I recorded my first album with a jazz quartet in 1991. OMG, 21 years ago last century – has it been that long? The original recording was released on cassette tape (!) and is now long out of print. Over the years I got requests for a reissue of this recording from friends and people curious about the music on that project. I had a DAT tape of the final mixes which I had fortunately transferred to WAV files before the tape died (those things have a limited life as I found out the hard way). Unfortunately whenever I’d listen to the mixes, they sounded dated and suffered from some fundamental issues that made them unpleasant to listen to:
Hard panning of the instruments. (makes mixes uncomfortable to listen to especially on headphones)
Relative levels of instruments were unbalanced
Center of mix lacked definition
Lack of dimension and air
Missing mastering attention
On a couple of occasions I tried using various mastering tools to rectify some of these problems. However the deal breaker was always the faulty imaging – anything I did would ultimately end up negatively affecting the rest of the mix without adequately addressing the fundamental problems. While working on SONAR X2 earlier this year, I saw R-Mix’s abilities to isolate a voice in a stereo field and remembered this project – would R-Mix be the tool that to use to fix that mix? I’ve always been a fan of Roland’s V-series technology, so the idea of virtual remixing piqued my interest. Continue reading “SONAR X2 R-Mix: Remix / Remaster Case Study”
The album is featured in the May issue of DownBeat magazine in the section called ‘The HotBox’, a somewhat infamous column where four albums are selected each month for review by four DownBeat reviewers. It’s a pretty tough crowd and reviews can be scorching at times, so when Ramona got a call from the magazine editor recently asking her to send copies of the CD for review in Hot Box, there were some mixed feelings!
The May issue is available on newstands now. We were happy to learn that the album received a 3 1/2 star review (out of 5). By HotBox standards, that’s actually an excellent review! We grew up with DownBeat magazine and have learned so much from it, so it’s a milestone to be featured there.
Here is the review if you don’t subscribe to DownBeat:
Yep we broke down finally and created a YouTube account 🙂
There are two video’s now posted of the Ramona Borthwick Quintet from our recent CD release concert. It’s an amateur recording but the results were not too bad. Audio was recorded on a Zoom H4 field recorder from the audience perspective. Video footage was provided by two cameras, one static and one mobile. I had taken my Canon HF10 to the gig but found that the LCD had broken earlier, so I was unable to use it at the gig! Thanks to Dan Abreu for doing the video with his cameras and Dave Malaguti for the audio recording.
I used Corel Video Studio Pro X2 to author the video. Not the most intuitive software for video editing, esp if you are doing audio, but I managed to get what I wanted with some creative workarounds. Can someone from Corel please take a short refresher course on the basic things people want to do when editing a music video – ahem, like providing some tools to align clips so that they sound in sync 🙂
“Ramona Borthwick proves that there is some depth among younger composers. Her bright work is agape at the immensity of all things. It appears that she looks at the world with childlike wonder, but is also privy to the true and deep nature of what she sees.”
Getting into some details about how I used SONAR during the course of this project. If you wish to read the full thread about the project lifecycle start here – One Of Us: Conception
I started out with Cakewalk software way back in 1992 when I bought my first Windows 3.1 box. A screaming 386 with 2 MB of RAM, woo hoo :-). Cakewalk was already well known for its DOS sequencer written by Greg Hendershott, so when I read a review in Keyboard magazine talking about CAL (the scripting language built into Cakewalk Profeessional) I was convinced to buy Cakewalk Professional For Windows 1.0. At the time I’d only written some rudimentary DOS software for MIDI, so being able to write my own scripts to generate MIDI in a real sequencer was exciting. My interest in the product led me to become a beta tester for Cakewalk from ’94 through ’96. The bugs I logged wore them down and they finally broke down and hired me in 1997 :-). Its been a long journey – yet it seems not so long ago when the days of getting 8 tracks of digital audio to stream stably on a PC was a challenge. Its easy to forget just how far we have come from what was once considered standard. Fun times!
I’ve always enjoyed mixing in SONAR. It suits my workflow, and the flexible mixing options allow me to change gears easily at any point in the mixing process, without needing to start over. Also the high resolution 64 bit resolution makes it ideal DAW to use when you want to mix as transparently as possible. Over the years, I have done many smaller projects in SONAR, but never a full blown CD production from start to finish. Producing this album provided me with the opportunity to do just that. Its can be a good thing to eat your own dog food once in a while – you might want to try it sometime, it’s not quite that bad I promise. 🙂
For the initial phase of the project I started out running SONAR 8.3.1, where I set up the bussing setup and did some initial editing. I soon moved SONAR 8.5 (which was in beta at the time) for the main editing and mixing. I upgraded Dan Abreu’s production rig as well (not without some kicking and screaming), so that we could share the same environment. I would take my external hard drive back and forth, doing part of the work at his studio and some at mine. This scheme worked very well for us. Dan had a pretty fast quad core Intel box, and some nice mic’s so we decided to track the vocals and do the initial mixes at his place. My system was an aged dual processor Opteron rig, with a MOTU 828 MK2 for an audio interface. I regret not upgrading the system before I started this project, but it served me well throughout, with no problems other than the lack of horsepower when the projects got bigger. It was actually a great stress test for the software since SONAR performed flawlessly on this rig despite this.
