The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 6)

5 Feb

At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know. It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.

This is the sixth in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part one covers the initial conception, part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer. Part five covers the final recording sessions and the initial mixing process, and part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.
The record is now available for download at Digstation.com, and tracks from the disc are streaming on my myspace page.
Part Six: Mixing, Editing, and Mastering
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It was December. The music had been written, the charts laid out; the musicians had learned the parts and been recorded, the voice-overs were complete. The singers and I had learned, tweaked, and re-learned the parts, and the tunes had morphed from abstract ideas into actual recordings. This was the home stretch – time to wrestle these tracks into a finished album.
I’ve already discussed how much easier it is to mix things when all of the tracks are recorded and accounted for – the drums can be EQed to leave space for the bass, the vocals and the horns can be put where they need to be in order not to clash, etc. But there’s another aspect to it as well – when I have an incomplete session, it’s tough to get in the mindset required to make things sound finished; all of the ingredients aren’t yet in the stew, so it’s tough to begin to add seasoning.
Once all of the tracks are recorded though, for better or for worse, I know what I’ve got to work with, so it’s much easier to begin to chop up the audio and make it fit into the sound of the tune. Which, once the tracks were finished, was exactly what I got started doing.
Generally speaking, while I try to build my mixes from the bottom up (bass and drums first, then guitars and auxiliary instrument, as well as vocals), I have a hard time imposing discipline on the order in which I tackle things. It becomes much more fluid than that – you know, “hmm, I don’t like the snare here, let’s tweak that… okay… sounds good, but the piano part over there is sticking out… ooh, and I need to tweak those horns…” So, most of my mixing takes place at the same time as editing.

smackle

Smack! LE

For the drums, I used a touch of compression most of the time – the recordings that we got were really natural, and for the most part, I liked how they sounded. My digital compressor of choice is Digidesign’s Smack! LE, which came with a previous version of Pro Tools I had purchased. It’s a groovy compressor, modeled on an analog opto compressor, and it gets nice overtones as it breaks up.
EQing has always been tough for me, particularly with drums – the snare and overheads needed more compression than the rest of the instruments, and they also needed a bit of an EQ boost in their respective sweet spots (snare in the upper-mids, overheads in the highs). Perhaps most importantly, they both needed a big cut in their low-low frequencies (sub-50Hz).

eq3

Digi EQ III

At the same time that I was compressing and EQing the drums, I was doing a fair amount of editing to the audio. We’d gotten a bit of unfortunate extra noise from the kick pedal, particularly on “No Crow, Scarecrow” and “Lock You in the Attic.” Before quite a few of the bass drum notes, there was a clicking sound as Brian’s foot moved the pedal, and it really started to stick out as I compressed the track. There wasn’t really a way to EQ around it, so it was left to me to cut that part of the signal out by hand whenever it became an issue. Fortunately, Pro Tools makes it quite easy to do something like that without impacting the sound of the proper bass drum notes. Before too long, the drums were sounding solid – punchy and clean, with a good amount of sustain and presence on the cymbals and hi-hat.
Bass is really fun to work with – Fox’s tone through the amp he used was great, and though I had also recorded him direct, in my mixes I leaned pretty heavily towards the track from the mic on his amp. At Urban, we have a Distressor single-channel analog compressor, and that thing works WONDERS on bass. Cranking up the input level and driving the compressor gives a fat, even, and nicely distorted bass signal, so that’s what I used for most of the electric bass tracks.

stereo_pair50

Empirical Labs Distressor

Daniel’s acoustic bass was quite a bit easier to mix and edit. The sound we got off of the instrument was great, and, as with many of the acoustic tracks, it didn’t really need much by way of processing. The same held true with the hand drums, percussion, and clapping – all had strong natural sounds, and just needed a touch of EQing and some compression, before they were ready to go.
Strings were really fun to get into shape, as well. We had some really good takes, and the main thing that I wanted to accomplish was to get the quartet that we recorded to sound larger, particularly on “You’ve Changed.” That wasn’t too difficult – on that tune, it was a matter of putting two takes together, then flipping the panning around a bit so that the cellos on the alternate take were close to the violins, and vice-versa. Also, I recorded some sampled strings and placed them down in the mix to fatten things up.
The horns took some doing. While the section that we recorded had only four members, there were far more voices in the actual arrangements. This was because I recorded Switzer playing first and second trumpet parts, added Joel in later on trombone, and multi-tracked myself on both alto and tenor saxes. So, all told, the horn sections had seven voices. Mixing and editing wasn’t too tough, since everyone had laid down good takes. The main challenge was getting the trumpet to be bright enough without doing anything crazy with the EQ. I handled that by EQing the trumpet on its own, then re-EQing the horn section through its stereo bus and cutting the highs a bit.
Finally, the vocals. I found myself cobbling together a crazy hodgepodge of vocal tracks, from the demos we’d recorded to the final solo tracks, as well as a few group recording sessions we’d recorded over at Urban (particularly on the big chorus numbers like “The First Time,” “If You’re Feeling Out Of It,” and “The Bird Women of Golden Gate Park”).
As I was wrapping up the sessions, I got in touch with mastering engineer extraordinaire Michael Romanowski. Michael is a household name among Bay Area musicians; he’s without question one of the top mastering guys out here. I knew that I wanted him to do the disc from the get-go; the question was whether there would be room in my budget for him. As it turned out, his rate for the session was totally doable for me, so we set a date for the end of the month.
To bounce the tracks for mastering, I was sure to bypass the Pro Tools “Bounce to Disk” function. Back when I was mixing the Squaretape EP, Peter told me that the best way to get a stereo bounce in Pro Tools was to create a new stereo track within the session and bus all of the channels to that track. Then, simply record within the session like any other stereo track. Apparently, the “Bounce to Disk” function significantly affects the size of the stereo spread, and generally degrades the audio quality of the bounce in question. It seems like it’s something that a lot of engineers know, but I certainly did not. Thanks, Peter!
It was also great that, just before creating the stereo bounces, I got a copy of Pro Tools 8 – I was hitting my 32-track ceiling in almost every session, and the new 48-track limit in PT8 allowed me to make the stereo tracks I needed with room to spare. Talk about good timing!

