Saturday, April 23, 2011

Finding the Perfect Piano

I'm having a blast today trying out my new East West Quantum Leap Piano samples. As far as piano goes for the new album, purchasing this library is absolutely the best move I could have made. With four pianos (a Bechstein D-280, Steinway D, Bösendorfer 290, and Yamaha C7), three mic positions for each instrument (close, player, and room) and dozens of reverb options, the sound possibilities are nearly endless. I've been spending this afternoon trying out various piano sounds on different songs. The Bösendorfer may not be used on this project (as this piano tends to be used more often in classical music), but the Yamaha will appear quite a bit, with a few guest appearances by the Bechstein and Steinway. The Bechstein sounds great on some of the more poppy songs and the Steinway is perfect for the more intimate tunes. The "size" and dynamic variations of the Yamaha is choice for the bigger and sometimes darker songs.

I would have never had such versatility had I tracked a live piano (I'd be limited to one piano and would have to pay for studio time and really wouldn't have the time for much experimentation). I also don't own the gear to record with multiple mics positions (I'm not sure how many mics & pre-amps the East West guys used to record these pianos, but it was definitely more than I could ever afford).

On a side note, installing this library was quite the big operation. It literally took me 24 hours (2 days of sitting by my computer) to install these samples, with 35 double layered DVDs! However, the quality of these instruments was totally worth the wait!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Backing Tracks

Today, I’m spending a couple hours working on mixing the backing tracks we’ll be using at concerts. Our live band will be made up of drums (Jim Davis), bass (Joey Bradley), rhythm guitar (not sure yet), lead guitar (Matt Meyer), piano, and lead vocals. However, a lot of my music contains quite a bit of additional instrumentation – keyboards, strings, percussion, and background vocals. For most songs, we’ll be playing with a click track and we’ll have some of these background instruments playing along with the live band.

For concerts, the backing tracks will be played back using an iPod, an iPad or a laptop and will feed back to the soundboard and then one channel (the click track) will feed to the band’s in ear monitors, and the other track (a mono mix of all the backing instruments) will be mixed in with the band through the house sound system. Our drummer Jim will be triggering the backing tracks.

The mixing engineer at the concert will be responsible for balancing the backing tracks with the live band… with this in consideration, it’s my goal to set the overall level of the backing tracks so that they are the same from song to song (so the mix engineer won’t have any volume surprises). It’s also important that the click track is the same level from song to song (so the band doesn’t get blown away by the click, or lost because they can’t hear the click).

On another note, we had a great extended 3 ½ hour long band practice this morning. The band is sounding tighter and better every time we practice! Hoping to play our first full show sometime in June!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When All Instruments Are Spoken For

I’m getting very close to having all the instruments recorded for Snapshots of the Shattered Soul. On Tuesday, I received all the audio files from Monday’s string session in Nashville (read previous blog). I’m very happy with the way the strings turned out! Thanks to David Davidson for playing violin and viola, John Catchings for playing cello, and thanks to Bobby Shin for engineering the session!

I still need to record piano and there are a few keyboard/synthesizer parts here and there that I’d like to tweak. Matt Meyer may also record a small electric guitar part at the beginning of one song (I didn’t get to this part while recording with Mike Payne). Otherwise, the instruments are pretty much ready to go.

I am currently saving up for East West Quantum Leap’s Piano Library ( Why am I now going with samples? Sounds like I’ve changed my tune, huh? Well, as opposed to recording a real piano, I won’t have to pay for piano tuning or studio time, and with this library, I’ll have access to four amazing pianos (including a Yamaha C7 and a Steinway, all with multiple mic positions)… and additionally, I’ll own these piano sounds for years to come - a great investment for future projects. Hopefully, I’ll be able to purchase these samples, finalize the piano parts, and wrap up the last bit of instrument tweaks by the middle of May. I will then start recording the final vocals (lead and background), and after that will come the mix stage.

