A YouTube binge is not known as being a haven for creativity. One minute you fire up YouTube for some useful consumer advice. The next, you’re sucked through the ‘Tom Scott vortex’ into the weird part of YouTube. Suddenly you’re listening to a Japanese woman, discussing fountain pen technology as it relates to computer recognition of Kanji characters in Japanese. Then it’s 3am.
But remarkably, one such binge did manage to spark a bit of creativity on my end. During one of my late night internet browsing sessions, I stumbled across bare naked ladies.
That’s probably phrased wrongly. Sorry. THE Barenaked Ladies. The band.
Their selfie cam recording of ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’, was astoundingly beautiful. Four musicians each at home playing along with each other. Connected despite the lockdown. Wouldn’t that be a fun thing to try and emulate in some way?
Truth be told, it’s always something I’ve been wanting to try. Something I could use to excercise my musical side of audio engineering, after I’d pigeon-holed myself into film and TV. There are some pretty decent musicians in my group of immediate mates (helps if you hang around the ‘band kids’ in high school), so I figured there was enough talent for us to pull a similar thing off (pre-recorded, of course!). I could get everyone to film themselves playing along to a song while they listened through headphones. Theoretically, all the tracks would match up in post-production and we’d have a compete recording. Theoretically.
I picked Ben Lee’s “Catch My Disease”. Mainly for the loosey-goosey “as-live” recording style that would work with not-so-great audio equipment (i.e. people’s phones). The fact that it was a disease that was forcing us to do this… well that was just a bit of a thematic bonus. I made a Facebook event and encouraging people to have a go. I sat back and waited for the “are you nuts, how are we going to pull this off” questions. But, to my surprise and delight, the enthusiasm, and then the recordings (after a couple of promptings) came.
Recording the song:
Husband and wife LJ and Nat- unsurprisingly those two friends that make a part of their income from music, were hot off the presses. LJ provided both an acoustic and an electric guitar track. Pianist Nat’s part was probably the most authentic, though. She found a great organ sound for the verses before bringing out a toy piano for the main riff- just like in the original recording. I actually never asked why they own a toy piano- probably just for moments like these, but I wasn’t arguing. Those parts were recorded beautifully using proper microphones and audio interfaces. Definitely not the mobile phone recordings I was expecting!
I rummaged around in the cupboard for my bass guitar and spent a good couple of evenings learning the bass part. Even so, I still needed to combine a few takes! No matter- once this thing is edited nobody will notice. Audio recorded straight into Pro Tools with LJ and Nat’s parts, the video recorded on a Sony action cam I had lying around from my Europe trip two years ago. Another electric guitar part from me went in as well. Clean guitar at this stage- tone stuff can come later.
Next was vocals, and brothers Trav and Addo were only too pleased to provide! Seems like nobody wants to be out front with this sort of thing, but without vocals the whole thing falls over. Lead, harmonies, and in Trav’s case, both baritone and falsetto parts. Brilliant! Of course, with a song like Catch My Disease, it really benefits from having a ‘crowd’ do the singing. So partner Kate and I did some backing vocals, too, clapping along to add some rhythm. Kate did another part herself, adding some extra percussion with a random cupboard door in our kitchen and a thong/flip-flop! I probably would have preferred the saxophone- she’s apparently quite accomplished. But that instrument sits broken under the bed and couldn't be fixed in time.
To pull it all together, Pete added some drums using a recalcitrant free version of Pro Tools and his MIDI-enabled drumkit. That did prove a little tricky later on, but for now all our parts were recorded and ready to go into Pro Tools!
Editing the song: Where to start?
First order of business was to get down to making everything sound decent! As I mentioned earlier, some of my parts did need the cut-and-paste treatment to sound OK. I’m not professing to be a decent musician, here! Some other sneaky timing issues did also need to be sorted out, but to protect the guilty I won’t say what those were! Pro Tools’ Elastic Audio feature did get a workout getting everything in time, though!
Once we sorted out the timing of the original recording (116bpm), it was easy enough to get everything quantised. Sure enough, the drums were a problem here. Recording latency meant the drums appeared all over the place and needed to be straightened out… manually! Because it wasn’t consistent there was no way to use a quantising tool. Once they were done, I applied the best drum sound we could find in Pro Tools’ synth library (session drums). We then recorded the MIDI (as audio) to three different tracks (kick, snare and overheads) to help with editing.
From there, the fun begins as we work our way through mixing this sucker!
Mixing the song:
It’s probably a bit much to go through a step-by-step of what I actually did, but I’ll give you some of the highlights:
I like to start with drums, as they form the basis of your recording.
My philosophy is to use the EQ to get just what you want out of a sound, then filter out everything else. Take the kick for example: what we want is the “click” of the beater, then the “thump” of the drum resonating. The rest is just useless noise that muddies up your nice clean recording. You can see how I’ve done that in the EQ curve from the drum track, with the spike at 500Hz representing the ‘click’, and the one at 125Hz representing the ‘thump’.
Same goes with the overheads, the real cymbal sound is above 2kHz. Anything else just muddies your sounds, leaving no space for the rest of your instruments to occupy the lower frequencies.
One of the things that I did not expect to have to do with this song is to add a ‘trash’ track! A trash track can really help add impact and 'dirty up' your drum sound, which is kinda what we want to add more space and real-life sound. There are heaps of ways of doing this, (I’ve heard of people running their drum track through a pair of headphones, then putting those headphones in a metal bucket, then mic’ing the bucket). My approach is to run an aux send of the drums through a Sansamp PSA-1 guitar amp plugin. That adds some nice harmonics to the whole dealie and gives us some of that “crunch” that helps to replicate the ‘music hall’ feel of the original. Compress the crap out of it and you’re home and hosed.
Another plugin I used a whole heap was Massey’s Tape Head plugin, which is a superb bit of kit. Helped to thicken up the bass (DI’d) and the acoustic guitar . For the electrics, I added a little more fuzz to LJ’s lead tone with some more PSA-1, while my own rhythm track needed a LOT of work with the Eleven rack to find a tone I liked. Lucky though, as all I really had to do was get it to play nicely with Nat’s organ track and that would cover up most of my dodgy playing anyway!
So. Many. Vocals! This was the bit where I thought we would struggle the most. We didn't have enough vocal tracks to match what sounds like an army of singers on the original! Rather than double them all, I decided to use every one I had, panned away from each other to maintain the width in the stereo field. The two lead tracks were treated as normal, with Trav’s double run through a flanger and some AIR distortion to push it into the background. Probably unnecessary, but hey. The backing vocals were all grouped together on a backing vocals bus. I prefer to treat that all together, as you would if you had a group of people singing into the same microphone. This went through a chorus effect to try and thicken it up, then again through Waves’ doubler to thicken it up further. That then got sent through a bus to the same trash track as the drums, to try and give it some more harmonics. Obviously the thing that’s really missing is a nice clean lead vocal, but for mobile phone recordings I reckon it’s not too darn bad.
For the ‘hall’ effect, pretty much everything went through a reverb bus to try and glue the whole lot together and maintain that ‘concert hall’ feel. Usually you would use different reverbs, but hey, this is meant to be sloppy, right?
From there, we did a little bit of “backyard” mastering (mastering engineers look away now) to get the thing sounding beefy and clean. And we’re done! Now all it needs is syncing up to the video and we’re ready to go.
I'm pretty happy with what we ended up with, considering all our vocals were mobile phone recordings! I’ve already had multiple requests from the musicians involved to give this another go, so who knows? Watch this space!
Chris Plumridge is a freelance audio producer, voiceover artist and writer from Leongatha in South Gippsland, Victoria, Australia.