News From The Woods - May 15,2005

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published May 15, 2005


"Goldrush Revisited, Part Two"


NOTE: For Part One on “Goldrush Revisited”, go here.

THE RESTORATION PROJECT

Last month you read about the background and archival of the Goldrush project. Now I will address the process of how I manipulated the audio tracks using the computer. You will recall that the files were saved to DVD's in .WAV format and using ProTools protocol.

To begin with I don't even have ProTools here at Cedar Crest Studio. We have been an analog facility all these years and have been proud of it. As a rule I prefer the sound of analog tape to the sometimes cold, sterile world of digital. But I must confess it's hard to beat the UNDO button. Although we still use analog multitrack here, I have been sending my stereo mixes to digital since 1998. I still have and maintain a ¼" reel to reel deck, but I get fewer and fewer requests to use it, thanks to the ease of use and lower cost of digital. I can still take a razor to a 1" 16 or 24-track master and get a raised eyebrow from clients, but nothing can compare with the ease in digital cut and paste editing. Or cloning tracks. Or employing the use of digital mastering tools. Or unlimited undos. The list goes on and on. I don't mind so much taking a "digital hit" on my stereo masters, which most likely will be churned into MP3 files by the time the smoke clears anyway.

But when you already have an entire 24-track recording facility at your fingertips, it's kind of hard to see the positive side of digital. If I was starting over today I'd certainly go modern digital, but I have over the years amassed quite an impressive collection of what is now considered "vintage gear" and I like to use that gear when recording - conventionally - in analog. The creative side of me wold rather be able to grab a knob and twist it instead of scrolling through an on-screen menu of options. It's hard to beat a tactile surface of knobs and sliders…. Something you can physically grab and make the sound change instantly….. Instead of moving a mouse around to get the same results from software. That is why Digidesign and others market and sell "control surfaces" for computer recording. They give you knobs and sliders and switches that are user-assignable for any given audio gizmo. But they are expensive. Not as much as a "real" recording console, but by the time you get the control surface, hardware and software, Mic pre amps, and analog-to-digital converters, you have a sizeable investment. And I already have a (more than) sizeable investment in my existing analog studio, so I am not too keen on doubling my pleasure and doubling my fun. But I am getting closer. Close enough that I already have multitrack audio software in my computer(s), I just don't currently have multiple audio inputs to the computer to qualify it as a real time multitrack recording medium. I have been using Sony's ACID Pro 4.0 for the creation of many new soundtracks, mostly for use in my video production work.

So now I had these audio tracks from the Goldrush session as ProTools .WAV files, but no ProTools software. I had originally been looking into how cheaply I can get into a ProTools set up. Digidesign makes the Mbox, an audio to USB computer interface with two high quality Focusrite Mic pre's and several other line in/out options. The beauty of the Mbox is that it comes bundled with ProTools LE software and can be had for only $450. That, to date, seemed to be the cheapest way to buy into a ProTools rig. However, once I saw the files as .WAV files on the DVD's my mind began to swirl with the possibilities. ACID works with many audio formats at the same time, with .WAV being the standard basic audio format. I wondered……

Returning to the studio with the DVD's, I inserted one into my PC workstation and cranked up ACID. Using the Explorer I located the disc and then opened it up, exposing all the original folders of files burned onto the disk (by an Apple computer by the way). Each folder on that disk had 24 files within it, named "Track 1" through "Track 24". That was enough for me. I copied all the files from the DVD's (almost 12 GB) to a "Goldrush" folder on a 120 GB Seagate external 7500 RPM USB drive. I then opened ACID back up and began with song one, "Love Has Strange Ways". I loaded each file (track) one at a time into ACID and let the program "acidize" the files into the project as one-shot audio files. Here is where the fun begins…….

When all 24 tracks were loaded into ACID I drug out Track One on the timeline and BINGO! I had a kick drum. Using the original studio slate sheets I renamed each track until I had the entire song laid out in the timeline and each with it's respective name. Now the absolute coolest thing is that when you look at a digital multitrack audio timeline on a monitor you can see where every sound occurs. This means I saw the entire song laid out graphically before me. The first thing I noticed was how many times we "cheated" with tracks. For instance, we recorded a 50" gong two times in this song, but did not have enough tracks to go around so we cheated by recording the gongs on a track with a piano part. The piano was not recorded in those spaces on the timeline, so we had the gongs recorded on an "extra" track. Although this practice is commonly used, it can be dangerous. Very thorough track sheets must be maintained during the session to make sure you don't erase something important. Not only that, but mixing can become a real nightmare if you did a lot of it. And we did a lot of it. A dubbed in vocal track here in a guitar track…….. A tambourine, a shaker, and congas all on the same track in different places in the arrangement……. An acoustic guitar drop-in on an otherwise electric lead guitar track……. An electric piano and a Polymoog sharing the same track…… You get the idea. Back in the days before automated mixing, this could be referred to as the "track from Hell" to an engineer. Sometimes band members are assigned a track to maintain during a mixdown and you wind up having six pairs of hands on the board during a mix. Ah, the "good old days"! In retrospect it is a miracle I got the mixes as good as I did in such little time.

