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Recording and Mixing Large Pro Tools Sessions with a Hit Producer

Recently, fellow Pro Tools Instructor Dan Faber and I had the pleasure of working with legendary music songwriter/ producer Mark Hudson (Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Ringo Starr, Ozzy, Cher) on a truly wonderful and challenging recording session at Studio Center Miami. Within a few days, we had over 26 guitar tracks and 20 background vocal tracks alone; we were soon at 116 tracks!

Some may recall Mark’s #1 legendary Rock Hit, “Livin’ on the Edge,” released by Aerosmith, as well as many albums with Ringo Starr. As far as working with an honorary Beatle, certainly gets you hooked on those background layers, which is quite the trend now in today’s music. Recording and mixing massive size sessions does require skill sets; one of which is to have a plan on how you will approach the workflow. The central element of this plan revolved around using the functionality of Pro Tools to maximize our workflow and meet our deadline. Furthermore, due to the thought that was put into the recording management, the mixing side of the session was far easier than if we were starting from scratch.

markhudston mihaiboloniDan Faber and Mark Hudson

The session itself started off with a stereo “idea” track that was brought into the session for inspiration. This track was utilized in laying out the song structure and forming the foundation that the song would be built around. Once this foundation was agreed upon, we spent the rest of the day recording drums and percussion. We immediately created the necessary Audio tracks to record the drums, in our case 12 tracks, while also creating an Aux Input track. The Aux Input track will work as a Sub-Group Master to allow us easy single fader control of our entire drum sound.

auxinputtrack

Once we assigned the appropriate microphone input into each track, as well as named them, we used the Bus routing of Pro Tools to route the Output of each of the drum track through a Bus that was then fed into the Aux Input track we also created. Basically, this created a summing point for the entire drum sound before it went to the final outputs to feed the speakers or headphones. The Aux Input allows us the ability to adjust overall levels quickly while also providing plug-in points for rough sound shaping.

You will notice in the picture below how we assigned all the outputs through our Bus and routed it back into the Aux Input we named “Drum SubMix”.

drumsubmix

This technique allowed us to start shaping the drum sound almost as soon as we finished recording with the drummer. We could still make individual track adjustments for level, panning, processing, as well as easy mute and solo of the entire drum sound.

We then utilized the same technique when we recorded guitars the following day. Once we finished with the guitar player, we wound up with 26 tracks just for the guitar element of the song. Once again, since routed the guitar Audio Track outputs through Bus routing and utilized an Aux input to manage the overall sound, we could easily manipulate the overall level of the entire guitar stack without having to hunt for each of the individual tracks.

You can see the picture below for the guitar tracks in the session.

guitartrack021013

When it came to record the vocal tracks, the same technique was employed for all of the lead and backing vocal recording. We wound up recording a total of 4 lead vocal tracks and 20 backing vocal tracks. Even though we now had many tracks in the session, we could control almost every element of the song through just a few faders. Furthermore, by controlling our elements this way, we could start working on the individual tracks within each element (snare, lead guitar, hi- backing vocal, etc…) and start effectively mixing our song before we had finished tracking. Adjustments to eq, dynamics, level, and pan were done throughout each step of the recording process. In the picture below you can see all of the vocal tracks for the session.

vocaltrack021013

Once we had reached the final day in the studio, we found ourselves with 116 total tracks of material and a mix that was almost done. Due to the way we managed the session during the recording, our final mix day was more centered on fine-tuning the mix and adding that extra razzle-dazzle. Most of our drum, guitar and vocal levels were already set, so our job became to add special automation moves, fine-tune individual track levels and add any effects such as reverb and delay. The majority of the razzle-dazzle involved adding Hi-Pass (Lo-Cut) eq to most of the tracks. The drum and bass sound needed to be very present and distinct sounding, therefore, we had to clean up the lo frequencies of all the remaining tracks such as guitar, vocal, organ, etc… Most of this was accomplished using the Pro Tools EQIII plug-in with a Hi-Pass setting around 100 – 120 Hz. The picture below was our final setting for the lead vocal.

hipassleadvocal

To make things easier for the mix, we applied the eq to the sub-group master Aux Input instead of each individual track. This technique is useful in letting you manipulate the tone of entire stack of audio tracks together by using a single eq plug-in instead of applying an eq to every single track.

Remember, in the case of the guitars, we had 26 tracks in all that we needed to manipulate. Always keep in mind the more tracks that are playing back at once, the more presence each one of those brings to the overall sound, therefore you could easily wind up with a very large presence of lo frequencies. Those guitars might sound huge and phat on their own, but at the end of the day they have to sound good in the mix with every other track in the session.

When it came to effects, we used very little in the end as we only applied a small amount of reverb and delay to the lead vocal track as well a small amount to the snare and clap tracks. In a song this densely populated with material there is often not very much room left to add extra effects as it can take away from the song and be very distracting. Always keep in mind that each song you work on will be unique and individual. It doesn’t always make sense to apply a formulaic approach to every session as most often the situation will dictate the workflow.

Mihai Baloni and Mark Hudson final mix notes

The decision was made to finish the mix entirely in Pro Tools even though we had access to the SSL 6000 mixing console. We knew very early on the session would need to travel between a few different studios, therefore, a level of continuity had to be established. Using Pro Tools allowed us to hear everything the way it was supposed to sound no matter which studio it wound up in as well as allowing us a centralized backup to give the client. This strategy also paid off when it came time to record the organ and piano parts as the session was taken to another studio for the recording before coming back to us at Studio Center. As is always the case with any large session, organization is the most fundamental component keeping everything running smoothly.

We look forward to having you join us in class. And for our advanced users, expert level and workflow analysis has proven of great value to our clients.



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