“Ascent” is an extremely minimal song played solely on a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet '08 with a tweaked two-layer patch, “Sync Floyd.” Since 2006 all but one or two of my pieces on 20+ CDs have been performed and recorded in one-take. This is freeing, and allows me to be a better improvisor. “That's not a mistake, it's a VARIATION!”
Over the years I have upgraded my recording path, and often “play” the first stage in the path as part of the song if I am using my “acre-of-synth” rigs (two banks of eight synths total controlled by two Korg padKONTROLs, all active at the same time).
Here is the production path:
Instruments (or mics). I now use a Nady RSM-3 ribbon mic for vocals, a Rode NT-5a pencil condenser and Rode NT-1a matched pair of large diaphragm condensers for live instruments, usually Tibetan singing bowls. Hint: the bowls top edge sends 90% of the sound outward; use the NT-1a's in an XY configuration about four feet away to catch the deeper overtones without phase cancellation.
In “Ascent” I went straight from synth to mixer, no mics.
Mackey VLZ1402 Mixer (upgraded from Behringer UBB1022). The Mackey has better preamps, aux sends, boost/cutoff, equalization and channel control (mic/line and line). In “Ascent” I used only one of the stereo line channel strips, and tweaked the sound for equalization prior to recording by practicing a few bars. HI as cut a bit, and I boosted the LO to catch the growl. Levels were fixed during the performance, but in many pieces with the dual padKONTROL rig I will change levels as I play to segue from instrument to instrument. Automation would be useless since I play in one take, recording on the fly.
Effects unit: I have a Digitech Vocalist Live Pro that creates harmony chorus to thicken an instrument. This works well on brass and strings; OK on bells, and not very well on piano and many pads. “Buzzy” sound is made muddier. Not used in “Ascent.”
Recording/effects: Fostex MRHD16 (upgraded from Fostex MR8MKII, upgraded from Zoom PS-04 that I still use for portable recording). This unit is a decent simultaneous four-track recorder that can record 8 tracks with effects and 8 tracks without, and bounce up to 128 tracks (which I have never needed). As a “one-take” guy, everything—even with 8 synths at once—goes to two stereo tracks. Better get those levels right during rehearsal! (What would you do live, eh?) The MRHD16 has some basic effects to apply during recording, but I usually choose a bright or warm setting on one channel, and something to accentuate the mix on the other, fattening the drums, for example, on a trance track. Warm was used for both in “Ascent.” The MRHD16 also has some really primitive idiot mastering effects (room, hall, plate, delay) and EQ (powerful, natural, bright). You won't get much control here, but can do some simple stuff like open the sound out with a little “hall” and increase the LO with “powerful.” In “Ascent” I used a little “hall” and nothing else.
At this point recording is done. Now it is time to produce the final cut.
Premastering/recording: A TC Finalizer Express takes a digital signal from the MR16HD, does 3-band EQ and compression, sends it digitally to a Fostex VF80ex (a classic machine that is no longer available; I have two since I depend on it and wanted a spare), and sends the analog output back to the Mackey. Watch out for feedback loops if you have tapped the sound from the MR16HD to listen to whilst laying down a vocal track on instrumentals. The TC has a simple process to raise the level of your piece, or simply boost HI, MID or LO. You can also sharpen or soften the compression to bring out quick transients (or suppress them), or mellow out the track. You cannot pitch shift, but then this is a one take studio! The VF80 will reflect the signal level out of the TC, and runs a little “hot” when you push the level envelope. Watch it, as you may not hear clipping unless you monitor the VF80 output with headphones; studio monitors can occasionally smooth clipping away due to the mass of the speaker cone.
“Ascent” went in with a bit of midrange EQ and moderate compression (middle of the TC matrix), with levels pushed to the limit. There is still a nice spread in sound, but this brings up the quieter parts of the piece so all can be heard. It somewhat simulates the adjustment the human ears/brain do when hearing the piece live.
Final mastering: The Fostex VF80ex has a remarkably flexible set of bouncing and mastering effects. When recording a piece digitally, bouncing is not usually needed, but a final mastering phase can tweak the EQ of the song. Play it several times through the Mackey, listening to monitors and headphones and even a boombox with RCA inputs. You want a sound that works on variety of platforms, that is, “radio ready.” Adjust the EQ on the Mackey, then go back to the VF80 and tweak both mastering effect, then EQ and compression within the mastering effect. You can always redo mastering on the VF80 (unless there is clipping, and if the clipping occurred during recording on the MR16HD, you have a challenge—which I have done twice, and learned how to fix the second time, but it is a nasty task and the sound had to be softened a bit). When the sound is good on all three platforms, RECORD IT!
“Ascent” was recorded “flat” with +1db of extra HI EQ, a very light 1:1 compression, threshold of -20db and 2db of compression gain. It could have been final mastered with no effects at all, but it lacked brightness on the big speakers of the monitors (which also ha a subwoofer; this is a Fostex PM-04/05 combo that I have used for years; headphones are ATH M40fx; the boombox is an ancient Panasonic with no CD—it is THAT old!)
And there it is.
Is it worth it?
Do you like your own music, and want to learn how to play good stuff live that sounds like your recording so you don't have to fake on stage?
Only you can decide, but at least you know one more way to approach it. BTW, the Record Producer site can teach you almost everything you need to get started; the course can make you a pro; but only PRACTICE will make you good! And I always need more practice! 🙂
For more of my stuff, go to www.myspace.com/shamaniaq, and to hear one of the best pieces I've done with an “acre-of-synths” and one-take (REALLY!) on the dual padKONTROLs, go to: http://www.zshare.net/audio/1290564537089d9f/
Thanks for reading and listening!
PS. Oh, yeah, I do all my own cover art, too. The picture is from my most recent CD, “Hard Target,” which is still in production. Look for more songs on MySpace.
Further information is available at www.myspace.com/shamaniaq