Revisiting keyboards and synth

I have posted many articles on here of my recordings with acoustic and electric guitar, but this month I wanted to go back to my earliest musical experience, which was playing the piano.

Like most kids my age growing up in Malaysia, I was forced into taking piano lessons from a very early age.  I had many teachers over the years, and some were really nice, but there were a couple of awful ones, especially one rather evil lady who used to rap me over the knuckles whenever I played a wrong note.  That experience, more than anything else, made me shun formal music studies and move away from the piano and on to the electronic organ and then eventually guitar.

This month though, I had the urge to dig out my old MIDI keyboard and make an effort at recording a keyboard rich track.  I have always been a fan of David Bowie, but I had never really done anything significant to commemorate his passing recently.  I went through a catalogue of his songs in my mind, but all of a sudden I remembered a song that I really loved that was not written by him, but was the soundtrack of a movie he was in.  The track is "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" by the movie of the same name, starring Mr. Bowie.  It was written by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

I scoured the net and found some piano scores.  These were... challenging... to say the least.  I forgot about the depth of complexity to the piece.  Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth and dived in.  To disguise my poor playing, I decided to interpret the track as a 'techno' version of the original.

To warm up my fingers, I spent an hour or so recording this simple, yet charming piece by Erik Satie.

Then I spent the whole weekend putting together the main piece.  It was all recorded in Logic X on my iMac, using SampleTank for most of the sampled piano and instrument sounds.  I also used a bit of the Zebra synth from U-He.  Enjoy.

Recording acoustic guitar with a ribbon mic

My new recording setup

My new recording setup

Ok, I am finally getting back into recording my guitar playing, and this weekend past, I made a recording of my acoustic guitar with a ribbon microphone.

This was a replica of a Blumlien stereo ribbon microphone, and it is made by Nude Microphones.  I bought this particular mic late last year, but hadn't had the chance to use it until now.  One of the things holding me back was the fact that because this is a stereo ribbon mic, it takes up two channels on my audio interface.  I normally record with a mic and blend it with the signal from the internal guitar pickup, but that would mean I needed 3 inputs into my audio interface, and until I could upgrade my current 2 channel system to a 4 channel or greater, I kept putting it off.

Nevertheless, after attending a great music production workshop this week held by local artist Broadwing, where he espoused the benefits and technique of pure mic recording for an acoustic guitar, I decided to try the recording just with the ribbon mic.


The basic setup is as the picture above and to the right.  I placed the ribbon mic upright on a short floor stand, and positioned it at the point where the guitar neck meets the body.  I found that I had to position the mic closer to the guitar than my usual condenser mics - probably around 10 to 15 cm in order to get the best signal.

Because the stereo imaging was pointing approximately 45 degrees towards the sound hole and the 9th fret from that location, I noticed that the right channel was significantly louder than the left.  Makes sense of course, as the right channel was pointing towards the soundboard where all the actual tone is generated, and the left channel was merely pointing towards my left hand on the neck.  I actually wanted to keep it that way so that the left channel picked up the fret noises and string squeaks as I moved around, while the right channel would pick up my right hand picking noises.  I simply boosted the input signal on my audio interface for the left channel until they matched.

The audio interface I was using was a Yamaha/Steinberg UR-22 that I 'borrowed' from my son.  Not my usual Apogee Duet because I now have a new iMac without Firewire.  I am on the lookout for a 4+ channel Thunderbolt audio interface.

As per usual, I recorded the track in Logic X, which has become my DAW of choice.  I simply set up two tracks - one for each side of the mic, and hit record.

This was also the first time I used Logic's multi take feature.  Normally I will do a single take and then manually 'punch in' any corrections over any mistakes I may (and usually do) make.  However, this time I did 3 consecutive ordinary takes, and used the 'sweep' method to pick the best bits of each take and comp them together into one decent take.

The way this works is that you will see the three takes all under each other, and as you are playing back, you can simply use the mouse cursor to 'sweep' an area on track 1, 2 or 3 in order to make that the 'active' block that is merged into the final track.  I could not believe how quick and easy this process was.  My old method was so tedious and resulted in many pops and clicks where I meshed the takes together badly, however this technique does a smooth fade in/fade out of the takes to eliminate all that.

Of course, you have to be absolutely spot on with the timing, and record everything to a metronome and stay on the beat for this to work.  At least it gave me a lot of practice in playing in perfect time!

