Going Home

SONY DSCI remember lying in bed in a hotel room in Rochester, Minnesota, back in 2007. We were visiting my in-laws, and that was the week that I arranged the strings for Father’s World. It must have been 5-ish in the morning  and I had a melody running through my head. I arose, started up the laptop, and entered into Finale the bones of what became “Going Home.” It’s something of an homage to Vince Guaraldi of Peanuts fame. I had recently heard the track “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” for the first time, which is the track that got him the Peanuts gig, and I loved it.

Arrangement

The instrumentation is a simple four-piece jazz combo: piano, saxophone, drums and bass. It starts with solo piano stating the theme, and then the rest of the band joins in. Between each repetition of the theme there is an increasingly complex “interlude” and the final choruses have the sax soloing over the changes. There is also a key change at the end of the second interlude.

I originally expected to play everything in via MIDI and use computer samples for all the instruments. In the final version the drums and bass are still MIDI, but the piano and sax are now live recordings. I decided to do the piano live when I got the opportunity to record the Steinway at Norfolk First Baptist. Long time readers of this blog will remember that adventure.

The live recording of the piano gave me an opportunity to improve the piano solo at the third interlude, as well. I had never been happy with it and frankly don’t enjoy playing my digital piano, so did not relish doing a re-work. Maybe if this project sells surprisingly well I will be able to afford an upgrade. This piano solo does mark the first time I ever wrote out a solo before I performed it. Well, I didn’t “write it out” like in sheet music, but I worked it up ahead of time and essentially played it exactly like I had rehearsed it.

I had also originally planned on playing in the saxophone parts with my WX5 MIDI controller. With every other instrument that appears on this album so far (save the violin), I was able to learn it well enough to record the part myself. This was not the case with the saxophone. I could play well enough to play in the written melody, but fell completely flat when it came to the solo at the end. I just didn’t have the chops to pull it off, nor would I without more practice that I could afford to devote.

John Paulson playing the Soprano Saxophone

I tried a few other avenues ending in disappointment before getting back together with my old jazz professor from my college days back in the early 90’s. Dr. Paulson agreed to play the track for me in his home studio in Minnesota and e-mailed me the resulting file.

I think soon I will make a post comparing the MIDI mock-up scratch tracks with the final recordings – it could be interesting. I have three tracks now with fairly distinctive live instruments that could be contrasted to the MIDI tracks I originally recorded.

Mixing

Cakewalk Sonar tracking windowThe figure to the left is the final tracking window for the project. It looks a little different from previous project tracking windows because I did not render the two MIDI instruments before mixing.

The first two tracks are the upright bass. The  top track is the MIDI data and the second track is the synth output, showing the plugins I used. Below that is the piano track, then two tracks for drums: 1 for MIDI, 1 for audio. The last track is the sax. The two lanes below are my busses – reverb and the master output.

Bass

Bass VSTs with Slate RC-Tube and Bootsie's ThrillseekerLAThe upright bass was a simple mix. First I rolled off some of the highs from the sample since in this sparse mix it doesn’t need them to cut through. The processing starts with the Slate Digital RC-Tube console emulation plug-in. This is a highly recommended plug that I am experimenting with. In a future post you will be able to download a mix both with and without the Slate plug-in to decide for yourself if it makes a difference. After the saturation is Bootsie‘s ThrillseekerLA compressor. The gain is driven to provide just a touch of compression. Here is a great article on the nuts and bolts of using ThrillseekerLA.

Piano

Piano track VSTs including Slate Digital RC-Tube, Zoom mid-side Decoder, and Antress 7th Sign 1176 clone compressorThe piano is the 9-foot Steinway grand recorded live in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Norfolk. I recorded it in a mid/side arrangement, so the first plug-in in the chain is the Zoom MS Decoder, which turns the mid/side signal back into a conventional stereo signal. Second in the line is the Slate RC-Tube, and last is the Antress Seventh Sign limiting amplifier (or, compressor – I’ve never been able to suss out any difference other than terminology between a “compressor” and a “limiting amplifier.”) The Seventh Sign is an 1176 clone, which is a FET compressor. This style of compressor is recommended for busy piano parts with lots of important transients. Again I’ve dialed in just enough input gain to take a few dB off the attacks.

