Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the Studio with Red Cloud

The idea of sound recording - your voice, instruments, whatever - has been at the back of my mind as something I found appealing for years. At least since early in high school. It originally came about as the amazing fun I could have screwing around with sound, playing it in reverse largely, or changing the pitch. It blasted my mind in late 2007 when I first got Adobe Premier...Elements. I'd gotten that for Christmas along with my first DV camcorder, etc., and that was to fuel my interest in filming things like little documentaries at the time. But you could also put audio files into the program and stretch them, make them longer and slower, change the tempo but keep the pitch the same; you could also play with the pitch anyway using the seeker bar, which controls the speed at which you're watching the video.

It really did something for me, that. I slowed down songs like 'Our House' and, as I was really starting to listen to it often at the time, 'In the City.' I slowed down parts of songs that I found something different or appealing about, and listened carefully, altered the pitch, etc. Things that I admired or found attractive in people, or noticed about them, suddenly [via synesthesia] jumped out at me much more clearly, and hearing them in a higher or lower pitch altered the age they were, yet they were still the same, generating an entirely new aspect and depth altogether. I wasn't merely laughing while listening to myself talk in reverse; I was experiencing a whole new way of listening to music while at the same time becoming more attracted to certain people at the time (like that bloody girl).

I bought my piano keyboard in the summer of 2010. Then came the period of my using my camera to film/record myself playing drums, and then struggling to also time the bass and piano right to it (this struggle came from my not having practiced the chords long enough to be able to play them without mistakes or complete screw-ups). I ended up with a few little things and at the time I'd often also rely on the drum voices on the keyboard. None of these demos were more than a minute or two long as I was using very limited stuff - the first, full-length song I tried to put together took me several days and used only my keyboard and bass guitar, and a computer microphone really for webcam use (I also used it in the narration for that documentary I did early 2008, for which it turned out crappy). It's inconsistent, overlong, but almost jazzy-sounding. I had no idea what I was playing on the piano at all - I just knew whatever chords I was playing sounded good.

Fast-forward to mid-March of last year. I was in my final semester of college in the Photography program. In my multimedia class, we had to do a project where you interviewed someone (not in class) with a proper camera (Canon 5D) and sound-recording equipment, including scripts, storey boards, etc. I did my friend Duncan and we used a boom microphone, because it was supposed to sound way better than the camera's internal microphone.

The music in the background is something I came up with, just a song demo. If it had been up to me I wouldn't have included it but the professor required that I add background music and I definitely wasn't going to use any of the samples from the free music download site we were given.

It was the use of the microphone for the audio in that interview, though, that awakened a bigger interest in me; the previous year I'd found this neat thing online where you could download these 'mogg' files of the multitracks of real songs by many different artists. I'd ended up downloading a few of them and listening to how they'd done it - recording a drum set with individual mics for each drum and then overhead ones for the cymbals and any ambience, and then one or two mics for the other instruments, like guitar and piano, etc. This gave me the idea to try that myself - use the mics and recording equipment available in the ER at school, and try recording my drums.

I started with the same microphones used in that school project, and this HN1 Zoom recorder thing that was a combination microphone and recorder, with additional XLR inputs for two other microphones. It was an advised audio tool to use for the interview project but I'd decided not to use it for fear of it being too difficult to figure out. I ended up figuring it out anyway for these little recording experiments. I placed it in front of my bass drum and found ways to have the other two boom mics positioned in front of my hi-hat and snare drum.

The whole affair of experimentation (including on my bass guitar) was quite fun and gave me interesting results that often had me learning from it and finding ways to make everything sound better. The boom mics were awful for recording such a loud hit on the drum or hi-hat, but the recorder itself captured my bass drum marvellously. This led to my purchasing a sound mixer and a couple of inexpensive pencil mics (Behringer C2s) which came as a pair. This continued throughout the spring. I talked to one of the clerks in the ER that did sound recording on his own and got advice on equipment to use and technique. I bought another pair of C2s, just knowing that they're microphones and that's it. In the summer, I drove the majority of my drum kit to Duncan's, as well as my keyboard and bass and mixer, and we did some recording together (well, mostly I played everything myself while he gave input and advice and played with the mixer levels and his own microphones).

Throughout that year I searched now and then for a mixer or device that would separate each microphone input so I could hear each of them separately and adjust them as necessary. I got an okay sound with the mixer and mics I had then but it still sounded very demo-y and rough and upper lower quality. It mixed every input down to one stereo track of the whole set that I had mic'ed at the time (the snare/hi-hat, cymbals, bass drum (bought a specific mic for that in the early summer) and lower tom drum). My first expensive microphone was the kick mic, designed solely for kick drums and low instruments. I had stands for a few of them as well.

A big breakthrough came in November. I was looking at the microphones at a music store and wondering about a board that properly separated each input and ended up buying a microphone called an SM-57. I was also advised to look at recording interfaces rather than mix boards. I would go on to learn (other than a multitude of people uncannily saying 'you can't go wrong with an SM-57' verbatim) that the microphone is basically widely-used by many popular bands for their snare drum at least, and has been for many years (the snare drum on some Madness tracks, including 'Our House,' etc. was mic'ed by an SM-57). Over a few weeks I acquired two of them. Then another huge breakthrough came in late December when I used Boxing Day and money I'd acquired through Christmas and my birthday to buy a proper audio interface.

