Apple iMac with Apogee Duet interface running Apple Logic Pro; Yamaha monitors, KRK KNS 6400 headphones, Shure mics; Thermionic Culture's Culture Vulture tube distortion/enhancer, "A few cheap valve compressors that I modded with NOS Mullard tubes", Roberts tube tape machine from 1950s; Roland V-Drums kit used to trigger software drum-sample library, "100 quid nameless no writing on it at all" guitar, "ridiculously cheap but sounds cool" bass.
Reviewed By: Mike Metlay
"Top Of The World" was voted as the winner of a contest held at HomeGrownHits.com, a website dedicated to promoting and improving the work of independent songwriters and bands around the world. It was chosen by the site's artists for its hard-hitting vibe and its catchy hooks, rather than pristine recording quality.
Because of that, this month's SPOTLIGHT is quite a bit different than our usual; we're going to give this track a listen and talk about how it was produced, making a few suggestions in the vein of RECORDING's monthly Readers' Tapes column. But first, James tells us about his tracking and production process in his own words:
Okay so gear used ....... cheap electric guitars (i love their Sound ...Page did les Pauls....Hendrix did strats........such distinctive sounds...... and no one can better them ..i'd love a nice expensive guitar like a duesenberg or something but i really like my 100 quid nameless no writing at all on it guitar...it sounds unique and I've beat it to death and i think what you plug it into is more important..... my bass guitar is also ridiculously cheap but sounds cool), Apogee converters, Yamaha monitors with KRK headphones, Shure microphones plus another brand which i'd rather not give any promotion to ...good or bad they also make my mic preamp and DI....there's a hint...It's only that I personally have had a bad experience with them.........Roland v drums .. thermionic culture processing-.... a few cheap valve compressors which i modded with old NOS mullard tubes -and my secret weapon which is my grandmother's 1950s Roberts mono tube tape machine....she was a concert Pianist and musician as well as my mother and we've all used it....i don't take Signal degradation too seriously with digital recording and it sounds wonderful...i generally run tracks and stems through it and mix them with my original recordings...
this is all going through an iMac with Logic i bought myself after working in a horrible dirty kitchen washing dishes for 9 months...that'll spark the creativity in anyone...but why did i surrender all my money to Apple?
my Studio was my bedroom and had many things in it so although it wasn't exactly pro Treatment, the Absorption and Diffusion of Sound was actually not bad...a well placed duvet or two also helped
So with "top of the world" and most of my Songs i came up with a guitar part and put down a Basic rhythm track to a Metronome. well most of the time...sometimes without a Metronome is fun too
I then play drums to this. This can take a while as I'm unfortunately not the greatest Drummer on earth but i try to get everything in one take.....as with all parts...i'm not a fan of editing too much....takes a lot of the realness out i find........anyway this goes through midi to my mate's Laptop as he has some drumming program that sounds a bit like a real drumkit...unfortunately my neighbour/landlady is not really cool, in fact she's an evil dragon and doesn't allow me to bash a real kit about so i resorted to the v drum..... it's less shocking for her...she won't phone the Police anymore.
then i run the drum tracks through a combination of various outboard compressors and processors to make them Sound more "fucked up" for want of a better Phrase.
then i put down bass and guitars...and try to mix as I go getting things sounding like a band playing together....
then i work on the vocals... my mother was a classical lieder singer and had a beautiful huge amazing powerful voice...fate has rather cruelly not dealt me the same hand but i try to give it a go and there are loads of good bands with rubbish singers...that's my excuse anyway
then after all the parts are recorded i Experiment with a few plugins like eqs , compressors, reverbs and delays and try to mold the song into how i want it to Sound........ I'm no expert but i have worked with some well known Producers mixers and masterers and have a Basic idea of how to do it...and recently i've been mixing my songs into a compressor on the master buss with just a tiny little bit of compression...seems to give the songs some "glue" like everyone raves on about
I try to keep it fairly simple on the plugin front during mixing and make sure the parts are sounding okay and ready before pressing record.... trying to make something bad sound good is a lot harder than making a good sound sound better.
