Keep Everything: Audio Hording

When magnetic tape was the only available medium, recording was a deliberate action, even within the realms of the experimental. Hard drives may be finite devices, but even at high resolution, terabytes of storage can allow the user to feel otherwise. Years ago I would have a stack of DAT tapes ready to pop in and leave running throughout sessions to capture the action on the mixbuss in case of a missed gem, however compromised its quality. In writing this I’m wondering whether I ought to dust off the old DAT beast and reinstate this system.

What brought this to mind is a recent editing session for the Ghost Smoke album. Funnily enough the ‘magic’ was caught on tape, which I then transferred to digital when the chance arose. The end sectiIMG_5746on of the song Redrum has a multi layered vocal that I felt needed some brash distortion, and having dismissed a selection of distortion/fuzz pedals I settled on a LEM Baby (Univox) solid state mixer which does a fine line in ear-torturing distortion. It also has a tape echo attached, but this was left off for the mix and substituted by a delay pedal at the input (an Electro-Harmonic Memory Boy). The vocal parts needed editing so, spotting an opportunity for sonic oddities, I left the tape echo running and removed the erase head that normally wipes the tape loop ready for a fresh echo round. IMG_5768The LEM Baby tape loop is very long, taking around a minute to repeat. The editing lasted a good few minutes, leaving the tape saturated in the massed vocals, devoid of any synchronous aspect. On top of this, the tape loop is knackered and the moving parts in need of lubrication, which causes hideous slurring (traditionally called ‘wow and flutter’).

Once I’d finished editing I listened back to the tape and found a slurred, blurred and fuzzy mash of vocals, well worth capturing for some other purpose. In fact it quickly became obvious this would become a useful textural enhancement within the song. Boom! Very little effort and a whole new, somewhat creepy, mix element. With a dash of filtering and reverb, here is the tape loop noise in question…

GHOST SMOKE: a mix diary part 2

Sequence BoardBefore mixing for the Ghost Smoke album started in earnest we created a provisional sequence which, at the time of writing, still stands. As with most albums, there are tracks that have definite roles: openers, enders and the ‘big’ one. The opener, ‘THEM’, is a no-brainer here as it’s sort of the title track; the chorus contains the lyric “Them were the Ghost Smoke”.

Having cracked open the mixing with ‘DRMs’ (see part 1 of this mix diary), the third track in the sequence, I decided to go back to the beginning and mix from there. It seemed as good an approach as any, especially as the narrative that runs through most of this record is established in this first song. ‘DRMs’ was mixed entirely digitally, with the exception of a touch of tape echo on the vocal courtesy of my beloved 1965 WEM Custom Copicat, but this is so far the exception. Having cleaned up all the edits for ‘THEM’ I zoned in on Tom’s vocal TQ Compsand played around with a few options to set the tone. The digital options weren’t satisfying me so I quickly ran it out through some outboard gear in search of better/different. Sure enough, after a bit of routing on the patchbay I had the vocal running through an EQ and two compressors, both nibbling the dynamic range by a couple of dBs each either side of the EQ (for the geeks it was a JDK Audio R24 EQ, an ART PROVLA valve compressor and a solid state BSS DPR402 compressor/limiter).

DE200In mixing ‘THEM’ I set a routine that has continued throughout he following mixes (at time of writing this I am five tracks in) which revolves around a few pieces of outboard equipment. Firstly there’s an 80s digital delay (a Boss DE200) which is perfect for helping a vocal sit out in a mix without having to necessarily lifted in volume. It distorts easily, has very limited high frequency response and is simple/fun to use – less is definitely more. At the other end of the fidelity scale is the Kurzweil K2600, a true behemoth of a synth/sample/effects unit. To use it requires digesting two enormous manuals, which I did many years ago and haven’t looked back (well, occasionally when I get lost in the operating system). This provides, in this context, 8 channels (or 4 stereo channels) of plush effects, the highlights of which are the reverbs. These beat the pants off any plugin reverbs I have and has now become my ‘go-to’ space-maker. The mix for ‘THEM’ created a template approach for all proceeding mixes with the K2600 providing a room for the vocal, a different room for the bulk of the instruments (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, piano, etc.) and a large hall/chamber type for occasional spacey elements (music box, strings, spooky vocals and the like).

