I love the engineering side of making records as much as the songwriting side. Here I share information on my audio engineering and songwriting process with other like minded songwriters.
These two blogs were written after recording was done. I considered documenting during the process, but when I was in the studio I only had time to write, record, assess, mix, rewrite, assess, anguish etc. Click here to jump to the “Waiting For The Big One” Studio Blog.
Super Sonic Studio Blog
Overall Recording Notes
Giving In A Little
Making Mardi Gras
Step By Step
She’s A Twister
Blues Passing Through
Don’t Wanna Wait
That Sweet Pain Inside
Overall Recording Notes – Pro Tools HD 7.4, Dynaudio BM6, Yamaha NS-10 and Sony active mini monitors. Presonus multichannel ADAT mic preamp,
Mics: Rode NT2a, Blue Firefly, Audio Technica 250, DPA XXX, Audix D4s, Shure SM57 and SM58s
Amps: Fender Deluxe 65 Reissue, 1964 Fender Vibro Champ, Laney VC30, 1970s Silverface Fender Twin.
Outboard: Minimal! TC-Helicon VoiceLive Rack, RNP stereo mic preamp. DBX 576 mic pre/compressor
Plugins: Stock TDM plugs from Pro Tools v7.4 (love ‘em) and TC Electronic Reverbs and compressors.
Monitors: Up until the last few months of mixdown (yes, I was extremely picky and it took ages), I used the Dynaudio BM6s – lovely, wide range, flat response speakers. I was finding however that the songs felt lacking in that tap your toes, move your butt groove when I played them in the car or at work on the Dynaudio Air 6 monitors on my desk. I built a switch rig and dragged my trusty Yamaha NS-10s and tiny Sony APM 090s from the closet . I found that mixing with these monitors was more work – they both are decidedly un-sexy and overbright – but when the mix works on them it has a better chance on lots of other average speakers.
The earliest tracks were recorded into a Toshiba laptop, now deceased, with a TC Electronic Konnekt 24D as the interface going into Cubase. My last record was recorded and mixed in Cubase also so I was very comfortable with it. I took a trip to Italy around then for work and an associate there suggested I move to Digidesign Pro Tools because it has good multitrack time correction when you have lots of drum tracks as I was anticipating. I had mentioned I was just starting out on drums and was nervous of getting accurate feels. Good tip, thanks Federico!
I took home a Pro Tools HD rig on an, even then, ancient computer, now deceased. I was backing up my work the entire time so I had no problem switching to a slightly newer, though by no means current PC. This is the beauty of Pro Tools HD, the workload is handed off to a separate processor and you don’t need a fire breathing computer to get the track and plugin count you need.
Drum tracks: Though I always loved drums I wasn’t at all confident I could pull off playing my own drum tracks. We’d had a very modest kit in the house and both my son and I played them a lot but recording? I dunno… My approach was to play lots, read up on the subject, stick some mics around and see if I was wasting my time.
Along the way I had to learn how to a) set up drums, b) tune them decently, and oh yeah, play them convincingly and with gusto. On several of the tracks, I’ve had to re-record the drums because the original recordings weren’t up to snuff or my playing was wobbly. And yes, I used a bit of computer magic to tighten up some spots. I’ve always felt like I’d be a decent drummer eventually. I hope you, dear listener, feel I’m near that goal!
For those of you attempting drums – I learned you don’t need an expensive kit to get a great drum sound. I took drummers’ advice and found that the key is in new drum heads, decent tuning and good cymbals. My drums are the cheapest Ddrums you can get but I have a decent Rogers snare. Unfortunately you can’t really scrimp on cymbals other than to have fewer of them. When I finally could afford decent hihats, things really started sounding better.
Good tomtom mics make a huge difference. I did a shootout with a set of 6 mics and found that the Audix D4 is the poor man’s Sennheiser 421. I can’t recommend it enough for that bombastic, low-tuned rock tom sound.
Super Sonic – Like many of the tracks, this started as a drum jam with a couple of mics turned on. I played to metronome as always so I could build the remaining parts up and re-record keeper drums later.I then looped a section that felt good and laid the Bass part down on it. I love the straight meat ‘n’ potaoes feel of the drums against the push on beat 3 of the Bass. It’s an unusual feel approach but I think it works here.