My first order of business was to give each instrument it's own discrete digital track. That way I could EQ, run gain, and add effects individually on a track without affecting any of the other instruments. Some tracks were echo effect tracks that we recorded "wet" in 1977. The track might contain only the echoes of a vocal track. This was great because I could use the same analog effects we originally used and I still had control over the volume, pan, etc. of the discrete track. But it added up to a lot more tracks than just 24. "Love Has Strange Ways" is a good example because the song starts with a single vocalist backed by a string section. Remember this was 1977. We had access to a Polymoog, which was a brand new product at the time. However, we preferred to use an ARP 2600 for strings, which was programmed by Curt Taipale. We recorded six separate mono synth tracks of strings. These tracks were recorded onto "other" tracks that had different instruments on them after the song starts. I moved all those string parts to their own tracks, etc., etc. until the original 24 analog tracks had now multiplied into 34 tracks. "Desert Isle's" 24 tracks ballooned into 45 tracks thanks to all the sound effects tracks that start and end the song.

A WORD ABOUT THE ORIGINAL RECORDINGS

Back in 1977 I knew enough about audio engineering that the main reason one goes into a professional recording studio is to get the best possible recording quality that technology has at the time. I figured (at the time) that I could go back "any time" and mix a good record at a good mastering facility, as long as we had recorded the tracks as good as possible. What I didn't consider was the possibility that "any time" meant 28 years later! And remember all we've had for those 28 years was a single (bad) reference mix as a guideline to what we had done. To say I was shocked, even astounded, at the quality of the recordings would be a gross understatement. Now able to completely isolate and dissect each individual track and it's performance, and at my own pace any time I felt like calling up the mix……. Well, you can't imagine the excitement and elation I felt for the first couple of weeks. I spent literally hours and hours just listening to individual tracks. I heard things I didn't even know were there! I heard all the off-Mic talking on vocal tracks between passages! I could once again recall intricate drum parts that for 28 years were buried under a din of a cluttered mix. I fixed flaws in the mix by digitally cloning a good background vocal part and then replacing a bad one. But all this was possible because the original tracks were recorded at correct levels, using high quality microphones, and played on quality instruments (like the Grand Piano). The grand was a 9" Steinway and it sounded fantastic. It was Miked top and bottom strings with two Neumann U87 mikes. The studio's B3 was in great shape and the Leslie was Miked with two U87's top and bottom and with another U87 placed 8' from the Leslie. The Leslie was even connected to the patch bay so running a guitar through the Leslie was easy and fast to set up. We also used the U87's for vocal chores. I had my own Sennheiser 421's with me for toms and we Miked the snare and overhead's with Neumann's, and an E/V RE-20 on the kick drum. We took the time to team up the right mike with the right guitar cab. We used three different mikes for the gongs. We spent a lot of time on the set up for each song and instrument. Unfortunately, none of these things matter if your mix sucks!

So now, here I am, sitting in my own studio 28 years later, and with complete digital control over each and every track. I was like a cat in a sea food restaurant. Being thoroughly familiar with ACID and not having to learn ProTools software was the icing on the cake! Since each individual audio .WAV file/track all started at the same reference point, all I really had to do was make sure each track started at exactly the same time as the next. Once I got all the tracks renamed and organized, my next chore was to set volume levels for the individual tracks. I began with an overall global setting and then honed down and tweaked individual tracks, shaping the mix to support the vocals and solos. When that was done I spent some quality time with the drum kit. Although I could hear the sonic footprint of the KEPEX gates, I had the foresight in 1977 not to overuse the device. I chose instead to use a more soft type of gate. The overheads only broke the gate open if preceded by a snare hit. But to tame the overtones on the toms I went into each track like a surgeon and cut out the audio track around the hits. This dropped the overall "mush" factor on the drums by at least 35%. The only time you heard any of the drum tracks was when something on that track was actually played. The exceptions were the high hat and overhead cymbal tracks. On the high hat track I dialed out all frequencies below 6-8K. I did the same on the overhead tracks but also placed a gentle boost in the 12K range to add some "air" to the overheads. I then followed suit with the other tracks. I rolled off everything below 120 Cycles on all the electric guitar tracks. On some of them I added a gentle boost at around 3-6K to add some presence to the electric guitars. The grand piano was a bit trickier. I preferred to use less EQ but did a fair amount of riding the gain on the volume throughout the song. The piano track on the timeline looked very complex with all the gain envelopes and edit points. Where the piano was a featured instrument I left it alone, but when it was blended in with the guitars or under the vocals I created volume trails after the initial attack of the piano could be heard. It took a lot of time to do all these things, but the overall affect to the mix in general was dramatic. All the instruments and the vocals (especially the background vocal arrangements) could be heard with more clarity because there was a lot more space in the mix.

