Thursday, March 18, 2010

Recording

Tim has found that he "cycles" through the different aspects of his work (writing new materials, recording, arranging, designing, creating press materials, etc) and that it's wisest if he follows his instincts and works at what he feels driven to do, even if it means leaving something unfinished until he cycles back to that aspect again.

Last week he was producing promo materials and creating website content (learning, even, to code).

Right now he's recording, editing, and mixing audio.

I had a conversation with my dad the other day that let me know that what has become familiar to us is still quite foreign to most of the people we know.

No wonder people frequently say to me, "So what does Tim DO?"

So, on a recording phase, here is what he does:

He pulls out a decent studio microphone and his laptop computer and his high-quality headphones. He puts sheet music up on one screen of his computer and the mic in front of him. When he's singing solo lines, he stands upright with the mic right in front of his face (when he's been doing this, it always startles me to walk into his studio and find the mic is above my head!). Sometimes he prints the sheet music and puts it rather high on a music stand.

Then he sings. He'll sing the solo line a phrase at a time (not the whole verse at a time, but "You won't admit you love me, and so--how am I ever to know?"). He'll do it usually 6-12 times in a row. Just like you can read something in many different ways, he can sing it in many different ways, and he does. He's really patient, and if someone flushes the toilet overhead or screams or stomps, he pauses until the noise dies down and then picks up where he left off.  If it's ongoing (Benji got a whistle out today), then he comes up and gently asks the kids to be quieter, distracts them, and takes the noisy whatever far away and out of sight for the time being.  When he's sure he's got several good "takes" (or recordings) of that line, he'll sing the next one over and over. Sometimes going a verse at a time and sometimes going a whole song at a time, he then sings all the backup parts, each 2-5 times, a phrase at a time. Every once in a while I walk into the house and hear the oddest sounds--only to find out later it was a snippet for some song he was working on.

Often, Tim sings either the bass or solo first and then builds everything else around that.  Depending on what he's going to be using the recording for, he might records Every sound you hear in the entire song this way, all by himself, even the women's parts, or he might bring someone into the studio downstairs or one of the studios he knows in town and have them record a part (usually a solo line out of his range, occasionally another part, like the percussion, where he really prefers someone else's style to his own).

He REALLY prefers to record all the parts of a song in the same recording session because otherwise he has to try to "match" what he was doing before--and it's not always that easy. There is ambient noise (the sounds of the lights, and the air, and the outside) that is 'invisible' unless it changes within a song. It's like running out of paint and trying to match it a year later in a different brand--hard to get the same stuff, even if you remember the name of the color you picked.

He uses a computer program called ProTools to capture the audio that he's singing into his mic. Sometimes he also (or instead) uses a program called Garage Band. Both allow you to record and edit what you've recorded.

After all the parts of the song are recorded in triplicate plus, he sits down at his computer to edit and mix.

What he sees on the screen is a picture of the audio. It looks like this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/81/ProTools73.png

Reminds me of the "sound wave" on Disney's "Fantasia".

Then, using computer programs like Melodyne, AutoTune, Garage Band, and ProTools, Tim goes in and listens to the recorded snippets and, for each section, picks one or two recordings that sound the best for each part. Sometimes he picks more than two. He lines them up so the song sounds "complete". And yes, the parts are usually doubled (two different takes of the same line singing at the same time) because it sounds better (more complete and more in tune) this way--it all has to do with the psychology of listening and music.

When all the pieces are selected and lined up, then Tim goes through and, using the programs I mentioned, locks everything in so that it all is right on the rhythm. Zooming in on the picture of the sound wave, he can snip out breaths, burps, and other undesirable human sounds. He can move the wave to fix the tuning (or have the computer do it for him). We call this "cleaning up the tracks". This is all editing.  When everything is all lined up and cleaned up, he starts mixing.  You might compare it to baking a cake. Putting all the ingredients in the bowl doesn't make it a cake--or even a batter. You have to mix it up just right to get the right consistency, volume, etc. Putting all the pieces of the song in, even in the right order, doesn't make a finished product. In fact, at this stage, even cleaned up it often sounds pretty lousy.

So we mix.

Mixing is taking what we call the "raw" tracks--just the way it sounded coming out of his mouth--and adding stuff to make it sound like a professional cd.  He can add effects (like reverberations--reverb--that match the sounds of singing in a giant empty concert hall, or a small room, or a church, or whatever he wants; or echoes, delays, loops, etc.).  These effects are kind of like putting a different colored filter on a light--the light is the same, but the color is different. Some of these are so subtle that you think he didn't do anything (he spent 24 hours the other day on a song in order to make it sound like nobody had done anything to it!). Some are really obvious (like making his voice sound like a techno robot or a grunge guitar or--gasp--a woman).  He can tweak the EQ of the recordings, bumping up certain frequencies or dropping other ones out (think of fiddling with the bass and treble knobs on an old stereo--that's messing with the EQ). He's done lots of research on EQ, learning how to make a voice "feel" like an electric bass versus an upright bass, learning how to make the solos "pop out" from the background parts, learning how to make the sound clear and not muddy or indistinct, especially when you have more than one baritone or bass singing different parts.

This is where you want a sound engineer who is also a producer and has a sense of what the songs can do, and who owns the right tools and plugins to make it happen. This is where you create your "sound"--whether it's highly modified, effected stuff or "pristine," clear vocals. It's all mixed. He also runs the songs through various "compression" tools. I can't explain exactly what this means even though Tim has explained it to me lots of times (a. because I have a very tenuous grasp on it and b. because it's so technical that even if I said it, you might not get it. It's all tied up in the science of acoustics). Suffice it to say the difference between recording in a home studio and the stuff you hear on professional cds is, a lot of it, tied up in the compression.

Tim often takes his stuff (or sends it online) to a producer he trusts for a "final mix", where they mix a whole cd to sound like a coherent piece of work instead of random bits of music. He chooses the producer based on the sound he wants in the finished product--they each have their own sound. Sometimes he does this himself--depends on if it's one song or a whole CD.

After the whole cd is "mixed down," Tim takes it to be mastered. Mastering is an artform Tim doesn't do at home, so I don't know how it's done. But it takes the whole CD and "finishes" it, like putting a final coat of glaze on a pot before firing it. Or like baking the cake.

Then Tim takes the mastered copy to a place that will "press" (or make) cds for him. He designs and sends in the artwork and then picks up the finished project later (usually a few days to a week).  He also often dumps the audio into his online store or his websites, where you can listen for free.

And then, we hope, someone listens.

It's not a simple process, really--it requires a great deal of understanding about the human voice, technology and computers, microphone construction and use, psychology, acoustics, etc. But he loves it. And I'm glad he learned how to do it himself and invested in the equipment. It's not uncommon for a single cd to cost $20,000 or more just for the recording. Doing it himself, Tim can keep  the costs really low--in the low hundreds for a promo cd where he doesn't have to order 1000 copies in a run--and that's including the physical copies, not just the recording!