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Abbey Road In A Box, Version 3

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Computers are all about leveling the playing field: By taking advantage of their technologies, it’s possible for one person to compete in industries formerly dominated by large conglomerates. But it takes powerful tools to get the job done.

A few years ago, I wrote a magazine article on home recording where I called Cakewalk’s first generation of their Sonar PC-recording program as “Abby Road in a box”, and I stand by that; it’s not total hyperbole: Sonar is the equivalent of a very powerful recording studio, but one that fits on the hard drive of an Windows-based personal computer. Of course, it doesn’t come with George Martin, but that’s OK: he costs extra when you hire the real Abbey Road as well.

But what you will get (with both Abbey Road Studios and with Sonar) is a first class facility that allows for maximum flexibility with recording. With the latter, the ability to edit digitally, and see what you’re doing on a computer monitor is the first benefit, which opens up radical new worlds in and of itself.

Digital Recording In A Nutshell

Back in June, I quoted Nile Rogers, the great guitarist and producer, who brilliantly summed up the benefits (and a few of the dangers) of digital recording:

The old restrictions in technology forced us to do things right. It forced us to have to make decisions. It forced us to spiritually be so in tune with the other people that magic had to happen. It made you step up to the plate, whereas now, when I go to play on someone’s record I feel uncomfortably free–and I almost hate that. I can actually play on a record all day long and do ten different solos and take all these different approaches to the rhythm and all this kind of stuff. And then the producer has to look at all this work like a film–they have to go back and edit and figure out which bits they want to use. Whereas in the old days, when a person hired me to work on a record, I had to get it right, right there. You had to play great, you had to be smokin’, and there was no way that they could fix it and make it better.

When I played on Michael Jackson’s last record, I knew what they were going to do, so I said, “Hey, Michael, here’s like a billion ideas. I’m going to play all this cool s***, and you go off and do it.” So I didn’t have to write it, so to speak. I didn’t have to give them the definitive, perfect, guitar part; I gave them lots of definitive, perfect guitar parts, and they decided which ones to use. That’s weird to me. Once you’re unlimited, you’ll never play that same way–you’ll just go on and on and on and on. It’s like the ultimate jazz person’s fantasy: “You to tell me I’m going to solo for the rest of my life, and you guys will think it’s great?”

Having infinite options also means you don’t have the pressure on you…

It’s pressureless.

–which means that you won’t necessarily work as hard as you would if you knew you had just two takes in 20 minutes to get it right.

You can’t help it. You see, I grew up in the days of, time is money–as Madonna would say, “time is money, and the money is mine.” And I like that, I love that.

You had a limitation of tracks, too. You were lucky if you had two tracks and you could do an alternative take.

You know what people do now when they want me to overdub on a record? They’ll send an album with a mix, and I have like 22 open tracks of guitars I can put down. So now you are going to figure out what my part is.

Michael Jackson routinely works with zillion dollar recording budgets. But when I can report similar examples based on recording on Sonar in my den, it’s obvious that it’s becoming increasingly easy–heck, virtually effortless–to assemble a solo or vocal part after the artist leaves, like a film editor, rather than trying to get a complete, perfect, magic take.

Putting Technology In The Hands of Home Musicians

Since the 1990s, many professional studios have used a hardware and software combination called Pro Tools to record digitally. And the recording studio version of Pro Tools and its associated hardware is great if you’ve got about $10,000 or so to get started. But software such as Sonar puts a similar level of flexibility in the hands of home musicians, for a few hundred dollars.

Sonar 3 features several changes and upgrades when compared to its predecessors. Perhaps the biggest is the improved mixing interface. The previous version of Sonar had a virtual mixing board that was very serviceable, if slightly inflexible. The new board allows the audio to be routed just about anywhere. New busses can easily be created to sum multiple audio channels. In other words, if you have six vocal tracks between your lead and backing vocals, and you’d like them all to have the same effects and use a single fader to alter their volume, they can be summed to their own buss by merely creating a new buss and then toggling each track’s audio signal to point to it.

Beginning with Sonar 2, Cakewalk began shipping Cyclone with the program. Cyclone is a flexible and easy to use plug-in that allows for easy slicing and dicing of Acid-ized .wav files. So if you’d like to drop an extra bass drum hit into your drum loop, or cut out a high-hat swish, you can do so via Cyclone. Or just load up a bunch of drum hits, and play them via any MIDI-equipped synth.

In edition to the standard version of Sonar, Cakewalk has created what they call “a Producer Edition” of the program, which ships with, among other things, a virtual Lexicon digital reverb-the first plug-in ever created by Lexicon, a long-standing name in recording studio technology.

And speaking of plug-ins, a firm called Izotape has created mastering plug-ins that can be automated via Sonar. But Izotope is a separate addition, available separately (and will be the subject of its own Blogcritics review-coming soon!).

So What Does It Sound Like?

Take a listen to “Adrift”, a tune I recorded earlier this month on Sonar 3. I played all the parts, recording into a Windows 2000-equipped PC in my den. The guitar lines were played on my Les Paul, recorded via Line6′s GuitarPort USB interface. The bass line was played on a Fender Precision Bass, and the organ was a Reason sample played via Roland’s guitar synth-to-USB interface. And the percussion and backing vocals were a combination of Acid loops, a few of which were run through Cyclone.

The bass line consisted of hundreds of edits from multiple takes, and there were lots of takes to create the lead vocal. Sonar has clip-specific gain envelopes, which can raise and lower each clip of sound by a few decibels, which are great for smoothing out a comped track of lots of different takes.

I used a few different pre-sets of the Lexicon reverb on the vocals and the organ, and other plug-ins that ship with Sonar to compress the bass solo. Finally, I mastered the whole track with the Izotope Ozone mastering software.

Getting Past The Learning Curve

Of course, all this technology comes with a pretty steep learning curve for the newcomer to digital audio. But there are a couple of solutions there: Scott Garrigus has written Sonar 3 Power, which is a thick and thorough guide to the program, well worth reading for all the tips and tricks that Garrigus has discovered.

For example, Sonar has the ability to put automatically put fade-ins and fade-outs on any and every piece of audio in a song-or adjust the gain of each piece of audio. Both of these techniques are extremely useful in “comping” multiple takes of audio (as Nile Rogers described above) into a single final track whose volume is equal throughout, and with all edits clean, seamless and invisible, just like the pros.

The other option is to explore a program such as some of the mid-range products produced by Sony Pictures Digital (formally Sonic Foundry), or Cakewalk’s Home Studio 2004, which reduces some of the available features, for a less cluttered and easier to get started with interface. (Apparently, Home Studio 2004 uses components from the previous version of Sonar–not a bad recycling of code.)

But for those serious about recording home, Sonar 3 is a great platform. It doesn’t come with George Martin. But on the other hand, he had to start somewhere-and Sonar 3 is a great way to make professional-sounding music.

About Ed Driscoll

  • Eric Olsen

    terrific! thanks Ed