Music 265B Week 06 Recording an Ensemble
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Here’s a brief review of what we’ve covered so far.
Pre-Production: The songwriters create a piece of music: they decide on a tempo, structure, key, instrumentation, etc. When the music is polished into its finished form, they hire musicians, rehearse, and book time in the recording studio.
Studio Setup: The engineer consults with the producer & bandleader to determine the best way to record the ensemble. The engineer drafts a Setup Sheet, which details how the musicians will be arranged in the studio, where stands & baffles will be placed, what microphones will be used, and where the microphones will be placed. The crew arranged the studio’s recording space according to the setup sheet. Chairs, stands, and baffles are placed first. Cable runs & headphones are laid out, followed by the microphones. Meanwhile, the engineer configures the control room.
Control Room Setup: The engineer turns on the equipment in the proper order – speakers are turned on last, and turned off first. If a patch bay or outboard gear is used, the engineer makes the necessary patches in order to get from the console to the interface. Next, the engineer creates a Pro Tools Session file that matches the setup sheet: this typically means one mono Audio Track for each microphone/channel used on the sheet. The engineer labels the tracks, assigns the tracks’ Input/Output routing, creates a Click Track, uses the Sends & Aux Input tracks to create a separate headphone mix for the band, sets up instrument groups & basic panning, and configures the session’s Rulers (tempo, meter, and so on) to match the song’s structure.
That brings us to today’s lesson, the actual recording session. Our objective here is to capture the band’s best performance on clean, high-quality audio files. While it’s not necessarily our fault if the band can’t play their parts, our responsibility is to ensure that what we record is clean, clear, and distortion free. We can achieve this in several ways.
When everything is in place and connected all the way down the signal chain, we can start setting our levels. In Pro Tools, Arm the audio tracks by pressing the red Record Enable button on each track (we can arm every track in the session by holding down the Option key and left-clicking on the button). In Pro Tools HD, we have the option of using the green Input Monitor button to hear the track’s input without recording anything instead.
Next, have an assistant go into the studio, and gently Scratch the grill on the microphone. Alternatively, they can clap, or speak into the microphone. While they Check the microphone, adjust the Gain control on the preamp until we see/hear the signal in Pro Tools. At this point, we are just trying to confirm that everything is connected and working properly – the sound is traveling from the source to our recorder. If something is wrong, we need to troubleshoot the problem. Start with the source. Is the microphone/DI connected? Does it turned on or does it need Phantom Power? Are the cables connected to the right channels? Is there a bad cable? Is the signal properly routed from the console, through the patch bay, to the interface? Is it playing back through the correct signal path? Make any necessary adjustments, or replace the defective parts as needed. We need to confirm that everything works before we move on.
At this point, we need to have an understanding of Gain Structure. There are several elements involved in this. The Signal is the sound from the source we want to hear on any given channel: the sound of an instrument, voice, etc. Leakage, or Bleed, is sound from another source that we don’t want to hear on our channel. For example, we don’t want to hear the sound of the drums leaking onto our vocalist’s microphone, or the kick drum bleeding into the snare drum microphone. We eliminate, or at least reduce leakage with proper microphone placement & settings, baffling, and isolation. We can affect the Signal in several other ways. Gain refers to how much the signal has been adjusted, measured in Decibels (dB). For example, a -10 dB pad on a microphone will cut the incoming signal down by 10 decibels. The Gain Knob on a preamp will boost the incoming signal by a varying amount. Noise is the inherent background interference in electronic equipment. If you turn on a guitar amplifier or a tape recorder, there may be a slight hissing sound coming out of the equipment: this is noise. A microphone may pick up unwanted room tone, but the microphone’s electronics will still impart some kind of noise into the signal as well. The volume level of this noise is called the Noise Floor. When adjusting our signal’s gain, we want to make the signal louder than the noise floor. In general, we want to make the signal on a track as loud as reasonably possible, without distorting, clipping, overloading, saturating, etc. Every piece of equipment can only handle a certain amount of signal before it gets overloaded. In the analog world, this overload might produce a musically pleasing distortion, like the overdrive on a guitar amp. In the digital world, this overload sounds nasty. We call the space between the signal level and distortion level Headroom. When we set our levels, we want to adjust our gain structure so the signal is louder than the noise, but still softer than the distortion threshold, with enough headroom in case the player gets louder. We need to set up this gain structure for every piece of equipment in the signal chain, from the microphone, to the preamp, to the compressor (if used), to our playback system.