Of all the songs, these lyrics have the most significance to me. They articulate my feelings on how time seems to accelerate through life and the things you want to do have to be done at a steadily faster pace in order to accomplish everything. The cover art ties into this theme as does the time shown on the clock. I even edited the original picture to make it seem more urgent. Obsessed? Probably.
The claps are the only parts where other humans played on the album. My son and his friend were over and rather than build up a lot of tracks myself I had them come down to the studio clap a few times.
I used a TC-Helicon VoiceLive Rack for the spacey breakdown. I also used it to add the highest harmony part on the bridge. The part is a little higher than I’m comfortable singing and the product handled it without even sweating.
Giving In A Little – This song was my biggest recording challenge. Early on, I even tried rapping the chorus but quickly bailed on that thank goodness! The lyrics weren’t the problem, I was happy with the universal plea for understanding. In order to be able to sing the rapid fire chorus, the song tempo had to be slower. A slow tempo with a straight eighth feel makes it hard to find a good groove. The 1/8th note shaker parts helped a lot to fill in the sparseness I felt in this one.
The lead break section is one of my favorite moments of the whole album. It feels like my Yes and ZZ Top influences intersected beautifully with the bright, aggressive Bass part and the harmonic-picked Les Paul break.
Recording notes: The distorted bass was recorded clean with distortion added later. I did lots of fiddling to get it to sit where it is. The snare sound sounds so hyped because I played the dynamics a bit unevenly (remember these are early days for my drumming) and I strapped a heavy amount of insert compression on it. I tried parallel compression but found it was still too “nice” for what I wanted.
Second Chance – The intro riff on this song emerged whole one Saturday morning watching TV in my robe. Badabing! It’s a bit awkward for fingering but I love the sound of it and hope I can play it live.
Recording notes: The sidestick snare parts were extracted onto a separate track in order to get the EQ and compression to sit right. This made it so I didn’t have to automate an EQ plugin. At that stage of recording I wasn’t fluent in automation so this was easier. It’s quite common to do so.
Making Mardi Gras – The groove on this song also took some gyrations to feel right. The original Bass part was picked with fingers and more sparse and song dragged. Very late in the process, I put my Bass strings in alcohol to revive the bright “ding” sound roundwounds make and I was just fooling around when I thought to redo the Bass on this song with the more aggressive pop/slap technique. Many feel pop/slap is derivative as hell but it made this song feel much groovier.
Like many of my songs, the riffs in this one emerged whole. Call me a Riff Rocker and you won’t be far off. I didn’t have to overthink picking patterns or riff trajectory at all. The record light was lit, the amp sounded cool and the guitars are all first takes including the solo.
Step By Step – This is my ode to perseverance. It comes from a real place. It features one of my favorite lines “water drops can wet your sock but rivers carve through solid rock”. Who hasn’t almost given up at times?
This was another one that just wasn’t sitting right groove-wise until late in the process, I re-recorded the drums. Just before my son and I had been saying how much we love that deep snare sound with lots of snare rattle so this is what I strove for. Like many of the songs, this uses two mics on the snare; one above and one below to capture lots of bright rattle from the snare wires.
The guitar break is a one-taker. In much of the album I’ve left the first or second take of the lead breaks to keep the album from sounding over-rehearsed.
Candy Carolina – I was reflecting on predjudice in this one. The name is a play on sweetness and geography.
Recording notes: The snare on this track demonstrates the undamped pingy ring of an aluminum snare beautifully. I didn’t use any damping such as moon gels on that day, and the snare was tuned such that it really emphasized the ring. I like it but it’s almost like an effect when you add compression as I do. Next album I’m going to have a maple (wood) snare handy!
She’s A Twister – Here I get into my swampy side vocally. I hope Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top hears this one, I was practically raised on their album, Tres Hombres.
Recording notes: The room sound in which you hear the drums is not created by a reverb plugin. It’s the sound of the bathroom opposite my studio. I left the doors of the studio and bathroom open while I played the drums to get the sound. The kit was fully mic’ed up in the studio but the extra mic in the bathroom really helped. I love it! I added compression to the room mic track and slid it forward in time to make it sound like the drums were actually in the bathroom not 15’ away.
