Category: Music Tech

October 2020 Grapevine

October arrives. We’re in the last quarter of the endless bizzaro year 2020. Fall is coming in to full bloom. By now Halloween fun is usually ramping up, but this year has been Halloween all year. Trick or trick. Anyway, let’s take a listen to some more new music to pass the time. Stylistically, I don’t know that there is a real specific theme here. Although, despite differences in style, there sounds like a bit of darkness lurking in each of theses tunes. I think I usually feel some internal darkness around this time of year. Days are shorter, weather in our area tends to become a bit more dismal and overcast. But no matter the weather or date, 2020 has been a year that darkness rules. Let’s let the music save us!

First Up: Iress – ‘Shallow’

Let’s begin with some dark drone. The song builds slowly. It starts out with feedback and reverb heavy guitar to create atmosphere. This original background atmosphere continues through out the song, allowing different elements to be built on top. First to come in is a simple guitar arpeggio. The next addition is a pounding drum. Sort of like someone whacking you in the head with a mallet (sometimes a good shot to the head is useful). Vocals finally enter the fray after the first minute. One of the things I like best in this song is the use and treatment of the vocals. There are multiple vocal tracks, effects and harmonies blended together so the vocals do double duty as a background instrument. The song continues to build with guitar chord distortion, crashes added to the drum sound and wordless vocals to blend in with the background sounds in what would probably be considered the chorus. This theme repeats through the song. They open up the guitar and drum parts for the song outro. Put on your headphones, turn off the lights, fire up a candle and incense and breathe in the mood.

Next Up: Death Valley Girls – ‘Under The Spell Of Joy’

We start out with a great vocal chorus. The mix of voices, including a children’s choir, was a great choice. The vocals establish the melody line that is reflected by the guitar when it comes in. When the drums come in they also reflect the cadence that has been established by the vocals and guitar. The final piece to come in is saxophone. The sax work here takes me back to the early days of post punk. Two of my favorite bands from that era, The Psychedelic Furs and Medium Medium made great use of this style of sax playing in their songs. It takes the place of where you would usually put a lead guitar. The sonic textures you can add using sax puts you somewhere between a guitar sound and a vocal. The drums and guitar continue to hold down the original riff while the top alters between vocals and sax. A moment of scratchy silence hits before the slamming freak out at the end. An interesting thing to listen to is the difference between this ending buzz and the rest of the song. You can make the song sound as if it speeds up without changing the beats per minute by doubling the drum and/or guitar notes from, say, quarter notes to eighth notes. Always nice to end with a good old feedback burst.

Finally: Osees – ‘Dreary Nonsense’

I thought we’d end with an all out assault on your ears. Short, fast and brutal would be a good description of this Osees song. And I mean that in the most complimentary way. I guess you could classify this as ‘punk’ although that term has been so overused in our current musical era as to be almost meaningless. Some interesting things to listen to here. First, let’s talk about the recording and mix of the drums. Using drum tuning and EQ, there isn’t much difference between the sound of the kick drum and the snare. That’s intentional (just guessing – I wasn’t actually there). Using this as the drum mix propels the beat along at a constant frenetic pace. The EQ on the guitar keeps this top end sonic assault. When the guitar is playing the siren like two note riff I can feel it in the fillings in my teeth (better than a sonic toothbrush). The vocals fall somewhere between speaking and singing. The cadence of the vocal adds to the song’s beat propulsion. Even the bass guitar has a lot of top end to it. In a minute and a half, it’s over. Did anyone get the licence number of that car that ran me over?

Retro: Frank Zappa – ‘Montana’

You could right an entire book trying to describe the music of Frank Zappa. There are certainly a few books out there that try. He used a wide variety of instruments to create an orchestral, sometimes jazz version of rock music along with more ‘standard’ rock style songs. I was first introduced to Zappa’s music by my guitar teacher when I was in 5th or 6th grade. Talk about a WTF moment. But once you get past the overall strangeness, you can listen to how deliberately the instruments are placed and arranged in the composition. Some works read more like a symphony than a rock song. Besides your usual rock instruments you’ll hear horns, woodwinds, strings, xylophone and a wide variety of percussion instruments. I also got to see Zappa live in a small college venue when I was in high school. Another WTF moment – strange little skits happened between songs and Zappa spent most of his playing time sitting in a chair. I chose ‘Montana’ because it is probably one of Zappa’s more ‘rock’ songs and one some people might have actually heard. I also chose it because it has one of Zappa’s amazing, blazing guitar solos in it. If you didn’t know that he was probably one of rock’s best guitar players, feast your ears on this.

