Published January 25th, 2014 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

I typically like the main vocal parts in the songs I mix to be a bit more pronounced than the other instruments. There is definitely a balance I work toward—I don’t want the vocal to overpower the accompaniment, but it’s very important for me that every word be audible. The music I work on tends to be more lyric-driven than instrument-driven.

It’s also very important to me for all of the vocal parts to be in balance with each other. Given my issues with singing harmonies, I figure that if the vocal harmonies are so loud that I can sing with them, then the mix isn’t right.

I also like my percussion to be audible without being obtrusive. This can be especially tricky when dealing with things like tambourines and sleigh bells, which are very loud and very treble. They cut through the mix like a hot knife through butter, and I prefer them to be seasoning rather than the main course.

So when mixing any given track, I have numerous balls to juggle. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am a first soprano who likes to write songs that are in the second soprano or even alto range. I can hit the notes—just not loudly. My best volume comes out on the higher notes because that’s where my natural range is. So for the main vocal parts that have some lower notes, I work to make those lower notes stand out better without sounding weird. This is where one of my favorite tools comes in handy.

Write automation is a function in my recording software that plays with the dynamics of the tracks I’m working with. It’s actually possible to automate all sorts of things, but mostly I use it to automate volume. Maybe a vocal needs to be a bit louder on this phrase, or an instrument needs to be a bit quieter for two beats or so because it’s overpowering everything else in just one spot, but sounds great in the mix throughout the rest of the song. The idea is not to remove all the natural dynamics of the various instruments involved, but rather to get them to play nice together so that they are pleasing to listen to, and mix well with one another.

While in the midst of mixing, I will also run other processes over various parts of a song. The guitar recording gets cloned—meaning that there are now two instances in my file of the same guitar track—and one panned mostly to the left, and one panned mostly to the right. The main vocal stays at dead center unless I have reason to do otherwise, and everything else is panned to varying degrees of left, right, and center as necessary. For this part I mostly just do what I think sounds best.

I will also put a compression effect on some parts of the song. Compression helps things cut up through the mix and become more audible. This is especially useful for the main vocal recordings.

I may also EQ things if I want to bring out the higher or lower end of something. And for at least the main vocal, I’ll add some reverb to give it that polished studio sound. (I have no idea why this is the standard, but it does indeed seem to sound better that way. But a little reverb goes a long way.)

The trick with all of this, of course—all the cut-ins, all the write automation, and all the effects—is to make it sound natural. These tools and gizmos don’t do me any good if they make the finished product sound like anything other than a cohesive whole. And I try very hard to stay away from things like…*shudder*…pitch correction. I absolutely never use it on a main vocal recording, but I will use it on back-up harmonies if it’s necessary and not too extreme. Otherwise, if it takes a hundred takes to get something right, then it takes a hundred takes.

Once the song is mixed and sounds the way I want it to, I will play through the whole thing just to make sure that the Master bus isn’t clipping anywhere. Sound is additive, so the more parts you have playing simultaneously in a song, the louder it will be coming through the main output (or Master bus). If the Master is clipping anywhere, I’ll decrease the overall volume of the song by decreasing the volume of the Master. It might make things a bit quieter, but I’m about to fix that in a minute anyway.

Now it’s time to export the final mix, and switch software.

The second piece of software I use is handy as a mastering program. “Mastering” means different things from engineer to engineer, but for mean it means the following:

The first thing I do is shorten the amount of silence at the beginning of the track to be one second in length. Aside from helping to keep songs on an album from being spaced too close together, this gives CD players time to buffer the track. Then I will go to the end of the track and fade out the tail end as necessary, and possibly add a bit more silence if necessary.

Next it’s time to run a noise reduction filter on the track. This gets rid of aural detritus that is not necessarily noticeable until it’s removed. Removing it increases the overall quality of the track.

Next I will EQ the entire mix together, as opposed to the individual tracks that make up the mix. This is just sort of a final touch sort of tweak, and is not something I do unless I can produce a better quality recording with it. (In other words, if it ain’t necessary, it ain’t happenin’.)

And finally, I’ll run it through another filter that, in the program I use, is known as Wave Hammer. This is where I increase the overall volume of the song, which I mentioned a bit ago as “fixing” the decreasing of the overall volume of the song in the other piece of software. The way this works is that the Wave Hammer process first compresses the peaks in the song to create a more average volume level, and then maximizes and raises the overall volume of the track. So I end up with a fuller-sounding track.

Once every track on an album has gone through this process, I listen through all of them to check for a couple of things. First, I want to see if their volume is consistent from track to track. It’s annoying to have to keep changing the volume of a finished product because the tracks aren’t consistent. And second, I will listen to the silences between the tracks to see if they’re too long or too short. If they’re not right, I’ll alter them until they are, which is simply a matter of adding or subtracting silence in my mastering software.

