Kidz Praise

At my church, the kids under 5th grade have their own service (under 3 in the nursery). I’m the music coordinator for the rugrats, and what we do is project the lyrics of praise songs on a screen with crazy backgrounds, and play kids versions of those songs (in good keys for pre-voice change voices to sing, usually shorter arrangements). Then the kid’s praise leader stands up in front and leads the singing and motions for each song. I work up a good sweat every time.

Last summer the Children’s Ministry leader head brought me a DVD with some new songs to consider. There were four that I really liked. One (an original) was usable right away, but the other three were fairly well known adult praise songs, and all were the original performances. This puts the music in a bad key for kids to sing.

So, I hit upon the idea that we could strip the audio from these videos (the videos were quite good – much better than the one’s I’ve made before in Windows Movie Maker), purchase the backing tracks in a multi-key format, and have our kids record the vocals in a lower key. Everyone thought it was a great idea. One of the songs was not available, so I thought it would be fun, and integrate the various church ministries, to have our praise band record the backing track.

We set up the recording date for a Saturday morning. I was afraid it would take all day. A church member who runs a small recording studio brought his Power Mac in with a 10-in/10-out interface and Digital Performer. The idea was that we would record the original video on the first track, and then the drummer would play along to it. Our system in the main sanctuary uses 7 channels for the drums – kick, snare, 3 toms and 2 overheads.

We got the drums in one take with a digital glitch that we couldn’t explain. None of us heard it when he recorded it, but it was there on playback. We even tried to punch over it, but when playing back it was STILL THERE! We decided not to waste any more time on it, and I would just clip another section and overwrite the problem.

After replugging the interface, we set up to record bass, acoustic and electric guitar. We got the bass in one take, the acoustic in two, and then did several more electric guitar overdubs. We were done in less than 2 hours! Our recordist took his system home, created zero-based wav files (all starting at times at 0, no matter when in the track the recording actually occurs – this way everything lines up, but you end up with large files with a lot of silence on them if the instrument didn’t play a lot) and sent them to me on a CD-R.

Once I got them home, I loaded them all into a Sonar project, and trimmed out the silence. The result looked something like this:

As you can see from the bottom of the screenshot, the toms didn’t play too much in this song. Generally, the drummer only used the floor tom a little, and the mounted toms not at all until the final out-of-time flourish at the end of the piece. This made my job somewhat easier, as will be seen shortly.

The first thing I did after cleaning up the takes was focus on the drums. First I had to cut and paste to cover the bizarre recording glitch, but once that was done I could focus on mixing. I started with the kick, and since I’m a total newbie at mixing a contemporary band, I turned on-line for help. I found some websites giving EQ “recipes” and plugged in some for my kick and snare. I was really happy with the results, and the two screenshots show the curves that I used.

Kick EQ

Snare EQ

There was a fair amount of bleed between the mics, and the drums sounded a little muddy overall. First I tried the Sonitus Gate that comes with Sonar, but was unable to gate out the bleed. Then I tried Blockfish, which is common in the Sound on Sound arsenal of free plugs, but still unsatisfactory results. I could gate out the bleed, but only at the cost of signal and volume. Finally, I tried the basic Sonar Compressor/Gate, which I hadn’t considered before, but it did the trick! I successfully gated out the unwanted signal without compromising the instrument. Sometimes the simplest tool is the best… no, scratch that – often the simplest tool is the best for the job.

After getting the kick and snare where I liked them, I rolled off the lows on everything else and sent them to a drum submix. That sub received a small ambiance courtesy of Sonar’s Perfect Space convolution reverb, and a little compression. Finally, I slapped on Boost11 without any gain to stop the occasional over I was getting. The sound was reasonable, but I wasn’t impressed.

I moved on for the sake of moving on to the acoustic and bass guitars. These cleaned up really easy. I rolled off the low end on the acoustic and called it good. Then I played with the bass, again not really getting where I wanted to be. I tried re-amping through the vst amps I have, but none of my freebies sufficed. In the end I used a tube emulator and Craig Anderton’s formula for multi-band compression. Overall, the bass is okay, but not spectacular.

The electric guitar recorded well. He recorded three takes – one rhythm and two lead. The straight rhythm take fit well for the entire song. I panned it 50% left and otherwise left it alone. The other two tracks I comped together into a single take. Then I panned both of them 50% right. The result was a nice, full sound that wasn’t overwhelming. A little level automation brought the two solo lines to the front when appropriate, and that was done.

Lastly, the original track had a Hammond B-3 through most of it. I loaded up my go-to free B-3 plug-in, Rumpelrausch Taips’ ZR-1, dialed in a sound that I liked and played in a simple part. Through the verses it’s a single held note, filling out to chords with the Leslie on in the chorus. I froze this track and started working on an overall balance.

I added an effects send with another instance of Perfect Space in it, this time with a short plate reverb. Everything went there to some extent, except the electric guitars which were already heavily distorted and didn’t need the mud of a reverb to make them worse.

After rendering the mix I gave it a listen didn’t like it. Mostly, the cymbals were driving me crazy. In the chorus where the drummer is hitting them a lot, they sounded like they were pumping the compressor like crazy, although the graphic readout didn’t indicate this. Essentially, the sound was like each cymbal hit was cutting off the previous hit short (sort of like the effect of closing a hi-hat while it’s ringing). This sounded terribly unnatural.  After struggling with various compressor settings, I pulled the overheads out of the drum sub-mix and sent them directly to the main out without even a send to the reverb. WOW, big improvement. The cymbals were now clear and ringing just like they should, shimmering over the rest of the mix.

The last item I addressed were the toms (I said we’d get back here). While they sound reasonably good live in our church’s sanctuary, I found the recording sounded tubby, hollow, and distracting. I am pretty sure my meager EQ skills are not up to the task of correcting this, and there aren’t a ton of tom hits, so I decided to replace them wholesale. I auditioned all my soundfont drum kits until I found one with some toms that I like, and inserted a synth track into Sonar. I lined up under the tom tracks and placed a hit manually for each time the track waveform spiked. I also varied the velocity a bit as the waveform was larger or smaller. When I was done it looked like this:

Then I archived the tom tracks, rendered the song, and gave it another listen. This time, I’m really happy with it. My bass problems have disappeared, and everything is coming through nicely. Half the battle is now won. Next time, syncing to video!

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