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!

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.