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Demo Doctor

Readers Demos Reviewed By John Harris
Published May 2003

Ariel Lerner

Recording Venue: Home

Recording Equipment: Apple G4 Power Mac, TC Powercore DSP card, MOTU 2408 MkII audio interface, Steinberg Nuendo audio workstation, TL Audio mic preamp, Neumann TLM103 and AKG C3000 mics, Genelec 1030 and Yamaha NS10 monitors.

Demo Doctor ArielAriel is a budding producer plying his trade in the UK and Italy. This particular CD contains three songs written by Elisa Giacomini and sounds rather like Dido meets Thomas Dolby, spawning an album strong on sound textures and mood.

The arrangements are very good, constantly changing to reflect the mood of the vocal line, and almost always in perfect sympathy with them. This reflects great attention to detail in the production and the ability to draw inspiration from the artist. Track one builds from a curiously dry piano to a soundscape widened by the use of percussion, such as congas, talking drum and cabasa, as the vocal takes on a more Middle Eastern influence. I particularly liked the use of arpeggiated synthesizer lines and the full string sound, and the filtered synth loops keep the sound contemporary.

I'd take issue with the timing of the congas when they first appear, and also their mix level, which, like the rest of the percussion, was too high compared to the vocals. Listening again, I believe it's the wood-block loop that's slightly out of time with the conga loop, although this is a minor criticism on what's otherwise a very well-produced track. However, a more serious criticism would be of the decision to start all three tracks with the piano. As the songs are obviously written on the piano, it might have seemed a good idea at the time, but I'd have rearranged some of them, or layered the piano with something else.

The second and third tracks take advantage of Ariel's musical contacts to bring in guitar and sitar players, with a Fripp-like weaving guitar line on the second, and a solid sitar performance anchoring the arrangement on the third track. Both are well recorded, but the sitar in particular sits very well against the dance-styled drum and bass lines, occupying the upper-mid space of the mix.

I was also impressed by the vocal production, ranging from a fairly cold sound on the second track to a warmer tone in sections of the third. There are also some double-tracking and harmony sections, and these are executed without losing the general tone of the voice, where several characteristics have been coaxed and emphasised in the performance. This would have been achieved with production psychology, along with effective mic placement and the use of effects. Bearing all this in mind, it's a shame that the vocal level sometimes has to fight against the backing when this becomes fuller and occasionally frantic. Compared to the Dido album, for example, I think the voice is a bit low in the mix.

In conclusion, with just a few technical quibbles, I found this a well-produced piece of work. Hopefully Ariel will be able to use it boost his career.

Delta 400

Recording Venue: Home

Recording Equipment: PC running Cakewalk Sonar and Pro Audio 8 sequencers, Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro editor, Joemeek mic and preamp, various AKG mics.

Delta 400These guys are definitely fond of double-tracking, or copying tracks and panning them hard left and right. Even the lead vocals are panned in this way, and it creates a rather disconcerting lack of focus -- the impression is not of one person singing to you, but of people singing on both sides of your head! Occasionally, a harmony vocal will sit in the centre of the stereo image, when it should really be blending in with the other harmonies; but otherwise it's just kick, snare and bass. However, the acoustic guitar actually works very well double-tracked.

There are times when the arrangement of instruments drops in and out of the song, and this doesn't really seem to work. For example, the first song is broken up into very different-sounding sections: two drum loops are used when the acoustic guitar or the electric guitars are playing, which could work, but in this instance just leads to a lack of continuity. It's very easy to take this compartmentalised approach when writing on a computer-based sequencer, but it often doesn't work for song-based material. In this case, I'd suggest having the acoustic guitar throughout, but keeping it in mono on the verses and working it in tandem with the electric guitar, with one guitar panned a little to left and the other a little to the right. When the chorus comes in, by all means bring back the double-tracked acoustic and pan the two tracks hard left and right to widen the overall sound, but it doesn't mean that the electric has to disappear. It could be playing simple chords in another inversion or a counter-melody.

I noticed that the acoustic is pumping slightly as a result of over-compression. I don't know if this was applied at the recording or the mixing stage, but it's a little too much so back off the ratio and raise the threshold a touch. Something else to be aware of on the first track is the frequency clash between the acoustic guitar and the hi-hat on the drum loop. The mid-range is ending up a little muddy as both instruments fight for the same space in the frequency range, so I'd suggest looking for another drum loop with more sparkle in the hat sound, as I don't think this one has much in the way of high frequencies to bring out with equalisation.

Finally, as the songs are in a variety of styles, it didn't bother me that the vocals sounded very different for each mix. However, the softly sung vocal sound was far superior to the aggressive one, which was perhaps partly reflected by the high mix level of the former and the low mix of the latter. Far be it from me to suggest this, but a little more orthodoxy in the mixing wouldn't go amiss.

Getting That Vocal Take

It seems to me that a large number of demos pay less attention to the vocals than the backings, with a few notable exceptions like this month's winner. But how do you produce a good vocal take? Getting the vocal sound right is actually just one small and often simple part in this procedure. The truth is that you're putting someone in an artificial situation and, unless they're a seasoned professional, they won't be able to click in and out of performance mode at the whim of a talkback switch.

I've always found that a certain amount of psychology is involved, and gauging the mood of the singer is crucial. You need to say enough, but not babble on, supply technical suggestions about pitching and phrasing if required, cajole where necessary, cheer if it seems the right thing to do, and occasionally offer a shoulder to cry on. One producer I worked with once reduced a performer to tears on purpose to get the right feel, and while I don't think I could personally stoop to that level of cruelty, I know that on that occasion it produced the required result.