Get it Down: Keeping it Real

As more and more songwriters set up Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) at home to demo their ideas or make full-blown recordings of their work, they find themselves face to face with a myriad of tools, options and choices they may never have encountered before. Today I’d like to talk about one of those tools: The virtual instrument.

Virtual Reality

For those who might be unfamiliar, a virtual instrument (VI) is a software program/plug-in (basically a sampler) that offers the user a virtual version of a real world instrument that can be played or programmed via MIDI control; there are piano VIs, drum VIs and so on.

These days, there are many VI software packages on the market, and even the most basic of DAW software comes equipped with at least a few VIs. As you can imagine, the benefits of these amazing tools can be great, but like all game-changing innovations, there’s also a potential for overindulgence.

Keep it Real

Now don’t get me wrong, I personally use VIs all the time. They’ve allowed me to do things with my recordings that would have otherwise been costly or impossible - When I needed an orchestra at 3am while working that TV ad deadline, my string VI was there for me. When only a rare, vintage Mellotron keyboard sound would do on a particular recording, my trusty M-Tron VI came to the rescue.  As you can tell, l really do love and appreciate my VIs although honestly, when it comes down to it, I have to say I love real musicians playing real instruments a whole lot more.

As songwriters we’re always striving to capture that little slice of humanity in every song we write. It’s ultimately that piece of real-ness that, hopefully, will allow our creations to connect with other human beings.  As such, when at all possible, why not strive for the same authenticity in the recording of our songs?

As good as that drum VI might sound, realize it can never truly recreate the subtle nuances achieved by a live drummer behind a real kit.  No matter how cool you think you sound playing your Hammond B3 VI, remember you’re still no match compared to a master sitting behind the real thing who’s dedicated his whole life to making that box howl.

So the next time you reach for that trumpet sample, if budget and time allow, stop and ask yourself if you know a horn player. Chances are you do, and if not, your band-mate probably does. Why not give that player a call, have him come by and breathe some real, non-virtual life into your tracks.

-Posted by Mark

A recurring feature on IVC, “Get it Down” will cover subjects related to capturing our songs/song ideas and the tools we use for that purpose. Posts on recording, gear, etc will all be fair game.


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Mark Bacino
is a singer/songwriter based in New York City with three album releases to his credit as an artist. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark is also a contributing writer for Guitar World as well as the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus.

www.introversechorus.com

More Cowbell: The IVC Production Series Pt.3

With a majority of today’s songwriters having powerful recording tools at their disposal just a laptop’s click away and the line between home and studio recordings blurring daily, writers/artists are now finding themselves, more and more, in the role of de facto producer when looking to capture their latest creations. With that thought in mind, IVC’s “More Cowbell” series will look to dissect, simplify and offer insight into the (sometimes daunting) process and art of DIY music production.

(In case you missed the previous installments of “MC”, here are links to parts one and two of the series.)

Recording (Cont.)

Picking up where we left off in our previous post, we continue with the record phase of our production project.

- Follow the Map. Now with drums, bass, a chordal instrument and scratch vocal in place, dig out the arrangement “road map” you created back in pre-production. Again, this document should contain a list of all the specific musical parts that will populate your song, the instruments that will play those parts and any/all additional arrangement ideas. Begin to overdub your parts one by one. As you record, listen not only for accuracy of execution but for passion and feel as well. Remember that sometimes the best takes aren’t always the “perfect” ones.

After you finish recording each part, edit as needed in your DAW but don’t overdo it; if something requires a lot of slicing/dicing it probably needs to be rerecorded. Once edited, rough mix each new part into your track. Spot editing and rough mixing as you go will give you an immediate sense of whether or not your arrangement is actually working as a whole. It will also lessen your workload down the line when you enter the mix phase of the project.

- Check ego at the door. While tracking, remember that everyone involved in the recording process, from producer to band member, is there to serve one master and one master only, the song. Acknowledge your limitations and always defer to the best player in the room for the sake of the tune. If the drummer can rock that odd little rhythmic guitar figure better than the guitar player, let him have a crack at it. If the arrangement calls for a part or instrument no one on hand can really play, don’t try and fake it, hire someone who can. There are a ton of great/affordable musicians out there who can use the work and your track will sound all the better as a result of their expertise.

Lastly, be open to experimentation. If any of your collaborators offer up arrangement suggestions, don’t dismiss their thoughts because they may deviate from your blueprint or vision of the song. Give things a try. Great producers will always harness the best ideas even if they’re not their own.

- Vocals. Once the instrumental components of your tune have been recorded, dismiss your scratch vocal track and begin the task of capturing final vocal performances for the song. There are many ways to record vocals. As such, it’s best to defer to the singer as to what approach they’re personally most comfortable with. If your vocalist wants to sing the song in sections, let them do so. If they prefer to sing the whole song in one pass, record three or four takes and edit together a “best of” comp after the tracking session.

As the singer lays down his or her tracks, once again, listen for accuracy (pitch/timing) in addition to passion and feel. As mentioned earlier, keep in mind the best takes might not always be the ones that are technically perfect.

Remember to try double tracking vocal parts if you’re looking for a fatter sound. When applicable to the genre, add backing/harmony vocals. If there’s more than one vocalist in the band, have someone other than the lead singer record the background parts as to add a different color/texture.

- The extras. Once lead and/or backing vocals are in the bag, think about any last minute arrangement or production ideas you may want to add to your song before moving on to the mix phase of the project. Often overlooked, simple percussion overdubs or subtle keyboard pads, etc can serve as valued additions to an arrangement, lending some polish to your track.

