Lost in a Folk Record
Hey folks – it’s been a while since I’ve been here to communicate with you all as my audio engineer and producer persona, vt100 – and here I am.
Most of this year my posts have been surrounding a folk record I was working on. And while I’m not here to share that album with you today (okay, it’s an EP) – it is done. Yes, it’s totally done.
And no, you still can’t hear it. But, it’s prudent to reflect on an experience. For me, doing this in writing really helps me run through everything, and commit so many important lessons to memory. I learned a lot in this experience; let’s talk about that.
The goal: record a folk record. Simple right? We have vocals, we have acoustic guitar. We record both, mix them, and voila! Well, not so simple. But more on that later.
The plan was to record anywhere from 4 to 6 songs, leveraging what I had in my studio. Or, what I could afford. From the start, I knew there were a handful of things I wanted/needed if I was going to get a good recording. And yes, I mean gear (and software):
- A matched pair of condenser mics. I had a single condenser, but I really wanted to do some stereo micing. Why? Because I heard it was all the rage.
- My favorite compressor (software) died with my upgrade. That was the vintage warmer. That said, it wouldn’t have been the right sound for these tracks, anyway.
I’d need to figure those two issues out. Otherwise, I intended to use my standard process:
Picking my paintbrushes
Mics and PreAmps
You might remember a couple of these older posts, I picked up the mics (Rode NT5’s) and compared them to everything else I had. Given the goal for the matched pair (i.e. owning them), it’s was more for information purposes. What did all of my mics sound like? And while I was at it, what did all of my pre-amps sound like?
I compare them using Marlena’s sweet sweet voice, you might remember this post. Long story short – the matched pair was going to make the acoustic guitar sound great and I was still going to use my large diaphragm condenser on vocals (Groove Tube GT57). But hey, I finally knew what they sounded like which I never really put my finger on before. My cheap mics were still cheap, my Groove Tube was a bit airy, and the Rodes were surpringly perfect on acoustic guitar.
Eventually I picked up a Shure SM7B. This my new favorite vocal mic ever. I’ll talk about the reasons I got it later in the article, but, of course, I compared it to everything else I had. These comparisons are truly the only way to know and this mic was smooth as silk. This mic was used on 2 of the 5 tracks, though I wish I had gotten to use it on all of them.
When it came to pre-amps, the choice was easy after making the comparison. The UAD Neve plugin I’ve been using on vocals since I got it won when compared to every other preamp permutation I could come up with. My Audient ASP 880 was just too clean, and the other UAD plugs (including the non-plug preamp setup) just wasn’t that interesting. Sure, it was no tube pre-amp… but maybe for the next record I can swing one of those.
I still needed a compressor. And guess know what I did to sort that issue out? Downloaded a bunch and compared them. I ended up picking the Fab Filter Pro C; it was an excellent choice. After this record, I seriously don’t know what I ever did without it.
I mean, sure, it took a little while to get the hang of it. And I didn’t necessary have a replacement for all of the vintage warmer (namely it’s overdrive), but fuck this compressor sounds good. Why do I like it so much?
- It’s really precise
- All of the metering is very accurate, easy to read and see how your compressor shapes the sound
- All of it’s modes sound good. I used it to bus compress the guitars and I used it on the vocals.
- You can trust it’s auto-gain if you want to
- You can oversample, lookahead, and all kinds of fun shit
Yep, this was a huge win.
Before we could really mix, we needed to settle on a sound. For this particular type of music, reverb was a huge aspect of the sound (and yes, I had to be talked into it). In particular, we were going for a sound similar to that of Fleet Foxes first record. After some research, we decided to use a UAD emulation of the same reverb used on that record. Well, for the vocals. That reverb being the EMT 140.
Guitars were another story. Originally we settled on a bathroom preset on the Waves RVerb. This was fine for a couple of tracks, but I didn’t like it everywhere. I went back to my old favorite, the R2 and the Valhalla, depending on the track in question (so yes, the record features all 3).
