My Fortress Recording

KeysSo, several months of preproduction (we work slow) led to the big night – and, as promised, moments of sheer panic and we learn the truth about electric guitar.

Equipment

It all started a couple of weeks before, not with arrangements or rehearsals (see last entry for all of that) but rather the collection of all the gear I would need to record this audacious group. When I recorded my own live CD 10 years ago I hired a dude who could record 24 separate tracks at once. He used a splitter to split all the inputs to the board and recorded everyone into a dedicated 24-track hard disk recorder.

Roadie in repose

Roadie in repose

I have neither a 24-track recorder nor a splitter so I had to improvise. I scoped out the situation when we had the rhythm section rehearsal the Tuesday before the performance. What I saw was a mixing board without direct outs and no mics on the drums or bass. Also the church keyboard has no MIDI out. This is fine for live mixing, but makes recording a bit tricky.

I showed up at 2:00 the day of recording to set up. My two older children were with me – my daughter was playing (acoustic guitar) and singing on the recording and my son was running one of the video recorders (which he does for our church). They helped me schlep in all the gear (see below) and we got to setting up.

Setup

DSCN4409I ended up using three recorders on the night. Since the drums and bass had no mics I brought a laptop, my interface and my older mixer (for the preamps since my interface only has 4) and some borrowed mics.  The church’s drum set has five toms and at least four cymbals, and I only had five total inputs for whole drum set. Who says you have to mic every drum individually?

DrumsSince I had five inputs but many more drums, I fell back to what you could call drum mic’ing theory. Many mixers report that their drum sound comes primarily from the overheads. Any other mics, especially the kick and snare mics, are used as a supplement. In the recent past I recorded a drum kit with just four mics – the overheads set up in a mid-side pattern. Here I used three small diaphragm condensers as overheads the capture the essence of the kit. These came from two different drum mic kits. I supplemented these with snare and kick mics. On the kick was a mic from the CAD drum mic kit. On the snare I placed my new-old Unidyne III. When I first saw it I thought it was either an old 57 or a 57 knockoff. The original owner told me it predated the 57 (i.e. the 57 was the knock-off) but some research showed that he was only partially right. It turns out the Unidyne III did predate the 57, but was in fact created by Shure and became the “engine of the SM 57, 58, 545 and 656.” Pretty cool to own a piece of history, and it works great on snare, too.

ComputerFarIf you look carefully at the photo to the right, you will not see a laptop computer. That’s because when I got to the church, it decided not to play nice with me. I hooked everything up and all I could access was something called “line in” left and right – no individual channels. I connected to the church wifi and began looking for a fix, which I never found. Fortunately, I caught my wife on the phone before she left the house to join us and talked her through disassembling my studio computer to bring it. When she arrived an hour later I was still setting up. My kids hauled it in and my son immediately went to work putting it together.

I was set up across the platform from the drums and bass, which is what I was planning on recording with the computer. I also wanted to record the keyboard via MIDI (so I could edit it later). The computer needed to be near me both so I could operate it and because I only have so long a MIDI cable. The answer was to use a spare snake to run the inputs across the platform. The snake we used was an old and fairly decrepit one being stored in a closet behind the platform. It took a bit to find six working channels, but eventually we got it figured out. Then Ronnie Lee showed up with his guitar and amp. I was planning on taking a direct out from the amp (just like I was for the bass) but his amp didn’t have a direct out. Drop back and punt.

GuitarSoloWe redirected the bass to the house snake (see next paragraph) and I set a mic in front of the electric guitar amp. Oh, for one more preamp… In the end, though, it worked just fine. This is about when a good friend from my church showed up to help with the technical aspects of the night. He was a life saver – if he hadn’t been able to make it we would still have been trouble-shooting at 8:00. He helped set up and then ran sound and the second recorder for the night.

FOHRecorderBack at the front-of-house position (the house mixer) I put a borrowed Zoom R-16 digital recorder. I’ve used this recorder before and the owner and I both agree that it has noisy preamps. When I used it for my last CD on solo piano I had to use noise reduction software to make the tracks usable. For a loud production, like this, the noisy preamps aren’t so much of an issue, but in this case it didn’t matter. The heavy black cable running between the mixer on the left and the recorder on the right is a snake connecting the two. By connecting to the insert points on the mixer I was able to use the mixer’s preamps and bypass the ones on the recorder.

Lastly, I set up a Zoom H4n in front of the platform facing the congregation. I started it just before we began for the evening and just let it run until we were all done.

Music

FullPlatformAt 4:00 the singers showed up and we had our runthrough. I finally got to hear Ronnie Lee play his guitar solo. Carol Anne made one small arrangement change while we were practicing – adding a short instrumental section near the end where before we had just stumbled right back into the vocals. After a few times through we were getting really solid.

We broke for dinner and people started showing up a bit before 7:00. I invited everyone to fill in the front rows and we recorded five takes. Not too much to say about that, except that, of course, we blew the intro the very first time through. We pulled it together, though. In the end we had at least two very strong takes and one or two more that I can pull from if needed.

I had two video cameras going, too. I moved them for each take, so I have ten complete video run-throughs. However, I don’t have video of everybody in every take. Therefore I’m going to have to be smart about how I cut the takes together. My decisions will have to be a combination of the best audio takes and the best video takes.

MyFortressRecordingTrackingPageIn the end I had 13 tracks – 11 mono audio tracks, one stereo audio track (the house) and one MIDI track (the keyboard). If you look at the screenshot you can tell where the different recorders start and stop – the top seven tracks don’t line up with the next five. Lining everything up will be the first order of business.

Until then…

Oh, yeah. Ronnie Lee played a seriously smokin’ guitar solo!

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