3. Preparing for the Session

A recording project generally follows a process similar to one described by Joe Gilder over at homestudiocorner.com:

  1. Pre-Production
  2. Recording
  3. Editing
  4. Mixing
  5. Mastering

As you can see in the first entry, this blog essentially follows that same process, with a focus on using GarageBand on the iPad to perform the activities in each step. Joe provides a great summary of the pre-production steps so I won’t repeat them here. Rather I’ll highlight some key points and provide some hints that may be helpful down the road.

The primary purpose of preparation is to reduce future work and minimize the impact of early choices on future flexibility. For example, if you don’t have a rough draft of a song when you start recording, then you might not know how long the intro is, where the verses and choruses go, how many they are, etc. As a result, you may spend a lot more time editing as you copy and paste items to create missing verses, or you have to go back and do new takes to get missing material. This can add a lot of work to the session that can be easily avoided with a little planning.

Here’s some simple ideas on preparation that you may find helpful that could significantly reduce the overall time and work required to get a finished recording project.

1. Sketch out the project contents

This is relatively simple, but does require some thought. Working with the other project members, determine the content of the project. This could be simply the list of songs that will be included. But you might also want to think about what story you are trying to tell, or what effect you want to have on listeners. This could impact the choice of songs as well as their order. If you’re going to produce a CD, you might also want to sketch the front and back cover, and have a rough outline of the CD liner notes. Similar ideas apply to Web distribution. This information can help set a context for the whole project, ensuring the parts fit together and reinforce each other in a consistent way to deliver the intended result.

You might find it helpful to use apps like Evernote and Skitch to capture song lists, notes, CD sketches, etc. This information can then easily be shared with anyone on the Web to enhance collaboration between team members and maintain documentation for the project.

2. Create a layout track for each song

We’ll cover the details of creating songs from templates and recording tracks in subsequent blog entries, so we won’t cover those details here. What you want to do is create a layout of the song that everyone can follow when recording the keeper tracks. This can a single mono track that has just acoustic guitar or keyboard and vocal. Or you can record the whole band using a stereo mic. The purpose is to establish the tempo, determine the intro, verses, choruses, outro and any other parts of the song arrangement, and provide something for other musicians to go by when they record their tracks. Be sure to record this guide track with a metronome, click track, and/or drum loop to provide a steady beat, and ensure that all subsequent recording is aligned with the measures in a track. This will make future editing and comping a lot easier.

3. Sharing the project

Once the guide tracks are recorded, you can export them to iTunes so all participants can listen and practice their parts in preparation for recording.  At this point you may discover that after listening to the song for a while, the tempo is wrong, or the arrangement needs to change. The sooner these changes are discovered and made, the less impact they have in the rest of the recording and production process.

Again, capturing notes in something like Evernote provides an easy means for others to make comments on each song that can be easily shared. This not only reduces future work, but can have a real positive impact on the end result.

4. Get everything ready for recording

Now that the song tempos and arrangements are completed, the guide tracks are done, and everyone is familiar with the songs, you’re ready to prepare for recording. This means getting your recording room organized, choosing the microphones to use, and making sure all the input devices are working. I include this in the preparation section because you may find some things don’t work as expected. You don’t want to be trying to figure out why you’re not getting any input from some device with a lot of people standing around waiting to record. So its better to try everything out ahead of time to make sure everything works and is ready to go.

The next blog entry will go into more detail on choices for IO devices and getting sound into the iPad.

2. The Musicians

Music is first and foremost about the song and its performance. The performance can be seen as a collaboration among a group of musicians, and secondarily, the producer and recording engineer. Using a modern DAW you can easily create great music by yourself. But the real joy in music, that spark that makes us sit up and listen, comes from communication and interaction with other people that adds a new dimension to the music. If you create all the tracks by yourself, then your own individual musical or performance quirks tend to get magnified as they are reinforced in track upon track. Having other musicians contribute adds some randomness to the mix that prevents particular things from standing out too much, and gives the music more life.