In The Studio Ep 13 – Recording Electric Bass Guitar

Episode 13 of our In The Studio series discusses how to record electric bass guitar. When you’re listening to the video, there are a few places where we give sonic examples of the different methods. All of this video was recorded directly to the GoPro camera, including the sound. The ‘amp sound’ is a live amp in the room. The ‘direct sound’ is being heard live in the room through the studio monitors. As a result, the differences in sound you hear on the video aren’t as great as they would be if you heard them after were tracked in the recording system and played back. Keep this in mind if you’re listening and trying to decide what type of sound you might want. Also remember you can do more processing on the sound after it is captured – either before or after mixing. As always, questions and comments are welcome.

Messin With The Music Part 12 – Shout

For today’s post we’re Messin with another song for you. This time we’re taking on ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears. The song first came out in 1984 on Tears For Fears second album, Songs From The Big Chair. It became one of the most popular and recognizable songs of that era of music. One of the best fist in the air, sing along choruses you’ll find. As I’ve said before we always pick songs we like to cover. I don’t think you can do an interesting cover unless you have some type of love for the song you’re working with. But you also have to be able to do something different and interesting with the tune. For ERP I don’t see the point of trying to do a note for note copy of a song. Who wants to do a ‘not as good’ exact copy of a song you love.

For ‘Shout’ it was easy to do something different. The song has a pretty ‘electronic’ sound to it, along with the drive from a full drum kit. So turning it acoustic gave it us a lot of choices. The basic foundation of the song was built on twelve string acoustic guitar. We did two tracks of that and panned them to opposite stereo channels. The other thing that gives these guitars some push and pull is that they are not completely identical throughout the song. If you’re wondering about how song arrangements are created, this technique is something to keep in mind. Before there were large multi track studios, you had to really think about how to place tracks in the song. If you listen to some Hendrix songs you’ll hear drums in one channel only and guitar or bass only in the opposite channel.

So for ‘Shout’ we used the two takes of twelve string guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass. There’s also some acoustic slide guitar and a second mandolin in the instrumental parts. For rhythm we used tambourine, washboard, wood block (the wood version of ‘More Cowbell’), egg shaker and a rattler that sounds a bit rain stick. We did four tracks of vocals, two for the verse and two for the chorus. The point is to highlight the vocals and lyrics. This was a one mic recording. We used the new ribbon mic for everything (see In The Studio – Microphone Basics). I’m pretty happy with the results.

Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears:

Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs cover ‘Shout’ by Tears For Fears


Follow The Chain

When we did our last video for In The Studio we discussed the basics of microphones. Part of that discussion was that microphones were one of the entry points for inputting and capturing sound in your system. Today I thought we’d do a post discussing two of the next steps of ‘the chain’ (really two possible options for the next step of sound capture). My usual next step for capturing sound from a microphone would be to run them in to an outboard microphone pre-amp and then in to an outboard compressor. This is my personal choice as my mixing boards have inboard mic-pre-amps and compressors that could also be used. Again, we’re going to discuss this in relatively non-technical terms so anyone can have a basic idea of what the equipment does. I’m also not recommending specific brands or models. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and that’s a whole separate discussion.

Let’s start with the mic pre-amps. The simple explanation of a mic pre-amp is that it increases the signal from the microphone so that you have enough signal volume to get a good sounding recording. Let’s look at the pre-amp below:

This is a two channel unit so we’re only looking at one side. First, it has a button to activate phantom power. As we discussed with microphones, condenser mics put out less voltage than dynamic mics, so we need to use phantom power to add that voltage. If you use a separate phantom power unit in line before the pre-amp, you won’t need to activate this. The pre-amp has a dial where you will determine the volume added to the signal going in to the unit (Input) and a dial for adding volume to the signal leaving the unit (Output). The amount of power added to the input is measured by the LED lights at the bottom right and the output power is measured by the needle display in the upper right. You also have a button labeled ‘Gain’ where you can boost the input signal by another 20 decibels. You have a button to reverse the signal phase (if you want to know about signal phase, dig in our archives for the video on recording a snare and phase cancellation). The ‘HPF’ button is a high pass filter. You can use this to ‘roll off’ at a certain frequency – we’ll save a deeper explanation for another time.

This mic pre-amp is a little more high end and allows you to be a bit more specific in adding signal to certain frequencies. These are the toggle switches and dials to the right in the photo. Other than that, the mic-pre works in the same fashion.

After the mic pre-amp, the signal is sent to a compressor. The basic function of a compressor is to regulate the volume peaks of the signal before it moves to the next step. This can keep the signal from ‘clipping’ and adding audible ‘pops’ to the track if a volume peak is too loud. Let’s take a look at one and go through it’s options.

