PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in December 2001, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan and Guest Author Rob Solberg. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
Once a year I write an article about a recording project, picking out one song and exposing the entire recording process from start to finish. The first Point to Point article covered an alt-country band called Four Mile Mule and their amazing niche hit, “Black and White Movie.” It was released in 1999 and became the most popular article on ProRec. Last year I followed up with the second Point to Point article, featuring a local Dallas rock band called The Happiness Factor, and that article went on to be the most popular article on ProRec. This year’s installment is sure to please.
Debra Soule is an Adult Alternative artist with a killer voice and a knack for writing catchy, memorable songs. Her debut CD, “Vapor”, features 12 songs that sprawl over a large range of material both stylistically and sonically. Stylistically she covers a range of ground from Streisand to No Doubt, with a little Garbage and Tori Amos thrown in for spice. Sonically, the CD includes several solid rock tunes (“Perfect Love”, “Understood”, “Think You Know”), an intimate solo (“Since”), and even a funk-gospel tune (“Amen”).
No song on the CD, however, is more sonically over-the-top than “Everlasting”. Featuring a trashed-out drum sound, exotically strange instruments, backwards drum loops, and tons of distortion, “Everlasting” was a recording adventure and a mixing challenge. In this installment of Point to Point, we’re going to show you exactly how that song was put together, one track at a time. We will also include the exact effects settings and sound clips that show you exactly how we built up the sound from the bottom up.
This article will also tell the story of how the album was recorded and mixed at two different studios, 1000 miles apart, by two engineers who have never met face to face. You see, although I mixed the CD, it was engineered by Rob Solberg of Hypersound in St. Paul, MN. The story of how Rob and I came together to work on the CD is a model of how work can now be performed over the internet by people who have never even shook hands. Rob has helped me co-author this article by telling his part of the story, including all of the pre-production, tracking, and searching for a mixing engineer to do the final work on the project.
In order to follow this article, you have to first hear the song. Trying to understand the article without hearing the final product is impossible. You can visit the link below to purchase the CD.
Take a few minutes to listen to the song several times. If you don’t know the song, you’ll have no context for the rest of the article to follow.
Now I’m going to turn the controls over to Rob Solberg, and let him tell you a little about recording the album, and this song in particular.
Pre-Production and Rhythm Tracks
All of the production decisions for this song flowed from the song itself. It was written about a man close to us who is an extremely talented actor, writer and artist. Yet he is completely lost and has made a mess of his life. He’s 65 years old living alone in an RV on the streets of LA digging ditches by day so he can try to land a role on a soap opera.
So, emotionally, this song comes from the frustration, anger and compassion that arises from seeing someone like that, someone you love, just throw it all away and not want any help. You just want to shake them and say “Wake Up!”
Production-wise, we knew we wanted the song to be noisy, loud, aggressive and musical. We were going for a sort of Sergeant Pepper-meets-Tori Amos vibe, which is kind of what the song sounds like. It’s got Beatles-influenced 7th chords, vocal harmonies and a piano that follows the bass line. But it’s also got strong, dark lyrics and some serious attitude.
Following the pre-production roughs of the song, the drums were the first instrument to be tracked on this song. And we went nuts. To echo the aggressiveness of the song, we decided to go for the trashiest sound we possibly could…while still keeping it musical.
First of all, our studio here is completely digital. And I am a huge fan of drums on analog tape. So we went to a small hole-in-the-wall studio where they have a 2” 16-track tape deck and a nice sounding drum room with very tall ceilings. And an engineer who knows how to get some good tones to tape.
We knew we wanted a very loud and ugly drum sound. But instead of relying on mixing wizardry after the fact, we went to work doctoring up the sparkly green Fibes drum kit so the original source would be very close to what we wanted.
On the kick drum we wanted a strong, sharp attack so the drummer (Scott Metko) taped two quarters to his batter head right at the point of impact. An AKG D112 was then placed inside the kick about 2” from the point of impact.
For the snare we wanted a crashing, noisy tone on the verses and a little tighter more controlled sound on the choruses. Scott came up with the crazy idea of putting 1,500 brass BBs inside the snare drum. We gave it a shot and it sounded perfect…just what we were looking for! We mic’ed it on top with a standard SM57. And on the bottom head we put an old Japanese crystal mic of unknown origin. You wouldn’t believe how noisy it was when you solo’d just the bottom snare mic. It was the embodiment of the word “trashy”! You can really hear the BB’s rattling around on the decay of the last hit of the song.
Digging around in the basement of the studio we came across a couple big metal discs which we realized must have been the plates of an old turntable. Scott took off his top hi-hat cymbal and replaced it with one of these plates. The other metal plate was hung piggyback on his 20” Wuhan China Cymbal.
In place of a traditional ride cymbal we used an old cracked 16” crash cymbal…one Scott had found years earlier on the floor of a local bar after a gig. But it wasn’t quite trashy enough so we hung a metal oven rack from it. This gave it noisy attack and a very quick decay.
The stereo overhead mics were augmented by a mono mic that was actually facing away from the drum kit (toward the control room) so it would catch the room reflections as they bounced back off the glass.