There were various issues that occurred in the whole process. While I will get into those issues, I used various pieces of software to deal with them. I’ll briefly mention that software:
- Melodyne – I actually ended up upgrading my version of Melodyne to finish the mix. I had the essential version of it (the 100$ one). While it’s suitable for very simple corrections, I ended up needing more control. I upgraded to assistant which really gives you power editing a monophonic track. And sure, some of the things I use melodyne for you can simply deal with in the audio editor… but Melodyne really makes those easy. And then there are the things it makes possible… wow (I own your vibrato now bitches!). I’m very glad it’s in my arsenal. Granted, I got to stop and spend a week learning how to use it, but that’s how it goes 🙂
- I was feeling that I was having trouble really getting the vocals to shine. While part of this ended up being that I hadn’t realized how great the FabFilter ProC was yet… I also wondered what the world of saturation and exciters could do for the vocals (or other guitars). I downloaded a bunch of these plugins and tried them, you can read the comparison if you like. I ended up sticking with one exciter I already owned, from the Ozone Advanced mastering suite. On the saturation front, I felt my standard UAD Studer A800 setup was enough.
- I did whip out the UAD SPL Transient Designer a couple of times too to shape the guitar where I found difficulty with compression alone.
- Bus processing was also my standard process – Cytomic Glue, though I tried a technique I read about and applied gentle ambient reverb using my Ozone plugin. It really helped the mix smish up and gel beautifully.
Lessons in Recording
Every audio engineer has heard the term garbage in, garbage out. It’s not to necessarily say that I recorded garbage, but you should focus on getting your recording as right as you can. All of my big issues were due various things captured in the record. And of course, most of my lessons were in this department. Sure, I was able to make up for some of them (uhhh, melodyne!) – but I could have had WAY less work to do in the mix had I paid more attention recording. Well, and probably had more experience recording in general.
Lesson 1 – Push your artists. Push them fucking hard. And don’t quit cause you’re tired. SCRUTINIZE!
I think this mistake is one I thought about a lot in the mix. There were all kinds of issues that I just didn’t pick up after listening to the initial recordings. I didn’t even pick them up in the edit. But when I was in the mix, and my ear became the fine toothed comb, holy fuck did I find issues.
All kinds of issues – an extra note, a wrong note, a strange sound that’s layered in with other sounds. I ended up being able to fix most of these, but it cost me a ton of time in the editor and in melodyne to do so. Not to say I wasn’t proud of myself for being able to fix some of these issues, they were difficult to fix and I feel pretty accomplished, but had I just pushed myself hard, and done some punching in, I could have shaved hours per song in the mix.
But I just talked about myself and I said push the artist hard, too. I started with me because I was tired as these sessions were late at night and I wanted to go to bed; this was my weakness. But the artists don’t always push themselves too; they don’t always know how. But, you know, you gotta find those problems, and you got to make the artists fix them. Even if it means they have to go practice for a while and come back to do the recording later. Not only will it save you time, assuming they are paying you – it will save them money too. And you know, they’ll have a better record and better performances, all around.
Lesson 2 – a) Don’t lie to yourself when something sounds wrong
Lesson 2 – b) Condenser microphones can clip if your vocalist is a strong singer
I totally did this. Yep, another one on me. Remember how I picked up that Shure SM7B microphone? I did so because I learned lesson 2 b. But, you might also remember, I bought this mic well after I was in the mix… that’s because of lesson a. Let’s explore what happened.
Because I didn’t know you could clip a condenser microphone, I didn’t want to believe I was actually hearing distortion. I’m serious; I heard that shit, and I said, “naaaah, can’t be”. But it was real, and I should have trusted my ears.
Eventually the artist pointed it out and I started doing research. I discovered lesson B and learned a couple of tricks:
- This is why got invented the -10db pad on condensers. For this reason, it will buy you a layer of dbSPL and you can push the mic harder. This helped a lot
- Dynamic mics don’t have this problem. And of course, since I wasn’t super in love with the groovetube, I picked up the Shure. And fuck what a beautiful mic that was.
These lessons cost an extra couple of nights in the studio re-recording. I had to re-edit those recordings too, effectively throwing out a few more hours of work.
Yep. It’s true. Oh, and of course, coupled with the research needed to figure all that out. But I suppose I was going to pay that cost sooner or later.
Lesson 3) There is a cure for lip smacking
I remember we had a night where the artist was just lip smacky. You know, you could hear every god damn movement of his face. While it’d be nice if artists knew how to deal with this (I mean, if you’re singing, you should know how your mouth works eh?) they don’t always know. And hell, I have a mouth and I didn’t know either.