Almost all the work done on this project was “in the box”. With the exception of a couple of virtual instruments (Garritan Steinway, Kontakt and Ozone 4) for some isolated tracks, all the plugins used are from SONAR 8.5. Below are some SONAR features of interest and misc tips and tricks I used on this project:
1. Fast bounce
For those who might not know this – a slower or faster computer makes no difference whatsoever on the quality of the mixes. For that matter, once you are in the mixing and editing phase, the audio interface also has no bearing on the final sound (as long as you are not recording the analog inputs of course). SONAR’s ability to “fast bounce” independently from your audio hardware is really invaluable in an environment like this (and in general too). In other words, you can take a complex project that won’t even play on your system and render the mix to a wave file. I was typically working with around 24-32 tracks of 24/96 audio on this project. Whenever my system would bog down, I would bounce a submix, and archive/mute the source tracks to reclaim CPU. This would let me keep working with other areas of the project.
2. Global effects bypass
This feature got a lot of use to preview my mixes without effects. Also there were times when my old machine just couldn’t cope with the load of all the effects going while mixing. I would use this all the time to bypass all effects and then selectively turn on just the bins I wanted. This can also be an interesting way to mix since it helps you to focus on certain elements at one time – drums, vox, bass etc.
3. Offset Mode
SONAR has this somewhat hidden gem of a feature that I rely on a lot while mixing. I am always surprised how few users take full advantage of it. I suspect its because its not that visible in the user interface. You basically switch to offset mode by pressing the O key. In offset mode you get access to an additional gainstage for each mix parameter on a track or bus. This gain stage acts as an offset to any parameter that is being automated on the track/bus. Why is this so useful? Lets say you are mixing your project and you have added track/clip envelopes to get the balance just right on one of the drum tracks for example. Now you find that you need an overall gain boost or cut on that track. You could go and painstakingly edit every envelope on that track (potentially screwing up the relative levels you have so carefully set up) or you can tweak the offset value and be done! The offset is applied after all the envelopes so it acts like a master fader per parameter. In offset mode this way I can make very quick relative changes to the track while mixing without affecting the rest of the envelopes.
4. Using clip envelopes as an alternative to dynamics compression
I’m generally not a huge fan of compressors especially in the sort of music I do, unless they are used to add to the sound itself. While they are great for stuff like drums the automatic nature of a compressor takes away a lot of dynamics from the music. Instead often I will use clip and track gain envelopes to address unwanted peaks in the music while mixing. While this approach it can be somewhat labor intensive, I find the results a lot more musical sounding than just slapping a compressor on every track.
Used in tandem with bus waveform preview it can be an effective way to mix while retaining the natural dynamics of the music.
5. Bus Waveform preview
Another extremely favourite feature of mine. As described above I use it a lot while mixing with clip envelopes. I turn on bus preview on my submix buses while tweaking the clip envelopes at mix time. The waveform preview gives me a good idea of where the mix is getting too hot allowing me to make changes to my envelopes in response to what I see.
This plugin was a surprise to me. I’d originally started processing the vocals with VC64 and some other plugins but wasn’t very happy with the results I was getting. One evening I put this on my vocal bus and in 10 minutes had something that sounded really great. It has this really smooth sound even when the vocals are compressed. TIP: Use the automated bypass to turn off the compressor module when you don’t need it. Every vocal bus on this project uses this plugin!
VC 64 is my goto compressor and EQ in SONAR. I don’t use compressors a lot but when I do I like the sound of this one and even its EQ so I tend to use it a lot.
I found this to be great to EQ for use on overheads. Its very transparent sounding.
9. Using a NAS and networked audio player for auditioning mixes.
This is my favourite “trick” to do fast consumer audio tests. My studio is in the basement and my stereo system is upstairs in the living room. So normally to test a mix on my stereo I would need to burn a CD and lug it upstairs and test. Some years ago I bought a Logitech SqueezeBox – a network music player. Its a super device that will connect to a share on your network via a SqueezeServer running on your home network. In SONAR I would simply export the mix to my NAS shared music folder and instantly be able to listen to the mix on my stereo. This was invaluable and a HUGE time saver since it allowed me to quickly teste my mixes on a reference consumer audio system all the time. I don’t think I burned more than 2 or 3 CD’s during the entire course of the project just because of this! A much greener solution than burning CD’s for sure.
