a usable take, I had lost my voice. But the intensity I wanted was there.

2/23 Me and My Thoughts

I spent some time trying to improve the drum sound and discovered that raising the Bock overhead mic nearly five feet above the drums did the trick. To keep things in phase, I moved the U87 mic away from the floor tom, which also seemed to help. Another surprise was in store! On a whim I tried aiming the Sennheiser 906 at the snare with the flat grill parallel with the batter head rather than the usual angle. This really improves the top snare sound. The new overhead configuration also seems to capture the size of the kick drum.

For the electric guitar parts (Jay Turner), I simply aimed the Bock (in 'fat' mode) at the guitar cab's treble speaker. At last, a good guitar sound!! So for future recordings, I only need one guitar track per part.

I hooked up the DI for the bass (Fender Jazz fretless), which was captured along with the Bock mic aimed at the 10" speaker. I didn't use much of the DI track in the final mix; it didn't seem to add much of anything.

The acoustic guitars were horribly out of tune, and as a result I had to re-tune the other guitar and bass parts to match. I discovered to my shock and dismay that the entire recording was out of tune with my keyboard sounds. I did my best to cover up this problem with lots of mixing tricks, such as adding modulation effects to some instruments and using (for the very first time) Cubase's pitch correction plugin on others. Lesson learned: always check the pitch center of the tracks against some piano samples to make sure they work well together.

2/24 The Bass Player

I had intended to perform this one live, but there was NO way I could play the little guitar licks while singing the unusually complicated lyrics. So I overdubbed the vocal and second acoustic guitar. I think is is a neat song that would take to a full blown hard rock treatment with drums and guitars. Oh, and also bass.

2/25 She Calls My Name

I grabbed mp3s of number station recordings from the Conet site, arranged them in Cubase, added a simple piano waltz part, sang the simple vocal part, and mixed. This was a fun one to record.

2/26 If You Should Be Afraid

This morning I read Seela's blog post about 'feeling afraid' and asking people to suggest songs for listening. I posted a comment with a suggestion that she write such a song and upload it to Song A Day. After that, it struck me as a good idea, so I wrote a song about being afraid.

This was a 'live' performance into one mic. I tried to focus on singing with some feeling, which I rarely do.

2/27 Yippee

Yet another lame throwaway song about looking forward to the end of Song A Day. I must have written about six songs this year with that theme. Had little trouble with the 'live' performance.