However, this is a solvable problem, and had I just googled it that night, I could have saved yet more time in the editing room and had an overall higher quality recording. And, I suppose to top it off, I’d been doing some of the wrong things.
But hey, try it, google it, you’ll find a hundred posts, like this one.
What do you do? Drink more water. Don’t drink sugar drinks or creamy drinks. And stuff like… stop trying to record and just deal with the issue. Seriously singers, drink more fucking water.
Lesson 4) Singers should take singing lessons
I’m sure everyone with any gear has had this situation, “man, your gear makes my voice sound weird.” Oh yea? It’s my gear? Not quite. The problem is, people don’t hear themselves that often. And, when you do, did you record on high quality gear that will point out every nuance of your existence? Yea, probably not.
In our case, we had one night where we didn’t like the ‘nasal’ quality of the voice. And no, there’s nothing wrong with nasality, unless that’s not what you want to sound like.
After some research into this, nasality has a lot to do with vocal technique. Technique for managing this (either way) are taught in vocal lessons. And, get this, after much talk with my piano teacher, who’s also a vocal coach, it turns out they teach you all kinds of stuff about your mouth. Who knew it was more than ‘sing this note/here’s how you hold that note’ stuff.
Anyone who’s serious about music should spend their money and time learning these techniques. It will make for a better recording, and cost you less time in the studio while you record over and over… hoping to get it right.
Lesson 5) Your singer can be too dynamic. Your singer should work this out ahead of time with your help.
We had a lot of issues with the dynamic-ness of the singer. These are too low and too high to get a good overall level of the recording. Too quiet bits can be raised, but they bring the noise floor with them. Too loud you can lower… but then quiet parts get quieter. Yep, you can’t win.
We struggled with this quite a bit in the beginning. It’s a lot to ask a singer to just ‘sing differently’ while in the booth. Some singers can do it, and others have difficulty. And heck, they might not like that you’re asking them to change their song. But what sounds good to their ear, and what sounds good in a mic are too very different things (and a live mic will have the same issue).
Some singers do things like get closer or farther away from the mic to deal with this. While we tried these techniques out, they affect the overall frequency content due to fun phenomena like the proximity effect. While you can get away with these things live, to a point, you’re recording while be listened to over and over again.. and these issues will become apparent. Fixable, sure (eq automation!) but yet more time in the mix.
We should have done a test run of the song, pointed out these issues, and then come back in 2 to four weeks. These changes require time to practice, and for the singer to execute them well.. they must be practiced. That said, they need you, the engineer to provide them with that feed back.
The dynamic range of the real world and the dynamic range that makes a good recording are two different things.
Lessons in the Mix
Lessons from mixing were a bit less, and most of my ‘mix’ time was editing out mistakes in the recording. The mix itself was reasonably straight forward once we had settled on a sound.
Lesson 6) Aggressively Edit out of the gate
My first run through of the tracks I said to myself, “vt100 – only do edits you need to do.” What happened when I did this? Later in my mix I would realized that I needed to do more. I needed to do my best.
I should have just taken the fine tooth comb approach from the beginning because that’s what I was going to end up wanting to do no matter what. And heck, it doesn’t take that much to do it, unless there’s a big problem.
Moving forward, my approach will be a more strict adherence to what I already knew. It’s the strict part. That being:
- Solo the track
- Zoom in
- Cut out any blip of noise, remove anything that should be silent, add cross fades
- Deal with the big stuff later
My first pass or two through all of the parts missed a ton of stuff. A ton. I didn’t figure this lesson out until the 4th or 5th song and doing this aggressive editing up front really saved me time in the grand scheme of things.
Lesson 6) Wide panning X-Y recorded acoustic guitar can get in your way
This was another one I found later. I recorded the acoustic guitar in stereo. I figured, ‘hey, since this track is so damn sparse, i’ll pan the guitar wide to fill in the space’. And while this sounded cool, this caused me a lot of issues getting the vocals to sit right.
I would do my rotating vocal tweaks over and over, struggling and struggling to get the vocals to sit and nothing (if you’re curious, I have a loop of: levels, eq, compression, verb that I cycle through trying to get things to sit just right). Eventually I got the idea to pan the guitar more narrow… boom, problem solved.
