Production Log: No Mercy

This is my version of Holly Hofmann’s “No Mercy”
but arranged for Native American flute and ukulele instead of the original silver flute and piano.

Update: the song was actually composed by Glenn Cashman; here’s a great version of it with Glenn on tenor sax.

Update #2: After talking with Glenn, I made a mistake in using a different name for  this cover. I’ve fixed the name to its original and will use “Know Mercy” later.

Other than some “sound sample” videos, this is my first full project with the NAF in several years (since getting back into it and acquiring some “real” instruments) and the first project with Reason 9, so it involved a few new production tricks along the way. Here’s how it progressed.

  1. Introduction – As best I recall, I think I first heard this track on the radio about 10 years ago while in San Diego (where Ms. Hofmann resides – or did at the time at least) on business. I was immediately hooked by the melody with its interplay of pentatonic major and blues lines. I was also new to the EWI at this time and tried to pick out the tune on the EWI. I got the gist but never took it very far. Some of the faster runs lie across octave breaks on the EWI, and I couldn’t get it to sound very smooth. Fast forward to the present, I’m noodling around on my G NAF, and the first line of “No Mercy” pops out, fitting perfectly. Where’d that come from? I found the song again, and found the second phrase on the flute. Then the challenge was on.
  2. Arrangement – this was a challenging arrangement on a number of fronts starting with the flute, proceeding to chords and styling, and then realizing chords on the ukulele.
    1. NAF – the first challenge was to fully transcribe the melody for the head. I did this by playing it into NanoStudio on the iPad to get the notes and timing right. I realized that a few of the phrases went too low to fit the range of the NAF, so they had to be moved up an octave, but thankfully it still worked and gives the tune a little different feel from the original. And I think if you’re going to do a cover, you ought to bring something new to the party, so it was a good thing anyway.
    2. Chords and styling – transcribing chords, especially jazz piano chords, is not my forte. I quickly abandoned trying to decipher Mike Wofford’s part, opting to reharmonize a chord progression almost from scratch. I pulled the MIDI melody into Band in a Box and slowly worked up chords and styles I was happy with.
    3. Ukulele – next was working up a ukulele arrangement. I did this in GuitarToolkit on the iPad, transposing for Eb cuatro tuning in the process as I wanted to use the Covered Bridge longneck concert pineapple. In doing so, I realized the BIAB chords were too hard/busy to play smoothly on the uke, so I simplified slightly. This flowed better back in BIAB too.
  3. Tracking – with the arrangement settled, it was time to pull it into Reason and realize the tracks. Most of the backing was fairly standard: Dan Dean bass, sampled electric piano from Sonic Reality, factory strings/pad, and drums from Reason Drum Kits refill, all liberally effected. I did throw out a lot of individual drum parts as there were a lot of shakers, toms, congas, etc. that were just extra clutter. There was a MIDI guitar part as well at this point.Next up was to record the flute and uke parts. Both were done with the Blue Yeti USB mic piped to Reason via the ASIO4ALL driver, just with different gain settings and distance to the mic – higher gain and closer for the uke, lower/farther for the flute. My technique these days is to hit record, play until I screw up (bad note, bad timing, just don’t like it), stop recording, back up a measure and go again. Not your typical “comping” technique where you’d record a number of complete takes and take the best bits of each. I’m essentially throwing out the bad bits as I go so what I end up with is a single continuous take though I still have to use Reason’s comp editor to trim/join/fade all the segments together.Long about now, I was realizing I wasn’t real happy with the sound from the MIDI guitar part out of BIAB. This was mostly single note picked phrases, so I decided to redo this part on uke. In order to provide some contrast with the main uke part, which was mostly strummed chords on the low-reentrant Eb Covered Bridge, I decided to do the second part on the high-reentrant Bb Imua iET. This is a chambered electric recorded through the iTrack Solo interface. I didn’t write this out. Rather, armed with a Bb chord chart and a fretboard map, I figured out short phrases/patterns in the middle of the neck to get into a (mostly) higher range than the strummed part.
  4. Mixing – one of the biggest selling points of Reason 9 was the new pitch edit capability. I haven’t been doing much vocal work lately so didn’t feel a real need to upgrade. But with the NAF being notoriously moody when it comes to pitch issues (flat when cooler, sharp when warmer for example), I figured now was the time to try it. I was right. The NAF ended up being consistently flat, generally by 5-15cents, not terrible but noticeable. Whether that was due to a cold studio, bad ear, or what, I don’t know, but pitch edit fixed it up. At first I went too far with the “pitch drift reduction” feature which seemed to suck all the life out of the performance, so I mostly took that back out to get to a part that still sounds “natural, just better.”I also made extensive use of the slice editor for the first time, but only on the strummed uke part. This tool allows you to adjust the timing of audio slices. In this case, I needed this part to be pretty close to the grid to lock in with the drums and bass for a solid rhythmic backdrop for the other parts to weave around. I did not slice edit the picked uke part or the NAF.I did run into what seemed to be a bug here with doing too much editing at once. In fact I had to record the strummed uke track three times before I figured out a work around. The first time I recorded the track as discussed above and went through the comp editor. I then opened the slice editor and went through that. Somewhere along the way, a bizarre distortion got introduced but I didn’t notice until later as I was working on mixing in other tracks. My first thought was that something weird happened during recording , so I ditched the part and recorded it again. This time I listened carefully after comping and there was no distortion, so I know the recording was fine. Then after slice edits the distortion was back. Dang it! Record for the third time, comp, but now I BOUNCED to a new track (so that the recorded track was preserved) and did slice edit on the bounced track. No more distortion.The lesson learned is to divide up comp, pitch, and slice edit into separate passes with bounces in between – and probably in that order if more than one is needed.Other than that major addition to the toolbox, the rest of the mix was pretty typical. Looking back over it, I’m not seeing anything else significant that I haven’t written about in these pages.
  5. Video – finally, the video was produced with the aid of Wizibel
    IMG_0766This app is billed as a “music visualizer” and includes a number of “themes” that react to the soundtrack in various ways like a simple VU meter, bars, waveform, snow, and others. I chose “electroflare” and added images, colors, and text animation. While not a full-featured video editing environment, there is a surprising amount of movement and interest that can be added with the provided controls. I like it. My only real complaint with the app is that there is no “project mode” so there is no way to save the settings and come back to them later. It will restore between app switches of course, but if you hit the Theme button, you’re toast – all edits are lost.I exported the video from Wizibel and imported into LumaFusion to work up the rest of the video production, adding still images of rainbows (the original symbol of God’s mercy) along with Scripture and my own pics. Update: going back to the No Mercy name, I exported from Wizibel to the iPad camera roll and then straight to YouTube with no edits.
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