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Friday, 27 November 2015

Making of my Soundtrack Piece, Woman.

Yesterday I entered a song into a competition put up by Adam Audio. The idea was, they give you a choice of 5 pictures, and you compose and record a 30 second soundtrack to one of your choice. The main prize is a special edition set of their A77x monitors, which look pretty sweet. 

Check out the comp here:
As much as winning those monitors would be awesome, I was really excited a
bout the idea of creating something a little bit different from what I’m used to in the studio and making a track a little more cinematic. So I went about creating a track for the picture which had a woman in a white dress out in the wilderness.

I’ve learnt quite a bit about production, songwriting and engineering over the last few months and I wanted to put some of it into practice. More than that I wanted to learn a few things about a different style of writing, so this project was a lot of fun for me.

Picking a Reference Track

One thing that I’ve been trying to get into the habit of a bit more is picking a reference track from the very beginning of a project. I do this because you have a constant source of reference from the beginning of the track, rather than trying to fix your mix to the reference at the very end of the process. 
Check out my blog on reference tracks here:
This is the first project where I’ve picked the reference track before even laying down the first instrument. I had the idea in my head of what I wanted it to sound like, but I was going in with a fairly fresh head sound wise. I wanted a sound that was a bit raw and natural. I was trying to avoid anything too electronic and I wanted it to be floaty.

I ended up choosing Florence And The Machine’s “Cosmic Love” for the reference track. It has a similar instrumentation to what I had in my head and, as a bonus, I’m a really big fan of the sounds on that record. Plus the picture reminded me of Florence, so it worked out well.

Having the reference from the very beginning was a huge advantage. From the very first track, I compared to what the reference was doing and, as a result, stayed on track during the recording process. For each decision I thought about making, I’d do a quick AB comparison of my track and the reference and it really cemented what I really needed to do to the track.

Getting tones was a lot easier too. I often ask myself if something needs a bass boost, or compression or distortion. And having the reference there while I was dialing in tones, it became very apparent what was necessary and what wasn’t.

The biggest advantage during the whole process was my confidence in making certain decisions. I was able to make big calls, like printing all my processing and recording with reverbs. This saved a lot of time sorting through the tracks later and picking verbs in the mixing stage.

As a result of this process of checking the source tones to the reference as I was tracking, by the time I got to the mixing stage, it was all done! This was an awesome thing to experience. Finishing the tracking process and having a mix that’s 90% done. There was only a few tweaks here and there, a bit of buss processing and then mastering.

Starting With Guitars

The base of this track revolves around a guitar part that plays a simple triplet pattern that goes between Em and G. I recorded this using my maton guitar plugged into my Axe FX 2. I used the acoustic guitar because I wanted a slightly woodier sound, but then used the Axe FX to put in the amp modeling and effects that I wanted for the track.
My Axe FX signal chain went like this:
Filter > Compressor > ¼ Note Delay > Mr. Z MZ-8 Amp head > 1x12 Studio Cab (87a mic) > Large Cathedral Reverb > Filter
One thing that was really interesting while I was getting the tone for this while referencing the Florence track, was how much bass and treble I took out. I had the filter low passing up to 91Hz and high passing all the way down to 2K, the bass and treble turned down a bit on the amp head, another low cut up to 136Hz on the cab and a low cut on the final filter that was up to 158Hz. This was a bit of an eye opener because I realised how much low end can sneak into a mix, and then trying to get rid of it at the end of the process can be a bit of a struggle. Getting rid of it at the source helped avoid trying to demud a muddy mix.

The bass provided single notes that emphasized the chord changes and decayed over time. Again, I was surprised with how much filtering I did on account of the reference track. I ended up high cutting down to 2.6kHz at the start of the chain and low cutting up to 170Hz and the end. That’s a massive low cut for the bass guitar, but it sounded right.
My Bass Axe FX signal chain went like this
Filter > Compressor > Pitch (adding a 2 octave down double) > SV Bass Head > 8x10 SV bass cab > Filter.
Adding the sub harmonic down 2 octaves on the bass was a really good way to add body to the sound that made it a bit larger than life. Although you never really hear the fundamental of that sub, the harmonic content shines through and gives it something special. I recommend playing around with octave shifts for changing sounds up a bit.