And that’s the amount of work that goes into each and every song I record. It takes no small amount of time, and sometimes the process makes me want to tear my hair out, but overall I’m very happy that I know how to do this—to a standard that is entirely my own. I’m sure there are things I do that would drive a mainstream professional batty. But I know what works for me, and I know what sound I’m after, so that’s what counts.

Hopefully this was interesting to someone! Tomorrow I will post the long-time-coming end to the “How I Learned to Bard” series of posts, and then next week I’ll go back to posting only once a week, introducing each track on “[untitled]” in turn.

Published January 24th, 2014 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

A song has been written, chorded, and practiced, and is now ready to be recorded. I start with rhythm guitar.

Both of Sean’s guitars are acoustic/electric guitars, which means I can plug them directly into my sound system. I used to also mic the sound hole of the guitar with a separate microphone, but I find that the tonality is much cleaner if I just use the sound produced by the guitar’s line in. So we plug the guitar in, get the software set up, and start recording.

We normally have to do multiple takes of the guitar. This is normal. Thankfully, since we are living in a digital age, the entire recording process is much easier. We start with a full take of the guitar. Barring any horrible mistakes, Sean will play the entire song through once. Then we listen to what we’ve got thus far and identify the areas we want to fix. (I will also keep a notepad and pen handy while we’re doing the initial take and write down the measure numbers of problem spots in the recording.) Once we’ve determined what needs to be re-done, we do what are called cut-ins.

Rather than have Sean play through the entirety of the guitar part again, I will start him a few measures before a part that I had to cut out. I press record, he plays along with what he’s already done, plays through the spot of silence where the bad part was cut out, and then I generally keep him going a few measures into the other side of the hole. He knows not to stop playing until I cut the recording, and I know not to cut the recording for series of holes that are really close together.

Once the cut-in recording is done, I have to massage the ends of the previous take and the new take together. It’s usually much easier than it sounds, because the software I use is pretty nifty. (More on that later—yes, I’m actually going to do the last “All this Crazy Audio Nonsense” post finally!) And that’s part of the reason why I have Sean play over some of what he’s already done. It makes things easier to splice the takes together. Also, if we were to just start the guitar right at the beginning of the hole, there would be an awkward bit of silence between cuts.

After finalizing the guitar recording, I record the main vocal part. This track often ends up being Swiss cheese, too, because sometimes it takes me numerous tries to get things the way I want them to be. When doing cut-ins for the vocal parts, I once again record over part of what I’ve already done. I’ve found that the breaths between phrases are much less awkward if they’re natural, and in order for them to sound natural to my ears, I have to sing at least part of the phrase before and the phrase after the one that I’m replacing.

Once the main vocal part is finalized, I will add the percussion. I know that this is especially backwards from the way that many recording engineers do things. They will often start with the percussion, but since I record the guitar with a metronome, it doesn’t much matter to me to do things in this order.

And once I’m happy with the percussion tracks, I will begin bringing in the outside musicians. They may be vocalists for harmony parts—my brain latches onto the melody of a song so stubbornly that I have a really difficult time singing harmony with something, and I have to have something to sing along with—or play other instruments like cello, harp, or bass guitar. I don’t generally have an order to which I’ll record these parts. They pretty much get done in whatever sequence is most convenient for the people performing the parts.

Recording a song in the studio is most definitely a multi-day process. Even if I didn’t need to bring in outside musicians, and Sean and I were able to perform all of the parts of a song ourselves (like some really fantastically awesome musicians I know of), we get burned out fairly quickly when working on audio projects. Most recording sessions last somewhere between three to four hours, depending on the work being done. At some point, all the sounds sort of bleed together and I just need to walk away and work on something else for a while.

But once all of the parts are recorded, it’s time to start tweaking them and shaping them into the finished track.

Published January 23rd, 2014 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

So now that I have the final drafts of the lyrics and melody for a new song, it’s time to talk to a guitarist. Usually I work with Sean or our friend Cern, with the occasional SOS sent up to my sister (who is sort of a musical genius) if I need something wrestled into submission at light speed.

We start with a sample recording of the pertinent parts of the song: One repetition of the verse melody, one repetition of the chorus melody, and one repetition of the middle eight melody, if the song has a middle eight (or a chorus, for that matter). This sample recording is ideally nice and slow so that the person working on the chords can hear what the heck I’m singing. I’ll also send them the lyrics for them to make notes on.

From there the process involves some sort of voodoo that frequently reaches over my head. As I said, I don’t really know much about music theory, and I know even less about playing guitar. I can learn songs by wrote all damn day, but ask me to pick a melody (or chords) out on a tonal instrument, and I’m flummoxed. I’m sure I could come to understand it with instruction. But currently, a fair amount of it is a bit beyond me.