You can still use some panning, just don’t go full left/right. Doing so will not only add intimacy to the performance, but not having the acoustic guitarist frequency spectrum spunking all over your auditory stage will give you control, control the vocals need in order to find their home.
And that isn’t to say there wasn’t a place for wide panning – it really depended on the vocal part. But yea… this wide panning technique bit me more than once.
Lesson 7) Never skimp out on your mix setup
I went to school, I know I should setup my mixes before I start mixing… and I do. But I apparently forgot a few of those lessons. I ended up leaving out things like setting up markers for the parts of the song, and this would cost me time dicking around trying to find the ‘2nd chorus’ while responding to feedback from the artist.
Yea folks – anything that’s not a straight mix activity… get that out of the way. Maybe I should make a checklist for next time eh?
Lesson 8) Keep a track sheet and take notes
I’d never done this on a project before, but it was immensely helpful and I should have started it out this way.
Make a list of all the tracks you’re going to record. Hell, have the artist fill it out. Get tempos, keys, shit like that as it will help you when you’re engineering and the artist isn’t available.
As I went through the mix, I would note trouble spots and what i had tried. If I had an idea, I’d write that down too. I didn’t want to lose anything and I might not always get to an idea or an issue right away. The note sheet saved me a ton of time in not having to keep mental state as I worked on the mix night after night.
Adding to that, I then used the same note sheet to track the various pieces of feedback I received. Effectively, I built a checklist per song of feedback. Sure, I might decide not to fix something – but I could write down why I didn’t right next to the feedback.
Finally, I kept notes on the processing I was using on the tracks. The goal was that I wanted a consistent sound on the record. By keeping these notes, I didn’t need to flip between songs to see/remember how I got an individual track to sound the way it did.
Lesson 9) Make the artist give you a track list
Being on the same page as the artist is tough. They usually have an idea, but they don’t speak audio engineer. You’re job is to assume they are crazy. How do you rectify this? I had my artist create a playlist of artists they wanted to sound like.
This helped us communicate and talk about what the artist wanted. I could talk and think about things I might do to achieve those goals. And of course, I had a point of reference I could use to check myself against.
Lesson 10) There’s no good enough, there’s only your best
This is my favorite lesson and will be the hardest one for people who choose to work with me in the future. I come to find, over and over again, I became an artist because I wanted to do my best. I want no one to be in my way when it comes to the level of detail I want to take my work. This is how I get better, this is how I show my love, and this is incredibly important to me.
I sold myself short on this project and it cost me time. My artist could have taken his music further too. Had we both done this, not only would this have been a cheaper record to make from a time/money perspective – together we would have found something that neither of us thought possible. And while, I think we still achieved this, I see so much more.
No one gets to be tired. No one gets to skip warm ups, or lessons, or practice. All the hard stuff we do, and we do it until we get it right, even if that means the project takes a year.
It’s amazing how many artists I run into and they say things to me like, “well it sounded good enough.” Lol, don’t waste my fucking time; this is art.
Lesson 11) Compare all your gear to all your other gear. Compare your gear to gear you don’t have
Throughout this particular blog post I think i’ve linked to 4 or 5 comparisons of mics, preamps, compressors, saturators, reverbs and more. I had never done this before, but this work proved to be invaluable. I knew exactly what sounds I could acheive, and we chose what we wanted with absolute confidence. I knew, very much so, that I was getting the best sound I could. I can’t express how glad I am I did that research. I will absolutely continue to do these comparisons as I move forward in my recording career.
I truly believe that it’s the only way to really know your gear. And if you don’t know you’re gear, you’re just hoping for a lucky guess. Too bad I had never done this before 😉
Phew – that was a lot. Five songs, two instruments… and something like 6 months. Take a look at the above article and I hope you come to understand just what it takes to creating an album, even one you’re ‘just recording someone else’. It’s more than money and it’s more than time. It’s calculation, comparison, tedium, rehearsal, research, and work. Finding the sound, picking the gear, getting the best recording… and fixing every thing you didn’t know how to see until it was too late.
Yea, this was my best this time around. And next time around I’ll have a new best. Your best doesn’t come for free, but it’s absolutely worth it.
So please, hug an audio engineer sometime. This is what we do to give you the best representation of yourself. And don’t ask us to do anything less, ever.
And hey… just look what one can learn working with a voice and a guitar.