TwtrSymphony: Fine Tuning the Process of Working with Remote Session Musicians

One key element to getting a good recording from a collection of remote sessions is making sure all the parts are in time with each other

A click track for each of the musicians is crucial! Musicians are in the habit of "smoothing" out the lines. Unless they have extensive experience working with a click track, there are going to be variances in the tempo, particularly with rapid passages. Getting the notes to line up so the initial attack is the same can be a real chore, but incredibly important to getting the music to sound clean.

The first part of the process is creating an individual click track for each musician. Because the music I write is highly rhythmic and bears frequent time changes, creating a click track that really relates the feeling of the music as well as the timing is important. I attempted to use a woodblock for the tempo, with a high accented pitch for the first beat of a measure, and then lower pitches for the non-accented/non-beat pulses of the measure. Weak beats (such as the 2,3 & 4 in a 4/4 bar) had mid level pitches. This was only moderately successful. Many of the musicians struggled to hear the click when they were playing their part and the difference in pitches seemed to disappear entirely during the recording process. We're still working on a solution for this.

I also use a variety of odd time signatures and frequent changes in the time signature. There was some discussion as to changing the time signatures from the unwieldy 11/8 and 13/8 into more manageable 3/8+4/4 and 5/8+4/4. This might have created more "accurate" recordings in terms of timing, but the stresses with this change in the meter would produce a different effect on the music. It's too early to tell whether the stresses I intend in the music are in the actual performance, or not. This is all a learning process, so we'll see what happens when we are all done.

Matters are made even more complicated for the synchronizing of lines by removing large sections of rests from the various parts. The musicians are volunteering, so I wanted to make sure their time was used efficiently. This resulted in a unique click track for every part, as well as a unique printed part. While I like the idea of not forcing the musicians to sit and wait during the rests, it does mean I have to take apart their recording when I get it back in order to line up their entrances with the rest of the ensemble. I expected to have to make adjustments to the various entrances anyway, but I didn't take into account having to look at the score for each part to determine where their entrances actually are. While it is possible to use a gate to eliminate the "noise" when a musician isn't playing, I opted to just delete any portion of the track that didn't have notes.

Eventually, I ended up creating a series of midi-realizations for each part. This allows me to not only align the parts up with their actual entrances, but also check for timing issues of individual notes. I could actually line up wave forms with the "computerized" playback to ensure timings are correct. Because I don't want a "computer" playback of the music, but a recording of live musicians, I prefer to 'force' lining up of wave forms only when there is a significant difference.

Of course, the vast majority of timing problems can be laid at the feet of remote recording. There is no conductor, and each musician must record their part without hearing any of the others. It is an exercise in pure musicality and preciseness. In "The Hawk Goes Hunting" there is a section near the end when nearly the entire orchestra is playing a rapid series of short eighth notes. If these are not lined up, the piece will just sound extremely muddy. Fortunately so far the musicians have played this section fairly accurate.

Once I have each part lined up with their "midi" playback, I start putting sections of instruments together. More alignments are made to smooth out any rough edges. The section is then exported, or mixed down, as a single track to be compiled with the other sections. I'm not to this point yet, although I have taken some of the sections and put them together to determine how well this is working so far. Generally the piece is sounding really good, and that's without any effects. But, I have a lot more instruments to add before we can start thinking about polishing it up.

To outline the process:
  1. Create a click track and printed music for each part
  2. Create a midi-realized track for each part
  3. Compare the returned recording with the midi-realized track for timing issues
  4. Compare the recording with other recordings for like instruments (sections)
  5. Mix down the section of instruments to one track
  6. Compare the section with other sections
  7. Mix down full orchestra
  8. Finalize track with effects to give it the sound of a symphony hall

Right now I'm working with step three to five of this process. Some sections are getting their parts back to me fast than other's, which is fine. This allows me a chance to schedule different aspects of the work over time, rather than trying to do everything all at once.

Initially it took about an hour for each recording to get it to the point of placing it into the section. However, as the musicians and I get used to the process I've whittled this down to as little as 10 minutes for some of the tracks. Some of them are still pretty labor intensive. It rather depends on how "free" the musicians are with the music, taking liberties to smooth the lines. Individually, the lines are lovely and very musical; they just don't match with what the other players are doing. Another down side with the remote session process. Currently, each section of instruments take about half an hour to get to the point of mix down. My estimate for engineering time for the entire 1st movement will come in around 85 hours. Not very effective for a 2 minute piece. Still, we're improving as we go, so hopefully the last track of the symphony won't take near as long. I don't know how long the musicians are taking to learn and record their parts, but from the comments I've received so far, putting it off to the last minute doesn't work.

TwtrSymphony is taking time to coalesce into actual music. Birds don't fly right after hatching. For me, the journey is still very much worth the effort.


Stonewing said…
I'm not sure a click is a necessary process on your part. I don't know how everyone else is recording, but I'm using punches and compositing tracks when needed. In order to do this, I have to create a project (in Logic, but common DAW language) that shows me each bar, etc. I can then set up automatic punches to get in and out of bars. I'm not recording multi-bar rests as one example. Plus, you don't need any background noise during the rests anyway.

If I'm feeling particularly sneaky, I can copy bars of repeated material.

My point is, that I have to set the project, so it's easy to generate a click track as a byproduct of the process.
Janet said…
This is such a fascinating project! I really appreciate your efforts, and am glad to know you are still enjoying the process and feel it is worth the effort.
Chip Michael said…
Stonewing -

Interesting thoughts, although I'm pretty sure not everyone in the symphony is as technically adept as you are.

Having said that, would it ease your life if I gave you a midi track to put into Logic?

Definitely food for thought!

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