Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rough mix video clips from the studio

I've had a number of people lately express some interest in the process of recording an album. The first thing I usually tell them is that in reality, there is no single process that everyone uses. My friend Lee Flier, for example, is the guitarist for a band called What The...?, and her band tends to go in and record themselves live, with drums, bass, and vocals being recorded at the same time. Then they might do a couple of overdubs (like guitar solos), and they're done.

Other people build layered recordings where everything is created in computers, like drums, keyboard parts, and so on, and these are all stacked together as the composer makes each individual part. I've done some composing/recording like that, especially back in the early '90s when I first started using computers in my music.

For my album, I use neither of these processes. Here's the gist of how I recorded the Zak Claxton album.

1. In the studio, my drummer Bunny and I play through the song. We record Bunny's drums, but I (singing and playing guitar) am NOT being recorded for the album. What I am making is called a scratch track; it's a reference point only. It allows Bunny to get the drum tracks down correctly. We do not play to any kind of timing reference (called a "click" in the business). I like the free, natural feel of a musician playing using his own human sense of time.

2. After we have the drums down, I usually record the bass next. Yes, "I". I've been a bass player nearly as long as a guitarist, and I played all the bass tracks on the album. I listen to the playback of the drums through my headphones, and record the bass over that, on its own recording track. Yes, this is called "overdubbing", and "multitracking", and it's how all the subsequent parts of the song are recorded.

3. What happens next is that I usually replace the guitar that I'd played on the scratch track with the actual version of the guitar that will go on the album.

4. Then we start layering the other instruments. I might play all of those instruments, or one of my pals (Ken, Phil, or Bunny) might contribute on some instrument.

5. I usually do the lead and backing vocals last. Like the guitars, these replace the scratch tracks I did while tracking the drums back at the beginning. Occasionally, I end up adding yet another instrumental part even after the vocals are done, if the song calls for it.

6. The very last thing that we do before wrapping up a day of recording, provided we have all the parts down for a song, is to give it a quick rough mix (i.e., bring up all the stuff we recorded, set some basic levels so it all blends together) and then we give it a listen. It's usually a pretty exhilarating moment, since it's the first time you can actually experience your own song in a way that a listener might once it's all done. So...

For the two videos below (also linked here and here on YouTube in case you don't see them below for whatever reason) we turned on the video camera during the playback of those rough mixes at the end of our last day of recording. These are obviously just rough ideas of what the final songs will be like after Phil works his magic as a mixing engineer. When the final versions come out mixed, the sounds will be much more refined. Also, keep in mind that the audio quality of a hand-held digital camera isn't exactly on par with even a terrible MP3 file; it's like you're listening to music on an AM radio through someone's phone. Know that the final versions will sound much, much better.

Still, these should be sufficient to give you an idea of what we ended up with last weekend in the studio.

1. "Fade Away":

2. "Waiting for This":

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