But creating this musical vibe requires an environment for creativity and collaboration where musicians can interact and stimulate each other. The results can be unexpected, and sometimes pretty raw. But the outcome can produce some real jewels. However, this might required some time, with multiple takes to capture the best performances and recording setup.

This can be a challenge for GarageBand on the iPad because there are only limited tracks, and multiple takes in a track are not yet supported. But you can capture different takes in temporary scratch tracks and then use copy and paste to comp tracks to create a final result. What we want to be able to do is to send this song as a template to a number of different musicians so they can work on them individually. Then as they deliver their results, you will comp the tracks from the different projects to create the final mix. Here’s how. As a starting point, let’s assume you have created a song project, set the tempo and key, have a layout track, and a number of other instrument and vocal tracks. What you want to do is copy this project so you’re sure to have the same tempo, and the tracks will properly line up and sync. Next delete as many tracks in this copy as you can, keeping the layout or drum track, and any other tracks needed for monitoring. Record additional tracks or takes in this project. Repeat as much as needed in order to capture all the required tracks and takes. We’ll cover how to comp these tracks together into the final result in a future blog entry.

What you’re trying to do is deliver that “live” feeling to the listeners to add a new dimension to the music. Make sure everyone is comfortable and everyone can see and hear everyone else.

Another good tip is to avoid too much clutter. Nothing takes the creativity and joy out of a music session as much as tripping on wires, mic stands or music stands and dinging or breaking a treasured instrument.

1. Mobile Recording With iPad and GarageBand

Music creation and production use to be the domain of the recording studio and production companies. And it was an expensive and time consuming process. As a result, the music we got to hear is highly selective and processed, controlled by a fairly small number of people, and focused at specific target groups to maximize shareholder revenue.
Some great music has resulted from this process. But Globalization and the Internet have created some real challenges for the music industry from simple file sharing to loss of control of the creation and production process. As a result, the industry is struggling to come up with new models for how to restore and expand revenue streams.
All this could be a real problem for the music industry, but it could also be a benefit for the rest of us. Have you noticed that local live music isn’t what it use to be? That concerts are now really expensive and less accessible? That the most popular artists are reaching their golden years? All that might have to do with economics, aging baby boomers, iPOD generation, and social change, but it could also reflect a change in our approach to music. Music doesn’t seem to drive our lives the way it once did. I often go to parties or social gatherings of various sorts and there will be live music. But no one seems to be paying much attention anymore. The music just doesn’t seem to be connecting as much as it use to. Maybe that’s because most people listen to music privately with earbuds while doing something else. Music isn’t so much a shared experience anymore.
Any challenge is also an opportunity. In this case, maybe we need to exploit new technologies and mechanisms for creating, producing and distributing music to reconnect people to music. One possible way of doing that is to bring the music back to the people. To get it out of the hands of just the record producers trying to develop markets driven by specific focus groups, and reintroduce chaotic creativity and interaction that can drive innovation and new opportunities.
One way to achieve that is to leverage modern hardware and software platforms to make music creation, production and distribution easy, available to almost anyone, and at low cost. That’s likely to have variable results, but it might help discover things we couldn’t have anticipated – from styles, to new electronic software-based, multi-touch instruments, to hidden creative genius that just wasn’t lucky enough to “make it” in the closed world of the record industry.
This series of blog entries is an attempt to provide some practical approaches to developing mobile music. We’ll be focusing on the iPad and Garageband because these products are particularly effective for mobile music. But we’ll be covering some other things where needed to fill in some gaps and look at alternatives. The series starts with you – the musicians, and will progress through the process of getting your creative inspirations recorded, mixed, mastered, produced and delivered to the community. We’ll be looking at:
  • The musicians: establishing effective collaboration among a group of potentially distributed musicians
  • Preparing for the Session: Getting things setup for the recording session
  • IO Devices: Getting sound into the iPad
  • Creating A Project: Creating projects and project templates to make things go faster and easier
  • Song Arrangement: Using song sections and layout tracks
  • Tracking: Some best practices and resources for producing quality recordings
  • Collaborative Recording: Capturing tracks from people anywhere in the world
  • Correcting Mistakes: Punch and take recording in GarageBand (sort of)
  • Editing: Making changes after the musicians are gone
  • Mixing: Best practices and resources for mixing and effects processing with focus on GarageBand on the iPad
  • Mastering: Putting it all together and dealing with mastering effects
  • Distribution: Getting your music out there through Web distribution
  • Wrap up: What we did and what to do different next time – your chance to contribute
  • Garageband Extensions: Some suggested new features and capabilities
This is a lot to cover, so completing the series might take a while. But it should be fun, and a great way for us to share ideas and experiences. Feel free to comment about things you’ve discovered and I’ll periodically update the content to include other ideas.
So let’s get started! I hope you find this series helpful, and that the end result is we will all have great new music to share in this new open world we find ourselves in. Happy recording!