studio-n-me

The Man.

Just before New Year’s, I took the sessions in to Mike. He masters down at Coast Recorders, a killer studio down south of market where I’ve actually recorded on Sax. (The lovely and talented Miss Rachel Lauren cut her first jazz record there.) I liked the room even then, so it was good to be back. There is a new group of guys who own Coast these days – Mike is among them – and they’ve totally re-done all of the rooms, including the main control room for the studio, and everything looks amazing.
I’ll spare you my ranting and raving but DUDE. This guy? Knows what he is doing. In addition to being a mastering engineer, he’s a great mixer and, along with Paul Stubblebine and tube guru Dan Schmalle, started The Tape Project, a record label dedicated to releasing albums on ultra-audiophile-grade 24″ tape. They use, in their words, “the highest quality duplicating system that has ever been attempted,” and from what I saw of their machine room, that is not an overstatement. They have a lathe. Yes, you read that right. They lathe things.
Mike sat down with my consistent-but-seriously-digital mixes and went to town. For the whole afternoon he didn’t stop, methodically moving from knob to lever to tube, spreading the sound, carefully picking his EQ settings, and gently massaging the trackes into broader, wider versions of themselves. As he did this, I had a chance to sit and listen, and it was a pleasure.

The main reason for that is that his mastering studio is immaculately tuned. I couldn’t believe the clarity that my mixes had in there – it was terrifying, frankly. I was pretty confident in the quality of the tracks, but I was hearing things that I hadn’t been able to hear at all on my home system, and I had the constant fear that, at this late point in the game, I’d hear some big honking mistake in one of my tracks. Fortunately that never happened.
The whole experience did give me a new found appreciation for an acoustically tuned room. It was as though I had been mixing my entire album at street level and was suddenly able to see my mixes from outer space! One of my goals for the coming year, in addition to doing some more studying of the art of miking and mixing, is to get my workspace even half as well-tuned as Mike’s is. If I had been able to mix in a room that sounded like his does? Wow.

mikes-speaker

Mike’s right speaker. The thing covered in tubes to its left? Yeah, that’s the AMP.

At the end of the day, he had finished every tune and bussed it down through his (apparently out-of-production and amazing) analog/digital converters, and given me a reference CD. I took it home and immediately put it on, and, well, holy hell. It sounded gigantic, so full and so, so good. I listened to it on every set of speakers I could find, and didn’t find a single setup on which it didn’t sound good. From my monitors at home, to large computer speakers with a subwoofer, to the stereo downstairs, to my tinny laptop speakers, to a pair of headphones, turned up and placed across the room. I kid you not – the guy improved the sound of my record by, like, 15%. And considering that all he did was EQ and compress it, that’s beyond impressive. As is my wont, I wrote some fairly awesome bad poetry about it that day.

Another great thing about Mike’s work was how he managed to maintain the dynamic flow of the tracks. There is a huge dynamic range on The Exited Door, and Mike was so musical and careful in how he compressed the record. So many albums that are mastered have their levels jacked up to the absolute top, their audio tracks transformed from looking like a series of waveforms to one big chunk, an audio “candy bar.” But not my tracks, no sir. Though a few of the more even, poppy tunes (No Crow, Scarecrow, The Mayor) were pretty solid-looking, most of the tracks retained their original contour. The audio stuck together better, and had a great, warm blend, but the dynamics were still present, and the tunes don’t cause any listener fatigue. Considering the amount of rage mastering engineers direct towards the recent trend towards over-compression, it’s not a surprise that one of the best guys would be so skillful at avoiding it, but it struck me as remarkable nonetheless.

I could go on and on. The guy is the real deal – if you are making a record and live in the SF Bay Area (or, even, beyond), I can’t recommend his mastering services enough. He’s a super nice guy, to boot, and a fount of knowledge about all things audio – he detailed a concept for digital mixing that involved each track being a glass of water that was absolutely fascinating and enlightening. I can’t put into words as well as he did, but he tells me that it will be on his blog at some point in the future, so when it’s up, I’ll be sure to post a link to it.

So just like that, the mastering was complete and the audio was finished. The last thing to do was to assemble the artwork for the disc, do a photo shoot with Dan and Lindsay, and get it all to Sam, my graphic designer, before mailling it all off to Discmakers for duplication.

The process of putting together the artwork and photos, something I’d actually been chipping away at since the album’s conception at the start of 2008, will be the subject of the next, and final, post.

Previous: Part Five – Final Recording Sessions and Initial Mixing

Next: Part Seven – Artwork, Photos, and Design

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