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Saturday 1 July 2017

Band on a budget - the recording process part 4

Well that's day 2 finished. I didn't blog last night because I was knackered and went for a beer, but here's the brain dump from day 2.

The plan
We intended to record the drums and bass for the remaining two songs, then do overdubs for main vocals, rhythm guitar and possibly backing vocals. When our guitarist returned we would then overdub his guitar parts.
Plans schmans....

Denmark Street
After resetting up the few bits and bobs we took home overnight we were ready to go. We were joined yesterday by a friend of mine who's helped us out before to help press buttons and twiddle knobs. He's not an audio engineer but he has done a fair bit of live light and sound stuff in his past and helped out when we did our acoustic recording a while back.
Unfortunately we ran into some problems early on that took a while to sort out.
Denmark Street is the most rocky / punky of the four tracks we'd planned to record and as a result our drummer was playing louder than he did the day before. This caused two problems, one was that a couple of the drum mics were peaking, the other was that our bassist was struggling to hear herself.
Unfortunately I don't own any pads or in-line attenuators. Having never recorded live drums before this has never been a problem, I shall know better next time.
Anyway, as it was the overheads that were clipping the solution was simply to move them higher up. This brought them nicely down to the level of the knee mic and snare but the kit was running hotter than I would have liked.
I'm not sure if Reaper has a way of attenuating incoming signals for such an eventuality but I didn't have time to trawl the manual (which I've never found particularly easy to use) so we've just had to run with it. I'm going to slap a true peak meter on once I've loaded them onto my main computer and see what we've got to deal with.
Anyway, key lesson (other then having some attenuators) is to understand your DAW software completely. Homework for me there.

All about the bass
The second problem was a bit trickier. Our bass player has a long history of playing live in some fairly big venues which means we have a great bass player, but sadly her hearing is no longer what it should be. Our headphones were running off the headphone socket on the Tascam, monitoring the incoming signal and it just wasn't loud enough for her compared to the drums. Unfortunately just cranking the bass signal wasn't an option as it was already running hotter than I would have liked so I had to get my thinking cap on. Sticking a compressor pedal in the way helped a bit but still wasn't cutting the mustard. Which is a peculiar expression if you think about it.

Pops and crackles part 2
I had a lousy night's sleep on Thursday night because I was still trying to engineer the session in my head, but one of the things I had been thinking about was the issues with buffer sizes and artefacts and how that was affecting the limited overdubs we'd done. Whilst pondering on this it occurred to me that, although I had done the obvious things like setting the laptop to high power; switching off the wifi; setting the quiet hours; etc, I hadn't turned off the anti-virus.
I had also been thinking that there must be a way to make use of the other outputs from the back of the Tascam (we were only using 1&2 to listen to the stereo mix) and the little behringer mixer I had kicking around to create a separate headphone mix.
I'd turned the anti-virus off first thing and sure enough this meant we could bring the buffer down to 256 samples without creating pops and crackles - and this in turn meant that the latency was brought down to something that wasn't causing problems.
So rigged up the small mixer to take a mix signal into one pair of channels and the bass signal (routed in Reaper to outputs 3&4) to another channel so that we could give our bassist the ability to add her own signal on top of the mix.
I may have declared that I was a genius at this point.
Except now we weren't getting sound from anything at all.
And it was lunchtime.
Bollox, time for a break.

Back to bassics
A short walk, a bite to eat, fresh air and coffee can do wonders.
A quick check of the audio device properties indicated that, somehow, I'd been running the whole show do far without using the correct asio driver. Fixing that gave us our output back and our independent bass output, which in turn gave us a happy bass player and, finally, a decent couple of takes of Denmark Street.

Revert to plan A.
Having been cheered up by this solution and finally making some progress we had a bit of pause to restock. We were expecting our guitarist back any time now but no-one had heard from him so we weren't sure when exactly. We were still debating what to do next (backing vocals, guitar overdubs or get started on track 4) when he arrived, effectively ending the discussion.
With all four of us there, and a friend to push the buttons, we gave him a few minutes to get settles then went straight into recording Shadowbones.

Of wins and losses
Sadly adding another three inputs was just enough to tip the balance back to causing pops and crackles again. Pushing the buffer up to 512 samples sorted the noise but meant the latency was too great for our bass player's separate headphone mix solution to work properly. Shadowbones being a quieter song we were able to return to our previous approach but it's still bugging me that I couldn't make this work.
On the positive side we were obviously hitting our stride on the musical side of things. I'd been worried about this track as it has a few stops and complications to the arrangement (including three different tempos) but as it happened we got it down in three takes.
This, of course, just emphasised how frustrating it was that we hadn't had the guitarist in place for the full session.

Next up was filling in the main guitar parts for the previous three tracks. Denmark Street went fairly smoothly, Northshoremen a bit less so. Our guitarist hadn't had a lot of sleep on Thursday night and wasn't feeling at his best, he really wasn't happy with his playing and didn't think it was going to get any better. It really didn't sound bad to the rest of us but plainly a replan was required.

Time for plan C, or maybe D
It was now around 4pm. Whilst we could make noise at the hall until 10 there were already a few signs of fatigue (and boredom) setting in and none of us wanted to go that late so it was time for another band meeting.
The outcome of which was that since a) the guitarist was confident he could record his own parts at his place, b) I could record my bits at mine, and c) we could do the backing vocals in an evening session back at the hall one night, we should make the most of the set-up and record a fifth song.
For no good reason this really stressed me out for a bit.
I've been fairly stressed all week about this, not in a bad way really, just in an anxious-that-it-go-well kind of way but the sudden change of plan made me really quite tense.
I can't remember exactly what I did but I think I disappeared to check some cabling or something similar whilst I rejected any reasons not to make the most of the situation. After all, we already had a load of stuff in the bag, it wasn't costing us a lot of money, why not?

5 for the price of 4
Everything was already set up from recording Shadowbones so a quick bit of work brought up a blank template on Reaper and we were good to go. Fortunately the extra track that we chose to do was the one I would have chosen if it had been all down to me so I relaxed a bit and, after a couple of false starts (not all mine!), we had three decent takes of Words in the bag.

Finishing up
This is already a long entry so I'll put a bit of a summary in the next post once I've had chance to have a proper listen to everything.
But just for fun, here's a little clip of our guitarist getting into the groove...

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