The GDF Summer Course is underway and our man on the spot, Stuart Edgar business student from University of West of Scotland sends in a daily report –
Monday 1 July
Starting at a fresh 9.30 in the morning, we arrive at our home for the week in the stunning Atrium in Cardiff. The main focus is to provide production for the artist Charlotte Campbell with assistance from producer Greg Haver (Manic Street Preachers) and lead engineer Dan Turner.
After a quick briefing and short tour, we find ourselves congregating in the Gus Dudgeon suite named after the world-renowned producer whose back catalogue features many of Elton John’s greatest albums, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.
The room has a dynamic blend with Dudgeon’s MCI desk JH500 from 1976 mingling alongside equipment recently provided by the range of sponsors including: Sonic Distribution, sE Electronics, Rupert Neve Designs, Focusrite, Source Distribution and PMI Audio (Universal Audio equipment and Genelec Monitors). All of which the students are keen to explore.
The main focus of the day is to develop a structure for the artist Charlotte Campbell’s song ‘Songbird’ all the while having a discussion about the tone and arrangement of the song as well as many discussions about the production process from Greg.
After discussions about differing mic placements for each of the instruments in the arrangement work began to mould the song. The main focus of the day was to rehearse the various musicians together: Charlotte – vocals/acoustic, Andy – guitar, Ben – bass, Gill – keys and Greg Haver on the drums, who worked hard to focus the song, finalise the structure and eventually track the song in preparation for tomorrow’s session.
As with most sessions the drums were the first on the list and after tuning, mic placements and pre-amping began. There was a discussion about a ‘stripped-back’ feel maybe only using 3 mics, but eventually this was revoked for a close micing approach.
The kick was amped by the Trident 80B which sounded huge without any compression and EQ’ing through a Shure Beta 52. The snare was captured with a SM57 through a Focusrite which again sounded great. The overheads were recorded on Geffel microphones on the Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5024 Quad mic amp which again added balance and enough brightness for the sound.
Greg had decided that the tracking should be done live so each of the 24 inputs were used with the live room divided into sections for each. The bass was D.I.’d through the Focusrite and tweaked with the SansAmp; guitar was recorded through the Shure SM57. The keyboards in the session were again D.I.’d. For Charlotte her vocals were recorded by the SE Z5600a II and her guitar was through a Neuman 87.
The session flowed quickly with the musicians bonding quickly over the music leading to a warm feeling for the song and excitement for the rest of the week.
Tuesday 2 July
After tracking the live session on day one and listening back to make sure everyone was happy with the arrangement, the drums are the first in the process to recording the song.
Mics chosen by the student for the drums: kick – Shure Beta 52, snare – SM 57, hi-hats – sE Rupert Neve RN17, overheads – pair of Geffel M930, underheads – sE4400a stereo pair, high tom – Sennheiser 421, floor tom – Sennheiser 421, room – sE Rupert Neve RNR1 ribbon mic.
Greg had a total of 4 passes at the drums and the students were vital in the comping decision. It was decided that the second take was the most consistent, taking elements from the other takes to finalise the sound.
Mic pre-amps used were Trident 80B, Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5024 Quad mic amp & Focusrite RedNet. Everything currently is being monitored through both the Genelec 1032B and the Trident HG3.
In order to show some of the techniques which may be used in a record, Greg provided tuition in some ‘sampling’ techniques to help develop some drums sound and also to expand knowledge about firstly capturing a great take and then making the most of it when working to a tight schedule. These samples were taken live just with Greg hitting the drums in turn. Dan added, “On occasion, cymbals might be missed or not hit so you can add it later.” When asked if sampling is sometimes awkward for players and will alienate them if replaced, Greg said, “If you record the kit with the same player, it’s the same kit so it’s the same, just replaced”.
It was decided early on and agreed by all that the bass would just be D.I.’d. using a Universal Audio LA 2610 which sounded great just by itself but the bass was thickened with a SansAmp plug-in. Ben Rive was able to lay down the bass in just a few takes with a couple of drop–ins on Pro Tools to tighten up and finalise.
For the guitar, session guitarist Andy Taylor had brought in his own equipment, a Fender Telecaster guitar running through a Fender Vibroverb amp. This was complimented by Andy’s pedalboard with Clinch FX EP-PRE, Strymon Timeline, Strymon Mobius, Diamond compressor and a custom drive pedal. The amp was in the live room, mic’d by an SM57, chosen by the students. This is a fairly common choice for guitar amp micing and Dan was first to compliment this idea. As an experiment, another mic, the Sennheiser 421 just to try blending tones as a production experiment which was then added to the guitar sound.
As there was no specific part written for the song, a combination of Andy’s on ideas, Greg’s and the students’ helped to shape the arrangement including slides, delay and filters. Most of the sounds were created with the pedals but there was also atmosphere created by a Space Echo Plug-in and a POG filter octave pedal worked by Greg. The guitar was obviously going to take more time with all the added layering and sonic ambience which added depth to the track.
There were several mics chosen to record the 5-piece string section led by Andy Walters, the arranger for the song. Mics chosen were a Geffel stereo pair M930 in RTF pattern, an sE Electronics 4400a also in a stereo pair in the Mid Side position, an sE Rupert Neve RN17 pencil mic and an M1 on the Cello. The string section included 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass. The lush swelling string arrangement helped to compliment the strong vocal. With a couple of takes the strings were nailed.
Wednesday 3 July
Before the recording actually began, there was a brief discussion about radio and various commercial edits. Greg discussed his own personal experiences and how to deal with the demands of a commercial editing process – an enlightening start to the day.
