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The One-Man Multitrack Band

Part 2: Recording, Rerecording, and more Rerecording


This part is the first of two parts on recording. This part describes the history behind the songs and their recordings. It also describes some of the technical problems and other surprises that we ran into along the way, and our rather unique solutions to those problems....


The CD Thirty-Six has been recorded in bursts over a six year span, and will probably continue to be recorded until the day we finish getting copyright clearance on the covers. Of course, describing the recording process in this way fails to adequately explain the reasons for the rather long production process.

First, in 1997, I wrote the poem Angel during a creative writing class as part of our university's honors program, which I later set to music. Dedicated to my on-again, off-again romantic interest at the time, its relatively easy piano and vocal lines quickly made it become a staple of my occasional live performances.

When I finally gave up on that failed relationship a few months later, I wrote the song Forever Friends, dedicated to an old friend for whom I had developed deeper feelings. It should be obvious that the interest never turned into a relationship, since I'm now on the other side of the country, but I digress.

About a year later, I realized that the song Angel would fit neatly into my senior project, an almost-feature-length movie. Thus, in late 1998, I began recording the song as part of the soundtrack for the movie "The Music Box", from Infinite Loop Films. The thought of a CD hadn't even entered my mind.

Because the movie was a senior project, it was under a tight time schedule, so it was edited in large part during symphonic band tour in my hotel room. You can probably picture me sprawled out across the bed with a PowerBook and a 640 Meg external hard drive.

As part of the movie soundtrack, I also used a short sound bite of Forever Friends. Forever Friends, written just a few months after Angel, was always one of my favorites, but apart from a live performance recording back in 1998, I never recorded it until I began making this CD a few years later. A few years later, I began work on another movie, "Second Chances: The Musical". I intended to do casting one summer and shoot it the next, but both summers have long since come and gone without enough financial backing to even contemplate pulling a stunt like that. Even still, I managed to combine part of the "Heart" recap into the song "Deep Within" and turn it into a song on the CD. I figured I would hate the thing, but as I fleshed it out with brass and bass, I've actually come to like it.

In the movie, I also pulled in a song I'd written before, 'Til I see you Again, adding the final chorus in the process. This song was recorded about a year ago, and was the pebble that began the landslide that this CD has become.

Meanwhile, I began making a DVD of the movie. While doing so, I remembered that 30 second sound bite (a variation of the opening cue) from Forever Friends, and noticed that one of the characters even mentioned the song by name. Thus, I thought it would be fitting to include an actual recording of Forever Friends on the DVD, along with a cleaner mix of Angel (which had some distortion near the end).

Four months and hundreds of hours later, the CD Thirty-Six was born. At some subconscious level, three songs of decent quality was the magic threshold where making a CD suddenly became interesting, and I began gathering bits of music from classical music, other bands and artists, and my old stack of hand-scrawled lyrics sheets (with occasional chords and a few scratch recordings here and there).

The rest is, as they say, history.

Technical Recording Issues

As with any project this size, there were a few problems during the production process. Most of these stemmed from software bugs. These fell into four general categories:

  1. Recording software issues
  2. Hardware issues
  3. PowerMac G5 issues
  4. Effects software issues

Recording Software Issues

First, I'll talk about recording software issues. These primarily stemmed from being an early adopter of audio software on Mac OS X. Sadly, an early adopter of audio software on Mac OS X meant the third major release of the OS (fourth if you count the public beta). The audio software companies were very slow to catch up, and when they did, the software tended to be poorly ported.

The primary software used in recording was BIAS Deck 3.5. In the first version, my PowerMac G4/450 couldn't reliably play a handful of tracks at once without stuttering. I borrowed a G4/533 to get by, and that gave me barely acceptable performance. What makes this funny is that my PowerBook G3/233 handled easily four times as many tracks in Mac OS 8 with a low quality 650 Meg external SCSI hard drive and Deck 2.5.

The details of the performance issues are largely unimportant, but the ones I could measure appeared to include triple-buffering of windows, poor disk buffer management, and frequent stuttering during the first few seconds of recording. (I later tracked down the triple-buffering issues and filed a detailed bug report, along with mentioning the Apple Technote that described the problem. They fixed it in the next version.)

