Guest Blogger, Victor Rice: So You’re Going to Make a Ska Record…

For my second contribution here, I wanted to talk about the recording process and get into more of the technical aspect of record production. It quickly became clear to me that a prior installment will be necessary: we really must talk next about Pre-Production and what that entails. This is the stage where, with planning, you will keep your record from going over budget and past due.

I am known as a producer of the practical type – My first production basically fell to me because I was the only member of the Scofflaws with studio experience. When it came time for us to make our first CD, I was the one who found the engineer (Bob Stander) who in turn helped me to find a studio, choose the tape, schedule the sessions – all because no one else had ever gone about it. And the main objective was to get from start to finish with our budget of about $5000. In that sense I was a producer in the old use of the term, the liaison between the technical and musical teams. I took charge of scheduling and rehearsing the band in sections, made sure the engineer knew what was wanted, made sure the musicians knew what was possible.

Rob “Bucket” Hingley was satisfied with the result, and hired me to produce “Ooolooloo” for the Pietasters. Up to this point, Moon Ska NYC had only accepted finished projects for release, but was ready to invest directly in this record. Again, the main objective was to keep the production within budget, I was not hired to impart some kind of artistic vision. To this day, my main contribution to record-making is more practical than anything else. It’s in that spirit that I hope people find this chapter useful!

1- Pre-Production

Preparing for a recording is very different from rehearsing for a show.

Choose the Songs

I learned the hard way that more than 12 songs per full-length record yields diminishing returns, artistically and technically. The average listener will enjoy 15+ songs, but it will be difficult to remember any one of them in particular. Also, the time spent producing so many songs will inevitably result in less time and energy spent on each song. For best results, choose 15 songs to prepare for the sessions – somewhere during the recording stage (hopefully sooner than later) the band should look to cut 3 songs that aren’t quite as stellar as the rest. There are some songs that will work better onstage than on a CD, which brings me to an important point: tempo changes, groove changes, dramatic pauses etc. are best left for the stage; what works well at the show may be cumbersome and stale on record, without the visual element and audience participation to complete the event. I’m not speaking of a ‘live’ record here, where the band plays all at once in the studio and is going for a live sound. I’m talking about making a dance record. Ska Music is Dance Music – continuity and pacing within as well as between songs are crucial. Choose songs with different key signatures, choose songs that either showcase the singer or the horns/soloists – you’ll find that some songs are better for soloing than others, try not to fit everything into each song. If the song is more than 4:00 long, there had better be a definite motive.

Deal With the Click Track (Metronome)

The click can be a friend, it can be an enemy. Either way, it’s best to get to know it before going near a studio. I prefer to record without a click track, I believe it can hinder the musician in the studio, already a strange environment. That said, I know some great musicians that can play along to a metronome and it sounds fresh, unhindered, breathing and groovy… you can hire them for about $1000 per day if you like! What is most important, I believe, is to Rehearse with a click track if you’re planning on recording. Find the tempo that seems to work best – Oftentimes it is not that fast tempo that really comes off at the show and gets the people going. Save the faster tempos for the stage, the difference will be well appreciated. It is harder to play a song at a slower tempo than faster, because there is a greater need for accuracy. Find a tempo that everyone in the band finds comfortable (check with the drummer and guitarist), and then set the click track to something even slower and try to get used to that. Once you allow yourself to return to the preferred tempo it will feel almost as comfortable and exciting as most animals’ favorite pastime.

Rehearse in Sections

If the recording space permits, the whole band will be able to record at once – but the focus at the beginning will be on the rhythm section, particularly the drums. Once the drums are all captured, all other instruments can be re-recorded, provided there is enough isolation between instruments (more on that in the third installment). Oftentimes there is only space for the rhythm section to record during Basic Tracking, with the lead vocalist/soloist guiding the group from the control room. It’s important that the band rehearse in separate sections, to become more aware of the focus in the studio. The rhythm section should have a couple of separate rehearsals, with the lead vocalist/instrumentalist present for reference. The horn section should also rehearse separately, with the bass player in attendance for reference. Use the ‘reference folks’ sparingly, try to get through the tune with only your section!

2- Scheduling

Of course, booking the studio time involves the budget directly. But the budget should be able to allow at least the minimum of time required for even the best-prepared group. The following is what I believe to to be the basic amount of needed time:

Recording Basic Tracks – 4 Days

Day 1 in the studio is mostly spent getting sounds. Give the engineer about 45 minutes for every microphone set up. So, with a typical drum setup of 8 mic’s, you’re already looking at about 4-6 hours before the bass player even needs to be at the studio. Always try to keep the studio free of people who aren’t needed at the time, they will benefit from this as much as the engineer! Allow another few hours for the rest of the rhythm section (while Drummie takes a well-deserved break). The evening should be spent getting some tracks recorded, getting used to the process as much as getting used to the sound of the band on playback. Make sure your headphone mix is helping you to play. As a bassist, I like to hear the kick drum and hi hat more than snare, for example.

