Posts Tagged ‘Project studio’

2015 was a lot of fun in the studio. Although several smaller projects were completed this year, these three CD projects were capstone events at Jonymac Studio. All three projects were utterly different, presenting unique challenges for tracking, recording, mixing, and mastering. Although Sherry Cothran’s is still in the final stages of mixing and mastering, I’m mentioning it here because it captured a wonderful space in the studio “process” this year.

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First, John Nelson (aka “The Rev”) came down again from Provincetown, Massachusetts with another great batch of songs. Our workflow was much improved this time around, and he hired the usual suspects for a first rate album project: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Randy Kohrs on resonator and electric slide guitar, and he flew Mark Hill in from New Jersey for electric guitar tracks. Andy Hull provided his usual outstanding drum and percussion work. We switched vocal microphones on him, tracking him with the Miktek CV4, a nice tube condenser mic, and switched preamps to the Focusrite ISA 430 mkII. We both agreed that this combination really helped his voice pop out of the mix.  Take a listen: The Rev, We Are Family.

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During the summer, Sherry Cothran began tracking her new project, funded by the a Louisville Institute Pastoral Study Grant. A theologian, pastor, songwriter and performer, Sherry put all of her gifts together beautifully with a collection of songs that capture the essence of several religious traditions of “wisdom literature.” The idea behind this CD was to use acoustic instruments in a minimalist way to create a light, spacious soundscape for Sherry’s voice. I focused on using very transparent preamps during the tracking of percussion and acoustic bass. Jeff Roach tracked and sent in digital files for synth-cello and keyboard tracks, and Conni Ellisor also tracked acoustic piano tracks at her home studio and sent them along. Toughest to track was Sherry’s acoustic guitar. While a lovely instrument, is is very forward in the midrange, and doesn’t sport the kind of large, open sound that might have been nice for this CD. It takes some mixing work to get it right! Luis Espaillat was tremendous on the bass, and Andy Hull was amazing, as usual, on drums and percussion. One of the finest tracks on the CD is a track co-written with Peter Mayer (of Jimmy Buffett’s band) entitled “Still.” His guitar work on that cut is worth the price of this CD alone. The artwork is done – and beautiful. A first printing of the CD mixed by me was pressed for a CD party in November in Louisville. A final mixdown is underway, under the skillful hand of expert Dave Schober.

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Perhaps the most fun of all was the experience tracking Mundo Brew, a Brazilian style Americana group from Louisville, KY. The songs written by band leader Chris Elwood are full of wonderful Latin American jazz chords and changes. The fun, in this case, was the “old school” dynamic of completely tracking the entire CD in a four-day “live-in” experience. Chris (vocals and guitar) and Brad Wigger (percussion) lived at the house. Chris’ daughters, Isabelle and Josephine, drove down the final two days and stayed at a nearby hotel, tracking backup vocals. Likewise, Doug Yeager drove down to track flute and saxophone, and Burns Stanfield flew in from Massachusetts for a day and a half to track keyboards and trumpet. What a whirlwind! We worked late hours, and caught a wonderful “live” groove that gives the whole CD a lot of energy and spontaneity. Most of the CD was tracked in my large room, with a few gobos placed strategically. We let the room sound work for us, and it provided a nice glue for the mix. Take a listen: Mundo Brew: Love Force

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John Wiley Nelson (a.k.a. “The Rev”) is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister who lives in Provincetown, MA. In his retirement, he is the manager of the local public radio station, WOMR. The Rev writes mostly folk and/or Americana songs. He likes to use acoustic instruments, but with electric bass and drums – locating his sound somewhere between bluegrass and country. Although a minister, his music is not religious – though, at times, it shows the sensibilities and sensitivities of a theologian and pastor. There is a lot of fun in his music which is loaded with irony, double-entendre, and reversals of plot.

