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
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:
- Recording software issues
- Hardware issues
- PowerMac G5 issues
- Effects 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.
I've dealt with three hardware setups, each with their own set of
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.
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.
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
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
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.