The last step in my restoration project was to experiment with the various digital plug in's available through ACID, which supports DirectX and some VST software plug in's. I have software bundles by Waves, TC Electronics, Timeworks, and Hyperprism, as well as the factory plugs supplied by Sonic Foundry/Sony. Many of these plug in's emulate their hardware counterparts and are very good copies of many popular classic and vintage recording devices. For instance, I found the bass guitar sat nicely in the mix by using a "classic" compressor setting with the Waves C1 compressor plug in chained to the track along with a bass guitar preset found in the TC Native Parametric EQ plug in. As a matter of fact I found that the Waves C1 compressor "classic" setting was good for many other instruments as well as the vocal tracks. The power of ACID becomes very evident when running multiple plug in's on multiple tracks. Of course your real-time performance is entirely dependent on your computer clock speed and amount of RAM available. My main workstation is configured for video work so it didn't even break a sweat doing real-time audio computations. The program never glitched or hung up once during the entire project. And with my Dual Xeon 3.5GHz, computer renders of entire songs only took minutes.

I have rendered out many versions of mixes and then played the results on different playback systems for comparison. My main computer playback system is my prized pair of vintage Klipsch LaScala's being driven by my classic old Crown DC-300A. That was my reference standard. Then I played CD's in my car system, on an old boom box, through the audio studio's JBL 4312's with a Class A Spec 4 amp, and even through my Auratone sound cubes that were liberated from the original Stax Recording Studio in Memphis many years ago. When the mixes began to sound good on all those systems I knew I was on the right track. Each updated mix was stored in the parent folder containing the basic tracks to each song. When I found something new to add or made a decision that the previous "fix" was too much I re-rended the track and saved it over the previous mix. There was no need to make this overly complicated. I used basically the same techniques on each track until I had all the songs on the album as good as I could get them.

"FIXING" THE MIXES

Let me point out here that the purpose of this project was for archival and restoration. I did not add any new audio, and the only alterations I made were to correct mistakes, fix flaws, or enhance existing audio. For an example I found a couple of kick drum parts that were slightly out of time so I moved them to correct the timing problem. For the track "Love Has Strange Ways", there are two places in the arrangement where I had originally envisioned double kick drum parts. They were not particularly difficult to do. As a matter of fact I usually did them live, where the excitement of the moment juiced me up to be able to (mostly) get them correct. If I blew it live it was no big deal. But as I am not Ian Paice (of Deep Purple fame) I simply did not have the chops to play a double kick part with a single bass drum pedal with any reasonable consistency, so I made the decision in the studio to tame it down in order to keep from spending time doing retakes just because I blew a kick drum part. Time is money and the budget demanded streamlining some problem areas. No one else would have known but every time I heard those passages I sorely missed the added energy of the double kick parts. And since I originally wrote the part there, I felt it was okay to "fix it in the mix" 28 years later. So I cloned a kick drum sample off the track and made a new track. Then I carefully placed the "second" kick part where it needed to be, occasionally moving around the original kick to accommodate the "new" kick drum arrangement. It worked flawlessly, and now the track has the needed energy in those parts of the arrangement. In another case, the opening guitar intro to the song "Soul to Soul" has a VERY slight "miff" just before the drum intro that brings in the rest of the band. Due to time considerations we decided for some reason that it was so slight that it really didn't matter, and the rest of the track had a great feel to it so we decided to just leave it in. Well, now that I had complete control of the new digital master I decided to finally fix it. I went to the next measure, copied the same (correct) guitar lick and pasted it over the offending lick which to me now stuck out like a sore thumb. Instantly, it all came together! No more flaw. I was really starting to LOVE digital editing.

On "Desert Isle" the are two vocal lines - "I think I'll walk into the sea… and that will be the end of me" - that I wanted a whisper effect on. So back in '77 we had to set the EQ for a "telephone effect", rolling off all the bass and lower mid frequencies, to get the desired effect. So every time the mix got to that point someone would have to click in the EQ on that track, and then take it back out at the end of the passage. No real problem, but it also meant we could not add any other EQ curve to that track as it would have been too difficult (remember - NO automation in those days) to dial in the correct frequencies on three separate knobs on the EQ section, and then return them instantly to the other setting in a fraction of a second. It just wasn't possible, and we had no other open track in that section to bump the two lines over to, so the lead vocal track had NO EQ at all on it except for two lines. Cut to today, and now I could copy the two lines, create a new track and insert the two lines, delete the same two lines in the original track, and then set the desired EQ on the isolated audio track. That then made it possible to massage the original track with EQ and processing without disturbing the "telephone effect" on those two lines. Sweet.