10. Phase Invert
Most people use the humble phase invert button on a track to fix phase issues or for testing mainly. I found (by accident) a good use for this seemingly mundane button. One night while working on a mix I noticed that one of the trumpet tracks had the phase invert button on and the other didn’t. (We had two close mics on the trumpet while recording) I didn’t recall doing that intentionally so I assumed Dan had done it for some reason some days ago. So I tried turning it off and the trumpet kind of sounded different but not as rich. So I turned it back on… Later I asked Dan about this and he said it must have been accidental. Well, so much for happy accidents <g>
I ended up flipping the phase – on a couple of tracks to create that sound since it worked really well.
11. Audiosnap Slip Stretching
Audiosnap might not look like a feature that would get used in a jazz project but it can be useful in some instances. I had a section in one of the tunes where I needed to switch between two takes mid song. The second take was really close but the tempo was off by about 5% making a crossfade impossible. I lined up the two takes one below each other and measured the difference in samples. I then computed the stretch amount based on this and then slip stretched all the clips by the exact amount. Once I did that I cross faded the clips with a very quick fade. It worked beautifully – nobody I have played it for has been able to spot the edit despite the fact that there are some 16 tracks slip stretched! Additionally the new “phase coherence” parameter in the SONAR 8.5 radius stretching options made a huge difference here especially on the piano track. Without that I could hear some slight flanging in the sound when I did the operation in SONAR 8.3 initially.
12. MME mode
MME is typically only used to play back audio on consumer PC’s that don’t have professional audio devices. It has some other uses as well however. In this project I often wanted to play back the mixes on a vanilla PC sound system as a consumer audio test. I couldn’t play back my mixes in WDM mode with my soundcard since it doesn’t support 24×96 audio. However in MME mode thanks to KMIXER we have dynamoc sample rate conversion capabilities. Switching to MME provided me with a handy way to preview the mixes on my PC.
CD’s are now officially shipping.
We received 2^10 CD’s from DiscMakers on Monday. All 1024 of them. Either someone there is a computer geek or the duplication machine only makes powers of two 🙂
Great job from DiscMakers. Very good cardstock and the print work exceeded our expectations. The donut with Ramona’s hand drawn art looks awesome. Its worth buying the CD just for that I can assure you <g>
Now if we could get rid of 2^9 of these we’ll be even happier.
Our latest project One Of Us from jazz pianist Ramona Borthwick, produced and mixed entirely in SONAR, has finally been released and is now available here! The CD comprises ten fresh new compositions of hers, recorded last summer with some wonderful jazz players. The lineup includes – Ramona Borthwick (pno, voice), Ingrid Jensen (tpt), Noel Borthwick (gtr), Johannes Weidenmueller (b), Adam Cruz (dr).
Recorded in high-definition audio format at 24/96, mixed in SONAR at 64 bit resolution and mastered at 24/96, all efforts were made to capture and retain pristine quality throughout the production process. You can preview several of the tunes in the music player on the left. Please spread the word if you know someone who might be interested in the this. To share the music, click on “Share” in the player to generate a quick link for facebook, e-mail, etc.
The album is available in a variety of formats through our webstore here:
CD – packaged in a slick environment friendly digipak
Digital downloads – Instantly download the music in your favorite format ready to play on your portable music player, with artist and title info pre setup for you. Popular compressed formats such as MP3, AAC, OGG, etc are all supported. All full album downloads include the high-resolution album art as a PDF.
High-definition lossless audiophile downloads – For our audiophile listeners, who want the ultimate uncompromised high definition 24 bit/96 KHz DVD-quality experience, you can download our final hi-def masters as lossless FLAC or Apple Lossless Audio (ALAC). These are large, higher than CD quality files and you must also have a music player capable of playing these formats. High-definition downloads are the same price as other digital downloads! ($1 a track and $10 for a full album)
CD + Digital Download Combo pack – buy the CD and digital download together. This is currently available at the same price as the CD!
Sheet Music – If you are a musician and would like to play any of the compositions with your band or just check out the scores, sheet music for all the compositions is now available as downloads! The sheet music files are in standard PDF format and can be printed or viewed easily.
I have also posted a log documenting our journey through the process of producing this album from conception through release, in this blog starting here → One Of Us: Conception
Having a master in hand might signal the completion of the most important task in the production process, but we are far from being done. Since this project is 100% self produced, we are both the producer and the Record Label, and there is a ton of work to be done even after this stage. We have to handle the design and artwork for the CD, start up the copyright and digital distribution process, do the disk duplication and, set up the infrastructure to sell and distribute the CD, and finally get it out to reviewers and fans. All of these can be surprisingly complex and time consuming tasks. Fortunately, we have some experience with this from our last CD project, so we’d already started working on many of these tasks in parallel. Ramona is a professional graphic artist/web designer, through her company Leitmotif, so she’d started up with the concept and design of the CD a couple of weeks earlier. We have also done e-stores several times before so we’re familiar with the setup issues. There are still many pending tasks:
Decide on a CD duplication company. We finally settle with DiscMakers. They seemed to have the most reasonable prices for the features they offered, so we set up an account with them.
