Big MONO – Project Reflection

During the study break, Shay Mitchell, Jaxon Arundel and myself decided we would form a group to create project two. We chose some reference tracks including The Prodigy ‘Breathe’, NIN ‘Closer’ and Skinny Puppy ‘Worlock’. The goal was: incorporate electronic elements into our usually acoustic based productions using the skills we had learned with synthesisers and sequencing to create an industrial rock, synth pop feel.

Our project ‘BIG MONO’ was originally to be 2 – 4 songs but we underestimated the amount of work that would be required to get a tune to where we wanted it to be; we also ran into a few issues that had not been anticipated (more on that later)!

TRACKING

MOO-SUB37
Moog Analogue Synth

Our first session took place in the MIDI studio where there is some wonderful electronic equipment including modular synthesiser, drum machines and my favorite, the Moog Sub 37. After revisiting our reference tracks and holding a discussion around our goals for the project, we commenced by programming a drum beat on the Roland TR-8 which would form the foundation for the other elements to follow. We settled on a basic beat that we felt suited our plan, recorded it into Ableton and moved on to create some synth sounds for the melodies. Jaxon was intent on getting some sounds out of the modular Roland 100 and was patching away madly, but Shay and I were keen on massaging something out of the Moog. We used a preset as a foundation and then played with the frequency and resonance settings to get the sound we were after. I then layered  a melody whilst Shay increased the frequency settings of the Moog ‘on the fly’, which led to a very interesting and pleasing result.

With the chord progression set and basic song structure decided upon, we then had

Simon Bass
Simon on bass

colleague Simon Audus play some bass guitar. Simon’s Amp was mic’d with a Sennheiser MD421 and AKG D112 and after some adjustments to get the sound we wanted, Simon tracked a bass line which really sounded great and complimented the synth sounds we had already. The next stage of our production entailed getting some scratch vocals into the mix. I felt this was very important in order to add the extra elements we had planned appropriately, which included more synth, guitar riffs and live drums. Shay had written some lyrics for the tune and despite having the flu and raspy throat on the day, was able to get a rough vocal track down for us to build upon.

Around this stage of the project we realised that our limited knowledge of the Ableton DAW was really slowing our progress, so we all agreed to import what we had into Pro Tools which we knew would expedite our efforts. This move would prove responsible for hours of heartache down the track due to warping issues and groove settings! Jaxon had been playing around with a guitar hook as we were recording vocals and surprisingly was coming up with a melody matching the one I had envisaged in my mind, We knew it must be destined for the song!

Jaxon.jpg
Jaxon in the ‘Audient A’ Studio

Jaxon recorded a scratch of the guitar melody into the session as I was searching for a suitable preset on Shay’s Juno synth for the main synth hook. It was apparent that we were deviating from our reference tracks with the sounds we were liking, however we decided to loosen up these expectations in favor of creative license. Shay and I were coming to the realisation that we were 80’s tragics as all the sounds we preferred had a distinctly Synth Pop sound! We settled on a FM preset that had a short bell in the attack of each key strike and I went ahead and played a melody line that had been internally evolving during the past hours.

It was all beginning to come together and we took the opportunity at this point to play our rough draft to our peers for feedback . It was back to the drawing board for the lead synth sound as the overwhelming response from our colleagues was that it really didn’t suit what we were building around it. This was a blessing in disguise as it forced us to create our own synth patch from scratch using the FM8 plugin (see the ‘creating a FM Synth patch’ blog here). I once again played the lead synth line using the new patch and the song took on a different character. We really enjoyed this new experience and arrived with a sound that better suited our reference tracks and the feel we were seeking.

Our next studio session was solely to track the live drums and we had 8 hours to do so. Micing a kit is no small feat and there is always time to be spent getting the sound of each source sharp. Drum micsWe used 13 microphones for this purpose and every piece of the kit was miced on top and bottom to capture the different timbres available. I am always of the mind that you can never have too many options and whilst all mic recordings will not likely be used, it is better to have them than not. All mics were checked for phasing issues and levels into the desk and Pro Tools adjusted and after 1.5 hours setting up we were ready to record. Jaxon was to play using the scratch track as reference and had a basic beat that complimented the electro beat ready.