Drums

Drum BussVSTs including Slate RC-Tube, Proximity and Bootsie's Density Mk IIIThe drum sample is the brush kit from Garritan’s Jazz and Big Band collection. This is the very first MIDI drum track I ever programmed, way back when this song was first born. I’ve recently gone back over it to tighten it up a bit. The results are not nearly so good as a live drummer, but a live drummer just isn’t in the cards at this time.

Since I started this track I picked up NI’s Battery drum sampler. This is an amazingly deep sample engine, although it is not a full-on drum machine since it does not have patterns built into it. I tried to create two drum maps, one for JABB and one for Battery, so that I could switch between the two drum sets for comparison without having to move any notes around. Unfortunately, I could never get one of the two maps to work – nothing came out but silence when I fed the notes into it. In the end I stuck with the JABB kit since it’s the one I’m most familiar with.

The processing is pretty straightforward. After cutting the deep lows and rolling off some highs to keep the brush hits from popping directly into my eardrums is the Slate RC-Tube. After that I used a new plug-in called Proximity. This processor won second place in the 2012 KVR developer challenge. It’s brief is to work as a “front-to-back” pan pot using a variety of psycho-acoustic models. In this case, I used it to tighten up the stereo image of the drum samples a bit. I know, right after I completed this huge shoot-out of stereo wideners and I use a plug-in that I didn’t even cover in the shoot-out.

The last plug-in is Bootsie’s Density Mk III, set to catch the top several dB peaks and control them a bit.

Saxophone

Soprano Saxophone VSTs including Slate Digital RC-Tube, Proximity and Bootsie's ThrillseekerLAYou may notice that the VST line-up for the saxophone looks almost identical to the drum buss. The EQ settings are different – high-pass, bump in the low-mids for warmth, surgical cut to remove some honkiness, and a gentle roll-off of the highs to reduce shrillness. Next is the Slate RC-Tube.

The Proximity plug-in in this instance is being used in the reverb post-processor mode. I received the saxophone track with some applied reverb. With Proximity I was able to minimize that reverb so I could mix it more easily with the rest of my tracks. Pretty impressive plug-in.

Finally, the ThrillseekerLA compressor is smoothing everthing out a little bit and adding a subtle layer of saturation.

Reverb Buss

VahallaRoom ReverbThe reverb is quickly becoming my new favorite. For only $50, VahallaRoom is a remarkable reverb. The tails are very smooth and the sound is eminently professional. On a recent Home Recording Show podcast the guys interviewed Sean Costello, the creator of all the VahallaDSP products.

I first dialed in the wood paneled room that I had liked so much in the previous two times I used it, but it didn’t work in this case. The early reflections were too strong – I don’t like those heavy early reflections with piano. After playing with several more presets, the MusicClub seemed to work well. I have to wonder if I was influenced by the name, since this is a jazz track that would be at home in a “music club.”

Master Buss

Master buss VSTs including Slate Digital RC-Tube, Cakewalk Boost11, Bootsie's Thrillseeker and Density Mk IIIThe 2-buss has the largest number of effects. Upon listening I felt that the whole track was a bit bass-heavy, so I rolled off a little more bass with the EQ. Next up is the Slate Digital RC-Tube buss processor, followed by the Density MkIII compressor set to mid/side mode. I’m really sold on 2-buss processing in M/S – I think it really opens up the sound and creates a great balance. Next is another new processor from Bootsie, the Thrillseeker XTC, which is a multi-band exciter. Thrillseeker XTC won the same KVR developer’s challenge that awarded Proximity second place. Last in the chain is the Cakewalk Boost11 limiter, boosting the overall level and making sure that no waveforms attempt to peak up over 0 dBFS.

Conclusion

This one was a lot of work with no small amount of heartache wondering how I was going to fulfill my vision without being able to adequately play the soprano sax. All in all I think it turned out okay. Listen and see if you agree.

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2 responses to Going Home


  1. Klaus

    Thank you for this article and thanks for taking the time to do this cool video! Great sounding piano & sax in this composition. Is that “Notion”-notation programm?

    • Rob

      Thank you, Klaus, you’re very kind. The sheet music is produced by Finale. If you go back to the Father’s World video there’s a little more explanation of the software I used.

      Thanks for listening!

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