FX RackThis record has been created over a long period in small blocks and so nothing has been recorded in parallel, with each instrument being added as and when musicians could be convinced to play for us. This piecemeal approach can make it difficult to create a cohesive sound, and it is during mixing that any lack of coherence becomes painfully obvious. I like to think we have managed to produce a core ‘band’ sound on each track, whilst being able to adorn the basic track with all the twinkly bits we wanted to bring the songs, and especially the narrative components, to life. Often this was achieved in reverse as songs, such as this one, started off with sampled drum loops and some scratch instrument tracks to record the vocals to, but along the way we added things like strings (violin and viola courtesy of Sarah Anderson) and piano (Benji Bower and Ian Ross) long before recording the backbone drums/bass/guitar. The drums for ‘THEM’ were tracked at Babyhead’s rehearsal space with Alex Lupo in a series of sessions in which we made him play increasingly bizarre setups (one included a snare drum covered in pasta to be struck with a giant lollipop). This track was a little more straightforward with only a knackered old marching bass drum representing the freaky side. A few old ribbon mics were thrown up and boom, we were done. It was probably a year before I got around to adding the bass, two electric guitar parts and lap steel (I also added a zither played with teaspoons for good measure). The trick was to make this sound like it was really some people in a room, playing off one another. I hope it achieves that.When starting a mix I like to imagine where it is taking place, or where the listener is. It may be something as simple as a church hall or a swampy shack, or it can be a series of different perspectives shifting throughout the song. Having set the basic vocal sound, along with a little Boss DE200 delay tucked in behind it, I look for a suitable place to put it, focussing on where the voice is in relation to the listener. For this track I used a simple room simulation, keeping it small and personal during the verses, but (via means of automation) expanding the space around the voice for the choruses to support a more grandiose delivery. As with ‘DRMs’, the mix process lingers on the vocals for quite some time before I pull in any other elements, seeing how far I can get the vocals alone to work as a song. Once it feels no further progress can be made, a few basic instruments are pulled in and sculpted to form a suitable bedding for the vocal. If there are backing vocals they will be in the mix before any other instruments, as again the voices are the most important parts, even if they occupy a background placement. The last section of ‘THEM’ features Ellee, Tom’s wife, singing a reprise of the chorus. This sets up a female counterpart to the male voice throughout the record, though it is not always Ellee. The role calls for a spectral quality, a voice at some remove from the real; ambiguous in age, purpose and corporeality. This required shaving out some mid frequencies that we use to judge distance, but without creating a shrill top end, a problem alleviated by using subtle distortion and compression. As well as getting sent to the Kurzweil big room reverb (along with a zither, accordion, lapsteel, piano, music box and a multi-layered Brian singing ‘Them’) the Ellee vocal was passed through an Eventide Modfactor, a stereo guitar effects pedal that I have semi-permanently patched in for mix purposes.  This gives a shimmering tremolo effect to further enhance the spectral quality. Most of the subsequent mixes have featured this pedal strapped across stereo back vocal groups for either tremolo or rotary speaker effects, as this helps them catch the ear without taking over the foreground which needs to be kept clear for the lead vocal.

The key sound, aside the vocals, is the music box. Tom had created the music box parts included in the bulk of the track long before any of the other recordings were made, and these really set the tone for the record, like a short form for childhood nightmares and hallucinations. The intro to the song takes a mashup of the drums, some twisted bits of Ellee’s later vocal and the winding up of the virtual music box that is the Ghost Smoke album. I also have to credit my Mum with recording the music box sounds used in the into which she captured on her iPhone when visiting an acquaintance who collects the damn things – yay Mums.

I had intended to write about a few mixes in this post, but instead I’ve blathered on about the opening track, so without further ado here is a sampler of sounds from ‘THEM’, in isolation and from the final mix.

GHOST SMOKE: a mix diary part 1

Some years ago a friend of mine (Tom) played me some songs he was tinkering with on his laptop. I think he was angling to get me to record them properly, but with no budget he had to resort to (un)subtle methods. Maybe it was just good timing. The few songs I heard were completely different to those he writes with his band Babyhead, with whom I had produced a couple of albums. I had not been creating music for a while since my band had fizzled out and was looking for something to get my teeth into aside from the usual audio work. I was also starting to build a new studio (Sandpit) as well as embarking on the journey into parenthood. Tom’s music drew on themes of childhood nightmares and English folklore, his rough demos were layered up with sampled acoustic instruments, and the long poem-like lyrics were delivered in a fragile melodic style I had not heard from him before. I offered to help produce this work and see where it lead. Quickly our joint musical buddy Brian joined the fray, adding a necessary counterbalance to the rather dark tendencies Tom and I share (musically that is) as well as working as a vocal producer while I became busy being a dad and studio designer/builder.

The Ghost Smoke project, as it has been known, started off with an aesthetic framework based on acoustic instruments, no samples or synths, and a bias towards the atmospheric over the musical. The other major point was that mine and Tom’s joint adoration of Tom Waits would not overtly influence the work.