Drums miced
The kit ready to track

The session went well as Shay and I gave consistent feedback to Jaxon as he played, embellishing his original ideas till we had the takes we wanted. We broke the song down into verse, chorus and also tracked the fills separately. It was however a fateful session as it was there that we realised that the electro drums we had imported from Ableton had a mind of their own and were not snapping to the grid in Pro Tools. We were at a loss as to why this was the case as they sounded fine in the mix? This factor was to become a nightmare in the mixing stage.

The next session, Jaxon and I tracked the guitar hook and chorus riff as Shay had other commitments. We rigged up his amp with some mics in the NEVE live room and Jaxon played in the control room. This went really well and we got a great sound (after equalising), from his two guitars (one for the melody and one for the power chords of the chorus). Shay arrived back from his other session and was stoked with the result. The final recording session was to track the vocals. shay vox

Mic choices were the C414 (which we opted for after doing some research into what was being used on one of our reference tracks), and also Shays own Sennheiser E835. Shay was keen to use this mic as he is comfortable with it and has been using it for years. We double tracked everything including using a whisper of the lyrics in the verse and surprisingly got the takes we were happy with in quick succession.

TO THE MIX!

In our first mixing session we were lucky to have Dr Duck floating around looking for new experiences! It was obvious to us all that due to the oversight in the electronic beat import, we had a problem. We consulted Stephane on this issue and he showed us how to deploy a relative grid and we thought we were out of trouble, but this was not to be. So commenced 8 hours till 12 midnight in the neve, painstakingly moving and splicing transients in the live drums to match the electro drums. An agonising but valuable lesson in ensuring careful attention to detail is observed when moving files from one DAW to another. Jaxon was instrumental in this endeavor and Dr Duck was a great help indeed.

After getting the drums in line, we could start focusing on each element in the track, getting all instruments sounding to their premium and fulfilling their own space in the mix. Once again Dr Duck joined us for this session and our plan had always been to mix on the desk in the NEVE studio.neve

We commenced with the drums, equalising and driving each output to compliment the others and as expected, we dropped quite a few of the mic’s we had used. All those that did not enhance the overall sound in the context of the mix, were overlooked. Some compression was employed in addition to gating and filtering to clean up each signal. The bass needed very little but the guitars were eq’d and high passed as required. We also panned and used some reverb to achieve a satisfactory stereo field and applied a small delay to the double takes on the vocals to fatten up the sound. We were pretty happy with the final mix as it had improved upon the original signals significantly. Dr Duck was a great help with his knowledge of mixing the electronic elements and we cant thank him enough for his dedication in assisting us achieve our best for this project.

KEY LEARNING’S and POSTMORTEM

This was a valuable learning experience for all involved. We were happy to pass on our knowledge of the live recording environment to Dr Duck, and were suitably impressed with what he was able to share with us during the mixing stage. Our team worked well together and communication and commitment to the objective was exemplary. The project had taken longer than anticipated, however we had allowed enough contingency time for the unforeseen and as a result the project finished on time and to plan. I would consider the key learning outcomes of this project to be:

  • Knowledge gained in the creation of synth patches
  • Further experience in mic and live room techniques
  • Learning in the hardest of ways the importance in consolidating a track when moving it from one DAW to another
  • Knowledge of each team members’ skills and shortcomings and supporting both in a positive and unselfish manner
  • The importance of risk mitigation and contingency planning in a production
  • Enhanced signal flow experience and critical listening skills
  • The importance of researching elements being used in any production
  • Increased knowledge of MIDI approaches, equipment and techniques
  • Greater understanding of plug ins, their strengths and appropriate uses in a mix

Big Mono now has our song ‘Forked Tongue’ up on band camp and I would love to share the link with you here with a view to receiving any and all feedback…

 

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