Soundtoys' Decapitator Plug-In

One of the coolest plug-ins that I have is called "Decapitator" (made by Soundtoys).  It's basically an overdrive plug-in and is as gnarly as its name.  It can sound very mild (like adding a little vintage warmness to your input) or sound very very extreme (like sounding like it's going to blow up).

I'm going to show you the extreme difference that the Decapitator can have on an input.  Last week I tracked some drums for a composition I'm working on that is supposed to sound like it would fit in a car commercial.  The track is supposed to be edgy and wild, while also being kind of playful and fun.  I played a standard shuffle beat, which is somewhat light-hearted, but then used the Decapitator to make it sound like it's growling.  Here are the original drums (with some basic EQ and compression) and the "decapitated" drums.

Now here is the track as a whole

Recording and Editing Vocals

One of the most important things in any recording project are the vocals.  People will mix vocals differently depending on the project and style of music, but vocals are always a top priority.  Sometimes people can get away with 'garage sale' tracking of relatively minor parts of songs, but that is not the case with vocal recordings.  For this blog I'm going to feature my good friend and bandmate, Jordan Frye.

Jordan and another bandmate of ours, Josh Miramontes (electric guitar) co-wrote a Christmas song recently and I produced-engineered the tune (I also played percussion and trombone).  The song is named California Christmas and will be available online in December.

This song is relatively simple.  We tried to focus on being as sweet as possible.  Nothing epic or crazy.  We want people to feel as if they should be in front of a fire place wrapped in a blanket with their boo.  Everything we tracked is minimal, soft, and warm.  I used a Telefunken M16 Mk 2 large-diaphragm condenser microphone on Jordan's voice, sent through an Avalon 737 channel strip into my Apogee Ensemble.  We tracked six takes of the main vocal melody, then picked our favorite takes from those recordings (vocal comping).

After we found our favorite takes I then proceeded to edit the vocal track.  I always start with pitch correction.  I use Melodyne to edit pitch and timing for vocals (as well as bass guitar - they are both monophonic).  Next I EQ the vocal.  Third up I compress the vocal using the CLA Vocal plug-in by Waves.  This is a really nice all-purpose plug-in that has pretty much everything you would need for a vocal: EQ, compression, reverb, delay, and chorus (the "pitch" column).  Here are the settings that I used from the CLA Vocal plug-in for Jordan's vocal on this song:

CLA Vocals

In general vocals are always compressed a lot so that you can hear everything really well.  I added some large reverb so the vocal doesn't sound quite as dry, but only a little bit so that it doesn't sound too crazy.  We really wanted everything to sound warm, natural, and organic.  

Here are samples of the first verse of the song.  Compare the difference between the dry vocal with no processing and the wet vocal.

Samples and Guitar Pedals

Something I try to do as often as I can is re-record beats that I make through a chain of guitar pedals (sometimes reamped through a guitar amp, sometimes not).  I like the idea of trying to make the samples sound different than just the stock sounds in Logic, Reason, Ableton Live, etc.  Re-recording samples kind of brings them to life.  It gives them some character.  Warmth, color, grit.  It's a lot of work but I think in the end it's worth it.  I believe this process helps push a project to the next level.

One of the songs that I focused a lot of this process was the A New Normal song "Hushed Colors" (from the album Raison D'etre ).  This whole song basically is about the groove and how the samples continue to change throughout the whole song as I add more layers of efx using guitar pedals.

I wrote a very simple beat.  Kick, snare, hi-hat, and a tambourine.  BUT the complexity is in how the drums are affected by the pedals.  First off I used a real sampled snare of mine (a 6.5x14 Black Panther maple) mixed in with a fake snare in Ableton Live (so the mix was half real snare, half fake snare).  The rest of the samples were all digital. 

Next I set up all the analog gear.  Here was the chain: computer - interface - Radial Engineering reamper DI - Ibanez Keeley mod analog delay - Electro Harmonix memory man analog delay - Line 6 Verbzilla reverb - T.C. Electronic Nova Delay (digital) - Vintage reissue Ampeg SVT-VR head - interface - computer.  I did not mic the bass cab because I used the line out on the Ampeg head.

Basically I recorded eight bars of the beat five times total.  Each time I would repeat the eight bars I would turn on another guitar pedal.  I recorded each section by themselves so that there wouldn't be any noise or interference from turning on or off pedals during the tracking (and allow for any tail from the effects to smoothly decay).  Here is a playlist of the different takes in order of how they were recorded: 

You'll notice that I also included the "intro" beat at the very bottom of that playlist.  At the beginning of the song I recorded the beat through the Nova Delay on it's reverse delay setting.  I recorded myself manually changing the delay mix amount from 100% to 0% over the course of 8 bars.   Here is the complete song:

 

Sampling real-world sounds

I do a lot of sampling in projects that I am a part of.  Whether it's my solo electronic project A New Normal, writing background tracks for my band Urban Rescue, producing songs for singer-songwriters, or composing scores for films, I really like using real-world sounds and making weird/cool noises that make the track stand out. 