Best practices for performing with a looper

I had a very nice discussion with Tim (didn’t get his last name) at restaurant in Darling Harbour Saturday, Oct 12. He was doing an afternoon solo gig. Tim is a bass player, but seems pretty well rounded. He played a combination of acoustic guitar and a uBass leveraging a looper, along with his vocals. We discussed his approach and best practices for using a looper live which are summarized below.

A looper is like adding another instrument, one you are playing along with other instruments. It takes a lot of practice to get good at using a looper. The key skills are starting and stopping accurately, on the beat, and using the loop layers effectively to add to the performance, and not clutter it. I hope you find these best practices helpful. Let me know if I missed some.

1. Using a looper requires careful selection of the songs – they must be amenable to looping as described in some of the other best practices. Not all songs are good candidates for looping.

2. Avoid songs where the only practical thing to loop is the verse, not the chorus. This tends to make the chorus fall flat instead of being a crescendo as is usually the intent.

3. Pick songs that are relatively simple. Complex songs are hard to manage with a looper as there’s too much going on already, and the looper can become a distraction that inhibits the rest of the song.

4. Keep the loops really short, ideally four bars or so. This minimizes the time required to create and/or layer loops.

5. Don’t dedicate too much time in the song creating the loop layers. Five minutes to create the loops for a three minute song doesn’t make sense.

6. Create the loop at the beginning of the song, introducing each instrument in a layer as part of the song introduction.

7. Alternatively, create a verse or chorus loop while doing the first one, while singing the vocal, so the audience never notices the creation of the loop and it adds no time to the song.

8. Don’t run the loop the whole song. Turn the loop on and off to give the song some dynamics and flow. Keeping the loop on too long can become distracting, and makes the songs sound thin when the looper is off or when starting the next song. The sound needs to be relatively consistent within and across songs.

9. Keep the loop layering simple – no more than three layers usually. More takes to long, introduces more chance for errors requiring undo or loop creation restart, and can make the overall sound distracting as it clearly isn’t coming from the performer.

10. Practice starting and stopping the looper to ensure good loop timing.

11. Starting a loop creation directly off a count-in can be tricky. Practice this. But often its better to start the song intro without the looper and then create the loop after the song is in progress, the tempo is set, and you’re in the song groove. This will make it easier to be more accurate with the loop start and stop times.

12. Work out the arrangement of the song ahead of time and lay it out in your SongBook. Don’t try to do the arrangement and loop planning live. Have it worked out ahead of time what will be looped, when and with what content, and when the loop will be on or of.

13. Avoid creating multiple loops in the same song (which requires a loop reset). Its too distracting.

14. Rehearse with the looper, practicing exactly what you planned to perform. A looper is like learning another instrument and takes practice all by itself.

15. Use loops mostly to provide a background instrument for solos. This keeps the song consistent since the loop is the same thing you were playing during the vocal with the solo guitar replacing the vocal.  The song will have a coherent and consistent structure and sound without the loop adding a lot of unexpected and inconsistent content.

16. Be consistent. Your performance is a conversation with your audience. You can move from tension and release within and between songs, and reinforce this with the looper as another instrument. But if you use a looper in one song, use it consistently in similar songs for continuity of the sound. Don’t perform with no looper on one song, followed by five layers of loop on the next similar song.