How did we record the CD?

I have gotten numerous questions about how I approached recording The Old Apple Tree and my attempt to make it sound like a band, despite the fact that it was recorded one instrument at a time. So here’s a summary that may help others who have thought about making their own do-it-yourself bluegrass CD with minimal outside help.

I did my own engineering and sat right next to my computer as I recorded onto the computer’s hard drive. I used a recording program called Sonar, but almost any similar program would have done as well – like Pro Tools, which is the industry standard. I used my regular desktop PC, nothing fancy, other than I had it outfitted to run quieter than a typical PC so that I wouldn’t pick up much background noise due to my mic being so close to the computer. A laptop computer would be a good choice for this reason but I’ve heard some newer desktop machines that seem pretty quiet.

I used two mics (but only one at a time) for the whole project: an Audix SCX 25 and an older Nuemann KM 84i. I actually think the single Audix could have worked for the entire project. These mics plugged into a Peavy VMP 2 mic pre-amp, which was plugged into a MOTU 828, which sent a digital signal to the computer, captured via Sonar. And that’s pretty much all of the equipment except for the instruments.

To start recording a song we would lay down a rough cut with a click track, playing and singing it through just how it was going to go. Usually Molly would sing and I’d play guitar, then I would re-record the guitar, using her voice as a guide to where I was in the song. The best advice I could give others at this point is, if there is any drift between the guitar and click track, don’t even think of keeping it; just start over. My plan was to re-record the rhythm guitar at the very end of the project again, so that I could react better to the other instruments once they were there, but I only did that on about half of the songs, as time began to run out and this was relatively low in the priority rankings.

Now with a solid rhythm guitar down, Molly, as the lead singer on most cuts, would come back and sing for keeps with my new guitar track. We might use her old vocal track to know where we were in the song, but afterwards that would get thrown away. Now I had a song with vocals and guitar that was pretty much what we would end up with and I’d sing my harmony part to match Molly. This is where I’d learn exactly how she phrased and try to match it.

When we got a relatively tight vocal sound it would be time for solos and backup. Except for the pieces she played banjo on, Molly would only need to play a guitar solo because I had already laid down a rhythm guitar track. On most pieces, she had a break pretty much worked up ahead of time, so it was mostly a matter of getting a clean take.

Then I would add my instruments; fiddle, mandolin and banjo, usually brainstorming as I recorded until I liked my ideas. Sometimes I’d like the ideas but not the execution, so I’d take the idea and practice it until it sounded right. I usually thought about the lead and backup separately, so in one session I might just work on a lead, and then later play the rest of the song, keeping in mind whether I was playing an active backup role, or a more passive role, to let some other instrument step up to the front.

All was not quite as straight ahead as that, because frequently I’d listen a day or two later and realize that what I thought was a “take” on something often wasn’t and we’d have to redo it. Molly got pretty used to hearing me say, “We need to redo your vocal on ….” It was the same for myself too. I might hear a timing error, an out of tune fiddle or bad mandolin tone, etc., so I’d redo things.

In fact, for whatever degree of success we had with these recordings, I’d attribute much of it to that fact that I always immediately went away with it on my iPod and was able to get some listens in a different environment, including often as I went to bed. There’s definitely a loss of perspective that can happen when you’re playing and listening back-to-back, over and over again, so I found the listening later on the iPod to be the most critical.

One unusual part of this is that the bass was put down near the end. Though I play some bass, I felt like I was such a part-time player, it would take too long to get my tone and timing down, so I had my friend and multi-instrumentalist John Kael record it at his studio. I thought rather than give him tracks early in the process, with little sense of the songs, he could do a better job if the song was near the final stages so he’d see the whole picture and know best how to play.

I always mixed as I went, so although each song had lots of volume adjusting to do, I did it continuously all through the project, so it never felt unmanageable. I found one modest Sonar reverb pre-set that I used on everything in exactly the same amount, except bass, rhythm guitar and mandolin chops, which were left dry. I pretty much avoided the use of compression and EQ. Occasionally I added a little mid-range to the banjo, but other instruments were left as is and the voices were not EQ’d at all. The exception to this would be the bass, which had a more full tone when compressed a fair amount. But otherwise, I pretty much stuck to my original plan, which was, if I didn’t like the tone of something, be it instrument or voice, Molly or I would sing or play it over.

As for mastering, because I had the sound I wanted before mastering, all I really did was adjust volumes of the entire tracks to match each other, which they pretty much did beforehand anyway. I experimented with some more sophisticated “mastering effects” but found while they added a certain extra depth, there was a coloring that I didn’t like, so I stuck to my original plan of simplicity and minimal sound colorations.

Typically CDs are released a year or more after the recording is finished, but in our case, I did the last of my recording (some mandolin backup fills) on a Friday night, and only fifteen days later I had in hand, the finished product shipped from Discmasters in New Jersey, just in time for our CD release show that night.