I’ve written and recorded a Christmas song for three years in a row – I feel like I’m on a roll. This year, I didn’t have an idea for a new song until I fired up Spotify one day and saw their new Holiday playlists. Front and centre was the 1994 Mariah Carey hit, All I Want for Christmas is You. I had an instant gag reflex to seeing this, as I really despise the saccharine lyrics. Yes, there are some really cool musical motifs and chord changes, but that’s really re-purposing from classic holiday songs written decades ago.
Lyrics and chord ideas
At first, I wanted to write a poetic treatise about how sugary and sweet Christmas and the holiday season seems to appear on its surface, but bubbling underneath are things like growing financial debt, family feuds, and an uptick in depression.
I made a short list of keywords: saccharine, sweet, sugar on the one hand, and darkness, depression, and debt on the other. But the poetry wasn’t happening. As I started writing the lyrics, things came out more subversive and almost like a parody of Mariah Carey’s hit. So I just went with it, including borrowing her title.
I introduced a deliberately subversive chord sequence, alternating between C-major and C-minor in the intro and verse. I borrowed this from Ramin Djawadi’s theme for Game of Thrones, which he explained on an episode of Song Exploder. It’s supposed to symbolize the two-faced holiday season, like I mentioned above.
Like all my songs, I developed the chords and melody through both singing and playing the piano. I worked out the chorus lyrics first, then the verses, along with chords and melody, and added the bridge the next day.
Arrangement, recording and mixing
After the song was finalized, I worked out a heavier arrangement with electric guitar, bass, drums, and a vintage organ (all through software instruments). I wanted more of a hard rock / punk attitude. I worked on adding a little more grit to my vocal performance.
The mixing was fairly straight forward; I wanted punchy drums and an in-your-face crunch to the whole song. I used compression and saturation to get a dynamic yet loud mix.
Hope you enjoy it and happy holidays!
See the streets light up
So obscenely bright they blind your way
See the stores fill up
Stuff you won’t keep past Groundhog Day
And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!
Cram your bellies, filled up
Office parties, stapled smiles
Expectations build up
All the presents piled high
And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!
Darkness creeps in
As the lights all come down
Bills they rack up
As you put on the pounds
And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!
And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
All the sugar makes me numb
And all I want for Christmas is dumb!
Following news of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, many of my female friends posted “#MeToo” on social media. Some of them even shared their own harrowing stories of sexual assault. Their courage and vulnerability really got to me. It’s one thing to hear about famous people who live a world away, but another thing to see these stories coming from people you know. Frankly, it made me feel sick that my friends had undergone such pain in circumstances where better behaviour on the part of men would have prevented them. I knew I wanted to express something, but I didn’t presume to speak for assault victims, or even the guys who perpetrated the acts.
Lyric writing process
I started with lyrics for the chorus:
Is it you too? Of course we believe you Wishing it weren’t true Join the countless few
The idea for the “countless few” came from the notion that this issue is pervasive and it seemed like there were countless women coming forward, and certainly there are countess women who are accosted or assaulted every day. The “few” refers to the notion that, as a culture, we believe it’s rare, or only affects celebrities.
Later, I changed the first line to “You said, ‘Me Too'” as I wanted to include the “Me Too” phrase and I thought it would be more powerful than a question. All too often, I write lyrics that are questions, and I’m trying to make stronger, more affirmative statements. Not to worry, though, I saved plenty of questions for the bridge :).
On the first day of writing, I only had the chorus, complete with chords and melody. I wrote the verses two days later, and then the bridge on the following day. I changed one word in the bridge, “Gotta unlearn the hateful stuff” to “Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff”, even though “hateful” first came to me, I thought “hurtful” was more appropriate and accurate.
Here’s my worksheet as I worked through the writing. You can see some more earlier versions of lines I went through.
Being conscious about chord choices
I knew I wanted this song to be haunting. I decided to drive both the verses and choruses with minor chords. The last line of the chorus (“Join the countless few”) begins on a major chord, to help highlight that phrase. I also employed one of my favourite chord tricks, flipping the V chord from minor to major (in this case, E-minor becomes E-major), which works best at the end of a phrase where you’re returning to the I chord (A-minor). Check out the chord progression at the end of the chorus.