Day 2 and 3 are spent recording as many songs as possible. The objective is to get the best performance of the drums, the rest of the rhythm section is not a priority as they can fix their tracks later. Go for as many as 3 takes of any song. If none of the drum takes are satisfactory, leave that song for the next day. Move on to the next one. When the drummer needs a break, the bassist, guitarist, keyboardist should take that time to go over the tracks that you know you’ll be using, make notes of where mistakes are, try to fix them on the spot if possible. Keep up this rate for two days, and you’ll have 12 out of 15 songs that please.

Day 4 is to make sure there are 12 ‘keepers’, and to fix parts in the rhythm section.

During this whole time the vocalist will have been recording a guide track from a separate room. Sometimes these vocal tracks prove to be the best takes, so if possible, record them well. However, don’t be afraid to use a vocal take from a simple hand mic in the control room if it’s a moving performance and especially if the rhythm section was responding to it.

Recording Overdubs and Horns – 4 days

Once the drums are all recorded, the kit should be taken down and removed to make space for overdubs and/or the horn section. At the very least, some of the drum mic’s could be useful for other instruments later.

Overdubs should be taken care of before horns – percussion, final fixes and solos from the rhythm section. That way, the horn section has as complete a sound as possible, making it easier for them to play in tune and in time. Solos should be recorded by the horns during section recording with the option to overdub afterward.

Recording Vocals/Solos – 3 Days

3 days may not seem like a lot of time to record vocals for an entire album. But the idea is that hopefully the vocalist has been finding time since day 1 to sneak in a performance here and there while everyone else is looking at the Chinese food menu or taking a break in the lounge. The vocalist and/or backing vocalists will certainly find time to record during breaks in the horn section recordings!

Editing (The New Stage of Production) XX Days

Editing is an auspicious subject. When I began recording, there were no computers in the studio. Yes I’m rather old – but still, it wasn’t that long ago. All performances were commitments; that which was recorded to tape was mixed. Now with computers, we have another stage of production – one with virtually limitless options in pitch and time processing as well as complete sound replacement for individual instruments. The amount of options can be paralyzing, many projects do not see the end of this stage!

I personally am grateful for a number of these options and now regularly make edits on the computer, whether the project was recorded to tape or not. It can be done before mix time, during mix time and in my case, both. The practical aspect is that a lot of this can be done outside a professional studio. An engineer can do it most likely from a home studio at reduced cost.

Mixing    5-6 Days

Schedule 1 day at the studio. Don’t be surprised when it takes half the day to simply set up the gear and signal paths, whether hardware or computer plug-ins. But once the first song is mixed (which normally takes longest), the engineer will have a template – whether hardware or software – for the rest of the record and all succeeding mixes will take less time. Try to get 1 to 2 mixes on that day and take them home. Spend a week listening to these mixes before returning to the studio. Everyone in the band should listen to them in as many places as possible – in your car, on your ipod, computer speakers, wherever you listen to music. Get some general comments together with the other band members and present the consensus to the mix engineer. Try to keep it general, try to think in terms of the entire record: Are the vocals loud enough/too loud? More kick drum in general? Guitars can be dirtier/cleaner? Where to put the horns? Also bear in mind you are listening to un-mastered mixes, which are normally quieter, less brilliant and more dynamic than commercial CDs.

With all of this discussed, the remaining mix days will go more smoothly. 2 to 3 songs per day average should be the goal. It can go faster, especially with ‘live’ recordings; a well-arranged and recorded song can go a long way to mixing itself.

Mastering – 1 Day + revisions

Decidedly the black art of music production, mastering can be both undervalued and overrated. This has a lot to do with the fact that, hour for hour it is the most expensive part of the production. Some feel it is imperative that the record be mastered by one of a handful of engineers responsible for most music heard on the radio today. Some feel that mastering engineers are overpriced and it is a process that can be done just as well by the mix engineer.

My opinion lies in between: I think it is absolutely crucial that there is a mastering engineer involved. And to me, more important than who is that mastering engineer, is that said engineer is NOT the mix engineer. Objectivity is the critical element in mastering a record, and I believe the project is best left in the hands and ears of an outside party.

Finding a reputable mastering engineer is as easy as finding an expensive one – But, it isn’t always that way. Try to find out who mastered your favorite records, if they are still alive/working and if so, how much they cost. When choosing your favorite records, don’t listen for cool-sounding mixes (that was the work of the mix engineer). Listen for mixes that sound great to you from any source – ipod, car stereo, dancehall, etc.

It is the mastering engineer’s responsibility to see that the sound of the record will translate consistently from system to system, environment to environment. Mastering engineers are dedicated to listening to the music as a sonic whole and to make tonal and volume adjustments to insure that the song will be clearly heard in any situation and that one song goes to the next with sonic consistency. The mastering engineer will also see that the perceived volume of the music is consistent with other commercial CDs and if possible, louder. Some engineers will go to the point of degrading the sound itself. When a song is excellent and well-performed, such sonic degradation can be overlooked. Johnny Cash’s last records serve as an example.