But the guitarist will figure out what key it’s in, and from there we’ll both decide what chords sound best with the song. Sean and I arrange an intro and an outro as necessary, as well as the bits between whatever verse/chorus combination is going on, and a bridge if the song has a bridge.

And then it’s time to practice. And I mean practice. I like to practice, and frequently. For one, it gets me used to singing the song, and it gets Sean used to playing the song. And for two, it lets me get to know the song. I think about my phrasing and diction, I think about where I’m taking my breaths, I think about volume and other dynamics, I think about the emotions I’m putting behind my performance. All of this is very important for live performance, of course, and it’s also very important for studio recording, as well.

As when I’m singing live, I don’t want to just be a vocalist singing into a microphone. I want to be a performer engaging my audience. That’s a little harder to do when you’re not physically in front of people, but it’s also very important to consider that, unlike a live performance, a formal recording will (hopefully) be listened to over and over and over again, so it needs to be fun to listen to. It won’t be if I sound bored.

There really isn’t a precedent for how much time there is for us between learning a new song and going into the studio to record it. Most of the things we’ve recorded to date are songs we’ve had in our repertoire for a while and have had many, upon many, upon many chances to practice. I think the shortest period of time between learning and recording was for “Surviving through the Game”, and that was because of a pressing deadline. I typically find it useful to have more time to learn a song before making a recording of it.

One of the things we try to do as often as possible when practicing a song for recording is to practice the song in question with whatever metronome settings we’ll be using when we start laying down the tracks. The speed at which we perform a song differs from concert to concert when we play live—we’ll play slower or faster as the mood of the performance dictates. But in the studio, regularity is pretty important, especially if there will be other instruments included on the track.

As far as my methods for the making of an actual recording, that will have to wait until tomorrow.

Published January 22nd, 2014 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

This week I’m starting a new series in between “Meet ‘Faces in the Fog’” and “Meet ‘[untitled]‘”. It occurred to me that I’ve never gone into great detail about the process of writing and recording a song, and that said information may be of interest to someone out there. There are lots of ways to complete this process, and in this four-part series, I’ll be discussing how I do it. This series will update daily, unlike the other series posted on this blog, so if you want to just skip to the “[untitled]” content, check back on January 27th.

For me, every song begins with an idea. It might be a character, one or two words, a phrase, a setting, or an entire story arch that hits me at once, that serves as inspiration for a song. Once I’ve found something to write about, one of two things will happen next:

  1. All of the lyrics tumble out of my head all at once, with or without a tune
  2. I have to tease the lyrics out into the world over the course of days, weeks, months, or years (yes, I’ve had songs that took me that long to write), and they again either come with a tune, or I have to spend more time pondering that part of the puzzle

A very small number of my songs fall into that first category. “Hush and Shush” was one of those. The chorus—lyrics and melody—came to me pretty easily at work one day. I was toying around with it when I got home, and then while I was taking a shower, the last eight lines of the third verse came to me. The rest of the song followed shortly thereafter. Spitting out a song like that is its own unique type of craziness, and one that I very much enjoy.

But most of the songs I write come out piecemeal. I’ll get an idea, jot down some lyrics, maybe record a snippet of a tune idea, and then run out of inspiration for a time and have to move on to something else. This used to feel like a failure—I thought that if I couldn’t get the entirety of a song out at once, that that was a bad thing. (Also, I tend to get excited about new things I’ve written and want to share them immediately—it can be pretty agonizing to have to wait for an idea to fully formulate.) Now, though, I just recognize it as part of the process. The songs will come out when they want to, and in the case of some of my ideas, only when I’ve had enough experience with whatever it is I’m writing about.

So maybe I’ll take a week or a few months to write the lyrics for a song. If I didn’t have any ideas for a tune when I began writing the words, then I have to figure out something for that. I once thought it was impossible for me to write good melodies. Thankfully I now know that’s not true, although it can still be a little rough sometimes. I actually know very little about music theory, so my songwriting technique essentially equates to, “Sing things to myself until something good comes out”. It’s a bit slapdash, I suppose, but it seems to work reasonably well nevertheless.

Now it’s time for the fun bit. In the case of songs written in pieces, I am, of course, not writing the lyrics with the melody in mind. This usually requires tweaking the lyrics somewhere down the line, which isn’t a problem. The part that’s really awkward is getting my brain to properly wrap the tune around each verse in turn so that the song is consistent throughout. I’ve found that this is easier to do when I’m singing with a guitar or other accompaniment.

Which is a nice segue into tomorrow’s post, which will deal with putting chords to a new song.