I made a conscious choice to start with the relative major chord for the bridge, to give it a different colour than the heavily-minor-chord-driven verses and chorus.
I was also conscious about returning to a more haunting quality to end the song. I revisited the verse section with new lyrics and ended the song on the VII chord (G-major in the key of A-minor), which is very unresolved and leaves the listener hanging. Just like this issue remains unresolved, the song doesn’t conclude in resolution.
I started with recording the piano part, quickly discovering that I couldn’t play it to a click, or steady tempo. The verses had a natural slow down at the end of the each phrase, while the chorus and bridge kept a more steady tempo. So I recorded the piano part in “free time” and re-defined the grid to match my performance. Here’s a screen shot of some the tempo changes in the first verse and chorus:
Notice how there are deep slow downs as the verse lines end. The chorus maintains a more steady tempo.
At the time, I added a cello part and a drum part, but I suspected they just muddied up the arrangement. I slept on it, and the next day it was clear that the simplicity of the piano and vocal was much more haunting and effective. I did add a soft synth pad to complement the piano.
It’s nice when you’re inspired to write a new song and it comes together fairly quickly. I knew I had to get this out fast, before the emotion of what I was feeling faded. If nothing else, I think writing this song will open the window to looking at this issue in a healthier way.
This week, I had the privilege of once again being the guest on Song Talk Radio, where I talked about my current songwriting and recording project of progressive electro-pop songs. For this project, I’m abiding by three self-imposed creative parameters:
I’m not allowed to use the 4/4 time signature
All my lyrics are stream of consciousness, random, and narrative-free
The finished album of songs won’t have any breaks in the sound; songs will blend together like a DJ mix
I was also lucky to have my composer and manic creative friend Frank Horvat on the show in the guest host chair. Frank had some great insights when interpreting my songs and my creative approach. Thanks Frank!
The volumes of your recordings are of utmost importance while you are recording, mixing, and mastering. In other words, it really matters how loud your stuff is. This affects the quality of your finished product and the ease by which you can manage multiple tracks and get the best sonic results.
The trouble is, it can be confusing at times to know how loud is appropriate. How loud should we record? How loud should we mix? What about the ever elusive mastering stage? That’s what I’m here to explain.
Two important facts
I was convinced that recording to a level of 0 dB was the “sweet spot” for recording when I first starting digital recording. The problem with this statement is lack of context. 0 dB is a sweet spot only if you’re recording to an analog system and you’re measuring average volumes. The first fact to realize is that analog and digital measurements for volume are very different.
A typical analog meter measures volume from silence to a maximum much higher than 0 dB. A digital meter measures volume to a maximum of 0 dB. If you line up the two meters, you can see that the “sweet spot” of 0 db in analog is about the same level as -18 db in digital.
But the nature of recording hasn’t changed from analog to digital. You still need a reasonably loud source to record at a conservative level. The difference lies in how the measurement systems work. In analog, volume is measured in dbVU (decibel volume units). In digital, it’s measured in dbFS (decibels full-scale).
Analog meters show average levels (also called RMS levels). Digital meters show peak levels. In the digital realm, peak levels are critically important for one simple reason. If your signal exceeds 0 dbFS in digital, digital distortion is introduced. This is not the warm, fuzzy distortion of analog tape or tube saturation. Digital distortion is nasty and not musical in any way. In other words, you want to stay way clear of peak levels reaching that 0 dbFS mark.
Here’s a sample vocal recording I did where the peak levels reached about -12 dbFS.
And here’s another sample where the peak levels exceeded 0 dbFS.
This brings us to our second important fact. A finished, mastered song peaks very close to 0 dbFS. This is how we hear songs on CD, on the radio, and on streaming services. They are loud. But this loudness is the result of mastering, not recording. All professional recordings are captured and mixed at much lower levels. Part of the mastering process boosts the volume to get close to 0 dbFS without going over.
So you’ve armed a track for recording in your DAW (digital audio workstation) software. Note that in most DAWs, when a track is armed for recording, the meter shows the level of the incoming / recorded signal. When the track is not armed, the meter shows the playback level; this can be lower or higher than the recorded level depending on fader position and/or plug-ins. There also may be a setting for meters to show average levels, peak levels, or both. I prefer to have all my meters showing both.
