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From Start to Finish...
The making of "Pilgrim"

I thought it would be an interesting idea to chronicle the actual processes that were used in recording the Uriah Heep song Pilgrim. This song had all the elements of serious home recording in it, as well as some novel techniques regarding the logistics of what was recorded where.

"Pilgrim" was recorded in 3 different sessions in two different countries (as well as two different states in the US) and was comprised of midi, analog tape, CD, and lots of hours :-). Like any project, the recording of "Pilgrim" started with a detailed plan, that we thought would provide everything needed in order to produce the final product we wanted, but as is always the case things changed slightky along the way. The fun of home recording is to be able to let these changes to the plan become part of a new plan, and that's the route we took.

The players on Pilgrim are as follows:

  • Graham Hulme - Graham provided the percussion tracks, as well as one of the keyboard (emulating Uriah Heeps Hammond B3) tracks. Grahams contributions were put down 1st, and were all done midi in his home studio in England.

  • Dave White - I provided the bass guitar, a rhythm guitar track, and another keyboard track. Think of the additional keyboard track as being the lower manual on a Hammond B3 :-) My contributions were put down 2nd on a Tascam 8 track.

  • Bob Dreher - Bob contributions were all the 4 vocal tracks, the lead guitar track, and Bob also provided the final mixing. Bob used a Tascam 4 Track for his mixing and recording.

Here's how we did it !
Session 1
Graham Hulme - England

The equipment used for my parts on Pilgrim (and all of my MIDI files) was
  • PC

  • Roland SC7 Sound Module

What is an SC7? Well, it's a box about 6 inches x 6 inches by 1.5 inches, which is basically the electronic parts of a synthesiser, without a keyboard. It's capable of producing any of 128 sounds (brass, organ, piano, drums etc etc) on demand.

It can handle up to 16 different sounds (ie instruments) at once (actually that's not quite true, but I won't bore you with too many technicalities).

It is 24-note polyphonic, which means it can play up to 24 notes at any given moment. That is to say, if you're just using a piano, you can have it play 24 notes at once - a keyboard player with 24 fingers!

Imagine the SC7 as a load of instruments lying there on the floor. Of course, an instrument is no good without someone actually playing it. So that's where the PC comes in. Imagine the PC as a bus load of musicians. It's the PC that "plays" the SC7.

Imagine me as the music teacher and conductor. I "teach" the PC what instrument to play, what notes to play, and how and when to play them. OK. That's the basic set up.

My method of doing MIDI sequences is quite unusual. Most MIDI files, I guess, are created by a keyboard player literally playing the parts on a keyboard, and the computer "records" every note played. Then you can manipulate the whole thing....take bum notes out, make notes longer, make notes shorter....whatever.

I don't play keyboards, and the software I use (or used, at that time) was a very basic DOS program that cost about $20 or so, but did everything I needed. (What's more, having a basic program like that teaches you a heck of a lot about MIDI concepts - if you don't understand them, you can't really get the most out of MIDI)

So what I do is to insert each note, one at a time. I tell the PC for each note:
 

  • What MIDI channel to use (ie what instrument)

  • What note to play (eg G above middle C)

  • When to play it (eg Measure 1 Beat 2 Tick 64 (a tick is a fraction of a beat)

  • How long to play it for (eg 90 ticks)

     

How I usually do it is to have a Tascam 4 track next to the PC. This is PURELY used as a mixing desk for monitoring. The internal tape deck has a tape in of the song I'm reproducing, and plays back through tracks 1 & 2. The SC7 is plugged into 3 & 4. So I can listen to a bit of tape (maybe 2 seconds at a time), then stop the tape, tap the instructions into the PC, then listen back to what I've programmed, then listen back to the tape, to make sure I'm happy with what I've done.

If there is repetition of anything in a song (for example, if a straight drum rhythm repeats over and over), you can copy and paste easily enough, thereby reproducing the same measure over and over, and that saves a lot of time. Having said that, things tend to lose their "human" feel. A human drummer would never hit the same beat EXACTLY the same, time after time. So after copying and pasting, I'll usually go through and make a few changes, measure by measure - a louder beat hear, an odd beat which is a touch too late, etc. This is the REAL challenge to me. The longer you spend on "randomising" the sound in this way, the more "human" it is. It'll never be perfect, and the hardest thing is knowing when to stop :-)

When you've done, listen to it a few times and add chrus and reverb (built into the SC7) as necessary.

So that's it. Repeat the above processes a few hundred times, and voila! You have a song.

PILGRIM - How to...
The output of the SC7 is just a straightforward stereo mix. So putting the drums and organ onto tape, in the best format possible, presented another challenge. A couple of options:

Either mix them to stereo here and send Dave this mix on two tracks of the 8-track. The problem with this is that the mix would be guesswork......what would the mix be like after all the other instruments and vocals had been recorded on top. You can't "unmix" what's already mixed.

