Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Recording Lately

This post is mostly relevant to musicians. Read at your own risk.

I spent a recent evening in a commercial recording studio.
This was a really interesting experience for a number of reasons... I used to own a very small, private studio where my group used to record for sales at shows and radio play. It was a nice change not to have to be the musician and run everything at the same time. Plus scream at the equipment when it refused to do its job, which it did frequently.

So it's been forever (15 yrs?) since I've been near recording equipment. This is forever in Equipment Time. Here's the main difference: there is no more tape! Everything is recorded to computers these days, using a program called Pro Tools. Unfortunately this takes place using Macs. I did warn the studio guys to keep them away from me, lest my skin burn or the Macs start to do Weird Stuff.  True to form, one of the machines refused to work for a while at first. Proximity? Who knows.

Then there are the digital mixing boards with what appears to be way fewer channels than needed. And the large-ish displays, where all the action happens. Oh yeah, and those weird Mac chiclet keyboards with the odd mice or normal trackballs. So the recording, metering, mixing and editing all happen onscreen.

In the Old Days, you had to literally slice tape to make certain edits. Today, you just perform simple computery actions onscreen - copy, paste, drag, etc. There's a pretty steep learning curve but there's a lot of power there. In the beginning, there was mono recording - everything went to a cylinder (ancient), directly to a record, or to a reel to reel tape machine. You had to perform as a solid unit (band) with the mics just right because there were no second chances. Eventually there were two track machines for stereo. If you had more than one, you could 'bounce' the two tracks to the other machine, giving you a third track to overdub. Next were the 4 track machines, 8 track, 16 track and 24 track. The tape got wider too, up to two inches on a 24 track deck. This was industry standard for many years, plus you could sync up two 24 track machines if you needed more. (A Stupid History of Recording)

With digital recording there is no tape (duh) and the number of tracks is limited only by the computer, RAM, and hard drive space. This is obviously a huge leap over tape.

Then there are effects. You used to see huge racks of Very Expensive Boxes, which were effects (reverb, delay, etc). This is mostly done now by Pro Tools plugins(!), plus a few external, high quality or specific function rack gear. The plugins are a great piece of technology, ranging from basic reverb to all sorts of plugins designed to emulate one specific effect box from the past. This is all brought to us by faster processors and well-written software.

When you do a take, it shows up onscreen on a graph with squiggly lines, representing the input. You can then record an alternate take instead of the first one, record an additional take (or six) or leave it. After you're reasonably satisfied with the performance, you listen. If you have more than one take, you can use parts of any numbers of takes to make a 'perfect' track, without destroying any of the previous performances. It's all done with copy/paste. Here's another great capability: you can also MOVE things, down to individual notes, in time. If your rhythm is off, you can move it to where it's exactly on. This comes in handy when you're rhythm-impaired (like someone I know whose name rhymes with meftystrat). It's too cool. It can be done manually or automatically (I think).  I didn't see any serious correcting but I believe you can change pitch and all sorts of stuff when needed (Miley). Most of this would be done externally or would be downright impossible with tape. Most of the rest that I observed was your Standard Stuff for Studios, like mics, mic placement, the correct amps/tone and performance.

ASIDE: there is a tremendous amount of power and choice available with this equipment. You can even get a smaller version of it for an iPad. This is available to almost everyone, wherein lies the problem. ANYONE can use it to put out great stuff (or Product). This means any idiot can put anything down. The other side of power is way too many choices and Analysis Paralysis, where you get stuck deciding which performance or edit is the best and how you want it to fit together. You can turn one track into days of assembly.

I was privileged to be called in on this session because my best friend and I wrote the song and wanted to update our crappy original recording of it. I couldn't believe how good it sounded. Plus there were some improvements instrumentally and vocally.

The studio had a really large, interesting array of guitars and amps. The guitars were all backwards but I brought my #1 Strat anyway. We spent a while getting the right amps for the right tones. The song is Beatle-esque so we went with what they used - a Vox AC30 (recent, with master volume). There were two tracks here: a basic rhythm, bluesy track and a one-hit (chinky) rhythm. Both came out really well with the AC30 and different Strat pickups/settings.

For the lead track, I messed with the Vox but it wasn't giving my what I wanted (even though I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted). The Studio Dudes were talking up their Orange 50w Rockoverb (or something like that). I was hoping for a low-powered older Fender but what the hell - why not try things? I plugged in and the amplifier immediately started to put out this horrendous noise (which wasn't my playing). We examined all sorts of potential issues but decided that wasn't the solution. I tried a pretty cool boutique stereo Swart amp. Very simple controls and it would have worked nicely for the rhythm tracks but not for the lead. After a bit of thought, he hauled out the big weapon: 100 watts of solid Marshall power. Since I have a Marshall (and the dog called Marshall), I had some familiarity with the beast. I tried not to use a lot of grind because the track didn't call for it. After a few takes, he suggested we turn up the grind, The beauty of almost unlimited tracks is you can do many many takes of a part, using different tones, to decide what you like best. We like the dirty version. Because, you know... I like it dirty.

So here comes the fun part,,, I worked out a pretty cool, melodic solo and started playing it. After a few takes, I noticed a funny look on my friend's face, like he ate some bad fruit or something.. not quite a lemon but close. He asked could I get it closer to the original we recorded 15 years ago. Alrighty then. I have NO IDEA what I did 15 years ago. He said he emailed the older version. The only problem was that I never received it. So he played it on his phone and I had to 'learn' it in the studio. Since I'm a quick study, it fortunately went well.  In the end we had quite a few takes and assembled the best whole solo from two or three individual takes. You couldn't do this with tape unless you were incredibly good (and somewhat out of your tiny little mind). All with cut and paste.

So I left with a rough mix, which sounded pretty cool.

What did we learn?
We learned that all sorts of interesting things can be done with this new-fangled digital recording.
We also learned that someone has a slight timing problem that can be partially fixed onscreen. I don't think all that highly of my own playing, so this was a bit of a blow. However, I was invited back, so that works nicely.

I also saw this little lunchbox in person, called a Kemper profiling amplifier. Even though I'm a hardcore technology buff, I can't figure out how this works. You play the desired amplifier into it and it profiles it, making it available to you as a preset. So you can emulate your expensive vintage amp and not have to use it again. Obviously it won't be EXACT but I hear great things about it. I'll try one eventually.

All in all it was quite an experience. I look forward to more.

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