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THE JOURNEY OF OUR 4TH ALBUM PART 2: PREPRODUCTION

January 16th, 2017 | by Niko Van Steenhoven

Welcome to part 2 of our long journey to make our upcoming 4th album. In part 1, I talked about the early stages of the album, the writing and recording of it. In part 2, I’ll talk about the next phases of the album, going from changing engineers, the preproduction process, distractions that took us away from working on it, and the struggles and setbacks we had along the way.


The Story So Far



Read part 1: The Journey Of Our 4th Album Part 1: Recording

I was excited about the idea of quickly and efficiently writing, recording and releasing a new album, faster than anything we’d ever done previously. Writing began in the very last week of 2011 and continued through February of 2012. Guitar and Bass recording were already in full swing by March, and Drum recording a few months later. Everything was moving according to this fast track plan so far, which kept me, and the rest of us excited.

Editing and last minute recording punch-ins finished out the year of 2012, and vocal recording began in the beginning of 2013, and finished a few months later.

I was still looking forward to completing the album and, fingers crossed, getting it out that year.



The Early Full Demo



Once the vocals were recorded, comped (compiled together from lots of takes) and edited, and Eric sent me the edited drum performances, it was time to put together a first, early version of what we had done so far.

Now remember, no one had heard what this album was going to sound like with real instruments yet. All anyone had to go by was my purely electronic demo ideas of the songs, consisting of synth-based instruments and nonsense vocals. So I was excited to show everyone what things were finally going to sound like, the way I had envisioned it in my head. Or at least somewhat close to that.

By summer of 2013 I had mixed together a rough demo of the album featuring all the live performances of bass guitar, rhythm guitars, human drums (no, not drums made out of humans), and vocals with actual lyrics and not nonsense words. (Though John said he preferred my nonsense lyrics).

It was definitely exciting and rewarding being able to share this with the guys, who had already worked so hard on it, without really knowing exactly what the end product would feel like.

My dream of having the album done rapidly was actually becoming a reality!



Good, Fast And Cheap. Pick Two



There was only one thing that bothered me…

It wasn’t good enough.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was very proud of the songs themselves, and still feel they are some of my best to date. However the production of those songs was not going to cut it.

Eric and I had been talking for quite some time about how we both wanted this next album to have the best possible production that we were capable of. We wanted an album that could go toe-to-toe with modern, high-production-value mixes from the rock and pop world.

That idea had a lot of energy for both of us.

The problem was that I knew I was not the right person to make that happen. I had no interest in becoming an amazing mixing engineer and spending time and money learning the details of creating a great sounding mix. My focus has always been on crafting the song itself.

These two ideas (making it fast, or making it great) pulled me in different directions, and began to create a lot of mental and emotional turmoil.

Yes, I could release the album that year, if I wanted to, but I also knew deep down that I would be disappointed with the production quality. And releasing a fast album does not compensate for feeling like I could have done better for the rest of my life. I know it’s a crazy idea, but I actually want to feel proud of the creative projects I do, and be able to look back on them years later and know I did everything in my power to make it the best it could be.

And it was that long term view that, begrudgingly, changed my focus from getting it done fast, to getting it done great (or at least the best we could do).

But that still left the question, how was I going to make the sound of the record great? I knew I wasn’t the man to do it, and paying a professional to do it would cost a shit-load of money (which none of us had).

And then it hit me.

Eric was interested in doing that.

I saw how he had been learning mixing and production in the last few years, and how far he’d come in such a short period of time. He’s always been the kind of person that when he’s truly interested in something, he dives in all the way. He wants to know anything and everything about that subject.

The only issue was that he wasn’t quite at the level needed to make the album sound how we wanted it just yet. But I believed, from past experience, that in time, he could be.

So I did something I’ve never done before, and that was consider letting someone else handle the production of the album.

I’ll be honest, it was a bit scary letting go of the control of something that matters to me. But I knew that if there was any chance of getting this album to sound the way both Eric and I wanted it to sound, it was going to take someone who really cared about developing the knowledge and skills to make that happen.

So I told Eric the news.

“Since we both want this to be the best sounding album we’ve ever done, I’ve decided that you’re going to mix the 4th album.”

He was silent for a few moments as that sank in.

“Really!? Whoa… That would be… I’ve been wanting to… I mean, it would be really cool to… are you sure? You think I can?” He tried to get about 17 different thoughts out at once.

