Between the Earth and Sky: Realizing the Digital

Lately I’ve been working on the cast album for the song cycle I helped Ben Viagas with, Between the Earth and Sky. The show has gone through a few incarnations (and a name change), and I finally finished generating the accompaniment tracks, so I figured I would upload a rough cut of one of the songs I’ll be performing for the album.

“It’s Bigger Than Me” is a song sung by a prisoner in an unspecified context. In case you’re confused by the ending, he’s supposed to get shot in the head at the end of the song, then the captor realizes that the prisoner still won. Obviously that’s not what’s depicted – I went with a sillier ending to the video instead.

I’m currently in a summer apartment with a rather heavy amount of ambient noise, so it didn’t come out perfectly – I decided to just go for two solid takes and cut them together. What was interesting, though, was dealing with the digital instruments. The construction of the band is as follows:

  • Violin [R]
  • Glockenspiel
  • Vibraphone
  • Piano
  • Electric Guitar [R]
  • Electric Bass (Drop D) [R]
  • Drumset

The “[R]” after an instrument classifies it as “Real.”  In the YouTube video, those instruments are not real, but they are also almost completely unmixed. They are the parts I have opted to use live performers and instruments for. The other instruments are from MachFive sample libraries, and have been fascinating to deal with.

The Glockenspiel sample sounds a little inauthentic at times, but for the purposes of an album, I find it preferable to recording the live instrument (I have more precise control over fades and cutoffs, primarily). Vibraphone, which is both bowed and struck, is a double-edged sword. A bowed vibe sound is not available in MachFive, so I had to synthesize one by heavily altering an existing atmosphere track called “Bowed Glass” and mixing it with heavy reverb in Pro Tools. The struck vibraphone sound was more than satisfactory, and I worked hard to replicate a vibraphone sustain pedal, in some cases going into Digital Performer and penciling in lift and press points that were slightly late or early to make the instrument sound more organic.

MachFive’s piano library contains a collection of “German Grand” samplers, and the one that has been used for the bulk of songs on the album is simply “German Grand Main.” For some of the more mellow or lighter pressed piano material in the show, I utilized “German Grand Soft,” which also served as my sample whenever a big glissando was needed (it came out way too harsh on the Main sampler). Within DP, MachFive has its own effects, and the piano samples are typically pre-programmed with a reverb effect that I ultimately stripped down to about 3% on the Main, and eliminated altogether on the Soft, finding the ProTools reverb plug-ins preferable. Mixing EQ on the piano has been a challenging and tedious task – and again, the track/video is from a rough cut – but has been interesting when comparing it to previous piano mixing, or the typical techniques used to mix a grand piano. The primary challenge is that the piano itself only generates a single track most times, so I was forced at times to separate some of the range changes into different tracks so that I could mix EQ on all of them. I initially tried to mark out all the keys based on how they traditionally mic grand pianos, but that proved not to suit the tone and timbre of the sampler, so I went through and built custom range sets. As a result, on most songs with an extended piano range (which is most of the songs in the show), the piano sampler has several tracks:

  • Lo to Lo-mid (A0 – E3)
  • Lo-mid thru mid (C3 – C5)
  • mid thru mid-hi (G4 – A6)
  • mid-hi to high (D6 – C8)
  • Glissando
  • Full Range

Typically, all of these tracks are playing simultaneously so that I can apply a mix that generates an authentic piano sound. On the Full Range piano track, I kept the entirety of the music, but turned the track down and put a little extra reverb on it in MachFive, using it as the “room mic” sample.