When you’re performing (guitar, vocal, whatever) pay close attention to the peak levels. Most meters will “sticky” the peak level, meaning it shows a little mark where the highest peak occurred and keeps it there until there’s a higher signal. This is important because you want to make sure the highest peak doesn’t get anywhere close to 0 dbFS. I usually shoot for peaks around -12 dbFS to give myself enough room, in case something does peak at -10 dbFS or -6 dbFS.
Only things in the analog world determine the recorded level: the volume of your performance (or output level of your synth or amp), the distance from the microphone, and the gain setting of your preamp (i.e. the gain knob on your audio interface). That’s it. If you exceed 0 dbFS in your recording (referred to as “clipping”) then there’s nothing in the digital realm that can fix the distortion. You have to re-do the take at a lower level by reducing the level of the audio before it hits the digital converters.
If the signal sounds too quiet in your headphones, increase the level of the headphones. If the waveform looks small on the screen, zoom the view to see it better. You can always monitor at whatever level you like, just don’t record too loud.
Mixing and Summation
Avoiding digital distortion isn’t the only reason to record quietly. As you overdub track after track, each signal adds gain to the mix. Compare the peak levels of the individual tracks against the summed master channel below; it peaks much higher.
If the level in your master channel is getting too high (sometimes referred to as “hot”) then reduce the levels of your individual tracks. With projects having several or many tracks, they can be playing back at much lower levels than the recorded audio.
Plug-ins like compressors and EQs are optimized to work at conservative levels, usually around -18 dbFS or -12 dbFS. The specifics here don’t matter as much as just making sure your tracks are playing back at a reasonable level.
Recording and mixing at conservative levels can result in mixes that are more dynamic, open, and detailed. Plug-ins and your DAW have room to breathe, and perform all their complex algorithms in their optimized zones.
In the final mastering phase, a limiter is applied to achieve the final volume. A limiter is a plug-in that limits the volume to a prescribed level (usually just shy of 0 dbFS) without letting anything clip. For most mixes, the limiter can apply several decibels of volume, making the mastered song much louder than the mixed version. This is the only time in the production any level gets close to 0 dbFS; the final glossy coat that finishes the recording and prepares it for release to the world.
When you start creating mixes, you quickly realize that the low and low-mid frequencies are problematic. Without care and attention, they can sound muddy, boomy, and unclear. Mid- and high frequencies are much easier to manage—you can have multiple instruments and voices taking up the same sonic bandwidth and still hear everything clearly. Try this in the low frequencies and it’s a mess.
We feel low frequencies in our bodies. It’s where the punch, the groove, and the drive of a track lives. It’s critical to your mix that instruments in the low frequencies be clear, full, and bold.
As with many mixing decisions, it’s not about increasing the level or power of bass elements; rather, it’s about eliminating the stuff that gets in their way.
Enter the ubiquitous high-pass filter. The name is fairly self-explanatory; it filters out sound so that only high-frequencies pass through. The high-pass filter is sometimes called a low-cut filter. It’s easy to see how it works with a diagram. The horizontal represents frequencies, and the vertical represents amplitude, or volume.
In this example, the filter is set at 80 Hz, which means everything under 80Hz will be reduced in volume—just follow the slope of the line. For reference, 80 Hz is about the same as the low E string on a guitar. The low E string on a bass is one octave lower, about 40 Hz (that’s E2 and E1 on the piano).
For most instruments, including the human voice, there’s very little of value below 80 Hz. The bass guitar and thud of the kick drum usually live between 40 Hz and 250 Hz. So, the general wisdom is to high-pass everything except the bass and kick drum to 80 Hz or higher. The kick and bass will then have room to be heard clearly, which usually adds punch and groove to your mix.
Every single digital audio workstation (DAW, the software you use to record audio) has a high-pass filter. Usually, it’s a feature of your EQ (equalization) plug-in.
How high is your high pass?
The next question, then, is how high should you set your high-pass filters? That depends on your material. The rule of thumb is to dial up the filter during playback on a track until it starts sounding thin, then back down a bit. If you high-pass too much on guitars, pianos and vocals, you could rob the mix of warmth and body. If something sounds thin in solo, it could be just right in the mix; never judge your settings when listening to a track in solo—it only matters if the mix sounds good.
