Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Artists & Recordings, The Lucky One

How I Recorded “The Lucky One”

I'm planning to do a series of posts describing the specific sounds and techniques I used to record every song on "The Lucky One," and I thought I'd start out by laying out the overall process that took this record from idea to finished recording.

I recorded “The Lucky One” in two basic stages: 1) With the band in the studio, playing the basic tracks for all the songs. 2) In my home studio, recording harmonica, vocal, piano, and organ parts.

The gear

In February of 2016 I bought a designed-for-purpose music laptop computer by Jim Rosenberry of Studio Cat, with 16 GB of RAM, dual core i7 processor, and a huge screen. I bought this machine specifically so I could work on music anywhere, and it went with me every time I was on the road for more than a week in 2016. Starting in March 2016, working from my home offices in CT and Idaho, I sent frequent rough demos and lyrics of potential selections for the record to my producers Ed Abiatti and Mike Brenner.

I used Cakewalk Sonar running on my laptop and a range of virtual instruments, including VB3 for organ sounds, TruePianos Amber for piano, Lounge Lizard for electric pianos, and Cakewalk Studio Bass to create basic band arrangements for the songs, and recorded harp and vocal roughs over those to produce the demos. (I later used Sonar to record the vocal and harp overdubs on the band tracks.) I used a FocusRite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface with an Audio Technica AT4050CM5 large-diaphragm condenser or an ElectroVoice Raven dynamic mic to record vocals, and a Digitech RP500 with an Audix Fireball V mic to record the harp parts.

That collection of instruments and recording gear with that computer was my essential platform throughout the project, and I’m glad to have it. It’s portable (though relatively heavy and bulky for a laptop), and extremely powerful. Using a Digitech RP for my recording interface meant that I could use almost any RP at any location I happened to be at, load the sounds I needed into it from my computer, and be ready to lay down harp tracks. The computer worked very well, with maximum 10 ms latency in recording mode with the RP500 and under 5 ms with the FocusRite.

Preparing for the sessions

We settled on the songs and arrangements in summer 2016, and I made demos of all the songs in Sonar, packaged those with lyric sheets, and distributed the packages to the band about two and a half weeks before the first recording session.

Beginning on September 19 2016, the band—me on harmonica, Mike Brennan on lap steel, John Cunningham on bass, Mark Schreiber on drums, and Peter Rydberg at the recording console--spent 3 full days and 2 nights in Rydberg's 1935 Studio in Philadelphia recording the songs. The objective was to get great rhythm section performances and some great jams, and we got everything we wanted. I recorded all harmonica tracks using an Audix Fireball V into a Digitech RP500, with the audio output from the RP500 going to the board via stereo XLR. Rydberg loaded up the raw tracks from those sessions on a solid state hard drive and sent them to me. I loaded them into Sonar, song by song. Then I got a rough mix going, which was really pretty easy because the tracks basically sounded good with everything set at unity level.

Doing the Overdubs

Then I went to work on the harmonica parts. My goal was to imbue these tracks with color, rhythm, and occasional overwhelming virtuosity. I expected the harmonica tracks to fall in place quickly and easily, and they did. After years spent making and analyzing loop recordings, I have a good sense of how to layer harmonica parts so they don’t interfere with each other or clog up the works. Using pitch shifters to move parts up or down an octave helps a lot. Wah wahs and auto-wahs put motion in parts, and so make them stand out in an arrangement. Wobble sounds like vibrato and rotating speaker convey intense emotion, and work well either in foreground or background of an arrangement.

All overdubbed harp parts were recorded into my laptop via an Audix Fireball V mic into a Digitech RP500, which connected to the computer via USB. (Which means that there was only one stage of audio-to-digital conversion on the overdubs.) One very useful feature of this approach is that if I know what patch was active on the RP when I recorded a part, I can duplicate the sound exactly if I need to for another overdub. It’s worth noting that in the mixing and mastering processes, the only effects applied to the harmonica parts were EQ, delay, and/or reverb—the tones sound very much as they did when they were recorded straight from the RP500.

The last step for me was recording the vocals. For this I used an Audio-Technica AT4050CM5 mic into the preamp on a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface. I recorded in two different rooms in my house, using blankets and pillows pinned to walls and a portable stand-mounted “vocal booth” to cut down on reflections in the room. In the end, the vocal tracks sounded good, without the wrong kinds of room sounds.

To the Mix

I loaded the overdub tracks as 24-bit 44.1 kHz WAV files into Dropbox, which is where Chris Peet, the mix engineer, picked them up. Chris put his mixes on Dropbox for me to download and audition. This was an efficient way to exchange very large files over very large distances, and it made it easy for everyone to respond quickly to changing arrangements. As it happened, I made some snap decisions about replacing solos recorded with the band in the studio with newer takes, and this process made it easy for everyone to do that. As noted above, the new takes were made using the same RP500 setups as the originals, so they slid right into the mixes with little or no adjustment.

Chris also produced rough mixes for Mike Brenner to use with the percussionist and backup singers (Mark Schrieber and No Good Sister, respectively) in producing their overdubs. Mike sent me the rough mixes from those sessions directly so I could comment on the parts almost as they were recorded. Then those parts too were uploaded to Chris, and the final mixes began.

In the end, it took at least two passes to nail the mix on every song. Some songs went through five passes, with one or two passes per day once the process started. All the mixes were wrapped up in a week of elapsed time. With the mixes approved, the stuff went to mastering at True East in Nashville. We did three passes on the master, and that was it. The music is recorded.

It was close to a year from start to finish. Would’ve gone faster if I hadn’t had anything else to do at the time, but the proof is in the product, and I like this record plenty. Stay tuned for details on every song, coming to you soon via this blog.

Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Gear, The Lucky One

Making the Harps a Little More Grippy

When I recorded with the band in Philadelphia for my upcoming record "The Lucky One," we had to turn off the air conditioning in the studio every time we did a take, and that room got pretty toasty after a while. On some of the tunes, especially the ones where I was blowing hard for three minutes straight, my hands got sweaty and the harps got slippery. I had to put a lot of energy into just holding on. That's not tops. I decided to make my harps grippier. After soliciting advice on that subject on the Harp-L list, I came to the conclusion that 1) no one is commercially offering cover plates with grippy surfaces, and therefore 2) I had to make them myself. Some of the solutions offered on Harp-L were, to say the least, impractical. (Coat the cover plates with glue and apply sand? Please. I put that thing in my mouth.) Ultimately I decided that the easiest thing to do was to cut some kind of grippy tape to size and apply it to the cover plates at the outer flange. I found egrips .75 inch wide tape on and ordered a roll. At $40 per roll, it's not cheap, but one roll is enough to do over 100 diatonic harp cover plates, top and bottom, so if you've got plenty of harps it's cheap enough. So far I've treated 28 harps with the stuff, so the price per harp is currently a little over $1. To fit a harp with the tape, I cut off a 2" long strip from the roll, then cut that in half lengthwise to make two strips 2" long by 3/8" wide. That's just about the same as a finger's width, so I can apply it to the plate without worrying about my mouth coming in contact with the tape. Here's a picture of a Seydel Session Steel with the tape in place. This harp also has its key spelled out with a 1/2" tall stick-on label, which I applied so I can see the key of the instrument on a dark stage.
Seydel Session Steel with grip tape

Seydel Session Steel with grip tape

When you're holding a harp, the tape is invisible to the audience, and when you're not it looks pretty good, as opposed to looking like an obvious hack. That was important to me. I don't want other musicians catching a glimpse of the inside of my harp case and thinking "What sort of musician has a box full of that kind of jury-rigged crap?" (My cases, including the cloth 14-piece Seydel case in which I currently carry 19 harps, the aluminum purpose-built one, and the 8-piece compact folding case from Suzuki, all look nice, but still.) Once I got the hang of it, it only took a minute or so per harp to cut the tape and fit it. I did all 28 harps in well under an hour. So my harps are now non-slip, and I can play in a hot room without worrying about the instrument popping out of my hands in a spray of sweat. A small thing, perhaps, but better is better. From my point of view, I'd rather be able to buy something like this off-the-shelf (ideally, as part of a new harp, rather than an aftermarket add-on) than spend my own time putting it together. But this is a pretty simple, quick mod that's easy to get right on the first try, so I'll live with it until harmonica manufacturers realize that it's better to sell instruments that people can hold on to even when they're sweating.

