Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Production Update

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Hope you all have a wonderful time with your families over the holidays!

Just wanted to briefly share with you what’s going on with the new album. Here are some highlights.

Met with composer Rich Barrett last week. Rich is giving me some pointers on a string arrangement I am working on for one of the new tunes.

Recorded English horn with Karen Pfeifer this past Sunday night. Really adds a cool touch to one of the new songs!

Re-recorded a couple electric guitar parts with guitarist Matt Meyer Monday evening. Matt’s Mesa Boogie amp was miked up in his basement while we recorded into my laptop upstairs (Pro Tools). Fun!

I’ve also made a few lyric tweaks here and there, and actually totally rewrote the chorus melody of one of the tunes. The melody is so much stronger!

I’m still doing a little bit of editing here and there, but I’d say I’m about 95% finished with all the editing (for what we’ve tracked so far).

It’s looking like we’ll probably be tracking strings and guitar overdubs (with the David Davidson string group and Nashville guitarist Mike Payne) sometime the first month or two of the year, possibly the end of the January. Exciting times!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Progress of the Album: Strings (Ch. 15)

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been focusing heavily on finalizing string arrangements for two songs on the new album. Eight of the thirteen songs on Snapshots of the Shattered Soul have string parts. Rich Barrett has composed the strings for one song and Robert Nugent has composed strings for two songs, and I am writing the string parts for four songs (one being a song with a solo cello part only). I'm not nearly as experienced as Rich or Robert, but thankfully, they are giving me some feedback along the way. It’s definitely been a fun undertaking!

As far as the songs go, Rich has arranged strings for one of the key darker tunes on the new album (Rich arranged the strings for Hurricane, After Everything, A Thousand Gods, and By Now on my 2004 album Backstage Pass), while Robert has arranged the strings for two more positive sounding songs, one of which is a string/piano/vocal only piece. I really dig what both of these guys have brought to the project! I am working on the string arrangements for a couple heavier tunes (one faster, one slower), and two pop rock ballads (one louder, one quieter).

Writing Strings for Pop Music
Obviously, pop music and classical music are two completely opposite styles. With this, the string arranging process for each genre needs to be approached quite differently. Generally, classical music is made up of traditional orchestra instruments only –strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, sometimes piano - while pop music is comprised of many other “modern” instruments – a drum kit, bass, electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards, piano, etc…. and of course, vocals. Both styles have their challenges when it comes to string arranging.

Classical music challenges the composer to carry the rhythmic energy of a song with orchestral instruments alone (there is no acoustic guitar strumming along to keep the song going). Pop music, on the other hand, may challenge the composer to squeeze string parts into an already full and busy mix of rhythm and lead instruments. As an example, string basses and cellos are a bit limited in what they can do in the lower octaves as there is usually already a bass guitar taking up much of the lower frequencies in a song. A bass guitar and a string bass would most likely clash if they were played at the same time in the same register (octave), especially if they were playing different notes. With this said, there aren’t many string bass parts on my album, although there is a lot of cello, as the cello has a much wider pitch range, and can potentially stay out of the way of the bass guitar. Violin or viola parts can also get in the way of guitar, piano, or synthesizer parts. As the rule goes with all arranging: every instrument/part should have its own sonic space.

Thinning the Parts
As Rich Barrett was working on his string arrangement, he spoke often of needing to “thin out the parts” which basically means that after his first draft, he had to go back and take out some of the more intricate inner parts (usually harmonies) as they would most likely be buried and unheard in the final mix with everything else going on (electric guitars, keyboards, etc.).

On Backstage Pass, Rich was limited in the number of parts he could write as we worked with the Nashville String Machine Orchestra and they would only allow us to record two passes for each song (a union thing, I think). We hired seven players, which means we walked away with what sounded like a fourteen-piece orchestra (7 players x 2 takes). If we wanted to have a bigger sound, we simply would have had to hire more players. Nevertheless, later in the mix stage, we did supplement these live strings with some string samples, which ultimately made the fourteen-piece orchestra sound even larger.

For Snapshots of the Shattered Soul, we are going a new route and are working with a Nashville-based quartet under the direction of David Davidson. One cool thing about this group is that they will let us record as many takes as we want – it’s just a matter of how much I want to spend as they bill per hour. This means that the string parts can be thicker than the number of players. In other words, we aren’t limited to four parts – that being cello, viola, 2nd violin, and 1st violin. Since we can record as many takes as we’d like, we can introduce a 2nd viola part if we want, or even a 3rd violin part. However, with this, we have to be conscious of the limitations that are presented when arranging strings for pop music – depending on the song and instrumentation, some string parts could be buried and unheard. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have the option of incorporating some thicker string harmonies into some of the tunes. As I mentioned before, Robert has arranged the strings for one song that is made up of piano, strings, and vocals only. He was able to take much more liberty with string intricacies, as the only other instrument besides the strings will be piano. In a sense, the strings act as the rhythm engine behind the piano and really help to carry the energy of the song from start to finish.

Recording the String Quartet
I explained this in my previous video blog, but will reiterate for those who missed the video. Although we are only hiring four players, we can easily make them sound like sixteen or more players. Why sixteen? Well, each player brings a 2nd instrument – that is, the cello player brings two cellos, the violist brings two violas, and each of the two violin players brings two violins. We will first record a pass of the quartet playing on their “first” instruments. We will next record a pass of the quartet playing on their “second” instruments. Then, each player will put a mute on his/her “first” instrument. We will record this as the third pass. Finally, each player will put a mute on his/her “second” instrument. We will record this as the forth pass. At this point, we would have created the sound of a sixteen-piece orchestra (4 players with 4 different instruments x 4 recording passes). However, if we wanted, we could record even more passes if there were more than four string parts in the song (like a 2nd viola part or a 3rd violin part, as mentioned above). The limitation is that we can only have four passes per string part. In other words, the 1st violin part could only be “four players thick” because the 1st violin player would only have four instruments (actually 2 instruments with and without a mute, giving the perception of 4 different violins). It is really not that beneficial to stack the exact same violin sound more than once. I can’t really explain why. I’ll just say that it’s similar to a choir made up of clones. Overdubbing the same voice(s) over and over wouldn’t create as large of a sound as a choir of many different voices. The same concept goes for string layering.

In a future blog, I will explain a little more about string samples and how they are selected, managed and integrated with the live strings.