Topic: Recording Music

Working up tracks – vocal and piano combinations

The recording process for “Tales of Dark and Light” is very different to how I have worked before. Most of the tracks are initially worked up on the ukulele, but the difference with these recordings is that the vocal melodies are then worked up to piano. The piano is extremely unforgiving and I continue to be surprised and impressed by how well this works. 

Today I was working on a new track “Grey Skies” and this is an excellent example of figuring out exactly what works in terms of the right rhythm and getting the best lyrical expression. I’m reminded that the piano is a percussive instrument and as my producer comments “There’s nowhere to hide!” We are back in the studio in two weeks to add additional vocals and harmonies to the six tracks already recorded. Carl Rosamond continues to do a superb job recording, mixing and mastering this material.

Some of the tracks are stripped back to a single instrument and vocals and others with be quite multi layered with some really superb musicians. Although material is written on ukes, the finished tracks have a variety of instruments including double bass, piano, violin, percussion. I’m looking at adding banjo and lap steel to further tracks. This is proving to be a wonderfully creative period and I have absolutely no idea how it will turn out, but for now it’s one hell of a ride!

After I get back from playing in New York, I’ll be back in the studio with guest musicians Phil Doleman and Laurent Zeller. Both are absolutely top draw musicians and its fascinating to hear these tracks take shape. Agi’s vocals and harmony vocals also add a different dimension to these recordings and although there is a big variety of material, its very recognizable as having a definite theme. 

Tales of Dark and Light update

Tales of Dark and Light started off as an EP, but now is going to be a full blown album as the creative ideas just keep coming. This is very different to the material I have written for The Small Change Diaries and although the tracks were written on ukuleles, many of the tracks don’t feature ukes and on “He’s shooting blanks” I simply do vocals, with Adrian Knowles on double bass and Alice Higgins on piano. Dave Bowie plays double bass on other full ensemble tracks and Rich Ferdi provides superb percussion on “Dunning Kruger Blues” and “No more street parties” Paul Conway also plays piano on “Here in the silence” The superb Laurent Zeller plays violin on the first four tracks recorded for this project.

Last Monday was a marathon session in the studio from 10 am – 8.30 pm without a break. This was the first time recording with vocalist and keyboard player Agi who is a seriously talented individual. The two latest tracks are really stripped back and very different to anything else I have done. “When the pain begins” is simply piano with myself on vocals and Agi on harmony vocals. “Say what you mean” is another stripped back song with me playing by Pete Howlett Makore tenor and the two of us doing vocals. What I like about both these tracks is that although each is just one instrument and vocals, its a really big sound.

Carl Rosamond continues to weave his magic with mixing and mastering. This Friday I’ll be back in the studio with him working on the mixing and mastering of these two new tracks.  I’m delighted with how this project is going and I’m working with a much larger collection of musicians than I would usually work with. In April I’ll be bringing in more guest musicians to record an instrumental “Lagoa” and “I’m praying for some misery” That will give us eight tracks with more currently being written.

I’m grateful to know and work with so many talented musicians, all true professionals who love creating original music. 

tales of dark and light

More ukulele string talk

I’m discovering that in the ukulele world there are lots of opinions about ukulele strings and which ones to select. At one extreme some folks insist that “brand X” is “the best string choice”, while others insist on simply going down to the local fishing store and getting some fishing line! Let me be clear in my view there are no “best strings” just different. Some folks seem to relish the idea of never changing strings and feel quite confronted by the every idea that maybe, just maybe the string choice might me one of the elements that determines who the instrument sounds, just a thought… As someone who is interested in this area, to date I have tested over 12 different string types across two dozen instruments with many surprising results…

Call me picky, BUT I would respectfully suggest that some of the following elements are worthy of some consideration BEFORE making any definitive statement about this matter. 

  • What type of ukulele is being played – yes size matters – an 8 string bari is different to a soprano
  • What’s the ukulele made of? Different woods can make for very different sounds
  • How does the instrument sound acoustically and’or with a pickup? 
  • What sound do you want? This can of course be very subjective…
  • Is the ukulele being played as a solo instrument, duo setting or in a band? Different sonic considerations here
  • Different people hear differently and 80 quid uke also is often going to respond differently to an 800 quid uke
  • Only by exploring and comparing (if that is an interest) can anyone really talk about this from actual experience 

Some people are interest in the sonic possibilities of what the ukulele can do and others are not that bothered. I respect both views. That said its in my totally biased opinion to make proclamations on any matter without any actual information or exploration. It would be like trying a local pizza takeaway and then using this snapshot experience to pronounce on Italian cuisine!

My own experience in trying out a dozen or more strings types across two dozen ukuleles is that the string choice can make a big difference in how an instrument sounds and feels. I have a collection of ukuleles which are very wide ranging from my recent 1920’s Martin acquisition, to some great custom made Shimo instruments to everything in between. Wound strings (often G and C) make for a radically different sound and I have yet to find any wound fishing line…lol Its about personal choice as there are no best strings, just different…

I have been conducting some testing with a Cocobolo super soprano ukulele in what I call “The Kitchen string test” Here I test the exact same ukulele in the same acoustic space, recorded with the same gear, playing the same piece of music. Its blinding obvious to me that there’s a huge difference when changing the strings, both in how the instrument responds, how it sounds from the artist perspective and how it sounds from the audience’s perspective which of course is different.

