The tagline for SoundSavant.com is, “where the studio becomes the instrument”. This post is a perfect example of what I mean by that. I laid down a challenge for myself to write and record a new song all by myself and make it sound as though it had been recorded by an actual band playing together in the same room.
In order to pull off this challenge the studio really did need to become my instrument because I was forcing myself to play and/or program instruments that I didn’t really play. Essentially, I had to “play” all of the tools in my studio in order to create the impression of a live band performance. Where the studio becomes the instrument…
That’s the back-story. Here’s how things went down:
It All Starts at the Beginning
One of the biggest perks of being a college professor are the vacations. There’s Thanksgiving Break, Christmas Break, Spring Break, not to mention the three-month break we get during the summer.
Mostly, I use this time to do a little traveling. Other times I use it to catch up on some much needed sleep 🙂 This year, during my Spring Break week, I decided to do something a little different.
For the past few months I’ve been working really hard to finish an upcoming album release of Drones and Soundscapes. I love this stuff but I’ve been so deep into it recently that I needed a creative “change of pace”, something to cleanse my “sonic palette”.
Usually that means picking up my guitar and pretending I’m Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck or Jack White. So that’s what I did. As I was mindlessly rocking out I came up with a catchy riff. I decided, “This is pretty cool. I better record it before I lose it”.
So, I opened up Pro Tools, because that’s what I use for most of my music production work, and started laying down some scratch guitar and bass tracks. All of a sudden I had the beginnings of a nice track. The problem was that it was clearly turning into the kind of song that sounds best when it’s played by a live band in a nice room, kinda the same vibe as “Level” by The Raconteurs.
I don’t have a band at my disposal to record whenever I need it. So what was I going to do? Well, I decided to take it as a challenge and see if I could fake the sound of a real band all by myself. To make it even more interesting, I added an arbitrary time limit of 1 hour to get it done. Here’s how I did it:
Faking the Sound of a Real Drummer
Like many music producers, I’ve always struggled with trying to program realistic-sounding acoustic drum tracks. Electronic drums are no problem for me but try and program an actual acoustic drum groove and I’m lost.
There are just too many variables because the best drummers are constantly pushing and pulling the tempo and adding all kinds of extra stuff like ghost notes and flams. Luckily, I’ve found a secret weapon that solved this problem.
My favorite tool for getting realistic acoustic drum tracks right now is Addictive Drums. Basically, Addictive Drums is a plug-in that gives you sampled drum kits and MIDI files to play those drum kits. Seriously, I can’t say enough great things about Addictive Drum. You can see it in action here.
The drum kits in Addictive Drums are sampled (recorded) in high-end studios with all of the coolest gear so they sound incredible. The MIDI files are actually real performances by professional drummers so they are spot-on as well. Put these together and it isn’t very difficult to achieve something that sounds like a real drummer playing in a nice-sounding room.
All I needed to do was make some minor edits to one of the stock Rock MIDI files and my rhythm track was starting to take shape.
Elapsed time: 5 minutes
Don’t Fake What You Can Actually Do
I didn’t have any of my amps mic’d up and I didn’t want to lose that initial flow of inspiration so I just plugged into my audio interface (a Mackie Onyx BlackBird) and inserted Guitar Rig (part of Native Instruments Komplete software package) on an audio track.
For the rhythm guitar I chose the “Almost Clean” preset, made a few adjustments to give it a touch of grit and laid down the track in one take. We’re off to a great start!
Elapsed time: 8 minutes
Next Up, Bass
Nobody would ever mistake me for a bass player but I figured, since I own a nice-sounding bass and in keeping with the challenge of this experiment, I had to give it a try. I added another audio track to my session and inserted the SansAmp PSA-1 plug-in that comes bundled with Pro Tools.
This is another one of those “secret weapons” I use all of the time to get realistic tones on guitar and bass. It also works great for adding dirt and distortion to drum loops.
I knew I wanted something a little beyond a normal bass tone so I pulled up the “Bass on 9” preset and dialed in the perfect amount of distortion. Now I had something to work with.
As I said, I’m not a bass player so I figured I might need a few takes before I’d be able to come up with a good bass part. Not to worry. I turned on Loop Recording in Pro Tools (command-shift-L on a Mac) and just played. After about the fourth time through I decided I had enough good stuff recorded. A couple short minutes of editing and my bass track is done.
Elapsed time: 10 minutes
Last But Not Least, Lead Guitar
Now this is what all of the fun has been leading up to. Like most guitarists, I’ll solo for days if you let me, but I wanted to actually finish this song so I decided to limit myself to only 4 takes, just like the bass track.
In order to have some tonal differences in my guitar parts I used the SansAmp plug-in for this lead track instead of GuitarRig, choosing the “Vintage” preset. Five more minutes of editing and combining takes and all of my instrument tracks are finished.
Elapsed time: 10 minutes
Building Up My Mix in a Room
I have 27 minutes left for my mix. I’m feeling good at this point. Remember, my goal is to fake the sound of a real band. That image brought two things to mind for this mix:
- Amp buzz
- The sound of a band playing in a garage. Don’t ask me why, that’s just what I heard in my head for this song.
I had some nice amp buzz from my two guitar tracks so I just copied and pasted it anywhere the two guitars weren’t playing. This helped get things closer to a more authentic live vibe.
My two guitar tracks had individual spring reverb plug-ins on them to mimic the type of reverb you might find on a typical amp and my drum kit already had some space to it but in order to tie everything together I needed a way to place all of my instruments into the same room.
To accomplish this I added an Auxiliary Track to my session in Pro Tools and pulled-up one of the AIR Reverbs that comes bundled with Pro Tools. Amazingly enough, I chose the “Garage” preset and sent a little bit of each track to it. Now all of my instruments were sounding like they were playing together in the same space.
All that was left was to bounce the mix down as a stereo .wav file and I finished that with 7 minutes to spare!
Elapsed time: 20 minutes
The Finished Product
So what do you think? Did I pass the challenge? Did I fake it, make it or fail it? I’ll let you decide. Let me know right here. It’d be really cool to hear what you think.