High-pass filters can also be used on bass and kick drum, but normally they are set very low. For dance music, you may want to include and emphasize the sub-bass (below 40 Hz). For most rock, pop, country and folk tracks, I recommend minimal high-pass filters on the bass and kick drum. Again, what matters is the kind of sound you’re after. Mix with purpose and you’ll get what to where you want to be much faster.
Microphones with high-pass filters
Some microphones have a switch for a high-pass filter. Usually it looks like this, where the crooked line indicates the “on” position for the filter. Usually they’re fixed at 80 Hz.
If you’re recording vocals or guitar (where there will be a bass in the arrangement), it’s advisable to use the high-pass filter on your microphone. Eliminating low frequencies you know you’re not going to need during the recording phase allows you to record a more consistent, louder signal.
Always mix with purpose
Finally, it’s easy to get carried away and high-pass everything judiciously. If you mix with purpose and subtlety, the overall effect can be dramatic. In other words, a subtle high-pass filter on 8 tracks, when they are all mixed together, can make a big difference.
I’ve personally found using high-pass filters to be the one technique that is universally effective on just about any mix, from a simple voice-over narration to a full band. Next to volume, it’s the move that makes the biggest difference to your mixes—in a good way.
If you’ve never mixed with using a high-pass filter, try it out on an old mix and see if it doesn’t clear out the muddiness and open up the sound. I’d love to hear your thoughts—leave a comment below.
As part of the indie rock band Beige Shelter, we were approached to write a new song for a youth gang prevention event. Although we declined to perform for the event, we realized our new song was also a great message for mental health awareness and conversation.
My friend and Beige Shelter frontman Adi Aman had written a song a few years ago with a message to help out a friend going through some tough times. Adi sent me a rough recording and his lyric/chord sheet to play around with. In particular, he said he wasn’t very happy with the melody. Before I even got a chance to look at it, he followed up with a revised lyric that was more poetic and a bit more abstract.
The rewriting process
At the time, we were still involved in the youth prevention event, and I took this angle when rewriting the song. I thought a more direct lyric would be more effective in reaching young people. I also wanted to highlight the aspect of reaching out for help and getting it from friends and family. This, to me, is at the cornerstone of good mental health—people need to be willing to come forward and talk to someone they trust, and their communities need to be willing to listen, empathize and help as best they can.
I printed out Adi’s lyrics and chords and sat at my piano to work on the song. Starting with small edits, I quickly found myself rewriting entire phrases. I realized that using Adi’s lyrics as springboards, I could develop a much more direct song, and marry a melody to the words more easily. This is the sort of lyric I never would have come up with on my own, but using Adi’s original take as inspiration gave me the direction and focus I needed. Here are the working pages I used:
I took care to develop a simple, flowing chord progression and catchy melodies. It was amazing how much mileage I could get from using C, G, F, and Am by playing around with the time between each chord change. I introduced a new, unheard chord to start the pre-chorus section. In other words, the Dm had not been heard in the song yet, but the rest of the pre-chorus chords were also used in the verse. This, along with the melodic centre change, was enough to give the listener a sign-post that the pre-chorus was a new section. For the chorus, I returned to the base C major chord but lifted the melody again.
Back and forth
I presented the revised song to Adi and he liked it very much. He had a few revisions for some of the chord changes, especially the unusual chords I used to end the chorus. Adi felt keeping it simple would be more effective, and once he sung it with his rich voice, I was compelled to agree.
Our bass player Tom made a suggestion for a lyric change at the end of the second verse:
Me: It goes “For your grief, but you know…” which is kinda cheap. We need a good word that rhymes with “grief.”
Adi (singing): For your grief, but believe…
Me: And that flows great into the pre-chorus lyric “You have got the strength to carry on…” — well done, Tom!
Feedback from other songwriters
I presented the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup by playing back the recording from our latest rehearsal. Members found the song to have an inspiring message without being didactic, and with a good flow to the chords and melody.
We adopted two points from the group to improve the song:
Revised the chorus lyric “And you think that there’s no way to see the light” to “And you think there’s no way out of your plight” so that the word “light” isn’t featured twice in the chorus.
Extended the ending to repeat the main hook “We’ll be lighting your way” a few times before finishing the song.
Recording and Producing
We wanted to release Light Your Way as a single during the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week between May 1 and May 7. I knew this would be a tight schedule to get it arranged, recorded, mixed, and released.
