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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 7

It's been a while since the last post as real life has got back in the way, as it usually does, but I now have a bit of time off so I'm hoping to make some progress over the next couple of weeks.


First off is listening back through what we've got, confirming the best takes and applying any fixes where we've got issues on the recording.
We've got a few pops and crackles in places that will take a bit of surgical correction but most of it doesn't look too bad (I think there's a function to do multiple simultaneous edits in Reaper - need to check how that works precisely) but there's one chunk that is concerning me a bit more. The best pass of Denmark Street has an extensive chunk of crackling on the bass line and I'm not sure we're going to be able to rescue it. I'll have a quick look at the other takes but I think the best solution is to re-record it. Fortunately we just DI'd the bass so this should be pretty straightforward.


Further lessons for next time: I mentioned previously that my note-taking hadn't been as comprehensive as I would have liked. Thing to do next time is just leave the mics open after a take and get everyone's opinion straightaway. That way, at the end of each take, I'd have comments like, "that was the best one" or "nope, I screwed that up in the middle" etc.


My mixing set-up
Like everything else in this little escapade my mixing set-up is also at the budget end of things, however I've been able to make a few tweaks along the way to speed up the process. From input to output the set-up is roughly like this:


Input
Focusrite 8i6 interface - as well as the Tascam that we used for recording I have this focusrite permanently connected at home. It's a good little unit that allows me to put in overdubs and run separate outputs for headphones, my Yamaha THX10 (that I use for small-speaker-monitoring) and my main monitors.


DAW and template
Having recorded in Reaper it would be crazy to mix in anything else (not that I have anything else other than a really old CubaseSX) but here's where we get into the templates that I mentioned in an earlier post. My standard project template has 40 tracks set-up, 32 of these are set up as standard audio tracks and have ReaEQ and a focusrite compressor in the first two slots of the inserts. The other 8 are labelled as bus tracks for Vox, drums, bass, two guitars, candy, blank and the dummy master.
The candy one is for any little extra bits of ear-candy in a track, the blank one gets used either for extra instruments in band work or parallel compression if I'm doing more acoustic stuff.
I have the template set up like this so that I can use the couple of bits of hardware that you can see on the desk.
I also have the Sonarworks reference 3 plugin on the master channel - this little bit of code is designed to take the measured frequency response of your headphones and then apply an EQ correction to make them as flat as possible.


Hardware
The Behringer BCR2000 (bottom right with all the knobs) has been configured to work as a basic transport control and channel strip. By linking it to the ReaEQ and the compressor using midi commands I'm able to have hands on control of a 6-band EQ (frequency, gain and Q-factor for each band) and the compressor controls (threshold, ratio, attack, release, input and output gain). It also has a few other things set up: track mute and solo, track FX bypass, record prime, EQ bypass, compressor bypass, track volume and pan, master volume and pan, master FX bypass (for use when switching between headphones and speakers), master mono and the basic transport controls. For complex reasons this only works on the first 32 channels - hence the template.
The Korg nanocontrol (with the sliders, mid-right) then controls my 8 bus tracks. It's set up with volume, pan, mute, solo and track select for each bus track, plus a few more useful transport controls (the cycle button and marker set and steps being the most useful).
This took ages to set up but between them it gives me a much more tactile control and has speeded up my workflow considerably.


Monitoring
The output from the focusrite goes in three directions:
Headphones - I generally use a set of Beyerdynamic DT990 pros (the 250 ohm versions) which are driven just fine from the focusrite headphone socket.
Grot-box monitoring - I have my Yamaha THX10 guitar amp set up as a small-speaker monitor for checking how things will translate to things like portable speakers or radios.
Main monitoring - the main output goes to a Musical Fidelity E100 amplifier and from there to a set of Dynaudio Audience 50 speakers. This is Hi-Fi gear rather than studio gear so it can be a bit more flattering and bit less revealing that I'd like, but it is good kit and it's not the weakest link in the chain.


The room
Which brings my nicely to the room I mix in. It's a nice shape and size (13'x10'x8') but it has no acoustic treatment at all. I've never tried to measure it but I doubt it has particularly good properties in any aspect. Hence I do most of my mixing on headphones.




So there you go, that's what my world is going to look like for the next few days!

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 5

End of stage 1

Well our two days of holiday and hall time are up and I've had a night to think about things so here's a few pros, cons and lessons learnt for next time.

