Audio · Music Production · recording · Vocals

Session 2: Overdubbing and Reamping to Create the Perfect Stereo Image

Hope all is well with you! Much has been happening on the publicity front in Q1 and I’m excited to have Head Above Tide out in the world. In the previous post, I detailed the steps involved in laying down the “bones” of each song: drums, bass, and rhythm guitar or MIDI keyboard. Now, I’d like to share with you the overdubbing process we formulated for the album. Overdubbing, or layering new recordings upon an existing track, is traditionally done by miking each instrument separately, placing each one in an audio mix via panning, and then summing those individual recordings together to create a 2-channel output (i.e. left and right channels that simulate a “stereo-like” image). I didn’t take this traditional route as I wanted to produce a true stereo representation of the band playing in a room. Therefore, I opted to use the same stereo mic array and room as in the initial tracking, placing each player or speaker in the location I wanted he or she or it to appear in the stereo image. Before commencing the overdubbing, I needed to choose the best of these initial takes. I kept in account issues with tempo and rhythmic fluctuation. Occasionally, I did decide to edit (i.e. digitally splice) takes together if the tempos and general feel worked from one to the next.

As engineer Art Halperin recorded these initial takes, we hit a couple of snags and had to think on our feet. During setup, Michael O’Brien amplified his bass guitar through a speaker cabinet and unfortunately the resulting sound sympathetically vibrated the drum snare wires. As this issue frequently occurs when an amp speaker is too close to a drum kit, we decided to instead feed the bass signal directly into the DAW (i.e. plugged the instrument into the audio interface). The good news is we were able to reamp the bass performance later without the drum kit present. Reamping allows one to tailor, with effects and EQ settings, the timbre of a recording as it is replayed through an speaker, which can then be re-recorded in a space. As I wanted the bass to be a part of the stereo image, we chose to use the same mic array and room for any reamps we needed done. The 2nd snag was an issue with the acoustic guitar level, since in these initial sessions the level was too low as compared to the drums. Our exceptional drummer, Yorgos Maniatis, unfortunately was set too close to the room mics and was hitting quite hard. Because of the volume disparity, I decided to overdub another acoustic guitar track on several songs. We used the guitar monitoring signal from the initial sessions on another couple of songs, which was fed into the bassist’s and drummer’s headphone mix. This signal originated from the internal piezo pickup, which was plugged directly into the audio interface. Although the resulting mono recording had a harsh quality to it, we transformed the sound into an electric guitar like timbre when reamping it through a Fender Twin Reverb. Electric rhythm guitar was also treated in the same fashion. Happily, our change of plans worked out. Having the acoustic guitar, electric rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums on separate recording tracks make mixing easier, as we could set their levels independently of one another. Yet all were present in the same room to produce a true stereo image.

After I chose the initial takes, I planned to record and reamp the lead guitar parts. The lead parts I wrote, apart from the ad libbing and solo sections, were sympathetic to my vocal arrangements. However, the musicians hired also had the option of developing the parts to idiomatically fit their playing approach, which I’m glad to say they did. Before sending them the tracks to work on, I set down a quick scratch vocal in my home studio for the players to use as a reference track. Dave Ramsay and Richard Padrón then brought their incredible stylistic flourishes to three of the more technical tracks, while I handled the remaining. They captured their performances directly into their DAWs at their respective home studios, which I then added to the main tracking and subsequently reamped into the studio room. To these lead guitar recordings, I added overdrive and feedback through either DAW plugins or by adding a BB Preamp pedal to the signal flow, while utilizing the native spring reverb of the amplifiers. For any stereo effects such as tremolo and chorus, I fed the guitar signal into two guitar amps (a Fender Twin Reverb and Vibrolux) which I placed on opposite sides of the room. Art Halperin then wicked up the volume and we enjoyed the sympathetic stereo vibrations!

