Please feel free to drop me a note if there is something I raise here that you want to add to in any way and I will include your comments and feedback in my future drivel. (Believe me I know that I am far from always being right and there are two sides to every discussion so I don’t mind holding my hands up if someone makes a good point. These are after all, only my opinions.)
As it stood I had a drive dedicated to just audio and the workstation software song files, which is the safe and generally accepted approach. Unfortunately when I started using this drive, well before the first album was completed (mid 2009), I allocated just a single folder for audio tracks and all new song tracks created. I then set the default in the software to write to this folder at all times as I didn’t know any better at that stage. As such I have ended up with 6 years’ worth of audio recordings (thousands of files) most of which were named ‘Audio 01’, ‘Audio 02’ etc. or if a second one occurred with the same name ‘Audio 01 ’ etc. most of which have no clearly identifying features in the name to relate them to any specific song, many of which were now not relevant to anything as they were out takes that were not purged from the master file.
In more recent times I had taken to naming the audio tracks with the initials of the track they relate to and at times I have spent hours going through songs and identifying all of the related audio. This was an improvement but they were all in a single massive folder when what I actually needed to do was to establish which pieces of audio related to which songs specifically and create a folder for that song with a subfolder for just the audio which was relevant.
After much pondering and time wasting I finally established that in my recording software (Cubase), there is a backup function in the file menu which will create a backup file of just the song you have open at the time. I wasn’t sure exactly what this would do but thought that if I tried it on an expendable track and filed it somewhere safely out of the way then I couldn’t do any harm. As luck would have it this function is a complete lifesaver for anyone with a mess like I had as it takes the track, all of the referenced audio files, all edit files and anything else that makes that track work correctly and automatically copies them to a folder with the same name as the track with subfolder’s specifically for audio, edits etc. In short, exactly what I was looking for. It seems that the idea behind this function is to allow producers to take the whole song and all of its relevant components to a different computer to allow editing to continue with the whole appearance and structure intact. Looking through numerous forum posts it would appear that not a large percentage of Cubase users are fully aware of this useful tool.
Anyway, two days later I had completely rearranged and streamlined my audio drive and had separate folders for the album, singles, remixes and a final one for current working tracks. The best surprise at the end of this was that the current working tracks folder contained 32 unfinished tracks and to be honest I was only aware of less than half of them. I had even forgotten that I had ever done a couple of them so it was like having some brand new songs.
During this rationalising process I had cause to listen to a lot of my older completed tracks and was completely shocked to hear the difference in quality between my early recorded raw audio tracks (without processing) and my current stuff. That is not to say that I wasn’t fairly happy with the final sound I achieved on the album and singles, it just made me realise how unnecessarily hard I had to work to achieve that sound.
When I recorded the album I had no acoustic treatment in the room, no external preamps, just two readily available microphones and my only signal path was a second hand MOTU 828 mk II audio interface straight into the computer through its stock preamps.
Every time I have bought additional studio gear I have always been underwhelmed at the level of obvious difference each part made – new mic, “well I think it sounds a bit clearer”, new valve preamp, “I guess I have more options now”, new interface, “they said it has a much lower noise floor and better converters, I think I can hear it!” However now, having listened back to something much earlier against something from my current setup, it has conclusively proved that the sum of the parts has created a difference like night and day. It was worth the effort of sorting out the drive just to discover this.
Believe me there is nothing particularly extravagant about my studio setup but I now have a much improved interface (Universal Audio Apollo) and an external valve preamp, channel strip and compressor/limiter (Universal Audio LA610mk II). Obviously you can record straight through the external preamp and channel strip straight into the computer as normal but it also allows you record something basic through DI or interface preamp and then route it back out through the external gear to add valve harmonics and compression etc. which invariably has a great benefit to drum, bass and guitar tracks especially when you retain both tracks and blend them into the mix together. I couldn’t do this sort of thing before and was stuck with whatever the take came out like originally. Similarly the Apollo interface allows for both monitoring and/or tracking with the UAD DSP effects (I can add high end software plugins to my input path) which also really add something and I can still link it to the MOTU unit if I need a lot more inputs or outputs.
