Finally to Mixing

Date: 05 July, 2006  |  Posted By: Mark  |  Category: Old NFZ Blog, Recording Stick It!  |  Comments: 2

Obviously, quite a bit has happened since my last update. I had resolved to put all other duties aside and devote every moment of my free time to finishing the album. Duties put aside included keeping you filled in on the recording process. I figured I’d update everybody after I got everything ready to mix. So allow me to backtrack and fill in the blanks. Most people know by now through word of mouth, MySpace and our mailing list that mega-platinum producer Beau Hill is mixing our album in Los Angeles. I was only too glad to relinquish mixing duties to somebody who has mixed a hundred or so hit records!

Going back a few months for a little background, I had recorded most of the tracks on a Roland VS-2480, with the exception of a few backup vocals, all the sample loops, orchestra and some sound effects, which I recorded in Sonar. I had planned to mix using Sonar on my computer after transferring all the raw tracks from the 2480 since bouncing tracks down on the 2480 degraded the sound noticeably and it’s only 24 track mixing. Sonar has like a 256 track limit or something rediculous like that so that would have suited me just fine. However I quickly quickly realized when running a 52 track mix with a number of plugins and effects that my computer was slightly underpowered for handling the load of the massive amount of music we had tracked. The track count added up quickly from all the backup vocal tracks we did and three mics for each primary guitar rhythm track and whatnot. Although Sonar worked fairly well and I could have gotten the job done, something fortunate happened to us that made me switch over to Pro Tools HD.

As I said in my last blog, a guy named Scott Spelbring happened to see my Backing Vocals II blog entry and dropped me a note on MySpace saying he liked my tracking writeups and offered to help with anything if we needed any. Scott runs a big studio not far from my house called Dragonfly Studios and he extended an invitation to have us bring a song or two down and mix it there. I’m sure you’ve heard Scott’s work before – Dave Matthews, SR-71, Bowling for Soup, Nikki Barr and of course he engineered and produced Plunge’s Hometown Hero – a great sounding record through and through. Jimmy and I decided we’d go down there together and bring two songs to mix, “Crush” and “Hot on Your Heels” and if we liked what we heard, we’d hire Scott to mix it for us which Scott was totally in to. Rob couldn’t make it that particular Sunday and the only way to get Steve to a mix session is to shoot him, throw him in the back of the truck, take him down there and prop him in a chair – Weekend at Bernie’s style! I exported all the tracks to broadcast wav files, burned them to a data disc and Jimmy and I drove down to Dragonfly one Sunday about 30 mins south of my house to a real, kickass professional recording studio.

Scott gave us a nice tour of the facility – top notch in every respect. Lot’s of great outboard gear, a Digidesign Pro Control fully automated desk and a killer live room. We spent all day there, most of the time was spent importing tracks into Pro Tools, explaining to Scott my mad methods on what was what, and setting up the mix, way more time than actual mixing. Regardless, at the end of the day we did get a mix and we really liked what we heard, Scott did an outstanding job on “Heels.” Scott is a freaking Jedi Master with Pro Tools and being in the software/computer business, I’ve been around computers long enough to have a keen sense of when somebody really knows what they are doing on a piece of software. Scott knows how to leverage all the nuances of Pro Tools, he moved about with ease and knew exactly what he was doing at all times. His wizardry was most impressive! Not only that, he has to be the world’s nicest most genuine guy too and he loves to talk tech so all three of us really hit it off. And above all else – he’s a dog person! Anyhow, when I compared Scott’s mix to my roughs from Sonar, levels, effects and EQ aside, there was something that was just better about the general sound and basic quality of Scott’s mix. It was difficult to explain. We didn’t do a whole lot of EQ at Scott’s – it just plain sounded better coming off Scott’s gear. I did a little research and found some white papers on Digidesign’s web site about the Pro Tools 48-bit mix bus and that helped explain why the Pro Tools mix was elementally much fatter and pro-sounding that the Sonar mixes. Sonar does not use a 48 bit mix bus and the difference was audible to me.

Jimmy and I decided we’d talk to the other guys and see what they thought about Scott mixing our record. We still had some tracking to do and Scott was going away for a month in May to do a USO tour running front of house for Plunge. So we agreed to talk when Scott got back and made a plan to have everything done ready to bring to Scott to mix by June 1st. I had a ton of work to do to export all our tracks and get them ready to be mixed in Pro Tools. I was ecstatic at the prospect of having Scott mix our record and so were the other guys.