The outro guitar was a bit different to the main guitar. I used the same acoustic, but I ran in through a Twin Reverb sim and also added a pitch effect called “Crystals” which adds delays an octave up giving it that sparkly fairy sound.


Next up I added some percussive elements to the mix. I used Superior Drummer with just the basic drum kit that comes with it. I gave a similar feel to the Florence song, using only kick and toms through the majority of it. I messed around with putting some snares in but it sounded a bit out of place.

I really wanted the drums to sound natural, so I avoided writing in the midi. Instead I played the parts in using my keyboard. This worked out great because it gave a really human element to the sound. I played the kick part first and then recorded the toms in afterwards. 

I’m not the best at drums or keys, but I played it through enough times to get the right feel, and then listened to the track a few times and if there was a hit that was out of time or the wrong velocity I’d change that one hit slightly and leave the rest to keep that human element.

Next I added in some shaker. This was the only sound on this track that was recorded using a microphone. I just used my Beta 58 for this because it was already set up. It’s not the best mic for shaker, but it’s a background instrument and it does the job. I supplemented this with some ride that plays fairly quietly to balance the sounds.

The outro features some huge timbali tracks as well as orchestra hits. This gives the outro a hug feel, and though these elements aren’t mixed very loud, they certainly give it a bit more of an explosive sound.

Piano, Harp, Strings and Organ

The use of the high piano and harp sounds that a panned left and right has a very similar feel to the Florence track, but I feel works really well to give a bit of that fairies in the woods sound that I was going for. They are doing polyrhythmic patterns that interplay with each other quite well. I used Avid’s Mini Grand for all the piano tones and Xpand for all my orchestral sounds.

There’s another piano part playing chords that just add a bit more rhythmic structure to the song. There seems to be a lot of polyrhythmic sounds, so it’s good to have the sound structured using a piano with a nice strong attack.

I have an organ and a lower string section providing pads on the left and right of the track. These really add a bed to the track that I wouldn’t have thought about if I wasn’t listening to a reference to see what I was missing. The organ just plays the chords progression and the strings a doing a simple melody around the chords.

The lead sound is a fairly basic lead violin that I got from Xpand. I added quite a bit of high end excitement and harmonics to this sound because I wanted it to mimic the vocal sound in my reference track. When I was doing it, it felt like it may have been a bit too much high end boost, but when I took it out the track sounded a bit dull and lifeless.

Finally, I added a Shimmer pad to breath some air into the track. This is an Xpand synth sound that I ran I high pass filter on to just get the very top frequencies and fill out that end of the spectrum a little bit more.

Play It In and Commit

Although this was made using almost only plugins, I really wanted to keep a human element. I decided from the start that I would play in all the instruments using the keyboard, like I did with 

the drums. The great thing about this is that you get that human feel, and a lot of the time it’s quicker than sitting there and typing in midi notes… and it’s a lot more fun. Plus you get better every time you do it and it becomes easier to play almost any instrument on a piano.

The other side of this is to know your weaknesses. I am not a very good pianist yet and I had a few notes out of time and a velocity I didn’t like. Rather than quantize it all, I decided to get the best take and listen through until I found notes I didn’t like and only change those notes to keep as much human element in it as possible, without leaving a bad sounding take.

After I finished each instrument, I wanted to make sure I was completely happy with it before moving on. I wanted the performance, EQ, and reverb to be as close to perfect as I could get it so that the next part that I recorded would fit into the mix right and I wouldn’t have to fix it later.

One thing I did was print each of my instruments after I had it how I wanted it. I bussed the Instrument track to an Audio track and recorded in with all the plugin settings set and then disabled and hid the instrument track.

This meant that I had to think a little bit more about the sounds and get out of the “fix it in post” mindset. It also meant that I was left with a very clean session that had very few plugins running so I knew I wouldn’t run out of processing power. I did keep the tracks in the session, and occasionally brought them up again to make a change and reprint it, but it was very little hassle.

All in all, this was a great project to do. I learned so many things from it, and hopefully with win the main prize.

If you have any questions on things I did on the track, comments on what you would have done differently or want to share your track with me, put it in the comments below.

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