Berklee Today

The Digital Producer

Chicago-based composer/producer Kimo Williams shares tips and gives insights on the advantages of recording with digital tools.

Kimo Williams
Photo by Sharon White
 

Producing music in the digital recording environment presents unique challenges, choices, and opportunities.

In the analog environment, a producer's main concern is to record the music on magnetic tape and later to manipulate the tracks with signal processors. For the digital producer (DP) the main task is to construct a well-designed preproduction architecture that maximizes flexibility, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and captures high-quality performances. This requires that the DP plan and anticipate every aspect of the project up to and including the final premastering.

While the analog producer must also prepare, the importance of a well-designed plan that is tied to preconceived editing choices is not as essential in the analog world as it is in the digital. In this article, I'd like to share some insights about digital production that came to the fore as I produced my latest CD Tracking.

While many approaches used in digital productions can be accomplished in an analog environment, the cost of executing them in that domain may be prohibitive. Accordingly, the first concern of a good DP is how to complete the production objectives without exceeding budget restrictions. For many DPs, Pro Tools digital recording software and its associated hardware is the current preferred system to achieve both goals. Anyone expecting to use Pro Tools for their sessions must plan for it from the conceptualization stage.

The DP must also recognize that the musical genre of the project may dictate the methods used. The first things to determine are whether the digital environment will be best for the musical style of the project and how digital recording can best enhance the material. In the realm of jazz alone, production values will differ for recording Dixieland, traditional jazz, fusion, big band, or other styles. My comments here are geared toward producing pop, jazz, rock, and classical projects. Issues involving rap or hip-hop tracks go beyond the scope of this article.

Another important concern is whether to use multitracking or live performances (with the whole band recording in the studio). During the conceptual phase of my project, I decided to multitrack every cut in order to control all the harmonic relationships of the compositions; and during the production phase, I chose to emphasize the essence of the composition rather than the interplay of the ensemble. I wanted to highlight the way that the individual instruments interacted with the written music and with the recorded tracks.

This is a slightly unorthodox approach. It is well known that the foundation of a jazz ensemble is improvisation. In jazz, the rhythm section generally keeps time, while the ensemble provides the harmonic context and the instrumentalists exchange solos after some form of a melodic introduction. The foundation of this interplay is the interpretation of the composition by the ensemble as a unit and the improvisation of the soloists.

But my concept of jazz writing does not lend itself to this model. While the give and take between ensemble members is important to me, it is not the foundation of my work. So when I record, instrumentalists need not play with one another to execute my compositional nuances. Opting to have musicians record individually, however, does present challenges for the DP. Most agree that a recording of an ensemble playing together sounds different from that of an ensemble that was overdubbed instrument by instrument.

The goal of the DP when overdubbing is to infuse the individually recorded tracks with spontaneity and immediacy and to make the recording sound alive and coherent with the musical nuances of the ensemble intact while maintaining strong production values. To accomplish these goals during the recording of my CD, I first had to prepare the written portions of my compositions for the digital recording environment.

 

The Charts

One of the first steps in preparing for the digital recording environment is to make organizational adjustments to your musical scores. This allows for instrument parts to be rehearsed efficiently. Before tracking my CD, I changed all rehearsal letters in the physical score to adapt to a digital production. Generally, these letters are important for ensemble rehearsing but are inadequate for a Pro Tools session. I changed these letters and added additional indicators called markers in Pro Tools. It is important to ensure that repeats and other types of musical jumps are counted correctly. To see my use of marker numbers on the score of the track "Lasorituptoo," go to my website at www.kimotion.org/scores/trk/trk2.html. Of the two markers at the bottom of the score page, the upper represents the first time through the head and the bottom number is the da capo.

The markers are inserted at strategic places for recording. In general, I would place a marker at an important entrance or a part that would need rehearsing. For "Lasorituptoo," I placed a marker at the ensemble hits in 7/4 (see measure 30), as well as at the harmonic change at measure 41, because I knew that the musicians would want to rehearse these sections.

These markers become a major time saver when using Pro Tools. You don't have to start at the top of the tune or listen to the entire track to reach the sections you are working on. As players finish a section, the DP can jump from one marker to the next. I do feel, however, that it is very important for the instrumentalists to hear the entire composition at the outset of recording, or at least portions of it, to grasp the overall musical concept.