As a final word I would just like to mention that I very recently bought a Nektar Panorama P4 DAW controller which aside from having a MIDI keyboard and drum pads right in front of me at all times, provides a physical mixing/editing surface. The guys at Nektar always said that this unit fully integrates with ‘Reason’ DAW software but recently they have added Cubase to the list. I can verify that the integration is superb. They have already mapped all Steinberg and Waves (among others) plugins into the system so that the Panorama can have full control over their operation, but even the ones they haven’t officially mapped it can still read very well (although certain functions may not be exactly where you expected) and you can enhance this by getting the unit to ‘Learn’. It will also control all Steinberg VST instruments as well as a good selection of Native Instruments among others and again can ‘Learn’ the layout of the others as necessary.
Aside from the integration being so good though, the main thing this unit has taught me is how much I was using my eyes to mix a song. Because on Cubase (as with most other DAW’s) the channel sliders on the screen have adjacent channel metering, without realising I was using the metering as much as the actual sound to get my mix. With a physical control surface I am listening a lot more and getting immediately better results. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to look at the meters to keep the overall gain structure in check to avoid clipping etc. but by using the control surface more it stops the metering having an overriding influence on my mixing decisions.
Another major asset is that the Panorama has a single 100mm motorised fader which automatically follows the specific track selected in Cubase. This can be used for writing track automation as you approach the final mix and I can note from experience that automating by rehearsing the changes with a slider is far more natural sounding in the final mix than drawing automation on a screen. Similarly, there is nothing to stop you going back into the software and modifying the automation later if necessary as the slider will give you an efficient template to work with.
- Sort out you hard drives; you never know what you will find.
- Don’t expect miracles with each upgrade of gear but rather compare what you used to achieve against what you now achieve following a few improvements of gear and method – it’s much more encouraging.
- Try using a hardware control surface, especially for mixing; you may be shocked at how many bad habits that you didn’t even know you had that it helps to overcome.
I hope that someone gets some benefit out of these ramblings and if anyone has anything to add please contact me via this website or leave a comment.
After 10 years in existence with me watching the contest most years I had been wondering ‘what if’ as I’m sure many people do. Having many years’ experience in both live and studio singing it seemed sensible that I should possess the basic necessary equipment to do OK in this form of competition without ever considering the possibility of winning the whole thing (I am far too many years older than the mid/late teenagers that make up the acceptable face of commercial music these days). That said I thought that I would at least get through the basic auditions and perhaps get a few seconds of TV coverage to help lift my public profile (you know - 5 years of social networking net result a few thousand views, 10 seconds on national television – 10 million views, the logic isn’t rocket science).
I entered just before the closing date in early March and then I got my invite to attend an ‘open’ audition on 6th April (open audition meaning that I actually had no need to bother applying at all as anyone can attend anyway). Once I had received my invite I started looking on Google to see what there was which may help to explain the process I was exposing myself to. Typically what I found was a bunch of sour grapes stories (excuse the pun) where apparently everybody else auditioning was rubbish and the person writing was much better by miles but still didn’t get through because the early stage judges are just production staff who don’t know anything about music or singing and they are under orders to deliver the worst possible auditionee’s to the TV because ‘car crash TV’ is much better for viewing figures blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum. After filtering through a multitude of these sort of posts I did eventually find some interesting information which just backed up what my invite letter had said – that being, I was in for a really long day.
Some people had suggested it could be upwards of 15 hours. What I did find out from the web was that you get to the venue and stand in a slow moving queue for hours on end while they shoot a pile of footage for the TV programme which would be used to give the illusion that these massive queues are stood outside the venue where the celebrity judges would watch them objectively one by one on a televised audition as seen on TV. This proved to be very accurate.
So into the real world, i went with my mate Glen for compny and when we got there guess what? Thats right we stood in a big queue for ages. eventually they did some filming and after they got the desired footage ‘in the can’ people were slowly moved into the auditorium starting from the front of the queue basically in order of arrival (which was completely fair). Given that some people had actually camped overnight judging by the equipment they were carrying, it was a long way back in the queue until you got to me and Glen. Bit by bit it moved and they topped up the auditorium each time another group of auditionee's had been seen. I say auditorium in the loosest possible sense because you realise when you get to the door that it is just one of the large exhibition halls at the ExCel.
