Thursday, May 15, 2014

Planning your Album - A Blueprint to Build from

Planning on recording in the near future? Getting your material out to your audience is the obvious objective, but getting there can have some unforeseen delays that are easily avoidable. Here's an outline to help you plan your next record.
  1. Set a release date - This doesn't have to be a specific date, but at least a time frame. Spring? Fall? Holidays? 2018? Depending on how much time you are dedicating to the recording process, a full length album takes a long time to record, so talk to your studio / producer and get an idea of how much time to plan for. It always takes longer than you think. Even after the recording is finished, it could take months before you have a physical product in your hands and your material is delivered to digital distributors like Google Play and iTunes.
  2. Budget - No one likes to talk about money, but it is an important aspect and ultimately determines how you go about recording your album. Be realistic with yourself and your band-mates and don't bite off more than you can chew. Make sure everyone is committed to the project and has the resources available to fund it. This includes not only the actual recording time, but also the mixing / mastering / and replication of your final product. Set a budget up front. This also helps your studio determine the best method of achieving your goal while keeping you on target.
  3. Track listing - It's one thing to know all the songs you are going to record, but that doesn't mean all of them fit on the album, or fit within your budget. It may be better to spend your recording time perfecting 5 tracks rather than rushing through 9 tracks. Figure out the song order that creates the best listening experience. Do the first few track create a strong impression for your band? Those couple of tracks are what most people will hear first. Make the opening section of your album the strongest. Try to avoid long introductions or silence. If your listener has to wait longer than a minute to hear your music, chances are, they will skip that track. Established musicians can get away with lengthy intros, but we as unsigned artists have to get our point across quickly! The attention span of your audience is short!
  4. Plan of Action - Now that you have a release date, a budget, and a list of tracks to record, you can figure out the best method for achieving that. If you have a tight budget, you may consider tracking your songs in a "live" setting. This would be where you record multiple parts simultaneously. For example, you could record the bass tracks and the drums at the same time. If the studio has enough isolation, you could feasibly record the whole band at once. This certainly gives the songs a certain "feel", and works well for some genres. Bands that require a more polished, tighter sound would probably benefit from tracking one instrument at a time, but keep in mind this takes much longer. There are many combinations of both methods that could work for you. Talk to your engineer / producer and figure out what works best for you.
  5. Recording - There is much that could be said in this section, but to keep it short, I will just mention a few things. When scheduling recording time, try to group the days you will be recording certain instruments close together. For example, setting up drums to record takes some time, so plan a couple of consecutive days to record drums. Most smaller studios only have one room and can't leave a drum set mic'ed for two weeks. Also, try and keep the people that come to the studio to the bare minimum. The more people floating around, the more of a distraction it is to the engineer and the musicians performing. It's your time, use it wisely! Most importantly, this is your chance to bring your musical vision to life. Have fun! Your best performance will come from a stress free environment. Our job is to create that environment for you, so don't be afraid to ask for anything that would help create that.
  6. Mixing / Mastering - These are two stages you don't want to glance over. Mixing is quite time consuming and depending on how big your project is, could take as much time as the recording. Most engineers will start to mix as they go, but that also depends on their setup and preferences. Either way, this is the time and place to tailor the sound and fine tune your songs. The mastering process, whether done in-studio or at another facility, is the glue that brings everything together. This will bring your mix up to commercial volume / dynamic levels and add that cohesiveness that makes your album unique. There are many places out there that will just use a mastering plug-in set to "Loud" and call it done, so don't be afraid to ask the facility you chose for mastering about their process and what equipment they use to achieve the final result.
  7. Physical Product - During the whole recording process there are a few things that can be done so that when you have your masters in your hand, they are ready to be pressed into CDs or simply sent off to the digital distributors. Pick a release media; CD, USB thumb drive, digital only? Album art needs to be created regardless of whether you plan on releasing a physical product or not. All digital distributors require a "front cover" be displayed with your music, and it looks more professional. So even if you don't plan on releasing a CD, still make at minimum, a front cover. Pick your distributor. DiscMakers, Bands on a Budget? There are many out there all with similar prices, but they all have templates to use for creating your artwork, so make sure you follow their guides. Consider hiring a Graphic designer to complete these steps. It could take the burden off and allow you to focus on the music. Lastly, remember that even after your master is complete, it could take up to a month for your music to reach digital distributors and your music to be pressed to CD.
  8. Album Release - Plan to enjoy your album's release! Set up an event / show to release it, and create hype along the way. This is the best part of the process, and ultimately the most rewarding.
Recording an album is like building a house; if you have a blueprint, you'll most likely have a solid foundation, and when you're done, you won't want to build another house for a while!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

