Archive for July, 2012

Several years ago, when I was still living and recording music in Louisville, KY, I was contacted by a wonderful woman named Joyce Ochs about recording a CD to accompany a basic lesson book for the mountain dulcimer.

Joyce Ochs and her Dulcimers

The book was to be a part of the well-known and respected Mel Bay lesson series.

Mel Bay First Lessons: Dulcimer

She gave me a draft of the book, which indicated all of the places where we would need to record her voice and a music sample. She also asked me to accompany her on the guitar. I set her up in the studio, and, after trying a couple of microphones out, discovered that my Rode NT-2 gave just the right body and high end bite that was needed, in order for students to hear the notes and chords well. We used the Neumann TLM-103 for her spoken parts, and the AT4041s for my acoustic guitar.

As you can see from this screenshot of the index, we recorded a LOT of music! And she was kind enough to thank me in her acknowledgments.

Index of Joyce’s Dulcimer Book

We had a wonderful day in the studio, as Joyce demonstrated her outstanding talent for organizing lessons, articulating clearly her instructions, and performing beautifully what she was after. The result is a first rate set of lessons on the mountain dulcimer by the “first lady” of dulcimer music herself. Check it out!

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Ian Willey (AKA I.C. Will) flew in from New York City on Thursday. His primary goal was to track several songs in the vocal booth, and to have my daughter, Leslie, record several vocal hooks and background vocal parts.

I.C. Will, July 2012 Session

As I’ve noted before, Ian likes me to roll off most of the low end on his voice, so I pulled everything below 200 of during he recording stage, and pulled more off in Logic. Here’s the eq curve he likes! Whew! And you can hear it (audio clip linked below)!

He and Leslie spent a good bit of time discussing his lyrics (on his iPhone) and deciding on how he wanted the vocal hooks to feel.

He wanted Leslie to not only sing a few vocal hooks, but to also do some blues scat vocals behind his rapping during a couple of songs.

In the end, it SOUNDED GREAT to have her free-stylin’ on vocals while he rapped.

The CD is now about halfway tracked. I’ll keep you posted!

Sherry Cothran is a smart, multi-talented, profoundly creative woman. The former lead singer for the alt-Southern rock  band the Evinrudes, Sherry now is the pastor of West Nashville United Methodist Church.

I first met her in class at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She was beginning a journey that would end with her placing her poetic abilities as a lyricist, and her musical genius, into the service of giving voice to biblical women. By her third and final year in divinity school, she had written a complete set of incredible songs. I was lucky enough to be able to work with her in the studio,  bringing these songs to life. Through each song we hear something of Sherry’s own journey of faith, and what it means to be a woman haunted by the God of the Bible. The stories of Deborah, Hagar, the woman of Endor,  the “strange woman” of Proverbs 8, and others resonate with the lives of women today.

Sherry was able to rally the Evinrudes to track her songs in the studio. It was a real treat to work with this excellent group of musicians who are now playing with some of Nashville’s big name artists.

Andy Hull produced some masterful drum and percussion tracks. I tracked him in the larger room in the studio and, instead of overhead miking cymbals individually and using a room mix, I used a stereo pair of AT4041s, which are brighter than my MikTek C5s,  up and back over the kit to get the kit reflecting off the walls of the room. This would give us the option of picking up as much of the ambient wood in that room as we could as a part of the kit. Sherry liked this room sound, and liked the drums on the “bright” side. We used a lot of room ambience on the drum and percussion tracks.

Ethan Pilzer’s bass tracks are fluid and lyrical – creating beautiful counterpoints throughout the CD. He lugged his excellent preamp rig into the studio and I ran it direct into my Apogee converters. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the sound he was getting. He also recorded his standup  bass tracks at home and mailed them in. I found that with a little tweaking, Izotope Alloy’s preset for acoustic bass was just the ticket for juicing those tracks with some presence and energy.

Brian Reed’s guitar work adds consistent “signature” hooks to nearly every song on the CD. We used an SM57 on his tweed amp, off axis, through my old Peavey VMP-2 tube amp to add a little grit and grain, and the sound was fantastic. Brian played identical parallel tracks, doubling himself perfectly on each song. This allowed us to create a huge soundstage with the electric guitar.

Jonathon Hamby’s keyboard tracks, especially on “In My Lover’s Arms” are sensitive and add sonic depth throughout the CD. He recorded these at home and mailed them in. In the mix, they needed only a little high-mid boost to cut through nicely.

Sherry invited Conni Ellisor in to track on violin, encouraging her to use Middle Eastern scales and tones. Conni was amazing. Her fiddle sounded best with a ribbon mic, and the Cascade Fathead worked wonders, keeping the highs from overpowering her sound. Conni was her own taskmaster, hard to satisfy, but in the end, her tracks make the CD (IMHO).

