Creating The Triptych
"Navy skies turn darker..."
He may be able to write you an 8 minute long song in a couple of days, arrange you a choir part in a couple of hours, and record you a guitar solo in a couple of takes, but a producer Pete is not.
And so, the process of mixing our music has always involved lots of hours, lots of trial and error, and lots of fumbling in the dark.
With that in mind, when we began writing The Wayfarer Triptych we both agreed that this time round we’d pay an actual producer to carry out the final mix of the album. However, 12 months later and with our individual incomes largely wiped out by the pandemic, this option became an impossibility. And so Pete who, having finished mixing Infinite Worlds, emphatically stated “I’m never mixing another album again”, sat down to mix another album…
The Wayfarer Triptych - as with all previous Across The Sea releases - was recorded and mixed using Logic Pro X: Apple’s digital audio workstation (DAW). The first stage of the mixing process involved sorting through the enormous Logic projects containing all the recording sessions, digging out the best take/s for each part or section, and moving these into smaller, more manageable mixing projects. This included blending the multiple mics used to record the guitars into a single mono audio file per take.
After several days of tidying, flattening guitar takes and pondering over which of three virtually identical vocal takes was best to use, Pete had 9 well organised, beautifully colour coordinated Logic Projects – one for each of the 9 songs on Wayfarer… and the mixing could properly begin.
A few days later, the opening track Prologue was more or less finished.
But it didn’t sound right.
So Pete spent the afternoon on YouTube watching mixing tutorial videos and then, thoroughly confused, started again.
A few days later, the opening track Prologue was more or less finished again.
But it still didn’t sound right.
So Pete spent another afternoon on YouTube watching mixing tutorial videos and then, still thoroughly confused, started again.
A few days later, the opening track Prologue was more or less finished AGAIN.
And this time it sounded alright…
So Pete moved onto the rest of the album, both of us confident that he’d be finished by Christmas, and we could then announce the album in the new year for a March/April release, by which point live music would be back to normal.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2021 and everything was very different.
We don’t need to go into detail about what happened at a global, national, or industry level in December and January. You all know. But what about the album? Well, after Christmas became another victim to the pandemic, Pete had worked over the entire festive period (including Christmas Day itself) and the final mix was nearly done.
But it didn’t sound right anymore.
Over the majority of 2020, The Wayfarer Triptych had, for both of us, been an escape from everything that was going on in the world around us. But it seemed we couldn’t escape reality anymore. Live music wasn’t coming back. Public gatherings weren’t allowed. We couldn’t even be in the same room as each other. How could we possibly release an album? What would become of The Wayfarer Triptych?
How much of this overall feeling of hopelessness at the situation was negatively impacting how we were hearing the mixes we’ll never know. But now, several months removed from the decision we were about to make, we know it was the right thing to do: at the start of February we agreed that Pete should start the album mix again from scratch.
But first he was going to need to do some homework...
Then followed lots and lots of research and swotting up on production techniques. And we mean lots. Pete spent countless hours over the next few weeks learning about things that, up till now, had more or less just been words on the screen that he was vaguely aware of: he learned what a compressor actually did, what all the different settings on reverb plugins were for, gain staging, pan law, the purpose of track stacks and all manner of other things. And by the end of March, with a brain full of techno-babble and 9 re-organised Logic projects waiting to be mixed, he was ready to start again.
We would like to pause for a brief moment to particularly thank ‘MusicTechHelpGuy’ whose YouTube channel contains 100’s of video tutorials on Logic Pro X, which were invaluable in Pete being able to make The Wayfarer Triptych sound as good as we now think it does. You may never read this, but if you do – thank you!
Right, back to mixing.
We’ve spent far too much of this blog focussing on failure, so let’s spend the rest in a more positive mood, looking at what we did differently on Wayfarer… compared to our previous releases.
