This is a big week for me! Today I had jury duty!
Actually, I got excused from jury duty, which means the next big thing to look forward to is Tuesday and Thursday, when I go into the studio and mix and master my album. Accompanying me in this endeavor is producer and engineer to the stars, Phil Nicolo, who has worked with such artists as the Hooters, Lauryn Hill, Rusted Root, and John Lennon. So perhaps you can see why even though I missed jury duty today, I’m pretty excited about the week to come.
This entry is part of a two-part series on my experience recording, touching-up, mixing, and mastering my album. For those of you who have no idea what the process entails, hopefully this will give you an idea of what goes into making an album. For those of you who are veterans of the experience, I’m hoping you can either get something out of my particular approach, or let me know an easier way to do it for the future.
Let’s break down those 4 pieces I mentioned above and define what they are:
Recording: Getting the sounds onto the medium in the first place. In my example, I used my Macbook Pro, Pro-Tools 7.4, Mbox2, and a 1 terrabyte external firewire hard drive. And lots of instruments and microphones.
Touching-up: Preparing to take the recorded material into the studio. This involves everything from rerecording passages that aren’t quite up to snuff, to making sure the MIDI sounds are readable from any computer. But more on that later.
Mixing: Setting the balance among the various instruments recorded; essentially making sure everything is at the right volume and has the right tone quality. This is something I can do (and have done up to this point). However, a professional with years of experience as well as higher quality tools can do it much better. Which is why I have hired Phil for this.
Mastering: Doing the final preparation to make the recordings ready for duplication. This involves things like making sure the volume level is consistent across the tracks and creating the master recording from which everything else will be duplicated. Again, this is best done by a master craftsperson.
As I haven’t yet done the mixing and mastering, I’ll save that for the next blog so I can catalog the process along the way. But I do want to talk about the first two.
Throughout 2011, I recorded a song each month as a creative project. I opted for home-recording, partially because I enjoy the process, partially because I wanted to save money, and partially because I wanted the flexibility to try things over and over until I got them right. Often when you go into a studio to do your recording, you have a very limited schedule in which to get things done. If you go over time, it starts to get rather expensive. On the other hand, recording in the studio ensures you’re working with professionals right from the start (hopefully, anyway!). The equipment is better as well as is the sound isolation, unless you’re willing to drop a few thousand dollars into your home studio. Plenty of good albums have come from home recording though, so that’s the route I wanted to take.
I do multi-track recording, meaning I play each of the instruments one at a time over a click-track to line them up. The goal is to make it sound like one piece of music. For that, I use a program called Pro-Tools LE. It is a lite version of the same program almost all professional studios use, so when I get done recording, I can take it to any studio and have them work on my songs. I have the program on my Macbook Pro, which is connected via USB to a small interface called an Mbox2. The Mbox2 has ports for up to two microphones at a time, as well as output to either headphones or speakers (studio monitors in this case). The headphones are important, because you have to hear everything you’ve recorded on previous takes, but you don’t want the previous takes to bleed onto the track you’re recording. The headphones ensure that you can hear the music, but none of it comes onto the currently recorded track. Finally, uncompressed audio files are huge. There isn’t enough space for them on my hard drive, so I use a 1 terrabyte external hard drive to store the data (audio). I have to use a firewire drive, so that the data that is processed in real time can be smoothly and quickly written to the hard drive.
For each track, I would usually start with a track that played the harmonies of the song. Usually that was accordion or piano. Then I would add a piece at a time, often removing chunks of the original track as I went. My collection of effects such as reverb and equalization are limited on my machine. I used them, but I’m hoping to get them replaced by the real deal when I mix later this week. I also used a few electronic instruments through an interface called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Essentially, it’s a bank of sounds that can be played through a keyboard. This allowed me to add some instruments that I didn’t have in real life (music box, organ, drums), as well as use sounds that were synthesized (thunder, rain, spooky synth sound).
I made a decision here that most artists wouldn’t make: I published the material before it was in its finished state. For me at the time, having something out there that someone could hear was more important than perfecting it first. Also, I was caught up in the momentum and excitement of my project, and I wanted to share it with other people. While this isn’t the most professional way to release material, it’s the way that I wanted to, or needed to do it.
After I finished recording everything, I wanted to go back and correct some of the parts. Since I had set myself a deadline of one song per month to record, sometimes I was rushing to get the songs done, and parts weren’t as good as they could have been. I started by rerecording almost all the vocals. I did this for two reasons. First, my process for recording had improved over the year, and I wanted to use some of the techniques I had learned along the way on my earlier work. Second, I wanted the vocals all recorded at the same time so the levels were consistent. That way, when I went to mix, it would be easier to have them sound similar across the different tracks, since they had all been recorded with the same settings.
I also added in some instruments and harmonies that weren’t in the initial version. In one song, I took out a tambourine, which was the sole percussion on the track, and replaced it with a choir of snare drums. On several tracks, added a few vocal harmonies in that fit nicely.
In one track, I took out the electronic drums and hired my friend Adrian Harpham to record real drums. Adrian lives in New York, while I’m here in Philadelphia. So I sent him a version of my song without drums, and he put it into his version of Pro-Tools. He recorded his drums on 6 or 7 separate tracks (snare, kick, overhead, etc.) and sent the individual audio files back to me, which I then placed back in my recording. Welcome to the modern world of music collaboration!
Last weekend, in preparation for the mixing and mastering, I converted all my MIDI to audio so it could be used in the studio. The great advantage of MIDI is that it’s just a collection of data instructions. Meaning, if I use a piano sound, and decided to change it to a Fender Rhodes, I click a button, and those same data pieces take on new meaning. There’s a downside, though, which is that if I’m using an instrument on my computer and then mixing on a different computer, if that computer doesn’t have the instrument installed on it, the sound won’t play. That’s why I took those flexible MIDI files and made them into actual audio files; so that they could be played on Phil’s machine. As a side note, MIDI tends to be processor and memory intensive for a computer, so converting to audio also can prevent crashes and slow-downs.
That leaves me where I am now. My songs are all ready to go into the studio and be tweaked to get the best sound possible. Join me next time when I go through the process of working with a master on my master.