I’ve released a quick 30 minute podcast about the creation of my track “Sleep Little Baby” on soundcloud. It goes by quick so give it a listen if you’re interested.
THE ENGINEER’S STORY
I often read both amateur and self-proclaimed pro “producers” alike lamenting the task of having to work with vocalists. “They’re a pain in the ass,” I read. “Frickin’ Prima Donnas!” they say. “Good ones are hard to find,” I also hear. As the recording engineer and producer for a new track by Scott Sizemore called “Sleep Little Baby” all I can say is how right those guys are! The guy I worked with was a nightmare! He had a decent voice… when he was on pitch. He had okay intonation, when my teeth weren’t grinding like nails on a chalkboard because of his nasally vowels. He had great vibrato, but practically had to be cattle prodded into singing a laser-straight note when it was needed. And his range was entirely insufficient to the task.
I’ve long since learned that good recording in the first place is better than studio corrections afterward, but there were times when this joker just didn’t get it. My hand was forced to warp some audio so that entrances synced, and correct a few pitches of notes that were WAY below Mr. “I’m a Tenor One!”’s range. I had to force him into take after take after TAKE AFTER TAKE in order to get usable recordings, and even then I had to comp much of the performance from the best of what I got.
I did what I could. I used the best mic I have—a Sure SM27 condenser for the vocals. I ensured that the A/C in the house was off, the door was closed to prevent any cats from entering the studio, and that all the TVs and the speakers in the office next to the studio were off as well. I forced him to warm up his voice properly before recording. And ensured he had plenty of water in the studio to avoid the saliva clicks and pops that appear as a dehydrated mouth opens and closes in front of the microphone.
Despite all my preparations it was a brutal process. The vocalist was also the composer, so we’d go into the studio, record some scratch vocals, and then he’d see what I saw all along—some harmony wasn’t working or his arrangement was “un-singable” (whatever!) so he’d go back to the drawing board and edit the score. We’d try it again, and he’d edit again. He’d get sick, and we couldn’t record. He’d strain his voice by over-singing (claiming he couldn’t “hear himself” in the headphones or some such nonsense), and we couldn’t record. He’d have work, play tennis, spend time with his wife, go on trips to sing somewhere else (he claimed it was Carnegie Hall but I’m dubious). Excuse after excuse, and again, we couldn’t record. This went on for months. Finally, after he nailed down the final arrangement, and eventually managing to shake a damn sinus infection after he returned from his trip, I denied him access to chocolate and forced him into the studio for a final push to get this beast recorded once and for all. It took a week of studio time, but I finally wringed a usable compliment of vocals out of his throat.
From there it was all mixing, but at least that part I could control. With good vocals, mixing is easier. A little compression here, some EQ there, along with level adjustments, and before I knew it I had a decent mix to show some people I trust and get some opinions. The final track is now in Oren’s hands, to be mastered. I think, despite it all, we might just have ourselves a decent track when it’s all said and done. I’ll tell you what, though, the stories are true–vocalists ARE a pain in the butt!
THE VOCALIST’S STORY
I had composed a nice little choral piece. Eight versions of myself singing harmonies to piano accompaniment—simple right? No big whop! Not to an engineer. Oh, no. To him it was apparently a “very big whop.” Something about the need for “pristine recording to avoid a buildup of the noise floor,” and “careful attention to mic technique in order to deal with the extremely wide dynamic range of the song,” and also complaining about the “horrible breathiness in your voice when you go below about a C”. Blah blah blah. It was like listening to the office IT guy complain about the pitfalls of security monitoring and networking protocols. BOOORING! I just wanted to sing my song.
Anyhoo, I needed to try to sing what I had in order to really understand the problems with my arrangements. So we did spend a lot of studio time doing that. I would sing a quick version, and then realize some problems and try and fix them. I’d go back in, sing a little more, and fix a little more. No big whop. Engineer’s are slave drivers, though, I’m tellin’ ya. That’s all I have to say. I mean this guy, was ridin’ my ass from day one. “Why are you recording without a completed arrangement?” “Make sure you warm up before we start recording.” “Where is your water?” “What kind of “ah” vowel is that anyway? Are you singing classical choral or Merle Haggard twangy?!” “Drink some water.” “Seriously? More reverb. Dude, it’s frickin’ maxed out at the send. I’ll pre-fader it and give you NUCLEAR reverb in the cans if you want, but seriously–you’re just making it worse at this point.” “You’re off pitch, AGAIN! Sing it over!”
