Producer's VU - February 1997

producers-vu-logo-2by Craig Rogers

When is four tracks more than four tracks? When Hal Knapp, Production Director of Z100/New York is digging deep into a basic ProTools II system. Some of Hal's "Planet Z" sweepers have been featured on The Cassette in the past months, and they are amazing pieces. This time we get to find out how Hal put one of them together. There's a ton of production that goes by in 24 seconds. Check it out on The Cassette and read here about how he produced it.

First, what the heck is Planet Z? It's a live Saturday night show Z100 originates from a different club each week. For this particular week, the show was at a club called Tribecca in New Jersey.

z100-logoIn the Z100 studio, in addition to Pro-Tools, is Turbosynth (a virtual synthesizer for Macintosh), a 12-channel Auditronics series 200 control board, a Yamaha SPX90II, Sony/MCI 2-tracks (2), Orban 674A EQ, Orban 424A compressor, Studer A730 CD player, Emerson cassette recorder, and a "Fisher-Price" (Hal's term) phonograph. The mic is a Shure SM7. Some of the effects you'll hear are of his own creation and are found on the XFX package he markets with v/o guy Sean Caldwell.

The music bed is a series of loops from a CD of samples. Hal found a measure he liked and looped it on tracks 1 and 2. Since he's only looped a measure, he doesn't want it to get repetitive, so about :08 in, the music bed changes to a new loop. A third loop starts after the stop in the middle.

Hal loads in the basic voice tracks from Keith Eubanks. The filter effect is already recorded by Keith onto his voice tracks. One of Hal's goals is to have Keith's v/o hitting on the beat. He'll assemble the music bed first, then drag and drop Keith's v/o soundfiles to match the beats. Any gaps he leaves in Keith's v/o are prime spots for drop-ins.

A channel change from XFX opens the piece, and then you're hit with a looped drop-in. This was taken from an old children's record and recorded to track 3. Hal used the LP scratch effect to emphasize the loop. The scratch is on track 4. Note how this loop matches the beat as well.

With Pro-Tools, Hal can crossfade between two soundfiles on the same tracks. For example, the channel change effect at the open is on 1 and 2. That crossfades immediately into the music loop which is also on 1 and 2. For a short bit, both files are being played on the same tracks. This is one way Hal can make four tracks do the work of more than four tracks.

After the loop from the kiddy record ends, Keith's voice occupies track 3. On his first "Z-100" mention, the "Z" stutters and rapidly pans L-R-L. Hal can accomplish this using only one track in ProTools. He zooms in on the first "Z." He highlights this portion of the waveform and pans it left. He then zooms in on the second "Z," highlights it and pans it right, and so on. Now when the sound file plays back, the track snaps L-R-L more quickly than he could pan by hand, plus he only had to use one track to do it. With ProTools, you're not actually panning the track, you're assigning a pan to the soundfile. That file will play back with the same panning no matter what track it is assigned to.

To get the stutter on "with" he simply copied the same sound file four times. Says Hal, "The whole idea behind that looping was to make it sound like Eubanks was stammering and couldn't remember Paul Bryant's name." The reason is that Hal didn't have tape of Keith saying "Paul Bryant." So, he had Paul step into the studio and do that one line. The snap that stops the "with" loop is a single drum hit Hal pulled from a sample CD.

The sweep up that starts the third music bed comes from XFX. Next comes a phrase put together from two drop-ins. The first ("Listen to the radio") comes from a unique source. Remember sitting in 7th grade science with the film projector rolling? Well, Hal's father is an elementary school principal. Those films are now videos, and Hal secured a few from his dad. He says these tapes are a gold mine for drop-ins.

The second drop-in ("where the monotonous daily routine becomes a popular indoor sport") has several interesting effects. The line was stripped from a program on the Discovery channel. Hal recorded this line onto track 3 and copied it to track 4. He deleted little bits of the file on track 3 in time with the music to give it a staccato effect. Then he moved the unaltered soundfile on track 4 down the track a few milliseconds to give a slapback echo effect.

Now, let's look at another ProTools' feature that makes this 4-track system perform well beyond what you would think four tracks could do. With "virtual tracks" Hal can record much more than just four tracks worth of material. Each track can have its own processing, panning, level, etc.. However, you can only play back four tracks at any one time. Hal says, "If you were to open up one of my Planet Z files, you might see ten virtual tracks. But I can only play back four of them at a time." Let's use the term "tracks" from here on to refer to tracks of audio. Let's use the term "voices" to refer to the four "slots" where these tracks can be played.

As long as one of the voices doesn't have something else actually playing back on it, Hal can assign a virtual track to that voice. This is how he can get different EQ curves playing back through the same voice: track 3 has no EQ, but track 5 does. They play back through the same voice, but not at the same time. For example, the main Eubanks voice track is on track 3 assigned to voice 3. On track 5, a virtual track, Hal has added some EQ to Eubanks' voice. He assigns virtual track 5 to voice 3 also. When track 3 is not playing back through voice 3, track 5, with the different EQ, can.

Now, lets go just a bit deeper (get your mining helmets). Using the ProTools internal mixer, Hal can assign each track to one of the four physical outputs of the system. He assigns tracks 1-4 to play back through outputs 1 and 2. Tracks 5-10 play back through outputs 3 or 4. Output 3 serves as the feed to the SPX-90. The SPX-90 is then routed back to inputs 3 and 4 of ProTools. Using the ProTools internal mixer, Hal creates a stereo return fader on the mixer screen and routes that to outputs 1 and 2 of ProTools (with me so far?). By controlling the level of that stereo return fader, he controls the amount of effect. The SPX-90 is mono in and stereo out which adds a spread to those mono tracks. The "Z-100" that closes the promo plays back from tracks 1 and 2 where the music bed is also playing. Hal again uses the cross fade capabilities of Pro-tools to prevent an abrupt transition from the music to the voice. That tag is an effected voice that Hal already had in his archives.

That's a lot of producing to try to put into words. So start up The Cassette and try to hear all this in the sweeper. You'll hear how powerful a system ProTools is, especially in the hands of someone who knows it's limitations and, probably, how to exceed them. And just think, Hal is getting ready to install a 32 track system soon!

Producer's VU takes the month of March off to make room on The Cassette for the highly coveted RAP Awards. Good luck to all and see you in April!