A blended, yet separate, sonic architecture under the beat…

For some of the recent recordings committed in the fashion described in the previous post (where the DAW multitrack is running in sync to the beat elements—being—programmed on the MPC), I have been capturing source sounds (guitars, keys, bass) with a lot of processing, particularly spatial, but also in the form of colouration acquired from driving tubes hard, or even emulations of amps, preamps and tape recorders. I also involve many time-based modulation pedals such as phasers, autowahs or manual wahs. This is reflected in the track names I have provided (a good habit as the process results in recorded audio files that are named the same, helping future reflection by providing a consistent record in terms sonic archaeology). A name such as “Tele Wah Stone 63 55 Neve Tape”, for example, stands for a Telecaster guitar, played through a CryBaby Wah pedal, into an Electroharmonix Small Stone pedal and finally into a Boss/Fender ‘63 spring reverb and amp pedal (in terms of hardware); the rest of the name relates to the software emulation side, consisting of the following UAD plugins: a Fender 55 amp, followed by a Neve preamp and a Studer tape running at 15ips with 250 tape.

To take today’s productions as case studies (‘Metery Funk Blues’ and ‘Reggae Rock’), there were drums, bass, (only for the latter, and) guitars, piano and keys (for the former) previously recorded by me on different dates, but I sync’d the MPC and programmed complimentary beats. That foundation (the beat) illuminated how I could develop the recordings into something akin to a phonographic sample that would be congruent to the beat. I previewed various elements and decided on what to keep, what to enhance and what to replace. In the case of the latter track I felt that my performances where a little too loose for the precision of the programmed rhythm, but not in a useable way. So, I muted the live drums, soloed the electric bass that was tighter, and practiced an electric guitar part through various pedals and into the amp/pre/tape emulations, whilst auditioning the live bass and programmed beat combo. Soon I had a tone and part that felt good. I thought that the bass, although it had inspired my guitar layer, could still be rhythmically tighter, so I ended up muting it before recording the guitar part I had now developed. After two guitar overdubs, one chordal and one more melodic, I replicated the original bass part, now tight to the beat and new guitar parts. I was happy recording the guitar parts with a lot of processing as the layered nature of the production justified each subsequent sonic choice. I was particularly enjoying hearing both the pedal reverb (Boss/Fender 63 spring) which was being tracked, as wells as the AKG BX20 reverb emulation (by UAD), which was being monitored only (not tracked) as part of the foldback mix whilst performing the guitar part. I felt this inspired the performance, but it also helped me envision the “staging” of the guitar in the final mix architecture enabling complimentary timbral and musical decisions. Tracking one of the reverbs was authentic to how a guitarist (in the referenced era) would have tracked some pedal or amp spring reverb (captured by the mics); but not committing the second reverb provided a safety margin, while still inspiring the performance. I later recreated the second reverb again in the DAW as I felt it was integral to the guitar “staging”, but this workflow allowed a negotiation of the amount of reverb that could be applied in post-production, and also its sharing with other elements in the mix for the benefits of spatial “glue”. There was a particularly ambient snare layer on the programmed beat I’d made that blended very congruently with my effected guitar “chunks” on the “2” and “4”.

The beat and staged guitar parts now demanded the right / a specific bass tone. The original part (musically speaking) was my favourite hook of this whole idea for the track (it had also inspired today’s beat and guitar parts), so I was going to replay it (tighter now there was a beat) but with a well defined tone. I reached for my Lakland Jazz bass with the LaBella flats (strings) and played very close to the neck (emulating Family Man Barrett’s reggae tone who I had researched during my earlier reggae/dub recording experiments). To compliment the tone of the playing technique and source (instrument, settings, strings), I also run it hot through my tube preamp (LA610), boosted the lows (at 70 Hz, by 1.5dB) and hit an optical tube compressor (LA2A) followed by a dbx160 limiting the peaks. After two takes, I attempted recording a P-bass, too, this time with roundwound strings to explore a rockier signature and provide myself with a couple of bottom-end options that signified reggae or rock, respectively (I opted for the former scenario in the end). All bass performances were tracked through software tape emulation, effectively mimicking a classic signal flow for the referenced era (source through desk preamp, inserted outboard and tracked to multitrack tape). Again, the bass had the right colouration and dynamic characteristic as it had been recorded, so it did not require further processing in the DAW (this is both a benefit in terms of processing/CPU economy, but also a conscious attempt to commit to “sculpted” sounds and capture them with a deliberate amount of staging and processing). Although I had developed a full-range and multi-layered beat, I felt that it would benefit from some form of sonic interaction with the—currently muted—live drums, but because of their loose performance against the metronome during recording, I would have to extract some tight bars and/or edit them before they would sit effectively in the mix. I finally ran the DAW mix through a mix-bus chain of EQ (Massive Passive), compression (Neve) and master tape machine (Ampex with 456) emulations, and made sure the stereo output of the MPC beat was also hitting two Studer multitrack tape tracks (being tracked to tape) on my virtual console. 

I felt that the “sample” production felt phonographic, useable and convincing because it operated as a blended, yet separate sonic “world” or architecture under the beat; courtesy of complimentary staging decisions, shared colourations pertaining to deliberate signal-flow decisions, a conceptual “inhabiting” of a particular aesthetic/era that drove both musical and tonal decisions, and the glue achieved by both tracking and mix-bus processing. The mix-buss EQ, compression and tape emulation gave the underlying mix of the recorded performances a tracked-to-a-particular-recording-medium unity/coherence, which both unified it as a mix of performed elements and separated it as a phonographic entity from the beat. Of course, the following stage would entail “sampling” the underlying “record” to bring it into the sampler (MPC) for further chopping and manipulation. That is when the sample-based process will be fully facilitated but, continuing from the last entry, this workflow discovery has really empowered me with a pre-production approach that enables the preparation of the to-be-sampled material in an optimum sonic sense. It also challenges and complicates my previous assumption that creating layers on top of a beat would be ineffective, as it reverses the order of events when compared to (previously released) phonographic sampling. Perhaps the previous experiments (conducted independently of a beat/drum-machine running in sync) have prepared me for envisioning the “record within the record” as a separate but interactive entity and shown me the limitations of imagining the “phonographic” out of (my envisioned) context.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *