Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Back on the Recording Trail

I'm feeling a little more relieved after the weekend.

On Saturday, Jeremy and I hooked up to play our way through the entire piano/conga structure of Bembé. It had been a long time since we had worked together in such a manner. The refreshing change must have been welcome because the section transitions and variations that emerged were truly inspired. There will be a few more of these between us before the song will be ready to present to our fellow band members at practice. I'd really like to debut it at our gig on October the 13th.

Then on Sunday, the recording of timbales began for real. Again, the break (this time of three weeks) may have done a lot of good. Dan, having thought about the previous attempt, decided against using the Beta 98s on the skins, instead opting for the SM57s I'd recently acquired. We used the sE Titan on the bells and the Beta 91 on the reverse of the cymbal, and the results were improved by miles. The bells went through the Focusrite Liquid Channel, and the rest needed very little EQ and no compression nor gating - always a good sign that the right mics are in the right places.

A massive thumbs-up to Bobby at Music Technology for the sE Titan recommendation; it has a more hard-core sound than the Neumann TLM-103.

This spate of sessions is to record the Ride patterns which I mentioned in an earlier post. Nathan agrees that recording in this way is much more relaxed, and we managed to chew through four songs. The surprising thing to me was how quickly it happened; I was dreading the amount that had to be done for En la sangre but it didn't turn out to be that onerous in the end. Maybe it's because I wan't the one playing this time, or maybe Nathan and Dan made it look easy. I am glad though, that I'd spent the time listening to the guides and sketching out some arrangement which gave us a loose basis from which we could work from.

Although the session was very much target driven, there was plenty of room for the creative process; indeed, I think that the clear goals helped stimulate an understanding and focus that catalysed the creativity we experienced that day. There are still four or five more songs to do before we pack down for practice; we were hoping to do some last night, but the record-breaking rainfall and resulting floods in Sheffield conspired to delay Dan on his way home from work for six hours.

Elements permitting, we'll resume tonight and perhaps tomorrow, with a mind on finishing the rides as planned before our twice-weekly practice sessions. This would be ideal, as we'd like to start recording the solos on Sunday and have them done before Dan's holiday trip.

Btw, Bembé's gonna rock!

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Performance Improvements After Millhouses

The changes we had brought into place post our Sabroso gig have made the positive improvements as had predicted.

The most telling was with the way we start our numbers, most of them are now cued in by Dan using a count-in and abanico. The feedback has been that we're now sharper with our entries, getting going straight away, and that in turn gives our music more impact. The implementation still needs more practice to make it perfectly slick, but that does not seem to be that far away now.

In terms of practices, I'm going to start using the chékere instead of the shaker because of its volume, that it can be played at higher tempi, and that it's more visible from stage. Things will start to pull together even more as Wib gains more stamina, Nathan becomes more at ease with the singing process, and I get used to performing and filling the stage again.

As mentioned previously, I've recently acquired a Mark Bass amp-head and cab for our recording and live work which should significantly improve our sound. The next pieces of equipment should be: the well-regarded AMT roam 1 for Carolyn, so she doesn't have to "snake-charm" the mic with her saxophone; an AMT Roam 3 for Catie's flute, plus the AMT WS for her alto which ideally would plug into the Roam 3 unit; and another Neumann KM-105 for yours truly.

The added advantage of the AMT Roams is the mobility it offers our melodics, which will help the band interact and develop its stage-craft. Instead of a Roam 1 for Mike, I expect that we'll use the hard-wired sE Titan on Mike's trombone (which I hear is great for the job); so that he can vary his volume by playing distance and continue using the mute, which he can't with a clip-on mic.

Having had a chat with Nathan, who is the bongó bell king, we'll both stick with hand percussion as lead singers: him on bell and güiro; and me on shaker, maracas and chékere. The both of us would re-inforce the percussive framework by providing the downbeat and backbeat accents respectively, giving Dan and Wib more freedom to manoeuvre. I eventually forsee us having a fibreglass conga or quinto up front with a Remo Fibreskin, so that Nathan could play it with the bongó bell beater along with the bell, or I could provide the tumbao to help Wib solo more freely.

There are advantages to having fully-fledged percussionists as singers.

Those are not insignificant investments, which I'll be very happy to make when the recordings are further down the road. Until then, I guess I'll have to save my pennies for the unexpected that the CD project always seems to throw at me.

Loo Yen

Monday, June 11, 2007

Recording Timbales

is going to be one of the toughest of the upcoming challenges facing the recording project. There are two general approaches as to recording them: using the classic dual-overhead mic technique which gives plenty of atmosphere but little fault-tolerance nor ability to customise sound; or to close-mic everything for a highly customisable sound at the expense of time and data storage space. We're doing the latter.

