KNOW-HOW

Preparing for Recording

The orchestration is done…the score is finalised and off to the printers. So what now? Don’t relax just yet! There’s still work to be done in preparation for the big day in the recording studio.  

INTRODUCTION

The day of recording one of your compositions is a big occasion – especially if it’s your first time – and preparing the materials carefully beforehand will pay dividends on the day.
One thing is for sure – the time you have in the studio is like gold dust and will fly by.
Every minute wasted during the session due to poor preparation means that you risk not finishing everything you had planned and, ordinarily, there will be no second chance to make things right.
Your approach in preparing for the recording should be meticulous – double and triple checked – so that you are confident the materials you’ve provided the engineers will mean there are no un-necessary hitches or holdups during the session.

PRO TOOLS

For the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that the session will be recorded using a software package called ‘Pro Tools’ which is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the recording industry at the time of writing. However, the principles remain the same regardless of the recording software used on the day.
Below, I’ll show the fundamentals of preparing a Pro Tools session for the engineer to use at their end.  I know there are some composers who either don’t have access to Pro Tools or steadfastly refuse to buy it. If that is the case then there are workarounds which I’ll talk about later but I would recommend you consider having your own version as an investment for your future as a composer – you will encounter it so many times in your career – it’s almost unavoidable. (I should point out at this stage that I have no affiliation with either Avid or Steinberg).
Remember, I’m not talking here about using Pro Tools as your main composing software (although many composers do!) but simply as something to use alongside your preferred sequencer when needing to perform some of the tasks below – and a whole lot more! 

AN ENGINEER CALLS...

The recording engineer in charge of your session will have been pre-arranged either by the studio, the orchestrator, the orchestra fixer or yourself. At some point prior to the day of recording that engineer will most likely want to talk to you to get as much information as possible about the session itself. There is a good chance that your orchestrator will also be in contact with the engineer to discuss the same issues but this is a good thing as the engineer will see it as double confirmation.
This introductory chat is your opportunity to ask what will be expected of you on the day.
The main topics you’re likely to discuss are:

  • The style or genre of the music you’ll be recording.
  • What exactly will you be recording? Orchestra, choir, soloists etc. including setup and numbers for each. Again, your orchestrator or fixer may already have confirmed this information but best to check in any case.
  • How much music you intend to record in minutes.
  • Digital format of the recording session: 16/24 bit, 48/96khz etc. Also the format of the output files: Wav or AIFF?
  • Format of the final mixdown – stereo or surround? 
  • Will you be working to picture?
  • Microphone placements and techniques – Do you want a close intimate sound or do you want take full advantage of the room acoustics for a fuller sound?
  • Will there be any overdubs required? There are times when there are more parts scored than the orchestra can physically play so these parts have to be recorded over existing material that you recorded earlier. The Pro Tools session can be pre-prepared for these overdubs which can save time on the day. 
  • If you are recording choir do you want to double or triple-track them? A choir can sound ‘much’ larger than they actually are by recording them two or three times and layering the takes together.
  • Any special instruments or solos. These will require their own microphone setup and much will depend on whether you intend to record these live with the rest of the orchestra or later as an overdub. Again, will they need to be double or triple-tracked?
  • Will there be any pre-records? Generally, these are any sample/synth based tracks (or previously recorded material) that you want mixed into the final recording and will need to be added to the ProTools session beforehand. 
  • What materials, if any, you will provide before the session. Ideally, you (or someone on your team) will provide pre-prepared Pro Tools sessions for the recording and send them to the engineer (or their Pro Tools operator) before the day of recording. These Pro Tools sessions contain nothing except a click track, tempo and time signature information, any pre-records and/or a reference mockup mix. You can send them to the engineer via upload or email and they are then copied to the studio’s own hard drives. I do know that engineers prefer this enormously to being sent a midi file and some pre-recorded audio files in order to prepare the Pro Tools session themselves and indeed I’d rather not leave anything to chance and would rather to do all this preparation myself.
  • What time will you be required to arrive before the session starts. The engineer and his/her assistants will be setting up long before you need to arrive so check when that should be be.
  • At the end of the recording session, the engineer will make a copy of the entire recorded Pro Tools session onto an external backup drive to take away with you, so be sure to ask whether you will be required to bring that drive with you or if they have one you can purchase.

THE CLICK TRACK

The click track is the metronome contained in the Pro Tools session.
It forms the timing reference used by the conductor (though their headphones) to conduct the orchestra.
The players themselves will also be hearing it through their headphones and although they will be following the conductor many of them like to hear the click track to add to the accuracy and timing of their playing.
Of all the pre-preparation you do, nothing is more important than correctly placing the tempo and time signature changes that the click track is conveying. The whole session is dependent on it as it has to match the printed score *exactly* or the session will break down very quickly and valuable time will be wasted while you try to puzzle out what’s wrong.