The next problem I'm still having occasionally is that Deck seems to get confused about where tracks start in the timeline every now and then. When this comes up, it manifests itself as certain tracks suddenly being several seconds off from others. Rewinding and playing again corrects the problem (though if I'm recording at the time, it seems to screw up the track I'm recording).

The final problem with Deck is that it doesn't get along very well with dual-processor machines in my experience (or maybe just dual G5s), but I'll get into that in the section on G5 issues.

Hardware Issues

I've dealt with three hardware setups, each with their own set of problems.

I my original hardware setup, the biggest problem was one of noise. I used a Realistic phono amplifier for bits of the recording, so there was the little matter of undoing the RIAA equalization curve, plus bits were recorded using a microphone directly into the low-quality audio preamp hardware of the PowerBook G3. Thankfully, most of it was recorded using a decent audio cassette deck as the preamp, so the quality was good, albeit with a higher noise floor than I would have liked.

The second setup had a bizarre clipping problem in the audio mixer that I've worked around by increasing the preamp level and decreasing the fader level. It appears to be a bug in the Mackie design (or possibly in the automation enhancement). It seems that the higher the fader amplification, the lower the clip level, so amplifying the signal earlier in the chain resulted in a decrease in clipping. (This is completely backwards from what one would normally expect.)

The third problem is that my sound card, while apparently being a 3.3v signalling device, was keyed for 5v, making it incompatible with the G5. I have since sent it for replacement with an upgraded version.

PowerMac G5 Issues

As mentioned previously, the G5 caused two problems. First, the sound card didn't work correctly. Second, Deck didn't work well at all. The Deck symptoms included random freezing (spinning wheel of death) and random stuttering in the audio. The stuttering was much worse than on the G4/450.

After spending hours tweaking cache size settings, reinstalling, and upgrading to Panther (Mac OS X 10.3), I finally decided to disable one processor. With that change, Deck seems to work quite well. Hopefully these problems will be resolved in a future Deck update.

Effects Software Issues

I saved this category of issues for last because it was the most fun to solve. The plug-ins that come with Deck (the free MDA effects) are generally excellent effects. Most of them are very reliable and work well. Unfortunately, there was one exception, MDA Stereo. The effect adds clicks and pops in the audio that are really annoying and seem to be proportional to the volume (like possibly putting in a zero sample every so often).

I first posted a question about this on Bias's web board, but nobody offered any suggestions. After that, I contacted the author of the plug-in, who said he would look into it. Two weeks later, I realized I needed to get the project wrapped up if at all possible, which meant finding a suitable replacement for the plug-in.

There were only two slight problems.... Deck does not support Apple's audio plugin architecture, AudioUnits. Deck also doesn't fully support Mac OS X VST plugins. Specifically, it only supports carbonized Mac OS 9 plug-ins built using CFM (Code Fragment Manager) linking. Most VST plugins, by contrast, use Mach-O linking (the standard for Mac OS X software). This meant that buying a plugin to replace MDA Stereo was pretty much hopeless.

Thus, after careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that the only way to solve the problem was to write a plugin myself. After a little experimentation and study of basic DSP theory (using delay lines for comb filtering), I started coding. Of course, the current version of the VST plugin software development kit (SDK) doesn't support CFM (which is why none of the existing plugins would work with Deck...), so I spent an entire weekend taking a previous version of the SDK and hacking in a copy of the carbon support from one of the VST team's home pages (thanks, Google) just to get the standard sample project to compile and load in Deck.

Once I got past the build issues, though, it was fairly smooth sailing. Starting from the sample project, I was able to create a custom plugin to do stereo simulation one weekend, and cleaned up the UI the next evening. At that point, I threw it into my project. It is acoustically somewhat different from the MDA Stereo plugin (largely because of the settings chosen), but after a lot of tweaking of settings, I got a sound that I liked.

The upshot is that not only did I write most of the music and play a dozen or so musical instruments, I also wrote some of the software used to make the CD. Maybe not the sort of thing your typical one-man band will ever run into, but it makes for nice dinner conversation.

Closing Remarks

That's a look at the history of the CD Thirty-Six and a look at the technical issues we ran into. In our next section, Miking, Editing, Mixing, and Tweaking, where I'll give tips on microphone placement and editing techniques to help you avoid common pitfalls that many bands just starting out at recording often run into.