Normalcy Bias is my sophomore record released in October 2011. Compared to my first record, the focus this time has been more on the song writing and the arrangements. Sonically, the goal was to make things sound more like an authentic rock record with a bit more muscle. From a playing/ performance perspective, I felt that it was important for me to be more 'free', while also be more experimental in the compositions. I allowed more improvisational sections to remain on the record.
Because there's more experimentation with time signatures in my writing, I needed a drummer that can bring those parts to life with authenticity. I was very, most fortunate to have the legendary Pat Mastelotto saying yes to play on my project. Pat, of course, is known for his incredible work in King Crimson, Mr. Mister, and Stick Men. He was very kind to make himself available upon returning in the US from his Chrysta Bell tour in Europe. It has been a couple of months since the drum sessions, but to this day I am still grinning every moment I think about him playing drums on my project. His studio is set up in his home near Austin TX, and one of the advantages was that he had such a vast majority of his drum collections at his disposal (as opposed to renting a third party studio and having a session drummer, which would make it much more difficult to carry all the equipment to the sessions). With myself practically not knowing anything in regards to drums, being able to outsource all the drumming decisions to Pat (drum type, drum parts to be performed, microphone choices, and microphone placements) was very beneficial for me. At times the music can get a little complicated, and with me already needed to manage all the other instruments, compositions and mixing, stress is definitely the last thing I need! But most certainly, with the drums being so critical, especially, for this type of music, having Pat on board just immediately made the songs so much stronger and so much more musical.
I also made it a mandate to use a real bass instead of the sampled bass that I used in my last record. I also reamped most of the soft synth parts. The goal was to hopefully have things sound as real as possible.
Here's the back story of the album's concept (excerpt taken from the back cover):
"This album revolved around the Character's journey towards insanity. It started off with him witnessing the powers that be turning upon against its own people. The public was in denial and underestimated the possibility that these events would continue to impact their livelihoods in years to come. Citizens resumed their daily activities unperturbed, while grief and anger were expressed by some. During his escape, the Character was captured, then was admitted to a mental institution and forced to undergo rounds of therapy. The Character was rejuvenated with a false sense of purpose in life. "
(...Essentially, the album is about me going crazy in my personal life, but exaggerated to a certain extent to fit the story line!)
Somewhat of an Easter egg - You may find variations of subtle themes from certain songs reoccurring and in one occasion played backwards. Those were done so intentionally.
Arrangement and Compositions
One of the largest obstacles during the mixing process in my previous record, was that I needed to wrestle with multiple parts that were too busy. I also had parts that took up too much space sonically. The approach this time was to be a bit more diligent in the chord voicings, and the time during which different instruments weaved in and out of different sections.
In certain sections of songs, I have purposefully set it up such that would vary in tempo slightly to emulate more of a human feel. For example, the second verse of a tune may have a slight increase of tempo. There were also more time signature experimentations. The goal was to have the odd meters somewhat transparent to the listener most of the time, while with the intention of keeping the listener engaged. In many cases, an extra beat (or less), I found, in a four-bar phase, for example, provided an extra lift and can sometimes break the monotonous feel of a simple rhythm. I have learnt from Ronan couple of years ago, that especially in instrumental music . when compared with music that have vocals, that extra additive effort in the arrangement and compositions are needed to keep the listener attention. I was purposefully aiming to do that for a number of different tunes.
Signal Chain for Different Instruments
Pat used Earthworks mics as his stereo overheads and an SM57 as his snare mic. I was not able to make out what other microphones were used based on a video he sent me, but they were all recorded incredibly well. I was sent tracks with stereo overheads, mono room mic, kick in, kick out, snare top, snare bottom, mics for the different toms, hi-hats and rides. For some of the tracks, percussion tracks were sent to me, as well as snare/kick samples (in scenarios where Pat felt the need for them). During mix time, I mostly only used the overheads, kick, snare (and drum samples that Pat provided), as well as the percussion parts.
Tracks sounded amazing already simply by increasing the fader volumes. Even though this is my personal record, Pat does have his name on this project, and I must admit that I was somewhat nervous mixing his drum tracks, trying my best not to mess things up!