I can’t even tell you how many times I heard that last one. “You’re off pitch, AGAIN! God… you SUCK!” Uhg! I swear, no matter what I did it wasn’t good enough. it’s HARD to sing with headphones on. It’s just not the same. What am I s’posed to do!?
Despite all my preparations it was a brutal process. My voice got strained. I got sick a few times and couldn’t record. I like spending time with my wife more than the engineer, so sometimes I just said, “To Hell with you—I’m going to the movies!” I had a trip to New York to sing in Carnegie Hall I had to get ready for, so that ate into studio time. Plus it was just a lot of work doing take after take after TAKE AFTER TAKE! And it was HOT in there! I mean, seriously, had he ever heard of a little thing called air conditioning? Geez! He finally locked me in the studio for a week without chocolate and forced me to finish it out. Those quiet parts at the end were a BITCH to sing. I mean, I’d like to see HIM try and hold a laser-straight pitch at high G at pianissimo for like… thirty seconds and see if he can do it!
Eh… Whatever. It’s done now. I’m eating chocolate again as we speak. He muttered something about “sync issues” and “compressing the vocals” and then disappeared into his studio for another few days. Apparently he sent it to some guy named Oren to get it “mastered” (whatever that means), and we’ll have a final track done soon. At this point, I’m just glad I don’t have to work with that dude anymore.
Meanwhile, here’s the final recording:
I don’t know. I think it sounds pretty good, if I do say so myself… I think the engineer would disagree though. And of course, the problems he points out are mostly my fault. There’s just no pleasing that guy. ::groan::
My grandmother died last Tuesday. And I was able to play her the full song (not quite complete but close enough) before she passed. I’m dedicating this piece to her. She was my second mother, and I will miss her terribly. Even my engineer shed a few tears over her passing. Maybe he’s not such a monster afterall…
(A Note About the Vocal Audio Samples Below: With the exception of the “FINAL MIX”, I attempted to make all the vocal examples sound similar (in panning, reverb, and level), and they ONLY include 4 of the 8 voice parts I eventually recorded). The “FINAL MIX” is an excerpt from the finished track as it will be released.)
Ok. So after months of work I finally had a piano track! Now came the easy part, right?
Let’s review the steps:
1.) Buy the Music.
2.) Learn how to play piano.
3.) Learn how to play “Dirait-On”
4.) Record the piano part.
5.) Learn how to pronounce the French words.
6.) Learn all the singing parts.
7.) Record eight versions of me singing all the parts.
8.) Do post production work to correct any syncing issues, tuning problems, noise removal, etc.
9.) Mix the song.
10.) Master the song.
In this installment we’re going to focus on:
Steps 5 Thru 10 : Recording the Vocals
STEP 5 (Learn the French Lyrics): Nah.. ths is boring. I’m sure I mangled the words anyway. Let’s move on, shall we?
STEP 6 (learn the parts): Since “studio time” in my own house is free, I did this as I went. 🙂 I sung with the music in front of me, and for the first few days of recording, I found myself trying to sing along with 5-minutes-ago-Scott and realizing the moron didn’t even know the words! I battled with myself in this way many times over the course of recording–to the point that it became comical. Not only did 12-minutes-ago-Scott screw up the rhythm in the 2nd verse, 2-weeks-ago-Scott recorded a piano section that was flat out wrong! That f***ing BASTARD! Why 1-week-ago Scott didn’t figure that out I had NO idea. ::groan:: Would have saved us ALL a boatload of time and aggravation. Anyhoo…
STEP 7 (Record eight versions of me singing all the parts): This was the real challenge of this whole thing. And as embarrassed as I am to provide you with some early examples of my attempt to record the vocals for this piece, I will do it anyway. I started with what I had–a dynamic, cardioid Sennheiser e835 microphone running into an M-Audio Profire 610 audio interface used as a mic pre-amp only, and then into my Yamaha Motif XF8 workstation keyboard, which functioned as my ACTUAL audio interface. This initial set up (specifically the mic) made things EXTREMELY difficult, and I’ll explain why after I grit my teeth and provide this… less than stellar example of my 1st attempt.