The Rev. likes quality of instrumentation. When he comes to town, he hires the best. In this case, he hired Grammy award winner Randy Kohrs on dobro and pedal steel. Kohrs was Dolly Parton’s dobro player for years, and has played on more than 500 albums, ranging from those by such legends as Hank Thompson and Jerry Reed to current chart-toppers Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley, Sara Evans and The Wreckers.  Among his accolades for such work is a 2009 Academy of Country Music Award nomination in the Top Specialty Instrumentalist category. Randy owns and operates his own recording studio called Slack Key Recording Studio. We sent him scratch tracks and he recorded his tracks in his own studio.

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On fiddle, the Rev brought in Stuart Duncan. Stuart can be seen and heard with The Nashville Bluegrass Band, where he’s been a contributing member since 1985.  The band has won two Grammies, multiple IBMA & SPBMA awards. Duncan has played with Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Yo Yo Ma, Alan Jackson, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and many others. He is a complete professional. Because he tracked after the dobro and mandolin were finished, he provided fills that weave all of the other tracks together in a beautiful way. He showed remarkable sensitivity also. When tracking “Ordinary Day”, a song with a verse about the death of the Rev’s son, he re-recorded his lead, working to make it match the tenor and feeling of that part of the song. I used a single MikTek C5 on his fiddle and it worked great. I let him find the sweet spot, and the tracks turned out great.

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The Rev hired Grammy award winner Adam Steffey to record mandolin tracks. Steffey has played with many of the bluegrass greats, including playing for seven years with Alison Krauss and Union Station, working regularly with the Dan Tyminski Band, and now playing with the Boxcars. Adam lives several hours away and had a friend, Ron Fonzerelli, record his tracks and send them in. Ron used API pres and a stereo pair of Neumann KM84s to record Adam. The tracks turned out really well in the mix.

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I used no eq or compression on the dobro, mando, or fiddle tracks. I used the same stereo buss for all three instruments in order to get them pretty much into the same sonic space in the mix.

Plugin Settings

That buss had a tiny bit of Softube “Focusing Eq“, (to add tape saturation – I love Softube saturation), URS API modeled eq. (a really smooth, natural sounding eq.), a very small bit of URS 70’s compression, and a tiny bit of IK Multimedia CSR Room reverb on it. That’s all.

The Rev. likes to mix genres on his CDs, and on this CD he had two great blues tunes. He flew Mark Hill in from New Jersey to track the lead  guitar parts. Mark played with Herd of Blues for years, and really has a nice feel for blues. He brought his Fender Nashville Telecaster and we recorded him through my Fender Princeton, using a single Shure SM57. He used my Nick Greer “Ghetto Stomp” to add grit to the sound. The result was great.

Mark Hill

Andy Hull produced some masterful drum and percussion tracks. Andy has drummed for Ty Herndon, Jamie O’Neal, Collin Raye, Joey and Rory, Lee Greenwood, and the Evinrudes. 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.

 

On the Rev’s vocals, we used the TLM 103 through my UA LA610-MKII. I used a tiny bit of limiting on the way in, but no compression. With vocal tracks I usually use a 4-buss setup. Buss 1 is for a touch of reverb, buss 2 is for a tiny bit of delay, buss 3 is for vocal thickening, and buss 4 is for widening. I find that the Logic Stereo Delay works fine for delay, timed to 1/8 notes and used very modestly. Izotope Alloy’s vocal preset for “Intimate Parallel” vocals is a nice place to start when tweaking a vocal thickening track. Logic’s analog tape compression combined with Logic’s Stereo Spreader produce a nice, adjustable spread. The IK Multimedia “Vocal Late Reverb” setting provided a good amount of reverb ambience.

Vocal Plugins

The Rev invited his daughter, Molly, to track vocals on three of the CD’s songs. She had a lovely, soft voice, and her pitch was perfect. I used the TLM 103 on her voice and a similar 4-buss palette.