The main problem I had with the whole thing was that if they actually gave a toss about the people auditioning rather than getting the best film footage, they would either split the auditions over several days or use a couple more of the exhibition halls available at the ExCel to make things quicker and less painful for everybody involved.
Once inside you actually get chance to sit down where you wait to be called in groups of around 20 people to line up again and wait to be seen in one of a large number of audition booths (24 I think) by one of the production staff. Here you get to do your thing entirely acapella. Unfortunately you have the added distraction from hearing the sound of everybody else doing their thing entirely acapella clearly audible in the background. If you failed you were directed to the nearest exit and if successful you were given a ‘golden ticket’ (piece of yelow paper) which you took to another area to queue for another couple of hours so they could arrange a call back audition a few days later. What was very clear is that this first day was one of at least two, possibly three auditions which needed to be cleared before you get the remotest chance of getting yourself of TV other than as a member of a managed crowd waving inanely at a flying camera (unless of course you are dressed in a banana suit – I will get to this later).
The percentage of people getting through appeared to be substantially less than 10% which would be further thinned out by a similar proportion at the second/third call back audition processes, so what appears to be hundreds of thousands of people across the country queuing up to be on live televised auditions is in fact probably no more than a few hundred by the time the cameras actually roll inside any proper auditorium and the real judges are in their seats..
To cut to the chase, I failed at the first hurdle - miserably! I am writing this in the hope that at least a few people will read it and avoid wasting an entire day for the same reasons I did. That's not to say that I won't try again, I just won't make the same mistakes. Let me make this clear now though, this had nothing to do with production staff not knowing anything about music or there being any inclination to pick the worst or strangest people because it made good TV. From what I could hear of the other people auditioning there were some awesome singers in there who totally deserved to be put through. The truth is it had everything to do with me and a couple of schoolboy errors of judgement. Quite honestly if I was a judge I wouldn't have put me through either based on my performance on the day.
There were two problems really, one probably being my song choice. I picked a song that I thought would impress rather than a song I knew inside out and although I felt fairly well prepared it didn't take a lot to put me off my stride. The other problem, the one that put me off my stride, was one that I didn't see coming (although given my experience I really should have), dehydration.
Basically, we got to the ExCel at around 08:10am, well before the supposed 09:00am cutoff point where they say they no longer guarantee you an audition. Even at that time we ended up being closer to the back than the front by the time everybody had arrived (which as far as I could tell was nearer to 11:00am than the supposed cutoff of 09:00am). We all got to queue behind the standard issue metal crowd barriers but it wasn't cramped and the crowd kept moving forwards slowly - I don't know why because at that stage it had nowhere to go - but despite that we covered around 100 yards in around 2 hours. It was about 10:00am when they started filming the crowds and the likes of Dermot O'Leary showed up to do his introductory piece to camera.
Even though I was just behind the half way point in the crowd I was still well behind the area where they were shooting, obviously I could hear what was going on though. This involved much scripted waving and cheering on cue and at one point everybody was asked to sit down except for one bloke who for reasons known only to himself came dressed as a 6 foot tall banana, he was asked to remain standing. I got the feeling his motivation may have been less about music and more about just getting on TV at any cost. So he remained standing while everybody else sat down, everybody else that is except for one knob who refused to play along. Obviously he thought he was way too cool for this. Note to standing knob (no not the one in the banana suit, the other one), if you we're that cool you wouldn't be seen dead standing in a queue for half the night making small talk with a living banana.
The best part about the filming (from my somewhat distant point of view anyway) was when they sent up a camera attached to a radio controlled helicopter. This thing flew at great speed taking passing shots of the whole crowd from just above head height. On the third pass it seemed to take an odd turn then nosedived straight into the river much to the amusement of everyone except the location producer.