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

Another day, another (country) session

I took some time off this week from working on the songs and arrangements for my upcoming record, "The Lucky One," which is set for recording in the third week of September in Philadelphia, to record harmonica parts for Austin TX producer Bobby Flores. (Congratulations Bobby on winning the 2015 Ameripolitan Male Western Swing Award! That's the style Bobby was playing when I met and jammed with his band years ago in Austin, and it sure was fun.) Bobby contacted me late last week and sent a couple of mp3s. The music was very interesting: country with more than a touch of rock and roll, and some unusual chord changes for this genre. (When you're going from F major changes on the verses to C major changes on the chorus to a solo in Bb major in the same song, it's a little unusual for country.) Bobby told me he was going to send the changes, but he never got around to it. Oh well; that's why we make the big bucks... As per usual for this time of year, I'm out in Tetonia, Idaho, far from my home studio in Monroe CT. Not to worry. The laptop Jim Rosenberry built for me is portable and powerful, and it goes where I go. Add a Digitech RP--in this case my RP500, loaded with my patchset for Digitech RP--for an audio interface, plus an Audix Fireball V, and I have everything I need to make great harmonica tracks. The Fireball V is crucial, because it's the only mic I know of that can produce beautiful acoustic harmonica tracks when it's hand-held, which is REALLY important when you're recording in totally crappy rooms like the one I use for recording in Idaho. (The place is essentially a long rectangle with no sound treatment, and it sounds like a cave. There is no way I'm going to let that room sound into a recording.)
Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

FX? We Don't Need No Stinkin' FX All those chord changes notwithstanding, country music demands pretty simple harmonica sounds. To put it another way, the first thing I think of in terms of harp sounds for the genre is never a patch with an octave down pitch shift followed by an envelope filter or a flanger. The first thing I did with the RP500 was dial up one of my Direct amp model patches. The Direct amp model basically takes whatever's at the RP's input, adds or subtracts gain to the signal, and sends it to the output. When coupled with the Audix Fireball V, the resulting sound is clean, clear, and full--a great harp sound to send to any producer. (Hey, if they decide they hate clean and they want to f--- it up, they've got all the FX they need on their own computers.) I have no doubt that Bobby is going to add whatever ambience he wants to my sound, so before I recorded I used the RP500's dedicated footswitches to turn off the reverb and delay, so the only effect running on the RP was the amp modeling. I set up a new project in Cakewalk Sonar, my DAW, and loaded in the mp3s Bobby sent to me. Then I set up three harp tracks for each of the songs (we'll call them "Texas" and "Tennessee," which happen to be the first words in their respective titles) and started recording. I did three takes on "Texas", two with an acoustic sound and one with a patch based on a GA40 amp model for a little more grit. The GA40 patch had a LOT of gain dialed in, so I dropped the gain level on the patch down to a much more moderate 34 (as opposed to the original setting of close to 60, which is some pretty crunchy gain) to smooth it out a little. (I did mention that this is country music, right?) Of course, I took off all the FX except amp modeling before I recorded with this patch. For all the takes on "Texas" I used a Manji in C played in second position. I like Manjis for country music; they play fast and sweet, and they're just the thing for those quick Country lines. The first harp I tried was a Seydel Session Steel in C, but I just couldn't get the chords to sound sweet enough, so bye bye Session Steel, hello Manji. Let the Producer Choose My favorite of those tracks was the second acoustic take, which featured a rippin' solo, but I sent Bobby separate rough mixes with the acoustic and amped-up takes, and one with both, because I liked the way the rhythm licks sounded when both tracks played together. I used the same Direct model setup to record two acoustic tracks for "Tennessee," of which I sent Bobby the second. "Tennessee" is the song with all those chord changes, and I ended up using a Manji in F, played in first and second positions, for the verse and chorus, and a Manji in Bb, played in first position, for the solo section. It took more time to record two takes for "Tennessee" than to record three for "Texas," because all those chord changes on "Tennessee" demanded a lot of extra attention. But that's part of the fun, innit? Taking a beast of a song and making it behave? Get Paid and Wrap it Up Bobby checked out the rough mixes and liked them. He paid me via Paypal, and I sent a RAR (compressed) archive file containing all the harp tracks, soloed, in the form of 24-bit 44.1 kHz WAV files--a nice high-resolution format that happens to be the RP500's highest-quality recording mode. So there you go: another session conducted over the Internet, with the participants separated by a thousand miles or so, collaborating on their own schedules. Of course it would be absolutely tops to be in the room with the producer when the tracks are cut, so we can get double the brain and emotional power working on the song in real time. But I'm still knocked out by the fact that I can collaborate with musicians all over the world, no matter where they, or I, happen to be. How cool is that? And if you take all that for granted, lemme tell you, you weren't recording in the 1980s, when a basic recording setup with overdubbing capability cost thousands of dollars, and sending a track to a producer the second you finished it was a wishful and seemingly impossible fantasy. (It takes time to box a tape and take it to the post office, and more time for that tape to make its way halfway across the country.) How delightful to live in an era when those fantasies come true.

