Production Log: Where Do The Children Play

This log is a bit different. Instead of going into great detail on the tools used, I’m going to focus on the process used to arrive at the finished track, an Internet collaboration between myself (I’m in North Carolina) and Texas-based musician Kevin Griffin. We are both members on the Ukulele Underground where I had posted the final track of my most recent album. Kevin reached out to see if there was any mutual interest in a collab. We exchanged a few emails to get a feel for how it might work – what instruments and gear we each had, strengths/weaknesses, roles, and possible material.

First contact was on January 21 and about a week later, Kevin sent me an mp3 file he had recorded with a vocal and tenor ukulele and asked if it was something I could work with. I was immediately impressed. Not a polished mix of course, but the timing was impeccable (he had recorded to a click track), the vocal was in tune and well delivered, the uke playing was clean and crisp, and both were recorded well. And the lyric wasn’t half bad either. Could I work with this? Heck yeah! And I was off…

My first goal was to get a backing track with drums, bass, and keys to add to the uke and vocals. GarageBand on the iPad had just received a huge update, so I figured I would use this project to get reacquainted with it. There was also the possibility of importing directly into Kevin’s production environment, Logic Pro on macOS. Here is a snapshot of what I came up with:
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The top track is the uke/vocal from Kevin, and I added “smart drums” acoustic kit, electric bass played on the on-screen fretboard, electric piano played on the “smart piano” pads, and a lead on the erhu (hey, why not? :p ).

I won’t post the audio of this session as it was pretty dreadful 😮 . I was quickly reminded of why I had abandoned GB years ago. It’s not that the sounds are that bad. It’s that the workflow doesn’t click with me and the flexibility/toolset just isn’t there to take it to the next level. But on the positive side, it didn’t take all that long to work up and it did clarify a direction for the arrangement and the sounds. With that knowledge, I threw GB aside and started over.

Since all the details were so open at this point, I figured the best course was to stay as flexible as possible. So I went back to my roots with Band-In-A-Box and Propellerhead Reason on Windows. Since the uke/vocal was recorded to a click, it imported into BIAB as a “melody” track and I was able to work out the detailed chord changes and styles directly in BIAB, a huge time saver (I had only been able to approximate this in GB). But I’ve never been satisfied with the sounds in BIAB, so I exported the song as a MIDI file and imported into Reason. The idea was to not muck with the MIDI parts in Reason (in case they needed to be redone later in BIAB) but to take advantage of the software instruments and effects in Reason to get the sonics right. Now we were getting somewhere.

It was at this point that the “collaboration” aspect really started to kick in. We figured that the only exchange medium between our disparate production environments was the “audio lingua franca”, wav files. I exported wav files for the drums, bass, and electric piano tracks from Reason to Dropbox and Kevin pulled them into Logic. He worked on the arrangement, layering in the instruments, and redid the uke and vocals as he felt the timing wasn’t quite tight enough against the MIDI drums and bass. In the meantime, I added a lead part on my electric baritone uke. This was recorded direct into Reason and effected with the amp sim, reverb, etc. effects in Reason, again for maximum flexibility to change up the sound later.

When I heard Kevin’s mix, it revealed a number of things. Some good things: the layering in of the parts was right, the sound and parts of the bass and drums were good (but needed to come up in the mix), and the sound of the lead was good. And some not so good things: first, the lead part was stepping all over the vocal. It might have been something about the transfer process or the new vocal, but the timing was all wrong. Oh well, pitch it and try again. Also, the piano part came in so late and it was so low in the mix that I thought he had just muted it. And I was OK with that, as I really hadn’t missed it, and I wasn’t all that sold on the BIAB part anyway. Kevin thought the left hand part was clashing sonically with the bass in particular and had tried to EQ that out but it still wasn’t fitting. We discussed some ways to fix it. One idea was to split the MIDI part and just keep the right hand part. Another was to introduce some different rhythm tracks like a second acoustic track or an electric uke track. To start, Kevin did a quick mix muting the keys and lead and bringing up the bass a bit.

With this new backing track pulled into Reason, I redid the lead part and made a second electric uke track. I wasn’t sure how that should be arranged, so I pieced together a part that played the whole way through concentrating on sustained tones with a lot of delay/reverb to add to the “pad” effect. Kevin made a second acoustic uke track. We both agreed at this point to simply ditch the piano part.

Kevin did a new mix that revealed some new things. First, the lead was much better but needed simplifying at all the points where the vocal came back in and at the very end where it needed to be in unison with the vocal. Also, the second acoustic track was working but needed to be pulled back a bit to act as a background layer for the first one. Finally, the electric uke “pad” was just “too much” – too wet? not sustained enough? maybe redo just for chorus and break?

I got the lead part change punched in and then life got in the way before I was able to redo the pad. In the meantime, Kevin had tweaked the mix some more and concluded the pad part wasn’t really needed. I agreed. Almost done. (By the way, it wasn’t until this point that I noticed some of the lyrical phrases were “unique” in such a way that I questioned what they meant – what’s a “lorryload”? – and Google revealed this wasn’t Kevin’s song after all! Cat Stevens! 1970! Never heard it! Ha! And I still haven’t played the original.)

At this point, Kevin had done all the real mixing, so it made sense for him to make the final mix in Logic. I offered to run it through the mastering suite in Reason when he was done. He sent up a mix almost apologetically as he was only able to do it on headphones. I wasn’t able to get any studio time right then either, so I brought it up in the FinalTouch app on the iPad – with my headphones. Sounded darn good. Added a little bass boost, stereo widening, and sensible limiting. Sounded even better to me, so I posted it back to Kevin. He was happy with it. The next morning I pulled up the “master” on my speakers and didn’t feel the need to change anything. I was happy with it. Done.

Some pointers for others wanting to try a collaboration:

  • Allow time up front to explore possibilities and get to know each other – this isn’t match.com but you need to have some idea of who’s going to do what and how the technical aspects are going to work.
  • Start somewhere. Sounds obvious, but somebody has to come up with enough of an idea to build upon.
  • Build on the starting point. Be quick to try something that might not work. Be just as quick to throw out something that isn’t working. Make small improvements and re-evaluate. Listen to the project – it will tell you what is needed next and when it is done.
  • Keep it fun. Be critical but make feedback constructive. Take feedback constructively and keep moving forward.
  • Be patient. Realize that “life gets in the way” and don’t pressure yourself or your collaborator(s). If it sometimes takes days between emails, so be it.

Overall, it was 5 weeks from first contact to finished song. I was very pleased with both the process and the outcome. We’re hoping to do more in the near future. Maybe try some originals, release an album, world tour, Super Bowl Halftime, who knows? 🙂 Stay tuned.

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