Of course many seasoned professional musicians have long realised that this is a factor in the final sound. Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented a great deal and dazzled audiences with his music. His spirit of exploration was not only in the gear he used, but in his whole approach to musical performance, see  https://www.stringjoy.com/stevie-ray-vaughans-guitar-string-gauges/ My good friend Martin Simpson similarly has an attitude of exploration and experimentation. I’m seeing him next week and will take the new Martin uke to show him. Martin is also a terrific example of somebody always questions what else is possible, never settling just for a common view. When I interviewed Bill Collings in Austin Texas and Takahiro Shimo in Tokyo, both brilliant instrument builders had the same attitude of exploration and experimentation. This also goes for many of my favorite musical artists. They are always seeking out new possibilities and I applaud such thinking.

Ultimately its all about personal choice and attitude. Personally as you may have figured by now, I am a fan of exploration and that’s one of the reasons I set up the OUS platform, which is about creating something new. I have the same view in terms of exploring how different instrument combinations, including string options can provide some really interesting results. I also respect that such exploration and experimentation is not for everyone and that’s fine too of course.

 

When you hear the dreaded words “Can you just?” RUN!

Anyone who works in audio or video production is familiar with the dreaded phrase

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 “Can you just?”

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This specific question usually reveals a lack of awareness of the amount of time and energy is going to be required to complete the task at hand. It’s not that the questioner means any disrespect but rather they just don’t have the awareness to appreciate what work is involved in the recording process. Often, they are optimistic (some engineers may say delusional) about how to create a really good end product and are especially unrealistic about the amount of time and money involved in doing so. I have learned that many (not all) musicians don’t appreciate the importance of investing time and money in a sensible manner. Yes, I get sometimes people have budgets, BUT as the old saying goes “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” The internet is littered with artist performances that were rushed with little or no attention to good audio or video capture. 

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music productionYears ago, as a favour I agreed to audio record some performers in my home studio. I don’t class myself as a professional sound engineer, but I have mastered and mixed a number of spoken word products that went on to sell in the thousands on an international basis. The challenge I had in almost all instances was to get the artist to appreciate the importance of preparation ahead of any recording and crucially the amount of work involved in taking the initial live performance into a final mastered product.
In recent years the technology that is now available is extraordinary and far beyond what I had access to back in 2001. Companies like Audient and UAD have produced products that are literally game changers when it comes to audio recording. Similarly, on the video front companies like Go Pro have also afforded artists with quite extraordinary new possibilities. I’m currently working with a Sony HDR MV1 which is proving to be excellent. Like most great technology, it does one thing really well.

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nick codyThat said, it doesn’t matter how much great technology you own, the human element is the ultimate factor that determines the end result. When The Small Change Diaries recorded the debut album “Adam blames Eve” a local musician suggested I buy a few mics and record at home. “It will save you a bunch of money” he spouted. He spectacularly failed to appreciate that the point of recording in a studio is not just to have the right acoustic environment, but also to ulitise the decade’s experience of the sound engineer, which is the difference that makes the difference.  When he mastered and mixed the album I sat in to see the process. “Nobody else does this” he said. “They have no idea of the work involved to produce a great good end result” Often artists think that once they have laid down a track, the work is done. Yes, their part in the process may be completed, BUT that’s only 33% of the whole process of course.

Stefan Sobell mandola workout with Nick Cody

I have been experimenting with the new Sony HDR MV1 and just recorded this clip playing the Stefan Sobell Mandola. There are only two of these made to this spec, Martin Simpson has the other one. Its a terrific instrument which I used on “Commons Senses” which appeared on The Small Change Diaries “Protest Songs” EP

The mandola is a very different instrument to ukuleles and guitars and has a very unique sound unlike anything else.  Its a HUGE sound which is typical for Stefan Sobell instruments. The build quality on this is extraordinary and there’s an 18 month waiting list to request one. Personally although I am still figuring out how to play it, I absolutely love it and will be using it on future recordings

This mandola also has a Highlander pickup which wonderfully amplifies the natural sound of the instrument.

Home studio recording in days gone by and a TV short…

Today I was working doing some home studio recording. Its been a while since I did this and I’m reminded that 2001 – 2004 in another life I did a great deal of this. Between 2001 and 2004 I recorded, mixed and mastered a series of spoken voice CDs which sold rather well. The main one “The Adventures of well being now” sold a few thousand and some of the ambient music from that track was used for an award winning movie short that was shown on C4. See below.

Technology has moved on a fair bit since then and in the last year I upgraded the studio to use an Audient 8 channel pre amp as well as the wonderful UAD plugins which have made a massive difference to final recordings. These days I mostly play and record acoustic music and have figured out how to get some really excellent sounds. The key is to use the best instruments and recording components.

