If I Could Only Dance

As part of the ‘Recording Techniques’ module for current first and second-year undergrads, we were assigned the task of producing a full multitrack recording. The brief stated that the submission must be a song of 2:30 to 3:30 in length and must contain at least three recorded elements.

As I have a lot of experience with recording, I decided to go all out and use this chance to record a piece based on a demo I’d been working on: ‘If I Could Only Dance’. Alongside the recording, we were asked to include a brief report detailing in part, a description of the piece, why we chose the piece and how we recorded, mixed and mastered the piece. Here is my report which, alongside the recording, was awarded 75%, a first.

Choice of Track

The piece chosen is a contemporary indie-pop song called ‘If I could Only Dance’. The piece was written by myself and features a traditional rock/pop band setup composed of several electric guitars, an electric bass guitar, drum kit and vocals. My intention for the recording is to use a full suite of modern techniques but add a slight vintage twist, inspired by bands like The Smiths and The Cure, as well as more modern indie music. This means using a lot of reverb and a lot of chorus on the guitars.

The Recording Process

The song was recorded by tracking all instruments individually, with the drums being tracked first. Since the song was an original composition very new to the drummer, I decided to DI some guitars as a guide track for the drummer to play to, to avoid him losing his place in the song. This made teaching the song much faster, though there was still a lot of stopping and starting.

Since the song is quite fast, the drummer did have issues with timing. Because of this, the DI guitar tracks I had already recorded would be out of time for certain sections, leading to the decision to get rid of the original guide tracks and click track and optioning for the rest of the musicians to record with just the drum track, the intention being that (hopefully) at least the track will be in time with itself.

The guitars were recorded second because they provide the main accompaniment for the track and I was recording these myself. This meant that I already had a clear idea of exactly what to play, which in turn could be used to guide the other musicians. Thirdly came the bass, entirely because of scheduling, and the vocals were recorded last. For most people listening, the vocals are the most important part of a track. This means that the vocalist has to give a solid performance, which is much easier for a performer when they’re singing over a full track.

The only musician playing to a click was the drummer, who played whilst listening to a click track and DI guitars. As stated previously, all musicians after that were playing to just the tracks recorded previously, allowing them to keep time with the track, even if the track as a whole is not in time. The only exception to this is the guitar solo, which was recorded with a click and the original DI guitars.

Recording Each Element

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Drums

The drums were recorded with 6 microphones, two overhead and 4 close mics. The overhead microphones are two AKG C414s in a ‘recorderman’ setup, one on-axis mic two drumstick lengths above the snare top and one over the drummer’s right shoulder, pointed towards the snare top and equidistant from it with the on-axis mic.

The snare top was close-miked with a Shure SM57, as it’s such a standard in recording drums. The mic was placed with the capsule around 3-4 inches above the rim of the snare, directed towards the centre of the snare. To keep the mic out of the drummer’s way, the mic was placed in-between the snare and the hi-hat, which was moved as far to the left as was comfortable, to reduce bleed. 

The kick drum was recorded with an AKG D112 placed just inside the porthole and aimed at the point at which the beater hits the drum, giving a lot of attack with a good low-end response. The low tom was an important part to close mic since it’s used so much in the drum part. The mic used was an EV RE20, for its low-end response, and it was positioned much like the snare mic.

Guitars

To avoid wasting valuable studio time, guitars were tracked in my flat using a Focusrite Scarlett Solo DI box. I could then export these DI tracks and re-amp them in the studio, meaning that I could simply play the track once through the amp and record the output playing the already perfect take. The DI tracks were re-amped through the Vox AC30VR and recorded with a Shure SM57 between the speaker centre and edge, slightly off-axis.

Due to the resources available, all guitar tracks, bar the guitar solo and its harmony track, were recorded in the same way. The guitar solo and harmony were processed with an amp simulator called ‘Bias’ due to time constraints and the need for a much higher-gain tone than the provided amps could produce.

Bass

Bass was recorded in my flat with a DI box. This is very convenient and provides a much higher bandwidth than an amp. Since the player was again unfamiliar with the song and the bass-line I had in mind was very simple, I was aiming for a sound with a lot of low-end to fill out the sound, rather than add a new rhythmic element.

Vocals

The lead vocals were recorded with an AKG C414 with a pop-shield. The microphone was brought up to mouth-height with the pop-shield moved around 6 inches back from the capsule. Vocals were tracked with the singer in the control booth, with a reflection shield around the mic and acoustic treatment on the walls behind it. The backing vocals were recorded in much the same way but with the EV RE20 instead.

The Mixing Process

Takes

All tracks are composed of multiple tracks but the hardest to cut together was the drum track. The drum and bass tracks are the only tracks to play continuously throughout the entire song, meaning that cuts are much harder to hide. The drum tracks are cut at 0:48, 1:16 and 2:46. Crossfades are used and cuts are placed just before transients to further hide the cuts. The bass was cut in much the same way but with many more cuts present.

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Other tracks like the guitar and vocal tracks feature many more silent sections, which are cut out, with fades at the start and end of each track to avoid pops and clicks. Noise gates placed on most of the tracks also help to get rid of any pops or clicks, as well as removing amp hiss and other background noise between sections.

Grouping

As the track was mixed in Logic Pro X, most of the similar instruments were placed into four ‘summing stacks’ meaning that their outputs are sent entirely to group busses. These groups are labelled ‘vocal harmonies’, which contains the 3 part female vocal harmonies, ‘vocals’ which contains the lead vocal track, a female backing vocal and a lead vocal double, ‘guitars’ and ‘drums’. All of these busses bar the ‘vocals’ bus are also processed with effects.

Effects Applied

The three main vocal tracks were treated with noise gates and ‘CLA Vocals’ plugins, which combine EQ, compression and delay in one. The EQ was set to increase treble in all cases, helping the vocal cut through the mix. A separate plate reverb and delay were also applied via a send, with the delay send level being automated to only send the last syllable of certain phrases, for emphasis.

The backing vocals were compressed and EQ’d with and SSL channel strip plugin. The low mids and highs were increased by around 3db and the track was compressed with a fast attack and high ratio. This did diminish the dynamic range but luckily the most dynamic part, the harmonies at around 1:27, could be automated to bring the range back for this part.

All three vocal harmony parts are sent to a bus which applies chorus, EQ, reverb and stereo imaging to all tracks. The reverb is another plate reverb with a low wet mix which is automated to raise at certain points, such at the harmony at 1:27 and the stereo imager is used to spread the tracks across the stereo field, allowing for the lead vocals to cut through the center while the harmonies conform around them.

On the guitar bus is an EQ to dampen ringing frequencies at 230Hz, 460Hz and 2.5kHz. These are dampened using small cuts with a high ‘Q’, so as only to affect the problematic frequencies. There is also a plate reverb plugin with a very low wet mix, which I felt helped bring the guitars together a little more. The same is done to the drum bus, making it feel more like one instrument, rather than a conglomeration of many.

The guitar solo and its harmony track were the only tracks not to be re-amped, meaning I had to use an amp simulator plugin. The plugin I chose was Bias. I opted to go for a clean Marshall clone and just add more gain stages to it, making use of Bias’ almost component-level editing. After this, the track is sent to a chorus and phaser bus to give it a slightly dreamy feel and make it pop in the mix. The same send is used on the strummed chords at around 0:43.

As well as reverb, there is also a multipressor and corrective EQ on the drum bus. The EQ has small cuts at 130Hz and 260Hz, to remove sympathetic ring from the toms present on the recording. In order for the kick and bass to occupy the same space, a compressor is placed on the bass track which is side-chained to the kick. This is also done with the guitar solo and final chorus.

On the master bus, there’s a limiter which increases the overall loudness of the track slightly, though I didn’t want my track to turn into Metallica. The output is set to -2db, allowing headroom for the preceding EQ which applies a subtle warmth to the entire track. Finally there’s a stereo image plugin which tightens the low-end and spreads the hi mids and highs.

Evaluation

Overall I’m extremely happy with the track. The drums came out more or less how I wanted them to sound and, considering they’re probably the most complex element to record, I feel that I made a good first attempt.

There’s some clipping on the lead vocal which I wish I could have fixed but unfortunately the singer had a bad throat throughout the times I could have re-recorded the parts. Luckily it’s not too noticeable but leaving more headroom next time and checking for clipping after recording each part would improve this next time. The vocal harmonies are also very sibilant, meaning that any de-essing is quite extreme and quite noticeable on some lines like ‘only dance’.

The main issue throughout the piece is timing. Though this could be corrected with hours of tedious edits, I think the best approach for next time would be working with the musicians to ensure that they’re all comfortable with the track. The drums especially could have been recorded in-time if the drummer were more familiar with the track and used to playing to a click. Recording several elements of the track at the same time with line-of-sight between the musicians could also help to keep those elements in time but could introduce other issues.

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