Every month, Matt McCorkle of EqualSonics.com brings you a day in the life of a New York City recording engineer.
The Mission: Recording a song for a TV commercial in a Brooklyn apartment
Producer and multi-instrumentalist Michael T contacted me about recording and mixing a song called “Snow Falls in Brooklyn” for a television commercial. Michael T does song commissions for just about anything. Give him a topic, genre, theme, or a melody and he’ll craft a song for your purpose.
With most submissions for television or advertisements, one is given a rough guideline of what the company wants from the song (a particular tempo range, genre, style, feel and instrumentation). An example of a request is as follows: “Beat must be mid-tempo between 100-110BPM with a driving chorus and relaxed verses. Lyrics should be clean, but with high energy and clarity. Lyrics should refer to “having a good time” and “living life to the fullest.” Then a few reference songs are provided in the style of how they would like their finished product.
When Michael T does a TV commission, one thing is of utter importance: turn-around time. We had one day to record, edit and mix this track before submitting it for television play the following week.
Listen to the master mix of “Snow Falls in Brooklyn” to hear where all this is going:
The spot at which this production took place was at a mutual friend, Kalen‘s apartment in Brooklyn. She too is a multi-instrumentalist, who just happens to have about every possible instrument in her apartment, how perfect! Bass, keys, guitar, djembe, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, shakers and various auxiliary percussion.
The apartment is located in a relatively quiet neighborhood of Brooklyn, with little traffic outside in the street. This was a crucial factor in picking a location to do this production. When recording on location most places will not be 100% soundproof — I’ll be lucky to get an apartment that is 50% soundproof.
This particular apartment was secluded in the back of the building on the second floor. That’s great because recording from the back of the building dramatically reduces any noise from cars or people in the street, while being on the second floor reduces any low-end frequencies creeping up from the nearby subway tracks. The location was “sound,” so to speak, in the sense that it was as soundless as possible.
Once at the apartment I laid my gear down and took a brief walk around, moving to and from each room listening for any noise that would be detrimental to a recording. I am particularly interested in listening for AC noise, gas pipes, computer fan noise and birds chirping or dogs barking. Since this is New York City after all, I was listening for the possibility of rats clawing in the wall, fighting neighbors or other musical neighbors. All of these factors could suddenly ruin that “golden take.” It is essential to have a preliminary listen of the rooms to reduce the chances of such a horrible catastrophe.
Michael T and I began to examine the instruments that were so kindly lent to our use. We played different acoustic instruments in different rooms to get a feel of how each interacted with that particular room. After I had mapped out a game plan of where I wanted to record certain instrumentations, I went to start my setup of Equal Sonics Mobile.
The Digital Setup
The setup of Equal Sonics Mobile takes approximately 20 minutes. I start by unpacking and laying all of the equipment out within hand’s reach. This makes it easy to see and grab the equipment as I need it, in addition to augmenting and changing the rig quickly throughout the session, depending on any particular task.
WARNING! This section of the article gets technical. If you are not ready, uninterested, afraid of or become nauseated by reading excessive nerd talk, I recommend that you skip ahead to the “Time Is Ticking – Let’s Begin The Tracking!” section of this article a few paragraphs down.
Equal Sonics Mobile is based around ADAT (44.1/48 kHz) and S/MUX (88.2/96 kHz) optical protocol. I find ADAT and S/MUX to be a great protocol for this type of setup. The cables are lightweight, easy to break down and store, inexpensive and easy to find at various retail outlets. This system allows for total control over monitoring levels, individual artist cue mixes, and any other mixes that might be necessary, such as a video camera feed.
All of these optical connections are fed to an RME Digiface which inputs ADAT and outputs ADAT in groups of 8 channels at a time, when operating at 44.1 kHz sample rate. The RME Digiface is then fed to an RME HDSPe ExpressCard, fitted into a MacBook Pro ExpressCard slot, which allows for the transfer of these channels in and out of Pro Tools.
I begin by connecting the optical cables from the analog to digital converters optical outputs to the optical input sections of the RME Digiface. These connections are made to input my digitally converted pre-amp signals into Pro Tools. After the inputs are taken care of, I must connect another set of optical cables from the output sections of the RME Digiface to the digital-to-analog (D/A) converters. The D/A converters are for monitoring purposes, so that I’m able to provide myself with a control room and headphone mix, as well as providing personalized mixes for each artist, with a HearBack cue system.
Once I have my optical connections fitted and ready for use, I need something to tell them all exactly at what point they should do their job. I hook up every piece of digital gear to an Apogee Big Ben master clock. This is to keep a consistent sample rate across the entire digital setup and reduce jitter. A good analogy of what a master clock does for a digital system is as follows:
I’m at the studio and have a lot of work that needs to be completed before my client arrives at noon. I have 4 interns available to help with preparations. I need to send each of them out into the streets to get various items needed for today’s session. Each of these interns have 4 different watches, all yielding slightly different times. When I ask them to be back at noon sharp, I can assume that each intern will follow their respective watch. Of course, this will be inaccurate because all of the watches were not synchronized. One will show up at 11:56am, another at 11:58am, another at 12:03pm and yet another at 12:05pm. To their credit, each of these interns’ watches displayed noon as they arrived. However, when my timepiece displayed noon, I was stuck with two early interns and two late interns.
To remedy this situation before I send the interns on their tasks, I act as a master clock and synchronize each intern’s timepiece to my timepiece. Therefore, when my watch displays noon… their watches will display noon! As you can see, they would all be back at noon according to my watch and the session would go off without a hitch.