Category Archives: Recording

Watermelon Magic

Last week I got a text from a trumpet player I haven’t spoken to in a while:

“Hey Tubadan, this is Adam.  How’s it going?  Want to do a recording session on tuba on Saturday in the afternoon for 2 hours with charts already made up?”

The price was right, and I had the afternoon free, so it was a no-brainer.  I wrote back and told him sure.

As the day approached I went through my typical worry over the unknown.  I didn’t know anything about the artist I’d be recording for or who else would be on the session.  What if the charts were too challenging?  What if they didn’t like my sound?  These sorts of things don’t actually happen to me, but I suppose I do like to torture myself to some extent.

Then the day before, Adam contacted me to confirm.  I asked him what we’d be recording for.  His response:

“It’s for some score for an IMAX movie or something along those lines.”

This was intriguing and posed more questions than it answered, but I was game for whatever came up.  While I worry when I don’t know the full situation, I also feel liberated, since there’s nothing I can really do to prepare except be in good shape for the session.  So I made sure to practice regularly a few days in advance, trying to keep the whole range of my instrument comfortable and in good tone.

Watermelon Magic PosterOn Saturday I arrived at the studio, which was in a back room of a club in town.  I had played at the club multiple times, but never knew there was a recording studio.  I met the engineer Peter and the film producer/creator Rich, who told me about his project Watermelon Magic.  It’s a story of a family on a farm and a young girl’s learning about the magic of plants growing.  It has a funny quirky story with some nice educational components as well.

The crazy thing about the film is that it is made completely from still photographs.  As Rich explained to me, IMAX films are extremely expensive to make, in part because the cameras used have to film at an extremely high resolution.  Ordinary video cameras can’t manage this, but high end digital cameras can.  So Rich exploited this loophole to make his film out of still shots run together quick enough to give the illusion of motion.  He also used time-lapse photography to show the growth of the plants.  Even though these were done as a series of stills as well, he ran these at a much higher frame rate so it actually does look like a movie.  The result is a film that can be shown in an IMAX theater that cost significantly less than a typical IMAX movie to make.

Back to where I fit in, Rich and Peter explained that they wanted to have some real horns on the soundtrack.  At that time, they had only used MIDI to create virtual and sampled instruments, but they were looking for something more real.  There was a particular section that warranted live instruments and they also wanted some horn cues to play some of the incidental music for the film.  Then they shook things up a bit when they told me that the parts would be completely improvised (despite the message Adam had sent) and that the only players would be myself and Adam on trumpet.  So much for worrying that I couldn’t play the parts!

Peter set up the microphones and Adam and I got ready to play the first sequence.  There was an African drumbeat over a scene of the main character building a fence, and Rich was looking for a nice groove to be played over it.  They turned the video monitor so we could see it as we played, and we laid down a few takes.  It had been a while since I played with Adam, but he is a phenomenal player with great sensibilities for melody and feel, so recording was easy and really fun.  Once we found a style we liked we did a few more takes, and then Adam overdubbed playing just his mouthpiece over our favorite take.

Afterwards, we each recorded a few of the movie cues individually.  I would watch the film playing and add in what I thought would be a good soundtrack to it on the tuba, then Adam took his turn.  Lastly, we planned out a few “cliche” cues (like the sad trombone for instance) together and played through them.  We each came up with a few good ones, including a chromatic descent a tritone apart, a quick little march, and then a minor slower version of the same march.  After just about every take, Adam and I would crack up at what we were doing.

We listened back to some of what we recorded before packing up and going our separate ways.  I had a smile on my face the rest of the day thinking about how much fun I had exercising my creativity.  Certainly I’m a part of an industry that involves creative thought in so many areas, but it’s not often as raw and intuitive as what we had recorded that day.  It certainly helped that Rich and Peter had both ideas for directions we could go, as well as the experience and foresight to let us experiment and find what worked.  I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun in the studio (apologies to everyone I’ve recorded with ever).

In addition to being a beacon of positivity, this experience also reminded me of all the exciting and creative endeavors that people are doing that fall under the radar.  Musicians are exploring new subjects and new ways of expressing them.  Visual artists are creating innovative approaches to expression in a variety of media.  Filmmakers are finding ways to reinvent their craft.  Authors are introducing unique perspectives of the world around them and of their own boundless imaginations.  These are gifts to be thankful for every day.  I’m just as guilty when I allow exhaustion (or laziness) keep me from discovering the next new thing, but we owe it to ourselves and our fellow humans to continue to explore our own imaginations and to support and encourage those who are doing the same.  Take that chance to be a part of the art community by participating, supporting, or both, and you’ll soon discover that watermelons aren’t the only things that are magic.

