We're looking at the process behind the writing, recording and production of one of Mary's albums. Last week, Chris looked at the logistics of recording an album between different cities and countries. Continuing the theme, he talks about his role in the recording of some of the vocals on You Look Familiar.
As an engineer, I tracked Mary and Jessica's vocals on around two thirds of the songs on the album. Mary and Morgan had tracked vocals for the other tracks previously, and they were both already very happy with these performances.
We recorded Mary at Space Studios in Cardiff. Tech-wise, the recording was very simple - I recorded Mary on a Pro Tools HD3 system, using a Digidesign preamp and a Neumann U87 microphone. No compression, no EQ, just Mary, a nice mic and a nice preamp. The sessions usually involved a lot of tea and a lot of dunked Hobnobs. We probably should have got a sponsorship deal with McVities...
Mary is a machine when it comes to recording, she absolutely nails the takes time and again. We'd take the song five or six times, maybe a couple more times if Mary wanted to try different expressions. Pretty much the first take was the keeper, but Mary gives so many different options and so much choice in case there was the slightest problem.
One of the best things is how quickly Mary picks up the use of the technology. We wanted to keep the whole recording process in house, so she had complete editorial control over the album. It was amazing how quickly she learnt how to go through and compile (or 'comp' in the vernacular) her takes together.
So it was a simple process, but that's not to say the songs are simple! Some of the tracks had very complicated vocal arrangements. Mary writes lead lines, often very dense harmonic backing and counterpoints. This means that we may have had 2-3 tracks for the lead line and harmony, the same amount for counterpoint, and multiple tracks - 12 or more - for the rich harmonic backing. Lots of recording, and lots and lots of singing!
In the picture to the left (with a nod to Sound on Sound magazine!), you can see a composite of the edit window in Pro Tools. Apart from the very top track, and the yellow track down towards the bottom of the image, all of the tracks visible are vocals. The second track at the top (the one with the pink to the left, and with a green oblong with dark green blobs to the right) is Mary's lead vocal. If you look very closely at this, you'll see vertical lines in the green oblong - the waveform. Each of those vertical lines shows where we have taken a section from another take and comped together. The tracks with pink to the left are Mary's vocals, the purple are Jessica's and the dark blue are (ahem) mine, because...
The utterly unthinkable happened as well - they got me on the other side of the glass, recording vocals! Me! Bolstered by some severely deep G&Ts I tracked a couple of parts plus some ad libs for 'Dog Eat Dog World'. It was very disconcerting knowing that two world class vocalists were in the control room hearing my pitiful attempts. I felt like a Ford Anglia in between two Rolls Royces!
They seemed to like it though, so that was that.
I should say as well, the image doesn't show *all* of the vocals, because Morgan laid down several tracks of exceptional vocals as well.
That was the main front-line involvement I had on this album. There was of course a whole load of backroom admin to do, plus two more huge parts of the production process to carry out, all of which we'll look at next week...
That's how the recording process went. Do you have any questions on this you'd like to ask? Please ask through Twitter, or on the Facebook page!
If you are McVities, and would like to sponsor our next album, please do get in touch as soon as possible.
Christian Thomas sits in a darkened room and does techie stuff. He engineers, mixes and provides technical support to Mary and Jessica.