We'd already had a dry run at recording Nathan on timbales, and learned a lot from the process. Primarily, we found that the bell sounds were bleeding into just about everything else because of the high Sound Pressure Levels (SPL). Also the recorded tones of the skins lacked the ring we were looking for, and that the cymbal sounds hung around for too long.

There are a number of steps we've taken to achieve better and controllable sounds.

  • I've acquired three splash cymbals to cut short the cymbal accents, and a hi-hat on which Nathan could play the ride rhythms and still choose the level of sustain, in a manner of playing similar to that on a bell (but perhaps with more subtlety).
  • We have more recording stuff coming in: an sE electronics Titan microphone which should have a higher transient response due to its titanium diaphragm capsule, and also be able to handle the higher SPL; the AKG C414 B XLS which is an excellent all-round mic, used successfully in recording a variety of percussion instruments; and two more sE electronics reflexion filters to minimise reflected sounds from the ceilings to the overheads.
  • The recording itself will be broken up into at least three phases: ride rhythms, accents and kick drum.
  • Dan's going to try a more central placement for the Shure Beta 98 mics on the skins to get more ring.
I'm sure that other matters will crop out of the wood-work. And although the recording of timbales has expanded to a daunting 3-stage process; Dan, Nathan and I feel that this is the approach most likely to get the sound and feel that we want.

Time is knocking on a bit now. Harris is likely to return to Greece in October to perform his National Service, and I would very much like to capture his inspirational bongó playing before he does. Working backwards from there, we should aim to have all of September to record him, which means we have to get a mixdown with finalised timbales to him by the beginning of August. This just leaves a month and a half or so to get these recordings done.

Bearing in mind that this is summer, and that holiday times are upon us, you can see why there is a sense of urgency in meeting this immovable deadline.

Loo Yeo

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Clave Crisis in Bembé

The lyrics to "Bembé", the tenth song in our suite, have finally been done and we began playing it at this week's practices.

On Wednesday, we did the verse and chorus sections. This went swimmingly indeed: I'd sung the song so often in my mind that the vocal melodies were very stable, even whilst playing the congas; Ana and Jeremy had locked in well on bass and piano; Mike was cooking up some really lively trombone moñas; and Dan was pulling nice percussion riffs out of... wherever he keeps them stored. Everything was just hunky-dory.

Fast-forward 24 hours.

It was time to sort out the montuno and mambo sections. Here was when everything went pear-shaped. It all came about because of a misunderstanding.

Let's say that the piano montuno takes place over 2 clave phrases (i.e. 4 bars of music) in the i-iv-V7-i progression in C minor (actual details changed to protect the innocent), which would make it Cm-Fm-G7-Cm. In the chorus it's played in the 3-2 orientation, and I wanted it in the 2-3 orientation for the montuno/mambo.

So I'd want it changed from (clave side in brackets):
  • Cm(3)-Fm(2)-G7(3)-Cm(2) to
  • Cm(2)-Fm(3)-G7(2)-Cm(3).

The easiest way to do that would be to have a full break for an odd number of bars, and re-introduce the piano on the 2-side.

However, Jeremy had taken me to mean something different i.e. that the piano would remain locked into the clave stream, and that the vocals would come in at the new start-point of Cm(2) instead of Cm(3), effectively changing the perceived progression from:
  • Cm(3)-Fm(2)-G7(3)-Cm(2) to
  • Cm(2)-Cm(3)-Fm(2)-G7(3).
There was plenty of talking at cross-purposes before we finally understood each other, and by then Frustration was a guest band-member. Certainly the first option was the simplest for most of us to implement, and what I'd prepared the vocal melodies for. The second one required completely new vocal melodies for call and response, a new bassline, and most crucially for Jeremy to rephrase his playing so that the listener could clearly percieve the first of the C-minor chord pair as the start-point.

Naturally we opted to go for the second.

We already had another full break planned for later in the song, and have used the piano drop-out technique in several other songs of the suite. This would be the first time we'd try it this way on one of our own songs (the other instance of this happening in our repetoire is in our augmentated version of the classic 'Bilongo' aka. 'La Negra Tomasa' aka. 'Kikiribú Mandinga'). But the most important point in its favour is that the montuno section sounds different from the chorus, which it would not have done had we plumped for the easy way out.

In retrospect I should have anticipated difficulties as: this was the first time we'd written a completely new song in 2 years; and our first ever one beginning in a 3-2 orientation. I did find a decent response vocal line to the "new" progression; as did Catie, Jan and Mike on melodics. And some of the inspiraciones made the great leap with little difficulty.

Jeremy is working on recording the montuno as a practice track for us over the weekend, which I'll use to re-work the vocals and figure out the best bassline.

Our other songs were written a while ago, and teething problems like these had largely been forgotten. Last night was a short sharp reminder of things past and taken for granted.

