Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Raising the Dead

I'm getting ready to leave for a short European tour a week from now, and as a result, I'm trying to get as many loose ends tied up as possible. One of those loose ends is to finish up the production of a track for SD6, a band on my label.

We had discussed recording a new song from scratch originally, but as both Brandon (the band's lead singer and songwriter) and my schedule began to fill up, he suggested to me that we resurrect an old song we had abandoned many years ago when we started the recording of their debut album. 7 years, to be exact. I remember really liking the song back then, but Brandon wasn't happy with the vocal, so we left it off. So I thought I'd share a bit of the process and what can be learned (hopefully) from it.

I'm fairly anal about backing things up (*pause for laughter*). Like most people who are fairly anal about backing things up, I came that way by learning the hard way. So generally, speaking, if it's a project I worked on, I have it backed up somewhere. Seven years can be getting into sketchy territory for some CD-Rs. For better or for worse, when it comes to backing stuff up to CD-R, I generally spring for more "premium" media. I wouldn't be surprised if these were as much of a scam as high end audio cables, but they haven't failed me yet, so for now, I'll stick with what I know. So, my first step was to find the back-up and attempt to bring it back onto my Mac. Fortunately, that turned out to be as simple as dragging the files to my hard drive.

The files copied without any problems, but that didn't mean I'd necessarily be able to open the files. While these were Logic files, and I still work in Logic, they were from Version 5 - many, many revisions ago. Logic is designed to be backward compatible and for the most part, the project came back without too much trouble. The two biggest issues here were: 1.) these were recorded back when I had an old Emagic AudioWerk 2 soundcard, so I needed to re-assign the outputs on my channel to my new soundcard, and 2.) there were a bunch of out-dated plug-ins. This brings up a good thing to remember - if you have a track that is dependent on an unusual plug-in or softsynth, bounce down a copy of the track to audio. This way, if the effect is impossible to replicate with a newer plug-in, you still have a copy of the audio effected as you want it. I did encounter a handful of technical gremlins, mostly weird graphic glitches - but nothing that would keep me from the job at hand.

Another good thing to do when you're backing up a project is to bounce down a full mix as a "demo". This can be especially helpful if the person doing the mixing and production is different from the one who recorded it. So, I gave a listen to the original demo. As I remembered, it was a kinetic, syncopated track with a good groove to it. And it still was. The problem was, it wasn't really a song in the state we had it - more like 5 minutes of a good groove. So this would be an area I would need to concentrate on... adding more of a sense of structure to the song so the listener doesn't get bored with it. The vocals were fine on the original, but we decided if we were going to start this from the ground up, we should apply that to everything and we ended up re-recording the vocals. Another problem was the arrangement. The track was originally sequenced on some older Korg workstation and some of the sounds were a bit uninspiring, while others were clearly muddying up the mix. So I would need to replace some of the recordings with better sounding synths.

One hitch I encountered here was that the band had recorded the instrumental tracks at someone else's studio. This person just recorded straight from the Korg's sequencer, so there were no MIDI tracks at all. So any part I wanted to put in a different octave, change the sound of, or layer, I'd have to play over from scratch. Fortunately, the elements of the song were relatively simple, so learning and re-programming the parts was not a big issue. It's well worth working on playing things by ear if you have the motivation to. It can take awhile to learn, but the time it can save you down the road is immeasurable.

As I mentioned, the original track was one that sort of starts and keeps doing what it's doing until it stops. There wasn't a lot of tension in the way it built and even though there were separate verse, chorus, and bridge parts, there was little to differentiate them. The original rhythm was built around a pair of stuttering, syncopated drum loops. I liked these a lot, but discovered these loops were not very tightly timed, so when I tried to program new drum parts on top of them, the new parts sounded out of time. So I decided to replace the drum loops with some new loops, and to use the introduction and removal of these loops to help build and lull the energy level to keep the feel of the song evolving.

The original stuttering loop was great, and I recreated it for the intro of the song, but we want this to be a song the DJs would like to add to their set, so I felt we couldn't keep this feel for the length of the track. Therefore, I began the track with just the spare, stuttering loop, gradually entering a hi-hat part, and a couple of additional "top" loops. Then, after the first chorus, the loops all slow down and a steady 4 on the floor beat comes in. I decide that the bridge portion of the song would be the perfect place for a breakdown, so I stripped out most of the drums in this part, gradually re-introducing them until the whole thing kicks in again.

As I mentioned, the sounds used in the original were making the arrangement sort of ho-hum, so I went through and replaced sounds for something more interesting. One of the main parts of the song is a propulsive, Moroder-like sequence that runs throughout almost everything. This not only came across as a bit monotonous in the original, but the Virus sound I originally used was distorted and a total frequency hog. My solution was to replace the sound with 3 additional sounds. The first two would be arps I programmed in Vanguard. These used LFO modulation to change the sound as it played, and to add a bit more unpredictability, I set the LFO speeds on both to different random values, so the two sequences would modulate against one another in a constantly shifting, more interesting way. I also added the same riff an octave down with a tight, analog-sounding bass I made in Omnisphere that would kick in when the 4 on the floor beat did.

With most of the music in place, we re-recorded the vocals. Originally, we thought this might not be necessary, we discovered that the old vocals, which had been recorded to the original, slightly-off-time drum loops and no longer matched up with the new material. So we took the opportunity to record everything from scratch and to add some new harmony parts sung by Brandon's wife, Jessica. Everything here went pretty damn smoothly. The biggest obstacle was that I was recovering from a cold and had to desperately keep myself from having a coughing fit in the middle of someone's vocal. Mission accomplished.

That I can't share with you just yet, as I haven't finished the track, although I hope to have it done tomorrow. But I can tell you that this has been a really valuable learning experience. The new track is a huge improvement over the original we did 7 years ago. Although I disagreed with the decision to not release the track at the time, I'm now glad we waited. We ended up with something way better than we ever could've imagined all that time ago. So the next time you're ready to toss some track that isn't working into the trash, give it a second thought. You never know what it might teach you further down the road.


Unknown said...

thanks for these tips on production, will use this for my own files which are now 5 years old.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

I've been following your blog for sometime. For people who love synths, electronic music, production, etc., it's a great place.

Fortunately, the it's pretty easy to know the best synth blogs / websites, and this is one of those I follow.

I've got a question to make: how do you keep and manage your samples library? I mean, for people who constantly getting audio samples from those CDs / DVDs with «free» samples, or the ones we make, there's a time when we get the feeling we lost control of what we have or not have, I guess. And it's pretty harsh to keep track of things and find a particular sample on which we would to work on. How do you keep track of things?

I wanted a software to preview folders full of samples. Something light, which allow me to preview the files. I've tried some softs but didn't enjoy none.

Any tip?

Regards from Portugal,