“Everything is fixed or tuned to some extent,” says Jan Folkson, who’s done time with both Phil Ramone and Nile Rodgers. “There’s this subculture of people that have evolved to do it, and I guess I’m one of them.”
And like many programmers, Folkson has a host of stuff worth stealing when it comes to making the most of managing your mechanics.
1. WORKING THE PLAYLIST
“My technique of vocal comping makes extensive use of playlists. If you aren’t hip to playlists in Pro Tools, you should really take the time to learn them. When I track vocals I record each successive pass onto a new playlist on the same track. When it comes time to comp, I’ll first create a new playlist and name it ‘vocal comp’ and then start listening to each take phrase by phrase. Once I’ve chosen the one I like most, I’ll select it and hit ‘copy.’
Changing playlists keeps my selection ‘in place’ in the edit window, so now I just need to hit ‘paste’ and the phrase is in the comp track. I’ll then ‘tab’ to the end of the region (so I know exactly where the new paste needs to start) and move on to the next phrase and repeat the process.
Once I’ve got the whole song comped, I’ll go through and clean up all of the edits.”
Playlists also come in handy for other edits. “I do a lot of jazz and orchestral work where there often isn’t a click track,” Folkson explains. “On nearly all of the projects that I record, the ensemble will do multiple takes of a piece. It’ll be my job later on to cobble the best bits together. The orchestra is typically recorded live with no overdubs. I’ll group all of the tracks and create playlists for each successive take. When it comes time to edit, I use the same approach as I do for comping vocals, even though I’m usually cutting across lots of tracks. Typically, I’ll make notes so we’ll have a map to work from. I’ll create a new playlist across all of the tracks that will serve as a comp and I’ll go through each take (playlist) and copy and paste each section to the new playlist.
Because tempi, dynamics, and start times are going to be slightly different for each take, editing becomes a bit trickier and requires some critical listening. I often use the up and down arrows in Pro Tools, which allow you to mark in and out points on the fly. So I’ll listen to the existing take and hit the down arrow where the edit needs to take place. Hitting the ‘s’ key (with focus key commands enabled) will trim all of the tracks at the point I marked. So now I’ve got my ‘out’ and need to get my ‘in.’ I’ll select the playlist that has the next bit of the song and mark the ‘in’ the same way that I marked the ‘out’. I’ll then copy the selection and paste it at the ‘out’ point of the comp playlist that I’ve already trimmed. Usually the edit will require a bit of adjusting. One technique that I use all the time is control + +/-, allowing you to keep your edit point where it is and nudge the audio within. Once the timing is good I’ll often need to caress the edit point of each individual track. Since the orchestra is often recorded all in the same room and the room is a big part of the orchestral sound, you need to take the leakage into account when considering your edit point.
Tal Herzberg, Folkson’s counterpart on the West Coast, has spent years working closely with Ron Fair and Jack Joseph Puig. “Programmers are the engineers of the 21st century,” he proclaims, “and engineers without programming chops face the problem of losing out on some of the more technically challenging but more lucrative gigs.”
Like flying in vocals, or other parts, to other sections of the same song.
2. THE BUT HOW? CHAPTER
Herzberg measures all of the passages in bars and beats, creating a verified tempo map for the entire song. Then, he will include one previous measure to any section he is about to transfer.
“If chorus ‘one’starts at measure 17, and I need to insert it into the second chorus at measure 43, I’ll copy from bar 16 and insert it at bar 42,” he explains. “It gives me a blank header that I don’t need to trim.”
Creating a drum track, though, is considerably more complex. “If I have a song that’s supposed to have a funky sort of groove, for instance, I’ll look into my own musical experience to recall a song that has a groove like the one I’m looking for, something in the same pocket,” he says. He’ll choose two bars that epitomize the feel he wants, record them into Pro Tools, then trim and process it so that it fits the exact timing and BPM of the track he’s working on. Next, using Beat Detective in Pro Tools, he’ll overlay what he now calls the ‘groove template’ over the track he’s working on, fitting the new track eighth-note by eighth-note (sixteenth-note, if necessary) to the new track. This allows the live drummer from the sampled track to “play” the parts for the new one.
“Since I’m repeating the same two [sampled] bars over and over again, you get a very consistent rhythm pattern,” he says. “But since the drummer is actually playing the new samples, you get a little of the human feel — the hits that come a little before and after the beat. It’s not a 100 percent, mathematically precise, drum program: It has humanity to it.” [Herzberg then scrupulously erases all of the original sampled groove templates so only the new samples remain. IP law, it should be noted, has yet to get around to allowing a copyright on the movement of a musician’s arm. —Editors.]
Programmer Mark Dobson, working with Jimmy Douglass and Matt Serletic, is a speed freak out of sheer necessity: The pace of sessions lately has him more often in the studio and more often needing to do things as fast, and as completely, as possible.
3. FASTER VOCAL COMPING
“If I have four lead vocal tracks that I need to comp into one, I’ll lay five tracks out on the [Pro Tools] screen,” he says. “The top track is the comp track; the four below it are the sources. As you get your comp track together and you want to audition individual lines, just leave the section to be auditioned blank on the comp track. Pro Tools will automatically play the next unmuted track below it in that open spot. So you just unmute each track where you want to compare the vocal and mute the other three tracks.”