I want to share a couple different examples of how I've done this in the past. 

First is a tune from the A New Normal album Raison D'etre.  It is track two entitled  "Typewritten".  This song started out when I had just purchased an Avalon 737 channel strip and wanted to test it out on some stuff.  I was working at a camp at the time and had borrowed a typewriter to write some letters to a couple friends.  When I was writing one of the letters I thought to myself "what if I sampled the typewriter and created a beat out of the sounds???".  So the next day I proceeded to record a bunch of different things on the typewriter (one letter at at a time, pressing the space bar quickly, holding the space bar down, hitting the return button, etc.).  This is the beat that ended up being used on the track:

Now here is the song (the beat comes in around 0:23):

In the past I have also sampled different sounds to use as textures in the background of a song.  In the most recent A New Normal EP (Taize ) I sampled the ambient sounds of people waiting for a service to begin in a Catholic church.  This track is called "Nous Et La Paix" (French for 'us and peace') and it is the last track on the album.  The song itself is very peaceful and quiet, and I wanted to fill the space in the background with something not too obnoxious or annoying.  I really like the use of it because you hear a lot of really quiet noises but nothing to crazy.  I also really like the idea that the people are all waiting for something (in this case, for the service to start).  I want the listener to also feel as if he or she is peacefully waiting for something.  I want the listener to feel expectant.

Here is the sample: 

And here is the song: 

For the sample of the church I used a Sony PCM-M10 stereo field recorder.  I purchased this about 6 months ago and it has been really useful.  Instead of having to lug around a computer, recording interface, and a mic (not to mention finding power), all I need to do is bring along this small field recorder.  It records in high quality WAV files and is perfect for recording things that could be used as background effects or beats.

Bryan B. William - live video

A little while back I had the opportunity to record Bryan B. William again.  This session, similar to past sessions, was all recorded live (except for one tune, written by Tracy Le).  The album isn't out yet but here's one of the songs we recorded.  It's a cover of "Who's Gonna Save My Soul Now" by Gnarls Barkley.

Inputs from this song: 

1) Vocal - Telfunken M16 Mk2 through an Avalon 737 (used Logic amp-simulator plug-in to give his voice a vintage-sounding tone)

2) Casio keyboard (drum programming) through a crappy solid-state amp, mic'd with a Sennheiser 906

3) Roland Juno 106 synthesizer - direct line out (stereo) 

 

Recording and editing drums

One question that has puzzled many, many people is "how do I get a good live drum recording?"  I myself have recorded a lot of drums for different projects and have been searching to try and make them sound GOOD.  In general, if you have a few good mics and preamps, you can make most things sound nice (vocals, acoustic guitars, keys, electric guitars, etc.).  BUT recording drums is a whole new ball game.

Think about it.  Most times when you go into a studio engineers can use up to nineteen mics on a drumkit.  NINETEEN MICS.  Prices range from $100-$10,000.  And that's just mics (not including preamps, compressors, limiters, mixing board, etc.).  It's all really overwhelming when you sit down to think about it.  Check out this video to see how famous mixer/engineer Chris Lord Alge records drums.

Over the course of my adventures in recording I've learned a lot and believe that I've come to a place where I can record drums and make them sound relatively good.  In this blog I want to show you what I've done on a recent drum recording I did.  I've bounced each mic on the recording and separated them into different Soundcloud sets.  You can listen through them and see how they sound with each mic/preamp, and then see how they sound after I started putting plug-ins on them.

Each mic will be listed with a number next to it.  Each one of these represents a certain point in the chain while editing.  I start from nothing and then add on top (each number indicates how many plug-ins are going; they are not just showing what each plug-in itself sounds like alone).  Here is a list of what the numbers represent:

0 = no plug-ins on the mic (essentially a dry signal from the mic and preamp) 

1 = Steven Slate Virtual Tape Machine

2 = EQ

3 = PSP Oldtimer (compressor)

4 = Soundtoys Decapitator

After showing you what each mic sounds like by themselves, there will be a sound file of the whole thing mixed together. 

Snare

6.5"x14" Pearl Brass Free-floating, mic'd with a Sennheiser 906 through a Brent Averill 312 preamp

 

Kick

14"x22" vintage Rogers kick drum,  mic'd with a Shure Beta52 in the hole of the resonant side of the drum

Kick - Out

Mic'd with a Telefunken M16 mk2 in the super-cardioid pattern, placed on the outside of the resonant side of the drum (above Beta52) 

Hi-Hats

Two 17" crashes were used as hi-hats for this recording.  Mic'd with a Rode NT1

Overheads

Mic'd with a matched pair of Neumann KM184s placed on the left and right side of the kit about 10 feet back (the distance was to capture a more roomy effect on the kit)

Room

Mic'd with a Royer 122 ribbon, placed about 40 feet back from the kit.  Used to capture a big room sound and to achieve a natural grittiness that ribbon mics provide.

Finally here is a clip of the drums fully mixed with all microphones