Constellation Studios is proud to announce the completion of a live EP for Journey Church in Bozeman, MT. This project was one with some interesting hurtles that make it noteworthy for it's own post. My hope in sharing this experience is for those who find themselves interested in live music recording & mixing. To get started, why don't you hit play below and listen to the product as I describe the process...
In the fall of 2010 Journey Church moved into a new facility with a fully integrated & tuned audio system. At the center of this system is a Soundcraft Si3 digital soundboard. In the spring of 2012 Journey purchased the MADI card and interface to make live recording of all 64 channels simultaneously. For those that don't know, MADI [Multichannel Audio Digital Interface] is a 64 by 64 channel audio protocol. This means we can record 64 channels off of the Si3, and then turn them around and playback the recorded material back through the board. A large majority of digital boards have this as an option for this very purpose.
Journey started recording a smattering of weekend worship services during 2012. In 2013 they started doing it more consistently. In the fall of 2013 worship pastor Brandon Edwards commissioned me, Kevin Butler, to work up 4 songs for an EP. I work very closely with Journey and it's community center branch, The Commons, on all of their audio production. With one month to edit, mix, and master 4 songs I knew I was facing an interesting process. Let's face it, no live performance is flawless, so I knew I was going to have to edit multiple takes and multiple weekends together...
The recordings themselves were comprised of the audio signals used each weekend. This means we didn't use any special microphones or gear to enhance the sonic quality. This has its drawbacks because you're limited in what you can use live vs what you can use if you're just recording for post-production. I would love to have large diaphragm mics as room microphones on the drums, but the reality is that they'd only be picking up the main PA in the room. I would love to use even higher quality microphones (and different mic placement) on the guitar cabs, but most weekends we configure the guitar cab mics for what works live. This can ultimately limit the potential quality of the project, but luckily we do a decent job every weekend and I had multiple weekends to choose from.
Brandon gave me the list of songs he wanted to audition for the album and I went to work finding board mixes for each of them. I already had a searchable list of all currently recorded songs, as well as who was playing on those songs, so I picked the best ones and exported the left and right soundboard audio. I'm not sure if the average reader has heard a raw soundboard mix, but they usually sound nothing like they did live. Factors such as sound system and room characteristics often skew the raw signal, so the mixed product sounds strange on headphones and regular speakers. After a little compensating via EQ, compression, and reverb the songs were listenable and I submitted them for review.
The best takes of the preferred songs were chosen and I then went to town on collating them into song projects. Using my preferred DAW, Logic Pro X, I was able to "comp" together two services from the same weekend. This "comping" of takes allowed me to quickly swipe between performances to fix any musical errors. All of the songs were recorded to a click track, so once the performances were aligned the editing was fairly straight forward. Until...
Until I started to realize some guitar tones and keyboard patches weren't combining well. Live things can be easily overlooked because as an audience member you're only hearing it once. On a recording, you hear it over and over again. For someone like me mixing the track this number is easily in the hundreds. That being the case, tones & sounds need to mix well together. How did I remedy this miss-match? I simply went to other weekend worship experience recordings! Thanks to a consistent click track it was fairly simple to stack multiple weekends and have them mesh together quite well.
The result? Hear for yourself above! Build Your House, for instance has drums, bass, one of of the lead electric guitars, one keyboard player, background vocals, and lead vocals from one weekend while at the same time the ending drum fill, other guitars, and one other background vocalist are all from a weekend recorded almost one year later. 10,000 Reasons had funky piano patch on the originally chosen weekend recording so that was swapped out with a different weekend, and additional background vocals were brought in as well. Build your house also had an additional keyboard part and background vocals brought in from a different weekend's recording. Closer is actually the only song in the project that is from only one weekend because it was the first and (so far) only time it had been performed. It had such a response that Brandon felt the need to include it on this EP.
I approach mixing in a few different stages. For me, I start with the drums. I add my default plug-in chains and tweak them from there. Once basic levels are set, I go down the line doing the same for bass, keys, lead & rhythm guitars, and other ancillary instruments such as loops, etc. Once those have some decent sounding levels, I add in vocals. At this stage I'm primarily mixing on my Focal Solo6 studio monitors. I find them to be quiet accurate giving me an overall picture of levels, EQ, and compression.
The next step is fitting the sonic puzzle pieces together. You can make a bass guitar sound great by itself, but when you play it side by side with the kick and the rhythm electric guitar it can easily over power or get lost. This is when I start making small adjustments to individual instrument EQs as well as buss EQs. I'm also making a few more choices on effects such as reverb and vocal delay. I prefer to use my Audio Technical ATH-m50 headphones for this stage as they give a very full & present sound without the effect of room characteristics. Reverb can often be a little over-berring in headphones, so referencing on headphones at this stage of the mix is critical.
