In Waves: The Recording And Production Of “In Waves”

Posted on Posted in Geekery, Music, Neffle, Tom Pritchard

In a similar fashion to The Third Space, In Waves began with us both attempting to figure out exactly what sort of mood and tone we wanted to go for with the album. Both myself and Tom settled on a somewhat lighter mood as a counterpoint to the more bleak sound found on The Third Space and, through a series of personal references, we both had a solid aesthetic in mind when it came to actually writing material. It certainly helped that we both share a lot of the same inspirations and influences.

I pencilled in a chunk of time at the end of March/start of April 2019 to spend some time with Tom to actually record the album. Prior to the actual recording sessions, we both started working on a series of loops and ideas to really nail the aesthetic and to get some ideas going. This essentially took the form of Tom putting together a series of reasonably fleshed-out loops using an Elektron Octatrack which he then sent over to me, whereupon I embellished them with my collection of Korg Volcas to round them out and get some sequences ready to roll. After sending several ideas back-and-forth in this fashion, we ended up with eight ideas ready to record – a pretty solid starting point, even if we would eventually drop some of these ideas from the album.

We also decided that, in a first for a Neffle release, we would track the album as a series of multi-track takes – not a revolutionary approach, all things considered, but a change to our usual flat-mix-per-take approach from previous albums. Although this previous approach had been somewhat beneficial from a creative standpoint, it was far more restrictive in terms of what we could change after a single take was recorded; while it’s somewhat freeing to know that, once a take is recorded, you can’t continue to tweak it endlessly after-the-fact, this typically resulted in us spending more time during the recording sessions getting the mix balanced correctly and recording multiple takes. Recording multi-track takes meant that we could separate the mixing process from the recording sessions, and it also meant that minor edits could be made after-the-fact.

As a result of this preparation, as well as the separation of recording & mixing processes, the main bulk of the recording took place over three days. We decided that I would take on mixing duties for the album after recording was wrapped up, though we ended up putting together a series of rough reference mixes along with extensive notes to make that process smoother.

In terms of the performance set-up, we took a similar approach to prior Neffle albums whereby each of us was responsible for a pre-determined selection of devices.

Tom was primarily using the aforementioned Octatrack, which – thanks to its focus on performance and excellent time-stretching capabilities – allowed for a plethora of performance and sample manipulation options: the crossfader functionality in particular proved to be extremely useful, as it allowed for dynamic performance changes during recording without sounding too jarring or out-of-place. The ability to time-stretch elements while preserving transients was also invaluable to the album, and imparts a particular character throughout In Waves that I’m particularly fond of. The Octatrack output consisted of two channels (main stereo output & cue stereo out) which were both fed into stereo inputs on the mixer – one of these channels would typically consist of drums, and the other would typically consist of more melodic elements.

A bit of NeffleStation ’19

I was using a series of Volcas – namely the FM/Keys/Bass, all of which had been pre-loaded with a series of sequences prepared beforehand. The FM was also pre-loaded with a custom bank of patches; rather than programming the patches from scratch on the Volca FM itself, I decided to use Dexed to export a series of patches to the Volca FM via Sysex transfer. Although patches would sometimes sound rather different on the FM, this gave me a solid starting point from which to further tweak the sounds on the synth itself. I had also brought an Alesis Nanoverb 2 with me which I had fully intended to use, but – alas – I’m an idiot and didn’t bring the correct power supply to use with it. Derp. In lieu of this, I ended up using a BOSS RE-20 as an insert on various Volca devices throughout (as an aside: I ended up using the Nanoverb 2 all over my Bandcamp subscriber album Liminal last year, and you can hear it in action here).

Everything was recorded using a Zoom LiveTrak 12. This mixer also operates as a multi-track recorder and USB audio interface, and allowed us to record individual multi-track takes and reference mixes with minimal fuss. Tom’s Octatrack was routed to the two stereo inputs on the L-12, and I was typically using between one-to-three mono channels for my parts. The L-12 also features a series of in-built effects, EQ, and compression. The multi-track recordings were recorded pre-EQ & effects processing, which meant that these would not affect the multi-track recordings – perfect for creating reference mixes without baking anything permanently into the multi-tracks. On-board compression was used sparingly as this was baked into to the multi-track recordings.

