Opium Winter: Making the First EP, Part 3

This entry is going to cover the editing/mixing portion of the recording process and my thoughts along each step of the way. This not going to be a step by step entry that covers every EQ setting and compression ratio on each track. 

The recording process began in early April 2018. All instruments and vocals were tracked by the end of the month. The plan was to release the debut Opium Winter EP by the beginning of the summer. Instead it was officially released April 1, 2019… almost exactly one year later.

What happened? The answer is simple: Mixing.

We had learned a lot about tracking instruments. Thanks to past projects, and all of the mistakes we made, we took our time and managed to get some good sounding tracks to work with. This recording was the first time I had a complete set of drum tracks to work with. As well, per song, there was three bass tracks, 6 to 8 guitar tracks (plus the guitar and bass direct tracks), four tracks of vocals, and two tracks of synth. More than enough to put together a set of decent sounding compositions. I figured with lessons learned, good tracks and some assistance from online tutorials, the mixing process would be relatively easy.

Boy was I wrong.

Fix It In The Mix

I found three channels on YouTube that seemed to cater to what I wanted to learn: Spectre Sound, Produce Like A Pro, and The Recording Revolution.

Spectre Sound is a bit of a challenge. Glenn Fricker is a crusty Metalhead who has been slogging though producing bands in the underground Metal scene for over 20 years. He “jokes” about how bass players are useless, rails about singers cupping the mic, and has a general disdain for what he perceives as political correctness. I’m sure some of this comes from real world experiences dealing with lazy, egotistical musicians, but it grates after awhile. It’s like like he never quite got past his rebellious, teenage Metalhead phase and doesn’t understand that the world has moved on. To be honest, I have very little patience for meanness masked as humour. Now that his channel has become popular, Glen seems to be stuck in that “this is what the people want” mode where all of his new episodes are pretty much by paint by number and, to be honest, somewhat dull 1.

That being said, Glen has managed to release a handful of excellent how to videos. He has tips on recording and mixing guitars, bass, and vocals, and has an excellent mini series on how to record heavy drums. I’ve managed to glean quite a bit from these tutorials and I wish he’d spend more time doing these and less time ranting and raving about bass players and Line 6. Then again, he knows who clicks that Subscribe button and he’s obviously aiming at keeping them pleased.

Produce Like A Pro is excellent. Warren Huart has been around the track a few times and knows what he’s talking about. He’s humble, has worked with big names from all kinds of genres, and genuinely loves music (and he REALLY LOVES Queen). His tutorials can be quite long, and are mostly him talking through the details of EQ, compression and the like. There’s good stuff to be found here if you’re patient. As a bonus, he also offers free multitrack downloads so you can practice mixing along with him or just go nuts on your own.

Where Warren’s channel really shines, though, is his “Inside the Song” series. He sits down with producers and talks about how they created some of their songs. If you pay attention, you can pick up some great ideas. My recent favourites are the interviews he’s done with Michael Beinhorn (Marilyn Manson, Soundgarden) and Bradley Cook (Foo Fighters).

The Recording Revolution is fantastic for one reason: Graham Cochrane focuses on home studios and constantly reminds people that you don’t need to break the bank to achieve decent results. He has videos devoted to small budgets including the $350 studio, the $300 studio and, my favourite, recording and mixing a song for under $150US. His channel is also populated with some very decent tutorials on EQ and compression and, best of all, he’s big on “go out and just try it”.

This’ll Be Easy, Right?

Starting the mix was easy. I was super stoked to get going and, starting with The Dark Tigress, I wanted the drums big, with the guitars panned wide, the vocals up front and cutting through, and the bass rumbling underneath the whole song. I began layering on stock and free plugins; EQ, compression, more EQ, more compression, reverb.

What I wound up with was something moderately better than the White Lake Mountain demo. The drums were a little muddy with the kick and snare dropping in and out randomly. The guitars were super thin. The bass was non-existent. So I started over, and over, and over. I tried plugins that are advertised to to do it all (more on these in a bit), tried preset after preset, and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked.

For some reason I just couldn’t translate the lessons I was watching into real world results. So I decided to start from scratch

Going back to Glen Fricker’s heavy drum series, he kept mentioning Slate Digital, so I decided to give them a try. I ponied up the cash for a 12 month subscription and…. waited nearly two weeks for an iLok to arrive. If you’ve never heard of iLok I envy you. It’s a horrible, draconian form of DRM that just sucks.

Once the stupid iLok dongle showed up, I started using the Slate plugins and started getting some good results. I started with the settings suggested in the videos, then started playing with presets, and finally began dialling in my own sounds and saving my own presets to use across the other songs 2.

Slowly but surely the songs started to sound good. The more I worked on them, the more I stated to really listen what was happening with each track and how they related to the over all sound of the songs.

Editing and Samples

I’m not going to spend any time detailing what plugin was used on each track because that’s boring. (I also cancelled my Slate subscription so I really couldn’t say as I’ve removed them all from the tracks). I do, however, want to talk about editing and samples.

