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.

Getting through the squeeze, abstractly

It got really busy at work and I haven't made much progress apart from setting up the SPD-20 on the desk and verifying the signal chain (Midi etc) is all working. Perhaps this holiday season will provide some time to get those drums done. Also I have some ideas for getting the acoustic guitar into the mix.

In the abstract

Moving on to the next track: Painting Abstracts. This is a challenge because the current version is pretty much finished and rather good as it stands. However, I want to revisit some of the lyrics, and update the instrumentation.

The first task is to re-record the bass guitar using Guitar Rig 4. 

Title of Record

I was driving home from Santa Rosa yesterday, admiring the scenery, and in particular, a certain hill with a group of trees clustered at the top. I noticed that the large tree in the center looked a little odd, sort of symmetrical but not entirely, and then I realized that it was probably a very well-disguised cell phone tower.

A short time later, I came up with the perfect title for our first album:

Fruit of the Steel Tree.

I've googled it and it doesn't seem to have been mentioned anywhere else, so I'm pretty sure we'll go with this. Awesome. 


Brass In the Pocket

Working on the Big Boys: The drums and bass are locked in, sounding great. 

Now I've started re-recording the brass section. Given that I don't have access to a brass section, the trick to getting this sounding realistic is to record 3 separate tracks, independently, using different instruments. The Fantom has a nice brass trumpet patch - I'll use that for Trumpet #1. The Korg TR-Rack has another, slightly different sounding trumpet patch, mellower but nice vibrato: I'll use that for Trumpet #2. Then the bottom line of the chord will be held down with an Alto Sax, not sure which synth module will provide that. I'll have to do some comparisons and see which one sounds best. Probably the Korg TR.