I also recommend using a visual time-code clock during the recording and mixing sessions. This allows the DP to coordinate with a coproducer or assistant who may not have access to the marker numbers. Measure numbers on the score and parts should also be used so that the DP can direct the individual instrumentalists to specific places in the composition.

 

Click Track

While it has been argued that a click track detracts from the spontaneity of the performance, the DP can create this spontaneity—a sense of breathing in the track, if you will—by directing the players. Many musicians believe that they perform better with the gradations of tempo that occur while playing with other musicians. The DP can create this through a click track, however, by providing directions to the instrumentalists as they play their parts. You must first have a solid foundation.

With a click track generated through Pro Tools, you can utilize MIDI options to reach production objectives and, later, video synchronization. The click permits you to double the live instruments with sampled ones. After I recorded a string quartet, I added sampled strings to create a fuller timbre in the slow section of the track "Bonding." I decided after finishing the recording that I wanted to include a piccolo in the woodwind section of "The Meeting." I used a MIDI piccolo and locked it up directly with the initial click track.

I needed a drummer who could play with a click track but also make the music breathe. Many drummers can play with a click track and keep steady and accurate time; but Kenwood Dennard and Vinnie Colaiuta are the only two drummers with whom I have worked who can play in 13/16, maintain the tempo, and create the illusion that they are playing without a click track.

To prepare for my sessions with Vinnie, I took all of my Finale scores and converted them to MIDI files. I then imported the files into Pro Tools. I provided only the essential concepts of each composition that Vinnie would need. Prior to the session, I worked on each composition to ensure that all introductions, endings, and tempo changes were clear and rendered exactly as I wanted them.

As I thought through each composition and the recording process, I considered ritards, accelerandos, fade endings, drum solos, and how Vinnie would be able to execute these elements without a full band. Because I was working with Pro Tools, for example, I knew that the drum solo in the track "Buffalo" could be recorded as an isolated part and then edited back into the track later. This option would allow me to have Vinnie do several solos if necessary and then choose the most appropriate one. Not surprisingly, the first take was a killer and I used it on the Tracking CD.

The DP must know every tune backward and forward, because so much preparation is required to keep creative options open. If the DP is properly prepared, armed with an array of recorded solo options as well as the capability to edit into the track any solo from any instrument, then final decisions on the solos can be made in postproduction. You can record several instrumentalists soloing and edit the preferred solos into the composition as needed. Placing a guitar cadenza at the end of the guitar solo on "Buffalo" was not in the original design; but as I recorded the solo, I decided to end with a cadenza. Adding a few measures was a simple cut and paste edit. I also did not plan to use the descending keyboard line with drums at the end of the piano solo in "The Meeting" until the session itself.

Similarly, on "Paumalu Place" Michael Brecker blew a great cadenza that I edited into the composition during postediting. While I initially planned for his cadenza to go before the piano cadenza, I changed my mind during premixing and moved it to the top of the tune. (See the video of Michael and me working on the cadenza at www.kimotion.org/ideo/mb.html.) In a live, analog situation, indulging in this spontaneity may be time-consuming, cost-prohibitive, and could lead to what is called "scope creep."

 

Project Management

Each production should be like an exercise in project management that requires balancing such aspects as planning, scheduling, and control. To manage your project, the performance (P) must meet a desired standard; the costs (C) and time requirements (T) of the project must be observed; and the scope (S) of the production must be controlled, all while using resources efficiently.

If you have a tight production budget, time constraints, and are seeking a high performance level, altering the scope of the project may affect all three aspects. The equation C= f (P+T+S) illustrates this concept. Cost is a function of performance, time, and scope; and cost increases as performance, time, and scope increase. The DP has more flexibility than the analog producer does to experiment without jeopardizing the performance, cost, time, or scope of his or her objectives.

 

The Production

For a DP, production activities should be designed to achieve the pre-edit conceptualization by recording individual tracks in a way that provides maximum flexibility in the postproduction editing phase. During the Tracking sessions, for example, instrumentalists played their section and then I cut and pasted repeats during the postediting—rather than recording repeated sections many times over. This saved hours of recording time.