In Pro Tools, select Options > Pre-Fader Metering, and make sure Pre-Fader Metering is checked. Set all of our Faders on the Mix Window Flat to 0. We can Option-Click on them to do this as well. This will ensure that the level we see on the meter matches the sound we hear.
When we set our levels, we tell the musician to play or sing into the microphone as loud as they intend to play, or to play their loudest section in a piece of music. Musically, we might tell them to play Fortissimo. First, we make sure the sound source doesn’t overload the microphone. If an instrument is too loud at the source, we can place a Pad on the microphone. At the preamp, we adjust the gain knob until the signal is as strong as possible without clipping on the meter, and without saturating or distorting (use your ears to check for that). If we are patching through a compressor, adjust the input, output, and other settings to make sure we aren’t over-compressing the signal. At this stage, if we do use compressors, Light Compression/Limiting should be used to avoid clips and distortion – don’t saturate and ruin the sound.
In general, we can crank up the gain until the signal peaks on the meter or saturates & distorts in our ears. When that happens, lower the gain by a few decibels to give ourselves some headroom. The musicians will get louder as they get comfortable and warmed up.
Work your way down the setup sheet: start with the first channel, check & set that level, then move on to the next channel. When recording a section or group of instruments, like the drum set, we usually check each individual channel, and then have that section play by itself. For example, have the drummer play each individual drum in order to get the best signal, then have the drummer play the entire kit for a little while. Use that opportunity to adjust any other settings, and use the sends to create a headphone mix. If any channels peak on the meters or sound distorted, lower the gain knob: not the faders. The faders in Pro Tools control the outgoing playback volume, not the incoming signal level.
Bring up the Transport with Window > Transport, and select all of the options under View > Transport, specifically Expanded Transport. These view options can be displayed through the dropdown arrow next to the transport as well. The Transport controls the recording and playback functions in Pro Tools.
Pro Tools has several different Record Modes for different situations – we can change them by Right-Clicking on the transport’s Record Button. Normal mode records new audio files using Non-Destructive Recording. In non-destructive modes, audio files aren’t destroyed or erased if we record over them in the edit window – the files still exist in the clip list. To record in this mode, click in the Edit Window’s timeline with the Selector Tool to select a starting point, arm the transport by left clicking on the record button, and then press the Play Button (or Space Bar). Press the space bar again to stop.
Loop Record lets us record over a highlighted section multiple times, which will non-destructively create multiple audio files. We can also Loop Playback by right clicking on the Play Button. This will loop (repeat) a section multiple times until we manually stop the recording/playback.
Destructive Record will destroy any audio files that get recorded over in the edit window. There is no way to undo the damage if these files are accidentally erased. Don’t use this mode unless you know what you’re doing.
Quick Punch mode can start and stop recording in the middle of our playback at any time. Simply press the record button to punch in & out. Alternatively, we can press 3 on the Number Pad to arm/play/record with one command. Pressing the button a second time will punch out and stop the recording process, but it won’t stop playback. Pressing the space bar will stop playback.
Other Transport Functions
The Counter is the main numerical time display on the transport. Click on the drop-down arrow next to the counter to change the time reference (Bars & Beats, Timecode, etc.) or select the Show Sub-Counter to display two time references at once.
Pre-Roll & Post-Roll will start or end playback at a set time before or after our start/end markers. In the Pre-Roll & Post-Roll fields, enter a time, like 2 seconds or 2 measures. With pre-roll enabled, the session will start playing back 2 seconds/measures before our marker. We can use this to punch in and record a new section, while giving the musicians a few measures to prepare. Pro Tools will record audio files during this lead-in/ring-out time, but the clip in the edit window will only display during the marked time.
