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Thread: Lessons learned

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    Lightbulb Lessons learned

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    Hi, everyone. I joined the forum years ago; my profile says 2008, but it seems longer.

    At any rate, I was about seven years into home recording at the time. I had already dipped my toes into multitracking, with several small projects completed, and had begun a transition to live-in-the-studio recording with my collaborators.

    I've long held the notion that there ought to be a way for a musical ensemble to compose, arrange, produce and record material in real-time. Sort of like jazz, but without the imposed structure. Or like free jazz, but with the implicit understanding that we're not intentionally tossing familiar structures out the window for the sake of being "free".

    We went through several iterations of recording technique, beginning with recording a live session to a multitrack recorder and doing mixdown after the session. That worked, of course. But the approach had issues that I wanted to avoid: (1) complexity, (2) divided attention and (3) extra effort.

    The complexity came from the gear: setting up a session for a new recording meant programming the recording device. Some devices (and I went through several) imposed more overhead (and consequent opportunity for error) than others; even the device with the simplest workflow led to various mistakes.

    Most of those mistakes came about through divided attention. It's really difficult -- at least for me -- to split my attention between creative and technical concerns. If I focus on the creative aspect, I sometimes overlook key technical activities. And yes, that's *with* a checklist. If I focus on the technicalities, my attention is diffused and I have a hard time getting into the creative flow.

    One thing I noticed is that, absent gear changes that required rebalancing the instruments, the multitrack mixdown had become routine. More often than not, the mixdown settings that worked for one track worked for the next. That was my impetus for the next phase of experimentation.

    I figured that, since the mixdown was pretty much the same from track to track, I may as well skip the multitrack recording step and record directly to a stereo master. Yeah, there are potentially huge disadvantages: (1) you can't fix anything in post and (2) one glitch -- technical or creative -- can ruin an entire track. On the plus side, time that we didn't spend on production is time that we're able to spend on recording more tracks.

    Now, if your goal is to produce a polished tune according to someone's vision, then multitracking seems to be the way to go. It's really the only way to go if you're a solo recordist. But we're an ensemble that's interested first and foremost in the creative flow. Every recording is both an experiment and a lesson. The more attempts we recorded, the faster we learned what did and (especially in the early days) didn't contribute to our goal of being able to create a tune as we played.

    So I ditched the multitrack recorder and replaced it with a nice analog board and an outboard effects rack plus a stereo recorder. The recorder is set up to start and stop automatically based upon incoming audio levels. The drums are mic'd, electronic/electric instruments go direct with a feed to the room PA for monitoring. The room volume is low enough that bleed from the PA to the drum mics did not overwhelm the direct signals; it really helps that our drummer is sensitive to dynamics and can play at near-conversational levels with good tone.

    We experimented with using personal monitors (amps) rather than the PA. Those attempts didn't pan out. A guitar amp in the room -- even a really small one (4 watts with an 8" speaker) was way too loud at a volume where it sounded "right". Bass amplification was even more difficult in our small studio: what was good for the instrumentalist didn't translate to the rest of the room because of reinforcement and cancellation at different nodal points in the room. Gradually we learned to wean ourselves off of the personal monitor and trust the PA.

    At this point, we had a recording system that was mostly hands-off, allowing the musicians to focus on making music while letting the hardware take care of the recording. There was still a lot of post-production needed. The automatic recorder captured a lot of short recordings, well over a hundred per two-hour session, that needed to be discarded to leave only the intentional creative works. Once the intentional tracks were extracted, post-processing could be handled by a script that normalized track volumes.

    We proceeded with that arrangement for a long time. Technical errors dropped from an average of one every few sessions (and we were recording a couple dozen sessions each year) to one a year. The ability to forget about the technical details of recording freed us to learn about what did and didn't work for us, creatively, while improvising. The payoff of that freedom to be creative came when we began to realize that our recordings had started to become listenable rather than serving as studies of things to not do during a session. From the first "aha!" track, it took roughly another eighteen months of session to get to the point where most of a session's tracks were keepers.

    But there were still problems. We needed to check instrumental balance any time the bassist or I made a significant change to our rig. We mostly trusted the room sound, but knew that it didn't exactly match the recorded track. It was too easy to forget to re-arm the recorded after auditioning a test track. Reminder placards on pedalboards and the recording rack were effective most of the time. But tracks still got lost. And I really wanted to hear how the recordings would improve without the bleed.

    The final phase was to replace the room PA with IEMs. Our IEM system is simple: all three of us hear a mono mix of the stereo feed to the recorder. There's no local blend: we hear exactly what's going into the final track, modulo trimming a bit off the beginning and end. But with IEMs, you can't really hear the room; that made between-track conversations awkward. I ended up building a controller to automatically mute the room mic while the recorder runs.