Pros
Taking a couple of hours to work out where best to put the drums on a previous night was time well spent.
The hall only cost £50 between the four of us so even if I've made a complete pigs ear of things and we end up ditching all of it we're only down £12.50 each.
Everything worked. We had no dodgy cables, faulty kit (pops and crackles aside), dead batteries, not even a broken string.
We all had fun (despite my getting a bit stressed on a couple of occasions).
Taking the time to pack everything away properly at the end means that unloading and sorting the stuff when I got home was a very simple task.
Brief aside - the band is great at this; everyone pitches in and helps with everything, no-one is ever standing around twiddling their thumbs whilst there is stuff to be lugged or set up. Not all bands are like this - end aside.
I'm glad I never found a buyer for my little mixer - I'll be keeping that now.

Cons
I could have done with some inline supressors or pads. I did buy a couple of DI boxes last year but I was just thinking about live use at the time so the ones I bought, whilst very good, don't have pads.
It took me too long to try and come up with a solution for our bass player's monitor mix, and then it didn't work all the time.*
Everything took a bit longer than expected. Not a lot longer, but enough to mean that we've ended up with significantly less content that I'd hoped for.
Either my laptop isn't powerful enough, or it's not configured well enough, or I'm hitting transfer limits somewhere but it caused some real headaches and I'm still not sure that all the tracks are free from artefacts.

Lessons
I'd set up templates for the tracks on Reaper, but that was based on my mixing template. I need to create a recording variant of that for next time.
Engineering and performing is difficult work, some stuff got missed along the way, primarily any note-taking. Having an extra person on the second day helped a lot (particularly as he got up to speed with the software (we were using cubase last time)) but there's still things that I could have done better if I only had one hat on. I need to factor in more time for this.
Only get out the stuff you need at the time. At the start of day 1 I spent some time setting up my usual amp and pedal rig which then proceeded to get under my feet and cause a ground loop and got taken away a couple of hours later, unused. It didn't get used until the afternoon of day 2.
Don't get too stressed. As song-writer, singer, rhythm guitarist and recording engineer I felt that I had a lot going on and at times I let myself get too stressed. Had I been more relaxed I think we could have had a better session, I could have come up with a monitor-mix solution for the bass player for example. I hope I'll know better next time.

Next steps
First thing is to work through all the tracks and check that I've got all the best takes marked up and we're consistent across the whole mix. Then there's a big piece of work to go through and check all the tracks for pops and crackles, line up the timings of the tracks hit by the latency and generally get things into something resembling a fit state for mixing.
Once that's done I need to record my missing parts and then send some stems to the guitarist for him to add his bits.
Then we'll do a faders-up mix and see if everyone's happy with what we've got and what kind of production approach we want to take.

Since I've started on this, I'll keep blogging throughout the process, but on Monday real life starts again so updates will become much more sporadic.


* I have now figured out a solution that would have worked just fine. Which is rather irritating.

Band on a budget - the recording process part 4

Well that's day 2 finished. I didn't blog last night because I was knackered and went for a beer, but here's the brain dump from day 2.


The plan
We intended to record the drums and bass for the remaining two songs, then do overdubs for main vocals, rhythm guitar and possibly backing vocals. When our guitarist returned we would then overdub his guitar parts.
Plans schmans....


Denmark Street
After resetting up the few bits and bobs we took home overnight we were ready to go. We were joined yesterday by a friend of mine who's helped us out before to help press buttons and twiddle knobs. He's not an audio engineer but he has done a fair bit of live light and sound stuff in his past and helped out when we did our acoustic recording a while back.
Unfortunately we ran into some problems early on that took a while to sort out.
Denmark Street is the most rocky / punky of the four tracks we'd planned to record and as a result our drummer was playing louder than he did the day before. This caused two problems, one was that a couple of the drum mics were peaking, the other was that our bassist was struggling to hear herself.
Unfortunately I don't own any pads or in-line attenuators. Having never recorded live drums before this has never been a problem, I shall know better next time.
Anyway, as it was the overheads that were clipping the solution was simply to move them higher up. This brought them nicely down to the level of the knee mic and snare but the kit was running hotter than I would have liked.
I'm not sure if Reaper has a way of attenuating incoming signals for such an eventuality but I didn't have time to trawl the manual (which I've never found particularly easy to use) so we've just had to run with it. I'm going to slap a true peak meter on once I've loaded them onto my main computer and see what we've got to deal with.
Anyway, key lesson (other then having some attenuators) is to understand your DAW software completely. Homework for me there.


