TOP DEMO: Blue Dog Yawning
Recording Venue: Home
Equipment: Roland VS880 multitracker, Apple Mac with Emagic Logic v4.8, Digidesign Audiomedia soundcard, Mackie 1202VLZ mixer, Shure Beta Green microphones.
Based in Amsterdam, Tobe Morris and guest musicians have put together a rather fine CD of songs and instrumentals. Musically, the feel is great and the quality of the recording is very good, which is impressive considering that most of the miking has been done with Shure Beta-series mics. The acoustic guitar has been especially well recorded, with enough presence and body for it to sit well against the keyboards without getting lost and without sounding boomy at the bass end. It's also very evenly played, and this enables the strummed acoustic to really drive the mix on without the need for a great deal of compression. When recording acoustic guitar, I often find that anyone not used to the process tends to play with far too much accenting, especially on the first beat of the bar. This causes problematic dynamic peaks and generally upsets the rhythm track. It seems that Tobe Morris has mastered this aspect of performance. I also liked his choice of miking position, close to the sound hole, and nearer to the bridge than the neck, if the pronounced plectrum attack on the chords is anything to go by. It proves that you can get a decent sound without using a condenser.
Vocal performances and the use of harmony vocals on this CD are good too. Yet here is an area where a better microphone could have improved the sound a little. Something like a Rode NT1, which is relatively inexpensive, would do the trick and, I think, suit the timbre of his voice. Some nice production touches are used on the vocal and my favourite came in the first track, where the last word of the vocal is looped and auto-panned. This is echoed by the ping pong delay on the guitar part towards the end of the track and I liked the use of a similar effect on a different part of the arrangement.
The second song is the best engineered track on the album, although the standard is pretty high throughout. This song is rhythmically driven by the guitar and piano when the temptation to add drums must have been immense. It's only at the end of the track that a little percussive cabasa gets a look-in. On the second verse, it might have been an idea to move the piano up an octave and away from the bass register, replacing the lower notes with cello stabs. However, everything else sounded just right and I particularly liked the softer PWM-style synth sounds embellishing the more percussive piano and guitar in the arrangement.
Recording Venue: Home
Equipment: Apple Mac G4, Digidesign Pro Tools LE, Shure C607 mic.
Three of the four tunes on this CD are dance tracks with occasional trip-hop and ethnic flavours and the fourth is a more conventional guitar-based pop song. It seems a strange combination, but the medium-paced drum loops on this fourth track give it a certain connection with the other three. It's also the only track to feature a sung vocal. The vocal is heavily equalised, with a low-frequency cut and some mid-frequency boost to add edge without making it sound unnatural. Later on, it's treated with distortion and thinned out with a little more EQ, very effectively, I should add. Sometimes too much distortion can cause a loss in clarity and, in fact, this is what has happened to the electric rhythm guitar parts on this song. If in doubt about the amount of distortion needed, or indeed the general sound of the amplified guitar, the old trick of recording a clean DI'd signal at the same time on a separate track still holds good. You could achieve this by running a DI box in line between guitar and amplifier, sending the signal from the 'thru' jack to the amp or preamp and using the balanced signal from the DI box as the clean signal. If the overdriven signal you record is too much, then at any later time you can run the DI'd version through the amp/preamp and dial in less distortion. This way you don't have to perform an otherwise solid take again and you leave your options open.
Moving to the more dance-oriented tracks, the first really grabs your attention with a harp glissando based around the scale of 'C' major pentatonic. I mention this because it shouldn't really work with the Egyptian violin sample put against it. The violin run contains a 'G' sharp and 'F' sharp which should clash horribly. However, the sample is so cleverly timed that it just seems to fit. The harp and violin are then joined by a driving bass line on a low 'F' and the track picks up even more when the drum loop comes in. Here and elsewhere on the CD the only thing letting the side down is the acoustic guitar sound — a rather scratchy affair miked near the plectrum and operating in the same frequency range as the snare. This leads to a slightly messy rhythm section in the mid-range area when a more complementary guitar sound, or better still, a different instrument or sample would have improved it.