Cut to the present. The tracking for the Ghost Smoke album was completed at the end of 2014. We blagged loads of excellent musician friends, recorded in bedrooms, rehearsal spaces and basements, wrestled with arrangements, and inevitably compromised on nearly every single intention we had! Yep, there’s electric guitar and bass all over it (my bad!), a sampled Mellotron appears on one track (couldn’t blag a real one, and it’s been processed to fuck anyway!), and there’s no hiding our love of Tom Waits (luckily I’m an average guitar player so I can’t pull off a full Marc Ribot impression). Most importantly we have loved making it, however drawn out the process or far off the completion, and we hope others will share our enthusiasm, especially as that might be the only payback we get from this personal indulgence.

Tom, Brian and I managed to find two days in December 2014 where we could sit together in the Sandpit control room and edit down the bulging multitracks for the twelve songs on the album. We then scattered to the four winds with the agreement that I would get the mixes up to scratch for a final run through and tweak before moving onto mastering and distribution. Building the studio, as well as trying to earn a basic living, left me scant time to do any such thing, and the longer I left it the harder it became to sit down and start mixing. More than a little conscious of this I decided to set myself a gateway task to kick things off, hoping that things would gain momentum and confidence from there. The latter point is an important one as I’ve not mixed an album of this kind for a long while, and mixing is all about confidence for me. I picked a track where the vocal is, for the most part, coupled with a simple acoustic guitar. In fact, it’s set against a double tracked recording of ‘The Dog’, a crappy japanese nylon string acoustic that I love despite its honky tone, terrible action/intonation and its dog-chewed headstock. I have to credit my long time friend and guitarist dude Roger Watson for managing to record the guitar part with the Dog – I tried and failed as I just don’t have the finesse, being a bass player who mostly abuses guitars. Anyway, I wanted the vocal to feel present and intimate, but be able to fly off into the wind during the second verse as the blowing of the North wind and the crashing of the sea fill the moonlit scene set out in the lyrics. We haven’t gone for the rather corny and literal foley approach and used crashing waves and whooshing wind, but there’s plenty of modulated tape hiss, verbed out guitar and breathy bass clarinet to set the scene. I’ve been mixing in lunch breaks and the odd hour when I’m waiting for sealant to dry, so progress has been sporadic, but a momentum has begun to build. I etched away at the aural picture created by just the acoustic guitar, tape hiss and vocal in the verses, leaving out the explosive choruses (wailing theremin-like female vocal, drum kit, double bass, electric guitars, harmonium and bass clarinet) until I was happy with the main lyrical balance.

The tape hiss comes from the harmonium overdubs I made on a Tascam 34B 1/4″ 4 track I’ve had in for repair. As it hasn’t been calibrated I thought it would the ideal candidate, along with some old 3M tape stock that shed oxide like a shaking wet dog, for re-pitching the early 20th century church harmonium I have (it’s almost a semitone sharp of A440 pitch). Though it’s only played in the choruses I recorded throughout the verses to get noise and hiss, as well as some creaking and breathing sounds as I sat at the harmonium occasionally tapping keys, shifting in my seat and pumping the bellows. A double track of this stuff, panned hard left/right, really sets the scene. This technique was used on a few tracks on the album. Here are some audio examples so you can hear what I’m on about…

First, just the harmonium/tape track (‘tapemonium’)…

Next, tapemonium with the ‘Dog’ acoustic guitar and electric guitar buss…

Finally, the same section but with the whole mix in to give an idea of context.


And here’s some photos from the sessions.

Church harmonium mic'ed by a single Coles 4038
Church harmonium mic’ed by a single Coles 4038
Tascam 34B
Tascam 34B 1/4″ 4-track winding away. Don’t be fooled by the Ampex 456 spools – I put on some old 3M/Scotch 250 that left oxide piles after every take – keeps you from playing too many takes though.

At the time of writing I have mixed 4 of the 12 tracks for the album and will try and write some more about the process as it has been scary, fun and deeply satisfying.

So near and yet so far

It has been a while since I last scribed anything here, though I have often thought ‘ah ha, blog time’…but nothing. It’s late, I’m still awake and home alone so I might as well bash out a quick update.

The build of the control room at Sandpit Studio has been coming along, though my time spent on the project has been split with working (mostly making samples for Future Music and Computer Music, as well as the odd review/article thing and even more rare recording sessions) and being with my baby daughter. As of this moment the two isolation shells are up and sealed, the basic floated floor is in (rock wool, plasterboard and T&G chipboard) and the air extraction system is going in. The final floor will be parquet which has been reclaimed and is currently being trimmed of its old bitumen layer, which is probably the least pleasant task of the build so far.