Now, aside from being badly out of tune and having TERRIBLE vowel singing, there were other major problems with this that aren’t as easy to identify in this particular section. The REASON it sounds so… forced and out of tune is that I had decided to try recording the vocals from a decent distance away from the microphone. This was an attempt to avoid getting too many mouth noises (saliva pops and clicks from opening and closing my mouth, etc.). It was also an attempt to minimize proximity effect from the mic (the extra bass you get when the sound source is placed close to a cardioid microphone). For some reason I thought it wouldn’t be very “choral” to have too much bass (I realized that fear was a bit misguided later). Finally, I thought a little more room sound (in addition to the inevitable reverb I would add later) would MAYbe help with gelling the eight vocal parts together. This decision turned out to be problematic in many ways, the most insidious of which is that because my mic wasn’t very sensitive, I found myself having to sing too loud and in a… less than relaxed way. This created tuning and expressiveness problems because my forcing the volume a bit was making it harder for me to stay on the pitch.
I exacerbated the problem by overcompensating and cranking the pre-amp gain up as much as I could. This resulted in a LOT of noise. I was in fact, just setting myself up to fail by adding solutions that ended up creating more problems. All of this would have made little difference if I was doing a single vocal for a pop song with a drum track and lots of instruments, but my plan was to include EIGHT different vocal tracks in the final mix, and at some points the piece would go to pianissimo accapella with no accompaniment at all. That hiss multiplied by eight combined with me singing super-soflty would be a total disaster. And it was after I recorded the whole song like this, including the final, brutally hard, accapella section at the end, that I started to seriously worry about the successful outcome of this project.
Eventually, after a bit of research, I decided my mic was simply not the right tool for this particular job. I went out and invested in a new Sure SM27 condenser mic. It was much more purpose-built for what I was attempting, and as such, it was MUCH more sensitive, which allowed me to turn down the gain on my pre-amps and eliminate practically all extraneous noise. I hoped that, along with singing a bit closer to the mic, would be enough to fix most of my initial problems. Here was the result:
Better right? Not great, but better. The signal to noise ratio went WAY up, and that alone was worth the investment, but it also just captured the vocal differently: a warmer, fuller sound that had more breadth and texture, and somehow just made the vocals mix together better. I was much more optimisitc about the outcome of the project.
I still had much more work to do, however. It was time to really get down to the nitty gritty about how I wanted to perform this piece. What were the dynamics? What notes did I want to emphasize. How freely, or rigidly did I want to sing it? More rigid (striaght line notes with no vibrato) meant more potential for perfect tuning, and a “controlled” sound. Whereas a more free interpretation would mean less than perfect tuning, but more room for dynamic and emotional expression. My first instinct was to go the more controlled route–only because choral music that is not sung in tune tends to drive me bonkers.
Given my decision, I worked for another week or two on the vocals, and here was the result:
Alright! Now we’re cookin’ with some gas!
STEP 8 (Post-Production Clean Up): I worked long and hard on this version. I did a lot clean up work on these tracks. That included a LOT of micro-edits to get rid of those annoying mouth noises. I also did some audio warping in order to get the parts synched up a little better. Finally, I did a little pitch correction because I don’t care who you are, hardly anyone sings a vocal part perfectly. And since this is a studio recording rather than a live performance, perfection (balanced with expression) is the name of the game.
I was so pleased with this version that I started to think, “Hey, this might be worth a $.99 download to SOMEone… maybe?” And with that in mind, I thought I better take it to a professional to go the rest of the way. It was Friday, and I was set to go to the studio on Monday. It was then that I listened to the whole thing one last time and thought, “You know… I think I messed up.”
