Re: boot

Where to begin?

Welcome the new RadiumTree website! For a little over four months now, I've been quietly rebuilding it, as well as continuing to lay the groundwork and infrastructure for my larger vision. What started as a whole-hearted hatred of file transfers has morphed into an integral part of how collaboration plays out between artists and producer. Looking towards the future, the plan is to keep implementing features and alleviate as much pain from file transfers as possible, and to hopefully open this platform up to other producers and mix engineers. Making music is hard enough, so we can't afford any distraction that gets in the way of it. The rest of this post is about Book & Booze, the first project that was all done through this platform.

The process

Book & Booze, the debut EP by Jake Leslie, is the first project completely managed through RadiumTree. My brother (shoutout to Ryan for hooking me up with this opportunity), and Jake used to work together. One day, they got to talking about Jake's interest in recording a project. Ryan mentioned my background in recording music and suggested he shoot me an email. Jake pitched me his concept and after listening to the demos, I immediately took the opportunity. At the time, I was working with a longer-term client and had a working prototype of this site, but now that I had a much more immediate use, I tidied up the code base and we got to work.

The demos Jake sent over were recorded on his phone and contained only his vocals and an acoustic guitar. After a few listens, I charted out the chords and laid down the guide track to a tempo I thought suited the mood best. Every track started out this same way and always guitar first. Each song ended up having at least six electric guitar tracks; three sets of doubles recorded for each tone I wanted. Doubling electric guitars makes for a thicker sound, and recording three sets of them gave me a few flavors of distortion to blend for a much more aggressive sounding texture.

With the electric guitars in place, I moved on to the rhythm section. Since I live in an apartment and there wasn't a budget to track drums in a studio, I resorted to programming them. This was an interesting experience, as a drummer, because it forced me to imagine what the part should sound like before laying it down. I kept throwing things at the wall until I found something that made me move. This approach seemed to work because after completing the first song, we ended up using the grooves as a template for the rest of the record.

By this point, there was a nice synergy between the guitars and the drums, but it was obviously missing the punch only a great bass line can deliver. Up for the task was a Schecter 5-string bass with active pickups recorded straight into the interface, DI-style. Each bass line came to be in a different way; sometimes, Jake would hum a melody for me to riff over and on other songs, he left it up to me. Tracking bass was relatively pain-free and hands-down the easiest instrument to get finished.

If the song required it, the acoustic guitar tracks came next. This was by far the hardest instrument to get right seeing as these were the only tracks not done completely in the box. In this case, my Fender Dreadnought paired with an AKG c1000s condenser microphone did the job. The c1000s is somewhat of a secret weapon of mine, due to the unexpected, tight, and punchy low-end sound that one wouldn't expect from a small diaphragm condenser.

After we both decided that the basic tracks were good, we would often tweak the arrangement and add guitar solos for each song. Aside from some lead parts, the solos were my sole contributions to the writing process. Over the years, people have asked me to write solos for them, and every time, I follow the same process: jam. Eventually, melodies appear out of thin air, and I quickly record them before I forget. When I am fully soloed-out, I splice pieces together to create the narrative that feels best. With that narrative in place, I rerecord the entire spliced solo and call it a day.

With the tracks laid down, I bounced the finished recording to a folder setup specifically for Jake, and my home server automatically uploads the bounce to this website. Jake received an email alerting him of the new bounce. He could then login and listen to it; a while later, he would send notes for any changes necessary and when implemented, the process would start over until we were happy. There we were, a state away from each other, frictionlessly crafting an EP.

Bring it on home

At some point, we both agreed on the arrangement of each track and were ready to move on to vocals. Being a state away meant one of us was going to have to travel, and since I hadn't been to Beloit lately, I thought it would be fun to head back to my old stomping ground, Maple Tree Studio. It was close in proximity to Jake and has everything we needed to cut vocals. Jake and I agreed on booking the session for St. Patricks's Day; this would be the first time we met in person.

After making sure I was wearing green, lest someone pinch me, I showed up early for setup. I built the usual booth for cutting vocals and setup an Akg C414, a Neumann TLM-103, and a Violet Amethyst for our preliminary microphone shootout. When Jake arrived, I had him properly warm up; at this point, I had him sing into the mics one after the other, and together we settled on the sound of the Violet Amethyst. Thus, the vocal chain used to record Jake was the Violet Amethyst into a Toft ATB16, converted using a Black Lion Audio modded DigiDesign 003 into ProTools. Cutting each song took the same approach; he'd sing a couple of times all the way through and when he felt comfortable, we recorded section by section. By the end of the day, we had cut five out of six tracks and were feeling pretty good. Since we didn't get through all six songs, we decided to book another session in a few weeks.

April 14th rolled around and we found ourselves back at Maple Tree. The first item on the agenda was cutting the vocal for “Run or Stay” since we hadn't tracked it yet. Jake took me by surprise during the outro of this song with this gnarly, guttural scream which I think sounds amazing. We did couple more takes of the scream and took a break to rest his throat. From there, we went back and re-recorded around 40% of the vocals on the rest of the project. With another intense eight hour session behind us, we both finally felt ready to start the editing process.

The glue

With all the tracks now done, I returned home, backed everything up, and started comping. If you don't know, comping is the process of stitching together various parts of a track to form a more polished performance. After comping, I was ready to start mixing, and fortunately, I had a majority of the sounds down before recording vocals.

Truthfully, I tend to use a lot of processing power come mix time. For instance, I compressed each vocal multiple times very lightly to achieve the controlled sound I was looking for, as opposed to compressing very heavily once and potentially destroying the performance. Listening back, I kept wanting was more of an edge to Jake's voice, so I duplicated the main vocal, added heavy compression and distortion, and mixed it in at a low volume. For the time-based effects, I had separate sends for both delay and reverb, blended to taste. The electric guitars and bass guitar had already been EQ'd to play nice with each other, but they too were given some parallel compression. You might notice that I was really going for an aggressive sound here. In fact, even the drums ended up with parallel compression, although that kind of drum compression is pretty common. One thing that changed between songs was the amount of reverb; this is most evident on "One More Time" where we went full-on arena rock. Some of the softer songs demanded more reverb as well, given their ballad-like nature.

The vocal channel-strips with plugin assignments used in "Diamond Piercing".

Eventually, we landed on a mix for each song and when we had them all, we moved into the mastering process. Since my early days of audio engineering, I've always reached for iZotope's Ozone during mastering; on each two-track, I fired up an instance of Ozone 8 and began adding subtle EQ to create a sense of continuity across the project. From there, some light compression to even out the volume and then straight into the limiter.

The verdict

Several car tests later, we knew we had something good. This record happened to be the first time that my work has been uploaded to the major streaming platforms; I thought it wise to upload a track and hear how it stacked up against the so called "Loudness Penalty". For the most part, it seemed to translate well but it still wasn't quite perfect. After some careful tweaks in the EQ and compression and a few of my audio engineering friends opinions, I concluded that we were good to go. Fortunately, Jake agreed and that was it!

Hands down, I'm calling this first experience a success. This site has worked out great for remote collaboration. As I look ahead to the future, I know it will keep getting better and saving both clients and I more time to focus on making better music. Thanks for taking the time to read my first blog post; check back often as I plan to post on a regular basis. In the meantime, go listen to Book & Booze!