Finalize CD design concept and artwork. Ramona had some great ideas for the CD concept and had started working on it. She scheduled a photo-shoot with photographer Glenn Kulbako. The inital concept was to get pictures of her against the mural outside the Middle East cafe in Cambridge and use that as the focus for the album art. She even went as far as getting permission from the Cambridge arts council to use the photo on the CD. So she does the photo shoot and they get some nice pictures.
However, when she tried to put it all together in the design it somehow didn’t quite work – murals can be tricky to work with. Disappointed with the setback, she booked another shoot for a simpler more personal theme she came up with. It works well and she is finally able to integrate into her artwork. Phew, a lot of work but finally the artwork and layout for the CD is done! It looks great and she came up with this really funky hand drawing of the “One Of Us” theme for the CD donut. Very unique!
In early Nov we sent the final artwork and master to DiscMakers. They were very prompt and sent us a hard copy proof of the art within a day of sending the artwork. Very professional.
Next we registered with the myriad companies that handle the payment and distribution of royalties. ASCAP, soundscan etc.. Its unbelievable how scattered and disorganized some of this stuff is and the amount of research you have to do to dig out that information. They certainly don’t make it easy! We also kick started the digital distribution process while waiting for the CD so that the music can be available on ITunes and other services as soon as possible.
We must have filled in a million forms for all the paperwork you have to do.
Finally, it is time to get the back end in place for the website. The plan this time is to sell the CD as well as provide high quality digital downloads from our website. This means I have to cook up something on our server to offer secure digital downloads as well as hard copy CD sales. I was going to code up a download solution myself, but decided on using BandCamp for the digital downloads instead since they offered the same high quality download options I was planning for anyway. Ramona and I spent a few days revamping her web store. Click here to see the web store in action.
The CD’s are produced and enroute to us via UPS, as I write this. Ramona’s website has been redesigned and is online. The web store is live. The CD release concert is booked. I’m sure there are more things we need to do but we are done for now. It has been a journey…
Towards the end of our mixing process, I had been looking around for someone to handle the mastering of the CD. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to that myself. For a few reasons – I don’t have the specialized plugin’s hardware or acoustic environment to do mastering. Its normally a good idea to have someone who is a specialist in mastering handle this anyway since they may find and be able to fix subtle problems that you may overlook. Its also great to get another pair of ears on the final product.
One of my colleague’s at work recommended a friend who ran a mastering Studio in NYC so I checked him out. After checking out his work and talking with him, I decided to go with Oscar Zambrano from Zampol Productions. I gave Oscar one of my final mixes and he did a sample master mix which I was impressed with. I am not a fan of excessive compression in masters (especially with jazz) and I liked what he did with the test mix I gave him. His mix sounded transparent but louder which is what a good mastering engineer does.
The specification was for him to master at 24/96K and deliver the final master in CD format as well as raw mastered 24/96 files. This would allow me to consider later releasing this in high definition DTS format on a DVD.
Around Oct 1’st I finally ready with my mixes. I first did rough masters in SONAR to get an idea what the mixes would sound like with basic dynamics added. Right upto this point I had no compression on my master bus whatsover. So I added the Boost 11 plugin from SONAR 8 to my master bus, and dialled in a 3-6 dB boost to get a preview of what the mixes would sound like with a compressor on the main bus. It sounded nice but I had to make a few subtle tweaks to the bass to account for the gain boost, since adding compression can subtly alter the balance of various frequencies in the mix. Once I did that the mixes were sounding very close to what I wanted already, so I was confident that Oscar would have good source mixes to work with. I then exported all the mixes from SONAR (after removing the compression) to 96K/32 bit wave files and uploaded them to the zampol web site. I also sent him a bunch of my test master mixes so that he would know the sound I was shooting for, along with some other artist CD references for mixes that we like.
I also “discovered” ISRC codes around this time! If you want to submit a CD for digital distribution you want to embed ISRC codes onto the disk at mastering time. This is important for royalties management via radio air play as well as digital distribution. So we registered for our own ISRC codes and generated them.
Around end October after a few scheduling delays, I got back some preview masters from Oscar – they sounded very good. I had a few minor requests to tweak EQ and track levels but besides that it was very close to done. He also found a couple of bugs in my mixes that we had not noticed before – A couple of clicks due to bad cross fades. Good ears! He made the edits and sent me the final PMCD image. (pre-master CD image that is used by the duplication house to produce the final CD’s). A job well done.
If you read the earlier posts in this thread you might have noticed that we finished the main recording session for One Of Us back in 2008 April. So why is it being released now in Nov 2009 you might ask? Funny you should ask 🙂
The astute reader might have observed a subtle hint of burnout when we were done with the recording. Or you might have smelled the burnout several blocks away. At the end of any recording project the last thing we want to do is listen to it. I want to play my guitar, listen to some other music on my play list, do some other stuff, and Ramona would rather play,teach or do her web design. Anything but listen to our shit! Sooo, we basically came back home, I backed up the recording, then I put the disk on the shelf and we went on with our lives. I got really busy doing SONAR 8, and then in late 2008 we took a vacation to India. Then it was back to SONAR 8.3 season, and NAMM and …. And before we knew it literally was April 2009. We had a polite message from Ingrid asking – “hey guys what happened to that recording”. Huh, which recording? Uhhh, oh that one!!! Anyway one fine day in April I woke up and said nuff is enough we need to finish this.