Once all was in place we rolled tape and Scott nailed a keeper track on the 2nd take.
We wanted to make sure that we had some really crazy sounds on this track, so after recording the main drum track, Scott placed pots and pans on his toms and used a metal ashtray for a snare and cut a whole new “percussion” part for the final chorus.
The following day I brought my entire Vegas DAW in the studio and we dumped all the tracks directly from the back of the tape deck into Vegas – via a Swissonic AD24 convertor (at 24-bits) and a Dakota soundcard. Back here at Hypersound Studio a reversed drum loop was added on the final chorus of the song. A couple sampled crash cymbals from the Platinum Drums library were also added throughout the song to augment the live drums.
While we were recording percussion for the album, Ricardo Lopez pulled out a Wah Stick, something I had never even heard of before. It’s basically a hollow metallic tube, about 8” long. There’s a hole in the middle of the tube and slits cut in one end. When the end with the slits is struck with a rubber mallet the tube lets out this long sustained ringing note. By placing your thumb over the hole in the middle you can adjust the pitch of the ringing. And by quickly covering and uncovering the hole you get that high-pitched wah-wah sound you hear at the beginning of the song.
We wanted the bass sound to be tight and dry, so we skipped a bass amp altogether and recorded direct through a Presonus MP-20, with a RNC1773 compressor inserted, and into the same Swissonic AD24 convertor.
I played an Ibanez ErgoDyne bass which was recorded fairly flat with all the processing to come later, though I did use a lot of the bridge pick-up to give it some of that Rickenbacker nasal snarl.
Guitars and Vocals
The main guitar riff was played on a 1969 Les Paul through a Marshall Valvestate ½ stack. However, in order to get an extra level of overdrive it went through a Roland GP-100 before it got to the Marshall. This guitar was doubled mic’d in an 9’x6’ iso booth with an SM58 on the cabinet and an E-200 in the room about 7’ away.
The big dirty 7th chords on the outro of the song were tripled to really make them huge in the stereo spectrum.
To add a new and complimentary layer to the chorus a clean guitar was added here (and on the bridge). This was a Carvin DC-135 played through an Ampeg Superjet combo amp and using a Sovtek Small Stone (phaser) stomp box. One SM58 right up on the grille.
The third guitar plays a triplet figure on the choruses. It’s really just one big distorted chord strummed and I played the volume knob so it would sort of “swell” rhythmically. It seemed to really give the chorus some impact when it first comes in. Also recorded with one SM58 right up on the grille of the Marshall.
Another guitar enters at the bridge doing some dry, percussive eighth-note harmonics. This is through the clean channel of the Marshall but cranked so it clips. One SM58 right up on the grille of the Marshall.
The last guitar enters on the final chorus and it introduces a new part to the song – a circular melody that floats underneath the chorus vocals. It’s the Carvin / Ampeg / Small Stone line-up once again…with one SM58 right up on the grille.
A Gigapiano was added doubling the bass guitar line on the verses. It was sequenced and then looped so it would sound more mechanical. And it was EQ’d with some biting mid-range so it wouldn’t clash with the bass guitar. On the choruses it switches to a beautiful, almost classical sounding figure on a nice clean Gigapiano patch to add some depth and interest to the arrangement.
We had the song pretty much done but it still seemed to need something to help it all blend together. After experimenting around we found this creepy, mechanical, ambient pad sound on the Alesis QSR. It was perfect. It comes in low for the intro and then we play it almost two octaves higher on the choruses.
To add some percussive, tonal interest, a marimba was added to a few parts of the song using Gigasampler and the Advanced Orchestra library.
On the bridge I wanted to add another distorted guitar but I wanted it give it a twist. I tried a bunch of combinations but nothing was working so I decided to just skip the part. Then, once everything else was recorded, I was listening back and I got an idea. I hooked up my Kurzweil SP76 keyboard through my Marshall stack and it was perfect! Big, nasty snarly – but not quite a guitar tone. This was the very final track recorded on this tune.
The vocals were recorded through a Neumann U67 which was powered by an API mic-pre with a Tube Tech compressor inserted. They went from there directly into the trusty Swissonic AD24 convertor.
The verse vocals took a while to nail because Debra knew just how she wanted them to sound. I actually had to dial in some phaser and distortion on her voice as she sang so she could sort of “play-off” that effect. The FX were not printed with the voice, but just used for her monitoring purposes.
The chorus vocal arrangements were made by Debra on the spot and they are amazing. She would just say “let me try this” and “let me try something else” and we recorded a few different options. She needed to figure out how to make it all work on the recording so it would sound like it did in her head. But once she worked out the parts she was able to nail them on the first take.
At the outro of the song we were trying some different bluesy scat stuff – ad libs. On one particular pass she tried something that she thought was pretty cheesy and it made her laugh. But instead of stopping playback and starting over I just let it roll. She looked at me and I just smiled. She eventually said “I know you’re recording me right now…aren’t you?” Then she laughed and started just doing some goofy stuff that turned into some total belting bluesy scats. At the very end she laughs again and says, “I just had to get my soul out”. I played it back right away and the track had some distortion on it and it just sounded too cool and off-the-cuff to re-do. So we just left it as is; talking, laughing and all. Somehow it works.