All about the bass
The second problem was a bit trickier. Our bass player has a long history of playing live in some fairly big venues which means we have a great bass player, but sadly her hearing is no longer what it should be. Our headphones were running off the headphone socket on the Tascam, monitoring the incoming signal and it just wasn't loud enough for her compared to the drums. Unfortunately just cranking the bass signal wasn't an option as it was already running hotter than I would have liked so I had to get my thinking cap on. Sticking a compressor pedal in the way helped a bit but still wasn't cutting the mustard. Which is a peculiar expression if you think about it.


Pops and crackles part 2
I had a lousy night's sleep on Thursday night because I was still trying to engineer the session in my head, but one of the things I had been thinking about was the issues with buffer sizes and artefacts and how that was affecting the limited overdubs we'd done. Whilst pondering on this it occurred to me that, although I had done the obvious things like setting the laptop to high power; switching off the wifi; setting the quiet hours; etc, I hadn't turned off the anti-virus.
I had also been thinking that there must be a way to make use of the other outputs from the back of the Tascam (we were only using 1&2 to listen to the stereo mix) and the little behringer mixer I had kicking around to create a separate headphone mix.
I'd turned the anti-virus off first thing and sure enough this meant we could bring the buffer down to 256 samples without creating pops and crackles - and this in turn meant that the latency was brought down to something that wasn't causing problems.
So rigged up the small mixer to take a mix signal into one pair of channels and the bass signal (routed in Reaper to outputs 3&4) to another channel so that we could give our bassist the ability to add her own signal on top of the mix.
I may have declared that I was a genius at this point.
Except now we weren't getting sound from anything at all.
And it was lunchtime.
Bollox, time for a break.


Back to bassics
A short walk, a bite to eat, fresh air and coffee can do wonders.
A quick check of the audio device properties indicated that, somehow, I'd been running the whole show do far without using the correct asio driver. Fixing that gave us our output back and our independent bass output, which in turn gave us a happy bass player and, finally, a decent couple of takes of Denmark Street.


Revert to plan A.
Having been cheered up by this solution and finally making some progress we had a bit of pause to restock. We were expecting our guitarist back any time now but no-one had heard from him so we weren't sure when exactly. We were still debating what to do next (backing vocals, guitar overdubs or get started on track 4) when he arrived, effectively ending the discussion.
With all four of us there, and a friend to push the buttons, we gave him a few minutes to get settles then went straight into recording Shadowbones.


Of wins and losses
Sadly adding another three inputs was just enough to tip the balance back to causing pops and crackles again. Pushing the buffer up to 512 samples sorted the noise but meant the latency was too great for our bass player's separate headphone mix solution to work properly. Shadowbones being a quieter song we were able to return to our previous approach but it's still bugging me that I couldn't make this work.
On the positive side we were obviously hitting our stride on the musical side of things. I'd been worried about this track as it has a few stops and complications to the arrangement (including three different tempos) but as it happened we got it down in three takes.
This, of course, just emphasised how frustrating it was that we hadn't had the guitarist in place for the full session.


Overdubbing
Next up was filling in the main guitar parts for the previous three tracks. Denmark Street went fairly smoothly, Northshoremen a bit less so. Our guitarist hadn't had a lot of sleep on Thursday night and wasn't feeling at his best, he really wasn't happy with his playing and didn't think it was going to get any better. It really didn't sound bad to the rest of us but plainly a replan was required.


Time for plan C, or maybe D
It was now around 4pm. Whilst we could make noise at the hall until 10 there were already a few signs of fatigue (and boredom) setting in and none of us wanted to go that late so it was time for another band meeting.
The outcome of which was that since a) the guitarist was confident he could record his own parts at his place, b) I could record my bits at mine, and c) we could do the backing vocals in an evening session back at the hall one night, we should make the most of the set-up and record a fifth song.
For no good reason this really stressed me out for a bit.
I've been fairly stressed all week about this, not in a bad way really, just in an anxious-that-it-go-well kind of way but the sudden change of plan made me really quite tense.
I can't remember exactly what I did but I think I disappeared to check some cabling or something similar whilst I rejected any reasons not to make the most of the situation. After all, we already had a load of stuff in the bag, it wasn't costing us a lot of money, why not?


5 for the price of 4
Everything was already set up from recording Shadowbones so a quick bit of work brought up a blank template on Reaper and we were good to go. Fortunately the extra track that we chose to do was the one I would have chosen if it had been all down to me so I relaxed a bit and, after a couple of false starts (not all mine!), we had three decent takes of Words in the bag.