So I cranked up the disk. Thankfully it started, phew that would have been a problem! I opened up ProTools LE, got some advice on how to navigate the sessions (again the astute reader might have observed that I am not a PT fan by now), and imported all all the multi track wave files to SONAR. Ahhh, comfort zone 🙂 All the tracks were recorded in one giant session as is customary with many recording engineers. I split them up into multiple project files in SONAR so that I could mix them independently as I prefer. The original sessions had 8 tracks for drums, 2 for trumpet, 2 for bass, 2 for piano and 2 for guitar, for a total of 16 source tracks, all recorded at 24/96. Pretty simple to start with.
I set up basic gainstaging and pan – I like to mix in offset mode in SONAR so all my gains and pans are set as offsets. I then load up the first project in SONAR and press play. Whee – this is literally the first time I am hearing this music in close to a year. It sounds fresh and much nicer than it did a year ago. I am excited! The trumpet and piano and bass and drums sound awesome. But wait a minute – what is up with that guitar sound? I must have messed up the EQ accidently somewhere. I look – nope, everything looks ok in SONAR. It sounds a lot thinner than I remember it sounding in the recording session. If anything I normally err on the side of thickness not thinness with my sound. Hmmm.. Took me awhile before I finally saw what was going on. I solo the miced guitar track, thats the one sounding thin. Finally, I put two and two together – its the darn downfiring woofer on my Acoustic Image amp. The mic didn’t pick up any of that. Man was I pissed off – the miced amp track is unusable. Why the engineer didn’t spot that at record time is a mystery. A major disappointment on my first day of mixing. Anyway, I have the direct stereo out from my VG-99 recorded as a backup (thank God for that) so I figure I can re-amp my guitar in my studio and fix it where necessary. Note to self: When tracking at someone else’s studio always, always check the printed signal to make sure its what you want. Don’t rely on what you are hearing in the sound booth. I kick myself for not being thorough about that.
So begins day 1, the first in a series of many others over the rest of the summer of 2009. I spent most of my weekends and nights working on additional tracking, editing and mixing of this project. Ramona had several new parts that we needed to record. We intentionally didn’t track the extras in the studio to save time. I track all the additional piano and guitar parts in my studio and reamp my guitar tracks where the sound is not what I wanted. Guitars sound vastly nicer than the studio original recording, since I used my other (non downfiring) speaker cab!
While working on stuff in my home studio, for the longest time I was plagued by some crazy RF interferance I was picking up when using the balanced outputs from my VG-99 to my MOTU. It was the strangest thing – every day after a certain time 8:30pm to be exact, I would get these radio stations mixed in with the recorded signal! So I’d have to stop tracking after that. I tried everything I could think of – new cables, relocating gear, new power conditioning power strips, etc, but nothing would get rid of that. After several days of this, I finally found the root cause of it. I had the sub out’s from VG at +4dB going to my MOTU balanced inputs, and I had the ground lift switch engaged on the VG. That in intself was fine – the root issue was that the MOTU 828 has a software switch in its control panel to set the inputs to -10dB or +4DB. I had missed that that switch was set to -10dB. I flipped the software switch in the panel and voila the RF vanished! Its critical to do this if you are using balanced outs since otherwise you potentially get all sorts of noice induced in the circuit. Anyway that was a big finding for me!
Later on in the process once I have all the 10 songs edited, I do basic mixes then recruit the help of my friend and colleague, Dan Abreu from Cakewalk to track the vocals on this project. All the vocals were recorded in his project studio Pennyco Productions, where we spent many nights doing the initial mixes. Dan’s input was super helpful during this phase. He has great ears and a lot of experience with mixing drums, so it was great getting his expertise in the initial mixing phase. We’re especially thankful to him, since he was so pressed for time preparing for the birth of his baby daughter Penelope. Once we have the core mixes done at his place, we transferred to my studio for all the tweaky time consuming nit-picky stuff.