In the mean time, as most everybody knows, Dean had put in his notice that he was leaving the band. He still had some rhythm tracks to do and all of his solos. Steve, Jimmy, Rob and I, while we regret Deans decision to leave, decided we would not release a new CD with guitar tracks played by a person who was no longer in the band. So all Dean’s tracks were scrapped. Luckily though, when Rob and I recorded all his rhythm tracks, we had to sort out all our guitar parts from the demos and right after Rob would finish his tracks for any song we were working on, we immediately recorded Dean’s parts as guide track so Dean could learn all the guitar parts he was supposed to play. Then we would run mixes of Rob playing the parts intended for Dean without Rob’s main tracks so Dean could come in prepared and there would be no question about what parts he was supposed to play. It worked out great for two reasons, Dean always came in prepared, and when he decided to leave, much by accident we already had good, well-engineered, produced guitar guide tracks that Rob had tracked for Dean. So I just flipped the virtual tracks labeled ‘Dean’ over to the ones labeled ‘Rob’ and we were done! Almost. Rob had to redo a few tracks as we did some of them slopplily because we thought Dean would be playing them anyhow so there was not much point in punching in and tightening things up here and there. So we left some stuff a little sloppy, one pass tracking style, thinking the only purpose they would serve was for Dean to learn his parts. Those rhythm tracks were retracked.

Turns out we needed those guide tracks after all and we only had to redo like three rhythm ‘Dean guide tracks’ of Rob’s, and Rob had to do all the solos that were earmarked for Dean. We knocked that stuff out in about two weeks of hard work and we were very happy with the result.

I also decided that since we spent the bulk of our time at Scott’s importing raw tracks and organizing data, and since I had witnessed the brilliance and amazing workflow of Pro Tools first hand, that I would get the software and get the projects ready in Pro Tools so all Scott would have to do was EQ and mix rather than organize my mess! It’s really tough to explain the difference a well engineered workflow makes in a software program – when you see it, it seems like everything just makes sense and everything is done so easily and intuitively. (The MIDI implmentation in Pro Tools has a long way to go but that’s a whole other story) So since I was way overdue for a new PC anyhow, I went and built myself a dual core Athlon 64 for about $1000 (tax deductable of course!) and got my new Pro Tools HD up and running in no time. I was importing raw wav files from Sonar and the VS-2480 like a mad scientist, finishing up bass parts here and there, reading the 750 page Pro Tools manual front to back and generally working like Edward Scissorhands trimming the hedges, every single night, every free moment – except for during Soprano’s and 24! I really wanted to be ready for when Scott came back to go right in and mix.

Then something quite remarkable and unexpected happened out of the blue one day – Beau Hill called!

Backing Vocals II

Date: 21 February, 2006  |  Posted By: Mark  |  Category: Old NFZ Blog, Recording Stick It!  |  Comment: 1

Last Friday 2/10 we were off the day before the Blizzard of ’06 and decided to squeeze in some backup vocals. Rob, Jimmy and Steve all came down to yell into some mics for a while. Unfortunately Dean’s playing schedule doesn’t allow him to come down and yell with the other guys as its most convenient for everybody to do these kinds of things on an off weekend night. Dean will definitely make his statement on the album with his six-stringers though so fear not!

We had to get some backups on “Crush” for a good reason. We had an opportunity to go to a big studio to mix a couple of songs and I wanted “Crush” to be one of the ones we took down so it had to get done pronto.

A guy called Scott Spelbring dropped me an email one day via MySpace and we got to talking and he offered to help out if we needed it. Scott has worked with a number of national artists and big producers, Dave Matthews, Drew Mazurak (Linkin Park, Nothingface), SR-71, Jim Ebert (Butch Walker), Jason Mraz and Plunge just to name a few. Scott has a very impressive list of clients and an even more impressive state-of-the-art Pro Tools-based studio. And his studio is only about 25 minutes from my house, it could not have been a more ideal situation for us. After thinking about it for roughly two seconds , I took him up on his offer to mix a couple of songs for us. Check him out at Dragonfly Recording Studios. Jimmy and I went down to Dragonfly to let Scott put the magic touch on our songs this past Sunday – we were very excited with the results, more on that in the next edition . . .

I had everything setup ahead of time to maximize the time available before everybody got burned out from singing. They all three rode together and got down my way about 5:30. Steve did his usual warmups and we got down to tracking. I think we had five songs to complete, the biggest one requiring the most work was “Crush.” For those who have seen us perform this song live you’ll understand this part. We did about 10 tracks of all three guys yelling “Crush” (you know that part right? Each track with a different guy standing in the middle of the three so no one particular voice becomes dominant in the mix. I really think we nailed the arena gang vocal feel. The desired effect of course is the gigantic crowd of people yelling (or singing) “Crush.” With that many voices, it can’t possibly go wrong and it sounds nice and huge just like the idea Steve originally came up with.

