Monday, 30 May 2016

Self-Producing an EP Pt.4: Recording

We got to this point and as we'd done things the way we have, it wasn't really as cut-and-dry anymore where the demos ended and new recording sessions would begin. In the process of refining the demos, we'd recorded new tighter guitar and bass parts, and as the drums are programmed we just modified the midi to improve the demos. We considered re-recording the guitars but that seemed like a lot of work for no real gain. Some of the bass got recorded again but that was voluntary. Making the drums sound good was a bit different, that required moving to a different set of patches. EZDrummer is great and definitely serves it's purpose but sounded way too polished to be dropped in here. The input all stayed the same but we changed the patches around to find the sound we were looking for across all the instruments, and there was nothing more exciting to it than that.

Recording vocals however was going to require a bit more effort. The demo vocals weren't going to do, and they'd all need replacing. After a few experiments I opted for setting up my large condenser mic in a wardrobe that had been stuffed with pillows as insulation. The sound was clean enough and had the added benefit that I couldn't get too close to the microphone by mistake. After a few evenings of attempts I wasn't happy with and trying to do them piece by piece. I took a weekend and spent a couple of hours per track getting down 4-5 takes and comp'ing together the best take I could from each but not deleting any of the other takes on the off chance they were needed later. Around this point I experimented with triple tracking the parts in places where it was particularly heavy, to give it more depth. I couldn't quite make them sound right and I expect that's a combination of the mic placement and not being skilled enough to EQ out what I suspect was a lot of unnecessary frequencies building up to make it sound strange, so this idea got scrapped.

Things that were important:
  • Getting everything down in 2 sessions over 1 weekend helped with consistency.
  • Focussing on getting a decent comp and moving on stopped the on-going march of trying to improve them continuously.
  • It seemed like I'd had enough practise time to get it right, but I'd argue I definitely hadn't.
  • It might be a better idea to do this in a rehearsal or recording studio next time (ideally an actual studio, obviously) so things like volume levels aren't a concern when the neighbours are in. A proper studio has better suited mics, rooms and equipment and no noise concerns to worry about.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Self-Producing an EP Pt.3: Adding Vocals to Demos

After putting this off for a while, I finally got around to writing the vocal parts for the currently instrumental tracks. The delay was mostly around trying to work out how they were going to sound, stylistically. We knew they wouldn't be cookie monster vocals, but that was about it. It was just a case of working out what the melody was going to be for each section, putting some place holder words in that fit the rhythm and re-drafting them with some sort of theme in mind so they made at least some vague sense. Then they needed to go on the demos. An attempt was made to try and write a concept to have a theme, but as I re-drafted the lyrics, I was having to 'force' the theme into it, at which point I discarded it. The general idea remains in some of them but the detail has gone.

This bit was a pain. All the other instruments are either programmed or DI, so it's easy to make them sound good because we aren't mic'ing up amps or drums or anything like that. Now we can't do that, and it's hard to make it sounds like it belongs with the fairly tight demos when they're rough and badly mic'd. They didn't sound great, and at this point I'd never tried to fit vocals into a wall of noise like this before, just acoustic guitars. As they just needed to be indicative of what they might ultimately sound like I opted for over-processing them and rolling them in glitter. I tidied up the timing and the tuning and then drowned them in delay and reverb. Still not great, but they'd do.

Things that were important:

  • Getting something down at all so we can start critiquing and re-drafting and changing and cutting.
  • Drowning the demo vocals in effects and tuning to try and make them bearable.
  • Definitely start this earlier. It was blocking progress.
  • Aim for some consistency in recording them. Using 2 different mics in a handful of different locations on the same track made it distracting to listen to, and drew away from the goal of the actual music.
  • Accept that they're probably going to sound bad and get on with it.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Self-Producing an EP Pt.2: Rehearsals and Refining

Getting material to the point where it can be played and has some structure was followed by the obvious next step. Playing it. So we took 1 or 2 of the songs to a rehearsal room and started running through them to see if they worked or what they would sound like. We'd find out of the the demo track had too much of one particular instrument, or if it worked at all in the real world. The goal was to have something to perform live, which made this part important. We would come across issues that certainly needed fixing.
As there was no notation anywhere I would render mixes for each person that was particularly heavy on their instrument, and one with it completely missing, so that it was easier to hear the instrument as the focal point, and in context, and then have one to practise along to. This was also the point where other band members would take away my demo'd bass/drum parts and replace them with their own better ones. This could get messy quickly, so I kept mine as the master and requested stem/midi files back that I could drop into the master. In a previous iteration of the band we tried writing everything into Guitar Pro, but encountered the same problem with duplicate projects, and also nobody particularly wants to sit and write notation in midi for hours when they're trying to be creative.

