Assembling an Album in Geologic Time - Part I
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
NOTE: This post was originally published on mynameisbeemo.com on July 7, 2018
There's been a debate about whether Neanderthals had communication and culture. It's unclear if they were anatomically capable of speech or had the cognitive ability to have symbolic art. The bits of what appear to be symbolic art from Neanderthal sites (~400,000 to ~40,000 years ago in Europe) are controversial.
I suspect they did have culture because Beemo is a bunch of idiots with European heritage that started on a full length album about 100,000 years ago.
We're in the home stretch of the home stretch now and I'm hoping before the year is out it will be released.
This is my fourth Beemo recording, all of which I was involved from the inception to the final release, and so I often forget that when I respond to "How's the album coming?" with an "We're almost done tracking" or "Five tracks are in mix down" or "It's in mastering" most people understandably have no idea what I mean.
I tend to think of recording an album as a 3 step process.
Part I of this blog post will deal with tracking. Part II will talk about Mixing and Mastering.
Playing the Parts
Making the decision between live tracking and multi-tracking is one of the first things you have to decide when you record.
We’re multi-tracking our album which, in short, means that every instrument or part is recorded individually. When you record, you’re in a sound isolated room with your instrument mic’d up and you play along to the already recorded tracks that are playing in your headphones.
In live tracking, everyone is mic’d up and plays all at once. Live tracking is faster, but you have less wiggle room and going back and punching in parts* you may have messed up is more difficult. You can also combine the two; the 502s live tracked the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar and then multitracked the rest of the instruments on their soon to be released "Because We Had To." Setting up the mics for a live track recording session is time consuming, so unless you're recording in time blocks long enough to get at least a couple of songs in, it probably isn't worth going in.
*Punching in a part is when you re-record only a specific piece of a track. So if I played the guitar on Just Wait and mangled one of the arpeggios, we could go back and just re-record over that one mistake without having to re-do the entire track.
We did the hybrid tracking for our last full recording push, when we laid down Crusader and Better Now, doing drums, bass, and guitar all together.
Tracking acoustic instruments can be a challenge. A close mic’d acoustic or mandolin is pretty unforgiving compared to, say, an electric guitar through an amp. With a clean acoustic (meaning no effects like distortion on the sound), if you buzz a string on a chord change, hit a note with the wrong amount of force, or mute a string by accident, it’ll come through loud and clear.
How much you care is up to you; a small mistake might not be something you can hear on the final product with all the other instruments going, or you might decide it’s ok if it sounds a little less polished. (Listen to “Don’t Follow” on Alice in Chains’s mostly acoustic Jar of Flies album. You can hear string swoosh and a few buzzes on it and it doesn’t, to my ear, diminish the final product.)
A part that is more exposed (like a lead guitar) or being played on an instrument that cuts through the mix (like a mandolin) might require a little more precision.
The mandolin has the extra issue of doubled strings that are tuned in unison; if one string goes out of tune, even slightly, with the other in the pair, it will sound like dissonant crap. For added fun you can accidentally induce this effect if you fret the string with the wrong amount of pressure or have your finger at an angle when it contacts the pair. Fretting like this will bend one string in the pair more than the other and make them out of tune with each other.
And then there is string swoosh and squeaks which can happen if you don’t get a clean release before changing positions on the fretboard. Release too late and you get a swoosh; too early and you clip the note short. The mandolin has almost no sustain so as soon as you release your left hand pressure, the note dies. On solos or melodic sections this can be really obvious and break the flow of the melody line.
Generally we lay down a scratch track first using the most prominent rhythm instrument in the song. e.g the acoustic guitar in Fold Out Couch, the mandolin in Back Again. That way when we track the other parts we have all the chord changes in the right place, the right number of verses and verse lengths etc.
Laying the scratch down, if you’re by yourself, is not as easy as you’d think. Simultaneously trying to keep track of where you are in a song while giving a good performance and staying on the click is an exercise in mental juggling. Having someone there to sing in another booth while you’re playing is immensely helpful and gives you a chance to focus on your performance. (We usually try to make our scratch tracks good enough to be the final take of the rhythm instrument)
Scratch vocals are usually next and then drums and bass. Once the rhythm section is all down, we start adding the melodic and solo instruments. Final vocals come late in the process.
To avoid burning money at the studio I try to be as completely backwards-and-forwards prepared as possible. I write out my parts, practice them, think about them, practice them some more. It's actually really satisfying to get a tricky part in one take. You do end up having to improvise and adjust a bit when you inevitably hear something you didn't notice while practicing or inspiration for a new part comes along while you're in the booth.
Mic Placement and Reverb
Mic placement is important and the compression microphones used to record are very sensitive. If you shift your position in between takes, it can make your instrument sound a little different. And if you shift your position during a take, the mic will pick it up. The ideal placement depends on the room you're in, your particular instrument, and the kind of sound you're going for.
Listening to a close mic'd instrument in playback sometimes sounds a little strange. When you are listening to an instrument play, say in your living room, you aren't just hearing the sounds from the guitar; you're also hearing the reverberations of the sound off the walls, the ceiling etc. So a directional mic that is only picking up the sound coming directly out of the guitar (or the recording directly from a pickup into a sound board with no mic at all) can be jarring. It's the same reason people don't like the sound of their own voices on recordings. When you talk your voice is reverberating inside your skull, so it sounds different to you than to everyone else. A recording tends to give you what everyone else hears.
Depending on your instrument, you may need to set up room mics to catch the sound coming off the walls along with the sound directly out of the instrument. My experience with violins has born this out. A violin with only a directional mic sounds like brittle crap in a recording. A room mic picks up all the reverberations around it that make a violin sound like a violin.
With modern recording software, you can just add in reverb after you record it, and you basically always do. Different software plug ins that have reverb models built in let you decide what kind of reverb you want. Cathedral? Living room? A signal with no effects on it at all is referred to as a "dry" signal. It's not an either-or thing, it's a continuum from completely dry to... "wet" I guess, though I've never really heard anyone say "wet" in this context. I would guess this has to do with being juvenile...