When I was a kid, the record jacket was like a crackerjack box where the surprise prize might be a treasure trove of inside info on how the record was made. I always wanted to know what they used and how they did it. I got pretty good at identifying any gear visible from candid studio photos. Yet now in the internet age it puzzles me why so few people share any usable info.
So on our last project (Turf Fire Liars) I did a page like this for the followers of Warren Huart on YouTube and I don't know that anyone looked at it. But in the off chances we do draw in an audio nerd or two I thought we'd do another version of it. The truth is I'm an audio nerd so be careful, don't fane some half hearted question about recording geekdom unless you have a few hours to burn. So let's get our audio nerd on.
Top 5 mixing takeaways from this project
Master Bus: A quick check of YouTube will get you 37 different answers on what to put on your master bus and when to apply it. On my last project I had some multiband compressors on group busses and a limiter on the master bus and eventually added some EQ. I found I was over driving my master bus, in some cases significantly so. Even subtle amounts of "over heating" as I call it can make things pokey and difficult to manage. So for this project I took a somewhat drastic approach, NOTHING on my master bus at all. I tried to leave it as clean as possible start to finish. I was constantly bringing my attention back to not oversaturating the bus. I would often use the trim plug-in across the entire mix to make sure I was controlling the levels without compression or saturation inadvertently. The irony I suppose is that the mastering stage puts limiting/saturation back in. But the point for me was to know and control exactly where in the process I was going to introduce it.
Reverb/delays: I found myself incorporating delay much more on this project to leverage tight slap reflections and a sense of space without a frequency wash effect that can happen with the application of some reverbs. I know you can control the delays/reflections inside of many reverbs but this time I chose to duplicate my bus and use different tight delays and mix them back in individually. It was just easier for me to control thickness and image spread this way. That said I also tracked several guitars with simple amp or pedal reverb for both stylistic and simplicity reasons.
Compression / Dynamics: Back in the day before automation, compression was basically the only dynamic tool you had. But some savvy engineers learned how to use it for transient design, color and effect. In today's daws, if you take the time, clip gain and automation manage all the dynamics far more transparently and effectively than any compressor. That just brings us back to their other use for transients and effect. Compressors are no longer for just keeping the loud brat in the corner,. The trick now is to learn to use them to change the character of the brat. On this project I was much more conscious of my use of attack and release times, as well as ratio . It is a work in progress but I'm hearing it better at least.
Arranging: This is what I enjoy most about these projects, matching tones and parts, fitting them together like a mosaic. I tend to track many more parts than I will end up using. I take the approach that you can always cut later and let the best part win, but cut you must! Sometimes it can be difficult to be truly objective about a part you spent an inordinate amount of time putting down. That said, I would typically get some basics down and then keep asking myself "what else we got?" Sometimes I would come up with a better part that would send me back to redo some original parts. It was an iterative process to get the layers of sound I wanted. For some listeners it may still feel like too much clutter but, as long as they are not all in on top of each other at once the variations of elements coming in and out are designed to keep your interest as the tune moves along. However many production veterans might see this approach as just another rookie move. The logic there can be that only the vocal can tell the story. I don't think that is always true. You be the judge.
Editing: As I have said before I'm not really a fan of over editing a project to some kind of computer version of perfection. That said, the basics of groove, and pitch have to be solid enough to not be a distraction from the song. But where to draw the line is always a judgment call especially with things like unison lines and backing vocals. I was often making up parts on the fly, overdubbing as I went. I wanted to stay in the creative headspace and not have to deal with performance perfection or the technical details in the moment. Short term it is much more fun, long term it means more premix work of cleaning afterwards.
I did use AutoTune on the harmony vocals in a way you might not have considered before. I have a pretty good sense of harmony and chord structure but in some cases I was looking for tight dense harmonies just beyond my reach. I was struggling to find some of the middle parts as the lines were moving so it took my best guess and used AutoTune to help figure out where the notes actually were. The eddits were correct but so full of artifacts that they weren't unusable. I then used that as my guide to sing along with. I know for some this is blasphemy and for that I'm sorry, judge if you must.
IT IS NOT ABOUT THE GEAR!
On this topic we are all hypocrites. Respecting all the amazing records from not only back in the day but right now, made with scornful equipment, at face value we all fully accept that it is not about the gear. It is about the tone in your hands, how you listen and your skill with whatever you have. Yeah all that is true, to a point and yet we all lust for more and better gear, snob out if someone chooses something other than what we would have done or cut a cost somewhere we wouldn't have. Guilty! But this list below will also show a pretty wide range of gear and affordability all quite useful in this production.
Software & Plugins
I'm still a Pro Tools guy though the cost has me starting to check out other options. This project was also pretty straight forward in terms of effects and such. A quick word on plug-ins. I have too many. Don't fall into that trap. Just like hardware, get only what you know you will use. Unlike hardware there really isn't used market. Here are some of my main go-tos.
EQs: Fabfilter EQ-3,
Dynamics: Fabfilter Pro-C, Stock Pro Tools dynamics/gate/de-s, Soothe, McDSP ML-1
Reverbs: Revolver, D-Verb, ReVibe,
Delays and Modulations: EchoBoy, EC-3000, Waves j37
Harmonics and Saturation: Decapitator, SansAmp,
Tools; Izotope de-noise and de-click, Vocalign Project, AutoTune.