Work and other engagements made this take longer than I expected, but by Sept I have mixes that are pretty close to what we think are finished. Or so we thought 🙂 Just a few more tweaks and we would be ready for mastering. The devil is in the details however. I don’t have a treated room, so we test the mixes in several locations and on multiple speaker combinations. One of the goals I had for this project is to ensure it sounds good on multiple delivery systems, audiophile equipment, consumer stereo’s, car stereos, desktop computer systems, and the ubiquitous iPod’s with ear-buds. I also solicited feedback from some experienced Cakewalk users to get more ears on the mixes. This is super important since when listening to mixes a hundred times you can adapt to a sound and miss the obvious. I get lots of great feedback on the mixes which help me fine tune them. Special thanks go to Cakewalk user (and fine guitarist) Eric Hansen as well as Tom Jacobs for their valuable input. During this process I go back several times and make adjustments to the mixes to account for something or the other. Acoustic bass, as I learned, can be one of the hardest things to get just right in a mix since the subtlest of changes can result in you over or under compensating other tracks. I would run into cases where the bass sounded great on ear buds but woofy on a stereo or vice versa. The frequencies that make up the ideal elements in the bass sound for a jazz mix can be subtle. I also compared what we had with several reference mixes that we considered to be ideal – caught some good problems during that process as well. I tend to like the way acoustic bass is recorded on some European labels like ECM records with more of the string sound mixed in and less of a thump. After much experimentation, we were relieved when our mixes sounding good across multiple systems. We were finally ready for mastering.
It’s Sunday morning and we leave for Paul’s studio, about an hour’s drive from NYC. We have the studio booked for 2 days. Paul’s an engineer who has been around the NY scene awhile – he was the engineer at the famous Skyline studio for many years. We meet him at the studio and he shows us around. It’s a moderately sized set up on the first floor of a house, with a large room housing the piano and 3 iso-booths. The the mixing console and gear are set up upstairs accessible via a staircase. Paul communicates via talkback with the artists downstairs. I talk shop with him awhile, discuss the project and what we will be doing the first day, while Ramona goes warms up and checks out the piano. I’ve already corresponded with Paul earlier so he has most of what we need set up already. I give him my firewire hard disk that he will use to track the session on and then head downstairs to set up my amp and gear. I have my Acoustic Image amp that I brought to the session. The amp has a downfiring woofer and we take direct out from my FX as well as a mic feed from the amp. The engineer sets up the mic off axis from the amp speaker, standard micing for a normal amp, but not recommended for a downfiring woofer – a costly mistake I only learned later after the recording. Don’t ever record such amps this way since you don’t get enough low end or midrange!
Johannes, Ingrid and Adam arrive soon after and start setting up. Drums and bass take the two far iso-booths and I take the third. Trumpet shares the same room as the piano. There is going to be some mic bleed but we figured that having trumpet and piano in the same room was the best compromise we could make, since there isn’t a 4’th booth. We run through the usual checks to get levels and do a brief sound check before we get started. We all have sub mixes so we can dial in the right amount of each instrument in the cans.
By the time we start recording it is past noon. We have a lot of music to record over the next couple of days and Ramona and I are already concerned that we won’t be able to finish all the tracking in the time we have. We start with Who’s Your Mama. The first tune in any recording session is typically the hardest since you need to dig in, zone in and get over the record-button-itis. I write recording software for a living but I still hate that damn record button 🙂 We do two full takes. The second one sounds like it has more energy in it and has some great solos from Ingrid and Ramona. Ramona isn’t happy with it just yet, but we decide to move on and return to it fresh later.
The session goes on. Ramona makes a few spontaneous changes to the charts during the session as we grow into the music more. On Chinese Whispers Ingrid suggests that we try blowing through her solo in 7/4. We try it and it sounds great so we go for it. We have a few other happy accidents like that and some not so happy ones as well 🙂 Its a busy session with the only relaxation when we break for pizza. We end the day with about six tunes tracked – not too bad.
Its 6:30PM – Paul gives us a rough mix CD and Ramona and I head back to the hotel. We’re spent, but our day is not done. We need to review the takes and mark all the overdubs we have to finish this tomorrow. It takes a couple of hours to go through all the takes and check them out, making notes. If there is one thing we both hate, its listening back to a raw recording immediately after making it, since its very hard to be objective. Your mind plays tricks on you and small flaws get exaggerated making it sound worse than it is. Sometimes it works the other way around but so far it hasn’t for me – I have patience though, still waiting 🙂 Anyway, the toll of the previous weeks is telling on Ramona and she is freaking out a bit, and I try to convince her that it’s all good. We grab some take out and get some shut eye – Another long day ahead.
We head out early to the studio. We’d made arrangements with Paul to get there an hour before the others to do a few overdubs. We finish that and start up with the rest of the music. We also revisit a couple of tunes from the previous day. By lunchtime I finish all the tunes I am playing on and move upstairs to the mixing room so I can be more of a “producer”. This feels good – next time I’m not going to play on Ramona’s projects. Just sit in the control room. It sounds better that way 🙂 The band records Eight Winds, Gaia and the trio performance of One Of Us. Eight Winds is perhaps my favourite song on the album. The music floats and Ingrid does a soaring solo over those lovely changes. One Of Us sounds great too from up there too. We are done with the core tunes!
Its 5:o0PM – Adam and Johannes leave but Ingrid stays back to do some overdubs for extra parts that Ramona wants. She also records a whole bunch of cool sounds and FX that we plan on using later while mixing. Check out the start of Gaia for a couple that we ended up using. Paul makes a backup of the session files on my disk, we pack up and leave. We are both exhausted. We head to a friends place in NJ where we spend the night, before driving back home to Boston the next day. It’s been a long journey!
