Xenat-Ra

Making The Record Part 2: Overdubs and Mixing

Previous: Part 1: Tracking

This will probably be the least interesting of this series of posts about the production of our new record. Consider yourself warned…

After the 5 days of tracking at Studio GXM, we were exhausted but happy, we had 12 tunes, with multiple takes of each, and two free-improvised pieces in the can. I moved everything to a portable hard drive, and brought the full session, about 50 GB of audio files, back to my home studio, The Blinky Room. Or, if you’re feeling more of an ECM vibe, Tonstudio Blinky. El Blinkarino, if you’re not into that whole brevity thing.

Since Logic was the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice at both locations, It was as easy as copying the sessions to my work hard drive and opening them. The first task was to rough mix all the tracks, with all the various takes, and distribute them to the band members. Since we are basically a collective, I felt it was important to keep everyone in the band involved in every step of the process. Not only does this make everyone feel engaged in the process and owning a stake in the final product, this also happens to be a band full of some very creative thinkers, so I welcomed the input from everyone.

The record was not tracked to a click. JD is a very solid drummer with great time, and we felt that allowing the music to breathe served our sound better. Many of the deliberate tempo and time signature changes we do are more felt than counted, setting up a click to something like 555 would be an exercise in unnecessary complexity. However, having a bar/beat grid as a reference in the DAW is very handy, for things like having a time reference for overdubs, syncing delays, editing, etc. Logic has a very handy feature called Beat Mapping that allows you to generate a tempo map based on the performance. It analyzes the tracks you want to use as a reference to find the attack transients, and then you can visually line up the beats of the grid with the notes played. I generally used JD’s Kick and Snare tracks as the reference tracks. As a testament to JD’s time, the tempos of the various takes of each tune did not vary that much, I was able to edit sections between takes without worrying about tempo shifts. Note, this is not about “fixing” the drums, it’s about making the computer’s clock conform the the drummer’s performance. With the exception of a handful of edits on JD’s part, what you hear is what was played.

On the basis of the recording session and one gig with him as a guest, we decided to invite percussionist Joel Hirsch to join the band. Since he had only played on 4 tunes at the original studio sessions, we overdubbed his parts onto the remaining tracks. He ended up recording on most of the tunes on the record.

I’ve worked with Mark France on a number of records, most notably the two Minus records. Mark has a great ear for structural edits, hearing which part of which take has something special to bring to the final master take. He had some suggestions, especially on the more improvisational sections, that I would have never considered. Also, Mark has a great sense of orchestrating multiple guitar parts. 555, The Xenat-Ra Theme, and Parahelion all have many layers of guitar parts, mixing them was kind of like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle. For several months, Mark and I had a regular Friday morning session to work on his parts every week.

Matt had  a few parts he wanted to fix of augment, so we had a several sessions together. On 555, we re-amped some of his sax parts through a Peavey tube guitar amp I have around the studio for extra grit. Also, on that tune, he overdubbed a number of layers on the end of the tune, as the tune gathers momentum at the end, there are about 4 different sax parts, some of them arranged in a canon with his main part. Add in an equal number of guitar overdubs, and JD’s double kick chorus at the end, it’s a very dense piece!

This screen capture shows the Logic session for 555, to give you some idea of the complexity of these sessions.

Matt also arranged to bring in Joe Freuen, a talented trombonist from Eugene. Joe gigs regularly with The Cerry Poppin’ Daddies and Eleven Eyes, and he leads his own sextet, writing and arranging some very cool stuff. For the afrobeat-leaning Swalo Me Hole, we wanted a Fela-style horn section. Matt and Joe overdubbed a number of parts to create a huge massed horn sound.

My keyboard and keyboard bass parts were recorded direct, and, I was also able to capture MIDI from all of my non-analog keys. To conserve tracks, I recorded all the Hammond organ parts, from my digital Hammond XK-1 organ, in mono, and recorded the parts as MIDI at the same time. My keyboard bass parts also come from the organ, using the XK’s feature that maps the bass pedal drawbars to the keyboard. I ultimately ended up replacing the Hammond parts using GSI Soundware’s VB-3 plugin. VB-3 is an amazing sounding Hammond clone, probably the closest you can get to the classic Hammond sound without the 425 pound beast, Of course, if I had access to a real Hammond console, I’d use it in a heartbeat! Rhodes and Minimoog parts were tracked direct, and mostly non-edited, except to fix some really obvious clams. Mellotron and Clavinet parts all came from samples. I did have the opportunity to redo the Mellotron parts with a real ‘Tron, but ran out of time before managing to do this. Next record, definitely! Thanks to Adam Scramstad for offering the use of his ‘Tron.

The introduction to Xenat-Ra Theme has some of the densest keyboard parts on the record. In the original session, I tracked a noisy improvisation on my Minimoog, using the trick of running the headphone output back into the filter input, you can get some amazing, unpredictable feedback effects with this trick! Back at the Blinky Room, I overdubbed a number of tracks from my MOTM/Blacet modular synth, some noisy filter sweeps and a step-sequenced track inspired by Pink Floyd’s “On The Run” from Dark Side of the Moon. I’m pretty proud of this section, it’s some trippy stuff!

I was mixing the tracks as we were overdubbing them. One of the things that computer-based recording offers over the conventional analog recording model is that the distinction between the various phases of the process are a lot blurrier. In an analog studio, you’d wait until finishing any overdubs and edits before you start mixing. On the computer, you can mix as you go, save the results, add tracks, edit, go back to mixing, all you might want. This doesn’t necessarily make for better mixes, and it can make the whole process much longer because you have the chance to explore more options.

In the mix, I relied heavily on the Universal Audio UAD-2 DSP card and and the plugins that run on it. The compression and EQ plugs from the UAD are, IMHO, miles better than most of the native, host-based plugins available. The UAD plugins are based on exacting modeling of classic analog hardware. I use their Neve 1073 and 1081 EQ modules, and the UA 1176 and LA2A compressors heavily, I could not afford these pieces as hardware, and I think the emulations sound very, very good. Other plugins I relied on heavily were Sonimus’ Satson console emulation, and Cytomic’s The Glue bus compressor. Reverb came from Logic’s Space Designer convolution ‘verb, delays from Logic’s Tape Delay and GSI’s Roland Space Echo plugin.

Finally, by May, 2012, I felt like there was really nothing further I could do to mix the tracks. I didn’t intend to spend so long on this record, I wasn’t trying to make the next Chinese Democracy. JD was especially helpful about keeping me on track when I was getting too obsessive with the mix process. Also, it’s not like we were working on the record full time for that period, work, family, and life in general would pull me away from the project for long periods. But, finally, after hundreds of versions, we were down to having the 10 basic tunes ready to be mastered! More on that in the next installment.

Next: Part 3: Mastering

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