Toward the end of our tracking sessions, Sherry wanted a few small percussion tracks. She invited Cathy Chalmers, a first rate percussionist, to bring some of her more exotic percussion instruments into the studio and we spent and afternoon tracking some amazing bits. I wanted some real high end bite on these instruments, so again I used the Audio Technica AT4041 matched pair, allowing enough space from her instruments to capture the room. In the end, Sherry only used a few of these tracks, and they add to the subtle Middle Eastern ambience throughout the CD.

Sherry’s voice presented us with many possibilities. She has beautiful overtones in the low-mid, mid, and high registers. After listening to the music we had tracked, we decided to accentuate the low-mids a little, and to do the unexpected – to accentuate the high end breathiness in her voice, with the preamp (we used the Peavey VMP-2 with a slight high end boost), and by using the URS Neve emulation EQ, which has a great open-sounding high end.

This is one great CD. Here’s Sherry’s website for a quick listen. You can also hear more and order the CD at CD Baby.

For more on the connections between Sherry’s music and my book Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, go to: my blogspot MASHUP RELIGION.

One of my favorite things to do is to support artists who are working for social change. So it is with Ian Willey, (a.k.a. I.C.Will). Ian is a public school teacher in New York City and writes “education movement music” designed to raise consciousness about public education issues in NYC and to boost the self-esteem of students.

Ian is a lyricist, primarily. He gets his beats tailor made by Chris Capable of Capable Beats. Chris builds his beats on Ableton Live, using their VST plugins and instruments and his own collection of keyboards and synths.

One of the issues we had, recording I.C. Will’s first EP (check especially the song New York Sky), was that Ian had Chris provide him with stereo WAV files only.  This limited the amount of mixing we could do in order to build the beat around Ian’s vocals.

We’re now recording his second CD.  For this CD, he’s asked Chris to send bounces of each track of his own mix, especially keeping the bass tracks discrete. We anticipate getting a much phatter mix this time around.

Ian’s voice is naturally full of low frequencies – he’s a low baritone. He doesn’t like this all that well, and generally asks me to remove much of the low end from his voice in the mix.  He likes his vocal acapellas to cut through the mix somewhere in the upper mid range.

For the first album I.C. did a lot of vocal doubling, which took a lot of time. He didn’t feel that it had to be perfect, but he wanted it close. On the new CD, he’s backing off from this, and doing more single track vocals.

He also wanted to sing some of the vocal hooks on the CD. He’s not a trained singer, so this took some tracking to get our system and workflow going. Sometimes we’d negotiate the pitch, going back and forth, till it was within tunable range. For the most part, however, he was able to sing and double his parts easily.

Ian is an amazing human being and a great performer.

Check out the first CD at CD Baby. It’s some amazing music.

A quick trick. It’s not always easy to get your stereo mics spaced well. Here’s an easy way to get your measurements. Go to ORTF  Stereo Technique on Wikipedia. Click on the diagram on that page. Print it out. You can use it to easily align your microphones.

ORTF Microphone Spacing

Wikipedia also has pages for XY spacing and other configurations. Oh, and by the way, ORTF miking is great for acoustic guitar. Give it a try sometime.

My niece Sarah McCutchan was in town last week to attend a music camp for teenagers at Trevecca University. She would be with us for a day and a half before leaving to go to the camp. She indicated interest in recording a few songs. I didn’t know what to expect.

I had her tune my guitar and warm up her voice. Sounded pretty go so far. She knew how to tune the guitar! And her voice sounded promising.

Tuning and Warming Up

I set up a matched stereo pair of MikTek C5 small condenser microphones in an ORTF (near coincident) arrangement and had her track the guitar parts first. The goal was quantity, not quality – so we mostly just ran through the 7 songs quickly, using first takes. We only had about 6 hours to do the whole project!

Then it was into the vocal booth. No pitch problems! A strong voice, though. The best arrangement seemed to be the Neumann TLM103 through the Universal Audio 610 MKII  channel strip. Since there wasn’t much time for tweaking, this tube mic pre and compressor/limiter would help control her peaks (with just a tiny bit of limiting only).

The result was wonderful. Plenty of small errors due to the fast pace and no retakes. But lovely. Here’s a sample, posted by her father on SoundCloud. The other songs should be accessible there as well. Enjoy!

Here’s my simple philosophy for keeping expenses down: CONTROL YOUR GEAR LUST!

The marketing gurus are after you! And they are always trying to sell you something you probably don’t need. To record with professional quality, however, you will need a few more items and a few better items than you need for just knocking around with a few garage quality demos. Here’s the recording/tracking chain:

1. Computer. You need a good computer – at least a dual core Intel machine. Two drives: one for your DAW software (Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, etc.) and the other for your tracks. I’ll have more to say on this another time.

