Portable Production

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Kevin Becka

TAKING THE STUDIO ON THE ROAD

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For the finished product, Gassert starts with some remote editing and reference mixes for the band, which he sweetens in the field using Waves Diamond Bundle plug-ins and ambience from the Audio Ease Altiverb convolution reverb plug-in. He then takes it back to Mix B for the final touches, using a combination of the previously mentioned plug-ins and outboard gear. “I'll generally warm things up with a Culture Vulture [from Thermionic Culture] and the Avalon 747VT compressor/EQ, or sometimes I'll use our Eventide H8000 for effects or even our Fulltone tap-tube echo,” he says. To get from the outboard gear back to Digital Performer, Gassert uses Apogee converters or sums it through an Allen & Heath GS3000 mixer.

Rockin' the Laptop

Los Angeles-based band Hillbilly Herald (www.hillbillyherald.com) comprises Jimmy Herald (vocals), Mark Hill (guitar), Adam Wolf (bass) and Kyle Cunningham (drums). The band has embraced the “less-is-more” production standard for reasons of both quality and cost. “You can record now virtually for nothing,” says Herald about the upside of recording outside a studio. “You can be creative without having to spend millions of dollars and get your product out there.”

For writing and laying tracks for final mixing, Herald and Hill use a 2.2GHz Apple MacBook Intel Core Duo with 1 GB of RAM, an Apogee Duet interface and a Shure Beta 87C into Apple's GarageBand and Logic Pro. Hill likes the simplicity of the Duet: “The fewer the cables, the better,” he says. “It's the kind of thing you want to set up quickly, whether it's a rehearsal or in someone's apartment.”

Hill's background in music and recording was formed at various studios in Austin. “I used to be a huge Pro Tools guy, but I made the switch to Logic in the past year,” he says. “It was a hard thing for me to do, but I think Pro Tools has fallen a bit behind.” It's important to him that the same company that makes his computer also makes his DAW, which allows for quick software updates without worrying about operating system compatibility.

The production process begins with writer/singer Jimmy Herald laying down rudimentary bass parts into GarageBand to an Apple Loop of a rock drum kit. Once the song structure is figured out and basic guitars and vocals are recorded, Hill imports the tracks into Logic Pro and then uses Toontrack's Superior Drummer 2 to program a detailed drum track. From there, he plugs his guitar directly into an Apogee Duet and uses either Logic's built-in amp simulator or Overloud's TH1 guitar amp simulator plug-in to prepare the track for live drums.

The band cuts drums at either Entourage Studios in North Hollywood or in Los Angeles at Bryan Carlstrom's Transformer studio, after which the tracks return to the portable rig at home for adding further vocals, guitars and other overdubs. The band takes advantage of Logic's presets to get the tracks sounding the best they can with their limited resources.

“You don't have to waste time,” says Hill. “Logic has a lot of great presets for vocals that may not be the best of the best, but it's perfect for songwriting or putting together the record before the mix.” The finished tracks then get mixed and mastered by Carlstrom, who imports the raw tracks into Pro Tools and starts mixing from scratch. Hill adds, “I've worked in a lot of studios, and I can't believe what you can do now with just a few things — and you can get it sounding really great.”

New York State of Recording

New York drummer Billy Ward (www.billyward.com) has played with such notable artists as Joan Osborne, Carly Simon, Robbie Robertson, Bill Evans and B.B. King, and is no stranger to affordable portable production. Ward recorded his own CDs, Two Hands Clapping and Out the Door, using a minimal rig, and recently created two new audio and video collections from the Billy Ward Trio for release on the Web. The trio comprises Ward, L.A. guitarist/composer Barry Coates and Boston bass player Bill Urmson; all three gathered at Ward's lake house in upstate New York for rehearsals in preparation for a live gig at Manhattan's Cutting Room.

“We met at the house and for a couple hours each day we played in the living room,” says Ward about the rehearsals. “We just set up a pair of Schoeps CMC 41 mics through Chand-ler TG2 preamps through an Apogee Duet into Logic on a laptop.” The band had no inkling that their rehearsal tracks would ever go public, but the results were so good that Ward decided to release them on his Website in a “pay what you want” format. “The house has wooden floors with bare walls, save for artwork, so it is not a room designed to sound good. I just want to acknowledge that sometimes the music can overtake obstacles.”

Following the rehearsals, the trio performed and recorded at the Cutting Room. A four-camera, two-person video crew captured the event live, along with Robert L. Smith from Defy Recordings, who recorded to Pro Tools. The audio setup at the club was small, using four mics — two Schoeps CMC 41s and two modified large-diaphragm Oktava mics — into Chandler TG2 and API preamps, then ported into the computer using an Edirol interface. The Oktavas were placed close to the stage in a coincident pair facing the band, while the Schoeps CMC 41 hypercardioid mics were in the back of the room in another stereo pair facing the stage. Ward also employed the venue's live sound engineer, who recorded his stage mic feeds onto two tracks for added coverage, giving him a total of three stereo feeds.

After the gig, Ward sweetened and prepared the recorded tracks for download back at his home studio. “I laid all six of the tracks into Pro Tools and each one had some qualities,” says Ward. “The Schoeps, even though they were 40 feet from the stage, had such a sweet top end, yet there was way too much detail in audio noise.” Ward started the mix with the closer-placed Oktavas, then added the Schoeps to the mix only after using a low-cut filter set at a relatively high frequency. “I used this to get the icing on the sonic cake and carefully blended it in.” Ward also added some low frequencies to the Oktavas, experimenting with various scenarios using Daking EQs. He also brought up some of the quieter passages in the mix. “You still hear the [band's] dynamics, but it's not like the floor falls out,” he comments. He then handed off the audio to video editor Neil Miller, who edited and synched the video and audio tracks for the final release.

It's a Wrap

The juxtaposition of affordable, computer-based digital audio workstations with shrinking budgets, along with reliable, cheap new distribution methods have revolutionized the ways music is being made. And as we've seen from the examples above, audio pros have responded by using these new tools to forge successful models for production while maintaining quality.


Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.






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