So at around 12:30pm, filming over and the moving starts again - well it did for an awful lot of people anyway as they started heading inside for their auditions but seemed to stop about 10 rows in front of me. We stayed in exactly that position for the next three hours. At around 3:30pm we started moving again. After being stood in one place for 3hrs my legs were very glad of a bit of movement. Not too far but enough for your legs to remember that they are still attached to the rest of your body, I guess we got to walk around 100 yards or so. Things sort of just shuffled forwards from here over what proved to be the last 150 yards to the building entrance where (as I mentioned before) you get to sit down. So basically at the point just prior to sitting down I had been on my feet for a full 8 and a half hours and here is the problem that I didn't see coming. During that period we had all been standing behind crowd control barriers with loads of security people doing....... well.......crowd control. Toilets were a good few hundred yards away and you had to get a security person to open the barrier to let you out and then again on the way back while trying not to lose your place in the queue. To avoid the inconvenience of going backwards and forwards to the toilet all the time I had not had a drink of any description for the full 8 and a half hours I had been standing there. It wasn't a hot day so not drinking didn't seem like a big problem, that was of course until I tried to sing (which unfortunately was the first time it crossed my mind - a bit late really).
I had been singing quietly to myself on and off all day but singing quietly is no guide to what will happen when you audition properly and try to open it up a bit. Another hour and a half of sitting and then queuing again had passed before i got to audition but as soon as I tried to sing I realised I had made a very big mistake - nothing was really coming out in anything resembling the form I expected it to. The quiet parts of the song were very quiet and the big notes I hit but couldn't hold for more than a split second. To be fair to the woman auditioning me she actually let me start again but I knew it wasn't going to work and just completely lost my way with everything, words, tune, structure......... everything. And so there (after 10 hours and 15 minutes) endeth my X-Factor experience for 2013.
So my advice to anyone who is going to go through this in the future is make sure you drink plenty of fluids during the waiting process and don't worry about going to the toilet, although the security people don't look too happy they are quite willing to let you in and out as many times as necessary and they even help you find your place again. Unfortunately by the time I realised this (about 5 hrs in) it was probably already too late to have done anything about it. Also bring your own drinks as everything there is at least twice the price you would buy it for anywhere else. All in all an interesting day.
I probably will put myself through it next year again and you do meet some interesting people in the queue. It's amazing how many of the people I met were doing it for at least the second or third time. Some people never learn, let's hope I am not one of them.
Basically I had been aware for some time that what I heard through the monitors in my studio was not what I would hear in a ‘real world’ environment i.e. a normal stereo system. I knew that when the upper bass/lower mid range was sounding good in the studio, it would sound light and boxy on normal equipment with bass and kick drum almost completely missing so I would have to over compensate in the studio to make it sound more like I intended it to everywhere else. This was OK although very time consuming because I would have to repeatedly listen to my tracks on several different systems and make notes about what was too loud or too quiet then try to apply it in the studio without paying any attention to what I was actually hearing through the monitors (before you ask, my monitors aren’t top of the range but are a very reasonable pair of KRK Rokit RP5’s).
This had proved adequate for the last few years (I recorded my whole debut album this way) but then I tried to mix my most ambitious track to date, ‘Self Portrait’. This song has around 70 channels in it compared with my normal 20 to 30. I must have mixed, remixed from scratch, tweaked, pushed, pulled and turned upside down etc. etc. etc. this track on at least thirty different occasions only to find that what I got on a normal stereo was still complete crap.
I started to do a bit of research on this and discovered that ‘standing waves’ and ‘room modes’ (no, I had no idea at the time either!!!!) in the lower frequencies were probably being created in my room causing partial or total cancellation of some frequencies so in April last year I bought a JBL MSC1 monitor controller with the room mode correction software. I tried for over 6 months to get this to work but in the end gave up and got a refund because even trying three separate PC’s each with different versions of Windows (XP Pro, Vista and 7-64 bit) the software would not take a single room reading.
In December I bought the IK Multimedia ARC System which took readings immediately and loaded really simply. I tried a couple of remixes with the ARC loaded but although there was some improvement in what I was hearing through the monitors, the sound in the studio still didn’t translate well to normal listening equipment, there was still quite a lot missing in the same lower midrange.
By Christmas I had decided to bite the bullet and ask the Wife what she thought of the idea of me hanging acoustic panels all over our spare room (I mean… er. Studio). Expecting the worst I showed her a sketch of what I was proposing and to my surprise she said “If you think it will help then do it, just try not to make them look too ugly.” After I got up off the floor I went on the internet and ordered a 100mm (4”) pack and two 50mm (2”) packs of Rockwool RW5 (I believe the US equivalent is Owens-Corning 705) which are rigid fibreglass insulation panels (not actually that rigid when you see them) and some mutually acceptable upholstery material to cover them in for aesthetic purposes (and to keep the fibreglass fibres in).
