Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mastering saved my sound

Art work for "I Don't Want To Play"
(detail of Benny's Bounce)
Yay! I Don't Want To Play is now copyrighted, added to my BMI works, and up on CDBaby and Soundcloud! This third song feels like a big deal, but only for my experience book. I took two more significant steps toward knowing what I'm doing in Garageband.

Every preliminary mix I've ever taken to my mentor has resulted in this comment—"There's some distortion right here," accompanied by a pointing finger. It was always something that I hadn't noticed, but when I came back to the studio and listened closely, then I could hear it—the flat, garbage-y buzz. It was usually where I was layering a lot of vocals.

This time I again ran into the distortion demon, from poor level control on the many individual layers, leading to bad levels in the mix. I'll be paying particular attention to that on my next one, all the way from the first stage of creating the layers. I learned there's a great visual feedback technique in Garageband that shows any places where you hit the rails—exactly what I wished I'd had while chasing my distortion problems. This trick came to me from what Patrick Baird's The Ultimate Guide To Mixing In Garageband shows and explains about mastering. The trick is to save your song—at whatever stage you become curious about your levels—and then import it into a new/empty audio track in an empty Garageband project. Being able to see that composite sound wave was what finally turned on the lightbulb in my head—I could see exactly where all the distortion was, in the timeline of the song, and so knew exactly what areas had to be fixed. And, just repeating that export/import would be proof of when it was fixed.

Of course after I'd read about mastering and found out how many possibilities there are, I went with quaking knees to my mentor and said "Help!" The task of finding "the right" or "the best" mastering scheme seemed too much for me to handle alone.

He set me straight immediately: There is no single mastering scheme that's either right or best for any given song. Why not? Because every successful producer has a different approach, and they're all successful. Unless you're deliberately trying to copy someone else's sound, all you can do is find or create a scheme that sounds the best to YOU. So I came back to the studio, figuring, this is going to take a day or two, at least, but it didn't—it took me just a little over an hour to listen to the song using each of Garageband's newer mastering presets (they do still include legacy patches), and pick the one I liked the best. Part of my decision process was checking the levels with each preset and visually comparing each mastered version to see what they all "look" like. That helped me understand what type of general shaping produces a particular overall sound. In some, the drumming backbone was so much louder than the instruments and vocals it was clear that the beat would be the main feature of that listening experience—perfect for dance venues.

In the end, because I wasn't targeting any particular market or type of venue, and because I was already happy with the overall sound of this mix, and lastly because I really don't know what I'm doing yet,  I picked the mastering settings that changed that sound the least, yet still got everything away from the rails—and then I added a bit more compression. You can tweak any preset patch in Garageband to your heart's content, and you can save it.

And that's how mastering saved my sound—by getting rid of unwanted distortion.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Taiko in the library!

I had a chance to do something I've wanted to do for a long time yesterday—I attended a workshop put on by Portland Taiko—in a downtown library, of all places! They did a few of these workshops this year, and I managed to get on the list for this one. I didn't know what to expect, really, and was just hoping I could last an hour and a half, with my wrist and ankle braces and not-so-fit muscles. I need not have worried.

Four members of the group showed up with more than a dozen big chu daiko drums and the striking sticks—bachi—for us to use. In the video, that's Wynn keeping time in the back on the smaller shime drum, Chad on the left, Lisa in the front, and Kristal on the right. They were very relaxed and welcoming, and I got to spend a little time talking to Chad about the drums and the group before all the participants arrived.

They started with a rousing performance, which I was kicking myself for not videoing, before they moved all the drums into the middle of the room and we got to start playing them. The group showed us the proper position for playing, named and demonstrated the strikes, and showed us one of their beginner songs. It had five lines, each one a series of strikes in a different rhythm. We only had time to learn three of the lines, but I learned them well enough to write them down when I got home. We took a brief break while Wynn told us a bit of the history of taiko performance, and I was surprised to learn that the first taiko ensembles were not formed until the 1950's. So while the drums themselves are ancient, taiko performances like the ones familiar in the US are not. He also pointed out that the relatively easy availability of used wine barrels is helping feed the growing appetite for taiko drums in the US. They have to be taken apart, sanded, glued together, and covered with the rawhide cow skins—not really a one-person job—but way less expensive than finding hardwood log sections to age for years and carve out.

After we finished learning what we had time to, the group performed another song, which I did manage to capture on my iPod, and the clip above is from that. (Apologies for the substandard video.)

If you've never heard a real taiko drum up close, I can tell you, it's a spiritual experience. Before we got started, I leaned over my drum, putting one ear close to the surface, and struck it gently with one bachi, and the reverberations went all the way to my bones. But besides the awesomeness of the sound, you get the precision of all the performers locked into the groove, the dramatics of the moves, and best of all, the sheer joy on their faces as they play. These people know how to have fun!

Friday, March 4, 2016

New song is going up!

Original cover art for Dance In The Indigo
I just released my second song to CDBaby—"Dance In The Indigo". Last September, I thought I would be finished with it in a month! Ha ha ha ha! I spent a long time on the learning curve this time, especially with the mixing. I used a lot more instruments and vocals on this one, and by the time I got everything on there and did a preliminary mix, it sounded more cluttered than anything else. Fortunately Patrick Baird, author of the GarageBand Guide, released his Ultimate Guide to Mixing in GarageBand. It turned out to be an extremely useful primer on song mixing.

It's a nice long discussion of each element of the song, how to find the best EQ for the various instruments and vocals so each one nests together with all the others, and finds its best voice in the song without stepping on any of the other parts. There are examples and screen shots for each instrument group, plus suggested settings for effects and plug-ins that I've never had any clue about how to use. If you're looking for a comprehensive and easy-to-follow introduction to the art of mixing, I recommend it highly.

Armed with this guide, I spent a lot of time working with each track, not just fine tuning it, but playing with every setting I could find for each instruments, listening for the differences. I spent a few weeks just doing that, but by the time I finished I was much happier with the sound of the song. The problem was that after all that listening, I was beginning to hear every flaw in my vocals. So I went back to recording around Christmas. I was hoping to layer some background vocals onto both the verses and choruses, and that took more time. I had already given up hope about getting this done quickly, and decided to keep working on it as long as I was still learning things, like the fact that in GarageBand you can save EQ settings—as many as you want, to pull up in all your future songs. It is a great time-saver.

Another thing I learned is that it makes sense to do things in a certain order, and to not get carried away with "finish" until you're really happy with the foundation. Making major changes and re-recording is a lot quicker at the beginning than at the end. I also spent a lot of time getting acquainted with the repeated, repetitive, repetitious listening you have to do with recordings. After a few months with a song, it gets both easier and harder to hear—easier to hear the small fragments that sound out of alignment with the others, but harder to hear it as a whole. I went from working on it for 6 hours at a time to having to put it away till the next day after just a couple. If I hadn't had my friend and mentor, Milt Ritter, to listen each set of changes, it wouldn't be nearly as good as it is, and it's still not as good as I hope I can get as I get more experience. I hope it's good enough for people to enjoy listening to it, but I like to think about what it would sound like with a really good singer. While I've been wrapping this one up, I've been making more progress on my third song, using everything I learned on this one.

As on the first song, I spent several sessions on the phone with Apple when the program didn't behave the way I expected it to. But the more things I found that I could actually do in GarageBand, the more impressed I was with it. I thought that maybe it was time to move up to Logic, but then decided I could really wait until I had learned everything I could working in GarageBand, where I was still finding more options than I really know what to do with.

It will be up on Soundcloud in a few days and I'll add a link to it. Please give it a listen, and if you like it, share it with your friends.