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Recording with Shine On

Last week I had a good challenge.

Shine Theatre Group has a selection of children who perform with Mel Upton, and come from schools specialising in teaching kids with special needs. I, through my relationship with Shine, have known most of these kids for years and have watched them grow up from young, shy, entirely dependent gems, to adults living in almost independent accommodation by themselves or at least, with a couple of friends – it’s been wonderful to witness their development.

Due to Shine being a youth theatre group, the cut-off age is 18. How heart-wrenching it is to see the last performance of a young person with the group, but it’s also exciting to know they are heading off into the real world, no longer children blinking in the spotlights, but adults finding their footings on the social ladder.

A unique group was setup in 2008 for the special needs children who sadly were too old to be a part off the youth section. Called Shine-On, there was a ‘graduation’ where each graduate were given the chance to perform one last time, but then continued to meet once a month for various activities – drama workshops, theatre visits, dance lessons – that sort of thing. Well, this month was my pleasure to host a ‘workshop’ in the studio. The four members, now in their mid to late 20’s worked on the beautiful ballad ‘You Raise Me Up’ with Mel and came armed with percussive instruments, packed-lunches, cameras and lyric sheets.

I knew it was going to be a fun day but emotional day, when Darren’s first words to me were “I’ve been looking forward to this all week” and I got a bear hug that had me gasping for breath by Charlotte.

It was billed as a workshop, with me demonstrating how a song is recorded and trying a selection of different recording methods for the voices and instruments that they played during the instrumental section, but of course, the aim of the day was to produce a polished song. Much as I’d been looking forward to the session; spending the time with them and Mel – who is like a Goddess to so many people, but even more so to the Shine On members, I was very aware of what sort of sound I was going to manage to record. Speech is difficult for most of them and singing is harder – so there lies my problem: As a professional studio engineer it is my job to create a nice sounding record. But if I simply captured the sound they made and sent them away with that, I don’t think anyone would be satisfied.

My moral dilemma has been – to tune, or not to tune?

I make no secrets about tuning my singers – The issue is, if you spend the time you need to make the perfectly pitched vocal take, you loose character and performance qualities, which in my opinion are way more important than singing in tune. I hardly need to tune very much, but if I didn’t, what sounded fine at the time (and would be perfectly acceptable live) doesn’t sound so good 20 listens down-the-line – nay, it can almost drive you crazy when you hear a slightly flat note, as it’s there for ever! So a run through the incredibly impressive and completely transparent Melodyne, keeps the punters happy.

Now, I wouldn’t be fooling anyone, if I created pitch perfect vocal takes for the four performers I had this week. However, if the end result was completely unprocessed, it wouldn’t make for the best souvenir of the day.

So, here’s what I’ve done: As a compromise, I’ve left most of the tuning untouched, unless it was close to the right note or a dominant one in the key of the song. The occasional note would start in tune, but then slide downwards making nasty dissonances, so I’ve straightened them to sit right.

If there was one voice, that’s where I would have left it, but for the regular amounts of eq and compression.

However, 4 voices singing slightly different rhythms is also hard to listen to, so I’ve taken liberties with the timings and stretched the worst offenders into place with the rest.

We now have a record that not only sounds nice, but also represents the people who are singing on it. I had a job mixing this song – not necessarily because of the challenges stated above, but because I have a big space in my heart for these wonderful people and it was tough holding back the tears.

I hope they like it.

You Raise Me UpClick to play:

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