The option I chose.....pan drums left and organ right. The left (drums) gets recorded on track 1, the right (organ) on track two. This is turn has two minor problems:

A) there is no stereo effect - in effect you have two tracks....mono drums and mono organ. To me, that's not really a problem. I'd sooner have well mixed mono than poorly mixed stereo anyday. And in any case, the organ can be panned by Dave individually within the final mix, and all you're sacrificing is stereo drums. So what?

B) In the SC7, the drums are preset as a stereo mix. eg snare and bass in the middle, 1st tom 11 o'clock, 2nd tom 1 o'clock, 1st crash cymbal and hi-hat to the left, 2nd crash to the right. By panning ALL the drum kit to the left you lose whatever is preset as being "to the right". So you lose half of the volume of the 2nd tom, and most of the 2nd crash. You can actually get around it, cos you can override the preset mix in the SC7. But that's fiddly and time-consuming. Best and easiest way is to just "hit" whatever's in the right channel that bit harder to compensate. A bit of trial and error did the trick.

So. There you have it......over to Dave "Supertwiddly" White!

 

Session 2
Dave White - Ohio, USA

Graham usually records his midi tracks and e-mails them to us for addition to the song they will be on. What I usually do is take his midi and go from the stereo outs on my PC soundcard, into the SUB-IN's on one of my decks. As you know, each soundcard type will produce a variation from what the composer originally recorded. It's the way that MY sound card translates and produces the "notes" that Graham sent that determines how the output will sound. I have a Soundblaster 32 wave synthesis card, that he tells me does a pretty decent job...

Anyway, on this piece tho, we tried something different...Graham recorded his percussion tracks and his keyboard track, and came out of his SC-7 module to a Tascam 8 track tape deck. The drums and the keyboards were on tracks 1 and 2. The tape of the tracks was then mailed to me.

This was a significant change in how we usually operated, because we all have different decks and the compatability between them track for track isn't always there. What we then do is mix the music from the originating tape deck into a stereo mix, and it's this mix onto a standard cassette or CD that is sent to the next person. This time however, Grahams deck was the same model as mine, and the pre-mix wasn't necessary..

When I received the tape all I had to do was load it in my machine and all his tracks were there as he recorded them. Great fun was about to be had !

If you know the song, Pilgrim doesn't start out lightly...this song rocks from the beginning, and we had to have it come across with that feel of a "panzer doing 80" (long story) :-). Graham had begun the song just the way the actual version begins, with 2 short lead in notes and then BAM !!! we were into it !

It's actually a farily complicated piece and there are loud and quiet sections, and I believe the songs clocks in at around 6 or more minutes...it's really heavy all the way through except for a little section where there is a quiet passage that is like the bridge from "scene one" to "scene two". Graham had done his job well, and I wanted to preserve the feeling of "heaviness" on the rhythm guitar, so I dialed up my Rockman and went from my guitar to an FX-69 distortion pedal and into the Rockman and then into track 5 on my deck. There were loooong chords that sustained in the background, with just a touch of chorus...not enough to change the sound, but just enough to not have the chords be monotone because they sustained so long.

It was these chords, against the percussion and the organ tracks (the organ has a very different part in this song) that set the background for the vocal tracks to come later.

When deciding on the bass guitar, I wanted it to be more then just a bass guitar, and not being a real bassist, I decided to run my bass through a flanger in order to give it some presence. The route I took was from my bass to a Trynor head, to a flanger to the tape deck on track 6. I was toying on asking Bob or Graham to re-do the bass, as they are better bass players then I am, but they said the way it came out was ok, so we left it as it was recorded.

Only two open tracks left without having to bounce...and Bob HATES bouncing !!

Bob was going to do the lead guitar parts so I wasn't going to offer anything there, and so I guess I could have left it alone at that point...we had 6 very well recorded (the SOUND sounded good), tracks and it was heavy...really what I thought we wanted.

The Car Test

Behind every good recording, they say is "The Car Test" :-)) Seriously !!!

One of the things I think that is a really good idea is to hear what your piece sounds like on different gear...I mean it's one thing to hear it in the headphones, and out of your speakers of your hi-fi...but you should listed to it on a boom-box, and in a car, and so on in order to get some idea of how others are going to hear it. You may find that your super cool piece of music just isn't making it across different types of equipment.

Pilgrim (with text mixes) was GREAT in the headphones, and sounded pretty good out of speakers in my basement...but it was definitely not ready for the next step yet. In my opinion, it needed a bit more keyboard punch then was there (Bob felt the same way about my rhythm guitar track later on), so I dialed up one of "Hammond" sounds on the keyboard, and on track 7, recorded what I thought would be an appropriate "left" hand part for the "right hand" part Graham had recorded. I made the organ a little gritty (distorted) sounding, and played through most of the song.

