Friday, 17 August 2012

A song for the studio - part 4

Mixing the track

So this is the final instalment of this particular series where I have been detailing the writing and recording process of my song 'Play it again'.

After the brilliant studio day, we returned from the studio with a nicely recorded, and reasonably well mixed version of the song - But Colin and I both felt that it needed a little more.

Ear candy

Play it again - arrange page
For me the song was lacking what is often refered to as 'ear candy' in music production circles. These are the quiet sounds that sit in the background or the appear only a few times giving depth and interest to the production. Something for your ear to latch onto outside of the main musical parts without even really knowing it. 

First on my list was the introduction - There was good energy in what we had but I felt it needed something a little more. I added the arpeggiated 'guitar' part to the very start. I also deliberately set it to a lower level than the main opening chords of the song - this is an old trick which can cause the listener to turn up the track when it starts thinking it is quiet gaining you extra impact when the song actually kicks in!

Over the main introduction I also added some strummed guitar chords - well, an acoustic guitar patch from Dimension Pro anyway. This for me helped to sell the introduction much better.

As the track gets into verse one the arpeggiated 'guitar' sound drops back to play a series of long notes with a slide transition between. This for me was just enough to draw the ear into the back of the track and add some movement.

Come the verse middle and chorus, I doubled the piano part with the same acoustic guitar patch used in the intro, just to add a bit of sparkle and texture.

Verse 2 is treated to a simple riff from the new acoustic guitar patch - a 'picked jangle part' set way out in the left of the image. The verse middle sees the return of the sliding note motif, and the same sound makes a return in the bridge alongside the picked acoustic.

And that was it - just enough extra material to add some interest and variation to the soundstage.

The mix - my mix!

Nick had done a solid job of mixing the track at the studio, especially when you consider he only had around 30mins on it, but for my taste there was a shade to much reverb on the drums and backing vocals. Also the drums were a little to upfront which was fine while the track was quite sparse, but now I had added some extra instruments I needed a little more to sit everything in.

Play it again - mix page
I started my mix by applying gates to all the solo drum tracks. This was partly to help me separate the sounds ready for individual processing, but also allowed me to shape the attack and decay of the individual drums. This was particularly important for the toms which drive the groove of the drum track. They had more decay and ring than I needed and by carefully setting the gate I was able to keep the attack and drive but lose most of the ring which was robbing space for the other parts.

I added gating and pretty heavy compression to the snare too to give it plenty of edge and ensure it cut through well in the mix. All the drums were routed to a drum bus and additional compression and EQ applied along with a little splash of short bright reverb. The only exception was the kick track which I heavily gated to remove all the spill from the rest of the kit, compressed, EQ'ed and routed directly through to the master bus so that it was not treated to the drum reverb.

The other tracks received the usual array of EQ, compression and reverb treatments to might expect and were routed via busses to the master output.

The final touch was to apply some low ratio / low threshold single band compression to the master bus, followed by a more targeted multi-band compressor to glue everything together. Final icing was added with Sonar's excellent 'Boost 11' limiter to give it that extra loudness required to compete with commercial mixes.

And that was it done....

And here it is if your still interested ;o)

Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings

All the best


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Tribute to a lost friend

Nick Lowe (4/6/69 - 3/8/12)
This week I received the truly sad news that my friend and musical collaborator Nick Lowe ended his life on 3rd August 2012.

Although Nick had battled for many years with his personal demons, recent times he really appeared to be on a positive path, and was fitter in mind body and soul each time I saw him. This made the news all the more shocking and hard to grasp.

Nick was a prolific songwriter and had a way with song structure that I always found intriguing. He was also totally fearless when it came to melody writing, simply reaching for the note he wanted regardless whether it was in his range or not - this was to his credit, and always produced interesting results. To me his melodies never felt stale or predicable because of it.

Best of all for me as a producer he was totally open to trying new ideas and styles for his songs - giving me freedom to take the song in the direction I heard in my head. He was always keen to receive critique of his new ideas and like a sponge for tips and techniques on how something might be improved.

We spent endless hours talking about music in general, and each others song writing efforts in particular. Sadly in the 9 years I knew him we only managed to finish 8 studio recordings of his songs.

At the time of his death, I had a demo of his in my 'to-do' list which I had promised him I would turn into an upbeat modern pop/disco track. I had loved the song first time I heard it, but had not found the time to work on the track.

Inspired by the sad events, I set about finishing the song using the guide vocal from the original demo he had given me. He never got to hear this version, but I think he would have loved it.


This ones for you Nick - Rest easy now my friend


Saturday, 4 August 2012

A Song for the studio - Part 3

Studio day - July 20th 2012

Ok, so after all the writing, planning and worrying the big day finally came along. In the lead up to the session I had spent some time trying to flesh out a demo of the song to help me understand the direction I wanted to take it in. Try as I might though I simply could not pin it down and get a start on it. I took the decision fairly late on to 'wing it' on the day and hope that the producer could help me draw the best out of the material.

Recording a hi-hat overdub for verse 2

How not to prepare...

As the studio was in Kent, I live in Bournemouth and my brother is located in High Wycombe we decided to  to stay over at our parents house in Crawley the night before so minimise the distance we would both need to travel on the day. This also meant that we could have a good catch up the night before and discuss our plans for the session that lay ahead.