Loo Yen Yeo

Monday, June 04, 2007

4 de Diciembre @Millhouses Park Festival 2007

Yesterday, Cuatro de Diciembre (4de12) played at Millhouses Park Festival. It's an annual free event put on by University of Sheffield Management School students as part of their events management project. We were the only salsa band to play there.

On the run-up to it, I was harried by a small gremlin of dread. The few days preceeding it had been somewhat damp, and rain had been forecast.

Not so when the 3rd of June dawned. It was bright, sunny, not exceptionally warm, and Dan had done his utmost co-ordinating the logistics efforts and liaising with the sound engineer over the phone beforehand.

Dan's a gem.

We arrived well before time and set up on a make-shift stage comprising sheets of fibreboard nailed onto a platform of wooden pallets, under an open-fronted pavillion. I'd never been to Millhouses park before; long and thin in shape, it's bounded by a dual-carriageway on one side, and a stream on the other, with a rail-track beyond the latter. Plenty of greenery in between with grassy banks, tennis and basketball courts, a cafe, a miniature boating pool, and what appears to be numbered gopher-holes for you to putt your golf balls into over the uneven turf.

Setup was quick and painless. I don't know what it is about people, but we got a little 'attitude' from the other bands. Maybe it was because we were headlining. Suffice to say that the sniping stopped after we finished our soundcheck number. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

We exited the stage for the others to set up, and everything kicked off. Then we waited, watching the preceding acts with coffee (mine's a caramel latte) and junk food accompaniment. We played two sets of five songs, each set supposedly lasting 30 mins. Because we came up just short the first time 'round, we decided to extend the solos during the second. 4de12 like to give their patrons more than their money's worth... even when they're not paying!

The audience was great. They were non-dancers, but that didn't matter - they were attentive and appreciative, and I'd take that anytime over an indifferent dancing audience. I tell a lie; a long-time friend, Ann, was there with her family, and we managed to grab a brief salsa together in 'Hijos de Cam' (the first number of our second set) before I had to join in the backing vocals.

I think this was our best performance by far despite Carolyn's regrettable absence; for many of the reasons outlined in an earlier post, and more besides. Onstage, the communication by eye-contact was superb, allowing us more flexibility and fluidity in the interchange of parts. There was much more show and energy: sweat was flying off Dan and Wib in torrents as they took the percussion to town; unleashed from behind the congas, I could exercise more stagecraft; and Nathan, this being his second gig, sang with greater confidence and aplomp. The monitoring that Catie, Jan and Mike got was well balanced allowing them to play with verve.

Maybe it was the bright sunshine.

All too soon it was over. That final half hour just flew by. Then it was time to pack down and enjoy the remainder of the afternoon.

And enjoy it we did. There's nothing quite like a great gig to set up the rest of your day.

Loo Yen Yeo

Hello MOTU

The recording project hit a nasty technical hitch a few weeks ago which made life pretty uncomfortable.

The situation was this: we had two hard-disk recorders (Alesis HD24XRs) capable of recording a total of 24 channels at 24-bit 96kHz and we need more than 50 channels per song. We get around this by copying the recorded channels onto our server (Dell PowerEdge 2950), play back the channels from the computer (using Cubase 4), whilst recording more onto the hard-disk recorders. Sounds easy, right?

Yes, with the right equipment.

Except we weren't using the right equipment, and we didn't know it.

Let me elaborate.

The real trick is in synchronising the playback with the recording. At first we were using a Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 I/O as the sound interface linked to the pc by firewire, and to the Alesises (?plural?) by MIDI. The Saffire was slaved to the house clock (Apogee Big Ben) by BNC. Cubase would stall intermittently when we hit the 'Play' button, returning control to the console several minutes after hitting the 'Stop' button. There was a lot of MIDI activity, during the interminable wait. Quite frustrating to be twiddling thumbs more than recording timbales.

Salvation: Mark of the Unicorn. Hallelujah!

I called up Bobby, our man at Music Technology and he recommended the MOTU 828 mkII USB. We got it in, partially on the basis that it had an ADAT synch, installed and configured it (a process that took a few days), and it's been working beautifully ever since. The only minor hitch was that the Big Ben would not recognise it as being terminated via the BNC, so we went with the RCA connectors instead.

With a company name like 'Mark Of The Unicorn', you gotta be pretty confident in your stuff; and they don't disappoint. The software for the product is well written and timely. I can't say the same about Focusrite.

We have a Focusrite Liquid Channel, which is an exceptional product; and it was on that basis (and lack of unfavourable reviews) that I pursued the Saffire and the Saffire Pro. It proved to be a costly error.

So in the final analysis, if you want to synch a PC running Cubase 4 to Alesis HDD recorders, consider the MOTU. I've relegated the Saffire Pro to my live rig.

You live and learn.

Yeo Loo Yen