Friday, 30 November 2012

Creating The Backings Pt1

"Well, You Only Need To Punch The Information in Once!"

Yes, we are a Wedding Band now, but this has not always been the case, and before we started Pretty Vegas, we were all in a band called The Small Party; we gigged, we recorded an album, and came second in a nationwide Battle of the Bands, playing at Manchester Academy. We are real musicians!
The reason we came to using backing tracks is simply down to logistics. Its easier to fit 3 guys, guitars and PA in 2 cars than it is trying to fit 4 guys, bass amp, drum kit and PA in 2 or more cars!
When we started doing the whole Pretty Vegas thing, we were torn for a LONG time about actually using backings instead of a full live band, as we simply weren't sure of how well the whole thing would come across. Would we feel like frauds using backings? How good would they sound? Would a lack of freedom inhibit us (or could we play well to a click?!?!)?
As usual, I wanted to prove the concept, and the lure of not having to tell the drummer what to play EVERY SINGLE TIME was very appealing to me. As the old joke goes;
" Whats the difference between a drummer and a drum machine?
With a drum machine, you only have to punch the information in once"

Cubase, MIDI and A Big Hole In My Pocket

When I first started playing, I bought a Fostex 4-Track and played around a little on it, but never really took the recording side of things seriously. I had a BIT of knowledge, but in truth, it was (and still is in some respects) me fumbling my way around to try and make something work. I think it is still in my loft!
When The Small Party started, it came about from doing acoustic pub gigs (no bass, no drums), but over time, more and more originals came into the set, and after a while we had about 10 songs that we regularly played, so the idea was, lets record them and see what happens. I got an old copy of Cubase (I knew someone that used it, so could always ask for help!), some books, a pair of monitors and a recording interface and went to town. Not all results were successful, but on the whole, we were happy, and decided that we should save up gig money and go into a "proper" studio (own by the Someone). When doing the demo's, I played bass and programmed the drums using Groove Agent, and the results were good, not GREAT, but certainly were good enough to get the message across when coupled with layers of guitars and vocals.
After the heartbreak and desperation that comes from being in an original band, we had time apart, and even though we still saw each other regularly, we didn't play music, as the mindset with us was that it was "too soon". Then I got a text from Leighton asking if I could do good sounding backings using Cubase for us to try?

"Hmmm" thought Ritchie!


A quick scout around T'internet and I found LOTS of MIDI files that I could load into Cubase, then use Groove Agent to play the drums. I could always play the bass, or I could use another bass virtual instrument. I could spend a weekend and do a load of tracks and all done!
Please note the use of the word "could"!
Even with the rosiest-tinted glasses, our first foray into the world of using backings was an unmitigated disaster! The mix was awful, the tracks sounded rigid and we kept wandering out of time to the point that after 60 seconds it was time to stop the track. The good thing was, we could work on the timings. And we did.
After a few hours, we were getting the hang of it, and we knew we could do it, but we needed to improve the sound and get the tracks to have a bit more bounce about them, and as the newly appointed "Head of Recording and Engineering" for our as-yet unnamed project, I had the task of getting them right. Problem was, I didn't know how!

Hello Mr Credit Card


I am not sure if you have ever tried to use a laptop for mixing and recording, but when I first started this, my "rig" was a single core Sony Vaio lappy (not a particularly good one!), a basic M-Audio Fast Track interface and some Edirol Micro Monitors. I heard on the rumour mill that Abbey Road was petrified.
 I decided at that point that I needed a new Digital Audio Workstation (DAW, recording software), and some better virtual instruments, so, Mr Credit Card, meet Mr Cubase, Mr BFD2, Mr Trillian and Mr Kontakt!
Once I got the new software, I found myself in the position of my poor old Sony laptop struggling to deal with what I was throwing at it; big sample libraries, small CPU power. My new HP work laptop had also been called into battle, it having 4gb of RAM and a Dual Core processor, but even that was struggling under the weight of what I was asking it to do. However, I also realised that mixing on a mouse was NOT conducive to an efficient workflow, and as a result of this I had to choose, new interface / controller or new computer??? At this point, websites and Wedding Band Blogs hadn't even been considered!

The decision, however, was NOT that simple, as I looked at the options, an a new breed of processors were around the corner, and a new garage was also being discussed between myself and the good lady wife. At the time, my "studio" was the larger of the spare bedrooms, which also was a study / dumping ground for all my wife's teaching materials, and had already been earmarked as being the bedroom of our yet-to-be-conceived firstborn. "Hmmm", thought Ritchie, yet again!

And so, with Mr Mastercard only just having recovered from his first pummeling, I bought the cheaper of the two potential purchases, my ProjectMix controller, with a firm eye now being kept on CPU's and their progression. How long would it be before my "Flexible Friend" would receive another onslaught?

Not long at all!

My New Room


Whilst working on tracks and getting up to speed with basic backings, I had my garage built, resplendent with a room at the back that would be my new studio. The problem was, that whilst I had identified the new for a new computer, I also knew that my monitoring simply wasn't up to scratch, as mixes I had done weren't translating well when brought into rehearsals. Much time had since been spent on the forums over at Sound on Sound and I knew that despite having good headphones, I needed to improve my acoustics in the room and the monitors playing back the mixes, so prior to completion, I bought some Auralex panels, and constructed a whole host of broadband diffusers, ready to be mounted. This was the cheapest part!

After MUCH research and on completion of my room, I placed all my acoustic panels and diffusers in the room in the correct location, and again, it was time to "splash the cash", this time in the form of a pair of Adam A7X monitors to replace the, quite frankly, shocking Edirol offerings.

With the room now containing many a nice toy (including mic's and vocal screens, all purchased on the QT!!!), I knew it was time to get the powerhouse computer and really get this show on the road!

As usual with me, once my mind was made up, that was it, I HAVE TO HAVE IT! So a quick trip to Bolton to SCAN to "just have a look" meant that by 6pm that day, I was home, with a new i7 based PowerDAW, loaded with 16GB of RAM, 3TB of storage and a shiny new 27" monitor. £1500 did NOT return home with me that day! That then meant that after a few days of loading virtual instruments onto my new pride and joy, I would actually be able to start getting the tracks ready, using full quality samples, and not having to freeze everything, then un-freeze, just to make a few changes. After 12 months of rehearsals and a slow and steady increase in my knowledge of what I was doing (well, sort of anyway!), things were about to go crazy as I could finally unleash the type of sound I had in my had for Pretty Vegas.

Pretty Vegas North West Wedding Band

Pretty Vegas Studio Shot


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