Monday, November 8, 2010

Sherman's Lament Featuring Duality

My shadow entry for Spintunes 2 competition is finished. The listening party is tonight. The track is here.

I debated whether I wanted to record a shadow after the sleep deprivation and stress involved in the last round. I finally decided to go forward, but this one was going to be quicker, lighter, recorded in an acoustic "demo" style with a lot less work put into it. I even had visions of recording it on my portable recorder, accompanying myself on finger-picked acoustic guitar, with no overdubs or processing it all. Quick. Easy. Fun. Relaxing, even.

Cough, cough, ahem BULLSHIT cough, cough.

The final mix has 25 tracks:

1. The audio clips from the old show

2. Joe's full lead vocal

3. Denise's unison vocal for the verses

4. Joe additional chorus vocal

5. Yours truly on chorus vocal

6. Yours truly on bridge vocal (left side)

7. Yours truly on bridge vocal (right side)

8. Yours truly on bridge bass harmony vocal

9. Tambourine

10. Shaker

11. Fish (a little hollow wooden fish, a toy hand-held percussion instrument)

12. A studio percussion sample from Logic's library (the little "transition" sounds between verses and into and out of the bridge; I'm not even sure what they look like or what they are called; it sounds a bit like a rain stick).

13. Electric bass (my Godin Freeway 4-string with flat-wound strings)

14. Electric guitar (my Godin LGX-SA on the neck pickup with tone rolled down and a chorus effect)

15. Nylon-string guitar for the bridge (my Godin SA)

16. Nylon-string guitar for the last verse (the effects are different so it is on a different track)

17-19. Violins (played by Denise on keyboard), left. Originally one track, now actually 3 tracks because of the way I had to slice them up and fade the segments into each other.

20-22. Violins, right.

23. Denise's chorus vocal (unison)

24. Denise's chorus vocal (harmony)

25. Denise's Rhodes electric piano sound

The song is in C, not for any great reason, but mostly because when I recorded the original MIDI melody reference bits I played it in C; I'm not very good on keyboard so it is easier for me if I only use the white keys. I could have easily transposed the MIDI but I thought it was a reasonably good range to sing.

The chords on the verses (for guitar) go C, Dm/G, C, G, C

On the chorus it is just C G F Dm Dm F G C

On the bridge, it goes Bdim Cmaj7 repeated, then Dm G C with a little picked figure at the end.

The song originally had no bridge, and the verses were all longer (they contained the "coda" stanza). I wound up cutting out those stanzas for choruses 1 and 2 and saving them for the end, and inserting the bridge.

My original vocal recordings were so noisy that I was in despair for my vocals -- not that I couldn't sing it on key, but that the recording itself was just technically awful-sounding. That's basically when I thought it would be fun to recruit Duality to sing! I have my studio room partially treated with acoustic panels, but it needs a lot more. Apparently the way the mic was placed put it pretty much in an "anti-sweet spot" for reverb, and it just sounded terrible. Moving the whole rig (Reflexion filter and all) and angling it away from the wall slightly produced a huge difference, which I discovered last night, so I went ahead and recorded my own voice for some backing bits.

Even ignoring the room acoustics, I am becoming very dissatisfied with these Oktava microphones -- they actually sound pretty good when I turn the gain down and sing loud from a bit of a distance. But when I gain them up a bit and try a more intimate-sounding vocal, where I want a little proximity effect, they have this ugly resonance at some midrange frequency. EQ can't entirely get rid of it. It isn't sibilance or popping, exactly. Apparently there's a modification that is supposed to help, but I'm a little stymied by the question of whether it might possibly be more valuable to put $300 into a microphone I got for, if I recall correctly, under $100, instead of just tracking down some other used microphones on eBay to experiment with.

I just really need to try out more microphones on my voice. It might even wind up being a fairly cheap mic that sounds good. I am strongly opposed to buying Chinese-made microphones, though, which means most of the super-cheap mics are off-limits. I don't have much in the way of budget for that at the moment, since what money I am setting aside for the studio is earmarked for acoustic treatment, which will also no doubt help to improve the vocal sound.

Anyway, my bass vocal on the bridge is a bit of an experiment. I've recently discovered that my range is pretty much exactly a traditional bass vocal range. (That may seem like an odd thing to "recently discover," but I've never really approached singing in a systematic way or really figured out, on a keyboard, where my range lies; I also used to have considerably more range at the top, and much more falsetto. Aging, I suppose...)

I had endless technical problems putting together this track. For some reason, Logic decided it wanted to repeatedly lose my automation settings -- over and over. So I'd bounce a track, and the violins would be gone, or all my percussion would be gone, although I had not deliberately touched them. All those automation points had been deleted.

And either there is some major weirdness in the way that Logic handles anchor points in samples, but only part of the time, and unpredictably -- or I really don't understand the feature. This seems odd, since I've used this feature on at least a dozen tracks in the past. I have seem some oddities before, but never anything remotely like this degree of trouble.

My regions were constantly getting shifted on the timeline. I would drag the same region to the grid four times, for example to lay down the shaker audio in repeating sections, and four of them would line up at the anchor, and the fifth would not, and the anchor point in the region itself would be reset. Sometimes when I dropped a fourth or fifth or sixth instance of a region onto the timeline, I'd think I was aligning it to the grid on its anchor point, but it would abruptly shift, its anchor point would be reset, and all the copies of that region to the left of the one I was dropping would shift to the right and align themselves to the timeline at their left ends instead of their anchor points.