Automation is the third stage of my mixing process. I love automation. To some studio engineers that probably sounds similar to "I love doing my taxes". Automation, for those who don't know, consists of drawing in where, when, and how much to adjust certain parameters, and then on playback the parameter(s) follow those adjustments. Most of the time we're automating volume. I go crazy on the tom tracks for the drums. I've never much liked gates on studio mixes because they always leave me wanting more customization. My solution is then to draw in the volume. To minimize ring & bleed I'll turn the tom's close mics completely off when the tom's aren't being played. The same is also often true for the hi-hat. The rest of the drums, instruments, and vocals will get turned off during longer breaks in the performance. Once that automaiton is complete, I'll begin to listen to the track over and over and over and over.... and over... drawing in volume changes throughout the song where it calls for emphasizing or de-emphisizing different musical elements.
The fourth process is peer review. I send the tracks out to a few trusted individuals that listen to the tracks and give musical and sonic feedback. This process can be the most time consuming because the goal is to find every little thing wrong. By the final few versions we're adjusting things in .5 db increments or less!!! This album had quite a few revisions, including the addition of some instrumentation and vocals from other weekend recordings. This turned out to be well worth the effort.
The final part of any record is the mastering - the magic sparkle that makes it commercially ready. The preferred method for mastering is to have an outside, objective mastering technician give the tracks their final sparkle. Due to time and resource constraints we opted to master this EP in-house at Constellation. This process took about two days including peer review of the masters. When I approach mastering my own mixes I rely heavily on the objective critiques of my long time friend Matt Morris. He as an impeccable ear for detail, as well as a depth of knowledge on how to achieve results. We both use Focal Solo6 studio monitors so we're able to trust what the other is hearing.
However, mastering to make the track sound great on already great sounding speakers isn't the final step. Every time I approach a mastering session I dust off my crappy iPod headphones. That's the only time I allow myself to listen to them because, frankly, they suck. But, the world we live in is one of many backpacks being home to iPod headphones, so we need to make sure they'll sound ok on those too. After cringing and referencing the tracks a few times on these I put them back in the drawer for safe keeping.
Another important aspect of my mastering process is listening to other tracks in the same general sonic realm. I will A/B my mastering session to songs in my library to give me a sense of the sonic balance and compression levels. I'll also play the tracks back through all kinds of other mediums such as iPhone speakers, crappy car stereos, home theater systems, and even the large sound system at the church's facility. This process makes sure that the tracks translate properly. There's a large sonic difference from the array of 18" subs at the church's facility to my wife's '98 subaru's thin sounding speakers, and these tracks need to sound great on both.
Tools of the Trade
I occasionally get people asking what plug-ins and setting I used on this or that to get the sound they hear. I have some go-to plugins and settings, but really I just listen to the raw signal to determine what to use.
As far as EQs go, I love the EQuality plugin from DMG Audio. This is my swiss army knife I use on every buss and most instruments. I will also use the API 550B EQ from Waves for general track sound shaping as I like it's options (and lack of options) as well as its slight sonic coloration.
Compressors can be complicated beasts. There are all kinds of types for all kinds of applications. I've come to use a few specific ones for certain instruments, but they're not always final decisions. In general I use a smattering of API 2500, SSL Comp, CLA-3A, and CLA-76 (both Bluey and Blacky) all from Waves. My 100% go-to for every track with drums/percussion is the CLA Drums plugin. CLA stands for Chris Lord Alge - a famous engineer/producer. These plugins make any drum sound epic by just putting it on the signal chain. I always love it. I mainly use Logic Pro's Space Designer and Delay Designer for effects. I've tried others but I just love the presets these come with.
My main output signal chain can vary per project, but I always have one or two instances of EQuality to shape the EQ at different stages (pre/post compression). I then usually use a Waves' C6 multi-channel compressor. I haven't perfected the art of multi-band compression, but it's a great tool for controlling the dynamic range across different frequency bands. I then have an SSL Comp for overall glue. It's never compressing more then 3 db or so, but it helps glue everything together. My last two plugins are the Waves' PuigChild 670 compressor and Waves' L316 master limiter. I turn it to Lat/Vert mode and compress the center of the stereo image separate from the sides. This is my favorite tool of all time for achieving more stereo width. I'll even occasionally use it on stereo busses during mixing to achieve wide sounding keys and guitars. The L316 master limiter is where the final loudness and limiting come into play. I love the L316 because of how it can give priority to critical frequency ranges. I find this a must on songs because it helps balance the limiting to avoid the "pumping" of sound, and to avoid squashing the only frequency ranges where sub-par sound systems sound ok.
All in all I feel this project turned out really great. Live recordings can be compromised sonically, as well as from musical performance. We were able to compensate on this project by compositing multiple takes across multiple weekends to achieve a well rounded performance. I hope you enjoyed it, and as always thanks for reading this post on The Stream!