From my perspective, the repeat of a saxophone melody that is cut and pasted is as artistic as the melody that is performed live in the studio. Many musicians resist this approach, thinking that the recorded sound quality will suffer. Make your instrumentalist aware that neither the sound nor the quality of performance is compromised with digital methods. During my Tracking sessions, the musicians noted how much we were able to accomplish in the time we booked at the studio. With proper planning, Vinnie and I were able to track 22 complete compositions in two eight-hour Pro Tools sessions.

I don't recommend using effects such as plug-ins during the tracking sessions as these plug-ins may not be available during postproduction. Once you have recorded and edited the drum tracks, bounce them to a stereo sound file. Save the original files to a backup storage device (I used a 70-gigabyte fire drive) to free up storage space for tracking the rest of the ensemble. Make sure not to edit your drum tracks once you have bounced them. If you need to change something, import the original and then make the change.

I find that instrumentalists interpret dynamics differently when playing alone. In an ensemble, each player listens to the others and makes adjustments accordingly. When overdubbing, the DP must ensure that the dynamics, articulation, and phrasing are correct—most particularly with each section's lead instruments. That's why it's advisable to record the lead alto, then the lead trumpet, and then the lead trombone. Intonation among instrumentalists can vary greatly, so the DP must have a good ear. If the lead alto plays out of tune or plays an incorrect articulation, the ensemble players must adjust their parts or the lead alto has to rerecord his or her part.

There was one section in the track "Kimotion," for example, where I transposed the alto part incorrectly. Jim Odgren (who I recorded in Boston), played the second alto line as it was written, and it worked in context with the first alto. As I was recording the lead tenor (in Chicago) I realized that I had the wrong harmonic relationship. In an analog session, there would be two options: rerecord the alto part or leave it alone, thus changing the harmonic relationship. The first choice would increase recording costs, the second represented an artistic compromise. In the digital environment with Pro Tools, I could use a sampled alto sound to replace the section or I could record it on tenor during the other session and then make a pitch shift with a plug-in. I did the latter and was quite pleased with the results.

 

Postproduction

The skillful DP can save a lot of money in the postproduction phase and truly make a difference. Postproduction begins with the DP's decision about what type of premix he or she wants the mixing engineer to work from. Will he or she work with five saxophones as individual instruments, or can a stereo mix be provided? While tracking, I painstakingly mixed the woodwinds, brass, and strings into separate stereo mixes. Only I knew how loud I wanted the first trumpet to be in relation to the third and whether the fourth trombone was loud enough in the trombone tutti that opens the tune "Buffalo." After I finished stereo premixing, the engineer and I balanced the tracks.

Working as I did in the digital environment allowed for an array of changes to be made during postproduction. In my original score for "Manic Depression," I did not write any background horn lines to accompany the guitar solo, so with Pro Tools, I cut horn parts from earlier sections and pasted them in under the solo. Trying to do this in an analog situation would have greatly increased the production costs.

In some cases (drum parts come to mind here), the DP can equalize certain tracks to his or her specifications without the additional cost of the engineer's time. I equalized the kick drum until I got the sound I wanted. The actual mix-down sessions were a breeze for the engineers, because I had taken care of most of the sonic details ahead of time.

During postproduction, the DP prepares tracks for the final mix-down and mastering either through a Pro Tools plug-in or through some external analog system. Gavin Lurssen mastered my project at the Mastering Labs in Los Angeles. In order for him to do his work, we had to prepare the tracks so that I could maintain the 24-bit resolution rather than 16-bit resolution, which is the standard for CDs. We needed to mix down at 24 bits and then transfer that over to the system at Mastering Labs.

It is important to keep in mind that the engineer is a technician who helps realize the DP's artistic vision through his or her mastery of recording technology. If the producer can bring his vision to fruition without the engineer, that's great. If not, the DP should get as close as possible with the tools available to him or her. The DP understands that these tools create musical alternatives that can be applied to the canvas of artistic expression without compromising the performance, time constraints, scope, or budget of the project. Choose and plan wisely.

 

—Kimo Williams is a professor in the Arts Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College in Chicago. For information on his CD Tracking, visit www.kimotion.org. This article contains excerpts from Williams's forthcoming book The Digital Producer: Managing Music Production in a Digital Environmentw.