Composition · Music Production · recording

Session 1 – Laying Down the “Bones” of a Recording

It has been a while since my last post and I’m so glad to be back. Tons of prep work has been going into the new release but right now, I’m excited to discuss with you the process of laying down the “bones” of each song. The “bones” or rhythm section usually consist of drums, percussion, bass as well as any supporting tonal instrument which provides a pulse, such as guitar or keyboard. This first step is vital as it establishes the feel, setting up a foundation whereby other parts can be overdubbed, such as vocals, lead guitar and further arrangements.

At Top of the World Studios, a premier space located in Yorktown Heights, NY, the rhythm section is recorded in a non traditional way. Art Halperin, the lead engineer, opts to set up bands in a optimally designed room and records them via a stereo mic array. Certain instruments are also captured directly into the DAW and then re-amped (i.e. played back through a room speaker and re-recorded at a later time). This option allows more flexibility in mixing, as well as provides a way to hone the sound of each instrument separately from the others. In these sessions, we decided to record the acoustic guitar, percussion and drums via the room mics while plugging the bass and electric guitar directly into the DAW. Initially we planned on also recording the bass through the room mics, however, the amplifier sympathetically vibrated the wires underneath the snare drum. With the exception of “Fault Lines,” all keyboards were recorded via MIDI.

Monitoring is a special challenge in a room with no isolation. For this reason, we decided to plug in the acoustic guitar, using its feed only as a way for us to hear it over the live drums. Since bass and keyboards were directly plugged in, we only heard them through the monitor headphones. The drummer and percussionist used a headphone type that cut out ambient sound while the bass player and I used vented headphones. The latter type contains ports which allow the ambient sounds to enter. This distinction proved to be helpful, as the drummer and conga player needed to attenuate their own performance while hearing our parts louder.

You may have heard of click tracks (aka metronomes) being utilized in recordings as a way for a rhythm section to keep steady tempo throughout a song. I opted against this option, as I wanted the natural feel of our playing to dictate the tempo. In rehearsals, I made certain to always sing my lead vocal with the band, which led us to a viable natural tempo for vocal phrasing. Much of my writing has tempo and meter changes, which makes using a click especially challenging. In this case, I’d rather have an adept drummer lead us into the new tempos and meters rather than have him or her be led by a click. Unfortunately, the minute tempo fluctuations that result do make post-production editing a challenge, as one cannot combine any takes that vary too much in timing. For this reason, I minimized editing the “bones” of any track.

If I happened to not use drums and bass for a song, I tended to use the rhythm guitar or piano as a foundation. In one such song named “Autumn Hymn”, I decided to perform solo on vocals and acoustic guitar first, as I found the feel of both occurring together successfuly defined the “bones” of the track. Without realizing it, that choice made mixing the album easier, as the vocal level and its relationship to the acoustic guitar became the model for vocal levels on every other song.

Regarding the keyboard recording, I opted to used sampling as opposed to a live piano. Art’s studio only has a keyboard controller and I wanted to perform with the band, having them react in real time to my rhythmic ideas. With the exception of “Fault Lines,” I captured all keyboard parts via MIDI and then experimented with piano patches to find the optimal tone and EQ for each track. Re-recording the MIDI at my home studio was also a nice option, as I was looking to develop certain phrasings even further. In the next blog post, I’ll be going over the overdubbing sessions and re-amping techniques. Thanks for reading!

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Composition · Music Production · Vocals

Vocal tapestry

This blog post is a special entry devoted to the unique characteristics of vocal writing. In the tradition of western music, spanning between the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, vocalists were given separate melodic lines which the entire group would performed concurrently. This layered tapestry resulted in a musical texture called polyphony. Motets, or polyphonic hymns, guided church worshippers to listen deeply into the “threads” of sacred text sung by each section. Thus was the birth of contrapuntal music, a style which Palestrina and later on, J.S. Bach developed into modern counterpoint. Bach’s compositions solidified the approach that western composers still apply to part writing today. Over time, however, this layered texture fell out of favor with the Catholic church because lyrics were too difficult to clearly hear. Instead, composers began writing harmonic accompaniments (i.e. chords) to support a single melody of sacred text. This device, called homophony, allowed a tangible line to “stick” to someone’s ear and be easily remembered. Extra voices only functioned to complement the main melody. Beyond classical practices, the folk music tradition, where music is passed down through generations, regularly employs this approach. People who weren’t trained musicians needed to clearly understand the words and melodies so they could recall them before the advent of recording technology. Pop music is a style which particularly flourishes upon this ease of recollection.

If one pulls apart polyphonic lines consecutively, a call and response emerges. It is an extremely powerful vocal approach derived from ancient African cultures and music. In this resilient form, one vocal line will answer another vocal line, often providing a commentary to the initial lyric. Rock ’n’ roll brought call and response to a mainstream western audience (The Who’s “My Generation” is a solid example). A version of call and response is also found ubiquitously in Salsa during the montuno vamping section. The lead singer’s improvised phrases are answered by a “coro” of supporting singers and players, who respond with a recurring melody and lyric.

Vocal register (i.e., high vs. low) is another variable which composers need to keep in mind when writing for singers. Arranging for each the four main registers, SATB or Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass, takes a certain amount of understanding of how each voice will interact with the other. This aspect is sometimes challenging to hear in the isolation of one’s mind, which is why workshops are so important. In one example, a lower alto harmony may compete with a guitar riff written in the same register. In this case the writer may decide to revoice the harmony by swapping the vocal lines so the alto will sing a different part. This swap still keeps the overall harmony intact. As a comparison, think of the relationship between two similar colors in a painting. If they are too close spatially, a viewer will have difficulty telling them apart.

In my experience, opportunities for call and response emerge when giving phrases I’ve already written for myself to other singers. It usually works when the lyrical idea fits the change in vocal character. With little exception, my singers have their parts written out, which can allow the tapestry of vocal and instrumental lines to be very precise. The threads of each part are sewn together to create an overall aural image. Ad libbed sections are clearly marked in places where a “space” within the image is available for a listener to focus on the improviser’s color and shape.

Thanks again for reading! Looking forward to next month when I share with you my recording process for the new album.