Friday, 8 June 2018

Backup? What Backup?


Celebrating 10 years of fun and sessions, we finally released 3 albums on 7th June - Woohoo! (check out the trailer here).

We nearly didn't make it... but more on the sparks flying off the power supply later! 

Firstly though, 3 albums seemed like a huge task to complete on occasional evenings, so I probably need to find a few facts to understand the scale...
  • ~30 larger recording sessions over 10 years, ~600 hours recording sessions
  • 380GB/~620 hours of multitrack WAVs (320GB via cubase projects and 60GB via Logic)
  • 2,158 Project files: 1,268 Cubase | 781 Reason | 109 Logic (distinct count excluding versions will be lower of course, but there's no way I'm figuring that out!)
  • ~500 recorded tunes - normal recording time was ~20 mins per tune, so total raw mixdown would be over 200hrs
  • In early 2017, we had 109 tunes on the potential albums
  • By April 2017, only managed to cut to 87 tracks over 6 hours. Based on status and duration, I estimated it would take 278 hours to finish it all, which would easily take a year of 2 hour evenings.
  • We finally ended up with 46 tracks over 3 hours (and another album or two waiting in the wings)
Hmm... boiled down to simple stats it seems like it could have been fairly easy!

The "Studio"

Ok, so "studio" is a bit of an exaggeration. We've been recording in sheds, bedrooms, attics and empty houses for 10 years. Brian's worked in a wardrobe in Melbourne, and in 2013 I was lucky enough to get a corner in the kitchen with a tiny chair and a nice Christmas tablecloth (seriously). A house in Leitrim is a real treat with plenty of space where we can turn up and have some fun (assuming we can make it past 9pm and 2 beers!). Sessions in Leitrim are usually 24 hour events, sometimes longer. We'd throw on a beat, improvise for 20-40 minutes and maybe record 10-12 tunes (I don't think about the editing at this point!). The evening would usually descend into chaos, and we'd push up the tempo as the night goes on (to reduce risk of passing out). I definitely forgot to arm a track or two over the years, and remembering to correctly increment cubase and reason project files was a challenge that resulted in quite a few losses.

In terms of gear, nearly everything ran on an old Dell P4 PC upgraded to a whopping 4GB Ram. It's probably only still alive because it was never connected to the web to get upgrades that nobody wants. It's not pretty having no mixer or snazzy control surfaces, and there is a general absence of anything resembling a good microphone. Finally got Rokit monitors in 2015, and their first task was mixing Fishbowl, which was one of the most enjoyable experiences ever. HD650 headphones I got in 2017 are a must for anybody working in a dark corner! Bought a Mac in 2017 to cater for the impending failure of the PC, and of course M-Audio decided to stop updating drivers for their Fasttrack Ultra8R, so I had to re-soundcard - the new Focusrite 18i20 is pretty smooth (although thinking of moving on already). The efficiency/productivity gains when moving from Windows XP to the real world are just insane.