Its now close to April and the recording session is looming close. Mind you, through most of this time, I’ve only heard snippets of some of the new music, let alone played it, so I am beginning to panic. With my usual crazy schedule at Cakewalk, I realize I need to spend more time getting into the music. I begin learning some of the new charts. I take a week off before the session so we can soak in the music and prepare for the recording. More than anyone else, I think I need that – this is hard music to play!
Ramona and I jam together and playing through the changes for the tunes. It’s kind of hard to visualize some of this music since there are so many things in the charts that we are not playing yet. She has the sound she wants in her head with all the instrumentation but all I have are cold Sibelius scores. 🙂
We finally leave for NYC on the 24th of April. We have two rehearsals booked with the entire band before the session. Minimal but that’s all we can get in with everyones schedules. The first rehearsal is in Adam’s living room at his Brooklyn apartment. Cool neighborhood 🙂 As we get out of the car, Ingrid arrives. Though we’ve spoken over the phone this is the first time we have met Adam and Ingrid in person. We hang out a few minutes and talk before we unpack and start. The first rehearsal is rough but fun – we basically run through the form for all 10 tunes. The musicians make annotations to their scores and Ramona makes edits where necessary. Some bugs from the Sibelius scores are exposed 🙂 Great to hear some that music played for the first time with all the instrumentation – a powerful experience!
We have some funny moments. While playing Resident Alien, I’m comping and I hear this really wierd pedal point against the chords I’m playing. Oh God – damn I’m lost in the form, I think, not surprising for me 🙂 So I stop and listen to the rest playing the head. Find my place again and start up once more – still wrong. Huh? Then I hear what’s wrong I think – the bass is playing different harmony. So I ask Johannes if he is on the right page of the song – he checks and says yes here’s what I have.. Doh, its not the same changes I have! Turns out Ramona printed out a Bb chart for Johannes – faithful musician that he is he played through it. Must have been thinking – Ramona writes some wierd shit but I’ll play it anyway! Hilarious 🙂 She hands him the right chart and we continue, albeit with a less dissonant sounding tune. It won’t sound the same anymore.
Those dudes learn fast – they aren’t where they’re at for nothing. I record the rehearsal and we take it back with us to check out later. We’re tired but spend the rest of evening making notes for the next rehearsal.
Next day, Saturday we’d booked a rehearsal place in downtown NYC for the second session. Turns out the space is run by an elderly couple right out of their apartment. They have all this vintage recording gear including a 2″ tape system and mixing console, right in their living room next to the dining table. The one big room in the apartment is the converted rehearsal space. The room is actually pretty cool – excellent acoustics and they have a baby grand piano, amps and drumset all set up with mic’s and monitors. Pretty slick for a couple in their 80’s to be running that, eh? Wild – thats NY for you 🙂
We run through all the tunes again. By now the others have the tunes in their head and are excited with the music. We blow some solos today. Ingrid sounds fantastic! Ramona makes some more tweaks to the charts. There are still rough spots but its looking much better today. Its a lot of music, but we’re flat out of time, so we are going to have to make it hang together in the session the next day. Feel the stress? 🙂
We head out with the band to grab some pizza, and driving to the Hampton Inn, that we’d booked for the duration of the recording.
Musicians and studio bookings out of the way, the next big task loomed – this one for Ramona. By this time we were into Feb 2008 and Ramona had about five tunes close to complete. Now was the hard part – writing new music, putting all the charts into Sibelius and finishing up the arrangements, printing out parts for the musicians. We had only scheduled two days to rehearse all the music, so it was important for her to get the charts to the musicians earlier on.
Who’s Your Mama, Resident Alien, Garden Of The Gods and Rio Alegre were tunes that she’d written earlier and that we’d played in some form or the other at gigs, so we had some idea about what they would sound like. Eight Winds was the newest of the lot. Clearly we needed more music for this project. She locked herself into our studio and wrote the remaining music for the album. Did I mention she is prolific? 🙂
Chinese Whispers, Listening To Love, One Of Us, Gaia, Retrospeak. Song titles for most of these came later – we lived with amazingly creative titles for these like ballad 1, ballad 2, Untitled, Waltz all through way past the recording and mixing sessions 🙂 Sometimes it works to let songs name themselves themselves after the finished product.
Around the end of March, Ramona was done. She transferred her pencilled scores to Sibelius, part extracted and printed off the final scores and sent them to the musicians. I was impressed!
Having decided on the musicians the next hurdle was to figure out where we were going to record the project. I had already decided that I was going to mix this project in SONAR by this time, but I didn’t have the studio setup or know anyone who had the gear to record an acoustic jazz project with our requirements. So we would have to rent a commercial studio at least for the tracking.
Most studios still track CD sessions at 16 or 24 bit and 44.1 KHz. One of the goals I had for this project was to future proof this recording and record in high definition audio format, so that we could consider releasing it in hi-def DTS format or even as a surround mix later. Another requirement was that we needed a place with an excellent piano as well as an engineer with experience recording acoustic jazz.