Getting changes flying back and forth all the time was tricky to keep track of but kept momentum going. Progress is obvious when every couple of days there's a new version that has a new and improved bass part, or a better chorus, or a section removed entirely. Sometimes (rarely) the changes don't fit and you discuss it and it goes back to how it was or a new one comes in.

At this point I'll digress and state that this was is our first set of material, the egg in the chicken and egg situation of our goal of playing live. We're not a cover band, and to get gigs we need music, so we need to write and record some music to start playing. So it's not a band that's got material it can always reach for and can spend time meticulously crafting an album. The material should be good, but if we don't have a starting point, 2 years spent writing is 2 years wasted not playing. As result there was some blending between the recording and refining process.
In an ideal situation, in retrospect, we'd write the material and play it until we had no more changes, and then record it. But we opted for reality. In future, I suspect more time will be spent getting things right at this point rather than later.

Things that seemed important:

  • Getting into a regular practise schedule, especially when people have other commitments. If it becomes one of those commitments, then it's a lot easier to make progress.
  • Making it as easy as possible for everyone to know what they're supposed to be playing, and having the creative equality to make it their own.
  • Setting specific goals before heading into a practise session. eg. Make it all the way through 1 new demo.
  • Getting through the song in some form is better than not at all, we had no lyrics or vocals at this point and while it made it harder to keep track of the song progress in repetitive sections, having one less thing to worry about while playing them as instrumentals meant we got through them quicker.
  • Nobody remembers everything immediately, section charts with tempos and time signatures help keep everyone on the same page and help keep it together when it's still pretty rough.
  • Recording rehearsal session audio is a good idea for reflection and improvement but challenging in practise. Drums are loud, guitars that can be heard alongside drums are loud too. Everything is pointed in different directions, and finding the place to put a single microphone will take time. The other option is to go through the board and do something there. It's possible but will need some investigation.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Self-Producing an EP Pt.1: Demos

To jump right in, I started working with a few friends on an EP for our band. Now that it's coming to a close, I thought it might be a useful for me to document the process involved from the beginning, and useful information I've gathered along the way to help me get through things quicker and better on my next attempt at something like this.

At the point where I started piecing a few demo tracks together, I'd been using Reaper for a while and I was using EZMix and EZDrummer as my primary plugin set while making a few acoustic tracks. I subscribed to and and for a few minutes a day would have a dig through for whatever information was new.

This was pretty straight forward, I sat and tried out a few riff ideas (being primarily a guitarist), when something sounded good I'd record it into Reaper and apply a guitar preset to it, of which there are some great ones that just sound good straight away. I'd then track it again and pan hard (100% left for one and 100% right for the other) and then do some fixing on timing issues quickly.
Looping the riff, EZDrummer would be the next stop to find and tweak a drum loop that fit and drop it into the track directly. I preferred this to using the timeline in EZDrummer so I could just grab entire sections and copy/paste/move/delete easily without having to open it up and fiddle.
Somewhere in the middle of the guitar and drums getting put down I'd add one of the EZMix mastering presets to the master FX in Reaper. Something stylistically approximate. Then it's a case of grabbing the bass guitar and putting some bass down too.

To start putting a song together, I'd use the project as a bit of a sketchbook, and spend a few hours listening to what's there and just move along the timeline a bit and put some more ideas in or variations of previous ones until it seems like all the pieces of something more complete are there. This can be a bit trickier if there are time signature or tempo changes but it just takes a bit more time.

Things that seemed to be important factors for me:
  • Getting as much down for a demo as possible at once made for more consistent demos. A couple of them I just sat down at 1pm on a Sunday and worked for a 3-4 hours and got the full thing demo'd ready for presenting.
  • Making sure there were presets effects chains that could be dropped straight onto instruments to get something that sounded good right away, instead of getting caught up fiddling. There are many free plugins for guitars/drums out there that sound good so it doesn't really matter what you use, as long as you can just apply a 'distorted guitar' preset and be happy and carry on. It also means that when you've finished the demo it just sounds good already and doesn't need any real mixing before you share it.
  • Not second guessing things. It's easy to get stuck in "maybe it doesn't fit", etc. just run with what's there, you can always save another version. Get version 1 to done.
  • Having a Reaper template ready to go, with tracks for all the instruments with the correct VSTs already loaded and a click track etc. is the way to go here to maximise the time spent writing and not fiddling with software. 
With other commitments it took me a month to get all 5 demos down into a form where I'd shared them and we'd started talking about them. There were no vocals present at this point as there was still some indecision about what we would do on that front. In the future I'd get something down as a starting point for development.

Google Developer Group MK at Bletchley Park

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