I hope people understand the meteorogical humor I put into the lyric. If not, I’ll explain. If the female subject of the song is in fact a Twister, she would be a zone of high pressure seeking, as tornadoes do, a low pressure zone. Ergo the line, “she’s searching for a low pressure guy/Like me”. The line just happened as I was first singing the chorus as they do.
For the octave group parts on the B verse section I used the VoiceLive Rack set to octaves up and down. This gives the part a unique and thicker quality.
Blues Passing Through – I really hope people don’t see the title and pass over this ballad as yet another derivative Blues song. It’s anything but. I want the lyrics to speak to people who feel down sometimes that the condition isn’t going to last forever and that it may be just biochemical, not the result of anything you’ve said or done. I guess the message is just “hang in there”.
Recording notes: By playing the tomtom on beats 2 and 4 I’m channeling the same techique used in many Motown tunes. The uncolored reproduction of the rack tom is due to a DPA condensor mic, not my usual “rock” mics.
Don’t Wanna Wait – This was originally a demo song recorded for my work at TC-Helicon. There is actually a video of me recording this song in split screen while I use one of our harmony products, Harmony G, to provide vocal harmony. I wrote the song in the morning, shot the video myself while I recorded it and had it ready for editing in the afternoon. Talk about working quickly!
Recording notes: The left guitar, Bass and drum tracks are the original takes. I re-recorded the vocal with the Blue Dragonfly mic which gives my voice a little extra warmth.
The drums are recorded with two mics: Rode on the kick drum and Blue Dragonfly over the floor tom pointing towards the snare and hihat. In the bridge the floor tom didn’t have enough low end boom so I duplicated the Dragonfly track, snipped out only the floor tom its and put a hi cut and low boost. Works!
I used the VoiceLive Rack pitch correct block to tighten the pitches in the vocal bridge layers. The pitch correction really adds a thick, chewy texture to the part and I love it. Re: pitch correction, yes I used in on some but not all of the songs. I can’t bear out of tune vocals and went for the feel instead.
That Sweet Pain Inside – Here’s me giving a sly nod to Sly and the Family Stone mostly on the chorus where I drag out the “…insiiiiiiide” Sure, I like to be a soulful badass sometimes! This one was the last song I started for the album. I wanted to make 45 minutes of music and was short so I sort of jammed and grooved my way into what you hear.
Recording notes: The piano part is a real Fender Rhodes owned by my good pal Morry Stearns. I went to his house with a bed track on a laptop and overstayed my welcome playing the part. It took about 3 hours to get the exact parts because Rhodes keyboard action is hard to play when you’re used to lightweight synthesizer keys like I am. You can even hear an instant of the electrical buzz the Rhodes makes before the very first notes because it’s an old dog from the 70s and there’s likely a wire loose somewhere.
The Bass was loaned to me by another friend Dave Augustin, who plays in my band. It’s a beautiful Music Man with fairly new strings so it had the good ping and warmth that I needed for the pop/slap technique.
I like the drum sound and feel on this one. I did two takes and the feel and sound of the drums was just there – guess I got lucky. The breakdown before the lead break was supposed to feature some whiz bang effect but I eventually just preferred the dry, basic groove as in contrast to filling every spare second with sound layers.
The wha wha guitar part was one of those lucky first takes. Something told me to hook up my wha wha pedal and slap echo from my pedalboard. The sound was so inspiring I just hit record and got a track I would not have realized had I labored over it. And the vocals were not written at that point! The pauses you hear in the guitar are guesses where there would be gaps in my vocal.
Trouble’s Just A Kiss Away – This was the first song specifically written to start the album. I had lain dormant creatively for a few years after my first CD and these lyrics encouraged me to write again. Lyrically my favorite part is the turnaround in the bridge where the lover’s husband catches the two together and the wife shoots him because he’s been abusing her for so long. Writing that was one of those little moments where you are just taking down what your muse is dictating and you get something interesting, fun and unexpected out of seemingly nowhere. It makes you love writing as I do.