A couple of times Steve had to man the cell phone as he was trying to work out with the club owner of Memories (our Saturday show venue) if we all collectively thought we should cancel the show or not due to the snow. In typical fashion here around D.C., the weathermen can never say if something is going to be real bad or just OK, so we were keeping an eye on the TV and trying to determine if we were going to get dumped on or not. Obviously we ended up playing the show on Saturday and everybody eventually made it home OK.

We burned through five songs in about four hours and at the end, there were a couple of lines for Steve to redo in some other songs that for one reason or another were not quite right. One of them was a line in “Hot On Your Heels” which is the other song I wanted to take down to Dragonfly to mix. Steve still had some juice left in the old voice box and so we went in and fixed a couple of lines here and there on a few songs.

In the previous weeks and weeks since my last installment here, we have been working on guitar and bass tracks whenever schedules and time permits. Rob has started his final phases by doing solos, Dean has a couple of his rhythm tracks to fix up, mostly because I had him play the wrong part on a couple of songs and about four more basic rhythm tracks to do. He also has to do almost all of his solos. I’ve got four more songs to lay bass tracks on and there are three more songs to do lead and backup vocals on.

Hopefully, we can proceed with mixing songs at Dragonfly with Scott Spelbring as we finish up tracking the rest of the album, so we’ll sort of have two things going at once and we won’t have to wait for all the tracks to be done before mixing starts. Damn good idea!

CRUSH-ing Guitars with Dean

Date: 08 December, 2005  |  Posted By: Mark  |  Category: Old NFZ Blog, Recording Stick It!  |  Comment: 1

If any of you read Dean’s Gig Blog or “Glog” as we call it (that’s right . . . you heard a new Internet buzzword soon to be overused by blogging musicians everywhere, just remember you heard it here first and remember that I’m laying claim to the coining of that word!) you’d know that Dean was down here last night working on Crush. Usually we try to do complete rhythm tracks for two songs when he comes down, but I knew he had a ton of work to do on “Crush” (y’all know that song from the live shows) so we ended up working on that for about five hours and got all his parts done except for the solos, which we’ll be doing in a “solo sprint” doing all the solos for all the songs at once as we get near the end.

I see Dean mentioned the intro to Crush in his Glog that I made so I guess I’ll elaborate. As you live show attendees know, Dean does a little talkbox guitar intro and we start the song when it’s apparent he’s done talkboxing. Our original idea, can’t remember if it was Rob’s idea or mine, was to have a thirty second intro with a real orchestra sitting around tuning up with some talking and whatnot. Having a Crush on someone is sort of like an orchestra playing a deep classical movement. There are rushes of intensity, dense feelings, expectation, elation and of course dissapointment. Since the analogy of a Crush being like an orchestra with so many facets that can “play” anything, as anything can happen in a Crush with so many facets, that we thought it would be neat to hear the “orchestra of the Crush” warming up to get into Crush – get it?

Rob had worked with a guy previously that actually had a digital two track recording of a real orchestra warming up which he had emailed me like two years ago and neither one of us could find it. I looked on old PC’s, searched entire servers where I may have saved the file for “safe keeping” and I even searched backup tape archives – no luck. So I was faced with either buying an orchestra sample CD, none of which are reasonably priced, at least for what little I wanted to do, or finding royalty free samples and build my orchestra intro. I could see buying a sample library if I used orchestral sounds all the time but I couldn’t justify it just for this. I also have Tascam Giga3 and I used a couple of virtual instruments from there but the learning curve was pretty high and I was impatient, I get that way when I want an idea to flow. I hate it when a technical glitch gets in the way of creativity, it’s such a downer. I’ll read the very thick Giga manual for later because it looks very powerful.

After I started, I actually found myself working backwards from the first note of the song. I knew how I wanted to transition into the song, I could hear that in my head and I heard a few other things I wanted to use but it was easy to work backwards. I found some royalty free samples of oboes, violins, cellos, flutes, french horns and whatnot that sounded really good. The problem was, most of the stuff was single notes or two note trills. I had to tune each sample and create a melody from my tunings and and paste them together for each instrument to create a part that sounds like it was actually played by a musician, and then load the wav file I constructed for each instrument into a track. (which I could have done easily with Giga I’m sure if I had the patience to learn that first – which I didn’t because this idea was burning a hole in my pocket. I did use a couple of simple defaults though) I also got two royalty free samples of a real orchestras warming up like I wanted (thanks SuperGirl!) but they were sparse and had a lot of talking. Not really what I envisioned when I heard the samples by themselves. I took the talking peaks in the wav files and “de-normalized” them so the peaks were below the rest of the sample but I really had to beef them up with individual instrument parts to make them work for what I heard in my head.

