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Music 265B Week 02 Starting a Project

PDF version available HERE

Whether you’re trying to record your original song, play a cover with a band, or record a musical score for film, you need to prepare your material for the eventual recording session. While the intricacies of songwriting and musical notation are beyond the scope of this course, there are still some important details that songwriters and musicians need to have sorted out before they enter the studio.

Source Material

Depending on the ability and tech savvy of the songwriter, Source Material can come in a few different forms. Original music may start out as a Sketch: lyrics with a melody & chords. When the composer decides on a tempo, genre, style, and basic song structure, they can write down their melody, lyrics and chords in musical notation, in the form of a Lead Sheet. This is typically a one-page rough outline of a song. In fact, lead sheet versions of many Standards (popular songs) are compiled into collections called Fake Books. A composer or arranger could take one of these lead sheets and expand on it. They could write the piece for a specific singer or group of instruments (the ensemble), alter the song structure, tempo, style, and so on. When they notate all of these elements into one document, we call it a musical Score, with individual Parts for each instrument. In the studio, the composer, conductor, and crew follow along to the music with a copy of the score, while the players read and play their individual parts.

Guide for the Session

This section will be expanded upon in a later lesson, but you must be made aware of several concepts at this early phase of the process.

The engineers in charge of running the recording session may not be fluent in musical notation, but there is still some important information about the songs that they need to know in order to do their job. Firstly, what is the song’s Instrumentation? Is someone in the band Doubling on a different instrument (one musician playing more than one individual instrument throughout the piece)? When the engineers make their Setup Sheet (floor plan for the recording session), they will arrange chairs and microphones to account for this information.

The engineers need to know what a song’s Meter and Tempo are in order to program their Metronome. They also need to know what the song’s Structure is: where all of the important sections in a song are, like the verse, chorus, solo, bridge, and so on. In the studio, a musician may say, “I messed up: let’s start again, two bars before the second verse.” These instructions are meaningless to the engineer unless they know where that section is inside their Pro Tools timeline.

If the score & parts were created in a notation program, then the program could Export a Standard MIDI File version of the score. This MIDI file would contain all of the song’s structural information in a format that Pro Tools can read and understand. Importing this MIDI file gives Pro Tools the ability to program all of the song’s tempo & meter changes throughout the session’s timeline. On top of all of this, the MIDI version of the song can serve as a Scratch, Guide, or Pilot track for the rest of the band: they can play along to it. Alternatively, the band could play along with a metronome, programmed to the song’s tempo & meter. Not only will these methods help the band keep in time with one another, they will also make our lives much easier during the editing phase.

Starting Your Project

For the rest of the semester, you will be recording, editing, mixing, and mastering a project for a large ensemble. In order to do that, you need to find some material or create your own. Whether you write original music, play cover tunes, or are simply helping some friends record their first demo, your material needs to be ready for the studio. That means…

Make sure the song is finished, and the band is capable of playing it. There is always room for improvisation, but you can’t waste time trying to write and rehearse a song for the first time while you’re in the recording studio. Decide on a genre, tempo, meter, key, song structure, instrumentation, and so on.

Make a guide for the session. If you use a notation program or other piece of software to create your music, then Save or Export a MIDI file version of your piece, and bring a copy of the Score & Parts as well. If you don’t use this method, then document the song’s Tempo, Meter (along with any changes), Song Structure, Instrumentation, and any other relevant information. This information will determine what kind of setup methods are used in the studio & control rooms (in the next several lessons). If one is available, make a Guide Track, recorded or programmed at the proper tempo: the musicians may be able to play along to this prerecorded track in order to make the recording process more efficient.

Determine what the finished product should be. Yes, this is still a project for class, but are you trying to record a simple demo, a track for an album, a piece of music for film, or something else? This may change as the song passes through each phase of production, but having a goal like this can determine what kind of detail and quality you expect out of your work.

If you’re not sure where to start, refer back to the Digital Audio Recording book. In that course, we took a lead sheet, created an arrangement using MIDI tracks, imported the MIDI into Pro Tools, overdubbed a live player, edited, and mixed the project. You can follow a similar workflow, but the emphasis for this course is Large Ensembles. This can range anywhere from a small combo band to a full orchestra, but any ensemble consists of multiple live instruments, instead of one soloist against a MIDI backing track. If you aren’t musically inclined, you can always record someone else’s material.

You have all semester to record, edit, mix, and master this project. There is no rush, but do not put this off until the last minute. This may take a few days to complete, so start finding your source material now.

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