Thanks to this workflow, we would typically get a rough mix going before recording anything. All of the tracks were recorded live, with each track typically consisting of one or two takes. Once a take was recorded, we would take some time out to listen back and tweak the mix for reference purposes while taking notes. Once we had something we were happy with, we’d record a reference mix with any required tweaks and move onto the next track. For the most part, these reference mixes were pretty rough around the edges, but were more than adequate for the purposes of providing a frame of reference for the actual mixing process. Thanks to this workflow, we were able to maintain a decent sense of spontaneity in the recordings while allowing us a greater deal of flexibility further down the line.

The first day of recording took a while to really get going. The first track on In Waves, “The Shimmer”, was the first track we recorded, and it was the only one of the three or so recorded during the first day to end up on the final album. Having listened back to the other two tracks, I actually like them a lot more than I remembered… but leaving them off of the album was the right call.

The first session served as a bit of a learning experience and a means to familiarise ourselves with the recording setup, and over the course of the next couple of days things progressed smoothly. We hit our stride on the second day, and once we had finished recording our pre-existing ideas we decided to sequence and record two more tracks from scratch. These two tracks would become “Phantom Channels” and “Lands Known”.

It was around this point that we started thinking about where to take the rest of In Waves. What we had so far was eight tracks that flowed satisfyingly, and we started to think about how we were going to order the tracks and what else we could do with it. After listening to the reference mixes a whole bunch we decided that, actually, the order in which we’d recorded the tracks provided a satisfying pace to the album, and because it was recorded in a short space of time it all sat well together.

After recording two short vignettes (“Under The Red Sun” and “Sleeping Machines”), we decided that we had the makings of an album. Our intention was to record a few more ideas and swap tracks in-and-out of the album as we saw fit but, after some thought, we decided that we were happy with the feel, progression, and tone of the album we already had. In total we ended up recording fourteen tracks, four of which ended up on the cutting room floor. With a running time of just over 40 minutes, we both decided that the recording of In Waves was complete.

From out-of-the-box to in-the-box…

After a bit of a break (during which time we ended up playing an awful lot of Halo and recorded some cool unrelated stuff) I returned home to sunny Huddersfield and started cracking on with mixing the album. As mentioned previously, Tom’s Octatrack recordings were typically split across two stereo channels, with my parts occupying between one to three mono channels. Doesn’t sound like a whole lot to work with, but this allowed for considerably more breathing room than prior Neffle releases!

In contrast to the recording process, mixing was a strictly in-the-box affair and took place entirely within Reason – which should come as no big shock to anyone familiar with how I generally work! One thing I was keen to do when mixing the album was to maintain a natural, rounded feel to it – I tend to take more of a subtractive approach to mixing generally, so I was careful not to make any unnecessary boosts throughout the album unless it was absolutely necessary. The first track I mixed was “Distant Flame”, as I felt with its vast sense of space and deep bass that it would serve as a perfect blueprint for the rest of the album.

The first thing I decided to do was to set up three aux send effects to roughly correspond with what we were using on the reference mixes – these consisted of a Uhbik-A plate-type reverb, a DR-1 space-y reverb, and an instance of Valhalla Delay. I ended up using this as a bit of a template for the rest of the album. Using these three aux sends across the album and across both the Octatrack and Volca channels helped to lend a sense of coherence that was somewhat lacking on the reference mixes. Additionally, although the L-12s effects are perfectly solid, the jump in quality afforded by these effects alone helped to give the album more of a polished sound.

For the most part, I was using the LP/HP filters on Reason’s mixer to scoop out any unnecessary frequencies on individual channels – this is something I tend to do quite frequently, and the built in channel filters are something that I always miss when I’m using a mixer in another DAW. It’s a quick and easy way to sculpt a mix before getting a little more into it, whether that’s via the mixer’s further built-in effects or (my preferred approach) via additional rack effects.