All the vocals were performed and arranged by Debra Soule. The verses are single vocals, the choruses doubled. Then there are those intricately arranged backing harmonies on the choruses. Altogether 13 tracks were used for vocals.
Finding a Mixer
The Great Internet Mixer Search of 2001
It started out so simply. We had a successful commercial audio production company so launching an indie label and cutting an album should be a relatively inexpensive and pain-free process. And in Debra Soule we felt we had the ideal flagship artist: great radio-friendly songs, an amazing voice, and an ambitious vision for an album.
The problem started as we neared completion of the tracking stage and started planning for the mixdown. This album was just turning out TOO GOOD! Did we want to risk mixing it ourselves? We’ve mixed a lot of jingles, songs and underscores…but this was an album. And even more importantly, we started feeling that we were just too close to the songs to be able to give them the mixes they deserved.
There are a LOT of great recording studios here in the Twin Cities, but we had some high demands. We needed a digital studio that could handle up to 64 tracks of 24-bit audio playback…and with our complex production ideas they would need to be able to support a boatload of plug-ins to boot. The small-to-mid-sized studios were just not able to handle digital projects of this size and scope. The bigger studios were all booked months out and looking pretty expensive.
It was clear that if we wanted to keep this project moving forward on schedule, we’d need to find another way. And that’s when it dawned on me: why not take it to the Internet? I frequent quite a few audio newsgroups where many a professional engineer lurks. I figured, with this being the age of high speed Internet access, a cross-country collaboration was entirely plausible. We’ve often completed projects in a similar fashion in the commercial audio world.
Unsure of what, if any, response I might get, I posted a few messages on some of the bigger audio newsgroups…and, man, was I surprised. It wasn’t only the number of interested parties, but the caliber of their credentials. We had people respond who had engineered such artists as Michael Jackson, Christina Aguilerra, The Beach Boys, and on and on. We heard from mixers at some of the big late night TV shows where they’re mixing top acts almost every night of the week. This was some impressive stuff!
The Sky’s the Limit
We had done the tracking using Sonic Foundry’s” Vegas” application, which has great flexibility in exporting to most any other platform. So we were able to consider engineers who run everything from Pro Tools to Paris. While some of these guys worked at big SSL-equipped world-class studios, many of the seasoned engineers had built impressive home/project studios as well.
Even though we’re as impressed by the next guy when we see a fully decked out $50,000 Digital Audio Workstation, we knew that ultimately it would come down to the engineer himself. His experience, his ability and his ears would have the biggest impact on our decision.
But how do you narrow down a group of candidates like this? For that matter, how do you even know if people really who they say they are? Well, for starters, I created a webpage that explained in great detail the musical style, production elements, and technical requirements for the job. We figured a lot of people would read about the album and decide that it wasn’t their bag. This was the first in a series of “filters” we set up, designed to aid us in our decision-making process.
Once they learned all about what we where doing, those still interested in the job were asked to submit sample mixes of their work. Because we knew much of the mixing and review process was going to be taking place over the Internet, we requested that the mixers submit samples of their work to us via html links or ftp sites. This helped to eliminate those who weren’t web-savvy enough to get the gig.
Next we reviewed the sample songs. Many of them were quite impressive. But it was a real task to listen to just the mixing elements and ignore the songwriting and the singing and the performances. We listened for the things we wanted in our own mixes: depth of field, vocal clarity, punch, tonal balance.
About the time we had narrowed our choices down our budget became solidified. We now knew how much we would be paying for mastering and duplication and what we would have left over for the mix. So this became our next filter. We told the mixers how much the budget was and, to our surprise, we only lost two. After all of this filtering and weeding out, we still had 8 people to choose from! This was insane! Here were eight very talented and experienced mixers from across the U.S. all interested in mixing Debra’s album within our budget and time frame.
Apples to Apples
We determined that the best way to make our final decision would be to have them all mix the first couple minutes of the same song. Then we could compare “apples to apples” so to speak.
Our concern in doing this is how much would they charge for a demo mix? And could our budget withstand having to pay the 7 guys whose mixes we didn’t choose in addition to paying the mixer we did choose? To our continued surprise, 6 of the 8 mixers said they’d be willing to mix the song on “spec” – meaning they only get paid if we choose them to mix the album. And, once informed of the others’ intentions, a 7th mixer agreed to the spec situation as well. So the stage was set.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Where we going to get what we paid for – i.e. nothing? Or were these some very confident mixers who each felt they had what it took to get this job? Keep in mind that these guys were all vying for the job of mixing an album they hadn’t heard, from an artist they’d not heard of at the time, for a indie label they’d not heard of.