Something similar happened to the bass line, which was composed of at least a dozen carefully aligned regions. I would almost swear in court that I didn't touch the regions themselves in the audio bin or on the timeline, but yet suddenly they were all misaligned. The anchor points were very close to the left edges of the regions, so it was a subtle change, and I didn't notice it immediately, but the bass just no longer sounded tight.

Both of these shifts had probably happened right before I sent Joe a bounced reference track for him to use in singing his vocals. And so part of his vocals were an alignment train wreck with me scratching my head wondering what the hell had happened.

I had only one crash, but I also had some strange "ghost automation" where the volume envelope on a track was set to zero, but I'd still hear the audio pop up when I played it. This seemed to have something to do with the mysterious fade files that Logic sometimes creates.

Trying to slice up Denise's original Rhodes piano and violin parts and reassemble them after rearranging the verses and bridges was supposed to be relatively straightforward. I made note of the exact way the original regions lined up on the original track, and figured exactly which measure and beats they were now shifted to in the revised track. Unfortunately in practice it didn't work out like that at all. I had things shifted half a measure off, and in some cases just a fraction off. Nothing would align! The aforementioned problems with region anchor points kept biting me. I spent at least eight hours -- eight hours that I wasn't able to use working on guitar or vocal or improved percussion parts -- screwing with just the realignment of these parts. I'm sure it didn't help any that I was doing most of this while exhausted and over-caffeinated.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have applied that Logic update, although the release notes mentioned some stability improvements that I was hoping would keep the crashes away.

Anyway, this one was rough.

Looking back on this past week, the experience of recording this track was kind of like this. Imagine that you are watching a hot air balloon getting ready for takeoff. It's pretty; the crew is excited; the sun is lighting up the brightly colored envelope in gorgeous shades of gold and blue and orange; it's a perfect fall day. You give a cheer as it lifts off into the cloudless sky.

Suddenly, the crew looks nervous. The basket starts to tip alarmingly. Something is very wrong! You try to run, but you're frozen in horror. The whole thing comes down, down, slowly down, the basket tipping on its side, and all the spectators are covered with the balloon fabric. But it isn't light-weight nylon like it appeared. It's ice cold, and damp, and metallic, and shockingly heavy. You're covering your face because it is heavy, and pushing you down, and you're struggling to get it off you... the other spectators screaming and fighting to get out from under this lead balloon!

A cry goes out. More people rush in. Folks come running from their homes and the nearby picnic area. Many hands grip the balloon and push it. Soon there are a dozen people hoisting it. A couple of strong guys right the basket. The crew are bruised but not seriously injured. Slowly, ponderously, it begins to rise as the crew cranks up the heater to maximum. There is much creaking and pulling on ropes and many shouted, and sometimes contradictory, instructions.

A ragged cheer goes up. It is only a few feet above the ground, but rising very slowly. It doesn't look like it is going to clear the trees! The basket drags horribly against the upper branches, and you're gritting your teeth, convinced that it is all going to come down again -- but after taking out a few branches, it finally has open sailing ahead. It isn't gaining a lot of altitude, but at least it isn't about to crash anymore!

Wasn't that fun?

Did I mention this one was rough? You know you've not hit that sweet spot when your own wife tells you "I'm sorry, honey, but this one really doesn't do anything for me."

This is supposed to be fun. This is supposed to be fun. This is supposed to be fun. Why is it so not-fun?

I'm reminded a bit of flunking a college French class. In retrospect, I really enjoyed that class, and I feel like I got a lot out of it. I learned a little French. But I failed all the quizzes. The teacher was very kind... at one point he said "well, this one was a little better -- you almost passed!"

I don't regret taking that class, but it certainly wasn't much fun at the time. The kind of failures I like and appreciate, in retrospect, are the ones that teach me a lesson. That's apparently the best way to learn. But I'm not sure exactly what lesson I can glean from "Logic wasted twenty hours of my time this week with its seemingly-random misbehavior." I don't even want to become a Logic guru, I just want to learn it well enough to make it reliably do what I want, so that I can spent more of my time on the creative side. Some research is in order, apparently. Some quick Googling reveals that I'm not the only one who has been having trouble with inexplicable behavior involving region anchor points. Maybe I should try one of the older versions of the application that the installers and upgraders left on my drive.

Anyway, thanks to Joe and Denise for their great performances and patient re-takes. You guys have made this song much better. It sounds much better. Also, special thanks to Denise for encouraging me to go ahead and put my own voice on it, even when I was doubtful that I could get a recording that met my quality standards. If she hadn't have, I wouldn't have.

If it's not a good song -- and I'm in no way able to judge that at all at this point, it's all way too raw -- it's despite, and not because of, your contributions. Working with you guys was the pony in the mountain of horseshit that this week dumped on me! But, sadly, I have a feeling that this one isn't going to be popular.

I mean, doesn't everyone know that Sherman... tanks?

Update: I have released a podcast episode that is basically a narrative-free "documentary" on the making of this track, showing some of the tracks, warts and all, and how they are processed and assembled into the final mix. Find it here.

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