After the success of yesterday’s session, the first task on the list was to record the piano for the track. A variety of mics were used: pair of Studio Projects C4 (in XY position), pair of Gefell M-930, sE Electronics sE4400a and Neumann U87. These were routed through a Focusrite RedNet preamp.
Session player Gill, playing on a Yamaha baby grand, was able to add rhythmic chord and melody throughout. The students decided to primarily use the Gefell M-930s for most of the track. After some quick arrangement changes between Greg and Gill, the piano was captured in separate sections. With a mix of sustained legato and bouncy staccato rhythms, the piano helped to thicken the sonic output of the song. This was assisted by a strong performance from Gill who was willing and able to make changes when necessary.
Again, for the acoustic guitar a variety of mics were available: Shure SM57, Shure SM58, Gefell M-930, sE Rupert Neve RN17 and Brauner VM1. After testing, the VM1, won out by a clear majority so the team decided to go with that. There were some minor mishaps like the occasional string breaking but other than that, the acoustic recording, as with most of the session, was very smooth. Numerous passes were recorded, but the performance was confident and strong.
More mic choice for the vocals: Brauner VM1, sE Electronics Z5600a II, Neumann U87, Electro-Voice RE20 and SP CS5. The Neumann U87 came out on top and was routed through an LA 610 pre-amp and also a Urei 1176 compressor. The vocals were finished due to excellent direction from Greg and a fantastic vocal performance from Charlotte.
Thoughts of the day from Greg, “It was mic test day. After the students put up nearly every mic in the building, Gill Edwards started with some great piano followed by Charlotte’s acoustic guitar and a wonderful vocal. There was also a second unit working on piano effects and some long discussions about Frank Zappa, Duffy, auto-tune and a famous monkey!”
The plan tomorrow is to add some backing vocals and finalise the track.
Thursday 4 July
Backing vocals, tweaking and experimentation. As day four commenced, the team was split almost into two. Those who were interested in writing the backing arrangements with Charlotte and session pianist Gill into the live room while a vocal comp was structured for the lead vocal with the group in the control room.
Situated around the Yamaha Baby Grand, which was used on the piano track yesterday, the Backing Vocal team worked methodically through each section, sparring ideas amongst themselves, focusing on a backing which would complement the track without overloading the arrangement. It was decided that it would be best for the track if Charlotte sang the harmony lines herself. It was also decided that, due to the tone of the song, it would be best if female vocals are prominent within the BVs, with little or no male vocals in the track. The equipment used was the same as yesterday’s lead vocal session: Neumann U87 through an LA 2610 pre-amp.
The backing vocals, as Greg informs, often take longer than the lead vocal as you have to take each individual part on several takes to comp. As the students and Gill have arranged several harmonies for this track, backing vocals took most of the day. Taking around 69 takes for all the vocals, Charlotte nailed the entire backing arrangement solo. While the entire BV arrangements were being finalised, another group was send to the alternative studio to add elements of Auto-tune. This was implemented to have a comparison between the ‘tuned’ and ‘un-tuned’ takes, to see which sonically was more appropriate.
As a way of experimenting with the sound, a bass drum was placed at one end of the corridor and a Neumann U87 at the other end. This, already reverbed by the hall was further swamped in reverb to give a ghostly affect.
This was then repeated for cymbals.
Sadly, this is artist Charlotte’s last day with us here in the Atrium. Also her time working on the song had ended all too quickly, she assures everyone that she has had a great time and will keep in touch with each person. She adds that she is looking forward to hearing the final mixes from everyone and has been a wonderful experience throughout.
Tomorrow is the final day of the producing week, with Greg promising a business orientated discussion and one-to-ones with the students.
Friday 5 July
As all of the tracking was finished over the course of the week, the final day was spent with Greg providing valuable insights into his experiences within the music industry.
Greg was willing to discuss elements of production that people would often not think about. The students were informed that running directly parallel with the end-product is the budget that you begin with. Management of everything is vital to being a successful producer. Things like; if you are working abroad then check the exchange rate so you are not losing money that way. If you don’t leave anything to chance and plan your route through then you have a good starting point for creating a good record. General tips like treating all of the staff well will help to give a producer a positive reputation and will strengthen relationships with musicians and engineers.
Another skill which should be developed is the art of the pitch. Without a good pitch you won’t get many jobs as there are countless producers queuing for the same jobs. Preparation is vital for this, know the demos, know the artist, know the background, have ideas and be willing to share. This is a separate art from but is vitally important. Building positive relationships are crucial in getting work.
For the mixing process the team relocated to work on the SSL, although many of the outboard such as the 1176 compressor came with them. Greg provided tips about the mixing stages, although each person has a method of their own, Greg was willing to give his own personal way to the students before they take away the song for mixing.
Greg, Dan and a couple of student assistants added other elements other than compression to the track including: Reverbs, Delays etc. Although not completed the mix was beginning to resonate into something great.
Alongside the technical aspect of the course, each student was given a ‘one-on-one’ with Greg to answer any pressing questions about the industry. This was overwhelmingly positive and resourceful with the student’s finding this to one of the best parts of the course.
And finally… producer Greg Haver comments on the week:
“An amazing week, I probably learnt more from the graduates than they did from me, a real honour to be asked to do this, I hope Gus would look down approvingly and know his desk and all the ideas I stole from his work over the years were being used well! Thank you to everyone involved, Dan and Gwyl at the ATRiuM, Phil from JAMES, Chris from GDF, the brilliant sponsors, but mostly all the wonderful graduates, you will all go far.”