Compression and limiting are perhaps the most awkward bits of processing to set up when tracking and mixing. Too much compression can squeeze the life out of a sound by limiting its dynamics or causing audible changes in volume level. A seasoned user of compression will use it creatively, sometimes to get these effects on purpose. However if you're new to recording, it's probably wise be cautious in your use of compression. If you can hear it working, the chances are that you're using too much of it. Visual comparisons of the peak meters with the compressor on and then bypassed will give you a good indication of what's happening until your ears are more finely tuned to the nuances of this particular effect.
April's advice section touched on monitors, but it's actually a rarity to get them listed in the equipment section of your letters at all! None of this month's producers mention their speakers, but monitoring information really helps me diagnose some obvious mix errors arising from the choice of monitors, or their positioning, as opposed to simple over-EQ'ing or processing.
Inspired by the music of Vangelis, Jarre and Tangerine Dream, Richard is getting all the right sounds from his setup. I was particularly impressed by the Roland JV1080 and its vintage synth voices, which give a truly authentic '80s feel. Overall, the arrangements are light on percussion, letting the pulsing bass lines carry the rhythm. Indeed, there's not much sign of a sneezing snare drum until the fourth track. Where the kick drum is used on the opening track, it is too low in the mix to have much impact, although the choice of sound, plummy with an artificial-sounding attack, is just right for the era. The piano which carries the melody needs more reverb to help the notes both sustain and sit well in the mix. In contrast, the piano on the second track features too much reverb, especially on the bass notes. This makes it sound muddy and I'd suggest Richard record the reverb from his Lexicon MPX100 into Cubase, using a high-pass filter to roll off the bass. This would also free up the Lexicon for use elsewhere. One nice touch is the repeated rhythmic filter sweep which descends to the left of centre and is followed by an ascending sweep on the right. I think the ascending sweep could be a bit higher in the mix, but otherwise it attracts and holds the listener's interest as the track progresses.
Andy's sounds are drawn from a wide variety of sources and his chief difficulty, on the evidence of this CD, is making them all gel together. Take the keyboard and guitar parts for example. The sounds from the synths are DI'd, and therefore sound fairly full, whereas the electric guitar, though recorded through a Sessionmaster preamp, is heavy on the mid-frequencies and sounds boxy. Inevitably, the quality of the former draws attention to the lack of it in the latter. Continuity is also an issue. Acoustic toms, heavily reverbed, are used early on in the first song, but then replaced for no obvious artistic reason by synthesized ones later on, and the vocals are too dry on some songs and too heavily effected on others. To be fair, it's very difficult to gauge the mix of dry and wet signals if you have to make that decision while you're actually recording the vocals. In this instance, I'm pretty sure that Andy had no other option. My advice would be, if in doubt, err on the side of caution. Considering that he's working with a fairly basic setup, this is a good attempt, but more care with the sound sources would improve the mixes enormously.
There's no doubting Martin's talent as a songwriter, or indeed his engineering skills on this CD. Yet his carefully crafted productions, aimed at boy bands and MOR pop artists, are firmly stuck in the less popular areas of the '70s and '80s. In his quest for a publishing deal, some more contemporary sounds would certainly help. A couple of garage, hip hop and house drum loop CDs would be a good start, and importing them into his Cubase VST setup is probably not as much of a hassle as he imagines. Using effects differently is also an option to explore. For example, the rather obvious echoed vocal phrase on the third song could be treated to any one or combination of the interesting effects which are bundled with this version of Cubase. Try some filtering, vocoder, and mild distortion effects or apply some telephonic equalisation using the EQ presets. I have no doubt that, given a production face-lift, these songs will spark more interest from publishers.
This band from the Forest of Dean have plenty of potential, but the mixing on this CD doesn't maximise the effect of the dynamic changes and rhythmic grooves the band create. The mix sounds right in the mid-frequencies, where the looped vocals are very effective in creating a sense of chaotic intensity, but the choice of bass and kick drum sounds just don't have the necessary weight and power. Both seem a bit heavy on the lower-mid frequencies, when a little floor-rumbling bass would be more in order. This CD demonstrates some good industrial-style guitar playing and excellent 'woman on the edge of madness' vocals. However, the drum tracks often sound too heavily compressed and would benefit from the addition of some drum & bass or jungle breaks here and there to augment what sounds like a basic, albeit well-constructed drum track.