Smash And Grab: A first experience with professional recording

If you like this, please consider picking up a copy of my track Smash and Grab on Bandcamp. Also cogitate about following me on Soundcloud!

Background

Back in September 2016, I was making another attempt at writing a drum and bass track (something which I've never successfully achieved to my satisfaction) — when I somehow slipped with the tempo control on my Maschine Studio and transformed the little sketch I'd written into 3/4.

"Cor, blimey!" I thought, in my most stereotypically cockney mindvoice. "I've turned this thing into a jazz waltz!"

And I decided to go with it, because, what the hell. I'd never done one before and it felt fresh. Between Abbey Road 50s Drummer, The Giant, and Session Horns — as well as a smattering of other software instruments from Native Instruments and Arturia, it came together pretty quickly.

Over the following few days it developed into something I felt had a real groove to it.

September Demo

There was something quite intoxicating about the drums, and I knew it could be taken even further. I went to sleep one night fantasising about hiring a real band, with a great jazz drummer, and recording it properly — but it was still just an elaborate fantasy. No way I'd ever get it done. I figured it'd be too expensive, too hard. I'm not good enough yet. For somebody like me, it just isn't possible.

It's possible

It'd gnawed at me all night, and when I woke up I resolved to find out whether I could afford to get a track recorded. Searching around, I found a few studios in Sydney:

There were many more, but given I had no studio contacts, if a studio had an anaemic website with scant detail, I wasn't confident enough to get in touch. Despite anticipating that I might not even receive a reply, in the end I sent a brief email to studio owner Richard Lake at A Sharp Recording introducing the project, and the rest, as they say, is history. Richard got back to me the next day.

Planning

Richard recommended Nathan Sheehy for the project, and we bounced a few emails back and forth talking about a few ways to attack it. Nathan had produced for a plethora of respected Australian bands new and established, that'd seen a fair bit of airplay. Thinking back, I probably should've been a bit more ambitious — booked more time, done more than one track, and hired more musicians — but ultimately I organised for two session musicians — a keyboardist, and a drummer. My reasoning was that if we were going to do anything live, it'd be those two elements most important to carrying the track.

Recording

What a surprise and delight it was to discover which musicians Nathan had organised! Michael Hardy wasn't a name I was familiar with, but doing some quick googling was an eye-opener. For keys, he'd booked Glenn Sarangapany from Birds of Tokyo who I don't think it's an exaggeration to say are a pretty big deal in Australia, so I very nearly fell off my kitchen chair reading the email. (As it turns out, both Glenn and Michael are also in the band Kiko Smokes, each playing different instruments to their usual — apparently because they got bored and wanted a change!)

Knowing that I'd be working with such experienced, well regarded musicians left me pretty nervous in the leadup to the recording session. I'd booked a day — it worked out being about 10 hours' work.

I arrived at about 10AM and met Nathan out the front of the studio, which is surreptitiously tucked away on the main stretch at Riverwood — unsignposted and behind a heavy, inauspicious, graffiti scarred door (for reasons which are immediately apparent as you walk in — the studio is quite richly appointed inside.)

Nathan and the studio intern (for whom it was the first day in the studio!) immediately set about setting up the drum kit for Mike, who was on his way over. About two hours of moving microphones, making a drum tunnel, and tuning snares and toms later, and hitting the kick over and over again — and we were ready to record:

Nathan opted to divide the track into small 16 bar chunks, and run takes for each of those, rather than run multiple takes of the whole track — a decision which I have every confidence was backed up by years worth of fuckups and successes on prior sessions. Ultimately it let us perform many takes of trickier or more complex passages we wouldn't have been able to otherwise — and let both Mike and Glenn experiment with different passages in a freer way.

We chucked some bell sounds in the track as an aid to Mike to indicate whether the coming passage was intended to be more upbeat or downbeat, which is the chime you hear in the video above.

Mike's performance was a phenomenal thing to experience in person. He was able to take my ambiguous, fragmented, and inarticulate suggestions and instructions and turn them into complex, syncopated percussion. The track, which was very static before, suddenly felt alive with movement.

At some point in the afternoon, Glenn arrived, and we set about recording the piano part(s).

Recording Glenn Sarangapany's Piano

I really didn't make his life easy. On the surface, the Smash and Grab bass seems pretty simple (E, C, E, C, E, C...) — but it has a good forty eight bars of syncopated variations that shift throughout the track and are a challenge to remember. Glenn had dutifully played the track demo nearly a hundred times in the prior days to learn it, so I felt pretty guilty about making it so melodically repetitious (everybody was humming it in the studio, but I don't necessarily think that was a good sign.)

After the bass was recorded, I invited him to improvise atop the track — the original demo had a synth improv that I played myself (and ended up keeping some of it toward the beginning) but the rest of the track needed a bit more life.

And boy, did Glenn provide.

"Phwoooaar. Pheeeewoooar—" intoned Nathan, as Glenn ripped into the blues improvisation, and as I squinted from the control room at the madly bopping man behind the piano I thought I could see faint wisps of smoke coming from the keys.

At about 8:30PM we had basically everything, and I selfishly buggered off home to let the intern pack up the drums and the microphones. (I swear I offered to help!)