As neither of us had previously recorded at a commercial studio before we were both slightly apprehensive about how the session would go but were channelling this into creative nervous energy. After meeting up on Thursday evening we headed out for a bite to eat and a 'few drinks' to discuss strategy....

Now, as we don't often get to spend time together a 'few drinks' very quickly dissolved into 'several' if not 'many' drinks and a late night to boot! However, we did use the time to get our ideas fully aligned and make sure we were on the same page with our ideas.

Off to Kent

After a late night, we had an early start to get on the road to Kent to arrive in good time at the studio. We arrived at Broadwood Studios and met the owner and our producer/engineer for the day Nick Wood. It was quickly apparent that Nick was a nice guy with and easy and friendly manner. His open nature and encouragement put us both at ease very quickly - this was going to be an enjoyable session!

We started the session by playing the rough demo of 'Play it again' to Nick, and explaining our thoughts on where the song should go from a production point of view. Generally I work with sampled drums and bass although I try hard to ensure the parts I create are convincing but since the studio featured a real drum kit which Nick could play for us I was keen to incorporate this into the track. After a quick few listens to the demo we then took to the the live room with a guitar and note pad to start on the process of working out the basic drums parts I wanted Nick to play.

I was great to be in the room with another musician with different talents to my own because I could have my ideas quickly interpreted into musical parts. In a relatively short time we had fleshed out the ideas for the drum part and it was time to start recording.

Red light is on

First to be recorded were the acoustic guitar parts. These were a simple strumming of the chords and run throughout the song. I recorded around 6 takes with the idea to be to end up with 2-3 good takes to form the basis of the rhythm track. I was reasonably happy with my performances as I only made a few mistakes on the run throughs, although I was struggling with the B7 chord in the middle 8 for some reason! (go and listen and you might hear it!). While I was recording the guitar in the live room, Nick set up Colin with a mic in the control room to capture a guide vocal to aid with the rest of the tracking process.

Next to be recorded were the drums. Nick spent a short time resetting the drum kit and putting up mics ready for recording which was interesting for me to watch as its something I have never had chance to do. After setting levels and fine tuning the setup it was time to record. As Nick would be playing the drums I was left in charge of running the desk from the control room. I quick once over the controls from Nick and we were ready to roll tape... or hard disc or something.. ;o)

By his own admission drums are not Nick strongest instrument, but after a few run throughs to warm up we were soon getting good takes down. Several passes later we had all we needed to construct the drum track. I was really pleased with the tom heavy rhythm we'd created for the verses and the contrasting straighter beat of the choruses. Finally the song was starting to get the voice I had in my head. 

Bass and vocals

Colin in the vocal booth
Next we needed a bass part. Nick is an accomplished guitar and bass player and was happy to lay down a bass part for the song. It's a simple song in many ways and only needed a simple bass part. So much so that I was happy to let Nick record something with out feeling any need to direct it or provide input. He quickly recorded a nice solid bass part, locked to the drums that underpinned the song just the way it should.

Now it was time to hand over the Colin and add arguably the most important part of the song - the lead vocal. Up to now we had been working to the guide vocal part recorded right at the beginning of the session, but with the guitars, bass and drums down we could fine tune the performance aspects of the lead vocal in terms of phrasing and pronunciation and where the vocal needed to push and where it could pull back a touch. 

I been recording Colin for a long time and know his voice well. I have always found that his best performances come in the first 3-4 takes and that his voice quickly tires after this and needs a rest period. True to form after a few warm up takes we began recording and takes 2&3 where among the best. I called for a break to let his voice rest and we used the time to work out the keyboard parts.

Piano and BV's

After some initial playing around, I came up with a nice open and simple piano part which Colin and I liked and we spent a short time recording this, not more to be said about this really..

The session was moving fast, as was the clock so it was time to press on with the backing vocals. I had already worked out a high backing vocal which I had sung during the initial demo recording so it headed into the vocal booth to lay that down a few times to get two good takes we could use to double the part. I initially wanted to get Colin to double this part to provide body to the sound, but Nick suggested we perhaps work out a lower part to sit below the main melody. Always open to ideas I quickly worked out what we need and Colin sang through it a few times to again give us two takes to double the part. The result was great, providing a nice wall of vocals to really life the main lines of the chorus.

Colin decided that he could do a better take of the lead vocal, so headed back to the booth to perform the song a few more times. It was one of these takes that eventually became the final vocal. Take 3 if memory serves correctly.

Mixing against the clock

We were well into the last hour of the session by this point, and really needed to press on with the mix. Nick had been balancing the tracks as we went, but now was time for move surgical precision and sculpting of the sound. Normally you would set aside more time for mixing a track, but since I had already said that I wanted to take away the raw tracks to do my own mix at home later, I was happy for Nick to just to work up a quick mix to best present the song as it stood at the end of the session. I watched with interest to see his process and was pleased to see it was not far different from my own.

The following 30 minutes were spent tweaking EQ, adding effects and balancing the track. A little compression here and there and some overall limiting to to the final mix bus to give the track some 'loudness' and we were done!

From just an idea to a pretty full track in just 8 hours including recording live guitar, drums, bass and piano parts, and laying down lead vocals and backing vocals and finishing off with a quick mix - Not a bad days work I reckon!

So what did we end up with? - Take a listen below, and remember to check back for Part 4 where I will detail my additional production and mixing sessions carried out my own studio which lead to the final version of the song.

Thanks for reading