We also considered the logistics of rehearsals. All the other musicians lived in NYC – we’d have to have them come to Boston for the entire duration of the rehearsal and recording. Studios in Boston are relatively less expensive, but we concluded that it would be better overall for us to scedule the recording session in NY.
So I went about researching studios in NY. I had a few choices of my own and Johannes also gave me some leads. Most of the places I called either didn’t have a decent piano, charged close to $200/hr, couldn’t/wouldn’t do 24/96, or had engineers who had no clue about recording, jazz. Hmmm… Boy studio rates in NYC sure are exorbitant for what you get! I was running out of options. Finally, I tracked down Paul Wickliffe who recorded several of Kenny Werner’s CD’s. He had a studio in NJ (Charlestown Road Studios) and had most of the requirements we wanted – 3 iso-booths and a Steinway. He also said he could do 24/96 – not before he tried to convince me that it was worthless though 🙂 Anyway I persisted and he agreed to “rewire” his ProTools HD setup to do 24/96. I would have loved to have tracked in SONAR to make my life easier later, but honestly as long as the audio was being recorded in hi-def with nice mics and through good converters I really didn’t care much.
We booked the final dates for April 27 & 28 2008. Phew, one more milestone done!
Perhaps the most important ingredient next to the music itself, are the musicians on the project. We play with some amazing musicians from time to time, but don’t have luxury of having a working band that is familiar with her music. Given the inevitable time constraints we needed to be able to rehearse and record this project in a very short period of time – two rehearsals and a two day recording session. A somewhat daunting task given some of the music she had written. (Ramona’s music is deceptive – and that’s putting it mildly!)
The first person Ramona contacted was Ingrid Jensen. Ingrid is one of my favourite trumpet players anywhere – she has this soaring sound and melodicism that blew us away when we first heard her many years ago in Montreal. We were thrilled when she replied saying she was excited to be part of this project.
Next was the rhythm section. We’d always wanted to play with great bass player and friend Johannes Weidenmueller, who was our first choice since we’d heard him play similar music before. When rehearsal time is a constraint, it’s always a good idea to have a bass player and drummer who have worked together, so we asked Johannes to recommend some drummers he thought would be a good fit on this project. He gave us a few names some of whom we knew and others we didn’t. I went about looking for their work on the web and Rhapsody, my favourite music research source. We were looking for someone who sounded great at swing, but could also play some ECM and Latin influenced music. I was very impressed with Adam Cruz, a drummer who had also played on Chick Corea’s Origin – Live At The Blue Note recording. He had this light yet driving sound that we liked a lot. We were very happy when both Johannes and Adam agreed to do this project.
Excited with the finalized lineup we moved on the next step. Where do we record? One Of Us: The Studio →[next]
For many of us independent musicians who don’t have the luxury of funding via a record deal, a CD project can be a long, labor-intensive process that takes a lot of planning. It can be exhilarating exhausting and not so fun, all at once, so it’s something you have go into with your eyes wide open. The technology available to us all today might make some aspects of this process more accessible to the independent artist, but this can be deceptive. Statutory Warning: CD production can be injurious to health among other things. It takes a huge commitment and learning curve to follow through with all the aspects of producing a CD, so don’t do this at home unless you have some tolerance to pain :-).
Around the middle of 2007 Ramona and I started discussing her next project. We had been playing around a bit and she had already started writing a bunch of really cool tunes, some of which were sketches of things to be. Ramona is really prolific as a composer (unlike me – I can procrastinate over a song forever!) and some of the new writing sounded very through composed. She already had about 4 new tunes that we had played experimentally at a couple of gigs so we figured it was time to think about a new recording project. Nothing like putting a stake into the ground to force creativity out when its hiding 🙂
Growing up the 70’s, I always admired how records were made then, where albums were cohesive and told a story. Today too many jazz records end up being “blowing sessions” (sadly a lot of this has to do with budgets). While I enjoy listening to records with great solos, few of them bear repeated listening for me. Given the depth of Ramona’s new compositions, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity for us to do a project that was more cohesive and worthy of the term album.
Sooo… to start with we contacted the record label we’d worked with before – nice people and they liked the last project we did a lot. Sadly, with the economy the way it was back then things didn’t look very promising that this would work out in the time frame we wanted to do this. So we had two choices – defer the project until better times or take on the responsibility of producing it all ourselves. We chose the latter.
I have worked for Cakewalk for over 10 years, writing audio production software. While I’ve done various smaller scale projects over the years, I have always wanted to do a full blown CD production from start to finish in SONAR, which has some amazing tools for mixing and production. So this project was going to be a trial by fire for me in more than one regard! Its can be a good thing to eat your own dog food once in a while 🙂
We had a lot to think about, but the next big thing would be to decide on one of the most important ingredients – the musicians on this project.