The drumset is far easier to mix than the piano most of the time, but was far more grueling to construct and lay down. I expect performers to resent me for this particular drum part, as it is both demanding, difficult to sight-read, and contains strange multi-rhythmic devices in several songs. MachFive has an excellent HQ drumset sample succinctly titled “Complete Kit w/ Stick.” This contains terrific samples of each piece of a basic drumset, and most of what I required. Snare (hits and rim clicks), Kick, Hi-Hat, Ride, Crash, and Toms (although they went unused). The sampler has its own pan effects rigged to each piece of the kit, so it provides an excellent mixdown of pretty much everything. This was the one sample that required no retooling in ProTools for EQ or Reverb. However, there were several pieces missing. The drumset of Between the Earth and Sky is rather specific. The performer needs to perform frequent cymbal rolls and atmospheric effects on the Ride, so it calls for specialty sticks. In the part book, I specifically recommend Zildjian’s DC Doublestick Mallets for this. The performer also requires an Egg Shaker, and very specific uses of the Snare and the Ride. For this, I utilized an “Egg Shaker” sampler, an “Orchestral Cymbals” sampler, and a “Jazz Kit” sampler. The Jazz Kit was the only drum kit sample I found in MachFive that utilized a satisfactory bell hit and cymbal scrape on the Ride Cymbal, both of which required no additional reverb mix and blended seamlessly into the main samples. It also contained a far more satisfactory buzz roll sample for the snare drum. The Orchestral Cymbals did not always time perfectly, so I was forced to rework most of their fades and timing in ProTools, though they have thankfully required no additional EQ or Reverb work thus far. I initially panned the cymbal rolls to fit in with the rest of the Ride cymbal material, but found they were more effective when left at an even stereophonic balance, and their track simply reduced in volume by a decibel or two.

It’s Bigger Than Me is unique from the rest of the album in that it contains two additional drum tracks. There is a stretch of the song that contains a very militaristic snare line (pictured below, found at 2:03 in the video).Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 7.13.27 PM

I was dissatisfied with the Complete Kit w/ Stick sampler’s repeated snare hits, as there was little to no variance (other than some hand/sticking options), and I felt this was the only moment where it really stuck out, even when joined to the rest of the band. As such, I found an orchestral “Marching Snare – Solo” track, and utilized that, stripping it of reverb and mixing it into the drumset in ProTools. However, this track also did not have a satisfactory buzz roll, so I created a duplicate Jazz Kit track, which I also stripped of reverb, and boosted slightly. This took about 20-25 minutes of work after all editing and input was completed, and generated a little over 10 seconds of music. Even if the track will be buried a bit under the vocals and piano/guitar, I still find it far superior for the effort.

I have begun auditioning some musicians to record the guitar, violin, and bass (if you know anyone able/willing to record remotely, let me know! I pay poorly, but I do pay!) on the album, and noticed an immediate problem. The setup where I created the backing tracks had its MIDI (or something) tuned almost an exact quarter tone sharp. As a result, the performers who have worked with the tracks have had to tune very carefully to the existing material (and the higher notes feel a little tougher for it). That’s why I’m not doing live vibraphone, even though I originally had the option.

Marrying the live instruments to the digital material has been a long haul process. When I created the first two accompaniment tracks, I brought in a guitarist to test some guitar and bass material against it (this is where we discovered the tuning issue, and after a few days fiddling with half of the studio, could not fix it), and was immediately repulsed by the obvious disjunction. The guitar technically blended, but the human qualities of the guitar made the synthetic qualities of the digital samplers far too stark. I deleted the tracks and plotted out a new process which utilized minimal to nonexistent quantization (especially for the piano), and where every single instrument was input painstakingly by hand with the most realism possible. Tweaks, the physical limitations, the real-world use of pedaling and multi-rhythmic difficulty. I occasionally did very brief tempo adjustments where I found vocalists and musicians were prone to rushing, and inserted the occasion partial mistake that I found had become part of the practical live performance. I tried to keep it studio clean, but beyond the [R] instruments, there was very little quantization and where the volume was too consistent – and resulted in obvious sample repeats – I went in and tried to vary the volume as much as possible within performance practicality.

The result is a hybrid digital and analog album which is far from seamless, but I feel will sound appropriately professional once completed. At least I hope so, because I’m definitely not doing it all over again!

  • “Disciple” by Slayer
  • Scene 4 (Passacaglia) from Wozzeck by Alan Berg
  • “The Man That I’ve Become” by The Tom Kitt Band
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About Jacob Minter

My name's Jake. I work in music and media, particularly film and theatre. I am a composer, actor, performer, and all around creative ass. I write songs about ninjas, chronic masturbation, and love, among other things. I also perform in musical theater, play a lot of different instruments, and draw silly and offensive things. View all posts by Jacob Minter

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