Jim Wilson, moving beyond editing and other digital manipulation, programs musical parts. Drum and synthesizer tracks, developing custom sound patches, and recording and customizing drum samples in the process, Wilson’s trick is to tend to put programming into the production process at an earlier stage.
4. MAKING THE PARTS FIT
“I had co-written a song with a young artist whose style is Latin pop with some hip-hop elements,” says Wilson. “In putting the arrangement together, I used Stylus RMX for the loops and used the drag and drop feature to place the loops as MIDI files within the project window using the most current version of Cubase SX3 on an OS X10.3.8 Mac dual 1GHz G4. I had him sing the melody over the loops with a basic keyboard part for pitch. I put a simple chordal synth part down to outline the harmony and give me an anchor for the arrangement, then tackled the bass part. Next, I went back to the loops and deleted certain parts in sections to give the song dynamics. We then brought in a guitar player to add two acoustic steel-string strumming parts á la flamenco-meets-pop. I still needed an acoustic gut string ad-lib part but we were running short on time. Rather than point out specific places to have him fill around the vocal, I decided to just let him play a bunch of licks over the track. He understood the style of playing that we wanted so I just made three comments: Make the fills short and groovy — no more than a bar or so and ‘in the pocket’ — leave a little space between the licks (natural breaks for editing), and have fun. I told him I would edit the parts later so don’t worry about mistakes or even stepping on the vocal. Needless to say, he played some great stuff because of the lack of confines.
“First, I listened through the entire track with just the rhythm and gut ad lib parts playing, noting which guitar licks I liked. This allowed me to concentrate on the groove and feel of the licks regardless of the melody or chords in the pitched instrument parts.
Then I turned on the grid, set it to ‘use quantize,’ and set the quantize value at 1/8. I then used the scissor tool (or point, hold option and click) and cut the 1/8 “notch” right before the attack so as not to disturb the entrance of each lick.
I did the same at the end of each lick but placed the splice a couple of beats beyond the end and added a two-beat volume ramp. This allows any ‘over-ring’ or ambience around the microphone to trail off naturally but keeps any additional noise floor out of the soundbite. I created two adjacent mono tracks and used the drag-and-drop feature to place the best licks on one of the tracks. (Hold ‘option,’ click and drag the waveform, then before releasing the mouse, hold ‘command’ and release the mouse, then release ‘option’ and ‘command’: This leaves the original track intact.)
“Next, I started listening to the full track again minus the gut string tracks and noted what places needed fills around the vocal or instrumental parts. I used a few of the licks in their original location and copied those to the third track. This is where the eighth-note grid tool pays off.
After copying the lick to the approximate area that needed a fill, I would try listening back with the lick nudged forward or back in time to hear where it would sit best in relation to the vocal and track. For some of the licks, I just pasted in a different ending note to match the chord and it worked.
Rhythmically, some of the fills ended up sounding more syncopated because the original accents were delayed or advanced an eighth-note in time.”
Brian Montgomery’s work with Al Schmitt and Arif Mardin is legend. While he’s currently working on edits for Donald Fagen’s new solo record (produced by Fagan and recorded by Elliot Scheiner), Montgomery will dish.”
5. ON TUNING: DRUMS & GUITARS
“On all of these projects, as the Pro Tools engineer, my main objective is always to keep the recording process as transparent as possible to the artist,” says Montgomery. “The key to achieving this is through speed and organization, and key commands are crucial to making anything happen quickly with Pro Tools. There is nothing worse than when a session comes to a screeching halt while a bunch of people stare at a screen as someone pokes around menus to complete an edit.
I always take detailed performance notes as audio is being recorded, which makes finding a particular take easy even if editing is done offline, days or weeks later.”
Montgomery on editing: “Editing loud, distorted rock guitars is challenging. Heavy distortion can often make it difficult to visually tell where the actual attack of a note is on a waveform display. Try recording the direct output from a D.I. (before the signal hits the amplifier) along with the amp signal to two separate tracks. Mute the D.I. track so that it’s not heard and assign it to an edit group with the ‘amp’ track.
When editing, using the D.I. track as your visual guide will make seamless edits much easier. The added bonus is that now you also have a clean guitar signal to ‘re-amp’ in case the original amp tone needs a makeover at a later date.”
And on stereo drum replacement: “Many people are very familiar with using Digidesign’s SoundReplacer to replace drums with mono samples. What many people don’t know is that SoundReplacer can be used to trigger stereo drum samples as well.
For example, to create a stereo snare sample, create a new empty dummy ‘mono-audio’ track directly under your original snare drum track in the edit window.
Next, create a new stereo-audio track to be used as the destination for your stereo sample. Select the regions in the original snare track to be replaced while also selecting the empty area below on your new dummy mono-audio track. Open SoundReplacer and choose the new stereo-audio track as your destination. Be sure that SoundReplacer is set to Stereo Mode and assign either a stereo interleaved or dual-mono audio file as your sample.
If using dual-mono files, make sure to choose the ‘.L’ file when pointing SoundReplacer to your sample. Choosing the ‘.L’ file makes SoundReplacer automatically pull the ‘.R’ file along with it. Or try using either Drumagog or Trillium Labs Drum Rehab to do stereo drum replacement in realtime.”