STEP 8A (THROWING IT ALL AWAY AND STARTING OVER): I know, this wasn’t one of the original steps, but sometimes… you just can’t plan these things. Remember that decision I made about well-tuned “perfection” versus expressiveness and dynamics? I called that into question at the 11th hour, along with having a problem with the out of control “ee” in my “Dee”rait On vowel choice. I decided to spend the weekend recording an entirely new set of vocal tracks with a little looser feel–a lot more dynamics, and a little less “EE” and just see how I felt about it.
It took all weekend to not only record the vocals but do the post-production work I needed to get it studio ready, but the end result was a much more emotional performance. Although I ended up taking both sets of vocal tracks to the studio, in the end I decided to go with the latest and more expressive ones I’d recorded over that final two days.
STEPS 9 AND 10 (Mixing and Mastering): This was done with Jim Pavett at Allusion Studios in Tucson, Arizona. That was fascinating process unto itself, but I won’t bore you with the details. It took about 3 hours, and Jim gave me the best compliment I could have been given–which was that my vocal recordings were so well done that he had no suggestions about how to make them better other than to stay well hydrated and keep apple juice handy while recording. He said that would help cut down on the saliva clicks and pops I was plagued with throughout the process.
THE END RESULT: So the irony is that, in the end, it took only 4 days to go from piano track to fully mixed and mastered, eight part harmony. But it took 5 months to educate and prepare myself to create those final tracks. Here is the same excerpt you’ve heard before, but now with the piano, in the final mix of the song as it will be released on December 14th, 2011:
Look for it on iTunes starting December 14th. I hope you’ll check it out. Thank you VERY much for reading about the process I went through to create it. Next time I’ll explore some of my adventures trying to learn how to create electronic music, which is an altogether different challenge.
Okay, “Lida Rose” wasn’t … perfect. It was far from it actually, which is why I never bothered to buy a mechanical / digital license and make it available publically A year later, though, I’d learned a lot, and I started to take piano lessons. Well, it’s more like I picked them up again after a LOOONG hiatous. In searching for my newest project, I remembered a song that I never got to sing back while I was in my University’s premiere choral group in college. It was a brand new piece at the time, and was given to the University’s smaller and more elite chamber choir. They toured with us that year and we who weren’t in the Chamber Singers were able to hear them perform this beautiful piece over and over again, wishing that we’d been able to sing it too. That piece was Morten Lauridsen’s “Dirait-On”, and now almost 16 years after the song was composed, thousands of choir singers all over the world have personal connections to and a unique love for this song. There’s a good reason for that. I decided several months ago that my next project would be to record “Dirait-On” with all vocal parts, and the piano accompaniment, performed by myself.
I had no doubt I could sing it; that would be the (relatively) easy part, although that wasn’t particularly easy either (see below). But given my state of ability on the piano and my experience with recording, this was a monstrous task I had set for myself. Here’s how the process broke down in 10 “easy” steps:
1.) Buy the music (the easiest and most painless part of the WHOLE process!)
2.) Learn how to play piano (still workin’ on this one…)
3.) Learn how to play “Dirait-On” (in D-flat — uhgg!)
4.) Record the piano part. (Sounds easy when you say it like that…)
5.) Learn how to pronounce the French words (Equally “easy”…)
6.) Learn all the singing parts.
7.) Record eight versions of me singing all the parts (We didn’t get a long AT ALL!)