He was extremely excited to take on the project and be part of the process of shaping the sound of the album… until 5 seconds later when the extreme fear and panic set in.

“Uh… I don’t know if I can do that…” he said, filled with self-doubt.

“I know you can,” I said, sounding confident.

In truth, I didn’t know if he could do it either but I hoped he could. I instantly wondered if I made a stupid choice.



The Handoff



Soon after I’d finished my demo version of the album, I transferred all the Pro Tools sessions over to Eric.

As I mentioned, he was both excited to be involved in the production process of the album, and also scared shitless. We’re all capable of moments of great confidence and crippling self-doubt, and Eric tends to find himself on the latter side of that emotional seesaw quite often.

As I took a break to focus on other things, Eric decided to pick two songs and try playing with ideas and see what he could do with them. A test, if you will.

Now, this process was a learning experience for him, and I knew it would take a little longer to get where we wanted to go. He had been studying and working on music engineering, recording and production for a few years now, and it had quickly surpassed drums as his number one focus.

A month or two later he called me, excited to show me what he had been working on. We agreed to meet up so I could hear the progress he had made on the two songs he chose to test out.

He excitedly told me all about the steps he took, the reasoning behind his choices and what struggles he had in getting to that place. I was also feeding off of his excitement and was eager to hear what he had done.

He pressed play on the first song, and I started listening.

“Hmmmm….” I said to myself as the mix played.

My heart sank.

“This… isn’t very good.” I said to myself. My own fears about relinquishing control of the album to someone else quickly resurfaced, and my instant reaction was to be selfish and possessive and snatch the music away from him.

But I did my best to quiet that part of my mind, and remind myself that this was going to be a longer learning process, and you have to start somewhere. I calmed down and kept telling myself to “be patient”.

But then I thought, how was I going to tell him that the mixed sucked?

He had worked very hard on these mixes and was also very excited about what he had accomplished, but unfortunately, it was all wrong. Nothing sounded very good. It was more than just one instrument, or a simple EQ change. The whole approach he took to the mix was just off. There was no focus, no vision for what was important and what was a supporting role. No understanding of what direction to take things in.

I very carefully tried to point out a few aspects of the mix that could be improved, but no matter how gentle I was, it didn’t matter. Eric took it hard.

He left that day feeling defeated. I could imagine him beating himself up for not being good enough and other such self-critical statements.

I felt bad for him, but in the end, the only thing that matters is the quality of the project.

So even despite that momentary setback, I still wanted Eric to learn and grow from this process. I knew that with a little more experience and knowledge, he really did have the potential to be good at this.

Once he had calmed down a bit, I told him that we would continue the pre-production of this album, but this time we’d do it together. That seemed to make him feel a bit better (perhaps because it took some of the responsibility off of his shoulders).

So we scheduled our first pre-production session.



2013-09-29 17:48:44


Preproduction



We began the pre-production sessions in the late fall of 2013.

Eric had already surpassed me in his knowledge and skill of music engineering and production, but he lacked experience, organization and direction in accomplishing his task.

His initial approach, was to pick one song, and mix the whole thing from the ground up, from beginning to end.

Now there’s nothing essentially wrong with this approach. And if Eric were more experienced at this point, we may have approached the mix in this way. But since he was still intimidated about the scope of the project, and continuously concerned about his ability to get the results we were after, I decided to try a different tactic.

I ripped out a piece of notebook paper and on the lefthand column wrote the name of each song we had to mix. Then I divided the rest of the paper into another 5 columns. At the top of each column I wrote in each major element of the mix. Drums, guitars, bass, keys, and vocals.

I then taped this chart to his desk.

“Here’s what were going to do,” I said, appearing confident, but making things up as I went along.

“You’re too intimidated thinking about the size of this project, so we’re going to break it into smaller pieces. We’re going to work in phases.”

Eric looked confused. “What do you mean?” He asked.

“We’re going to focus on one element at a time across the whole album. For instance, we’re going to start with drums. We’ll work on the drums on the first song, then once we’re happy with how they are sounding, we’ll close that song, and immediately start drums on the second song.”

“I’ve never done that before,” said Eric, thinking about this approach.

“Neither have I,” I admitted. “But I want to give this a try. I think it’ll help our focus, and give you a chance to get more experience and confidence in the process”.

“Yeah, okay. Let’s try it.” He said, starting to sound a little more confident.