A few regulars during the mixing stage

A little trick I used across the album to smooth out some of the drum tracks while giving them a little bit of punch was to use Kilohearts’s Disperser, which was super useful in this regard. On “Distant Flame” I ended up using Disperser around 60hz to round out the kick a little in the lows while also helping it to pop a little more in the mix. Due to the nature of Disperser, this did not affect the amplitude of the kick – which was pretty damn useful, it must be said!

Additionally, on a lot of the drum channels I ended up applying a very light limiter to tame some of the more errant transients. I figured this would give me a bit of extra headroom without compromising the rest of the mix, and I was careful to make sure I didn’t go in too heavy with it – the last thing I wanted to do was completely squash the drums, but some of the snappier drums on the album needed a bit of taming. For the most part I ended up using Newfangled Audio’s Elevate limiter for this purpose.

I ended up using the DR-1 reverb as an insert across certain parts of the album to help smear some of the more spacey elements, such as a few of the Volca Keys lines. Although I tend to prefer not to rely too heavily on stereo widening plug-ins, I did end up using NUGEN Audio’s Stereoizer Elements to widen a couple of channels here and there as well. All of the mixes were checked for mono compatibility and, thanks to not applying said widening to the entire mix, this was maintained.

One thing I wanted to maintain across the album was a solid low-end presence without the necessity of a sub-woofer – there’s a fair amount going on in the lows throughout the album, but in a couple of places I felt as though the deeper bass parts were getting a bit lost without the presence of a sub-woofer. In these instances I ended up creating a parallel channel for the offending bass part and processing it with some sort of saturation, just to give it a little bit of a crispy touch while rolling off the lows. What this means is that you still have the satisfying subby lows that were present initially while adding a little bit of presence higher up in the spectrum. I was careful to use this effect sparingly, but it helped to give the bass a bit more presence on certain tracks.

On top of being able to help the tracks gel a little better with one another, mixing in Reason also allowed me to add a bit more variety here and there without compromising the original performances. The most obvious example of this is toward the end of “Phantom Channels”, during which I ended up using a DC-2 chorus on the Volca Keys channel to give a bit more of a sense of depth and variety as the track progresses. Another good example is on the title track when the drums drop out, giving rise to a DR-1 focussed filtered reverb insert before everything launches back in again.

I ended up applying a very (very!) light amount of master bus compression on the tracks, just to help glue them together a tad. For this I ended up using Reason’s built-in master bus compressor, which is always a very handy thing to have. If you don’t happen to use Reason, the Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor is a pretty solid alternative.

By the end of this process (and much back-and-forwarding of mix revisions and feedback between Tom and myself) I ended up with a pre-mastered version of the album that we were both happy with. Due to having a pretty good idea of what I wanted from the album in general, the mastering stage was incredibly straight-forward. I ended up mastering the album in Studio One which, thanks to its marvellous project view, is perfect for mastering whole projects.

My “mastering” chain (I feel like a bit of a fraud referring to it as a mastering chain, to be fair) consisted of a bit of EQ and a limiter. And… that’s it. Both myself and Tom had decided that we were keen to master the album with a view to preserving the dynamics as much as possible, so I ended up using a pretty light touch at this point. Due to some forethought during the mix-stage, there was plenty of headroom to play around with and very little need for any heavy-handed processing – just the way I like it.

So, that’s a brief overview of the recording & production process of In Waves! We’re both incredibly happy with how it turned out and, much like The Third Space, really scratched a very particular creative musical itch for both of us. If you have any particular questions about the recording, mixing, or mastering of In Waves then please feel free to get in touch and we’d be happy to explain in a little more detail. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the album and we’d love to know what you think of it!

In Waves is available to pre-order now – pre-orders will gain immediate access to two tracks from the album. In Waves will be available to download in the format of your choice as a pay-what-you-want release on the 17th May via the Neffle Bandcamp page, and will also be available to stream & download from a wide variety of digital distribution outlets.

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