During our first recording session, we were still finessing lyrics and making small changes to the chords. I used a rehearsal recording to set the tempo for a drum loop. I recorded Adi playing his acoustic guitar and then recorded his vocals.
Tom recorded a bassline at his home studio and sent it to me. Meanwhile, I developed a drum track and added some piano comping. Our lead guitarist, Karan, was busy with final exams and couldn’t commit to the recording session. I asked singer-songwriter and guitarist Paul Vos to contribute lead guitar based on some noodling I had done on my keyboard. Paul did an awesome job with the last minute crunch and played the part with great finesse.
During the mixing stage, I decided the piano track wasn’t helping and re-recorded an electric piano track with a little more interest than simple comping. I still wanted the acoustic guitar to be the main rhythm instrument—the electric piano was just there to add some weight to the track. I also added a string pad and a tambourine to thicken up the choruses. Finally, I recorded some vocal doubles with Adi for the choruses, again, to give them a little more thickness.
We wanted something unique for the cover art. Adi happened to see a canvas watercolour painting of tulips that my wife Hema had done a few years ago. He liked it enough to ask her if we could use it for the cover art. She gave us her blessing, and I took a photo of it to develop the cover. We kept it very simple, with the Beige Shelter logo and the title. A big thanks to Hema for her beautiful contribution!
Here’s the final track, which is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Music and other digital retailers. It was a great joy and privilege to write and produce this song with Adi, Tom, and Paul. Enjoy!
Last year I was approached by indie punk band Relentless Turmoil to master their latest album, Loud Isn’t Loud Enough. If you read anything about mastering on internet forums and what not, you’ll hear time and time again that it’s a strange black art. For a home studio based producer, it’s supposed to be an elusive task. But like most things when it comes to production work, the devil is in the details. Mastering is also about creative decisions just as much as it is about technical know-how, and most of the moves are quite subtle.
The process depends on what I’m mastering. For a single song, I consider overall tone, dynamics, and final volume. For an album of songs, I also consider sequencing, gaps between the songs, and relative volume between the tracks.
Sequencing and silence
Loud Isn’t Loud Enough is a unique album. Nine of the eleven tracks are full songs; one is a live track, and the last is a track of random “mess-ups.” The entire thing can heard in just over ten minutes. The shortest track is 22 seconds, and the longest clocks in at 1:33. There are great riffs and big energy to almost all the tracks. I decided to let some of the tracks overlap with each other, or leave no silence at all. I wanted to keep the album moving and energetic. The live cut and “mess-ups” track finishes off the sequence.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard an album that serves up a surprise final track. On the 1995 Tea Party album The Edges of Twilight, the final track, Walk With Me, clocks in at 14:20 with a five-minute song, a long silence, and an instrumental outtro. You’d never hear the instrumental bit if you stopped playback after the song itself, and maybe you only heard it if you forgot to stop the playback.
I brought a bit of this spirit to the final “mess-ups” track by adding almost 40 seconds of a buzzing guitar amp sound off the top, at a reduced volume. If a listener heard the album at a low level (who would ever do this with a punk record?), they might not even hear the buzzing and think the album was over, or they’d hear a very faint sound, turn up the volume, and be suddenly assaulted by the screaming band members a minute later. The band loved the idea and the way I did it.
Loud Isn’t Loud Enough
This is punk music. Punk is by its nature loud; like, your amp goes up to 12 kind of loud. Loudness is about more than the final mastered volume; it’s about the dynamic range. In other words, the difference between the loudest moment and the quietest moment in the song. The loudness wars aren’t about the maximum volume as much as they’re about the drastically reduced dynamic range.
Relentless Turmoil was clear in their directive – they didn’t want to squash the dynamics. They wanted the music to breathe with the beat and rock out like a classic punk or rock record. I fully agree with this approach, and I don’t believe you need to overdo the loudness in order to have a great energetic record.
Tone, dynamics, and final volume
I referenced a classic Sex Pistols record to achieve a similar tone for the Relentless Turmoil record. I adjusted each track with a little more “oomph” in the bass and a bit less harshness. The overall tone is warmer than the final mixes provided by the band.
Like the subtle moves to the tone, I also made adjustments to dynamics with subtle settings to overall compression and mutiband compression. For the final volumes, I hit the limiter a little bit harder.