Audio/Video, Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Artists & Recordings, Recommended Gear, Recorded Performances (live and otherwise)

“Blue Monk” on the Country-Tuned Harp: It’s All About the Chords

I last recorded Thelonius Monk's "Blue Monk" (which Monk originally released in recorded form in 1954) for my solo acoustic CD "The Act of Being Free in One Act" in 1994 as part of a medley that included Jimmy Reed's "Let it Roll" and "Bright Lights, Big City." That recording was done on a standard-tuned Lee Oskar G harp played in second position. Read more

Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques

What Works at a Jam Session

I jammed with some friends at a party in Driggs, Idaho on Saturday night (August 24). The musicians I played with weren't spectacular, or even professionally competent in some ways, but it was a really enjoyable jam session. At some points, the combined sound of the players was truly exciting, to an extent I really hadn't expected. It made me wonder about the things that make for a good jam. Here are the three things I think of first in that regard. Read more

Blog, Pro Tips & Techniques

Hohner releases professional quality harmonica service videos aimed at the player

The post below is copied verbatim (with permission) from a message by renowned harmonica player Steve Baker to the Harp-L list. We agree with Steve that it's important news for harmonica players. His message follows.

Steve Baker

In an unprecedented step for a major harmonica manufacturer, Hohner has released a whole series of professional quality harmonica service videos aimed at the player which have now been uploaded to the links below. Demonstrated by Gabriela Hand, head of chromatic harmonica manufacture in Trossingen and presented by myself (Steve Baker), these HD videos provide detailed information on many major aspects of harmonica maintenance and also introduce the new Hohner Instant Workshop toolset, designed to enable easy reed replacement in addition to all other maintenance operations covered in the videos. The overall concept is the brainchild of Hohner Service Department head Michael Timler and the official launch will take place at NAMM. Though primarily dealing with the chromatic harmonica, many of the subjects covered in the videos such as tuning, centering, reed offsetting or reed replacement are applicable to all types of harmonica and will undoubtedly be equally useful for diatonic players. The tools and techniques presented here will also be invaluable for harmonica technicians and may well revolutionize harmonica repair by rendering it accessible to everyman. In an era where more and more commodities are seen as being disposable, it's a welcome sign that things don't always have to be throwaway! Here are the links to the individual videos: C01 C02 C02.1 C03 C04 C05 C06 C07 C08 C08.1