To prepare for the mastering session, the band must decide on the song sequence.

I prefer to save the best song for Track #2; Track #1 serves as an introduction to the record and sets up the listeners’ ears for what is to come. Think of an overture to an opera, or more commonly, the opening title sequence to a movie where the audience is still in the process of settling in. After Track #1, we have our first pause in the program, and that first pause should be followed with a strong offering.

Try to create a song list with variety in key signature, tempo and groove. Look to create an overall pace that holds the listener’s attention to the very end.

Song list in hand, the mastering engineer will set about building the record from start to finish. Once that is done, the band will again want to take the product home and listen on a variety of systems. Listen to the sound of each song, listen to the sound of the record as a whole, and listen to the spaces between the songs. With any adjustments in mind, have the engineer revise mixes, amount of time between mixes, fades and even the track sequence. It is customary for the mastering engineer to make one round of revisions included in the original price, so have all requests ready. After that, you are subject to the terms of that engineer.

And then you’re done, congratulations! You can expect two copies from the mastering session: one is for the band to copy and give out to the band members, the other is to give to the pressing plant directly, without ANY direct human contact along the way to avoid contamination. I’m only half-kidding.

To conclude with this installment, I want to briefly mention two subjects:

Drugs

In general, if one is a regular user of drugs, it may be the first inclination to stop doing these things before recording. There are two schools of thought on that; one is to do what you always do always, regardless of surroundings. The other is that, as the studio is already an unfamiliar environment, there is an opportunity here to put these things aside.

1. Tobacco – If the singer smokes tobacco regularly, there may be a thought to stop before and during the recording. Unfortunately this will usually affect the voice negatively, as a physically addicted body will be unpredictable without it’s vice. Cutting down is a good idea, but not stopping completely.

2. Marijuana – Known to relax the mental reflexes, it can either be helpful or not. Although not physically addictive, if one smokes Ganja regularly, see #1.

3. Alcohol – Known to relax the physical reflexes, I have never witnessed that as being in any way helpful in the recording studio.

If one is physically addicted to alcohol, see #1.

The Engineers

Try to make the engineers’ work as comfortable and enjoyable as possible, for your own sake!

1 – Don’t Ask Questions – walking into the control room and saying, “what are you doing?” has the same effect on an engineer as firing a starter pistol. Wait until they are in the lounge or obviously available.

2 – Don’t Gather/Chat in the Control Room. The lounge is not a convenience; it is a necessity – for the engineer! Use it.

3 – See that they get a break before 2 hours go by, plan your breaks around theirs.

4 – See that they have fresh coffee.

5 – Include their meals in the band budget.

6 – Do whatever it takes to keep them from having to get out of their chair.

7 – Do not bring plastic wrappers into the control room. If you don’t understand why, maybe it’s best you just never go into the control room.

8 – See that they have fresh coffee.

9 – Thank them for being so patient with you, whether they are or not. In the end, they will be.

10 – See that they have fresh coffee.

VR

5 Comments

  1. JJ Loy Says:

    Very practical advice from The One, Victor Rice. Listen up, bands… now that you have this knowledge, you have greater responsibility.

    Use it wisely.

    Now we have to convince Mr. Rice to give us a lesson on Dub Science.

  2. Matt Wixson Says:

    With all due respect (and a LOT is due), I just want to point out that Mr. Rice’s album “In America” has 15 tracks! I understand needing to keep an album lean and mean, both for impact and for cost limitations, but I think that the rigid 12-song boundary is unnecessary. I can think of classic albums with upwards 20 tracks, full of memorable tracks.

  3. VR Says:

    Matt – “In America” is exactly what I mean by “having learned my lesson”. And the definitive version of that CD(Radiola Records, Brasil) is 19 tracks long! I get some nice compliments on that record, but rarely can someone single out one song. And I do take into account it’s hard to remember the name of an instrumental…

    But yeah, the 12 thing – not rigid but recommended. not for matters of cost (there are better ways to save money) but for impact as you said.

    Cheers!

  4. Matt Wixson Says:

    Heh, fair enough. May I submit Rancid’s “…And Out Come The Wolves” album as one which has both a lot of songs, and a lot of memorable songs? Maybe this isn’t the BEST example to give a reggae mastermind, but it probably doesn’t matter anyway.

    I wish to confide, however, that I’m listening to Bartok for the first time while writing this. I picked up his Concerto for Orchestra on a whim at the library after reading your reference to him on your myspace page!

  5. VR Says:

    Matt – Glad you’re digging on Béla Bartók!

    “…and Out Come the Wolves” is a very strong argument, you have me there. There’s also the argument that today’s listening public is more interested in singles than full-length records…

    … still I like to think that limiting the playlist to 12 songs will make it easier for artists to trim the fat, become more selective, quantity not being quality etc. It also fits more easily on vinyl – OK I’m reaching now, I give up!



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