Over the next several months, we went through each song with a fine tooth comb, one instrument at a time, starting with the drums.

Just like we discovered that each song had a particular “fill style” during drum recording, we started talking about each song had a particular mix style and also what the focus of each mix would be. This gave us some nice overview guidelines that helped us know where to take each melodic element, and what role it played in the bigger context of the song.

It was nice to allow our ears to slowly settle into what was working and what wasn’t working about each instrument. As we made our way through the songs, we found that our ability to recognize problem areas, and also how to solve them, was improving consistently. As I hoped, Eric’s confidence was also improving as we moved on.

Sure, it’s a much more laborious process, but the knowledge and experience that we both gained from being able to focus on one thing at a time was extremely valuable, and I believe, essential in getting the sound we were after.



2013-11-03 13:25:16

A Quick Distraction



Things were moving along slowly but steadily, but distractions were coming up frequently.

We had started getting our live show back together in 2013 (after not playing live for many years), and so that took everyone’s focus to plan, craft and rehearse a brand new, and much more theatrical show. This focus on the live show continued through the end of 2014, which meant that Eric had less time to work on the mix.

At the end of 2014, we had also decided it would be a good idea to release a new song, while we worked on getting the new album done (since was taking so long).

The song turned out to be our cover of Ain’t Nobody, which I’ve talked about already here and here.

We started recording for that song at the end of 2014, and had finally completed all the instruments by late March of 2015.

This new focus of working on the cover could be seen as a negative, as in it would distract from the process of woking on the new album. But instead, I chose to look at it as an opportunity.

Eric now had the chance to work on one song, from beginning to end. To take a song through all the phases of recording, pre-production, and mixing, which would be excellent experience to bring back to the album. The best way to learn is usually by doing, so Eric paused his work on the album and focused on mixing Ain’t Nobody.

The mix was completed by the end of summer 2015, which allowed him to return his focus to the album, while I worked on making the website, graphics and music video for Ain’t Nobody.



Things were on track to begin the full mixing phase in the new year, until Eric called me with frustrated voice.

“I’ve gotta go through all the drum performances again!”

“What? Why? What’s wrong with the drum performances?” I asked confused.

“I just know I’m not going to be happy with them. I can’t just let this go.” he continued, talking quickly. “The high hat pedal trigger doesn’t sound natural enough, and now that I’m using new drum samples for the sounds, the velocities are all fucked up.”

“Well, can’t you just change the velocity of the whole part?” I asked.

“No. The mapping is totally different. Fuck. I’m going to have to go through note by note on every goddamn song, and make sure the velocities sound like the way we recorded them, and that the high hat pedal triggers sound correct. God damnit man. This is going to take forever!” He was obviously very frustrated by this revelation.

“Theres nothing else you can do to fix it?” I questioned, trying to think of other solutions.

“Nope. And if I don’t do it, I’ll always hear it in the mix and it’ll piss me off. All we have is the quality of the project right? So, I won’t forgive myself if it’s not done right.”

I paused for a moment, thinking about how much more time that would take. After a moment of feeling frustrated, I came back to the goal of making it great instead of making it fast. “Yeah… you’re right. If it doesn’t sound the best it can be, and this is what you need to do to fix it… then I’d say go for it.”

It was a great exercise in living my own values. It’s one thing to tell someone else to do something, it’s another to have to do that thing yourself, especially when it’s emotionally bothersome.

So Eric set about working on the extremely tedious process of going through every single song, note by note, fixing velocities, and high hat pedal automation. I got numerous calls during this period of him being insanely angry about how mind-numbing and eye-straining the process was. But I also heard how much of a difference it made in restoring the the great and subtle human performances we captured during the recording of the drums.

As I said earlier, recording drums electronically was an experiment for both of us, and our knowledge and equipment at the time held us back in some regards. The good thing was that over time our experience working in this way had improved, as well as the technology, and though it took going back and being tedious as fuck, we were finally able to get the sound and performance we initially wanted.

The only price was our sanity (well, mostly Eric’s) and time.



Screen Shot 2017-01-02 at 3.41.03 PM

Part 3



And this brings us up to the phase we’re at now. Mixing.

It took Eric the better part of 2016, due to busy schedules and other events, to finally make it through all of the songs for that super anal pass of drum editing.

There’s a lot of details I’d like to share with you about the mix process, which we’ll talk about next time.

PART 3: The Journey Of Our 4th Album Part 3: Mixing

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