24 Hours to an Album

The new year is upon us, and that means it is the final day of my "deadline". Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, or just call it too much for one month (during the holidays). Either way, looking back, through these posts, much progress has been made since the first iteration of the mixdowns. So with 12 hours left (approximately), let's see where we stand.

The master tracks are set up with the 5 band EQ that Anthony described earlier, and a simple insert chain on the stereo out channel. The critical part of the EQ setup was where the bands crossover. I found that adjusting the crossover between all the mid bands played a big role in which aspects of the mixes stood out. Adjust the mid/mid-high crossover too wide and the crunch of the guitars disappears, too narrow and the mix gets muddy. It will still need some fine tuning.

The insert chain of the stereo out channel, consists of Slate Virtual Console, UAD Pultec EQ, Izotope Ozone 5, and Slate FG-X compressor. The Virtual Console adds nice saturation and drive to the mix. I used the Pultec EQ to add some broad EQ bumps (very minimal), and just that insert being in there with neutral EQ adds a bit of presence. The Ozone 5 plugin has a few different modules, but I only use the harmonic exciter, Post-EQ, and stereo imaging. The slate FG-X compressor / maximizer is the last plugin in the chain, and is ultimately responsible for compressing and leveling the entire mix. I really like this plugin because it lets you push the mix pretty hard without distortion or that pumping over compression sound you hear on some albums. As you can see from the picture, I have the setting pretty modest to start. I've been trying to get everything sounding loud and punchy without having to turn the big "gain" knob up past 5. After doing a few variations of the settings and EQ on the masters, I compared the mixes to other metal bands I normally listen to. If you really listen, you can hear the vast differences between all the commercial mixes out there. I could also hear, doing some quick A-B tests, where my masters fall short. It is mostly in the upper mids where there is some presence lacking. I turned to the Isotope Post EQ to take a look at where my frequency band is "lacking". On the spectrum, my mix is in light green, and the frequency band of another commercial metal band, I actually don't remember who, is in purple. The red line is the EQ curve applied. Notice at the ends there are two sharp low and high brickwall EQ cuts. These are set at 30Hz and 18Khz respectively, and this is mainly because there isn't any important musical information at these frequencies. You can see that the other mix did the same on the high side. There are two small dips where I heard some muddy sounding frequencies. For the most part, the curves are right there together, but then there is a separation around 2.5Khz through to the end. That is the upper mids that need some work. Its one thing to hear the difference, and its a beautiful thing to SEE that difference. I now know where my focus should be on these masters.
So moving forward, I found the weak spot in the masters, and identified the weakness in the mixes with the snare drum. All in all, I think it was a productive month. Hopefully this last bit doesn't take the rest of this month. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2 Days to an Album

Well, the holidays are over, and our deadline is approaching; 2014. The last week has been hard to find time to work on the masters, let alone, the original mixes. I spent an evening going over the EQ bands that Anthony had setup, and the overall compression of the master tracks, and found a few tweaks that I was happy with, but ultimately there was one thing in the mix that really keeps eluding me. The Snare.

Every mix down I do, I'm pretty happy with the result, but the snare drum still seems to slip back into the mix and get "stepped on". In metal, the kick / snare relationship are one of the most important things. They have to work together, much like any relationship, not be dysfunctional. Though in this case, I don't think it was the kick drum that was interfering. I used the track, Enticing the Tyrant as my test, mostly because it is under a minute thirty seconds. Once I have the settings down in this song, I can apply them globally.