We mentioned over the past weeks that lots of parts – vocal and guitar – were double tracked and layered up to the extreme. This really came to the fore during the mixing process. The main guitar sound, as we said a couple of weeks ago, is actually 5 individual takes of the same part stacked on top of each other: 3 using the pedalboard/speaker set up (panned almost hard right, almost hard left, and central respectively), 2 solely acoustic (panned about three quarters left and right, respectively). This is an approach borrowed from James Hetfield in Metallica, where the central guitar (which is mixed lower than the other 4) acts as a ‘thickener’, gluing the overall guitar sound together due to its presence in the middle of the stereo field. Other elements such as the organ-like chords from the EHX Freeze pedal, were similarly stacked up with 4 individual takes (2 on each side), and panned slightly inside the main guitars, leaving the majority of the centre open for vocals and the more decorative guitar parts.
As nearly all of The Wayfarer Triptych is told from the perspective of one girl, we took a different approach to vocal harmonies on this album, feeling that (bar a couple of exceptions) there should be no solo vocal parts other than the actual main vocal (the voice of the girl herself). Therefore, instead of recording one voice per harmony line, Hannah recorded 3 or 4, forming an ensemble of 6-12 voices singing the various harmony or wordless backing lines. These were then mixed further back in the reverb, becoming ghostly choirs which sit behind the main vocal. Are they voices in the girl’s head? Or are they something else?
Very little double-tracking is used on the main vocal part, as a single take tended to be powerful enough to cut through the mix, and keeping it on its own allowed for more of the raw, human quality of the delivery to shine through. Altogether this also served to differentiate the main vocal from (almost) all other vocals on the album, and allow those other vocals to become part of the overall soundscape.
As we mentioned last week, on Serenity and Chaos Hannah plays the role of 3 separate characters. The lyrics were split up between the 3 vocal takes and panning was used to create the effect of 3 individual voices sitting around a campfire, which move nearer and farther from each other as the lyrics progress, to replicate how the 3 beings may actually be moving around while telling their story.
Indeed, panning was used far more creatively on Wayfarer… than our previous releases, becoming perhaps the most prominent aspect of an overall approach Pete took with the production, where the mix itself is furthering the story being told. An example of this can be heard on the lead single Nightfall in the Labyrinth, where the two eerie wordless vocal parts are panned back and forth, twisting over each other to create a sense of disorientation as Hannah’s main vocal tells of the “screams of terror” that are searing through her mind.
You may remember last week we mentioned a final piece of recording that had yet to be discussed? The last thing Hannah recorded for The Wayfarer Triptych wasn’t, in fact, a bloodcurdling scream (though she did indeed record said scream). No, the last thing she recorded was - having dug a certain pair of shoes out from their 10 year hibernation in the loft - a tap dancing routine.
Yes, you did read that right. And tap dancing is not the only ‘found sound’ that was recorded for Wayfarer…
Over the course of the recording months we captured all manner of things with a handheld recorder: empty wine bottles thrown off a roof and smashing on concrete, a running shower, rain, birdsong, stamping, clapping, and much more. It’s all there, and will make perfect sense on October 1st we promise you.
In the small hours of 28th May, Pete finished mixing Swansong, the final track of the album. Several hours later, Hannah arrived to give it her judgement. Just over an hour later, she was in tears…but these were good tears, and aside from a few adjustments, the mix had exceeded her expectations.
Of course, ‘a few adjustments’ in Across The Sea terms equals a few days of the two of us sat together with Hannah giving Pete instructions (usually based around a variation of “Turn up the vocal just a bit…a bit more…just a bit more again…”), but the end was very much in sight.
And then, on 7th June, with the sun shining, the world reopening and an actual proper gig booking in our diary for the following weekend, the end came and the completed album mix was sent off for mastering.
Who’d be doing the mastering? Well, Augmented Sounds of course, the mastering engineer for all of our releases. They’d been the only people we’d ever let in, everything else was done in-house. But this time round we’d need a little more help…