In my last blog post regarding this recording with Millow Pye, I mentioned a couple of issues which I think were most important for Mike and I to address, they were;
- Space for artists/film crew
- Microphone choices for a live performance in a studio
- Artist and microphone placement to maximise track separation for mixing post
Since my last blog post a couple of things changed which basically alleviated most if not all of these issues. For starters, our lead guitarist dropped out, which was a bit of a bummer but we still had the most important member, Jordan (who embodies Millow Pye), and Matt, our violinist/saxophonist. Unfortunately, he also removed himself from the equation leaving us only with rhythm guitar and vocals from Jordan. Mike and I were all pretty annoyed and disheartened, however, after a chat with Jordan we decided to completely rework what we were trying to achieve. Instead of a live version of the album we were going to record 4 brand new songs of Jordan's and make this performance a sort of live EP. Great! It turns out that these sudden changes were actually a blessing in disguise as now our recording environment is much simpler and easier to manage. I unfortunately couldn't make it on the day, due to some bad planning and family priorities on my part, but I had full confidence in Mike to make the right decisions, especially considering now everything was much simpler to manage.
Not Out of The Woods Yet
Everything went smoothly according to those involved, and the recordings sound great. Mike and I got together with Jordan to listen through the 4 takes they did of each song and pick out which we were going to use. After deciding on which takes we liked the best, Jordan left and Mike and I began mixing.
Our session in the neve was a good primer for the rest of our mixing work; we were able to try out a couple of techniques with compression on the vocals and stereo separation on the guitar. I didn't want to overly process any elements of this track beyond the point of clarifying their sound and correcting any faults in the actual recording; while I was mixing I was very aware of the fact that the finished product was going to include video of the artist playing the songs we were mixing, and so I didn't want to do anything that would remove the audio from the visual, so making cuts and comping vocals was out of the picture.
The first thing I noticed was of course Jordan's beautiful and full vocals, which Mike recorded with a Shure SM7b giving us a nice natural tone with plenty of low-mid frequency response, perfect for Jordans voice. I really wanted to preserve the low end in the vocal without carving out all the low end from the guitars, so I employed a technique that I had read about in a recent issue of Audio Technology Australia. The article I had read was about Flight Facilities' techniques for mixing the sound for their live show. They had mentioned that to incorporate vocals in their mix they would separate all other elements to the left and right channels with their full frequency spectrum active, while the musical elements in the centre would have a nice big pocket carved out of the mid range. They would then leave the vocals completely mono, pushing them into this mid range hole and separating them almost completely from the rest of the mix while keeping the full frequency range of the rest of the music. The way I approached this was similar, but instead of leaving a mono version of the guitars in the middle with no mid range, I simply separated them completely to the left and right channels, leaving the entire centre of the sound for vocals. This seemed to work pretty well and we were now free to process the vocals however we wanted without affecting the guitars. Our first process with the vocals was compression as we were pretty happy with the general sound of the vocals and only thought they needed cleaning up. Jordan is pretty particular with his dynamic range when he sings, so I didn't want to disturb the eb and flow of his voice, but rather just tighten everything up a little bit so we didn't lose him completely when he sung really quietly. We played around with a couple of different compressors but eventually I went back to the ol' faithful, BF-76 which I used mostly to bring up the level of Jordan's voice. I tweaked the parameters until the meter was hitting -5 in the really loud parts of his singing and then used this kind of compression in most of the songs.
We didn't want to go too deep into mixing in the Neve because, to be honest, it sounds terrible in there when you're trying to get a neat mix. So our next session would be in the 8024 where we knew we would be in a better position to start digging deeper into our EQs and such.
Getting ourselves into a better room meant we were presented with all these different issues with our guitar sound that we hadn't noticed before. For starters we did the usual things like listening for offending frequencies in the vocals and guitar, and started to dip them out in Pro Tools standard parametric EQ. This was done by making the Q really tight on a band where I thought there were offending frequencies and then boosting them until they really resonated. This is a pretty painful process because the point is the single out frequencies that don't sound very nice, but once you've boosted the correct frequency, all you need to do is turn the gain down on that particular band and, boom, that frequency is gone and everything sounds a lot nicer. Below is an example of what that looks like, taken from one of the mics used to track guitar.
After I had cleaned up the guitar tracks with this technique I moved on to freshening up the sound by deciding which mics would be best for what range of frequencies. For example, I notced the AKG C414 was picking up more bass frequencies than the SM57 so I swept all the higher frequencies out of the mix for the AKG and all the lower end from the SM57. This meant that I could blend the two together without getting any masking or boosting from any similar frequencies between the mics. Originally we were using a Sennheiser md421 that was placed at the rear of the amp for the lower frequencies but we noticed that it made everything really muddy, and simply muting that mic gave everything a lot more presence and tidied it up. The other big issue we found with the guitars was a really, really, really noticeable buzz coming from the amp. Initially we just put a LPF on a 24db/oct Q and swept out the higher frequencies until we couldn't here it, but doing so removed a tonne of clarity from the guitars. Sitting in the studio I thought, "surely this is a problem most people have come across and surely there are solutions", so I jumped on google and started researching. A forum on GearSlutz provided the best answers with one person saying that they would record an independent track of just the guitar buzz during his session, then while mixing he would line up the recording of the actual guitar and the buzz, then flip the phase on the buzz so it would cancel out in the actual guitar tracks. Genius! Unfortunately this wasn't possible for us so I kept digging and found a post suggesting that sending a copy of the guitar to a bus and then single out the worst sounding frequency of the buzz and then flip the phase on that. This doesn't get rid of the noise completely but it definitely tames it a lot. So we did this on all of our guitar tracks and managed to bring that horrible buzzing down quite a bit. As for the vocals there wasn't much to do because we were pretty happy with the way they sounded after removing those offending frequencies, however Jordan did suggest that he wanted more reverb as a kind of artistic choice. The personal nature of the songs and the subtleties of his voice made me almost want to do the complete opposite and only add reverb to give it a sense of space, rather than washing everything out. But we wanted to go with what Jordan thought was best so we started adding in more reverb but did it our way. Instead of giving the reverb tonnes of space by turning up the time control on our reverb plugin, Rverb (which I would supply a screenshot of but I don't have this plugin handy), we turned up the pre-delay and sort of let that be the bulk of the reverb. This meant that everything stayed away from all the prominent peaks in the vocals and only stuck around for the tail end. We ended up taken a small section of the low end in the reverb away (from about 20 - 200) just to stop any unwanted rumble, and also lowered frequencies around the 10k mark to only allow for the higher, wispier parts of the reverb to filter through without washing out the important frequencies in the actual vocals.
Mike is working on the mastering now and I think, over all I'm pretty happy with the mix. I definitely picked up a few new tricks along the way, as I do with everything new mixing session. A few things to improve on though; I think if we'd picked up on the buzzing sound during our recordings we could have eliminated it early rather than potentially losing quality in the mixing process by trying to remove it. When we planned everything in the beginning, we were going to have a practice session and then do the real thing the next day, but time restrictions meant we had to get everything done in the one session. I think if we had that day we could have picked up a couple of issues, even if they weren't major, and refined them until we had a solid idea of everything we needed to do to get a perfect recording. But it looks like we'll have to think of this recording over all as the practice and make sure we learn from our mistakes next time. Again, very happy with the way this turned out.