Finishing up
This is already a long entry so I'll put a bit of a summary in the next post once I've had chance to have a proper listen to everything.
But just for fun, here's a little clip of our guitarist getting into the groove...

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 3

Strewth, it's fair to say I'm knackered. I had a fairly lousy night's sleep last night and I'm writing this at about 10:30pm, so apologies for any typos or accidental swearing...


So, after day 1, where are we?
Well, loading up the car took a bit longer than expected - I hadn't quite appreciated how much more gear I was taking than for a usual practice - and then there were roadworks slowing all the traffic down on the north side of town. But I arrived at about 9:25 so only ten minutes late.
Unlike our bass player who, it turned out, thought I was giving her a lift like we normally do.
Anyway, eventually we were all in the hall and unloaded.


We did have a lot of stuff, this is just some of the stuff I brought...
But then we are trying to create a complete recording studio so it's not really surprising.


Set up - drums
Most of the morning was then spent setting things up. The drumkit we set up where we'd tested it previously. After further listening we stuck a couple of duvets up on mic stands to reduce some of the wall reflections and thanks to some friends of ours we had a couple of extra mics to play with as well; an sm57 and a Superlux R102 ribbon mic. A few acoustic foam panels were carefully placed to reduce a bit of floor reflection as well and it was sounding quite good.
Actually, the kick was a bit too boomy...
Moving the mic a bit more off centre sorted that.
But the ride was a bit low...
A bit more mic movement of the knee* mic sorted that.


Set up - Bass and guide guitar
We did look at DI'ing the bass but it turns out to have a tube pre-amp section. I've heard bad things about running tube amps without a speaker load so we just took the bass straight into the Tascam's instrument input and did the same with my guide guitar part from the Variax.


Set up - lead guitar
We set up the guitarist's amp in the extra section of the room with a couple of long mic cables and a long guitar lead (he has a buffer in the pedal set) and semi walled it off to cut down on the spill. In the end we needn't have worried about this as by the time we'd got all this sorted his lift turned up and he had to go. We'll be overdubbing his guitar parts tomorrow afternoon.


That took us to lunch time - at which point we discovered another part of the hall had been made available for some tea and coffee for a group of, well, I can't remember what their reason for being there was but there were a few old ladies enjoying a cuppa.
So we had lunch.


Recording
After lunch we cracked on with recording, starting with Northshoremen. This is quite a tricky track as, although it has just a few repeated sections, they don't all repeat the same way. And the 1st verse lyrics repeat over the 2nd bridge. And the chorus repeats over the verse chords at the end...
There are also a couple of stops in usual places.
It seemed a good idea at the time.
Anyway, eventually we got there but I had developed some nervousness by now. I'd noticed a fair bit of popping and crackling building up and I was a bit worried about the quality of the recording. Listening back it seemed that it was coming through on my DI guitar line - which was fine as that was just a guide track that we'll be ditching.


Vocals
Anyway, I bumped the buffer right up and we pressed on with the lead vocals.
Listening back to a first take there was waaaay too much room reverb (partly because I like the sound of the Omni setting of my tube amp for vocals). Fortunately we were prepared for this and another mic stand and duvet was pressed into service. There was still a fair bit of room noise but much more manageable.
Four proper takes and we were good. Though because of the buffer size it needed tweaking for playback.


Rhythm guitar
This was a bit of a mare really. It's the most complex of the parts that I'll be playing and by this point my fingers were getting a bit sore. I've got about 8 takes to work through but I'm pretty confident I have enough to comp a decent take out of. The effect of that big buffer size caused me a bit of a headache in timing as well.


Moving on
At this point we had a bit of a chat about what to do next and decided to give Building for the Flood a run through. It's fundamentally a much simpler song and the bass player and drummer had been hanging around waiting on me for the last couple of hours so were getting a bit restless.
Set up was exactly as before so no changes to anything other than headphone volumes and plugging my DI into a different guitar.
Four runs through that and, listening back tonight, I think we have a completely workable take there.


Thoughts
Overall I think we're a bit behind where I'd have liked to be but we've got the most difficult song in the tank and we're in a good place for tomorrow. I am still concerned around some of the pops and crackles I'm getting but listening back on my main computer now they're almost non-existent on this machine. I think that either my laptop is underpowered or, more likely, poorly configured for this.
I'm really not looking forward to editing that acoustic guitar part but I am looking forward to tomorrow.
Time for bed, adios.


* Because the kick has no hole in the resonant head I've got an Omni mic sitting between the kick and the floor tom (under the ride) that is picking up a bit of the beater sound from the front of the kick.