I also wanted to take the listener on a musical journey through a few well-known emotions that you feel when you have a serious Crush on someone. I thought a lot about how I feel when I have had Crushes. The ones that are really up and down are the ones that you remember, if you have a Crush on someone, and they dig you, then it’s all happy. The fun starts when they are not sure they like you for whatever reason, maybe you’ve got Stinkfoot darlin’, or you’re moving to Montana soon to be a dental floss tycoon. Or maybe you listen to way too much Frank Zappa. Whatever – you know those kinds of crushes well right? There’s some happy stuff, cuz having a crush is cool at first and really happy when it works out (but that’s a different song – when it works out then it’s some love schmuv song) There’s anxiety if she’s not showing the same level of interest that you have in her, then there might even be some bludgeon you feel when you know she don’t like your python boot wearin’ ass. My idea was to use some subtle chord voicings against other chords to recreate tension and anxious feelings with the music. I tried to wrap all the wierd and wonderful range of emotions all up into about thirty five seconds and then ROCK right into Crush. It turned out really great, when I listen to it, it takes me through a snapshot of one little crush I had a while ago that didn’t work out in my favor. It’s cool to listen and feel like I expressed those feelings well because when I hear it, the familiarity of those feelings is right there, the music pulls those feelings right up. I’m very pleased with it. I let the boys listen to it and everybody was bowled over. Jimmy and Rob had a few suggestions they sent me over email. I printed those out so I won’t lose those too! When I marry that project over to the beginning of the real song, I’ll make those little changes. (Screenshot of the intro in Sonar 5)

For Dean’s parts, we used my Les Paul and the Marshall Plexi for the first track. I want the guitar on his side to be dark, heavy and thick without sounding like some dumb metal song. We started with his Explorer, but it’s a little brighter than the Les Paul and I didn’t want that to be the main sound on his side, so we did about twenty seconds and I decided to use record the Les Paul first and use the Explorer as a doubled track mixed in behind the Les Paul on his side of the mix. Usually we don’t double rhythm tracks, I think it takes away some of the overall timbre of the instrument and masks some of the individuality and articulation of the player. Now I think if you’re not such a good rhythm player, or your tone sucks, doubling can save your ass and make you sound like a rock god. Normally no need for doubling around here but since Rob’s sound on this song is going to be something along the lines of “The Rover” or “Royal Orleans” (Zeppelin) I needed to make sure Dean’s side is extra thick to allow that space for Rob while still keeping the song heavy. So we did one track with the Les Paul with three mics, one track with the Explorer with different mics through the same amp, then we set all the gain aside for the clean parts by using the trusty Hiwatt. There are some jangly guitars throughout the song so we got out the Strat and cranked up the Hiwatt – the Strat sounds absolutely dreamy through that amp. Of course I had to pull the inputs way back to clean it up. It reminded me of “Run to the Hills” Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Pretty cool stuff. There were about three different parts repeating through the song that Dean did with the Strat, I love the sound of that guitar!

We then moved on to the talkbox. Dean has a Rocktron Banshee that, while is not the Heil talkbox made famous by Peter Frampton, Joe Perry and others, it sounds damn good and won’t blow your amp if the driver fails. The corksniffers would look down their nose at anything that is not a Heil but I challenge them to a taste test! No chance anyone can tell, the Banshee sounds that good. It does not even need an amp, it has it’s own mini amp built in. It has a little gain knob and we cut that back quite a bit from his live setting to make sure we get some nice tone showing through and we ran through the song punching him in where his talkbox parts are. I also had him do some chord layering in a couple of spots and double a couple of the single string runs here and there. We put a lot of talkbox in spots where it’s the main part and some layering where it will be mixed in the background for texture – love the way it came out. My plan was to have him double those parts too but the talkbox is such a spur of the moment feel thing, I quickly realized that there was no way to have him double the parts without him wanting to kill me for making him do stuff over and over until it matches good enough, there was just no way, the parts have too much individuality and expression – that’s the whole idea behind the talkbox and luckily my good sense overtook me and we didn’t double the talkbox parts – saved by my inner voice of reason for once. I can’t wait for you to hear it!