For The Small Change Diaries I still use our “go to guy” for recording and mastering as he has the skills for what we need. However I’m thinking of doing a home side project in 2017 to see what might be possible when I’m working as both artist and producer. Certainly the sound quality I can get is really excellent and of course there are no shortage of ideas waiting to be recorded. I deliberately sat in on all the mixing and mastering for the Small Change Diaries CDs to educate myself into how to get a better sonic result. One thing I have learned from home studio recording is that doing this properly takes time. I would also never want to be a sound engineer for other artists, it would drive me totally crazy! 

Taking care of the sound

gear 4I have always been a fan of great music and playing instruments. For many years I was a massive fan of the guitar and still have a great collection of acoustics and electric guitars including 2 Stefan Sobell acoustics and  Collings I35 electric as well as two Parker Flys. These are all top notch instruments made with great precision and capable of producing some great sounds.

Of course with electric guitars the amplification is equally important and I have some great amps including Egnater M4 hand wired modules, Two Rock, Marshall and Fender combos. Of course the tubes or valves used in these amps also make a massive difference. Old classic British tubes made by Mullard and Phillips can make a fantastic difference in how an amp can sound and I have dome many tests that demonstrate this.

Ukulele Sounds

In terms of ukuleles I have also found there is a huge difference in how these can sound acoustically and when amplified. I have a growing collection of ukes, some of which I talk about in these clips.

 

All these instruments have the potential to create a terrific variety of music. In terms of amplification I have already blogged about the terrific Henriksen Bud amps and how choice of cables, strings and DI boxes/pre amps can make a massive difference in the final listening experience.

There’s an old saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”

This is true when creating and performing music. I have realised the value of practice, practice, practice when developing a body of work. The Small Change Diaries are in the middle of recording the second album which has a number of well respected seasoned musical guests.  We spend a lot of time refining and developing tracks and many folks would be amazed at the amount of time involved. The role of a producer is vital in creating recorded material and we are fortunate to have a really excellent one to work with.

Original Ukulele Artists

The OUS platform continues to gather together artists from all over the globe. The FB page has a huge variety of artists and the video and audio varies massively in quality. The official site www.originalukulelesongs.com has a page for original artists, but not everyone who applies is automatically added to this page. We look at the quality of video and the quality of the performance as well as the creativity of the artist. I always advise artists to pay attention to making sure they get the best sound and vision when submitting to the OUS site if they want to be listed.

Home Studio Explorations

My first multitrack for audio recording was a Tascam 4 track which used cassette tapes. The good news was for the first time it was possible to record multi tracks. The bad news is that the sound quality was pretty horrible and even the hiss reduction didn’t really help improve the sonic result. It was possible to bounce down tracks to create more audio options and of course let’s remember a great deal of historic music was recorded on this medium.

Software options and the new trend of making you pay forever

Over the years I have used a number of software packages including Wavelab, Acid Pro, Soundforge and Cool Edit Pro, now known as “Audition” All of these work fine, but I use Audition version 3 which does everything I need. Adobe like many other software manufacturers have managed to alienate myself and many other consumers by insisting on a monthly subscription for artists rather than the old fashioned way of actually buying a product. This means an endless income stream for the company and like ITunes you never truly own the actual item. What I like about Audition is that its relatively simple to use, although Adobe like many other manufacturers simply can’t resist making packages ever more complex with increasing features that the imagine the public want.

God bless UAD to open a world of new sounds

Once upon a time producers would use hardware for reverb and other effects. These days everything can be done far more easily and in my opinion better with software. One of the biggest leap forward is the create of UAD cards which emulate classic effects. The UAD duo card I use gives access to an extraordinary range of sonic options including the “Studer tape” plugin that faithfully emulate classic analogue recording equipment in the most extraordinary manner.  This is a whole new level of sonic brilliance and as well as using these in my home studio, we use them extensively in the actual full recording studio.

Invest in good headphones, microphones and preamps

Once upon a time really great microphones would cost a significant amount of money. These days you can buy great mics for a fraction of the cost. When we were recording the first Small Change Diaries album we settled on the RV15 Vacuum Tube Microphones which sound terrific. I use these in the home studio as well as the main recording studio. At just over two hundred pounds they are extraordinary and perfect for the task in hand. It’s a great example of how the best equipment for the job doesn’t cost the earth these days. The other essential item for the home studio is the Fire Eye Dee Eye DI boxes which are the best I have ever come across.
When mixing and monitoring tracks, great monitors and headphones are essential. I use AKG headphones and Dynamic Acoustics monitors, both of which are sensibly priced and give great sound reproduction. Audient make excellent preamps and I use an 8 channel unit of theirs which is just fantastic. This setup is very high quality and relatively simple. I’m mostly interested in getting four to six really great quality tracks in the simplest possible manner.

Conclusion

There has never been a better time for home recording. That said it’s important to select the right equipment for your needs. The really good news is that you can get an excellent sonic result without mortgaging your house. That said regardless of how much equipment you have, there is absolutely no substitute for experience. If you are serious about creating a great audio product it’s important to find the right person who can deliver the best sound. After all they don’t call it “music production” for no reason…
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