Hardware & outboard gear
I have traditionally been an all in the box dude, never buying into the hype of the hybrid mixing model. Convenient for me, because I couldn't afford it anyway. But now I'm starting to think there may be something to it. On this project I experimented with my limited outboard gear as mixing tools, not just for tracking. While comparatively cumbersome, I believe for some elements like lead vocals they can make a difference. I know we are getting into the realm of religion here, but hear me out. I'm inclined to believe (without proof) that some analog equipment can add some harmonics and tonal characteristics by the nature of their components. The hardware introduces a nuance that is nearly impossible to reproduce with software (even using IRs). One could speculate about the nonlinear aspects of analog op-amps and other components or the perceptual differences between tactile and visual cues, or maybe the limitations of my skills, I can't say but I "think" I hear a difference on some elements.
EQs: 500 series API 550B, JDK V14
Dynamics: Manley El-Op, DBX 560A
Jake Thorne's Signal Chain
Vocals: AKG 535 / EV RE20, 500 Series BAE 1073 MLP, Manley El-Op, UA Apollo 8, Pro Tools
Electric Guitars: I know that for this style I probably should have been using a JazzMaster but I didn't have one so I made due. Parts Strat with Lollar pickups. Danelectro Baritone, Parts Tele with Texas Specials, Parts 12 string Tele with Duncan 52's Neck and Tex Mex Bridge. Danelectro U2 with sitar bridge. SM57 + Fathead II on Fender Champ, single 12" Celestion Vintage 30 open back speaker cab, or an EV RE20 on a Fender 59 Bassman reissue for the baritone on occasion. 500 Series Electrodyne 501, or Tonelux MP5A into a Manley El-Op, UA Apollo 8, Pro Tools or, forgive me sometimes direct through Fender Champ X2 or 11 Rack.
Acoustic Guitars: AKG 535, 500 Series BAE 1073 MLP, Manley El-Op, UA Apollo 8, Pro Tools
Bass: Parts J-Bass with Bartolini pickups, Direct - 500 Series Electrodyne 501, Manley El-Op, UA Apollo 8, Pro Tools
Saxophones: Yamaha 61 Tenor with a Brilhart #7 mouthpiece and some off brand Czech built recycled soviet personnel carrier for a Bari sax with a basic Yamaha #5 mouthpiece, EV RE20, 500 Series BAE 1073 MLP, Manley El-Op, UA Apollo 8, Pro Tools.
Keyboards: All virtual, hey I see you turning your nose up but you probably didn't give it a thought before I told you. MTron virtual mellotron, AIR instruments Velvet Electric Piano, DB-33 and Xpand, Organs, The Rizer and Vacuum soft synths as well as East West Silver Strings and brass.
Will Thorne' recording details
Under normal circumstances we would record Will at my place or at j-32 in San Jose. But as COVID dragged on we needed a basic set up for Will at his home as well. Most of Will's backing vocals and even a few of his leads he recorded with the following home setup.
Shure SM-7B, with a Cloudlifter into an Audient iD14. in to Pro Tools.
While at J-32, a Sennheiser 441 and a Soundelux U99 into an API 512C, a UA Apollo interface into Pro Tools.
Recording chain: Royer 121 and Shure SM57 mics, Shadow Hills GAMA mic pres, API 527 comps, API 550b EQs, Pro Tools Carbon 32bit audio interface running Pro Tools Ultimate software.
Trey Sabatelli's set up
Drums: 3 piece 1969 Silver Sparkle Ludwig set (8x12, 16x16, 14x22), Joe Montineri custom black iron snare drum (6x14) very heavy! Hardware/pedals: DW 5000
Cymbals: Paiste cymbals: 17” & 19” Signature Full Crash, 21” Signature Full Ride, 13” Signature Hi Hat medium bottom (on top), 13” Sound Formula Reflector medium bottom (on bottom), 18” Alpha Reflector Swiss Crash , 12” PST X Swiss Flanger crash
Pre Amp/Interface: Focusrite Red 1 mic pre, Focusrite Scarlett 18i8
DAW: Pro Tools
Ken Hughes' Set up
Vocal chain: sE Electronics Z3300 FET mic ART Pro-Tube II with upgraded 12AX7, “warm vocal” or “neutral” preset Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 interface
Organs: Hammond M-3 into Motion Sound Pro-3T (w/upgraded tube) and Low Pro. Mics: Blue 8-Ball on low, SM57s left and right on top Transistor organs from E-Mu Vintage Pro and Jiggery Pokery Combo X-705 plug-in.
Electric pianos: Crumar Seven
Our Writing Process I typically write a framework for the music of a verse and chorus, of chords and melody and I try to write twice as many as we think we'll use. I send those off to Will with some theme ideas which he may or may not use. Then he comes up with a story for the feel of the song and we start the process of fitting his words to the melody. Depending on the note or the word choice we may bend one to fit the other. On this project the notable exceptions were Father time and and Steamer Lane where Will had the lyrics first and I wrote the music to them.
For the longest time I couldn't write a bridge and now I feel like it is the part of the song that reveals the the skill level of the songwriter more than anything. We do it differently every time and it tends to have the most iterations. We are not the kind of writers who bust out something in 10 minutes and think it is a finished product. Maybe it is because we can't or maybe because we over think it but that hasn't ever happened to us. Then there is the question of who is going to sing it, which typically isn't much of a question.
For writing the music I might start with just a few chords voiced rather open so that a melody has more room to sprout. If nothing comes right away I begin to change up major and minor or add a 7th to push my ear in one direction or another. If the melody wants to leave the chords, I go with it. The melody has right of way. After the melody feels solid I might go back and try chord substitutions. If the melody requires simple chords I might move the bass notes around to destabilize sections of the verse to make the chorus feel more like a home base. These are just some suggestions that seem to be working for me at the moment.