Auto-punch!

well, ain't that a punch in the face...

I just figured out how to do auto-punches, and it sort of saved my ass.

See, when you’re recording, there’s this thing you can do called a punch-in. It doesn’t involve punching anyone, though it would be kind of funny if it did. When there’s part of a performance you want to record over without having to redo the whole thing, you set a track to record only during a very specific portion of the song, you punch in, you fix whatever needs to be fixed, and then you punch out, leaving the rest of the track intact.

Instead of using punch-ins, a lot of people will comp things, especially when it comes to vocal tracks. You record several takes. Then you edit together your favourite pieces of each one to create a composite that becomes the final vocal track. What you’re left with is not a continuous performance, but many pieces of different performances stitched together. This is done all the time by lots of people from all musical walks of life. Chances are most of the music you and I own and listen to is full of songs that feature little pieces of different vocal takes spliced together to make one smooth performance, unless it was recorded long ago, before the advent of things like digital recording and pitch correction software.

I can’t be bothered with comping anything. It’s too time-consuming, and while I understand why most people choose to do it and I can respect that way of working, it just doesn’t fit in with what I want to do. I’d rather record continuous performances, and if they don’t work out, I’d rather start from the beginning and try again. I want emotional continuity. I don’t want to sit for hours combing through takes, cutting and pasting and splitting hairs.

But sometimes there’s an ugly little flub or something I can’t live with, as much as I want things to stay human and imperfect. That’s where punch-ins come into play.

I record my vocals close enough to the mixer that any necessary punch-ins can be done pretty quick and easy. Punching in and out becomes more complicated when it comes to things like drums and piano. I have to walk a good ten feet or more from the mixer after hitting the record button to get to those instruments. So if I botch a drum fill or hit too many bad notes on the piano, it usually means having to re-record the whole performance from the beginning.

I could probably rig something up with a foot pedal to operate as a start/stop button, but that still wouldn’t completely solve the problem. In most cases it isn’t a problem anyway. I walk over to the mixer, erase what I just did, and hope the next pass is better. If after a few tries it isn’t happening, I consider the song toast, and I eat it after spreading the appropriate amount of peanut butter.

Something I seem to be doing a lot lately is taking a song that doesn’t feature piano as the main instrument and improvising piano on top of it to see what happens, without bothering to figure out what I’m going to do beforehand — pretty much the same approach I’ve been taking behind the drums over the last little while. I blame having a real piano for this. I just want to throw that thing in every crevice I can.

For one song called “Molly, Go Home” (the eight-minute-long “feels like the centerpiece of the album” track I mentioned in the last post), everything was fine up until about the six minute mark. Then I hit some ugly notes. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a better take than what I’d just done. But there was no way I could run over to the piano after hitting the record button and make it there in time to punch in from the moment of ugliness. I had about half a second of dead space to work with.

It wasn’t looking good.

Then I remembered something. The day I recorded my parts for Tara’s album at Eric’s place, for the few songs where we needed to fix a rough spot he would set up an automated punch-in. That way we could start the playback before the punch point, giving me a bit of time to prepare while still only recording over the specific segment we wanted to replace.

I figured this wasn’t something I could do, since I don’t work with any kind of recording software. But a quick manual consultation taught me otherwise. As hard as it is to believe, my obsolete digital mixer is also capable of executing the magical thing that is an auto-punch. It’s not just a pretty face. It does tricks!

I set the times I wanted recording to start and end at, specified the tracks I wanted to record on, gave myself a good twenty seconds of lead-in time, and went to town. I was able to keep the first six minutes intact and replace the ugliness after that, all while walking over to the piano instead of running like a man about to projectile vomit all over the place, trying to avert disaster.

This isn’t a feature I’ll use too often, because like I said, I prefer to capture warts-and-all continuous performances. But it’s good to know I can do this sort of thing when it’s necessary, saving myself some time and foul-mouthed ranting. So hooray for you, auto-punch. You’s my friend.

I have two songs I still need to record for this new album, two songs that need to be tweaked and mixed, and then if my sequencing ideas and the packaging side of things work out the album should be finished. I aim to get that done this week. So if all goes according to plan, you should be able to hold it in your hands and use it as a weapon sometime next week. Not that you could really do much damage with the CD, but you could at least inflict a scratch or two.

Be prepared — it’s going to be a shorter album. Looks like it’ll only have about twelve or thirteen songs on it, and the running time will only work out to about an hour. I guess that isn’t a very short album in the grand scheme of things, but by my recent standards it’s a little on the lean side. Oddly enough, I think it covers more ground (sound-wise, at least) than any of the last few albums that featured twice as many songs, and it kind of redefines and messes with the sonic landscape of my music to some extent — though not nearly with as much force as I plan on messing with it in the future.

I’m not sure it’s quite my Achtung Baby, and I haven’t suddenly turned into a proper/groundbreaking “producer” or anything crazy like that, but it’s got some moments on it that dip into new and uncharted territory for me. It’s a pretty weird summer album. It’ll be interesting to see how people react to it.

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