I really spent time adjusting the EQ and transients of snare track. I used some subtractive EQ around 700Hz, and a narrow dip around 200Hz to get rid of some overtone, then a small High EQ shelf around 3KHz. Next was to add some saturation using the Steven Slate Virtual Console (VCC). This kind of rounds out the attack of the snare a bit, so to get that bite back, I used the UAD powered, SPL transient designer. This is a great tool that can add punch and sustain without over compression or clipping the track. After all of that, I made the decision to buss the snare to the same reverb as the toms instead of using one in the insert chain. I think this made the snare sound a bit more cohesive with the rest of the drums.

While I was in the mood of adjusting things. I also spent some time on the guitars. As with the snare, I really tried to find what frequencies were important, and what I needed to sculpt to make room for other instruments. The result was adjusting EQ and saturation on the individual tracks. Lastly, I made some minor adjustments to the EQ crossovers in the master track to accommodate the changes made to the snare and guitars. I present to you, the result. Still dialing it in.

After walking away for a bit, then taking a listen myself, I hear a few areas I still need to "clean up". One area is the low-mid. There is still some room for improvement and clarity to be gained. That is the goal for tomorrow - EQ cleanup.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

9 Days to an Album

I know it seems like we've been MIA for the last 10 days or so, but actually a lot has been going on behind the scenes. While I've been away, Anthony, our faithful producer / engineer, has been diligently working on the rough masters for the tracks. The plan was to set up a 5 band EQ / compression for each track, basically sub-dividing the audio spectrum into 5 ranges, a low, low-mid, mid, high-mid, and high. Sounds easy, but the difficult part is deciding which frequency range should make up each section. There is also an area of overlap where each section crosses over into the next, and that is really the critical decision. Much like the mixing, this step takes some trial and error, along with subtle tweaks to really focus in on what sounds you are trying to accentuate, and which you are trying to attenuate. So, instead of myself trying to explain what Anthony did, I'll let him explain in today's video blog. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

19 Days to an Album

Well it is Friday, and the focus of today was to get all the tracks mixed down. I applied all the current presets and vocal processing to each track, while keeping in mind that some songs will need a few tweaks of said vocal presets. For the most part though, they were a good starting point and offered the cohesion needed between tracks. It took a while to mix down everything to stereo. I probably spent a good 30-45 minutes on each track going through and removing silences and guitar noises, applying crossfades and fade outs where necessary, then getting a final overall mix.

I came back to the mixes hours later to take a final listen and jot down some notes for each song. I will go back once more and apply these minor fixes and then the tracks are in Anthony's hands. I'll have another sample up tomorrow. For now, enjoy the short, but sweet, Enticing the Tyrant.

Friday, December 13, 2013

20 Days to an Album

Most of today was spent going through more tracks. I have noticed that I've been more and more indecisive on how I want to do the vocal tracks. At first, I was dividing the heavy, clean, and FX tracks into separate groups and applying processing to the group and then sending those groups to a vocal buss for compression. Though, going through some later tracks I found it easier to just apply the any EQ, saturation, delay, reverb, etc., to the individual tracks, then just do the final buss compression on one group. THEN there was another track where I put compression on each track BEFORE the EQ, saturation and other processing. That sounded the best, but the compression was bringing out the worst in the plosives and "esss's". So, the result is I have 4 or 5 tracks now bounced down using different grouping and compression methods. The results are all very similar, but ultimately I need to decide on one method and stick with it. Right now I think I am just working out which is the best route to take. There are so many ways of getting to the same result, and if these were relatively simple vocal tracks, it would make it pretty easy, but the style differences between the screaming and singing make it almost impossible to use the same processing for both. The goal is to have both sound like the same source and most importantly, be cohesive. The goal tomorrow is to get the rest of the tracks bounced down to stereo mixes, and get the vocal situation sorted out. Tomorrow is the last full day I have before I need to get the tracks over to Anthony. Crunch time.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

21 Days to an Album

This is post is 12 hours late, but last night's rehearsal and subsequent production meeting ran a bit late. We needed to make important decisions regarding specific tracks. It was mostly deciding which vocal harmonies or layers to keep, moving some parts around and picking specific production elements. The tracks in question were Black Box, Tragedy of the Commons, and Gozer. So with that out of the way, I can continue with all the mix downs and getting the tracks prepped. I will hand the stereo mix downs over to Anthony this weekend and he will begin the preliminary mastering. Once he is done, we can go back and make any necessary changes and go on to the last step. FINAL mixes and masters.