This approach did not involve any calculations, meter readings or any tests whatsoever and simply used a lot of the very good information available on various websites and forums as the basis for the design. (Two people who both own acoustic treatment companies but are very free with brilliant information both on their company websites and also contribute unselfishly in discussion forums are Ethan Winner (www.realtraps.com) and Glenn Kuras (www.gikacoustics.com), so a big thanks to these guys for the help even though I have not directly corresponded with either of them.)
As you can see from the photo I have used the two 1200x600x100mm thick panels to help the lower frequencies (these are reasonably heavy lumps of fibreglass so I have mounted them within mdf and softwood batten frames bracketed to the wall and door respectively) on either side of the desk and used a further two 1200x600x50mm thick panels with simple hook supports at the back behind the desk and off the ceiling above. A further four 1200x300x50mm panels are above and alongside the desk and some smaller triangular panels in all of the upper corners of the room. I still have three sheets of the 50mm panels left over for additional areas if necessary (I am going to make some portable 1200x600x50mm panels out of these to use as and when necessary either for recording or mixing). I should note that I have an open clothes rack and a shelving unit full of books and boxes in the two rear corners of the room so firstly adding corner traps there is not an option and secondly the diffusion and absorption provided by the books and clothes is probably not hugely below what the fibreglass panels would offer anyway. In total I have just under 5 square metres (55 sq ft) of panels installed permanently.
I can hear you from here…. “Yeah nice description dickhead, but did they do anything????” The easy answer is…… ‘Oh hell yeah!!!’
The first track I played suddenly had a lot of the missing bass/lower mid range tones in it and played with a nice warm tighter bottom end, it seemed less harsh at the top while still being bright and the definition between the instruments/vocals was far superior and tighter than anything I had been able to hear before. Most remarkable was the stereo field, previously things hard panned left or right had sounded more like being just slightly off centre whereas now things are very clearly where the pan control says they should be.
I did a quick remix of ‘Self Portrait’ over an hour or so and was stunned at how many adjustments I had to make to each track to get it sounding right on the ‘new system’. Once I had finished I burned it to CD and played it on a couple of other systems in different spaces and found that the sound of the mix on these systems was very, very similar to what I had heard in the studio. I listened to it regularly in my car and on other systems over the following week and then went back to make some adjustments at the weekend. At this point it became blindingly obvious that the few bits of acoustic treatment in the room had now provided me with a monitoring environment which produced results that were nearly 100% transferable to other audio equipment, in other words exactly what I was missing before. Basically my quick remix was better than any of the numerous previous mixes I had done, and by a very large distance.
I used the IK ARC system to see if there were any obvious changes to the readings it provided before I did the acoustic treatment and as you can see in the images below there has been up to a 10db reduction in amplitude in the lower frequencies where most of my problems seemed to be. I still don’t profess to know very much about this technically but I know that if I turn up a track by 10db something dramatic will happen. Well something dramatic happened after fitting the acoustic treatment and its all in a positive way.
I did try using the ARC system in conjunction with the acoustic treatment and it did give me some helpful insight into some of the likely minor mix corrections and compensations I may have to make (because three bales of Rockwool will not give anyone a million dollar control room on their own). This far though I have found that I prefer the results with just the monitors and room treatment better as the ARC system seems to be giving exaggerated corrections some of the remaining problems it is finding.
Hopefully from now on I can spend a lot more time recording and producing new tracks and a lot less time fighting my equipment.
Total cost of this exercise - £154.00 + a good few hours DIY input.
Satisfaction with the result – Priceless!!
Thanks for Reading
I left it back in mid March questioning whether an original artist doing some cover songs for a different angle on exposure was a good idea. Well I now have four cover songs with videos on the JustDave YouTube Channel to go with my one original song video, and I can safely say that they haven’t exactly set the world alight……. yet. This may just be because none of the videos show me impaling myself on a BMX bike while doing a triple back flip with a half turn over a bus, or show my dog skateboarding and doing a paw stand while eating ravioli through a straw etc, etc.
