An in-depth look at the whole process
Over the past 40 years, I've purchased over $100,000 worth of great "pro" recording, editing, and mixing equipment. Over that time, I've also gained lots of experience which I use on a daily basis to create music in one form or another. If you're one of those few who may be curious about how my Learning Trax are put together, I'm going to, in some detail, go through the whole process, from the time the music arrives to the time I email the finished Trax.
1. When music arrives, I generally try to make time to briefly run through it to see if there are any major problems in notation, arrangement construction, legibility, etc. Occasionally, I need to refuse a project because the arrangement has so many problems or is so weak that I wouldn't be a good addition to my library... that is, I'd probably never resell it. Considering the many hours that it takes to put my learning trax together, reselling them is an important consideration. After I look it over and it appears solid enough in arrangement construction, (and the deposit has been paid) it goes into my work "cue."
2. If the arrangement is an uptune and tempo'd all the way through, I can immediately start recording the vocal parts as "midi" notes into my MAC G5 computer using Logic Pro 9 audio/midi software. If it's a ballad and needs rubato interpretation, it's a much more laborious process which I'll go through in #3 below. Let's say it's an uptune. For all learning trax, I first record high quality sampled grand piano and strings sounds playing each vocal part. I use my Learning Trax "template" which I created in my Logic Pro 9 software. First of all, I choose one of several drum patterns (I created and put in my template) that fits the "feel" of the arrangement the best (swing, 3/4, 6/8, straight rock, Latin, tempo'd ballad, etc.). As that basic drum pattern plays along, I read one part of the 4-part arrangement at a time and record MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) notes, inputing them from an electronic "controller" piano keyboard. The Lead part is recorded on track 1, Bass part on track 2, Bari on track 3, and Tenor on track 4. A beginning pitchpipe tone is recorded, followed by a synthesized vocal "oo" sound as a tune-up note for each part. I record small 4 to 24 bar (depending on the difficulty) sections at a time, then go back, edit all the sections together and have the Logic Pro 9 software correct any errors in timing. When I'm finished with each part, every note is in perfect time and even all the breath places are recorded in the (instrumental) parts. Remember, each voice part is recorded instrumentally on a separate MIDI track. The last thing to do is bring the tempo up to speed (if necessary), construct any ritards, secondary countoffs, accellerandos, etc. On a fairly simple 2.5 minute song, this process can take from 2 to 3 hours. Let's now consider that the arrangement is a ballad and go through the instrumental recording process.
3. Recording a ballad into the computer is a much more labor intensive process. If the client has provided a recording of the "interp" plan, I first must record that audio into the computer. When that is complete, I'm able to listen to that interp audio track and put the sequencer in record and slowly, half a phrase at a time, play the notes on the controller keyboard and match the phrasing of the audio track. It takes a great deal of time and patience for this, as I must tweek the durations of each note to match the audio track "interp" precisely. I record only on the Lead track, but add any Bass, Bari, or Tenor pickups or swipes to that single Lead track. Recording MIDI notes to this one Lead track can take hours. Once this track is complete, I copy it to three other tracks in exactly the same vertical timing position. Therefore, I can in effect, play the sequenced 4 tracks together and it will sound like only one part.... but that same part is on 4 separate tracks! Now I go back to that first Lead track and erase any Bass, Bari, or Tenor notes (anything the Lead doesn't sing). Then I go to the first duplicated Lead track (track #2), label it Bass, and looking at the arrangement, proceed to "pull-down" the existing Lead pitches (MIDI notes) for each note until it sounds on the Bass pitch. I do this all the way through the song, creating the Bass line, which, of course, is in perfect sync with the track #1 Lead note. I repeat the same process in duplicate Lead - track #3, creating the Bari part; and then move to duplicate Lead - track #4, pushing notes up to create the Tenor part. I then listen to all 4 parts going by and, once again tweek the durations of notes to make it match the phrasing of the audio track, or, if it's my own interp.plan, tweaking note durations to match how I'd like to sing it. This entire process can take 4 to 5 hours.
4. Once these MIDI instrumental tracks are complete, I'm finally ready to record the voice parts into the computer, one part at a time. I almost always start by recording the Lead part. I must carefully listen to the instrumentally played Lead note in the headphones, and sing along, matching often tricky rubato phrasing (on ballads). I have to match, not only the pitch, but the timing of the instrumental Lead note, and yet make it appear (sound) like a Lead freely singing with style and artistry. When the Lead vocal track is recorded, I then record the Bass part on another track, then the Bari part on another track, and finally the Tenor part on another track, always “fine tuning” to the Lead part.
I have to admit that there is no such thing as recording these parts from beginning to end in one take. There are many, many “punch-ins” where slight mistakes in timing or pitch,... or even errors in vocal color, strength, or style cause “punch-in re-dos.” With great equipment and lots of practice, I’m able to “punch-in” in the middle of a phrase (or sometimes even a word) erasing the error and overlaying the correct vocal performance.
To sum up so far, the time it takes to record the instrumental MIDI notes into the computer can take from 2 to 5 hours. The time it takes to record the vocal parts can vary from 1 1/2 hours for easy, short uptunes .... to 4+ hours for difficult ballads with someone else’s interp. plan. Once I’m happy that all 4 vocal parts are fairly in tune and in sync and blend together, I export the 4 audio tracks into professional Melodyne software for final editing to get the tuning and vertical sync perfect.
5. I mix to a stereo format, doing a full, balanced mix first, using a multitude of EQ, compression, limiting, sound enhancing (reverb, delay, etc) "plug-ins." I pan the Lead and Tenor vocal parts left at 2 different places in the stereo field, while the Bass and Bari vocal parts are panned right at 2 different places in the stereo field.
The Lead mix is next. All effects (reverb) are removed from the left side of the stereo field (right side remains with reverb), and the Lead voice is panned hard left, while the other 3 vocal parts are panned hard right. The pitchpipe note, tune-up note, and drum countoff clicks are mixed in.
Each individual part is mixed in this same fashion for a total of 5 mixes. This mixing process may take 30 to 45 minutes for an average 2.5 minute song.
6. Finally, the 5 mixes are then converted to mp3 format for emailing to the customer.