Count Off will play the metronome for several bars before the recording starts. Unlike pre-roll, the audio file doesn’t start recording until the play head starts moving. The Metronome icon will enable/disable the click track’s metronome.
We can record takes in a few different ways. In a tape-based system, we would have to record one take after another. Let’s say a song is 3 minutes long. Take one would begin at the start of the tape, take two would start around 3 minutes into the tape, take three around six minutes, and so on. While we can record this way, we have the option of using Playlists. Recording each take on a new playlist allows us start each take at the same time reference – every take can begin at the start of the session file. If we record to a click track, every measure and section will take place at the same time reference. Go to the edit window, and look for the small dropdown arrow to the right of the track name: this is the Playlist Selector. To make a new playlist, click on the dropdown arrow and click New. If we only select one track at a time, we can give the playlist a new name. If we have a group activated, the new playlists will just add a new number after the track name: Guitar.01, Guitar.02, etc.
Whether we record with playlists, or treat Pro Tools like an old tape machine, we need to keep a log of each recorded take. Take Sheets (Discussed in chapter 4 of Basic Audio Recording Techniques), keep track of when each take starts & ends, and what happened during the take: complete, incomplete, false starts, or good takes. We can make markers & memory locations within the session to keep track of when and where these takes happen, but keeping a separate log in the form of a Take Sheet is ideal.
When recording, we need to use perceptive listening: evaluating each take for their best & worst qualities. Keep an ear out for any mistakes, or solid performances. Even if the band made a mistake, other sections of the song might be useful, or better than others. Making notes of these things during the recording process will save us time when we go to overdub and edit later.
Communicating With the Band
Studio musicians know how to behave during a session, but amateurs may need a few pointers on what to do (and not do) before, during, and after each take. Before we start recording a take, tell the band to “Stand By” and wait for everyone to get quiet and settled. When they’re ready, start recording, and let the band know that we’re “Rolling” when the session is recording. We can either say something verbally, or use hand signals. If the band wants to Count Off out loud (“One, Two, Three, Four”), make the “Three, Four” silent. We want the room to be quiet before we start recording, otherwise the reverberating noise in the room will get picked up in the recording. If they make a mistake, keep going. Saying “Sorry, I screwed up” out loud will ruin the take for everyone: some bad performances can be edited or overdubbed, but audible mistakes can’t, especially when it ruins the take for everyone else. The song doesn’t end when the last note is struck: it ends when that note has finished ringing out in the room. Wait for the room to fall silent before you stop recording. The musicians will have to wait for the sound to die down before they start noodling on their instruments, or congratulating one another. Interrupting the Ring Out will ruin the take. When the last note rings out, signal the band by holding a hand up: they shouldn’t drop their sticks or instruments until everything is quiet. When the sound has decayed to nothing, stop the recording and signal the band.
When we’re ready to record, mark a new take in the session. Arm the tracks, arm the transport, signal the band, and record. When the take has finished ringing out, stop and label the take. Prepare the next take either by making a new playlist, or by clicking in the timeline several seconds after the previous stake. Repeat this until we have two or three good, and complete takes to choose from.
Solos, and other featured parts are usually overdubbed after the ensemble records their best take.
To record an Overdub, select the best take, make a new audio track, adjust the microphone placement or microphone level as needed, arm the track, and record. The musician will play along to the previously recorded material. Overdubbing allows the soloist to try again and again without ruining the take for everyone else.
At this stage, the band and producer will want to hear what they just recorded. To create a simple rough mix, Pan the instruments as needed: stereo groups like drum overheads and room mics are usually panned hard left & right, while the rest of the band may be panned to reflect where the player would normally appear if the band was onstage: drums, bass, and vocals near the center of the mix, with other members spread around the left and right sides. As for levels, adjust the Faders so everything can be heard clearly without overpowering the other instruments. This is by no means the finished mix: the engineer, producer, and musicians need to hear everything in order to notice any mistakes. We will cover mixing in-depth at a later time. For now, our concern is making sure we have several good and clean takes before we move on to editing the tracks.