    And that's where we were when the pandemic put our sessions on hold. The IEMs still have some issues w.r.t. blocking the room sound from the kick drum, even when supplemented by over-ear isolation headgear. But the absence of bleed has opened up the soundstage so we can hear more clearly what's going to the recorder (aside from the low-bass register, which was a problem even with the PA).

    All told, we recorded 106 sessions from mid-2012 to the end of 2019. We've published all of those on Bandcamp (link below). The ten or so releases at the top of our Bandcamp page are all from the IEM era. A bit of advice, should you care to listen: our music evolves over the course of a track. I advise just letting it play in the background until something catches your ear; this isn't music that grabs your attention in the first bars.

    There's a lot more to tell, if anyone's curious. Pretty much all of the post-production work is now supported by scripts. And there's a whole philosophy of improvisation that we've discovered.

    LCW on Bandcamp
    Music | LCW
    Last edited by TieDyedDevil; 06-08-2020 at 13:31. Reason: Correct date.

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    Well, I had a listen to "The Ouroborous rule," "Mirror logic," "Semantic appropriation," "Memetic payload" and "Unlikely warrior." Between them, they remind me of stuff I've heard by Gateway {a band featuring the bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette}, the steel drum player Andy Narell and a band called Low Flying Aircraft that featured a sort of semi well known British pianist on the underground jazz scene, Keith Tippett and the ex~King Crimson violinist, David Cross. Bits also reminded of the band Turning Point.
    This is the kind of music one definitely has to be into ~ it's not for mainstream or even rocky tastes. But I have to say, I liked most of it. The pieces are actually pretty interesting, there's interesting guitar and bass {whether fretless or bowed} tones and all of the instruments are beautifully recorded. Some of the string sounds got a little screechy for me, but that's just my foible. I've been like that with certain pitches of sound since 1968 at the age of 5 when I woke up to the sound of a bird singing and it drove me mad with itchiness. Turned out I had chickenpox ! Later I hated the sound of my big sister playing recorder and later still, the sound of my little sister learning violin almost drove me to hiring a hit man !!
    Your story was highly readable and interesting, by the way.

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    An interestig adventure in recording.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I know many musoes whose creativity gets compromised when having to mange technology at the same time.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grimtraveller View Post
    ... they remind me of stuff I've heard by Gateway {a band featuring the bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette}, the steel drum player Andy Narell and a band called Low Flying Aircraft that featured a sort of semi well known British pianist on the underground jazz scene, Keith Tippett and the ex~King Crimson violinist, David Cross. Bits also reminded of the band Turning Point.
    Thank you for listening.

    I'll have to check out your other refs, but your mention of Gateway lit up a big smile. I've been interested in John Abercrombie's work since "Timeless". In fact, during the four or five years when we put most of our effort into weekly workshops, we made quite a few runs at covering the title track. I dare say that we came about as close as any other interpretation I've heard; "Timeless" is a deceptively complex piece.

    One thing that I've noticed is that our compositions have become more intricate over the years. If you listen to releases from the bottom of the Bandcamp page, you'll probably find that our earlier aesthetic was less adventurous.

    This is the kind of music one definitely has to be into ~ it's not for mainstream or even rocky tastes. But I have to say, I liked most of it. The pieces are actually pretty interesting, there's interesting guitar and bass {whether fretless or bowed} tones and all of the instruments are beautifully recorded.
    LOL. Yah. We're definitely not radio-friendly, or whatever is the internet's equivalent (given that I haven't listened to an actual radio broadcast since the late `90s). I know that we have a few dozen repeat listeners.

    We've had experienced studio owners compliment our recording quality. A lot of them focus on the drum sounds. I have to chuckle; I know that getting a good drum sound is a challenge for a lot of studios. When I tell folks how we work, they want to hear what's the "real" secret. Because, honestly, beyond having chosen a six-mic setup (crossed overheads, snare, toms and kick) we have done absolutely nothing aside from the truly obvious (roll off lows on everything except the kick; a *tiny* bit of corrective EQ on kick and snare, and channel-specific ambience). In fact, I have a number of outboard compressors that we used in channel inserts; it didn't take very long to decide to turn off all dynamic processing on the drums save for limiters to save the recorder from really big hits. And we run very conservative levels into the recorder (peaking well under -12 dB DFS most of the time).

    In fact, we do hardly any dynamics processing in the recording chain. The only adjustment is to normalize each track to leave about 7 dB average headroom; that's followed by a soft limiter to avoid clips.