One of the four piles of parquet

The parquet trimming booth

Tomorrow the glazing will be delivered, which is two 1m x 1.5m panes of Optilam Phon laminated acoustic glass – one 10.8mm thick and the other 8.8mm thick. The tricky task is to build the two angled frames that will hold them along with all the decoupling shenanigans that goes with studio windows. It’s time to get the router out and cut some super straight channels. Alongside this ‘beyond-my-paygrade’ job I will be installing the two door casings for the partially glazed fire doors, again keeping the decoupling techniques to the fore as well as trying to get it all millimetre perfect. In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of the room as it stands…

Control room and window aperture

Control room boiler access hatch

Though I won’t be using the boiler in my unit it needs to be left running for the unit next door and accessible for servicing, thus the hatch. The photo above show the two hatches in the first isolation layer – I have yet to make and install the inner isolation hatch, which will be a hinged door. The whole room will be fitted with a control layer frame to house and support the various acoustic treatments (diffusors, bass traps and absorbers), storage and recessed bench at the back of the room, air extraction/inlet ducting and mains/audio cable runs.

My absurd plan is to have the floor finished, the A/C and ventilation fitted and running, the mains AC dropped in and the doors/window fitted by Christmas so I can move the desk, workstation, monitors and some outboard in. This will allow me to have a couple of weeks off before starting the acoustic testing that will decide the exact treatment that will be fitted. I have a basic plan, but I really need to hear/see how my basic modelling predictions work out before continuing, as I could be a total dunce and have just not noticed. I am also desperate to move out of my daughter’s bedroom-to-be as it is now almost impossible to move around in due to the piles of desk modules, guitars/basses, pedals, rackmount gear, patch bays, monitors and computer stuff. It is also the room that the reusable nappies are dried in…mmmm, a fragrant accompaniment to editing and mixing.

Obviously a few bargains have been had since I last posted here, and here are some highlights.

Eventide ModFactor, 80s Arion Distortion & Compressor pedals

LittleLabs Redeye DI/reamp, Boss DE200 delay, BSS DPR402 compressor and JDK R24 EQ

The Eventide ModFactor is a whole bag of fun, as well as offering up a massive range of modulation effects, from the subtly tasteful to the completely f*@$ed. The fact that it has independently switchable I/O levels (instrument or line) makes it a useful stereo DI/reamper too. I have been using an Arion Stereo Chorus (the oddly sought after SCH-1) since I somehow managed to sneak it off my brother two decades ago and I love it, so recently I decided, like all pedal addicts, to collect more of the range. For a total sum of £21 I have added the SCO-1 stereo compressor and the SDI-1 stereo distortion. These are by no means hi-fi, but they have already proved themselves useful for guitar, synth and reamping duties. You can never have enough pedals. Never ever. On the subject of reamping, I managed to pick up, for a criminally low price, the Little Labs Redeye DI/reamp box. This is a top quality passive box that has seen constant usage since I got my grubby mitts on it (grubby from trimming bloody parquet flooring!). The adjustable reamp output makes feeding pedals a doddle, especially things like my Mu-Tron IIIs, EH Poly Phase and Doctor-Q which are amplitude dependent. In the photo this is sat on top of the 12-bit beast that is the Boss DE200 digital delay. I bought this off a friend who was downsizing his collection without hesitation as I have been coveting it since it was in a studio we shared some years ago. It’s crunchy and cranky but you can dub-out with it for ages in a way that posh delays and fiddly virtual ones never do. I may give it an overhaul soon as most of the LEDs only work when you hit it, and that’s just not a nice way to treat a unit. I have always wanted a BSS DPR402 compressor and as usual I have waited years for a bargain, but when it appeared I snatched it right up. As most of my outboard is packed away in storage this has been my analogue path comp for drums, guitar and synths (it’s not a great choice for bass). Below that in the photo is the JDK Audio R24 EQ, which I reviewed when it first came out under the shortlived API ‘Arsenal Audio’ brand (JVC claimed copyright on the name for some car radio bullshit – like people were going to get confused?!). Anyway, I really liked it but couldn’t afford it at the time. Sure enough one winked at me at less than half price – what could I say? Also I am lacking in outboard EQ so it’s needed – I have a Gyraf diy Calrec EQ in the pipeline as well to start filling this gap.

The other significant purchase was a Coles 4038 ribbon mic in mint condition which can now keep my refurbished original STC 4038 company. I used them on a drum recording for the Gallow Birds’ Ghost Smoke album project the day after I received the Coles. They were on overhead duty whilst a Royer R121 captured the kick and a Sennheiser MD441 nestled in with the snare. The two 4038s on their own sound beautiful, but rolling in a touch of the Royer kick fattens things up nicely and the 441, again just rolled in a tad, helps pick up the snare. Dust with a little compression (or imperial shitloads) and a sprinkle of HF and there you have it. The excellent drumming also helped (thanks Alex Lupo).

Enough of this, I don’t want to come over all Gearslutz…I’ll be A/Bing my pants next and talking about how Rupert Neve always darns his socks with transformer winding wire or something…