Watermelon Magic Trailer from Spring Garden Pictures on Vimeo.


Into the Studio: Part Three – Mastering

In parts one and two I discussed the process of recording and mixing an album.  Late last Thursday evening, after devouring a delicious mole veggie burrito at El Limon, we finished up the mixing and moved to mastering.  This was the part that I knew the least about coming into the studio.  It turned out to be a fascinating process.

Mastering involves several separate processes that finalize the tracks to make them ready for duplication.  First the tracks are adjusted so that they are all of similar volume.  That way the entire album sounds balanced, and no one track stands out as either too loud or too quiet.  The gain is also brought up as high as possible without distorting the sound.  Some minor equalization and compression is also applied to the track to make the songs sound polished.  Lead time is added to each track (so that there is some space between them), and they are then exported to AIFF format, to be burned onto a CD.  Finally, the track names are encoded into the file so that radios and devices that display the artist’s name and the track name will have the data they need.

Phil started out by opening a separate Protools file on a different computer that is attached to the board.  That means that anything played on that computer is heard in the speakers, and anything played on the board can be recorded onto the session on that computer.  He then loaded up the first track on the original computer and started playing it through the board and a digital mastering console.  He turned a few knobs on the console and then immediately turned the volume down to almost nothing.  When I asked him about it, he told me that he was listening for distortion.  He said that distortion, or clipping, is best heard when the volume is extremely low.  If you turn the volume up too high, the distortion is lost in the high sounds and can’t be heard.

We also listened to both the analog and digital versions I mentioned in part two.  There really was no comparison, though.  What had seemed like a subtle difference a few days earlier was crystal clear.  The analog version sounded warmer, smoother, and fuller, while the digital version was cold and almost hollow.  Analog it is!

After the track volume was set, Phil recorded the finished song onto the second computer in stereo and we moved onto the next one.  Here, however, another step was added.  In order to balance the tracks with each other, Phil would play the track he was working on, and then quickly switch back and forth between tracks that had already been finished, making small adjustments along the way.  After about 4 or 5 songs were finished, it got to be fascinating and borderline comical.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  I got some film documentation (plus a free preview of the album, Greatest Hits of the 80’s style):

This process took about an hour and a half.  Once each track was compared and finished (or mastered, if you will), we went through each of the tracks to determine the spacing between songs.  Phil told me that the old way to do this was to put some time in before each track (starting with -0:02 or so and going forward), but that this caused problems when they were played independently from the CD, such as in iTunes or on your Zune.  The better way to do it is to add the lead time in at the end of the previous track so that no matter where it was played, there would always be the same amount of empty time after the track had finished.  We went song by song and played the ends of them, deciding how much time to wait until moving to the next track.  In retrospect, I didn’t put enough time in, as they move too quickly to the next song.  Fortunately, I still have time to make that adjustment when I give Phil my track names to encode in each file.

With that, we just had to burn a copy of the master, and then we were all done.  We had started around 2 in the afternoon, and it was almost 11 when we finished up.  Phil and I said our goodbyes, and I drove home with the CD playing the entire night.  As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs, plugged my computer in, and transferred the entire session over to my backup hard drive.  As my friend Adrian says, if it’s not backed up in 4 different places, it doesn’t actually exist.

All in all, a thrilling experience.  The best is yet to come though, because I can say without hesitation that the tracks sound amazing.  You’ll be able to get your hands on them at the end of August.  August 25th, in fact.  I’ll have details for that coming soon at  I promise I’ll talk about something other than producing an album next time!  Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Into the Studio: Part Two – Mixing

Once I had everything recorded and touched-up, I was  ready to take it into the studio to have a professional mix and master the songs.  Incidentally, that first clause is deceptively difficult: finishing recording and touching-up.  The advantage of recording at home, that you can record at any time you want, is also a curse.  How do you know when you’re done?  I fell into this trap after I rerecorded the vocals.  I started listening to the new vocals and hearing imperfections or things I could improve upon.  I realized that I could prolong this process indefinitely, especially because this album is important to me; I want it to be perfect.  At some point, though, I have to let go and let the form that it has taken be its final form.  When I was in the studio, there were things I heard where my first impulse was to try to get another take.  It took everything I had in me to let it go and trust that what I had at that moment possessed quality enough.