8.) Do post production work to correct any syncing issues, tuning problems, noise removal, etc. (Rule #1: Good recording in the first place is better than tedious correction work afterwards…)
9.) Mix the song. (I finally decided to pay someone to do this…)
10.) Master the song. (Paid for this too)
In this installment, I’ll be focusing on:
Steps 1 Thru 4 : The Piano Part
A lesser man would have given up before he even started. 🙂 I hadn’t played piano in a LONG time, and even then, I would never have been able to play even this moderately easy accompaniment even at the peak of my piano abilities. Still, I believe strongly that in order to learn something, it’s best to have a goal in mind, a project to complete for which learning that thing is essential. “Dirait-On” was my project, and I had stepped into the deep end of the pool. Luckily my piano teacher was on board with my project, and we worked on this piece together for two months before I was finally able to plunk my way through the first third or so of the song. Here’s what it sounded like back in late August this year:
Not bad, eh? I know. I had a LONG way to go. Did I mention it’s in D-flat Major? That uses ALL the black keys people! A little respect, that’s all I’m sayin’. Anyway, I kept at it to the point that whenever I fired up the keyboard, playing “Dirait-On” was effectively my neutral. I did it constantly, and my wife was probably grateful for my headphones. Once I started to actually get the hang of it, I practiced even more because I started to get VERY anxious to try and lay some scratch vocals down and figure out exactly how I wanted to sing this song.
Although it took two more months, and a lot of recording, evaluating with scratch vocals, and then recording again, here’s a snippet of what became my final piano performance as it exists in the finished track:
The moral of the story? Persistance pays off! Don’t think you can do it? Think again.
Of course, the piano part was only half the battle. The rest of it was the vocal performance, and all the vocal subtlety, good recording techniques, and failed attempts at noiseless environments that entailed. More about that next time, though. Until then, thanks for reading.
A little more background. When I first started this whole adventure, aside from being able to read some music, peck away a little bit at the piano, and having a decent singing voice, I didn’t know the first thing about what it took to create a song with my computer. So I decided, “Okay, let’s start simple!” Unfortunately, my idea of “starting simple” was much more complicated and difficult than I ever should have selected as my first project.
I thought, “I can sing, right? So let’s do a piece that’s all singing and nothing else.” I decided to do an accapella, barbershop quartet performance of Meredith Wilson’s “Lida Rose” from The Music Man in which I would perform all four parts myself. Let me just tell you all, if you’re brand new to recording, I would NOT recommend attempting this kind of thing your first time out. It sounds simple–a two minute song, 4 channels of audio, a little reverb. Easy-peezy, right? WRONG!
Hell, I didn’t even have a mic stand when I recorded this song. I was literally standing in front of my computer keyboard, holding my Sennheiser e835 and singing into it without so much as a pop-filter while trying to remember which voice part I was singing, and trying to stay in tune with… 3 other versions of myself in the headphones. Needless to say, it was very difficult.
That’s to say nothing of the most insidious issue of them all, which was synchronization. I had no piano accompaniment, no beat to sing with, nothing. I simply had to try to plan out the song and synchronize with myself. I spent a month working on it, and learned a TRUCKLOAD about what modern DAW software is capable of while trying to make this song. I didn’t give up, and the end result was… meh.
Here’s a little snippet of the final track:
It was this experience that gave me a proper introduction to the sausage making that IS music production. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, folks, and many of us will never even think about just what kind of scary stuff music producers and recording engineers have to do to create those pristine songs we hear on the radio. I’m here to tell you, though, in order to create a listenable track, you often have to separate yourself into two people–the performer and the producer, and that can be a real challenge.
Anyway, fast forward a year. I’ve learned a LOT since I finished Lida Rose. A couple months ago, I decided to tackle another, much more ambitious, “faux” choral project. This one was called “Dirait-On”, a beautiful piece by Morten Lauridsen, and it deserved my best effort. Instead of 4 me’s there would be 8. And instead of accapella, it had piano accompaniment that I would have to learn to play myself. I was determined to do it justice and that’s where this monster project began. It took dozens of piano takes, and almost a thousand different vocal takes with mistake after mistake and experimenting with different microphones and techniques, but it was a labor of love that, I think, paid off.
I’ll share more about that particular sausage next time…
I have the best wife in the world. We have a fairly small house, and one of its rooms is already a dedicated office for my main business. Recently my wife gave me the gift of a second room to be dedicated almost exclusively as studio space. She’s been incredibly supportive of my new venture, and don’t think I don’t appreciate what a rare and wonderful thing that is.