2. DA Converters. You need HIGH QUALITY analog to digital converters. This is one place not to scrimp! The biggest different in your sound happens here – with converters (and digital clock). I use the Apogee AD16x (I sometimes need 16 simultaneous tracks for live tracking) – now replaced by their Symphony system. In order to get the least possible latency, I use the Apogee Thunderbridge and X-symphony card in order to be able to use the thunderbolt in/out on my computer. Get something comparable (Lynx, or UA Apollo). You won’t regret it.

3. Preamps. Next in the food chain are your preamps. Here, the marketers go wild. Since preamps add color and texture to the sound on the way in, helping with the often brittle quality of digital recording, you’ll be tempted to get all kinds of preamps. What you NEED, however, is at least one really good clean or transparent preamp, and at least one more colored preamp (tube or heavy transformer based). You might also get two or three “channel strips”. A channel strip includes a good preamp, a good equalizer, and a good compressor/limiter. The ability to bypass the equalizer and/or compressor/limiter is an important feature. You won’t always want these in the chain.

For clean/transparent pre amplification, I like the True Precision preamps. I bought the True Precision 8, which includes 8 channels, since I sometimes record bands. It gives me 8 great channels for a drum kit, for instance, and at a good price point. Other great transparent preamps are Grace preamps, but they tend to be a little pricier per unit. A very nice, inexpensive tube pair of tube preamps, if you can find them, are the Peavey VM-P-2s. I got a pair used and love them. Another good set of used preamps is the Presonus MP-20. I get good workhorse time out of mine.

On the channel strip side, you might get a non-transformer strip, a good transformer-loaded strip, and a good tube strip. For a little tube flavor to warm things up, perhaps the best price for the money for a “money channel” is the Universal Audio LA 610 MKII. I use mine all the time, especially for vocals. Another good workhorse choice is the Avalon VT-737sp. For a good budget minded non-transformer channel strip, think about the Presonus Eureka. I use mine regularly. The preamp is fast and transparent, the compressor adequate for most projects, and the eq is very clean. For a transformer-based strip, you can’t do better than the Focusrite ISA 430 MKII. It takes a while to learn (due to its many, many options), but simply sounds fantastic on just about everything – especially bass! I use mine all the time.

4. Hardware compressor/limiters. If you are multi-tracking, you may never need these, but it is a good idea to have a couple on hand to tame transients on the way into the box. You could spend a bundle here, but I wouldn’t. I like the FMR audio RMC1773 “Really Nice” Compressor. Tremendous for the money, and I’ve never had a studio situation – drums, bass, BGVs, etc. where they didn’t do the trick if I needed them to tame a signal.

5. Microphones. Here again, the marketers will want to you spend, spend, spend. What you really need, however, are a few good mics in the following categories:

  • Large Diaphragm cardioid condenser. First, you need a good large diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone for capturing vocals, drum overhead, etc. How good? Well, despite what you might be led to believe, you can get good professional recordings with less than you think. I have come to love quality and versatility of the Neumann TLM 103. This is a very straight forward, quiet, clean microphone with tremendous handling of sound pressure levels (spls). There are lots of other great choices here that won’t break the bank. The Mojave MA-200, MikTek C7, Shure KSM44A, or AKG C414XLS will all do the trick for about the same price.
  • Stereo Pair – Small Diaphragm Cardioid Condenser. Second, you need a good stereo pair of small diaphragm cardioid condenser microphones for capturing a range of acoustic instruments – mandolin, fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, choirs, ensembles, etc. These are also good for cymbals. Many studios make use of the Neumann KM 184 matched pair. I find these to have a tiny bit too much of a high end spike for my taste, which doesn’t make them versatile enough to handle some instruments – like the fiddle. I now use the MikTek C5MP and love them. The high end is not brittle, but smooth and easy to eq. I also like supporting the local economy. These great sounding microphones are made in Nashville.
  • Dynamic Microphones. Third, you need a few workhorse dynamic microphones. These are especially good for recording drums and guitar amps and cabs. I grew up on Shure Sm-57s for these tasks, and I’d strongly recommend looking into the Shure DMK57-52 drum microphone kit. You’ll get three SM57s, and a Beta 52 for kick, along with a nice case and drum mounts. The Beta 52 is a great kick mic, and can also double when you multitrack the bass amp with good results, and does surprisingly well also on double bass. For bass amp miking and for some vocal applications, it is also good to have an Electrovoice EVRE320 on hand. A great mic for the money and a real workhorse.
  • A Ribbon Microphone. Finally, it is a good idea to have one ribbon mic in the closet. Some instruments and vocals just have too much high end bite, and only a ribbon mic can get them under control. And from time to time you’ll want to reach for a mic that will provide that dark vintage vibe. Also, ribbon mics have a figure 8 pattern, which can be helpful in many applications, especially when you want to capture room ambience. Typically these are expensive microphones. Its hard to beat a Royer R-121 for versatility. The AEA R84 is great. If I need one of this quality, I usually head downtown and rent one for the day (about 60 bucks). In my closet, however, I have the very affordable Cascade Fathead II. For most applications, it is more than adequate – great for the squeaking violin or the room mic. And a good guitar amp mic as well. For as often as you’ll probably need a ribbon, this should be enough. I also get great use out of my very affordable Cascade X-15 stereo ribbon mic. I have a very active sounding drum room, and this is a great room mic for stereo miking drums in such a room. It is also lovely on guitar in some applications.

