We continue our series How To Produce A Song In Pro Tools. In this instalment, I cover the main instrument tracking session. The previous article shared my processes for getting the drums and bass foundation right in the production, now let's move on to the tracking of the core instruments in the Pro Tools Session.
I wanted the piano to be the main driving force as I didn't feel that the strummed acoustic guitar sections would be strong enough to carry the main thrust of the instrumentation in the song later in the production process.
The bass guitar arrangement, that was originally inspired by the acoustic guitar in the live demo, felt like the right starting point to build the piano arrangement from. I wanted the bass and piano to combine as "one instrument" - similar to how I get drums and bass guitars to work together. The bass guitar lines work as a left-hand support for the piano helping to really drive the walking bass line themes found throughout the song.
I used my acoustic upright piano with the microphones placed in my usual method - A spaced stereo pair set at the same distance from the harp and beneath the piano keyboard. Placing the microphones under the piano always result in very rich sounding piano recordings. Placing microphones above the piano sounds thinner.
Now that the piano, bass and drums have all come together in the production the acoustic guitar needed to be incorporated somehow. I had another listen to the live demo recording to establish what I liked about it. I needed to fit the acoustic guitar into the song without it getting in the way of the "one instrument" piano / bass arrangement. The rhythm of the acoustic guitar played in the live demo alluded to a drum groove with the emphasis of the strumming being on the second and fourth crochet beats of the bars. This emphasis in the acoustic guitar groove was clearly picked up on by the online session drummer as you can hear this emphasis in his performance of the drum parts. When I was working out the acoustic guitar parts I focused on what the drums were doing. The only way I could fit the guitar into the production was by simplifying the playing.
As I wanted the acoustic guitar to be back in the mix I decided to go with a different microphone placement setup to the piano. XY lends itself very well to focused stereo recordings. The piano was recorded with a spaced stereo pair so it felt right not to do the same mic setup for the acoustic guitar. If I recorded the acoustic guitar with a spaced pair then I ran the risk of getting into problems later in the mix trying to place the two instruments together. Watch the tutorial video below to hear the differences between different acoustic guitar microphone placement setups.
Now that the core of the instrumentation was recorded I opted to have a bit of fun with the song, so I reached out for an electric guitar. Photograph is an upbeat song, so I wanted to get some quirkiness into the production to help support the vocals that will be recorded in a future session. At this stage, the combined arrangement of the piano and bass instruments produce a really strong musical theme. I wanted the electric guitar to reinforce the fun aspects of that theme - being the walking bass and other moments within the chorus sections. These electric guitar ideas had to give the chorus sections an identity, something different to verse and pre-chorus sections.
I have got two guitar amps in the studio. One is a valve Vox AC30 and the another is a solid state HiWatt combo. Both have very different tones. I experimented with both amps trying to find a raspy late 1980's Brian May tone that would work in the mix... and it wasn't the Vox AC30 that got the gig.
The HiWatt seemed to have some extra bite that I couldn't get out of the AC30 for this song. I used a very simple one mic approach for recording the guitar amp, that being a Shure SM57 placed off-axis from the centre of the cone. I double tracked the guitar so that moments in the chorus would be strong with areas of the guitar arrangement playing off each other. Watch the tutorial video to hear the differences between microphone positions on an electric guitar amp with a Shure SM57.
The session was coming to a close so I decided to add one last finishing touch to support the drum groove. Percussion is a great way to support any drum groove. You only need to listen to any Rolling Stones record to understand that. Hand claps help to bring out the snare drum patterns in both the second verse and bass line themes with the tambourine patterns decorating the root 4/4 time signature with a 6/8 rhythm.
Example Of The Production So Far
This session took around 4 hours to complete. Some minor timing issues were fixed on the fly with a handful of basic tracking EQ's and compressors used along the way to roughly balance the production so far.
Next In The Series
Watch this space as in the next article I will talk about vocal production.