While the studio is still a work in progress, I’ve now at least got a space that is compact, efficient, and effective for the various activities I perform in there–whether it be messing with electronic music genres, recording an eight part “faux” choral piece, or just practicing my piano, it’s serving me well. Here are a couple of pictures of the layout:
Here are the specs as they currently stand:
27″ iMac quad core i7 processor, 8 GB RAM.
Yamaha Motif XF8 Workstation Keyboard w/ Firewire Expansion (Used as Audio Interface)
M-Audio Axiom 25 MIDI Keyboard Controller
M-Audio Profire 610 Audio Interface (Currently Used Only as Mic Pre-Amp)
Microphones : Sure SM27 Condensor, Sennheiser e835 Dynamic
Speakers : Logitech 2.1 computer speaker system (Next on the list is to get real monitors)
Headphones : Audio-Technica ATH-M50
Software Sequencer / Instruments / Effects:
Steinberg Cubase 6, Spectrasonics Omnisphere & Stylus RMX, Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0, Native Instruments Komplete 7, Steinberg Halion 4 / Halion Sonic, Waves Ren Comp, Doppler, Morphoder.
Obviously there’s no end to the amount of learning to be had by the equipment I currently own. And thankfully spending has died down quite a bit of late, but I’m really feeling the lack of true studio monitors these days. That is the next purchase on my list–although it could still be a while before that plan comes to fruition.
Hello everyone, and welcome to SLDMusic.com. The site is looking a bit anemic at this point, but I’ve got to start somewhere, right? Instead of spending hours and hours searching out the perfect layout and look for the site, or tinkering endlessly with webpage widgets or cool plugins, I’d really rather just get started writing and sharing my admittedly humble musical experiences with what I fully expect to be a frightfully small audience. Again, you have to start somehwere…
Let me get you started with a little information about me. My name is Scott Sizemore, I do lots of things, and have lots of diverse interests, but in order to avoid boring everyone to death, I’ll concentrate on my unremarkable music background and why I’m here. The short-ish version is that I’m a classically trained singer who wanted to become an audio engineer way back in my formative years, but for partly financial reasons, and mostly fear-based ones, I didn’t have the where-with-all to pursue that dream at the time. And in terms of do-it-yourself, even dipping your toes into audio production was prohibitively expensive back in the late eighties / early nineties when I was coming out of high school. Those restrictions helped make my career path decision for me, and I ended up pursuing a couple of theatrical lighting design degrees instead, which I incidentally loved and have no regrets about. And considering that I still work in a field closely related to my obscure degree, I feel pretty lucky. I’m lucky for lots of reasons, but more on that in time.
Fast forward twenty-two years later. In late 2010, as part of my tireless pursuit of new interests, I was dabbling in video editing, and trying to decide what software I might want to purchase to take that to another level. Along the way, and I don’t know why it took me this long to discover this, I found that music production had changed in ways that would have been hard for anyone to even imagine in the early nineties. In fact, it was no secret that computers had taken over the world, and as a technology guy, I was very much a part of the revolution, but what I had neglected to notice was what computers had done to transform what was possible in recording and producing music.
After having made this discovery, I was all in, and have been climbing a near vertical learning curve ever since. My first order of business was to read, and read I did. I read online forums, I read guides, I read magazines. Nothing was more profoundly useful in my early education about all this than Tweakheadz fantastic Guide to the Home Recording Studio. If you have any interest at all in this stuff, and need help, I would highly recommend reading it from virtual cover to virtual cover. It is a fantastic primer to the world of project studio music production.
Anyway, about a year after my revelation, I’ve now set up my own humble home studio–which thanks to my generous and unbelievably supportive wife is in it’s own dedicated room. I’ve started taking piano lessons again (used to take them when I was younger), I’ve started singing regularly again, I’ve created several original “songs” if you can call them that, recorded several “covers” of popular music, and done my own interpretations of more classical pieces that are meant to be performed rather than compared to definitive “original” recordings.
In my next installment, I’ll describe my studio setup–what I use and why–and give an introduction to what I plan to be a series of posts about my latest and so far most ambitious musical project, which is now just about nearing completion.
Thanks to the two of you who bothered to read this, and maybe I’ll see you next time… 🙂