- Watch your back. Always remember to save your work during and after every recording session.  Back up your files to multiple external drives and/or DVDs. A minute devoted to file back-up may save you hours of rerecording in the event you’re faced with equipment failure.

As mentioned in the disclaimer at the head of last post, the art of recording is a subject as vast as it is varied. The suggested approach above is just that, a suggestion culled from my own experiences as a producer. There are, of course, many approaches both technical and procedural. Educate yourself and experiment to find the ones that work best for you.

If you have any questions in regard to recording, leave a comment (above) or feel free to email me directly at - mark@markbacino.com

Next up, "More Cowbell" (Pt.4) starts twiddling knobs with the mix phase of our production process.

-Posted by Mark


Mark Bacino
is a singer/songwriter based in New York City with three album releases to his credit as an artist. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark is also a contributing writer for Guitar World as well as the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus.

www.introversechorus.com

More Cowbell: The IVC Production Series Pt.2

With a majority of today’s songwriters having powerful recording tools at their disposal just a laptop’s click away and the line between home and studio recordings blurring daily, writers/artists are now finding themselves, more and more, in the role of de facto producer when looking to capture their latest creations. With that thought in mind, IVC’s “More Cowbell” series will look to dissect, simplify and offer insight into the (sometimes daunting) process and art of DIY music production.

(If you missed part one of the “MC” series, it can be found here.)

Recording

So you’ve done all your pre-production prep work and you’re ready to begin recording your song? Cool. Let’s dive in.

- Disclaimer. Obviously, the art of capturing sound is a topic so vast it can never be thoroughly covered within the limited confines of this space. There are, however, many instructional recording resources available on the web and in print. Seek them out and learn as much as you can. Since recording is so intertwined with what we do as songwriters/artists, it makes a lot of sense to educate one’s self on the subject even if you never intend to take on any DIY recording projects.

- Monitoring. It’s very important that you become sonically familiar with the speakers you’ll be listening through while recording. You don’t necessarily need expensive studio monitors (although owning a pair couldn’t hurt), just make sure to listen to a lot of music on whatever speakers you’ll be working with before recording so you’ll know what things are “supposed” to sound like in terms of lower, middle and upper frequencies when evaluating your own work.

Truth be told, there are many factors that come into play with monitoring; the amplifier you pair your speakers with, the placement of your speakers in the room, the use or lack of acoustic treatment in the space, etc. Educate yourself on the aforementioned when you can but in the meantime, intimately knowing how other music sounds on your speakers in your space will, at least, give you a solid chance at crafting recordings that will translate decently in the real world.

- Take it from the top. As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”. If you plan on recording a guitar that doesn’t sound so hot before you put a mic in front of it, don’t expect it to sound great when recorded. Make sure your instruments are up to snuff and sounding their best (fresh strings, tuned drums, etc.). These days there are a lot of affordable, quality instruments available. No reason not to use them. Same can be said of microphones. There are a slew of great mics on the market with very reasonable price-points.

- Mic placement. When preparing to record an instrument, mic it up (many good, instrument-specific web tutorials on this) and do a quick test record. Listen back. If the recording sounds close to what the instrument sounds like when played live in the room, great. If not, don’t adopt a “fix it in the mix” mentality, change the mic position and repeat the test process ‘till you achieve a recorded sound that’s fairly true to the instrument and pleasing to your ears.

- Drums, bass, rhythm. If you’re recording a song with live drums as the foundation (as opposed to drum samples or no drums at all) there are two ways to approach this task. You can record the kit yourself in your own space (there are many web tutorials on that subject) or you can book a commercial studio for a few hours to capture the drums, then bring those files back to your project studio and move forward with the rest of your production. I offer this second option, even within our DIY framework, because oftentimes folks find the concept of recording drums intimidating, beyond their skill-set or they may have other concerns such as noise level or equipment limitation issues, etc. If you can’t or would prefer not to record your own drums, find a reasonably priced, local studio and go there to lay down your kit. The studio will be glad to have your business and given its sonically-optimized setting, you’ll more than likely come home with some good sounding drum tracks.

When recording live drums, also record your bass and rhythm guitar (or keys) at the same time. This will hopefully make for a cohesive rhythm section. If capturing bass and your rhythm instrument while laying down drums is not possible for whatever reason (lack of physical space, technical limitations, etc), track drums only with just your rhythm guitarist or bassist playing along, unrecorded, for your drummer’s reference/benefit. Once you’ve got a good drum take, then overdub your bass and rhythm instrument(s).

- Scratch vocal. Now with a solid foundation in place (drums, either live or programmed, bass and a chordal instrument), have your singer record a quick, lead vocal. Since you’ll be re-recording this vocal part for keeps later in the process, don’t invest a lot of time perfecting the performance (although record it well, as you never know what kind of magic you might capture). This “scratch” vocal’s sole purpose will be to act as guide while recording the remainder of your music tracks, helping you, the producer, gauge if the support parts you’re laying down are either aiding or hindering the ever-important vocal line. If your tune is instrumental in nature, put down a scratch of your top-line melody for same purposes listed above.

Next time, "More Cowbell" (Pt.3) will add even more cowbell as we continue discussing the recording phase of our production process.

-Posted by Mark


Mark Bacino
is a singer/songwriter based in New York City with three album releases to his credit as an artist. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark is also a contributing writer for Guitar World as well as the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus.

www.introversechorus.com