Yeah, Baby! That was better...

My Mix for Bob

Unfortunately Bob doesn't have a Tascam 8 Track. At that time, he was using a Tascam 4 track, and the tape heads between the two machines are totally incompatable so it was up to me to either:

  • Have Bob get a Tascam 8 Track to use my tape on...
  • Mix a version for Bob from my deck onto a cassette or CD (I don't think I even had a CD burner back then) and mail it to him...
  • Go to Illinois from Cleveland WITH my deck !! Actually I would have loved to do that and see Bob, but...er...it's a bit unpracticle :-)

The pre-mixing of Pilgrim for Bob really was the best part of the deal for me, because it sounded so damn good (are we just a little biased here?), and I couldn't wait to get a good take so I could hear it ! Here's is track by track how I mixed it for Bob, remembering that in real life, it's the vocals that need to be top center and hearable regardless of how much I might like the guitar or organ...so with that in mind...

  • Tracks 1 and 2 - Percussion ...were panned at 7:00 and 4:00 in the sound spectrum
  • Tracks 3 and 4 - Keyboards ... were panned together at about 10:00 or so
  • Track 5 - sustained sounding rhythm guitar was placed ay 3:00 in the spectrum
  • Track 6 - flanged bass guitar was positioned at 2:00 I believe. I was going to put it at 12:00 or dead center, but the bass on Pilgrim is very "heavy" sounding, and I didn't want to interfere or compete with Bob's main vocal tracks, so I moved it over a little so he could have the middle of the spectrum.
  • Track 7 - gritty keyboards were placed just a little next to those from tracks 3 and 4...just enough so that I could hear them, but also to keep them in the same place basically in the spectrum.

So what we ended up with was stereo drums, all over the sound spectrum, bass guitar almost in the middle, keyboard tracks (3 of 'em) over to one side, and heavy distorted rhythm guitar on the other side.

I set the compressor up in the AUX 1 bay, and compressed the entire mix as it went to tape. There really wasn't a whole lot of EQ or anything applied to the outgoing tracks...they were pretty solid on their own...

...and this mix was HOT..I mean it was LOUD !! But it wasn't too loud so that it was distorted or saturated...

This sucker cooked...!!

Over to you, Bob !

 

Session 3
Bob Dreher - Illinois, USA

Here is my best recognition of how Pilgrim came to be on my end of it. First of all, I must mention that Dave and Graham had already done their parts respectively, which you already know if you're still reading this article :-)

I got a tape in the mail labeled "PilGraham" from Dave and it was a submix of the Keys, Bass, Drums, Synth, Guitar and whatever else they had done on tracks one and two of the cassette tape. I think there is a subliminal message on there somewhere.... Since the tape I recieved was recorded at "slow" or...normal cassette tape speed, I immediately bounced it from my standard cassette deck into my Tascam 4 track running at high speed and the dbx noise reduction on. This was to keep the quality up and to cut down on hiss since there was alot of recording left to do.

I believe that the first track I laid down was a wah-wah guitar track on track 3 which echoed the one that Dave had already done, and was panned opposite of the stereo field from his guitar track. Now I recorded the lead guitar part onto track 4. All tracks full, but I need 4 vocal tracks! Easy... I mixed everything into stereo the way I liked it on the 4 track, then I bumped (see the bouncing article here) this back into the standard cassette deck for a stereo 2 track mixdown...but I added the first harmony part while I was doing this, therefore getting a free track in the whole process. So I now have everything so far on two tracks in the standard cassette deck.

Now, as I bounce back into the 4 track from the standard cassette deck, I add yet another harmony vocal, and mix all of this into tracks 1 and 2 of the 4 track deck. STILL WITH ME???? :-)

I now have a stereo 2 track mix on tracks 1 & 2 of the 4 track deck, which leaves me with tracks 3 & 4 to record my 3rd harmony part and the lead vocal. This can go on indefinitely, but with tape, you will always get degradation of the signal due to too many bounces. That is why I always try to add a track when I mix to another deck, because you kinda get a freebie there as far as useable tracks. But you have to be very sure that the track fits in the mix, because it will be in the stereo mix, you can't go back and increase or decrease it's volume, or twiddle with the EQ and such. You can do this on your 4 track too, for example: You have tracks 1, 2, & 3 full and you want to bounce them to track 4 and start over again on track 1. When you bounce 1, 2, & 3 to track 4... add another track while you're bouncing, and you gain a freebie. Always use your noise reduction and the highest available speed on your deck!

I have since concentrated on recording on the computer because you don't have to go to all of this trouble to get more tracks, and there is no noise at all unless it's in your input signal. But you can do a lot with a standard 4 track deck.

If you watch your levels carefully, be fanatic about getting everything as quiet as possible, and think it out ahead of time, you can accomplish just about any recording project that you can think of, with excellent results !