September 2011

Painting Abstracts is finished. The L6-S and the Telecaster battled it out and finally agreed to share. Tele on rhythm and "spooky" guitar; L6-S on lead, all the way.

I promise I will get back and finish my series on vocal production as soon as I can. I have to attend to other business for a while, though.

Hearing voices (3)

After completing the "comping and correction" stage, I now have five or so mono tracks of vocals ready for the next stage. I like to apply one last destructive edit before applying any FX or panning or mixing: "normalizing". 

Audio Normalization is generally understood as making a collection of audio clips have the same peak value of 0 db. Many audio tools let you do this at the click of a button, but that's not going to be helpful here. I need to do two or three things:

  • ensure that the average level throughout each of the vocal tracks is constant, i.e it sounds like one consistent take;
  • reduce breath sounds and noise between vocal phrases;
  • make all vocal tracks sound the same volume when set at 0db gain.

I do this by adding a Gain Envelope to each clip, boosting and cutting where appropriate, and comparing across each of the five or so tracks:

on average, I'm generally boosting the tracks 3-6 db, and reducing the "intake breath before each line" by 6 db, and silencing anything else. When I solo these tracks, I can actually hear the bleed-through of the backing music from my headphones being picked up by the vocal microphone, so I make sure to replace those sections with silence.

After a final listen to each complete track to check for things I've missed, we get to the destructive part: For each track, I select all clips for an entire verse or chorus, and "bounce to clip". This replaces the audio data with the new version, with the gain envelope applied:

That screenshot is of backing vocal tracks, showing the last phrase of a verse, followed by the chorus (hence the separate clips on each track).

I know it is unfair of me to talk about this process without providing audio samples, but I'm not quite secure enough for that. Even with pitch correction and gain normalization, these "naked" vocals are pretty unimpressive. Perhaps later.

Next: Mixing, routing, and effects.

Hearing Voices (2)

A couple of days ago I thought I was done with "comping" the vocal takes, but on listening to the track all the way through, I became disatisfied with the melodic repetition in the choruses. A simple tweak to the bass in the second line made enough of a difference, working fine with the existing keyboard chords, but unfortunately the vocals clashed.

So I ended up re-recording the lead and backing vocals for that one line of each chorus. 

This morning I finished that task, so it's on to the next stage.

Hearing voices

With the keyboards complete, it's time to move on to vocals. This is always a tricky process, and it is doubly frustrating this time, because I already have a perfectly servicable set of vocal tracks. It's just that they are in the wrong key, and the lyrics are wrong. In other words, I have to do them all again.

For Abstracts, this is a total of 5 separate tracks: a single voice in the verses, doubled voice for the choruses, and a couple of voices of backing vocals throughout. Then at the end there are a couple more tracks on the final phrase, but we can ignore those for now.

Preparation for this involves setting up about 10 or 12 mono tracks with the input set to the microphone (Echo Layla Analog 1 for what it's worth). Then, over a period of several days, I spend half an hour or so in the morning before work recording several takes of each verse/chorus, until I have at least 4 tracks of each lead and backing melody respectively. It takes me four or five days to get this completed. 

Why does it take so long? I'm not really a singer. I can sing in tune, kind of, but this is fairly high pitch for me and after a few runs through a verse, although I'm not hoarse, the timbre of my voice has changed to the point where it sound forced. So it's time to stop for the day.

(If I had more training; pitched the song into a more comfortable range; and practiced more; I could probably speed this process up. But there's not much chance of that.)

That brings us to the really tedious part: Selecting the "good" takes from each verse. For each take, I split the audio clip into sections, roughly equivalent to each line of the verse or chorus. The idea is that for each line, I now have four or five takes to choose from. 

This requires looping playback around each line, and selecting different takes to SOLO in order to identify the right performance to retain. The final vocal track can be made up of the best parts of each of the takes.

Some producers get quite obsessive about this, taking individual words from different takes. My vocal takes aren't that bad! In the case of selecting a single vocal performance, there's usually one take that stands out from the others. (When in doubt, choose Take 2.)