Blog, Hunter's Effects, Pro Tips & Techniques, Recommended Gear

RP Tip #11: It’s a very good delay and reverb box

Most people who own the Digitech RP250/255/350/355 don't think of it as a delay and/or reverb device, but the fact is that both the delays and the reverbs in these RPs are really very good, better sounding than many dedicated devices and most amp modelers in their price range, and more versatile than practically any. All the RPs include delay models that sound good with blues harp, such as the analog and tape delay models, and more modern delay sounds like pingpong, modulated delay, and digital delay. The 350/355 include delays modeled on specific devices like the Boss DM-2 and the Maestro Echoplex (both of which are also widely used by harp players). All the delays sound very good in their own ways, and it's enough variety to cover a wide range of styles and material. The main feature of a pro dedicated delay that the RPs lack is tap tempo. (The RP500 and RP1000 offer tap tempo.) However, the expression pedal on the 250/255/350/355 can be assigned to control any parameter of any effect, such as delay time (which is what tap tempo controls, useful for longer tempo-synced delays) or delay level (which is very useful for shorter slapback delays) or number of repeats. Putting the delay time under footpedal control solves the same problem as a tap tempo switch, which is how to sync the delay to the beat, in a different way. Using the footpedal in this way introduces certain artifacts into the sound (like weird, cool out-of-tune modulations) with some delay models; this is actually an example of the accuracy of the modeling, because that's what the original devices that the models are based on do when you twist their knobs while playing. Digitech RP155 DigiTech RP155 Guitar Multi Effects Pedal with USB The RPs are certainly competitive in terms of value for money as a dedicated delay box, given that an RP255 can be bought new for $125-150 (an RP355 for $175-200) and a used RP150 in good condition can be found for well under $50, and any of these will sound better in a wider range of styles than most dedicated delay pedals. They've all got a range of good reverbs too, and you can use reverb and the delay at the same time. You essentially get both for the price of one. The alternative--adding a separate reverb pedal to a dedicated delay pedal--would cost you from half again to twice what an RP costs. Hearing is believing. We've recorded samples of the delay and reverb-only patches from our RP150/155 patch set, and you can hear them here. We think they easily sound as good as any dedicated device in their price range. So the RPs are worth a try when you're auditioning delay and/or reverb pedals. And if you decide to get an RP, consider adding our patch set, which includes a lot of delay- and reverb-only setups that work great in front of your amp.

Blog, For the Beginner, Pro Tips & Techniques

What’s the best embouchure for harmonica?

A novice harmonica player posted this message to the Harp-l list: As a beginner, I pucker for everything, and find tongue blocking to be very difficult. Is it true that the great Chicago blues tone can only come from tongue blocking? I think I read that Little Walter and others tongue blocked most of the time. Is anyone getting "that" tone while puckering? By the way, "tongue blocking" refers to a technique for getting a single note in which the mouth covers 3-4 holes, and the tongue covers (or "blocks") all but one. "Puckering" means narrowing your lips to get a single note. So it's all about how you get a single note. Butterfield was a pucker player, and Charlie Musselwhite is a self-identified pucker player too. I think both these guys sound great. That's not a direct answer to the question, but it's a big hint as to what the real question is. As a beginner, I think you're better off working on getting a big sound with whatever embouchure comes most easily to you. If you stick with the harp, sooner or later you'll learn additional embouchures. In the meantime, making notes sound loud and clear is more important than playing a particular embouchure. Getting a big sound is more about breathing from the gut and relaxing your throat than it is about your embouchure. See the breathing exercises at this site for more info.

Pro Tips & Techniques

A Few Words About Special Tunings

The majority of harmonica players play diatonic harmonicas almost exclusively, and most of those players have never played a harmonica that is not standard-tuned, i.e. tuned to a Richter scale in a major key where the lowest exhale note on the instrument is the root or tonic note of the scale (for example, ‘C' on a C harmonica). These players are missing out on some big, easy fun, the kind that can be had for the price of a harmonica (from Lee Oskar, for example) tuned to a non-standard scale (such as the Lee Oskar Melody Maker, Natural Minor, or Harmonic Minor tunings, or the Hohner Country tuning). Read more

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