Recording notes: This one was trouble from the word go. I replaced the drums and the bass a couple of times. As you can hear I felt I had to lay it on thick in the choruses with 1/8th note tom tom fills and a busy bassline.
The keyboard part is my Korg PA1x through my Fender twin recorded in the bathroom. I wanted distortion and I got it! I’m not an expert yet at organ drawbars but flubbed my way through it on this track. In my typical style, the organ track took most of a day.
Waiting For The Big One Studio Blog
I recorded all of the instruments and vocals into a Windows computer running Cubase 5.1. The 11 tracks took over 3 years to record and mix. Because this takes more time than recording a group of simpatico musicians, the hats of engineer, producer and artist must be interchanged frequently. This is probably the most difficult part; ensuring that the chorus has a singable hook, the song creates and holds interest and the Bass drum sounds good with the Bass guitar”
Some songs were written before recording, others grew as the instruments went down and at least one was recorded 3 times to sound right. The recording equipment is seductive. It can make you want to record something -anything- even if it’s not ready. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but a riff could sound interesting while it’s being recorded but be in an awkward key to sing
Gear of note: Dynaudio BM6 Monitors, Echo Gina soundcard, Dell P3-500 w/128 Megs, Larrivee Bass, Korg N265 synth, Fender F95 acoustic, Mackie 1202 mixer (monitoring only), dbx 576 preamp/comp, TC-Helicon Voiceworks and VoiceOne, Digitech Studio 5000
Had To Have You – “I was fooling around with a Roland drum machine borrowed from work and found this rhythm preset. I recorded a short section that I could repeat as you hear. The overlapping loop on the chorus is my main drum instrument on the CD, the Steinberg LM-4. The background vocals are real.”
I Like The Sound – “This is one of the first songs I recorded when I first got the computer. The distorted loop you hear on the intro and later choruses was added very late in the process. I distorted a loop I had created through a tube mic preamp made by IVL Technologies for Digitech called the VTP-1. The reverse echo effect was a happy accident. I was after a reverse effect but the actual result is a glitch that just happened when I opened the program one day. I kept it. Pitch correction from the VoiceOne put the final sheen on the vocal.”
Nuisance – “This is my “blues” song. This CD was originally to be recorded with my duo, The Acousticats, in which I play with a terrific singer, April Gislason who is very bluesy. I recorded the bed track for her to sing and she originally sang on it. Because of time constraints, April wasn’t available enough to commit to a CD project so I gave it a go as a personal effort. This meant I had to re-record the vocal myself in her key. I like how the slide guitar works in it. This is my Fender acoustic run through an overdrive plugin. Real vocals again. How many songs do you know with the word “preferential” in the lyric?”
There’s More To You – “TC-Helicon needed a demonstration of the VoiceOne, a combination pitch corrector and voice transformation product. VoiceOne can also be used as a single voice harmony processor so all the harmony voices heard in this song are not sung by me but by the VoiceOne. The whisper you hear at the beginning is actually a line sung full voice later in the song copied and put through the VoiceOne. My first version of this song had no whisper but the Helicon folks thought the tune needed some more product stuff at the beginning. A good call; thanks guys. Interestingly, I would not have chosen the intervals that you hear in the verse (“Then one day you spoke your intentions”) if I were adding background vocals in the conventional way. Those chorus harmonies sound pretty convincing for being virtual! This track is the only one with sequenced Bass. The Bass instrument is from my soundcard, I think it’s a Yamaha soundset”
Carpe Diem – “This is another Helicon demo commission, this time for the VoiceWorks which is a four voice harmony processor with pitch correction and effects. All the vocal harmonies are created “virtually”. I played the vocal harmony lines with a midi keyboard on the choruses. The flangey vocal effect in the bridge is done by having all four virtual voices sing unison but with a ton of the humanization parameters and portamento turned on. Also in the bridge, I used the VoiceOne product to get the wacky string quartet effect. What a fascinating experiment! I had no idea my fiddle would work through a voice processor but I wanted the tight ensemble sound. What you hear is my low budget fiddle mic’d with an AKG 414 on to 3 tracks: the deepest track, (the “cello”) is pitch shifted an octave down with deep resonance effect added, the middle track is a pseudo viola; no pitch shifting but deep resonance to give my fiddle the large body sound, finally the highest fiddle is unprocessed. I think the Beatles and George Martin are due some credit for the melodic approach I took in my virtual quartet. I had just purchased my precious Larrivee acoustic when I was finishing instrument tracks and this is the only song with its contribution on it.”