I’m a believer in performance. If you’re recording, you should be able to play your part from start to finish. Cutting, pasting,  and looping parts should be left solely for the writing phase. If you’re working on your final song, then you should be able to play your song. All of it. From beginning to end.

That being said, I do understand that some minor editing will be required. I’m not talking about time aligning every single drum hit. I’m talking about fixing up little things like, for example, a bit of lyric that doesn’t quite sound right. In Aletta, there is a line “watching you move, hearing you gasp”. For some reason the “gasp” sounded like “gap”. Turns out, it was the doubled vocal that was the cause. On the second take, Josh had sung the word gasp a little louder, but didn’t emphasize the S as much. Played together, one take cancelled the other out. As this was an EP being produced on a sub $500 budget, I wasn’t about to ask Josh to come back over and redo a line. I’m going to edit.

I ended up cutting “gap” out of the double take, copying “gasp” from the first take, pasting it in the doubled track and then nudging it slightly off time giving the whole thing a chorus effect. Playing it all back, you now hear the word “gasp”.

There were also some instances where I used the dry guitar tracks with some amp sims to fill out a chorus here and there. Other than these touchups, there was no major slicing and dicing done in any of the songs. What you hear is what we played from beginning to end.

Samples are a sticky topic. Some people loath them (and those that do really loath them) and some people can’t live without them. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit that I did use samples for kick and snare, but my reasons were just and the samples were used judiciously.

As mentioned in Part 1, we discovered an issue where the kick mic had moved and was touching the edge of the sound hole. which caused a rattle. While I managed to clean some of this up using a gate, between the rattle and the mic (designed for live, not studio) the kick track was inconsistent and hard to dial in a good sound, especially on double kick runs. I sent quite a few mixes through to the band and the lack of kick kept getting mentioned. So I decided to augment it with a sample.

Sampling the snare came shortly after. I found that the volume of the snare hits were off in places. I messed around with compression and even tried automating the volume on the snare track both of which made it worse. Again, I wasn’t about to ask Mez to re-record his drum tracks, so I slipped a sample in to augment the live snare.

The samples I used were from Warren Huart’s Produce Like a Pro website and they did the trick. Next time though, I’m going to make sure that the first thing we record are single hits from Mez’s kit so that if samples are needed, we can use hits from the kit we’re recording rather than try and blend in sounds from another kit which has been pre-processed before being made available for use.

Lessons Learned: Overthinking Is Your Enemy

On April 1, 2019 the Opium Winter EP was released.

In the end, the band was happy with the EP and we’ve gotten some positive feedback from people who’ve listened to it. I still hear things that could have been tightened up, of course, but what’s done is done. The EP is out there and there is no reason to kick a dead horse.

The biggest lesson I learned was that I have to stop overthinking. Get back to basics. Just because there are a billion different EQ plugins out there, doesn’t mean you have to use all of them. I wish I could find the Produce Like a Pro video where the guest producer stated that he’d only ever uses an SSL channel (hardware or software) on each track and that’s it.

I’ve also learned that the reliance on plug-ins can be detrimental. With this recording I spent my time learning the basics of mic setup and then poured over learning how to mix. I now realize that I could have cut back on the headaches had I spent more time getting really good tracks as opposed to just ok tracks. I know that this can be difficult based on your situation, but it is possible to get good tracks if you’re patient and learn to work with what you have. While plug-ins do good things, they’re not magic.

“You cannot make a dehydrated steak taste like real steak by adding water. You cannot do it with vintage water or all-tube water or water with ceramic capacitors or water salvaged from an early session at Sun studios, because the dehydration process changes the chemistry and texture of the steak and alters more than just the water content.“

– Reaper forums; on the use of digital reverb plugins to replicate those old school sounds 3.

At this moment the band is in writing mode and, in preparation for the next recording, I’m working on mic placement using my cheap drum set and the mics I have available. I’m also using the raw tracks from this recording to learn the ins and outs of Harrison Mixbus, and getting myself into the mindset of cutting back on a reliance on plug-ins.

I’m getting some decent results and as I learned from the White Lake Mountain recording, I’ve learned from the first Opium Winter recording, and I’ll learn from whatever comes next.

1: You can set a clock based on what Glen’s Friday Viewers Comment videos will cover: Basic question that he’s already answered a few times before but will answer again, colour commentary on a viewer comment about their lazy bass player, agreeable response to a comment on “people are too sensitive these days”, snarky reply to someone who disagreed with something he said.

2: Slate plugins, I found out quickly, eat up CPU and RAM on a grand scale. Sure, my Mac Mini is not exactly high end, but the severe latency playing back the fully mixed tracks was mind boggling. Between the iLok and the crap system performance I cancelled my Slate subscription.

3: This thread on the Reaper forums is amazing. Start at the beginning, it’s long and there are breaks in the narrative, but stick with it. You can also download them as PDF’s from the Reaper Stash site.