It’s a funny feeling seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after about a year and a half of writing, recording and editing. What a blast it’s been to watch these songs come to life, from rough piano and vocal demos to complex arrangements!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Last String Session

Yesterday, I mailed a package to violinist David Davidson in Nashville (we recorded strings for five songs at his studio in early February). The package contained a DVD of two Pro Tool sessions, as well as some sheet music. This next Monday, he will be recording violin and viola for the opening song on the album, and John Catchings will be playing cello on a tune called “A World Without” (John was the cello player at the recording session back in February). This morning, I met with composer Robert Nugent to finalize this cello part. I will have to email the sheet music for this part to David before Monday’s session. After this session, all the strings for the album will be recorded. Things are moving along!

In other news, I’m still trying to figure out what to do with recording piano. I’ve been eyeing some piano samples (especially East West’s piano library), but I’m not completely sure whether or not I’m going to go this route.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Performance Side

Most bands live two competing lives. Much of their days are spent in the meticulous seclusion of a studio – tweaking and fixing to their heart’s content, while another significant part of their existence is exhausted on the road and on the stage – the true testing ground of their musicianship. Before the days of computers, it was much more challenging to get it right in the studio. There was no Beat Detective and no Auto-Tune. It wasn’t possible to line up a sloppy drummer or bassist “to the grid.” A pitchy singer couldn’t pass as a singer with good pitch – what went to tape was basically what you heard in the final mix.

And They Sounded So Good on the Record…
Thanks to today’s technology, the studio can give a musician a false sense of his/her own ability. With a live performance, what a musician plays is what the crowd hears. There are no re-takes or punch-ins (however, many nuances you’d hear in a recording are lost when the same music is pumped one time through large speakers in a noisy room of fans). Additionally, the stage brings with it many unique uncontrollable variables (bad monitor mixes, poor acoustics, unruly fans, tight schedules for set-up, tear-down, etc.). A performer has to be at the top of his/her game regardless of the circumstances.

An Honest Self-Critique
It can be humbling to hear yourself recorded, especially when you are listening back to a live performance. I know I have areas to improve. For example, as a singer, I know I don’t sing my best when I am nervous. I don’t usually get nervous on stage, but there have been times when I have been and my singing has suffered. Usually, if I’m nervous, I’ll hold back which results in bad tone and/or shaky pitch (especially high long notes). I’ve also noticed that my vocals aren’t their strongest when I am playing an unfamiliar piano part at the same time. For some reason, I won’t hold notes as long as I normally would, and my pitch loses its importance when I am pre-occupied with remembering chord changes or piano melodies. I also am aware that I have a tendency to rush my piano playing in louder song sections, and my piano playing becomes a little more generic when I am singing, and especially when I am trying to follow a click track. Obviously, every performer has areas where he/she needs to improve. On a random note, my drummer Jim recently mentioned that many drummers tend to rush when they have to go to the bathroom, and are forced to hold it. Funny but true!

I Don’t Want to Kill Any Birds, But If I Had To Kill Two, I’d Use One Stone
I made a big mistake with my last album Backstage Pass (2004). I didn’t start practicing with a band until after the album was released. Why was this choice such a mistake? Well, for one, I wasn’t really ready to promote the album through live shows when the project came out. I think it’s true that people are the most excited about an artist and/or recording at or after a live show. I also think that I would have benefited from practicing with a band before I sang all the vocals parts on Backstage Pass (although I did rehearse a lot in the car and in my parent’s basement).

On the new album Snapshots of the Shattered Soul, I am doing something different in that I am playing all of the piano parts as well as singing (Rich Barrett played piano on Backstage Pass). For most concerts, I will also be singing and playing piano (or keyboard as real pianos quickly go out of tune when you carry them from one venue to another). Rehearsing with the band has been helping me to prepare both for live shows and also for the final tracking of piano and vocals on the album. There are definitely trouble songs/sections that I am working on refining – both on my own, and also during our Saturday morning band rehearsals.

Until the Good Gets Better and the Better Gets Best

Over the last couple weeks, Jim, Matt, Joey, and I have been recording our practices and what a mirror that has been! We are each taking notes on our own performance and are working to iron out the rough spots. Currently, we are focusing on about nine key songs from the new album, but will also soon be incorporating a handful of tunes from Backstage Pass. We’re really looking forward to playing out – hopefully starting in June!

Coming soon… “Developing an Engaging Set List”