with "top of the world" it was the first time i bought a Thermionic Culture Vulture (again from dishwashing) and used it on everything so i went a bit nuts with it......i love the Thing but i wasn't very subtle with my use and just had a laugh with it really...isn't that how gear should be used?
once i am happy enough with the mix... i try and do some simple mastering......compression eq, limiting and i like using that Massey tape plugin... it really depends on the song....a professional mastering engineer will do it a million times better than me but i'm trying to learn and get better at it myself...and I'm free of charge for myself..
i haven't as yet invested in really nice monitoring (which would no doubt help) but my set up covers my basic needs. obviously my cheapo set up is nothing compared to top of the line studios but hey....10 -20 years ago none of this was at all possible.. nowadays people are making incredible sounding records from garages and bedrooms for a fraction of the price. i think all you need is a few choice items.
So here's someone who knows what he wants and has a plan to get to it. But how does that translate to a final song?
Recording: First, we have to give props to James for his songwriting. "Top Of The World" is a very catchy song; we played it dozens of times in the course of writing this review, and we didn't get tired of the structure and flow of the song, the hook, or the vocals. It's obvious to us why this track was voted for in the contest; it's a real earworm, especially in the chorus with its vocal harmonies and slide guitar part.
The track opens with wide-panned grungy guitars, the bass and drums pile on hard a few bars later, and then we get an earnest, plaintive vocal with nicely recorded harmonies for the verse and chorus. The lead and slide guitar parts are comparatively clean (or at least distorted in a manner that saves some articulation in the parts!), demonstrating that the solid wall of thrash that makes up the rhythm section was a deliberate choice rather than an overloaded interface or preamp.
The drums are played simply, and while the crash parts that come in at the midpoint at the song are a bit much, the rhythm definitely doesn't feel programmed or stilted; James may not be much of a drummer, but he knows his limitations, plays tastefully (most of the time), and doesn't overquantize or cut/paste his tracks together. A lot of folks could learn from this example.
Suggestions: So what would we change? Our first fix would be the balance of the elements that make up the mix. All the parts are here, and from a tonality standpoint, most of them work well together... but the vocals and leads seem to be struggling to stay afloat above the unrelenting hammerblows of the rhythm guitar and bass and drums. Even something as simple as turning them all down a few dB would make the song clearer and the lyrics more intelligible.
Second, while we applaud James's self-description of Sugardoll as "wrong pop" with "music, grooves, hair, and sweat", and the fact that he at least KNOWS he went gleefully overboard with the Culture Vulture... this is where we have to be the voice of sobriety. The initial rush of playing with a new toy and hearing how it messes with your sound so wonderfully will eventually give way to regret at not having shown a bit more restraint. The Culture Vulture is in fact a really great distortion machine, James, but if you used it on everything, you were probably using it too much... and we have to wonder about the tube tape machine and the old compressors with the Mullard tubes, too. And the compressors on the mix. And the compressors and limiters at mastering...
We're getting into the "that's what I meant to do" realm here, but seriously, with the great tone in the lead parts and fills and with the nicely-shaped vocals, does the song really need to be built on a slab of solid distortion with effectively no dynamics at all? By Bar 9, the song's at full volume and pretty much stays there until the final fade; the waveform display is a solid brick from end to end. We know that dynamics are a sign of weakness on the battlefield of the Loudness Wars, but we have to wonder how much more energy and engaging development this song would have if the verses and breaks were at least a little bit softer than the choruses, and if the mix hadn't been limited to heck in the name of More Power. Your mastering engineer was free of charge, James, but he didn't do much for your song.
Summary: A great song recorded with talented playing and solid gear, let down a bit in the mix and mastering stages. We'd love to hear what a more experienced engineer would have done with this raw material, and we hope that as he gains skill, James will revisit this song and see if he can enhance its catchy indie-punk energy with a mix that lets everything shine in its own place.
More from: James Kerr/Sugardoll, sugardoll.bandcamp.com
Learn more about HomeGrown Hits at homegrownhits.com