Day Eleven: Vocal harmonies and starting to Mix!

Harmonies are a delicate thing.  You’re asked to sing a part, maybe not the part you’ve been practicing for years, perfectly in tune and exactly in time with the lead singer, who might have a totally different style than you do. Then, the producer changes a note or two again, and expects you to sing it perfectly – in tune and in time, but with this new note (or two). The consonants have to happen together, the volume too.  Gruelling.  AND you don’t get any of the glory….  We added Mary Simpson this morning, a long-time friend of mine, with whom I used to sing in Ottawa.  In fact, she was on my very first recording, way back in 1985! She did a lovely job, adding some harmonies on Buzzing at the Bee, Panguitch and Quilt of Belonging.  She was done by 12:30.

Mary Simpson

Then it was John’s turn: just because he finished his lead vocal on “Two Peas in a Pod” on Friday, doesn’t mean he was finished.  He has harmonies on Panguitch, Duncan’s Cove, Dance Beneath the Moon and Treat it Right. I added a couple more things – kazoo on Buzzing at the Bee (of course!!) and another harmony on Treat it Right.

John having fun at the microphone.

At 3:30 we started mixing. If we didn’t, I think you’d get cross with us. There would be this cacophony of sound without focus, everybody playing at the same time at the same volume.  It would sound like a live show, without the visuals. You wouldn’t know who to look at!

I talked a bit about the mixing process last night, but I’ll tell you what Paul was doing today.  Each track (each separate microphone that we used to record) has a different instrument on it.  One, for example, is the snare drum.  Paul has an equalization capability on each track, and uses it to boost or diminish various parts of the sound to make it sound better, or fit the track.  For example, if the acoustic bass is too “growly” or “boomy” for one of the songs, Paul can go in and make it sound sweeter (to a point). We do this on stage too, when we use a sound system, but not nearly so precisely.  Then he decides what kind of echo or reverb that track should have, and how much.  Then he decides on where that track should be placed, if you were to listen to the music with your headphones on. Usually, the lead vocal is in the middle of your head (ie, equally out of both speakers), and the other instruments are variously panned to the left or right, either just a little bit, or a lot.  In this way, you can almost surround yourself with the music when it’s playing – it feels like you’re standing in the middle of the band!

We had to decide which saxophone/fiddle/clarinet tracks to use.  Usually, we asked the performers to give us three or so different tries on their parts, and we needed to choose which parts will be on the final.  We listen to all the choices in each part of the song, and decide which one we like the best, and put them together on one track.

The voice parts get put through “pitch correction”. (but not very much, really…..!!!) The pizzicatto violin/cello parts get lined up so they are all playing at exactly the same moment, with the guitar. Paul decides how to fade the song at the end. Then he records the mix on his console so he doesn’t have to do the moves himself.  That includes keeping the quiet notes I sang as part of my “interpretation” pushed up in volume so we can hear them, so he’s always riding the vocal volume during the mix.  Once it’s all put into the machine, the whole song is mixed and recorded onto the computer. 

At the end of an album, I often get two CDs: one with the music, and one with all the saved mixing moves, just in case we wish to revisit any of our decisions later.  That way, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

Today, from 3:30 to 6pm we mixed 2 songs: Martha (the African one) and Little Crazy Quilt (the title track).  That’s really quick.  There are two more days of this, and we may or may not get all the songs done in that time.  Tonight I’m to decide which songs I really need to be present for, and which ones I trust to Paul after I get home.

That’s all for tonight!  I’ve got some more embroidering to do!

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