Awards in the studio

Boyz 2 Men on the left, Amy Grant on the right.

On Tuesday, in the mid-afternoon, I walked into a bar and grill, and found the stairs leading to the basement where Studio 4 was located.  I found myself in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, that housed the various rooms of the studio.  I’d be in the mixing studio for what I needed to do, so I made my way through the various soundproof double doors to where Phil was waiting for me.  The room was filled with gold records from various artists such as Boyz 2 Men, Amy Grant, and Cyprus Hill.  Right above the station we would be working at was a certificate stating that the album River of Dreams by Billy Joel was nominated for album of the year in 1993 and that Phil Nicolo was Associate Producer.

The Board

The Board

As impressive as this was, the real excitement was in the equipment the room housed.  There was a massive mixing board, complete with faders, knobs, and buttons; 3 racks filled with preamps, compressors, and reverb processors; a board of plugs with patch cables running from channel to channel; and a reel-to-reel tape machine with 1/2 inch tape threaded on the spools.  Phil had a Mac set up with Protools where we’d be working with the files I created, and we quickly got down to business plugging my hard drive into his computer and bringing the files up.

For each song we mixed, we had a similar process.  First Phil opened the file and assigned each of the tracks I had recorded to a channel on the mixing board.  Then, starting with the percussion, he started to bring up each track into the mix, making sure it sounded good on its own before bringing in the next sound and balancing it with the first.  The board was right across from the computer, so he rolled his chair back and forth between the two of them adjusting the sound first in Protools, then on the board.  I’m trying not to make this too much of an exercise in creative writing, but his fingers really did fly across the board, making miniscule adjustments to the tone quality, adding in a touch of reverb or equalization along the way.  It was really impressive to see a professional in action.

Once the percussion was in place, he moved to the rhythm instruments, the backbone of the song.  Often this was accordion, but sometimes it was a toy piano or an electronic instrument.  When that was sounding good, he went back and balanced it with the percussion.  Each track was added in one by one.  Once all the instrumental parts were in, he added the vocals in, first lead vocals, then background.  The whole process took about 10 minutes or so to get all the parts into the board.

Dan at Mixing Board


At this point when we were mixing the first song, he invited me to play with the faders and knobs over on the board at any point.  My knowledge of audio amplification is limited, so it was a scary thought at first, but as the day went on, I became more comfortable making adjustments.  For example, in the first track we mixed, Ladies, he had a heavier reverb than I wanted, so he showed me the knobs to adjust and then I started tweaking it until I got the right level of intimacy and warmth (with the reverb, the reverb, not with Phil!).

There was also a great moment when he stopped concentrating on the sound qualities of the individual tracks and started listening to the lyrics to Ladies.  At that point, he turned to me, smiled, and said, “Oh, I like it already.”

After all the parts were in, he made a few other minor adjustments to the track such as panning tracks to the left or right channel, and then moved to the automation portion.  This was not something I expected, as I hadn’t seen it done in other mixing sessions I had.  Phil is not just a recording engineer, but a live sound technician.  If you ever watch the people who sit at the mixing boards at big concerts, they’re constantly moving faders and making adjustments to react to the live performance.  When automating, he played the song from the beginning and adjusted the faders and settings in real time.  His adjustments were recorded on the board and built into the track so they would always play back that way.  This gives a sense of human response to the song; an evolving and responsive touch.  It was amazing to see.

Once this was done, we listened once or twice more to the track to make sure it was where I wanted it to be, and then we made a finished version of the track.  Actually, we made two.  The first was sent through a digital processor, while the second was sent through an analog processor (the reel-to-reel tape machine).  This was another thing I hadn’t expected.  Phil explained that he liked to output it to each of them, and then we could decide which I wanted to use.  The digital was a crisp and clean rendering of my song, while the analog was a little warmer and a little fuzzier.  Phil said that sometimes the analog version gives a song a more cohesive quality than the digital, and that we could decide after they were all finished.  Truthfully, I could only hear the slightest shade of difference between them.  I haven’t decided which to use yet, so when it’s done, try and guess which I used!

On Tuesday, we finished the mixing on 8 of the 14 tracks.  I’m going back this afternoon to finish up the remaining six and have him master the tracks.  Since I don’t really know what that entails yet, I’ll save that for the exciting Part Three!

Phil's Menagerie

You have to appreciate a guy with spotted dick and mint balls.

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