Waiting For The Big One – “As mentioned in my bio, I have no small fear of earthquakes. My wife and I were woken up one night by a small one and I felt I had to confront this fear by writing a song about it. I moderated the earthquake subject by equating it to waiting for love. This song had been recorded early on and I had put it away ready for mixing. The majority of the harmonies are real, but a couple of things nagged me as I listened to those early mixes: I needed a high harmony on the choruses and harmony on selected lines. Finally, during the mixing stage I patched in a VoiceWorks harmony processor and ran the lead vocal through it. Within about ten minutes I had exactly the harmonies I had heard in my mind. VoiceWorks provided the high scale-based harmony on the chorus lines “waiting for the big earthquake” and “waiting to feel the floor shake”. The accent harmonies in the 2nd verse are all VoiceWorks performed on a keyboard while I used pitch bend to provide differentiation. The fiddle solo was a one taker way back when I was still fairly new at fiddle. It’s played on this plexiglas prototype which is a solid beam of clear plexiglas with a fiddle neck bolted on.”
Grab The Line – “That haunting, hard-to-identify instrument in the intro is my cheapie fiddle again performed through the VoiceOne processor. It’s pretty much the same settings as I used to create the virtual cello in Carpe Diem: octave down, no dry signal and deep resonance. The very last note of this part was a little shaky, so I pitch corrected it (yup, works on fiddle too) and added one of VoiceOne’s vibrato presets. Scary. I’ve since learned how to make fiddle vibrato with my fingers but this sure pulled me out of a sonic bind. I recorded this song 3 times to get it right. The guitar I used in this track belongs to a friend, Fred Speckeen who at the time of my 3rd crack at this song had taken delivery of his new Taylor acoustic. We worked in the same building so I asked if I could use it on my new song. I rushed upstairs to the studio at lunchtime, put down a click track (I had no bed tracks recorded) and banged through as many takes and mic placements as I could. Later I assembled the takes into two tracks, added instruments and vocals. Voila. This song is normally played with a capo on the 2nd fret, but the day I borrowed the guitar I had no capo so I’m singing in a lower range than usual. I like how it worked out that the vocal is a contrast to the rest of the CD where I’m in my natural range. Serendipity strikes again!”
Love’s First Kiss – “This is another one recorded in a female key that I had to re-sing. April, who sang on it originally, is ghosted in on the choruses and she whispers the “love’s first kiss” at the end of the breakdown. The thank you’s on the CD cover credit April with “the kiss” in this song which I intended to mean the whispered “love’s first kiss” and not my first romantic kiss which is what the song is otherwise about.”
Devil In A Coupe De Ville – “The octave down vocals on the chorus are not virtual, they are me singing the lowest note I can. I could have used a harmony processor but the mic was up, my voice was warmed up and the idea was there so I went for it. This one took a couple of complete lyric rewrites to get the visual imagery where it is now. The vocal is run through a standard Cubase overdrive plug-in to get that nasty, semi-distorted sound. For you slide players out there, I’m playing the slide part in standard tuning on my Fender Stratocaster. I use the slide live a lot but I hate retuning or carrying other guitars so I improvised a way to get those classic intervals.”
Take Me As I Am – “This song reveals my Country influences. If you have lived in Dallas, Texas and Alberta, Canada like I have, you can’t help but absorb Country music in some way.”
Ode To A Classic – “The guitar used in this song came to me in an unusual way when I was young. I’ve had it since high school and never used it for any recording but lately my wife has been listening to Jesse Cook, a Canadian artist who blends flamenco-style guitar with World beats. I have a number of analog synthesizers lying around so it seemed natural to pair the semi-classical guitar performance with them. I originally hesitated to put this on the CD because it is an instrumental but I’m glad I did because it provides a gentle send off at the end of the CD.”