Nathan sent me the stems a couple of days later, and I threw them into a rough semblance of a mix. Oof. It was at parts newly amazing in ways I wouldn't have been able to realise alone — but also in dire need of some new arrangement. Some changes we made to the bridge and breakdown gave the track incredible, fresh potential, but also meant that most of the original instrumentation needed to be re-done.

Stems, post session

Over the next few weeks, and in amongst an terrifyingly imminent deadline at work, I pieced together a few changes to the arrangement, but I mostly felt disillusioned. Working with live stems is hard, and most of the work I did felt like I was making things worse. I naively assumed dynamic compression was necessary to make the flat, unprocessed piano sound come alive, but I couldn't have been more wrong. (It sounds woefully obvious in retrospect.) I also find myself very creatively constrained by the traditional DAW workflow tools like Logic and Pro Tools use — for reasons I don't quite understand.

I even went so far as to buy some new ADAM S1X studio monitors (which are incredible) to help me mix — but I just don't have the experience with their sound, so it's still very hard for me to judge EQ and stereo image.

My current setup

At this point I added a Wurlitzer, additional pads and percussion effects, and chopped up the bass patterns for more variation. They sounded terrible (to my ear) at the time, but came into their own later. I resolved to take what I had to a mix session and just get it as far as I possibly could.

Mixing

I ultimately opted to return to the studio for a whole day in December to put the thing together, once and for all. (I was very glad to have booked the whole day, as mixing the track took a lot longer than both Nathan and I anticipated.)

Nathan and I took the original stems, and the additional instrumentation I created following the recording session, and worked through them, piece by piece.

His main workflow on this track appeared to be to get the channel levels right for the drums, bass, and main melodic elements (ignoring most of the atmospheric tracks such as pads) — and then EQ each so they sat right. It took probably about three hours to do the main track stems.

EQ is a black art, and no matter how much instruction I have, or how many people I observe, I still don't really absorb that magic extra implied knowledge which is the keystone piece for getting it right. One pretty nifty trick Nathan used was to set a high-Q EQ in FabFilter Pro Q 2 and sweep it back and forth across an area he perceived as having problematic harmonic content — and then invert it at the point where it had the most apparent (and offensive!) resonance.

The other thing which surprised me was the relative sparsity of dynamic compression. Nathan did compress the drum bus and some other channels, but instead, what made the track hang together the most was reverb. On the opposite wall to the below photo, A Sharp has a bank of very impressive hardware verbs, and those were employed to great effect. Between that and the EQ, the whole track now felt like it'd been recorded at the same time, live.

Bouncing down a new horn track at the eleventh hour

We added a few pads, a bass, and some additional horns at the 11th hour — the photo above is me bouncing down an additional track. I also found a part of the track where Glenn grunts on the offbeat, and boosted that up to give it a bit more of a live vibe. At about 10:30PM we were basically done — just a quick run through the master compressor to get a test master, and that was it.

I mulled the mix over, and we made a couple of changes a few days later, but it was basically done.

Mastering and Release

Richard Lake mastered the track in late December, and it was ready to publish!

I threw the master up on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Distrokid to get it out into the world, and over the next couple of days it'll appear in iTunes, on Spotify, Pandora, Google Play, Youtube Music, etc.

Depending on how things go, I might upload the raw stems to Blend.io, as I have many of my other tracks in the past, and see what other musicians do with them! Some time back, a techno producer I really admire found my remix of Ghost In The Shell's Birth of A Cyborg, Ghost Dive — and using the stems I uploaded to Blend, produced a truly incredible re-remix that puts mine to shame! I think there's real value in that kind of open, unexpected collaboration — that software takes for granted, but music really doesn't (yet.)

Costs

In the interests of privacy, I won't break out the musician and engineer fees from the studio fees, but all up I paid $2700 for the studio, and Glenn, Nathan, and Mike's time, and $90 for the master. My own setup and software at home probably cost a good ten grand over time, but I'd prefer not to think about that. I'm also using Distrokid to get the release onto iTunes, Spotify, etc — and Bandcamp for everywhere else. Between them and my SoundCloud Pro subscription that's maybe a couple of hundred USD all up — I'd estimate that I've probably spent about $3000 AUD ($2,160.45 USD at the time of writing) on the track.

I don't think I'll come remotely close to making it back, and that's OK — I'm doing this for fun, not profit! I think if a hundred people listen to the track, and tell me they enjoyed it, I'll be happy. I don't have the time to spend on advertising and promotion, so I'm just gunna leave it at that.

Final version

I also threw together a drum and bass remix/reinterpretation:


I learnt a huge amount from this process, and the whole thing, while probably on the expensive and stressful side for a hobby, was very rewarding. If you're on the fence about recording your own work, or interested in professional mixing or mastering, I assure you it is worth every penny and hour you spend.

Go do it! Time's-a-wasting.

If you enjoyed my writeup, please consider picking up a copy of my track Smash and Grab on Bandcamp. Also mull over following me on Soundcloud!

Thanks

Sincere thanks to my friend Hugh Evans, who patiently listened to countless variations and provided welcome advice, from which the final track benefited immensely.