It ended up that 5 of the mixers were traditional Pro Tools guys, 1 was running Pro Tools on Windows, and 1 was running Vegas. A few days later I mailed off 7 packages containing CDs with the raw tracks from first couple minutes of the song “Amen”. Along with the raw tracks, I included a rough mix we’d done ourselves as well as some notes about how we want the final mix to sound.
Over the next week we received everyone’s sample mixes. They came in the form of stereo .aiff and .wav files uploaded to our ftp site. It was a strange and exciting process to hear the same song mixed 7 different ways using the exact same tracks. And yet, the range of mixes was incredibly varied.
Some guys obviously did some pre-mastering – running the track through a finalizing process of some sort. In order to listen to all the mixes on a level playing field, I brought them into Vegas and evened out the levels from track to track, so that the playback volume was equal from mix to mix.
We listened to each mix at least twice. We listened for vocal levels, instrumental EQ and blending, backing vocal mixing, overall EQ etc. We also wanted to see what extras might be brought to the table.
… And Then There Were Two
If you’ve heard the album, you know that “Amen” has a bit of a dusty, gospel vibe to it, in addition to some slamming, funky drum loops. We were looking for a mixer who could really bring out that feel. And we found two guys that did it well…very well, in fact.
This was going to be our most difficult decision yet! Two great, but distinctly different mixes. One mix played up the rock edge of the tune, the other leaned toward the pop side. One was highly-polished and the other carried with it some grit and attitude.
After a lot of listening and discussion we decided to go with the guy who turned in the “grittier” mix. Why? Because that’s what we felt the song called for. That was the direction that best fit the song itself. And maybe most importantly, that was the direction we had spelled out in our mix notes. This showed us that he was able understand our artistic intentions, and willing to follow our creative direction.
In addition, he brought in a few very interesting and creative elements to the mix which really showed us that he was on our wave length artistically. Pound for pound, all things being considered, he delivered what he felt was the best sounding mix of the bunch.
The Envelope Please
The mixer we chose was Rip Rowan from Square WAV Studios in Dallas, Texas. It turns out that Rip was the only mixer in the final group who uses Vegas. We found it very impressive that his mix went toe-to-toe with full-blown Pro Tools systems and major label engineers and came out on top. A testament to the man and his machines.
To be honest, this was not at all what we expected. We thought we would end up going with one of the L.A. Pro Tools guys with album credits coming out of their ears. But what ultimately mattered to us was what our ears were telling us. And our ears told us Rip was the guy.
Debra Soule, producer Chris Bintliff and we were all very impressed at the way the Internet opened up a whole new world of options for us in the production of the album. In fact, we’re convinced it would not have turned out so well without it. And we feel this is the start of a whole new paradigm in album production.
Having selected Rip as the mixer for the album, I shipped him the raw tracks to the project along with mixing and production notes, and awaited his mixes. I’ll let him tell you the rest of the story.
Mixing – Part 1
A Learning Experience
Mixing a CD remotely was a true learning experience. Usually, when tracking a CD, either I am producing the CD or I’ve been working with a producer since the outset, so I am either setting the artistic vision for the project, or I’m in constant contact with the person in charge of the vision. On this project, I simply took my best shot and won the gig. Now I’ve got 13 CDs of raw, unmixed tracks in my hand, and I’m really hoping that I’m not about to really piss someone off.
In the end, I had to assume that if I won the gig, then the producer and artist must be vibing with my work, and so I had to trust that my mixing decisions would be in line with their artistic vision. I had to go on faith that if I was their choice, then my gut would lead me in the right direction.
Turns out I was wrong.
When I heard the tracks for Everlasting, my mind said, “DISTORTION. LOTS OF DISTORTION. DISTORTION ON EVERYTHING. SPARE NO EARDRUM. MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE.” And so I put together a rough mix that was really aggressive. A lot more aggressive than the production team had considered making it. In the end when they first heard it, it was a shock, like stepping out of bed onto cold broken glass.
Fortunately for me, the production team had a conversion to my hard rock vision of the song, and we all decided to keep it angry-sounding. We met in the middle by adding back in a few of their original production ideas but leaving the aggressive sound untouched.
What a learning experience it was! I had to reconsider a lot of variables that I usually take for granted.
Usually, you’re never mixing in isolation. You’ve got the artist or producer with you as you work. So if you make the vocals too thin, or hard-pan that part that just HAS to be in stereo, the producer can guide you back as you work. But when you work remotely, you deliver what appears to be a final product as one big chunk of work, and it could contain lots of production “mistakes” all in one ugly package. We had to learn to treat the early rough mixes “as though we walked into the control room and listened to what’s going on” rather than listening to the rough mixes “as though we’re going to be nailed to this mix until the end of time.”
And then there’s terminology. What, exactly, are “balls” when we’re referring to a clavichord? What does “warm” really mean? How bassy is “phat”? When is “too much reverb” the right amount exactly? Because it’s all written on paper as notes, and as the remote mixing engineer, you get to interpret it. It is amazing how difficult it is to provide a concise written description of what the guitars are supposed to sound like. And how difficult it is to interpret someone else’s description.