The Production Process

So, of course we started playing with the Mac right away. Apart from new stuff, we dragged some half worked mp3s into logic and got going on vocal ideas, an occasional overdub, a bit of synth fun, etc.  After a few months of this, we had ~60GB of overdubs in Logic which would surely help to wrap up all these tunes. Although, only doing 2 hours in evenings after work, that would take 140 days 
From this point, a few obstacles started to emerge in the (not so) carefully planned production process:
  1. With most of the recordings on the old PC (in Cubase and Reason projects), and vocal and other instruments on the Mac (in logic), we had a slight compatibility issue to overcome. (Lesson 1: Get organised before you start recording)
  2. Of course, we can just export stems ...but the old version of cubase doesn't have a stem export feature, and no useful option to export the project file/metadata. I had a great idea - export stems for the overdubs from logic and import into the legacy Cubase setup. Easy you'd think, but the blue screen of death screamed "NO" every time (despite thousands of other imports without issue). (Lesson 2: Keep your gear up to date)
  3. Moving on swiftly, blue screens made me start to think about maybe having a better backup of the old 400GB external hard drive with everything on it. When I noticed blue sparks flying off the power supply, that was mildly concerning. I immediately employed an advanced backup strategy - not quite RAID 6, but it did the job! (Lesson 3: always have various types of tape nearby)
  4. Finally got around to export stems one by one from Cubase, which required soloing one track and doing a mixdown (of course, making sure not to accidentally leave the required track selected or the export would be silent).  Did I mention the Pentium 4? Export speed was close to real time, so it could easily take 2+ hours to export stems for one tune. Luckily my brain never made the calculation that it was a 4 week full time job just to export stems... for tunes that might not even make the cut. (Lesson 4: Seriously, keep your gear up to date - invest in your own productivity)
  5. One day, I found time to do a whole 12 hours of exporting stems. Being conscious of the blue sparks on the hard drive I was very clever and made sure to export to a more reliable USB stick. When finished the brain-numbing task there was absolutely nothing on the USB stick when I plugged it into the Mac. Back to the PC pretty sharpish, but all gone. I spent quite a while looking for those files - I know they were there but I still have no idea where they went. (Lesson 5: Always approach major tasks with modular methods involving integrated verification and frequent auditing processes)
  6. At this stage, I realised it was all just a test and I was determined that the fuckers would not grind me down. I upgraded to full trauma the day the PC started random adventures into the blue screen of death, and eventually refused to boot - I had a bit of a panic attack that day - everything lost! There was no point in any data backups if I didn't have the machine or software to work it. Just after I accepted defeat, I tried the power switch just once more... Woohoo! The journey continues!  (Lesson 6: Make sure to plug the keyboard in correctly before trying to boot an old PC... and maybe think of backups)
  7. The M-Audio Fasttrack Ultra 8R, which had worked well for 7 years, started behaving a bit strangely since being taken on a holiday to New Zealand in 2016. It gradually degraded until it would just reset itself for no reason, completely unpredictable - in the middle of playback, while exporting audio, etc. - I had to watch every one of those stem exports like a hawk to make sure I didn't end up with half a wav file. I was getting depressed at this stage, particularly with a soundcard reset every 30 mins or so, and in absolute frustration I got out the old Creative Audigy2 soundcard... OMG... it still worked! It took a couple of hours to turn the sample rate configuration cranks, but I could finally work on the old PC again (Lesson 7: never throw out old gear ...unless it has an M-Audio logo)
  8. Finally, I had all my stems near/on the Mac and set about the final editing and mixing process, but it was so bloody complicated. With around 100 tunes to work through, I mostly didn't know what I was doing. Logic projects had one name and a bunch of stems from source project had another name. The pages of written notes conflicted with the comments added to Mp3s, which obviously had different names in iTunes where I tried to organise them. Then the lads popped over an email suggesting it'd be good to rename a couple of the tunes! WTF! (Lesson 8: When you are in a deep hole, convert your problems and task lists to data, create a dashboard in excel and spend almost as much time monitoring your progress as you do working... at least until you get bored with it)
  9. More finally, with everything nearly there in Logic, I remembered I had the good mastering plugins on the old PC... sigh... I took a lazy scan through some mastering guidance, but I eventually stopped reading and just bulldozed through it all with very little grace. Although the years of constant listening and refinement helped with the editing/mixing, it probably didn't help for the mastering. (Lesson 9: When you've really had enough and you can't go on, dig deep and focus on the details)

The Result?

There was some dramatic hatcheting at times to get to the 46 tunes on 3 albums. I did want to have 4 different albums released on the same day on different colour vinyl with pristine artwork, but I'm pretty happy with what made it through (and keeping costs of the entire production to around $150 is a definite plus!). Have a listen and decide for yourself (we'll be adding to SoundCloud in near future, so would love your comments over there if you're browsing).

I hope you like some of the tunes, because it took a lot of love to deal with that technical horror. Let's be clear, it was an absolute fucking nightmare! Delighted to be over it and looking forward to playing with the new gear more... although the Mac is a year old now, so I'd best start thinking about upgrades and replacements (or preparing to repeat all the same mistakes again at least).

Friday, 28 July 2017

Been a while

It's been way too long... over the last year it was great to release a few tunes like fishbowl. Now, there's many hours of nearly finished tunes - at least a 4 disc album, possibly 6 discs, excluding the more recent sessions.

So, the next few months of attention are on trying to wrap up those tunes and summarise the last 10 years of amazingly good times. The impending doom of the pentium 4 computer, and terrible backup strategy, are great incentives to get it done. If the tech dies, it will not be happening.

In parallel, we've got some great new hardware globally and a bright future of possibility - can't wait to get stuck in!

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Fishbowl

oops... forgot about this blog recently.

Delighted to be releasing Fishbowl today - was a difficult 40 minutes of insanity to navigate through! At one stage it was probably down to about 4 mins, but absolutely delightful to just let it flow instead of trying to cut to some time defined by others...  More of that letting a tune breath, we can hope!

https://soundcloud.com/virtualtrio/fishbowl


Saturday, 15 February 2014

Twisting

Joy to get album wrapped, and brilliant to see collaboration and different views steering it thru possible directions.

Now to find somebody willing to invest themselves in promotion.

And enjoying the new experiments already.... Will be interesting to see where it goes!

Monday, 2 December 2013

Vacancy - union rep

Due to unproductive working environment of current studio, a vacancy has arisen for a union rep to uphold artist rights in the ongoing fight against capitalism.

Candidates with a proven ability to proactively resolve issues are desired, particularly those who are capable of acquiring normal size chairs and tables and/or burning Christmas tablecloths. Candidates with massage or orthopedic re-alignment skills will also be looked upon favourably, as will those who can organise a studio larger than 1 cubed metre.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Nothing beats a deadline

2 weeks left to wrap up more than 40% of the album really brings focus.

Holy crap, double time and no more watching breaking bad!!