Once the lead guitars were tracked, I began overdubbing vocals. I recorded my solo vocals first over a few sessions while spending a couple of months rehearsing the backup singers. I then brought them into the studio and structured the sessions in the following manner: I’d sing a few takes with the singers and they’d then sing two or three more without me. For the ones without me, the singers listened to the monitor of my solo vocals so they could respond to my phrasing. Occasionally, we utilized click tracks (i.e. a metronome set under the existing performance) in songs that normally had conducted tempo changes. This two-tiered approach benefitted the post-production process, as I could easily remove any backups that didn’t work out and replace them with backup-only takes synced with my solo vocals. However, I used this “fix” infrequently as the takes with all three of us had a vibrant live feel. I even had the idea during the mixing process of concurrently layering the backup-only tracks on top of the ones with all three of us singing. Their doubled parts thickened the timbre considerably, creating a choral effect of 4 backup singers. I did not use this doubling method on lines either singer sang on their own. You will find that on the album, the two Lisa Trenary singers appear on the right side while the two Cherette White singers appear on the left side of the room!

One song, “A Mutiny”, was unfortunately not ready for these vocal sessions so I instead recorded them at my home studio using an Earthworks SR30/HC hypercardioid small diaphragm condenser mic.  This model, from the same manufacturer as the TC30 mics in the stereo array, has a similarly flat EQ and fast transient response.  Though each vocal part was recorded separately, I believe the mic captured our vocals fairly transparently. The 3 mono recordings were then panned to mimic the real stereo image present in the other songs. Listeners with discerning ears and a good stereo monitor setup would be able to easily hear the spatial differences between the vocals recorded in this track and the ones recorded in true stereo.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to covering the final recording processes before mixing: sampled instruments, convolution reverb and other applied effects to the individual tracks.


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!

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.

Music Production

Changing Hats Part 2 – Copyist/Workshop Director/Musician

A writer can take multiple avenues when deciding to record his or her compositions. One tried and true method is to record live performers, which is a method found frequently in the classical, salsa and jazz genres. In this first case, one needs to create the music charts (aka sheet music) for the musicians to base their performances upon. Much rehearsal is required in order for the takes to be solid. An alternative way does not require actual musicians performing and instead can be done solely through a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Examples of this method can be found in EDM genres and certain film and TV music. Beyond the cost of the computer, software and samples, the producer can effectively create the music with little budget. The third and most flexible way of producing requires a combination of live players and computer programming. This approach allows the natural fluidity of a live group to coalesce with overdubbing (live recordings over the existing tracks), electronic elements and arrangements that would be too expensive or difficult to produce live. Electronic elements can run the gamut from synthesizer parts, musique concrète (found sounds) and sound design to sampled recordings of real instruments.

My new album is produced using the third method. Most of the tracking has live performance as the song backbone, with sampled instruments augmenting the arrangements. Before rehearsals I spent quite some time writing up charts, providing dynamics, articulation, and tempo instructions for the players. I first met up with my drummer, as his incredible musicianship and connection to my writing helped set the stage for the rest of the band. Just considering our rhythmic flow was important, as certain ideas the drummer brought to the table accentuated aspects of my writing. With the exception of written out licks and markings, he uses the charts as a starting point for developing his approach. After a couple of rehearsals with the drummer, I listened back to the performance recordings, took notes, and then invited the bass player to join in. Early in the rehearsal process I will workshop different arrangement ideas and then go back to my charts to make revisions. As a comparison, one can think about the process a playwright goes through when bringing his or her writing to actors for a reading. Having actors speak the parts out loud often shows how the phrases will feel in context. Keeping this analogy in mind, I have always recorded rehearsals, since when wearing my performance hat, I cannot “see” our progress from a birds eye view. The POV of listening allows me to make revisions with a clear head.

An important part of workshopping is following one’s instinct and trusting if something is not working. No matter what is written on a page, all players need to feel connected to one another for a band to sound great. Of course, it helps a great deal for all players, even bandleaders, to leave egos at the door and respect the process of coalescing material. I consider using my management hat an especially fraught challenge, as it requires good communication skills as well as a dose of chutzpah. During my prior album production, I had to fire multiple drummers and deal with some bad vibing before discovering my core rhythm section. Because I was figuring out my footing as a bandleader, I spent too much time and money trying to work with musicians that didn’t jive with my vision. For this record, I understood rather quickly that the bass player initially hired was not syncing to the material and brought a negative attitude to the rehearsals. I consulted with my trusted drummer and ultimately decided to let the bass player go. It was a great decision, as the subsequent player had chemistry with the group and the results felt wonderful.

Looking forward to next time when I talk about vocal workshopping and the recording process.