Working with Rob on this project was great, since we were both using the same software. Rob was able to send me the raw audio tracks along with the .veg song files on CD. All I had to do was copy the contents of the CDs onto my audio disks and open up the .veg files.
Rob provided me with pure raw tracks – volume at 0 dB, pan center, no effects, no automation, nothing. This way I could hear each track as it was recorded, and base my mixing judgements without any “prejudice.” Rob also provided a rough mix of the song in the form of a .wav or .mp3 file, so I could get an idea of what kind of overall sound we needed to head for, and what each track was supposed to provide.
On many of the mixes that I did for this project, the approach was very straightforward: build up a drum submix, add in bass, guitars, and vocals, a little EQ and compression to taste, rinse, lather, repeat. On this mix, though, I threw everything I had at it. “Complete mixing overkill” was the ideal description, and it was completely intentional.
In the end, the mix was a sprawling mass of 48 tracks of audio on disk and 45 plugins. Managing all of that was a daunting task, and, as it turns out, a task that I was unable to perform without at least one glaring error. But more on that later. Let’s start out with the drums.
Mixing the Drums
On this song I was presented with some unusual and creative drum tracks to mix. As Rob explained, the drum kit was made to sound very trashy. No mics were used on toms, as they were not played. Instead we had mics on the kick, snare, hats, and overheads. We also had a very crappy sounding mic under the snare, and another ugly sounding mic in the room.
Presented with these choices, I decided to take a reasonably straightforward mix on the kit using the 5 main mics on the kit, and leave the ugly snare and rooms mics out of the drum submix. That way, I could use those colorful mics later in the mix.
The drummer had used an undamped kick drum with quarters taped to the head and beater. The mic was placed very close to the head, giving the drum a strange, empty, clicky sound. I rather liked it as it was – raw, boomy, round, and thumpy – but it had too much “roar”. That roar can step all over the mix – and with 48 tracks, I was going to have to get everything to sit nicely in its place. So I did not EQ it, but instead used a Waves C1 gate to clamp down on the roar, and an Ultrafunk compressor with a fast attack and high ratio (8:1) to really make the attack pop out. Listen to the unprocessed and processed sounds and you can hear the difference. I think because the mic was so close to the drum head, it picked up a lot more snare than I would have liked, and the snare shows through in the processed kick track. But, remember, the main point was to gate out the roar.
Then there was the snare. The top mic had a very conventional snare sound, a little too much ring for my tastes, but I never would have guessed that there were 1500 BBs in it! I use a Waves Q10 to EQ the ring out:
As you can see I performed notch cuts at 120 Hz, 482 Hz, and 595 Hz. To find the drum ring, listen to the drum, and hear its primary ring tone. Get that tone in your head as you take a band of EQ, set the Q as high as it will go (100) and boost all the way up. Now sweep the frequency up and down until it matches the tone in your head. When you find it, it will ring REALLY LOUD! Now cut it, all the way if you have to. Once this frequency is removed, you can hear the next overtone. Repeat the process until the nastiest overtones are gone. The less EQ you can get away with, the better.
As you can hear from the dry snare track, the snare was kind of thick, so I did a severe bass cut as well as a high shelf to shift its tone up and bring out the “crack”. I also used a C1 gate to damp the ring and roar and a Renaissance Compressor to accentuate the attack. (For more information on using a compressor to bring out an instrument’s attack, read the “Squish This!” series of articles here on ProRec.com). After the EQ, gating, and compression, the processed snare track was bright and had lots of crisp attack.
For hi-hats, the drummer had used old metal turntable platters. The dry sound was brash and mechanical, and there was plenty of it already in the overhead mics. So I used the hi-hat mic as a “hi-hat treble boost control” by adding a radical EQ to it. I used a Waves Q4 EQ with a low cut set at 1500 Hz and a high shelf boost of +6 @ 6000 Hz to essentially remove all midrange and hype the bright treble. I would use the processed hi-hat track sparingly, just to add brilliance to the hats without making the rest of the kit too bright.
The dry overheads really got a lot of the tom roar. I felt the overheads must have been too close to the kit to have this much tom ring in them. Whatever the cause, the overheads just had this thick midrange roar that needed to be minimized. I used a radical EQ on them to lighten them up – a low shelf set to -8 dB @ 650 Hz combined with a +4 high shelf @ 8000 Hz gave the kit a severe treble tilt, and a deep dip @ 3000 Hz helped minimize the brashness of the “oven rack” crashes and “turntable platter” hi-hats. The processed track was a lot emptier sounding. And it would need to be: if the drums had a wall-to-wall sound, then there wouldn’t be any room for the other 43 tracks! Also, I was planning on using the “ugly drum room mic” heavily, and it was very thick and midrangey.
Once I had the drum sound tuned in the way I wanted it, I bounced the drums over to two tracks and muted the individual tracks. I knew that I was going to be using a lot of plugins on this mix and wanted to keep the CPU as free as possible to try new stuff. You can hear the completed two-track drum submix here (without the “ugly snare” and “ugly room” mics).