Neither relentless nor turmoil
This album was great fun to work on. I don’t listen to a lot of punk music, but to me, any good music deserves the same attention to detail and care. The songs grew on me, and it’s a really fun album. Take a listen below and name your price on Bandcamp to download it.
If you’re just starting out your home studio, or looking to upgrade your audio interface, there are many factors to consider in order to make an informed decision that gets you the best bang for your buck. An audio interface is the traffic cop of your home studio, controlling all the physical inputs and outputs.
Using an audio interface is always better for a home recording studio than the built-in soundcard on your computer. An audio interface:
will allow you to connect guitars, synthesizers, and professional microphones
can achieve lower latency, so you don’t hear a delay while recording or playing a software synthesizer
is designed to record and playback at the same time; a soundcard, not so much
With the right feature set for your home studio, you can improve your workflow and focus on the creative rather than the technical. Don’t get me wrong, though – you still have to understand the technical, so here we go.
Number of inputs
The first and potentially most important thing to consider is the number of inputs you have. You need as many inputs as things you’ll be recording at the same time. Interfaces generally come with 2, 4 or 8 analogue inputs. Manufacturers usually state the number of inputs in the model name, and almost all of the time, it’s the first number. For example, a Focusrite 2i4 has 2 inputs (and 4 outputs, but we’ll get to that in a bit). A Presonus AudioBox 44VSL has 4 inputs and 4 outputs.
What’s crucial to understand here is that you only need enough inputs for one recording pass. For example, if you record guitar first, then vocals, then bass, you really only need one input. If you’re recording all three at the same time, you’ll need three inputs. Simultaneous recording not only captures the magic of musicians playing off one another, but recording them on discrete channels also gives you isolated tracks in your software for better mixing. (Note, mic bleed is a topic unto itself.)
Types of inputs
Inputs for microphones are XLR inputs – an XLR mic cable has three large pins in a circle on one end. Often, audio interfaces feature “combo jacks” which can take an XLR (mic) cable, or a standard ¼” cable, like a guitar patch cord. Other inputs may only take a ¼” cable.
Typical XLR mic cable
XLR combo jack
1/4″ guitar patch cable
Inputs are usually designed for one or more impedance levels. The definition of impedance doesn’t matter – just note that microphones, guitars (or any stringed instrument with a ¼” output), and synthesizers all have different types of output, and require three different setting for inputs. Mic level is the weakest of the three, instrument level (for guitars) is higher, and line level (synthesizers, CD players, your mobile music device) is the strongest signal. While most combo jacks automatically detect a mic or line level signal, only some feature a switch or option for instrument level. Activating the instrument level switch (sometimes called Hi-Z), if it’s available on your interface, ensures you get a good signal level from the instrument. This is about the same as patching your guitar through a DI box.
Input channels may also features a 20dB pad. This switch cuts the signal by 20dB, which is a significant drop. This is useful if you’re recording anything particularly loud, like a guitar amp or a drum, and ensures you won’t distort the signal. This feature is usually not found on the least expensive interfaces.
Some interfaces also include 5-pin MIDI input and output. While not strictly part of the audio system of your home studio, this can save you from investing in an additional USB MIDI interface if you have some older synthesizers you want to use. Most modern synthesizes and MIDI controllers connect directly to your computer via USB.
When you plug in a microphone, the gain knob controls the volume of the input and engages the preamp. Ideally, these knobs are laid out beside each input, so it’s easy to know which knob controls which input. For most home studio setups, the preamps in modern audio interfaces are low-noise and transparent sounding. While some interfaces feature premium quality preamps (for a premium price), you need to keep in mind you should also have a premium microphone and an acoustically treated recording environment to really take advantage.
Phantom Power, or 48V
Every audio interface will have a switch or button for 48V power, also known as Phantom Power. This is required for using condenser microphones. Just remember to always switch on Phantom Power after plugging in your microphone, and switching it off before unplugging your mic. Phantom Power will not affect your dynamic microphones.
Some interfaces put the switch for 48V on the back of the interface. Ideally, the switch is on the front and has a light to indicate that it’s on. Some may even have the switch as part of the software interface, which in my opinion, is the least desirable place for it.