Going left to right. ‘Threshold’ determines at what volume the compressor takes hold of the signal. The ‘Ratio’ determines what the unit does with the volume once it reaches the Threshold. If you select a Ratio of 4:1 it means that once the volume level hits the Threshold, the compressor will allow the output to increase by 1 decibel for every 4 decibels of actual volume. The ‘Attack’ determines how quickly the compressor applies the Ratio and ‘Release’ determines how quickly it stops applying the Ratio when the signal drops below the Threshold. When you apply compression to a signal, you will reduce the overall top volume. The Output dial allows you to make up for this by increasing the overall output from the unit. Finally, this unit also has a ‘Gate’. The Gate allows you to select how much volume is needed to allow the signal to pass through. For instance, when you are recording a vocal, you don’t want anything from the mic to pass through when the vocalist is not singing. You would be picking up unwanted background noise. The Gate shuts off the signal when there is not enough volume going in to the mic. The ‘Rate’ dial allows you to adjust how quickly the gate takes effect.

The compressor in this photo also has a limiter (far right), which means that beyond applying the Ratio, you can set the compressor to cut off the output signal totally at a certain level.

Above and beyond controlling the signal level, mic pre-amps and compressors are used to add color, depth and tone to the signal you are putting through them. Mic pre-amps can use tubes or solid state circuits to accomplish their goal. They can run from affordable to incredibly expensive. Each type will add their own flavor to the sound you are recording. Compressors have been used as an effect to give certain sonic qualities to an instrument – you can find lots of info about using heavy compression on snare and kick drums to achieve a specific sound. Compression can be added at many stages of the recording process. You can add compression to tracks already recorded in the software. You will usually add compression to the final mix to even out the overall volume of the music.

We’ll continue to move through the recording chain in future posts. As always, let us know if you have questions or comments.

In The Studio Ep 12 – Microphone Basics

This episode of In The Studio describes the basics of microphone functions and the different types of microphones. As with most episodes of In The Studio, I’ve tried to keep this from being overly technical. Since there are literally thousands of YouTube videos and blogs that are made for tech heads, I wanted to put out content for people who may not be deep in to the subject, but are interested in how recording studios work. So this video is set up like a conversation between me and you. This video is straight from the camera without editing software. As always, please feel free to comment or ask questions – discussion is always welcome.

Messin With The Music Part 10 – How Many More Times

Welcome to another entry in our Messin With The Music series. The recording of this song comes with an interesting history. ‘How Many More Times’ is a Led Zeppelin classic from their first album. It is also the first song we actually recorded for the series. Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs, like most bands, has gone through a number of band member changes. We had spent a lot of years always trying to have a full band together that was capable of playing live. Each time someone would leave or a new musician came in it’s practically like starting over. We had electronically released our ‘Celebrity Prostitution’ EP, staying with a garage rock, punk blues sound. This time we decided to just work on our own and concentrate on recording. The question became – what style of music should we do? On many sites or internet radio when you post a song you’re asked to pick a style of music it represents – usually from a drop down list. It’s difficult to categorize yourself. I’d much rather let someone else make that call. We’ve never stuck to a very specific style, although I guess you could put it generically under ‘rock’. So, just for fun, we decided to create a category and try to fit some music in to it. Thus was born Dark Americana Shoegaze. We wanted to work on figuring out instrumentation, arrangements and recording. We thought the best way to do this was to start by covering songs (although we do have a number of originals in various stages of completion). That way we could concentrate on aspects other than writing the song – and we’d get to play songs we already really liked.

We didn’t have any pre-conceived recording methods yet, other than keeping a ‘live’ feel – no autotune, no quantizing of drums or other instruments, no cut and paste of parts. With that in mind we got to work on ‘How Many More Times’. There was a lot of structural change to do. We certainly couldn’t copy Led Zeppelin’s eight minute and twenty eight second version. So we cut it down to a number of shortened verses, did a short piece to represent the long instrumental in the middle and another section for ‘The Hunter’. To keep the Dark Americana Shoegaze idea some verses are electric guitar based, some acoustic instrument based and some a combination. The vocal tracks tie all the different parts together. To get a big, full sound most of the instruments and vocals were multi tracked with multiple mics. If you listen you can hear a number of different electric guitar sounds, two bass lines and multiple banjo and mandolin tracks at different parts of the song. We stacked a lot of vocal tracks. When we finished recording we were looking at forty eight tracks. This was going to take a while to mix and master. We decided we wanted to get a song out quickly so we picked another song – ‘It’s Gonna Be A Long Night’ by Ween and moved to what became our more standard method to put it out quicker – one mic, one track for most instruments. That went well so we picked another song, then another, then another. ‘How Many More Times’ went on the back burner. When the pandemic put our recording on pause it seemed like a good time to finally put this song together. I will say that this is probably the ‘strangest’ cover we’ll ever put out, so it may be a ‘love/hate’ experience for listeners. Might do another Led Zeppelin tune in a bit more straight forward fashion in the future. It was certainly an interesting experience mixing it. So here it is. Hope you enjoy it. As always we encourage comments, feedback and suggestions.