First, let’s assume you have Pro Tools.
Start with a blank Pro Tools session which has been set up with the correct bit depth and sample rate for the recording – 24 bit/48khz for example. Now create a click track at the top of the session and assign a sound for it. I usually use the ‘MPC Click‘ as it’s a fairly generic ‘pop’ sound that players seem to like. The engineer can easily change the actual sound on the day.

The click track itself will follow whatever values are in the Pro Tools time signature (‘meter’ in Pro Tools) and tempo tracks, so now you’re going to go ahead and add that information to the Pro Tools session *exactly* as they appear in the score. In many instances there will be just one of each at the very start of the track but it’s also possible that there will be many time signature and tempo changes throughout the score and they must be added very precisely.
This can be done manually by making a note of where all the time signatures and tempos are in the sequencer file (which should also match the score itself) and then adding these values one-by-one to the Pro Tools session at the same position.
It’s important that you do the time signature information first and then do the tempo values as the bar number information is dependent on the time signature. 
Any sequencer should be able to show you this information but here’s how it looks in Cubase…

A quicker way of doing all this  – especially if there are a lot of changes – is to export a midi file from your sequencer (again it must match the actual score) and import it into Pro Tools making sure that you tick the box to include tempo and time signature information. You can delete the actual midi tracks once you have imported them as they aren’t needed – you are only interested in the tempo and time signature. 

Now double check that all the information you’ve added matches what’s written in the score. Don’t trust anything to fate.

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS RALL

Lastly, just a quick note about using any ‘rallentando‘.
At the end of your sequences in Cubase or Logic etc.  there are times when you want to hear a gentle, natural slowing down of the playing, particularly at the very end of the track and to do this you will have created a tempo curve to simulate it. When you come to putting your tempo values into Pro Tools don’t worry about adding this curve to the session. Make a note of where the curve begins and during recording ask the engineer to mute the click track at that point and instead ask the orchestra to follow the conductor in a natural rallentando without any click.

PRE-RECORDS

Once all the click track information has been added you can now add any pre-record tracks to the Pro Tools session.
As mentioned earlier these are any previously recorded audio, sample or synth based tracks that, although not included in the recording itself, will be used in the final mix. This can be anything from percussion, woodwind, atmospheric synthesizers, special effects etc. This also includes any previously recorded live material – vocals, guitars and so on that are to be part of the mix.
The engineer will very likely have these tracks audible during the recording as a reference to get a feel for what the whole track will sound like when finally mixed.

Most sequencers have an ‘export‘ or ‘render audio‘ function which allows you to output each of your tracks as stereo audio files.
Cubase, for example has many different options as to how you want to render your tracks – completely dry, with or without  reverb, EQ, compression, etc. An important point to note here is whether to include the entire signal path in your rendered audio tracks or let the engineer work with the raw sampled instrument sound (ie completely dry). If you’ve spent a long time fine-tuning these tracks with the correct effects and EQ then it may be that you’d be happy to use them in the final mix like this. If on the other hand you think that the EQ and reverb on a your audio renders should wait until they’re mixed in with the ‘live’ recordings then it would be a good idea to let the mix engineer have control over those factors.  

One important point with regard to your pre-records is to stick to a naming convention as it helps the engineer or Pro Tools operator to maintain consistency when assigning these tracks in Pro Tools to different eq settings or effects. If, for example, you are using a low tom in three or four songs make sure you name it the same each time you use it.

HELP, I DON'T HAVE PRO TOOLS!

OK, let’s be clear, Pro Tools is not cheap and many composers still believe that it is not necessary to own it or use it. To be honest, that’s not entirely untrue and it *is* possible to get by without it. What this means however is that you are handing over responsibility for proper setup of the Pro Tools session to the engineer or his/her assistant.  This usually means that the composer sends over a midi file of the track, the final orchestra score and any pre-records and expects the studio to perform the necessary extractions etc. as I outlined above. Most engineers I’ve worked with believe that this is leaving too much to chance and that it should really be the duty of the composer – even if only for peace of mind – something I wholeheartedly agree with!

WORKING TO PICTURE

If you are composing for film, TV, game cutscenes, commercials etc then the chances are that you are working to picture and the music will be in sync with onscreen elements. The Pro Tools session itself has a video track which will play the clips you’ve composed to and you can watch them on a screen in the studio each time you do a take.
You, or someone on your team, should prepare all these clips put them into the Pro Tools sessions that you send to the engineer. 

THEY'RE HERE SO USE THEM!

Something that is really important is to get as much out of your allotted recording time as you possibly can. Having an orchestra, engineer and studio at your disposal is not something that happens too often so if you find that the session has gone so well you have some extra time to play with make sure that you have something for them to do!
A really good idea is to think about re-recording certain tracks – taceting different sections of the orchestra. A ‘strings only’ version perhaps or just brass and woodwind and so on. If you are recording choir consider recording the ladies and men’s parts separately.
You’d be amazed how many useful variations you can come up with.
Other things I’ve tried are strings playing arco instead of pizzicato, musical effects such as the whole orchestra playing random notes, slides and plucks etc and orchestral stabs in certain keys or chords.
The list is endless and only limited by your imagination!

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