Ok. Granted there are lots of other choices and occasional needs – omnidirectional, tube condenser, etc. And you can keep adding on. The basics, however, are mostly cardioid mics – condenser and dynamic, and the occasional ribbon.

Home recordists usually have room issues. These are often over-stated by product marketers, however. In today’s world, you’ll be doing a lot of close miking, and the room will not present huge issues. Even drum miking can be fairly well controlled in rooms that are not perfect. On the room-prep end, I’d recommend that you grab a closet and turn it into a vocal booth if you can. This will be your main need in terms of room issues. Here’s mine.

Vocal Booth in the Closet

And purchase one of several great new products for controlling room reflections. I use the SE Reflexion Filter when recording lots of instruments, and for some vocal applications – a first rate product. The Auralex ProMAX is also great and very versatile. Two of these will be all you’ll need to control most room issues.

That’s it for gear in the recording/tracking chain. You don’t need more than this to get professional quality recording going at home.

I’ll blog another time about studio monitoring equipment and recording software and plugins to consider. Again, the philosophy is, and will be, the same – Control Your Gear Lust!

As I mentioned in the “About” page, I have four reasons for posting this blog.

First, in the section entitled Recent Projects, to (gently) advertise my project studio. I try to record 5-6 projects annually, and would be glad to discuss whether what I do is appropriate for your project. From time to time, therefore, I’ll post links to music recorded in the studio so that you can get an idea of what I can do.

Second, in the section entitled Philosophy, to share my philosophy of recording.

Third, in the section entitled Tricks of the Trade, to share ideas that I have about improving both the workflow and quality of project studio recordings.

Fourth, in the section entitled Gear, to discuss gear I have used or found useful in studio production.

For over thirty years now I’ve been recording and mixing music. No, it’s not my “day job.” I teach at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I write books on all kinds of topics. I’ve also been known to blog on a range of topics – in particular preaching and worship, and popular religion. My passion for recording music intersects with my other interests – which focus on the philosophy and impact of sound and words in the public arena.

My life in recording began in my teenage and college age years, in Birmingham, Alabama. I worked for a film company (Metcalf Productions), writing soundtracks (mostly music) for commercial films and television spots. I hung around the studio as much as I could, learning the basics of microphone placement, mixing and editing.

Studio Engineering was not how I wanted to make a living. I had other interests oriented toward scholarship and teaching. But music performance and recording remained my primary hobbies – and soon became a bit more than that, as computers began to make recording more accessible for hobbyists.

In the Control Room

With the advent of computer-based digital sequencing in the 80’s and then the full-blown marketing of digital audio workstations (DAWs) in the 90’s, home recording leapt to new levels, and became more accessible to hobbyists. I began editing on the German based software Emagic Logic in the mid-90s and stuck with it when Apple bought the company and morphed it into Logic Pro. I have stayed with Logic, and have found it to be more than adequate for most forms of studio production.

Moving to Nashville in 2004 changed the whole game for me. Nashville is filled with commercial and boutique studios, and hundreds of project studios (good and bad). At the same time, hundreds of artists move to Nashville each year in order to try to make it in the music industry as either songwriters or performers. The number of people needing good quality demo recordings or affordable project recordings is many times what it is in most cities. And there is a small niche for those of us who can provide a product that is less expensive yet well recorded and mixed. I’ve steadily increased the number of projects I take on. My connections with excellent musicians (for hire), gear rental and other music resources has sky-rocketed in the past three years.

Although gear is important, as you will see in later posts, I believe that the key to recording and mixing is the ear, not the gear. Some of my favorite recordings were made on an old Tascam cassette Portastudio I owned in the late 80s, using mostly dynamic microphones. Training one’s ear to create a good sound and mix is the key to recording at any level. More on this, and other aspects of the game, later.

Welcome to the blog. Hope you enjoy it and get something out of it.