In The Studio Ep 11 – ChurchHouse Studio Tour

It’s been a while since we did an In The Studio episode. We had some live performance ideas started, but as with much of our lives, that’s temporarily on hold. So I thought we might do some more episodes that simplify studio tech as we did with micing the snare drum. A good place to start would be with a quick overview of the studio. You’ll have to excuse some of the noise in the video – it’s literally live with me picking up the camera and moving around, no post recording editing. You know us – we love running it ‘live’. If you have any questions, comments or topics you’d like to see discussed in future episodes, let us know. So let’s get started……….

Below are some photos referenced in the video. This will give you an idea of how the main control room setup is changeable depending on the task. First two photos are of different mixing/mastering station setups.

Mixing/Mastering Setup 1
Mixing/Mastering Setup 2

A couple of photos of setups using the movable sound panels – Vocal booth and amp separation.

Vocal Booth
Amp Separation

And finally a couple of photos of setups in the big room. All the mic signal goes back to the main control room in to the patch bay shown in the video.

Drum recording session
Full band session

Messin With The Music Part 9 – Seven Nation Army

We’re back with another ‘messed’ song for your enjoyment. There’s a bit of a story with this one. ‘Seven Nation Army’ was actually recorded before most of the other songs that have been posted. Recording these covers did start with one idea we have maintained with all the songs – recording the tracks straight through to keep it having a more ‘live’ feel. With this song we did what we often do with our own studio songs – record multiple tracks of each instrument for a more ‘full’ sound. So most of the instruments on ‘Seven Nation Army’ were tracked several times (although each separate track is recorded straight through). We also used multiple mics on the acoustic instruments, adding even more tracks.

This tune has twelve string guitar, mandolin, banjo and six string guitar. The percussion is the floor tom from our drum kit and a shaker. Each instrument was tracked several times (except the percussion). Two more mandolin parts were added in the one instrumental section as a ‘lead’ instrument. When we finished recording I realized it would take a while to mix correctly so we decided to record another song without all the multi tracking and multiple mics. And when we finished that song we thought of another, then another……… So it took quite a while to get back to mixing ‘Seven Nation Army’.

As we continue messin’ with songs I’m sure more electric instrumentation while come in to play along with a bunch of other ideas. As always, hit us up with comments and questions if you have any. Hope you enjoy.

Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs play The White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army’:

Messin With The Music Part 8 – Everything That Rises Must Converge

We’re back with another messed with tune for you. This song is from the band Shriekback from the 1985 album ‘Oil And Gold’. They were another early influence band for me. What first drew me in were the great funky bass parts from Dave Allen, formally bass player for Gang Of Four. They also do some wonderfully spooky atmospheric songs with very spare instrumentation. I’d suggest listening through the whole Oil And Gold album if you have the chance.

Another part that draws me in comes from the song title. The concept was first put forth by French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who felt there could be common ground between philosophy, science and religion. It’s a concept we could really use in these times. To quote de Chradin: “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

Finally from a technical standpoint, the Messin ‘live feel’ protocols remain. The song centers on the bass line (including the challenge of playing it straight through the entire song) and the vocals. We have two vocal tracks that sometimes combine and sometimes harmonize. Bubbling in the background is banjo, mandolin, six string guitar and twelve string guitar. We added some shaker and a percussive combination of a mini tambourine combined with washboard (you’ll hear it best right at the end of the song). This was another recording in which stereo placement of each instrument was very important to the final sound. Listen carefully and you should be able to find all the pieces.

As always, hope you enjoy it and questions and comments are welcome. It’s a little tougher with all of us having to work remotely from each other. Please stay safe in these difficult times.

Electrostatic Rhythm Pigs play ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’

In The Studio Ep 10 – Recording Snare Drums And Phase Cancellation

As you scroll through the internet you’ll find lots of videos, blogs, web sites, etc that present info on studio recording. There are a lot of great ones, some very high end studios and some very experienced, knowledgeable people. I’ve watched and read a lot of them myself. So I sat down and gave some thought as to what our place in this vast info universe would be. I’d like our videos and info to make you feel comfortable and at home. As if one of our friends walked in and asked “I always wondered how you……….”. That’s why we do mostly single take videos and record ‘live set up’ songs whenever possible.

This video gives some basic tips on recording the snare drum and the concept of phase cancellation. As you watch the video keep in mind that phase cancellation can happen with anything you record. It’s something to always keep in mind as you do mic placement or mixing. Keep your ears open and your eyes on your sound waves. And always follow the first rule – experiment, try different set ups and compare.

If you have any “I’ve always wondered…..” questions or situations, feel free to leave a comment/question or send us an email. We’re always up for a good ‘conversation’.