Most audio interfaces will have balanced TRS (tip, ring, and sleeve) connections for outputs. The TRS cable looks similar to a ¼” patch cord (unbalanced TS cable), but it has an additional ring on the connector pin, indicating that it can be used for a balanced TRS connection, or carries a stereo signal, like your headphone cable. Generally, balanced TRS connections are less susceptible to introducing hum or noise in your signal path over longer distances.
Outputs are normally reserved to connect your studio monitors. This takes two outputs – one for the left speaker, one for the right. Interfaces with more than one output pair can be used to connect additional speakers, or connect to a desktop mixer. Connecting to a second set of speakers can be useful in testing your mixes.
Don’t discount the value of a big honking volume knob. Some interfaces feature this, and personally, I think it’s a great value add. Volume of your playback is one of the most frequently used controls in your home studio, and sometimes you need to adjust it quickly; you don’t want to be mousing around to find the control. Some interfaces also feature a mute button, which is ideal (i.e. you don’t want your monitors sounding while you’re recording from a microphone).
Digital inputs and outputs
Some interfaces also include digital inputs and outputs. These are used if you have a device with a corresponding output (S/PDIF or optical). The optical (sometimes called ADAT) signal can carry 8 discrete channels. For example, you could expand your two-input setup with an 8-channel preamp with an optical output, for a total of 10 microphone or instrument inputs. The S/PDIF connection only carries a 2-channel stereo signal, and is usually found on synthesizers or CD players.
Sometimes audio interfaces are marketed as having 10 inputs, while only two mic inputs are visible. That’s because the manufacturer is also counting the 8 digital inputs via an optical connection.
All interfaces have an option for zero-latency monitoring. Generally, if you want to include a reverb in software for your vocalist while recording, you’ll introduce latency while the computer processes the signal, applies the reverb, and sends it back out to be heard. A zero-latency switch (often called direct monitor, or input) allows you to hear the input in real time, without latency, along with the computer playback. Some interfaces allow you to adjust the relative levels of input and playback material.
Some interfaces include on-board digital effects processing. This allows you to record with very low latency and still apply a reverb or other effect to the monitored input. In my opinion, this is only an issue with older or very budget-level computers. With most modern systems and non-DSP audio interfaces, you can get latency down to a few milliseconds and use a software reverb. It’s best to use a low-CPU taxing plug-in for this. It’s important to note that the reverb in this case won’t be recorded; it’s only used for monitoring. You can still use a better reverb plug-in after the recording is complete. Many singers prefer a bit of reverb in their headphones while recording.
Many of the two-channel interfaces are powered by their USB connection to your computer, making them ideal for a mobile recording studio. The larger interfaces, with four or more inputs, usually require a separate power supply in addition to the USB connection, and a power switch. This is something to consider if you’re planning to go mobile with your studio.
The fact is, there are a lot of interface options out there, especially in the two-channel range. One way to decide which one to buy is to look at their bundled software. Many manufacturers include a light version of recording software, like Cubase or Abelton Live. If you prefer one software choice over another, but you haven’t invested in it yet, sometimes getting the light version with your interface gives you a discount when upgrading to the full version. You can check with the software companies to find out more, or download trial versions if you haven’t settled on one yet.
Ultimately, I can’t tell you what interface to buy. If you want to know which one I have, and which ones I’ve had in the past, check out my blog post about the history of my home studio. You have to assess your needs and come to your own conclusion. Hopefully, this article has armed you with the knowledge to make a good choice.
Do you see anything on an interface that I haven’t covered here, or have any questions? Comment below and let me know, and I’ll get back to you. I also accept heaps of praise and accolades.
Last year (late 2015), Adi contacted me with a request to have his songs produced as an album. We had a brief meeting during which I got to know Adi a bit more, and really saw his personality as a generous, people-loving individual, and how that shone through in his songs. We came to an agreement, and began work shortly thereafter. The plan was to produce 12 songs for an album.
Adi would send me his demo recordings, along with lyric and chord sheets. For most recordings, I would set up a session in Sonar with a simple drum loop (of my own creation, of course, since I am a drummer). He would then come over and record guitar and vocals to the beat. Often he would ask for extra “guitar licks” tracks and/or vocal doubles.