Once I put together the three takes into one, I noted that the audio levels were still really low, though they had a nice character, so in post processing, I decided to use ONLY the Slate Digital plugins to tweak the EQ and add compression.  I used the Slate Virtual Mix Rack plugin on each track to EQ out some boomy bass and add some high end sparkle.  Then I used their Virtual Buss Compressor plugin to boost the volumes and even out the levels.  Finally, I used their Virtual Tape Machine plugin to add some good old tape warmth to the track.

The song here is "Growing Up" by Masaaki Kishibe.  I have really come to enjoy the pure melodic qualities of Kishibe's compositions, and intend to learn quite a few more of his songs in the future.

Here is the final result.  Hope you like it.


I must say I enjoyed recording on my new iMac - I had this one spec'd out with the 4GHz Core i7 processor and 3GB of RAM as well as an SSD drive.  It didn't miss a beat unlike my poor 8 year old ancient MacBook Pro.

For this recording, I used my beautiful Taylor BTO guitar, with a brand new set of Elixir Nanoweb strings on it.  The song is played with a capo on the second fret, and with the slightly shorter scale of this guitar, I think it gives it a nice bright sound.

Recording guitar with 4 microphones on my Macbook Pro

In my last blog post, I posted about revisiting the acoustic guitar again, and I posted a song there called "The Fisherman".  Normally when I record guitar, I use two inputs - the inbuilt guitar pickup/preamp, as well as a microphone somewhere near the soundhole.

For THIS particular recording though, I wanted to try something different.  I wanted to try up to 4 different recording inputs!  The problem though, was that I only had an audio interface with 2 input channels.  I am using an Apogee Duet, which as its name suggests, is a two input, two output device.

How then would I get 4 inputs?  Well, I recently purchased a Steinberg UR22 (once again, a 2 input, 2 output audio interface) for my son.  The Apogee Duet has a Firewire interface, whereas the Steinberg has a USB interface.  I thought that I might use BOTH on my ageing 2009 17" MacBook Pro.

Plugging in the Steinberg was a piece of cake.  I had to download the latest OS X driver from the Steinberg site, and the device was recognised immediately on my system.  Great.

The main problem came up when I fired up Logic X.  I discovered that Logic will only recognise ONE input device, and ONE input device only.  I could only choose between the Duet, or the UR22 as my input, giving me only 2 input channels in total at any one time.

The solution - was actually pretty easy, and took less time than plugging in and setting up the UR22 in the first place!

The secret is - Aggregated Audio Devices.  OS X has a nifty feature which allows you to combine two or more hardware (or software) devices into a single virtual device.

Under your 'Applications' folder on your Mac, there is a folder called 'Utilities'.  In there, is an app called 'Audio MIDI Setup'.  Fire it up, and you will see a screen with all your hardware (and software) audio devices.

Click the little '+' button on the lower left corner, and you will be able to set up a new aggregated device.  I ticked the Duet and the UR22 so I could use both devices together.  I set up the Duet as the master clock device for the MIDI clock, and I nominated that I wanted to use Input 1 and 2 on the Apogee, as well as Input 1 and 2 on the Steinberg (see image below).

I called my Aggregate Device the 'Dueberg', which was my amalgamation of the words 'Duet' and 'Steinberg' :)

Note that I had KRK Rokit 5 monitors already plugged into my Duet, and nothing plugged into the output ports of the UR22, so I ticked ONLY the 2 output channels on the Duet in my aggregate device.  This effectively gave me a 4 input, 2 output device.

Sure enough, when I went back to Logic X, I could choose the 'Dueberg' as my input device, and was able to set up 4 tracks with Inputs 1, 2, 3 and 4 across the two audio interfaces recording simultaneously.

For those that are curious, I set up the inputs as follows:

  • Apogee Duet Input 1 - Direct from Guitar pickup/preamp
  • Apogee Duet Input 2 - Rode NT-1A
  • Steinberg UR22 Input 1 - AKG C5
  • Steinberg UR22 Input 2 - AKG D40

The NT-1A was placed about 12 inches from the soundhole.  The C5 was placed near the lower bout and pointed at a 45 degree angle at the bridge of the guitar, about 10 inches away.  The D40 was placed directly over the 12th fret, pointing straight at it from around 6 inches away.

I am not sure if the sound was any better than my older recordings, but I felt I had more scope to play with the frequencies and tone shaping this way, including panning each mic left and right to create more 'space' in the end recording.

In the end, this was an easy and cheap way to get 4 inputs working in short order.  I was actually considering getting a Focusrite audio interface with 4 or 8 inputs on it, but this proved to be a far cheaper solution.

Hope it proves useful to others out there.