Seriously though, the first cover video went on YouTube in early April and the latest in early June and after a good few initial hits each one had just a trickle of views until the last week or so when all of them are being watched much more regularly now and the view count for all of them is increasing steadily.
I originally had around fourteen songs to choose from for the videos and I eventually recorded six of them. Of those six, I only used four as I wasn’t as happy as I felt I should have been with the final song feel on the other two. Three are acoustic with me just playing either acoustic guitar or keyboards and singing but the ,fourth was a late addition and is a full production with a guest vocalist.
The first three were good fun and served their purpose as the basis for a video as intended but it is the fourth song which has proved to be invaluable to me.
I was asked if I could play and produce a cover song for a friend of mine, Lauren Salter, to sing to. It sounded like a good project so I agreed. She chose Avril Lavigne’s ‘My Happy Ending’ which I learned, played and recorded as faithfully as I could manage.
What has proved so valuable to me is that this is the first time I have ever had reason to carefully study and try to reproduce someone else’s production, much less an artist with massive resources behind them.
After listening to the original track numerous times you can start to hear loads of additional tracks they have used to support the sounds that are the basis of the track. I am probably way short of what actually was recorded in their studio but even with my resources I have three different electric guitar tracks, two different acoustic guitar tracks, three different keyboard tracks over and above the standard array of guitar, bass, keyboard and drum tracks which you use to form the basis of the song you believe you are hearing when you hear the track on the radio etc.
With the two separate drum kits used and a good few of both Lauren’s and my own vocal tracks, my version as it is has 54 audio tracks (effect and group tracks take this total well over 65 tracks). Having the tracks down is all very well but then getting the individual sounds right and mixing that many tracks on a PC is a formidable task.
What I am really saying is that I would recommend to anyone who records and produces their own material to try this exercise as the educational value of doing this track has been more valuable over a shorter space of time than anything I have done previously.
Obviously I am not saying that in some naive way I believe my version of this song is perfect or a total reproduction of what Avril Lavigne did. It definitely has a lot of my own interpretation (and my mistakes) in it, but the amount I learned about how what you hear on major recordings is achieved and how much of it is not what it originally seems to be is massive.
Take a listen to the track at JustDave Downloads where you can hear it and download it for free and please let me know what you think.
We also did a video for it which is on the JustDave YouTube Channel. Lauren did a great job with both her vocals and the video and is really pleased with the result for both. I’m fairly pleased too.
Its not that I either want to sound like Avril Lavigne or even to necessarily use the sounds like a typical modern commercial recording, but learning the basis of how they make their sounds will inevitably help me to make my own sounds better in future.
You really should try it.
Thanks for reading
The songs themselves are intended as ‘unplugged’ style backing tracks for YouTube videos, the first of which I uploaded this morning to my YouTube channel at JustDave YouTube Channel for the purpose of self promotion. I have also made the MP3’s of the tracks available for free download in the ‘Members Area’ of my official website. (You can become a member simply by joining my mailing list at JustDave Mailing List – it’s all free).
Doing the cover songs is all very well but the question I am sure you are all asking is why, as an original artist, am I doing covers of other people’s songs in the first place?
Part of the answer is that it is quite good fun and provides a break from writing, rewriting, recording and rerecording original songs, with covers at least you know where they are going when you start one. The real answer is that I feel a large majority of people would prefer to hear something they are more familiar from a new artist to help them to assess that artist before they move on to listen to the original tracks.
Obviously this process isn’t necessary with commercially backed artists as the level of advertising and airplay they get by default makes people believe that they have heard most new releases before anyway (although many bigger artists have started their careers with a cover song and some still make a career out of cover songs!) Similarly a great number of commercially available tracks are written to template format anyway whereby the sounds, structures, melodies and production used are extremely similar to each other so that even new tracks have a very familiar feel to them. Obviously not being commercially signed etc, I am not privileged to these inbuilt advantages so I have to try to make my luck using other methods.
Another advantage of this is as I am not currently playing live, the videos give people a way of seeing me playing (live????) and to get a different angle from the promotional photos and words which is all that would be otherwise available.
Writing this I have almost convinced myself that this is a great idea.
Good idea/crap idea – you choose! I’ll let you know if there proves to be a method in the madness later.
Thanks for reading.