Coming into the final chorus you will notice a reverse drum loop. That loop provides a somewhat psychedelic feel to the end of the song, as well as adding another texture. The only effect used on the reverse drum loop was a MondoMod used to spread the otherwise mono image out into the speakers. The drummer also cut a track with pots and pans placed on his toms and snare. This track was left unprocessed and placed back into the mix. It makes an appearance during the final chorus.
Filling out the Bass
Presented with this rude, clanging drum sound (which I loved), I was underwhelmed by the dry, clean bass track that was provided in the mix. On the verses, the bass really carries the rhythm, providing the phrasing that is the verse’s hook. I wanted something mean to be happening there. And, on the double-choruses, there is a killer bass figure that really rocks. But with the round, plain sound that was recorded, that part was just lost. I wanted growl. Lots of it.
To achieve this, I used a process similar to the approach used to record Chris Squire’s famous bass lead on “Roundabout.” The idea is to split the bass signal into two paths. One path is essentially full-range, direct, and a little compressed. This provides the bottom end to the signal. The other path is filtered to remove all of the bass content and run through a loud, distorted amp. When the two sounds are mixed together, it almost sounds as though the bass is being doubled on a distorted baritone guitar.
To do this in Vegas, I used a Cakewalk Amp Sim inserted into an effects bus. I also inserted a Waves Q4 into that bus before the Amp Sim. The Q4 was set up with a bass cut @ 70 Hz and a low shelf set at -15 dB @ 250 Hz. The low shelf de-emphasized the midbass while the low cut removed the low bass. It is essential to remove the bass content before hitting the amp, or else the amp will just fart out sloppy bass notes. By providing the cuts, the amp “sees” a lot more midrange, and it is this signal, not the bass, which generates the distortion.
On the bass track, I used a Waves Q4 to cut lows @ 30 Hz to remove some speaker-flapping stuff that was in the track. I used a Waves Renaissance compressor set to 4:1 ratio, fast attack and release and about 6 dB gain reduction to “ride” the signal, evening out the bass notes a little bit. I then followed the compressor with a plugin that I rarely ever use – a Hyperprism Bass Maximizer. This is a sub-bass generator that adds in low harmonics (as opposed to the Waves MaxxBass which works the other way, adding in high harmonics). I wanted this effect because I wanted the bass to retain its beefiness even when the highest notes were hit. Otherwise, the bass content seemed to vanish.
Now I had the bass sound that I wanted, but there was a problem. There was a slight amount of hum in the track, and the Amp Sim made it very obvious. And this wasn’t just a 60 Hz hum – it was a square wave, with even-order harmonics at 120 Hz, 240 Hz, 480 Hz, all the way up to the highest treble frequencies. You can’t EQ this noise out. So I took the track into Cool Edit 2000 and used CE’s noise reduction to eliminate the hum. CE uses a sampling noise reduction that removes only the specific frequencies sampled. Sonic Foundry also provides a similar noise reduction, however, I am always able to get better noise reduction from the Cool Edit system. Don’t know why. After the track was cleaned up, it sounded great (or as Rob described it, “really pissed off.”).
Keys and Guitars
A Little Piano
Listening through the rough mix that Rob had provided me, it was apparent that there was a piano part that doubled the bass line. Since I had decided to base the verse around the bass part, this doubled line was very important. I knew that if those parts were going to work together, then I had better pay close attention to the piano and get it sounding right early on.
Soloed, I thought that piano was rather muddy and mono. It was recorded as a stereo track, but the sound was very up-the-middle. EQ could fix the muddiness. I didn’t need any more bass down there, but I definitely saw room for the piano’s nice overtones. They would really help the bass line stand out. With some radical EQ – a -18 dB low shelf @ 50 Hz combined with a +7 dB boost @ 2500 Hz, the piano lost its tubbiness and became meaner.
But, with the bass guitar distorted, the piano just didn’t cut through. So I ran it into the same FX bus used for the bass guitar’s Amp Sim, and applied a nice edgy distortion to the piano. The thinned-out, distorted piano track was tough and gritty, and really makes the mix move during the verse.
Rhythm Tracks – Bringing it Together
I want you to hear how the basic rhythm tracks come together for this song. First, we start with the basic, straightforward drum tracks. Then we add in bass guitar. As I started working other tracks into the song, right here something started bothering me. I’m a drummer, and it was obvious that the drummer on this song was really attacking the crash cymbal. But with that over rack on it, it was just going “dink – dink – dink”. There was no CRASH! At this point I decided to overdub a crash cymbal into the section where the drummer was riding his crash. You can hear the effect here.
Now we add in the ugly room mic and the piano bass. I have hard-panned both ot these sounds. They occur together, during the verses only, and sonically balance each other out by occupying the same frequencies on either side of the stereo image. This pulls the drums off to one side for the verses, but brings them back to the center during the choruses. Who said the drums always have to be centered? Not me. Also, this is a busy, dense mix, and I needed to keep the center reasonably empty so there would be room for the vocals. If the room mic and the piano were in the center, they’d crowd the vocals severely, since they are all midrangey instruments.
