Recording and Mixing

It has been a while since my last report on the CD creation process, and much has happened. Since that post, I finished composing/recording my songs, engaged the drummer I have worked with for the last 25 years (in Meridian), bought him a plane ticket to Madison, engaged a local bass player, held the recording session, and started mixing.

First, the dramatic personae:

John Ferrari is an amazing drummer and percussionist. I’m using the term “drummer” to refer to his work on the drum set, on which he can play just about any style and any beat. “Percussionist” means he can play anything in the orchestral percussion family, not only drums but mallet instruments (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone) and anything else that you can hit with a stick or hand. There are drummers everywhere, but I insisted on getting John for this recording because I know from experience that I can say to him, “Can you play a groove in 7/8 time that sounds sort of like a group of camels moving through the Sahara at night but sort of like a blues band at a club on 43rd Street?” and he’ll sit down at the drum set and say, “Like this?” and it will be perfect.

I met Nick through a colleague of mine at UW, and heard him play a few times, and loved what I heard. Talking to people about bass players, I heard his name at the top of everyone’s list. I needed someone who could take my repetitive bass lines and start improvising on them, giving them life, variety, and the correct feel. You may remember that I had programmed the computer to play my (rudimentary) bass lines, and they needed to be brought to life.

Recording is something I’ve done a lot of, so I feel very comfortable in the recording studio. There are two parts of a recording studio: the room where the musicians play, and the control room. I have some experience being in the control room, but in this case I was going to be in charge of producing. Producing? That means that I would determine what we would record when, and when it was sounding right and when it wasn’t, and whether the recorded sounds were good (I was prepared to defer on this front to Mike, the mixer, who was engineering the session [that means he was placing the microphones {CRUCIAL} and running the equipment]). For once, I didn’t have to play at a recording session, which, I admit, was a lovely thing. I was very relaxed about the actual sounds we would get on tape (or rather, on “tape,” since there’s no tape any more – everything goes straight to hard disk), because Mike has a huge amount of experience miking drums and bass and engineering in general.

John and I arrived in mid-afternoon with a van-load of borrowed percussion, and unloaded and set up. Special thanks to the UW percussion studio for the equipment. Miking a drum set is a tricky thing, because the mics aren’t smart enough to pick up sound ONLY from the one drum you point them at. We had quite a setup by the end.

IMG_2142This photo shows John in action. The tent in the foreground covers the bass drum and its mic, to provide a little isolation for that sound. There are mics overhead and to the side that capture a broad picture of the drum sound, and spot mics that capture each instrument. Thanks to Mike for knowing what he’s doing – the drums sounded great. The music stand on the left was for Nick.

Traditionally, this kind of music is recorded to a click track. It goes tap-tap-tap to the beat and keeps everyone together. It feels a little like the Chinese Water Torture, however, and John had the idea to use that afternoon and evening to record some tambourine and shaker sounds that could either replace or at least humanize the click track. We were able to do that for every tune and still be home in time for dinner and a few Manhattans*, which are an important component of any recording session.

We all converged at 9:30AM the next morning to record bass and drums together. I had spent hours the previous week writing out the music for John and Nick – I wanted to give them a rudimentary picture of the melody and bass line. Music that shows this stuff is called a lead sheet. It doesn’t have everything – if it did, the musicians would be turning pages every three seconds.  Our process was the same for each song: listen to the recording as it existed so far, discuss the feel, and start recording.

In some of the pieces, I wanted Nick to play what I had written, and in others I wanted him to take my notes as a mere beginning, embellishing them in any way that felt right. He did this brilliantly. Wandering off the printed page into the land of creativity is what you do when you are a bass player, and Nick is a master. John, meanwhile had great ideas about the kinds of grooves that would work. For one song, for example, he suggested a techno groove that I never would have thought of in a million years but which was perfect for the song. He asked me what I had had in mind, and I said “I had in mind that you would have a brilliant idea of what to do with this song, which you did.” Hire the right people and life is easy.

We spent the day working through the songs, and finished the drum/bass stuff at precisely 5:00, when Nick had to go. Then, we wanted to overdub some more percussion, mostly timbales, but also congas, onto a few songs.

IMG_2148Here is John playing the timbales – his sticks are moving so fast, you can barely see them. He has to wear headphones to hear the recorded material as he plays. After finishing that up, I had two songs I wanted to add snare drum to. I sort of danced the part for John as we  listened and he stood behind the snare drum, and he read my mind and played exactly what I wanted. We wrapped things up by around 6:45, returned the equipment to the percussion studio at school and were done.

The next step in the process is mixing, as I have discussed in previous posts. But these post-recording mixing sessions (we have had two) REALLY matter. Whatever we do to the sounds will be what the vast CD purchasing public will hear. Mike and I started with what we thought would be the most difficult song, and spent four and a half hours on it. It may still need a little more tweaking. Getting it right can take time. In our second session, of three hours, we completed three songs, which felt much better.

I cannot tell you, dear readers, how excited I am that this project is coming to fruition. I hope we will be done in about a month, and then it’s a matter of sending the recording around to some labels to see who would like to release it. That will undoubtedly lead to its own blog post, so I’ll talk to you soon.



*Bourbon, sweet vermouth, and a few drops of Angustura bitters, for those who have not experienced this elixir.

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3 Responses to Recording and Mixing

  1. Adam Grabois says:

    This is really good.

    Buenos noches.


  2. Rebecca Boehm Shaffer says:

    What Adam said.

  3. Ruth says:

    I love reading about the behind-the-scenes work of producing a CD. Thanks!

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