On "Love Has Strange Ways", the original ending was a fade out. In the studio on the original take we played past the point of the fade out and just kept playing until I ended the song with a deliberate slow down - just for funzies. At the fade out there are two or more guitars soloing off into the fade and everyone is playing full tilt on all the tracks. It was sort of "planned mayhem" typical of a rock and roll epic song. I thought the ending was kind of cool so I slowly worked my way through the fade out and tamed the mix to enhance the more important tracks and allowed the song to come to a grinding halt, complete with organ growling with distortion. I went to the middle of the song where there was a 50" gong at the end of the first breakdown, cloned it off, and placed it strategically at the ending note of the song. Now the track has a "cold ending" instead of a fade out and it sounded so much more alive and natural that way. There was even a vocal echo track that continued through the ending. I took the last part of that echo and performed a slow pitch change down (easy with ACID) over the gong and B3 and it sounded so natural for the entire mix to grind to a halt with the word "die" pitching down into the basement. It is so much better now.

There are SO many ways I was able to tweak all the mixes that I could spend the next three articles on this subject. It was a real learning experience for me and a prime example of just how much you can do with multitrack digital editing. This one single project has brought it all home to me and made it so much easier for me to make the decision to consider digital multitrack recording. But don't lose Faith, Analog Heads! I am still an advocate of analog recording. I am now looking into what I might need to make the switch and still enable me to keep my beloved analog audio in the chain. My current solution involves investing in perhaps a Mackie Onyx 1640 mixer. This mini console has 16 Mic inputs with Mackie's famous Mic pre amps, 4-band Perkins "British" EQ, 6 Auxes, and 4 Buses. But the most important feature is the optional Firewire card, which enables you to simultaneously record up to 16 channels of audio to your computer. That would be PERFECT for tracking a rhythm section (drums, bass, instruments and a scratch vocal track). Of course, you STILL have to mix within the computer and then render out the results as you cannot use the mixer for mixing recorded tracks on the computer….. yet.

But where does the analog come in, you ask? Well, my idea is to keep my vintage TASCAM 1" 16 Track analog reel to reel and use it for recording the original rhythm tracks. The Onyx mixer also has 16 analog outputs that can be adapted over to XLR Mic or RCA line outs. I can route the "live mix" to the 16 track recorder, then send the outputs of the recorder back through the mixer's Firewire outs to the computer. Then I would have the sweet analog sound of the drums and bass recorded digitally! From there on I could simply use the mixer to overdub straight to computer. An added plus to the Onyx is its ability to double as a live PA mixer. I could use the Onyx for my band's PA mixer while simultaneously recording 16 tracks of audio to my laptop! Wow! Live multitrack recording! I am thinking to myself right now…. "It doesn't get any better than that!"….. But I know in a few years it will all change again drastically, with the resultant learning curve, of course. I will really miss the "reach out and grab a knob" way of recording and mixing in the studio, but I can see the handwriting on the wall. It actually takes a lot more time to mix in the computer. The trade off is that you have such complete control over the mix, and once you tweak it, it stays tweaked and you don't ever have to address that particular part of the mix unless you want to go back and change something. AND, since it's digital it will never deteriorate over time. AND….. You always have the UNDO button. That's really hard to top.

FOR A WINDOWS MEDIA CLIP OF THE RESTORATION SESSION, CLICK HERE.


THE NEXT STEP

I am now setting about to organize a "Play Party" for the original members of Goldrush. All of us still live in this area with the exception of the bass player who now resides in Florida. I intend to send out proper invitations and arrange for a reunion. It will be our first since 1977. Hopefully Tony can make it up from Florida. I will make it a proper bash with cook out on the grill and I will set up the old Klipsch's in the den. Although a couple of the original band members know I am up to something with the old masters they have no idea just how much I have managed to glean out of the project. I have refrained from filling them in on my progress. I'd prefer for this to be a complete surprise as I want to see the looks on their faces when they FINALLY get to hear the mixes the way they were intended to be heard…….. TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER. By the time you read this it will have probably all be over but the grinning and the shouting. I have placed some links of Windows Media Video Clips to give you a taste of the music we composed on this page and in the previous Part One. I have played some of these edits to musician friends who have happened by the studio while I was working on this project. All report that the music sounds as if it was recorded recently, which is truly gratifying. I intend to take the songs I wrote and re-release them in the future. Visitors to my web site will be the first to know.

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