The Rev asked me to record the bass tracks. I used my Fender American Deluxe P-Bass. I went direct, through the LA 610MKII. I then added the IK Multimedia Ampeg SVX plugin, splitting the sound between the DI and an emulated SVT-4 Pro. On the two blues songs, I used the back pickup (a Fender Jazz Pickup), and a bit more compression on the way in, to get a more mid-rangy “honkin blues” sound.

He also asked me to record some of the rhythm guitar tracks. Mark Hill recorded some of these also. He prefers these to be in the mix, but not prominent. I used my MikTek C5 stereo pair in a ORTF arrangement for these tracks.

He also had me record the keyboard tracks. I used Logic’s “Yamaha Studio” piano for the piano tracks, and used my Nord Electro 2 for the organ tracks.

The CD turned out great. Check it out at CD BABY.

Leslie (my daughter) is a talented young photographer, writer and vocalist.

Leslie in the Vocal Booth

She wanted her second CD, Back Home to You, to be a little different. While filled with her usual bluegrassy, folky, Spanish-laced original music, she wanted to include several covers – long time favorites by Peter Rowan (You Were There for Me), Patty Griffin (Useless Desires), Alison Krauss (It Don’t Matter Now), Julie Lee (Many Waters), and Josh Wolak (Fell Out). All of these songs are wonderful, and really fit in nicely with her own music.

The sonic palette we were after might best be described as “acoustic silk.” We wanted the musical background to be soft, transparent, understated, but musically interesting. Leslie wanted me to provide the acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, and keyboard tracks. To save money, I would do some of the lead guitar work on my Alvarez S-Yairi dreadnaught and on a half-sized guitar called a Papoose, made by Tacoma guitars.

Nathan Dugger, a friend of Leslie’s from her days at Belmont University, who has since gone on to play with Marc Broussard and Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, provided lead guitar work on You Were There for Me and Useless Desires. Nathan came by the house and I recorded him in stereo, using the TLM 103 about 10 inches from his bridge, and an AT4041 about 8 inches off the 16th fret. I used this same configuration to record my own guitar tracks. Nathan did a first rate job with two very difficult songs.

Nathan Dugger (in another studio)

Nathan Dugger (in another studio)

Kevin Maul provided Dobro work on the more bluegrass-oriented songs, Sarah Taylor and Fell Out. Kevin has performed with Soul/Blues icons the Holmes Brothers and has shared the stage with people like Greg Brown, Tim O’Brien, voodoo blues king John Mooney, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill, Chet Atkins, dobro master Jerry Douglas, and the Everly Brothers. He’s been a frequent guest, along with Robin and Linda Williams, on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program as well as Mountain Stage, E-Town and Austin City Limits.

Kevin Maul

Although I’ve recorded Kevin in the studio before, this time he mailed his tracks in from his home studio in upper state New York. He did a great job of getting the feel for the songs.

Leslie wanted acoustic double bass on the CD. I don’t play double bass, so I sampled a note from an old Bill Evans CD and spreading it across the keyboard of the EXS24 sampler in Logic. Worked pretty well.

We decided that the only “drum” on the CD would be the chop of a mandolin on several more upbeat songs. I don’t play mandolin. Again, I sampled a chop from another recording provided by mandolinist and guitarist Mark Hill and used the EXS24 to play the mando chops. The results were pretty nice – not perfect, but overall fairly effective and musical.

Recording Leslie’s voice is always difficult. She is a powerhouse, and controlling the transients that nearly leap out of the speakers is not easy. Her good friend Carson Leverett, in a course on music tech at Belmont, had built a crazy looking preamp modeled exactly after a Manley Tube Preamp. It turned out to be just the ticket. While capturing her voice beautifully, it also seemed to have a kind of natural compression built into it that kept her peaks in range of what my FMR Compressor could deal with. I didn’t use much compression – just a tiny bit of limiting, and the result was lovely.

Carson’s Hand Made Manley Tube Preamp

Given the very limited budget, and the fact that I had to cover musical instruments that were not in my repertoire, the CD turned out beautifully. Check out a cut HERE.

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!

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.

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!

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.