For doubled or backing vocals, it can get harder, because although there are tools to tweak the performance (more on that later), ideally you want the performances to match as closely as possible in terms of timing, phrasing, etc. Sometimes neither of the two that fit best together are the best take overall. So judgement is required.

Did I mention that I hate the sound of my singing voice? I'm sure I'm not alone in this. It can be a real block to this selection process, because you really need to be critical and listen carefully, and that's hard to do when all you want to do is turn off the computer and go do something else. If you aren't able to pay someone else to do this (and would you trust them if you could?) then you just have to get over it, and buckle down.

Let's talk about AutoTune. The gimic of automatically locking the performance of a mediocre singer to absolute pitch is very distasteful to me. As David McLaughlin puts it, "Artists in the pre-AutoTune era HAD to be good. There wasn't a record deal if you weren't good. [..] Now I have a bunch of talentless clowns invading my ears."

I don't use AutoTune on my vocals. I do, however, apply pitch correction judiciously.

Pitch Correction is something that I can use to save time, turning the odd duff note in my vocal takes into something I can use, without having to go back and record another set of takes. If I didn't have pitch correction tools available, I would have to record more takes, and spend more time cutting and pasting the takes to get an acceptable final result. I have actually done this in previous projects (see first paragraph) but since Cakewalk started bundling V-Vocal with SONAR 5.0, it's been a hell of a lot less work.

The trick is just to not go crazy. It's all about keeping the feel of the performance. On the other hand, some folks want to sound like robots. Whatever.

Despite the addition of pitch correction tools, it is still a long and tedious process. I'm currently halfway through Abstracts and it'll be a few more sessions until I'm done.

Then we can talk about clip preparation, effects, and routing.

May 2011

Three weeks ago I finished the drums for "Painting Abstracts" and moved on to the piano. I'm using Modartt's Pianoteq Play instead of Truepianos this time around: for some reason it just seemed to work better. Both VSTs have a fine selection of "pianos" to choose from, but Pianoteq's "K1" model seemed best. There's a jazzy middle section coming up, however, that might prove the selection and see whether it sticks.

Last weekend I took a break from Abstracts and worked on "Strange Finale", loading it up into Cakewalk's SONAR X1 Producer and seeing how it behaved. Before long I was completely comfortable with the newly revised "smart" tool in the MIDI editor, and only once did X1 crash, taking out my recent edits.

Much has been written about the mad, crazy, and user-annoying changes between SONAR 8.5 and SONAR X1 so I won't re-hash them. Suffice to say, I am not a fan of X1, and I've been cautious about using it full time for my projects. It's a very buggy release, but in Cakewalk's favour, they have been releasing regular patches to deal with the most troublesome niggles.

I just wish I could get SONAR X1's "smart" editing tools into 8.5's robust and stable UI.


In other news, lousy blog spammers still get through the captcha gate on this blogengine site, but it seems managable. I'll keep comments open for a while longer.

New Amplifier

The AudioSource AMP100 recently experienced a 50% price cut in my "save for later" shopping cart on Amazon, so I took advantage and purchased:

It replaces the old Dick Smith Electronics kitset amplifier that a) runs on 240 V and b) was starting to crackle. One nice thing about the AMP100 is that it has an A-B speaker switch on the front, which allows me to switch between my Behringer TRUTH 2031P monitors, and a pair of Boston Acoustic bookshelf speakers.

Next step: Obtaining an SPL meter and calibrating the room for K-System monitoring.

Progressive rock should involve some progress

It's April and I find myself sitting in the studio batting away at the SPD-20, laying down some drum tracks on Painting Abstracts. That sounds like exactly where I was in November last year. Could this mean zero progress?

Yes and No. In November, while starting to record some drums, I realized the bass and guitar were out of tune. So I re-recorded the bass. Then I realized that - given the recent shift in lyrical content - I would like to have some acoustic guitar behind the verses. Suddenly the whole damn thing was transposed down a tone, and the bass and guitars re-recorded. In the case of the acoustic guitar, capos and unusual tunings were used.