Any of the drum tracks had compression applied were using the Distressor. The kick and snares tracks were parallel compressed. Toms were not parallel compressed. A-Designs EMPEQ (500-series Pulteq-styled EQ) was used for much of the sculpting.
In certain portions, the transient shaper plugin that came with Sonar was used (aka percussion channel strip PX64).
Electric guitars used on this album included a Fender Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul. To get a much more organic sounding distortion in this record than my previous, I opted to use only a combination of overdrive pedals and the amp's drive/distorted channels. The overdrive used was the Xotic BB Preamp. The amps used were Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, and a Marshall Vintage Modern 50W Head paired up with an Orange closed back 2x12 cabinet. The Vintage Modern utilized KT66 tubes giving it somewhat of a vintage/classic Marshall type of a sound. Majority, if not all, of the clean guitar sounds came from the Fender, while the distorted sounds came from either amp, with or without the BB, depending on the section of the particular song. None of the amp tones were blended together. Majority of the tracks were miced with a single Shure SM57, while some other parts were with the AT4050. None of the amplifiers were multi-miced.
Acoustic guitars used included a Taylor and a Simon & Patrick. AT4050 was mostly used, although the SM57 was also used in several sections.
All guitar signals (electric and acoustic) went through the A-Designs Pacifica Preamp (with pad switch on). There were times when the signals passed through the Empirical Labs Distressor compressor before hitting tape.
Xotic BB Preamp
TC Electronic Polytune
TC Electronic Shaker Vibrato
Boss BE-3 Flanger
Bass CE5 Chorus
Bass PH5 Phaser
TC Electronic Flashback Delay
TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb
Vox Big Bad Wah
All bass parts were recorded using a Fender Jazz 4-string bass. The signals were a blend of the DI signal (Pacifica into the Distressor set with higher ratio with plenty of gain reduction) and the Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver pedal.
During mixing, not much additional processing as been applied to the bass other than balancing between the DI and distorted tracks, and rolling off some of the lower-end rumble with the EQ plugin. Occasionally, the EMPEQ was used to boost the upper-mids to help the parts cut through the mix.
Acoustic piano parts were recorded with a Yamaha U3 upright into a SM57, into the built-in preamps of my RME Fireface UC audio interface.
Rhodes, organ, vibraphone and pads were recorded using the software synths that came with Sonar. In many cases where these parts were reamped , going through the Radial REAMP box, into the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, into an AT4050 or SM57, through the Distressor, into the Pacifica and through the RME Fireface. Sometimes the BB Preamp or the drive channels of the Fender amp were used for Rhodes and organ tracks.
Jordan Reynolds worked on voice over material for the opening track. My understanding was that he used different combinations of microphones and mic pres to capture the different voice characters (all performed by him) on that song. The tracks were very well recorded by Jordan and I believe the tracks were raw (unprocessed) when they were sent to me.
For the remaining tracks, I did the voice overs myself and used the AT4050 going through the Pacifica into the Distressor. My vocal tracks, in most cases, were fed through the Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi fuzz pedal through reamping.
The mixing process was a lot faster this time than from my previous experience. This is largely due to better arrangements and also better recorded tracks. Using a real bass instead of a synth/sampled bass definitely made things easier in terms of how the track is interacting with other instruments.
Reverbs and Delays
A combination of TC Electronic Pedals (Hall of Fame Reverb and Flashback Delay) and in-the-box Breverb plugin (which came with Sonar) were used for reverbs and delays. A delay plugin that came with the DAW was also used.
I recall one of the challenges playing with space, initially while using another one of the stock plugin reverb was that it was creating too much space. Often times, the intention was just to push the track back, and having the effect of the tracking taking more space in an already dense mix is no desirable. I also experimented with another free reverb plugin, but didn't really see the improvement. Luckily the latest versions of Sonar also came with another plugin, the Breverb. Breverb was much more natural sounding, and immediately solved the problems I had.
All the plugins used for the project were with stock built-in plugins that came with Sonar. This includes also the console emulation plugin (always placed at the head of the effects chain). Almost 100% of the plugin EQ adjustments used in this project were subtractive EQ.