Finally, we add in the ugly snare sound. On this track I used an EQ set up to roll off the lows at 120 Hz and the highs at 8000 Hz, then followed that with a massive, crushing compressor to bring out every single BB: 14:1 ratio, ultra-fast attack, and as much as 20 dB of gain reduction. While the dry track doesn’t have a lot of BB sound in it, the effected track sounds like a box of rocks. Note that it has a long, sloppy decay that is almost like reverb. It’s a very cool sound, and really emphasizes the 2s and 4s in the beat. In fact it is a kind of call-and-answer between the bass and snare, “doo doo doo — kahhhh! — doo doo doo doo — kahhhh!”
Time for some brutal honesty. You may notice that the nasty, ugly snare sound is NOT in the final mixed version of the song you downloaded. That is because – in the final rush to get these songs mixed on time – the track was accidentally muted and the song was mixed without it. With our tired ears and brains, we all flat-out missed it in the proof process, and the song went to manufacturing without that part. I didn’t discover the mistake until I went back to the mix to write this article, and I had to sheepishly call Rob up and explain my mistake to him.
Lessons learned? Two:
1. Always give yourself enough time to make sure that you are not rushed and can be methodical
2. No one little production part is enough to make or break any song.
Most of the guitars on this track were cut with one mic on the guitar cab, and one mic in the room. Usually this is done to provide some mixing options – close and distant. However on this song I was able to use both tracks effectively.
For example, on the “tapping” guitar part that starts the song I could have only used one track, and panned it. However by using both tracks, I can get the sound to be a little larger. And due to either careful planning or sheer luck, the sounds are nicely out-of-phase – not too much, but enough to push the sounds out to the edges of the stereo image. So the effect is that the part is balanced, but not mono.
The sound from the guitar was pretty muddly, mainly from the close-miked amp cabinet. I used a bass cut on that track @ 160 Hz and a treble boost out around 2600 Hz to bring up the angry distortion. The distant mic was much closer to the desired sound and just needed a little cut around 160 Hz to eliminate any unwanted noise in the track. I set up a delay line on one of the effects buses and pumped a little of these guitars into it, to get them bouncing around a little. The processed sound is thinner and floats a little in the track. This is actually the primary guitar part for the verses.
On the choruses, we add in a cool phaser guitar that was run through a stompbox. It was recorded perfectly for the track and needed no processing. It was also recorded with a close and room mic, and has the same useful phasing effect that the “tapping” part has. Listen to the track and note how stereoized it is.
There were a couple of cool extra guitar parts that were used on this song. On the choruses, Rob had cut an incredibly distorted, wobbling single-note line to punch out the chord changes. It’s a great production effect. I was able to make great use of this track by thinning it out with a little EQ (a cut @ 250 Hz combined with a 5 dB boost @ 2600 Hz provided the needed edge) and running it through a Waves MondoMod. What a great effect. MondoMod combines a frequency modulator (chorus) with a panning and amplitude modulator. It can really make a track move around in the mix without sounding too chorused (chorsued distorted guitars start to sound like keyboards quickly). I also took the track and piped a little of it into the delay line I had already set up for the “tapping” guitars. The processed track floats out over the choruses and adds both attack and ambience.
Rob had also provided some cool, clean single-note lines for the bridge. These came across as piano-like guitar harmonics and needed no EQ at all. On these notes I wanted a chorused sound, so I used an Ultrafunk Modulator to get a real wet chorused sound. I also ran some of these into the delay line to add a long decay. The processed sound spreads out over the stereo space in the bridge and adds a lot of ambience to that section of the song.
Finally, for the ending, Rob had cut a killer stabbing guitar part. It really makes the ending. The chords are thick as a brick and I wanted no EQ on them at all. I wanted them heavy-sounding. One of the tracks, however, was recorded with delay, which I didn’t like. The only thing I did to them was add a Waves C1 gate to de-emphasize the bleed (one channel of these had a serious amount of bleed) as well as tightening up the delay. That way, they come and go almost like someone hit a switch. BLAM! and they’re out. If you could listen to the before and after samples and you’ll hear that the tone isn’t changed, but the processed sound is more “sudden”.
On the choruses we had a nice, almost classical styled piano part that added just a little movement and thickness to the mix. I left it completely uneffected and placed it low in the mix. If you specifically listen for it, it’s there, but really it just serves to add some midrange and roundness to the choruses.
The team had also recorded a really cool keyboard sound that is impossible to describe. It sounds like a guitar plugged into a fried amp. You’ll notice on the uneffected track that there is a lot of bass content in this sound. I used a hard bass cut at 500 Hz, a +10 boost at 1400 Hz and a +15 dB high shelf at 2300 Hz to dramatically reshape the sound of this keyboard.
The dry track was very mono and up-the-middle, so I used a MondoMod on this track to spread it out into the stereo field. I also fed a little signal into the guitar delay line to make it bounce around some. The processed track is really cool and ambient. This sound plays around during the verses and choruses, but it’s during the bridge that it makes an important difference.