Now I'm back to recording drums. But it's not zero progress. Of course, I'd like to be finished already, but at least it is forward movement.

String Machine

If you are looking for an emulation of a Solina String Ensemble, I recommend the free eSLine VST.

Just hold down an open fifth somewhere in the middle of the keyboard, and you'll swear you're hearing the opening seconds of Hergest Ridge.

Alternatively, throw a phaser on it and Jarre-out.

Gibson L6-S Deluxe

Serial# 968739

The annual Marin County Guitar Fair was held in January. This was the second year in a row that we've gone along to see what's on offer. Not with any intention of buying or selling, of course, but just to admire the work of local luthiers and to maybe catch a glimpse of a genuine '53 blackguard tele, or similar.

Last year I joked to Lisa that there were only two possible models of guitar that we might find that would put me in a "difficult position", one of which is the Gibson ES-Artist, as played by Steve Howe on all Asia albums in which he contributes; and a Gibson L6-S Deluxe, as played by this guy shown on the right.

That model of guitar is all over Oldfield's albums, from Incantations to QE2, and specifically the '79 live concerts exemplified by the Exposed film and album.

Oldfield's playing has a particular tone and quality on these albums that I covet, and it was always tempting to think that the guitar was partially responsible. I've kind of always wanted one.

Last year I remember seeing a related model, a black L6-S Custom but it didn't pique my interest at all.

This year, the real thing showed up.

After a couple of seconds careful thought*, it came home with me. 

According to Wikipedia, Gibson only made 3500 of these models, from 1975 to 1980. They are not really considered collectable by guitar experts - at least, not currently - and so prices vary. I consider this particular purchase to be good value, while "true collectors" who wet themselves over $30,000 blackguard teles and 50's Les Pauls probably haven't even heard of the L6-S, and might think it too much to pay for an old, "unknown" Gibson.

The body shape is somewhat unique. It looks like a classic Les Paul that has been left out in the sun: Thinner and "spread out". I like to think of it as a cross between a thin Gibson SG and the Les Paul profile. Also unusual is it has 24 frets, with a thin neck joint and body cut-away making runs up the fretboard a breeze.

I think the pickups are designed by Bill Lawrence - they were on the original L6-S but the Deluxe model could be using something different. Either way, I know they are factory-original**, along with the guitar case.

Both the guitar case and guitar smelled rather musty, but after I brought the guitar home, I have been airing the case out in the sun, and I stripped the guitar down and cleaned off all the accumulated gunk from the hardware and rubbed the body down with Murphy's Oil Soap. Now it has a pleasant, vintage wood aroma.

To celebrate the addition of this first "vintage" instrument to my collection, I spent some time recording some excerpts of my favorite Oldfield tracks with the L6-S.

The first thing I noticed is that this guitar is BRIGHT. Very trebly, not at all Les Paulish at all, despite the humbuckers. Secondly, the guitar is seriously resonant. Play almost  any note on the high E string above the 12th fret and you can hear various harmonics on the other open strings singing along. Also, the pickups are very microphonic, reproducing clicks, and pick noise, and even my cursing at duff notes. I think these factors contribute to the tone of the instrument and do explain some of what you can hear in the Exposed recordings. The "honk" of this guitar is definitely present on the Oldfield albums.

So here's my attempts:

First Excursion (excerpt) 

I don't have an amplifier, so I couldn't try and replicate that wonderful sustained feedback on the original version of First Excursion.

 Incantations Part 3 (excerpt) 

 QE 2 (excerpt) 

These were all recorded with the same settings on the L6-S: bridge pickup with the treble control rolled all the way off.

(*) Actually, I went back the following day and bought it.

(**) Often, owners will swap out the factory-original pickups and put in their favorite brand of humbucker. When considering a vintage guitar purchase, it's always better to have the original components.