    Joe, our drummer, is the one who sets the mics. His mic placement rule: Wherever they fit. Not a satisfying answer for the folks who assume that there's a "right" way to do things, I know...

    Some of the string sounds got a little screechy for me, but that's just my foible. I've been like that with certain pitches of sound since 1968 at the age of 5 when I woke up to the sound of a bird singing and it drove me mad with itchiness. Turned out I had chickenpox ! Later I hated the sound of my big sister playing recorder and later still, the sound of my little sister learning violin almost drove me to hiring a hit man !!
    I have similar sensitivities. Obviously in different ranges than do you.

    Both Stephen (our bassist) and I were fortunate to grow up in households having accomplished classical musicians in the immediate and extended families. I'm certain that contributed a lot to our understanding of both music and of the sounds of acoustic instruments.

    Your story was highly readable and interesting, by the way.
    Much appreciated.

    Quote Originally Posted by gecko zzed View Post
    An interestig adventure in recording.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I know many musoes whose creativity gets compromised when having to mange technology at the same time.
    For me, it took a long time to reach that understanding. My day job involves technologies in which I've had a lifelong interest. I can easily grok the recording tech, but it has taken a *long* time to really understand the creative tradeoffs. I've had to fight a tendency to overengineer everything. I've come to understand that the performance is way more important than the recording.

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    Your experience reminded me of a phase that happened in the audio world in the late 70s and early 80s with Direct to Disc recording. I've got a number of Sheffield albums that were done straight to the disc masters on one shot, real time. There was no editing, no master tapes, just a 15 minute session per album side going straight to the cutting lathe. Naturally, there were limits on the number of pressings available.

    Luckily digital recording was in its infancy at the time so they make Soundstream PCM recordings as a backup. Some of these have since been released on CD.

    Listening to several tracks, you've done pretty well. Its the essence of live recording. Given the opportunity, I would prefer to start with "live". Once you get your setup, as you found, just let the "tape roll".

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    Huh. I was not aware of Sheffield.

    Direct-to-disc recording, though, has fascinated me for the past couple of decades. Not that I'd want to run a cutting lathe... But the idea of recording direct-to-memory-card from the mixing desk output appealed to me after having read about the technical history of the early recording industry. The simplicity and authenticity -- capturing a performance exactly -- were both very appealing.

    Sadly, the devil is in the details. The trio has been recording together for over twelve years. Starting with a Zoom H1 on a stand in the middle of the room. It took a lot of trial-and-error to get to the point where we can simply power-on the studio and then play whenever we feel like it.

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    Its a big advantage to be recording in a controlled environment where you can set things up and once set, maintain some consistency. Having only 3 players is an advantage as well.

    My first "recording gig" after I got my first digital recorder (AW16G) was the school jazz band of my best friend's son. While the AW had 8 inputs, I only had two microphones! I set them up and hit the record button. I then edited things down to individual tracks, eliminating the chitchat in between and burned CDs for the parents of the various players. I think they school sold them to the parents for $5 each to help raise money for the band program.

    These days, I don't worry about going down to stereo. I would rather record the 8 or 12 tracks individually and them mix them down to stereo later. For me its better to balance things out without the stress of knowing that a screwed up setting is ruining a perfectly good take.

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    Quote Originally Posted by TalismanRich View Post
    Its a big advantage to be recording in a controlled environment where you can set things up and once set, maintain some consistency. Having only 3 players is an advantage as well.
    Agreed on both counts. The only time I touch the board is when one of us brings in a new device (the most recent is when Joe, our drummer, brought in a sampler and looper) or if Stephen or I change to a direct rig with a significantly different output level.

    I like the trio format. Fewer, and it's not as interesting. More, and it gets harder to find space to play something (and, IME, the members tend to play "safer").

    These days, I don't worry about going down to stereo. I would rather record the 8 or 12 tracks individually and them mix them down to stereo later. For me its better to balance things out without the stress of knowing that a screwed up setting is ruining a perfectly good take.
    I've thought about that on more than one occasion. There are some nice 16-track capture devices that'll plug into the board's channel inserts.

    I always shelved the idea because it'd add another step to the production process, and for a long time I already had a backlog of a year or two. Doing a separate mixdown would've added additional hours to producing each session.

    Thinking back, I can't imagine having been able to save any of our tracks by fixing things in post. The few tracks I've discarded were all half-assed first-time attempts at covering something that just came up during conversation. At the end, we all sort of chuckle and think, "well, that happened." Certainly not something we'd share...

    OTOH, it has now been about seven months since our last session. Kinda wishing I had some stems to rework.

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