The marimba track without processing was simply too dull to cut through the wall of distortion this song throws forward. And, really, what was useful and interesting about the marimba part was not the tone of the marimba, but rather its wood-block attack. Again, a radical EQ was the trick, with a -18 dB low shelf combined with a +10 boost @ 6000 to sharpen the attack. The processed track is evident during the verses, where it provides a percussive feel.
When I first heard this bell-like instrument, I thought, “cool!” But the unprocessed wah stick, like the marimba, just couldn’t make an appearance under the crushing weight of the other instruments in the mix. EQ wasn’t the solution – with EQ, the wah stick turns into a bad-sounding glockenspiel. Definitely not the right sound for this song. So, in keeping with the theme of the song, I ran the wah stick though an Amp Sim cranked all the way up. Combined with a little delay, the Amp Sim turned the wah stick into something that really sounded like the feedback from a wailing solo guitar. The processed sound adds a great edge to the beginning verses of the song.
The vocals on this song were recorded as several distinct chunks:
1. A single track of lead vocals on the verses and the bridge
2. Doubled lead vocals on the choruses backed with a single track sung an octave up
3. Eight tracks of background vocals
4. One extra track singing the “what’s your plan” line in the choruses
The unprocessed lead vocal track was designed to be distorted. As with the bass track, if the Amp Sim is fed too much bass content, then it bottoms out on bass. So the lead vocal was radically EQed to remove bass and boost treble. I used a Waves Q4 with a -10 dB low shelf @ 273 Hz and a +5 high shelf @ 9000 Hz. I also used a +7 dB boost @ 2300 Hz to bring out all the snarl in the vocal.
This was by far the most radical EQ used on the album for any vocals. The filtered vocals were fed into a Renaissance compressor, 4:1 ratio with a low threshold getting up to -12 dB gain reduction. The output of the RCL was set hot to engage the limiters. I wanted this track slammed. This highly compressed vocal was then fed to Bus A (for clean output) and a little bit to Bus B (more on Bus B below) for swirliness. Hear how that track spreads out into the speakers a little more? The vocal was also fed to Aux 2 for short delay, Aux 3 for distortion, and Aux 4 for long delay. Envelopes were used to control the delays and to bring down the distortion for the bridge. The fully processed distorted vocal is big and brash. Note how much low end the Amp Sim added back! That’s the reason for the deep EQ cuts on the track.
The chorus features three vocal tracks: a doubled lead vocal and a third vocal that’s an octave up. I used a Renaissance Compressor on each of the doubled tracks to ensure that they were very up-front and consistent. The three tracks were bussed to Bus B, which I set up for these chorus vocals and the background vocals. The processed chorus vocals were dry and up-front, never loud but always at the front of the mix.
Bus B was set up to handle processing of all the background vocals. By routing all the doubled and tripled vocals to this bus, I could avoid having to put effects on each individual track. Bus B was set up with a Waves Q4 to lower the bass on the backups – a gentle -2.5 dB low shelf @ 400 and a +1 high shelf @ 3500 did the trick nicely. The EQ was routed to a Waves MondoMod to add increased chorus and thickness as well as stereo width. This was fed into a Hyperprism Harmonic Exciter – an effect I rarely used but which sounded really good on these tracks. Finally the output was fed through a Renaissance compressor set with a 4:1 ratio and getting about 3-6 dB of gain reduction – just enough to tame the peaks and raise the valleys. You can hear the background vocals dry and after processing through Bus B.
There was one last vocal to squeeze into this mix. In the choruses, a very distorted Debra sings “what’s your plan”. Originally this was routed just like the lead verse vocals – through the distortion on Aux bus 3. But after hearing the final mix, this just wasn’t enough distortion. While the distortion was obvious in the emptier verses, the thick choruses covered up the distortion, making the vocal sound muddy, not aggressive. The solution was to drop another Amp Sim onto output Bus C and crank the living bejeezus out of it. Since the vocal is panned mostly to the right prior to running it through the distortion, the effect only filters the left side, while it distorts the right side. Listen to the processed vocals and see what I mean.
This was a mix that just had to be wrestled to the ground. Each sound was strange and unusual. Nothing was “normal” or “in the pocket.” It was a long process of honing and tweaking. In the end I was very surprised at the way it turned out. I had hoped to get a chance to take a complete ground-up re-do of the mix, to get a different slant on it, but there was never time to achieve that goal. I am sure that there is a better mix waiting to happen, though.
One thing that just amazes me is the sheer volume of plug-ins I used. Any time that many effects are in use, it’s got to be a mistake. In the end, I used 19 EQs, 9 compressors, 5 choruses, 4 amp sims, 4 gates, a harmonic exciter, and a bass maximizer. Good heavens, is there anything I didn’t use? Also impressive is the Roll Your Own Thunderbird’s ability to deliver enough CPU power to play back 48 tracks of audio through 43 different plug-ins in realtime.
I hope you take the time to listen to some of Debra’s other material. There is a broad range of good music on her CD, which can be ordered through her website. There are a few other tracks on her MP3.com website as well that can be downloaded.
As always, I value your feedback on these articles. Please drop me a line to let me know what you think!