The producer brain
For some of the songs, I would make melodic suggestions for the guitar licks, or arrangement ideas for when to include instrumental breaks. I also added drums, bass, piano, strings, and other instruments using my keyboard and MIDI. Of all the aspects of producing, I enjoy this arranging process the most. It takes a careful listen to each song, finding creative ways to supplement the original performance, and at the same time, taking it up a notch. My piano and bass parts were often quite understated, providing a foundation for Adi’s performance without overpowering it. I think this is a key point for any successful production.
For one song, Midnight, Adi had written a lovely arpeggio pattern on the guitar for the intro. The rest of the song rocked out. I suggested a break in the middle where he would repeat the intro pattern at tempo. This served to open the song up and provide a breath before the final chorus.
Adi had a neat riff and chord progression for a song, but no lyric. We worked together as I made chord suggestions (on piano) and a key shift for the bridge. Adi worked out lyrics about racial diversity and inclusion, with some tweaks from me. We share the songwriting credit for Colours.
For Who I Am, Adi had written it as a medium-tempo guitar rocker with harmonica. He wanted to try it out as a piano ballad, so I took his chords and developed a piano, strings, and drums arrangement. We had to re-record his vocals, as the rocker style didn’t really fit with the more ballad-esque piano arrangement. We also forewent the harmonica in favour of a cello solo. I think this song helps to open up the variety on the album.
Adi wasn’t entirely happy with his song Eden. I made a suggestion for chord changes in the chorus, which opened up the song to sound bigger. Interestingly, this song is almost entirely comprised of major chords (only one minor chord). In some ways, it’s my favourite track on the album, as it has elements of progressive rock.
Mixing, mastering and fine-tuning
I spent a lot of time going through each song with a fine-tooth comb, fixing notes in the MIDI tracks and tightening up the timing. For some, I used a fixed tempo grid to quantize all the tracks, and for others, I used Adi’s guitar recording as a tempo map. Since they were mostly recorded to a fixed drum loop, they were fairly consistent, but minor tempo variations still occur, and sometimes it’s better to embrace them rather than forcing them to fit a fixed tempo.
I also mixed and mastered the songs. I wanted punchy, clear drums and bass, and forward vocals to ensure all the lyrics were well heard. My new best friend became Native Instrument’s Transient Master.
Ironically, the sonically simplest song, She Now Flies, presented the greatest mixing challenge. It’s actually easier when you’ve got 6 or more instruments in the mix, with guitars, piano, bass and drums, than mixing a song with only guitar and vocals.
For the mastering process, I suggested to Adi that we each come up with a sequence for the album, then compare notes. He then arrived at a sequence that was a combination of my list and his. I made minor tweaks to the EQ of some songs, and applied the final volumes. There’s some finesse here too, as I didn’t want the softer ballads mastered to the same volume as the rockers. Hopefully someone out there still listens to complete albums!
It’s been an absolute joy working with Adi on this record. He had a very balanced approach to owning his songs and being open to suggestions for changes. As the producer, I would always take the approach of allowing Adi the veto power, to reject any suggestion I made. As it turns out, he took most of them. You can’t be too precious about your ideas, and understand that the vision for the record should be the artist’s, not the producer’s.
I’ve been playing drums and percussion for a while for singer-songwriter Adi Aman, aka Beige Shelter. The band name comes from Adi’s feeling that the colour beige is neutral and can express a wide range of emotions, and music being the place of shelter where he can best express them.
I started my collaboration with Adi as his producer. We’ve worked through twelve songs for his debut album release later this year. He expressed an interest in performing more to promote the album and get his music heard. I volunteered to back him up on percussion. So far I’ve played a drumkit when it’s available, and also cajon and shaker. In the future, we hope to rope in a bassist and lead guitarist.
Our gig at Page One cafe in downtown Toronto felt like our first “real” show. We had a great turnout, thanks to our friends and to FXRRVST and Madison Galloway, our supporting performers. I’ve branded my look, always performing in a pressed shirt and bowtie.
So far it’s been a high performing with Adi. His songs are very well written (we even co-wrote on one of them) and his performances are passionate and energetic. Together I think we make a good team, as I also give him tips on improving his performance and creating interesting song arrangements.
There’s nothing quite like getting on stage on putting on a show of great original songs. You get into a “zone” where the world around you fades into the background and for a moment, it’s all about the music.