Posts Tagged ‘recording’

So, living in Nashville is pretty amazing if you have a studio. Great musicians are available all the time, you can rent gear from several outlets for reasonable prices, and the there are many world-class techs available to repair, renovate, or modify your gear when needed. On that last score, I have been self-modifying several of my microphones, soldering better capsules and capacitors into my Rode N2 and into a Studio Projects B3 large diaphragm microphone.

After using my Miktek CV4 for a couple of years, and basically loving it for most things, I found that I kept trying to equalize a little high end “zing” – evidently due to the way the capsule interacts with the tube electronics in the body of the mic. I read a Tape Op magazine article about a microphone tech in Nashville named Shannon Rhoades, a guy who used to actually work at MikTek, who could do a killer modification on the CV4. After listening to some digital files of the results he is able to achieve, I bit the bullet (literally – this was not cheap) and decided to go for it. I emailed him and then packed up my CV4 and drove it over to his house. When I walked in, I shuffled past a dog, and a guy coming out of the back workroom with a microphone modified for Martina McBride (I believe it was her, or maybe it was Shania Twain), and met Shannon in the workroom Here’s a little video from YouTube of an interview with Shannon in that room (scroll to about 5:45).

The room was full of microphones, all being modified and personalized for various country luminaries, and Shannon asked me a few questions about what I was looking for in the mic. He got the drift, I left, and he went to work. Two weeks later I returned, paid him through PayPal, picked up the microphone and put it into action recording the Flat River Band (a post to come about that later).

After nearly a year with the modified microphone, using it on vocals, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and as a room mic, I have to say that it was worth every penny. What was a really, really good $1600.00 tube condenser mic, was now close to a world-class microphone – the kind you’d pay 8 to 10 grand to use. It has that huge, larger than life, “suck you in sound”, with a silky high end, tight and controlled midrange, full and flowery low end that is really nice to have on most vocals and featured instruments. It reminds me a lot of a Telefunken C12, and for about 1/3 of the price. Check Shannon out at https://www.facebook.com/Micrehab/

John Wiley Nelson (a.k.a. “The Rev”) is a folk and bluegrass songwriter residing in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He was the manager of WOMR, the local public broadcasting station there form some years, and still acts as DJ for a regular bluegrass show. He has recorded several CDs here at Jonymac Studio. Over the years, he has focused more and more attention on hiring the finest award-winning musicians for his CDs: Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Adam Steffey on mandolin, Randy Kohrs on resonator (dobro), Ron Stewart on banjo, and most recently Kenny Smith on acoustic rhythm and lead guitars. He also brings in Kenny and Amanda Smith to produce and perform his vocals. Due to the busy schedules of all of these musicians, it is impossible to get them all together at one time to record. We have to multi-track, working around their schedules. Here’s the process:

  • The Rev records a rough vocal and rhythm guitar track to click for all songs (I accompany him on guitar)
  • The Rev creates an arrangement sheet, identifying clearly who plays rhythm, fills, or leads during each song.
  • Kenny Smith comes in and records a rhythm track for all songs, replacing my scratch guitar track.
  • Kenny then records any lead acoustic guitar work needed
  • I record an acoustic bass track
  • This improved rough mix is sent to:
    • Adam Steffey who records his mandolin tracks at his preferred studio (sometimes Ron Stewart’s Sleepy Valley Barn in Paoli, Indiana)
    • Randy Kohrs who records his resonator tracks at his studio (Slack Key Studios, Nashville, TN)
    • Ron Stewart records his tracks at his studio: Sleepy Valley Barn in Paoli, Indiana
  • These artists send their stems to me digitally to put into the mix
  • The Rev comes back into the studio and records his final vocal tracks
  • Kenny and Amanda come in to do background harmony vocals
  • Stuart Duncan comes in to the studio here and records his fiddle tracks which provide the “glue” on the CD.
  • The Rev and I do a good early mix for each song
  • I finish the mixing and mastering

Because of the quality of musicianship, this process works wonderfully.

One final thing that really helped this new CD. I’ve been less than happy with the basic sound palette when recording and mixing acoustic music such as bluegrass “in the box” in Logic (Pro Tools is not better), so I added an instantiation of Slate Virtual Mix Channel’s Neve console emulation on each bus, and on the Mixbus, and it made an amazing difference. I strongly recommend this! The sound is warmer, rounder, more listenable. The CD will be available on iTunes, Spotify, Napster, CD Baby, etc. soon. To hear a sneak preview, go here!

So, as a project studio, owned by someone who records, mixes, and masters “on the side,” I’m often approached by artists who are looking for a deal – which sometimes means they expect free service. In many instances, these are friends, or friends of friends, and in some instances they are really good artists – the kind I’d love working with! There is a part of me that would love to do this free of charge. I love what I do, and I love helping others achieve their musical goals. Early on, as I was “working on my chops” I did a few free projects – which took some of the pressure off and helped. When I listen back to some of those projects, I’m glad I didn’t charge!

As I got better, I found myself 50-75 hours into a project, listening to an artist ask me to “tweak” something (which sometimes would take several hours) and saying to myself: “I’d feel a lot better about this is I were getting paid!” True enough.

The fact is that many artists are unaware of the amount of time it takes, beyond tracking time, to get a project mixed and finished – even if it’s just vocals and guitar, or a few tracks of audio. Tracks have to be cleaned (gated or “stripped” of noise between clips of audio), de-essed, de-breathed (fixing loud breaths), equalized, sometimes compressed, automated as needed (louder in some spots, softer in others), run to busses, etc. etc. And even if a song is recorded in series with nothing changed, all of this has to be done differently for each song. In other words, a separate file has to be created for each song – and all of these steps done for each song. All of this adds up to TIME.

So about 10 years ago I started charging for my services. In my humble opinion, I’m still “a steal” if you compare my work to comparable work. And at this time I mostly charge by the project, rather than by the hour, which allows me to be the laid back guy that I like to be in the studio – and not to worry when I’m a little slower than some (perfectionist that I am).

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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.

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!

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.