It's got eight inputs and basically it's the device between the computer or output and the microphones. In Audacity or Audition (I have both) it multitracks each input independently so I have a separate track for each microphone. The number of mic stands grew and it's enabled me to tinker and adjust and alter each mic so that I'm recording each drum as nicely as possible with little bleed from other mic'ed drums.

With all of this has come a lot of research, reading and interest. I know now that I am definitely now determined to build a full recording studio with all the mics not just for drums but all other instruments too. I'd gotten interesting, neat results with the SM-57 mic on my bass amp, and a few weeks ago my father gave me a few extra ones he had in his basement for me to use. I was going to close a deal with my friend Duncan on a proper speaker system but I ran out of time after using all my money to pay for my college tuition. It would have gone towards a proper way of hearing what I'd recorded.

I'm doing my homework, finally. I know what those C2 mics are now - basically okay condenser mics that are fine but not industry quality, and I know the SM-57s are widely-known, widely used dynamics often used by studios on snare drums, maybe other lower drums on a kit (like the toms) and some guitar or bass amps. Those are industry quality things. I've tinkered away like crazy on my own microphone setups, and this is only the drums. Wait until I move on to piano and bass. Part of me wants to try electric guitar out in the future and I like the idea of taking piano lessons again this year - I took them for a short while when I was very young, might as well finish it off and go forward from my intermediate knowledge of chords, scales, and what sounds good, etc. Synesthesia can go far but this would pitch me straight forward much farther.

One thing I've found quite nuts is how in producing albums the engineers do all the recording over a month or two, and then spend sometimes half a year mixing the darn things. How difficult does that have to be, really? In the old days I guess it varied. In Madness' case it often took a few weeks for the producers to mix their tracks, which is pretty amazing when you think of some of the unusual affairs they had to deal with in the early years (like Lee Thompson playing and recording his sax out of tune, putting tacks in Mike Barson's piano, etc.) Perhaps it's a lot quicker these days with all the superior digital methods, but for me I don't want it to be that easy.

What I've heard about music these days is that other than the ease of mixing compared to twenty years ago, there are simply a lot of shortcuts. A friend of mine who has recorded stuff with his little band mentioned techniques such as sampling - simply using a previously recorded sample of a snare drum and putting it in so there's not really a drummer, just an already-recorded repeating snare - and something else I can't remember that uses algorithms to detect where you went off-time in your beats or rhythm, and corrects it. It all sounds extremely glossy and over-perfected to me - easy, sure, but to my ears, fake and too precise. Imagine hitting a snare drum once, and then using that same hit as the snare for an entire song. To a lot of peoples' ears, that kind of sampling makes it sound 'perfect.' But there are slight, minute differences in the sound of a drum each time you hit it, giving it a depth. It sounds more different and diverse, if you listen. Otherwise, from my point of view, if you do it the sampling way, then you're just hearing the exact same thing over and over again throughout the song - which sound paradoxical as you're hearing the same snare regardless, but imagine somebody saying something - 'hi' - and you take it and sample it and replay it over and over from beginning to end. The tone of voice is the same - the inflection is the same, the timbre, the pitch, everything. It's like a bit of stuck film, or a broken record. Which a lot of people seem to enjoy listening to in popular music these days, considering all the songs that have repetitive stuttering in them.

I guess I'm old-school, but I just like the sound of actual, original-sounding, acoustic drums. In Audition, I can do something called 'Mastering' which changes the tone of a drum and gives it reverb, high peaks, echo, and so on. It brings the level of sound quality way up and makes it sound similar to the drums in those mogg files I downloaded, but the difference is that those drums already had an ambience to them naturally in the studio whereas I created it artificially. I'd rather find a way to create it naturally - and do as little 'mastering' or mixing or digital finessing as possible. Nothing is perfect; people striving to use all this nice digital technology and sampling to get ever close to sounding perfect is neat in its own sense but they'll never get it to sound perfect because not everyone will like the 'perfectionism' of hearing one-hit snare sounds in a perfect, robotic-like beat without human error. Clive Langer and Allan Winstanley, the engineers and producers in the mixing room while Madness recorded their stuff, noticed Lee's out-of-tune sax immediately; they used an effect called a harmonizer to mostly fix it but nevertheless saw his erroneous playing as an integral part of the bands' sound. They fixed it with a harmonizer, yes, but the effects of it weren't perfect; you can still tell his sax is kind of off - yet it works. If they didn't want that, they would have told him right away how to fix it, and in the interim period hired a session player, forgoing the whole harmonizing part of the affair.

In the months and years to come, as I self-teach and train myself in all aspects of sound-recording and music, I hope to create a sound that is in a way original and acoustic, put together and worked out, yet not perfect. I'm a one-man band as far as I can say; I can't play guitar yet, but I think I'll learn it in the future. I can't sing, but who knows. I may end up being a one-man instrumentalist while getting help from a singer, otherwise I write the lyrics, put the music together, perform it, and record it all on my own. In the studio of Red Cloud, that's how it may very well be.

It's been interesting, but I'm only getting started.

Justin C. (Red Cloud)

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