In the aftermath of 2020, “remote” has become one of the biggest buzzwords for every industry, and music is no exception. If you’re reading this article, you are probably already well aware that there are many musicians recording remotely, many composers and producers hiring remotely, and you may be at the point where you’re asking: how do I get in on this game? Whether you’re a cellist looking for solid information to get started, or a composer wondering how the process works and how to trust in its creative integrity, I’ve got you covered. As a full time freelance cellist, who has been recording remotely for far longer than covid, I will briefly cover all the ins and outs to put your mind at ease, and get you ready to go. Let’s get started!
The Basic Process
The most common form of remote recording starts with the composer or producer preparing a mix down of their track as it is - or a midi mockup/tempo information of some kind if it’s a written composition. The mixdown file, along with any midi or sheet music (if available) and creative ideas for what to record is sent to the musician. The musician then digests all the information, and creates their magic in their home studio, ultimately bouncing out dry stems that line up with the mixdown or reference track for easy import. These stems will ideally be edited for cleanliness and other basic production tidying. And that’s it! Easy peasy.
There are many ways to prepare your tracks for maximum benefit to the creative authenticity of the musician’s performance. This is, after, probably the biggest fear of recording remotely. How good can it be without the creative feedback of the producer or engineer? Well, for starters, I find it easier when I’m recording at home to feel at ease relative to in a studio, and I also feel more confident doing many takes if it needs, or doing my own comping. By having my engineering process down, I believe the result is at least more faithful to myself as a musician than the result in a real studio - one of the many reasons I have been interested in this for a while.
But there are a few methods you can to help your creative vision come across. The most straightforward communication perhaps is simply describing what you want with timestamps. For example, “I’m hearing cello softly coming in with the vocal at 0:33, and then building through the chorus without overpowering. During the big section from 3:33 on, feel free to go wild.” Sending a reference song of the cello you like can be even more visceral. Finally, I’ve had a client who includes, along with the bounce of his song, two additional tracks, one on which he is singing a cello part he hears, and the other where he is verbally describing what should happen in that section. But the most important step is probably just choosing a cellist who already fits your vibe/has great experience/etc, as I now get work from clients who simply say “do your thing.”
If there is something else you hear after receiving your tracks, for sure ask for an additional recording or tweak. Personally, I’ve had this happen only a couple times out of a couple hundred recordings, but if there is something, just be mindful it may take another day even for something small, as the musician’s workflow or other obligations might make a simple thing still take until the next recording session.
We will assume for a start that you are a competent cellist who already has a great playing skillset to offer (otherwise, that is step one). By taking on the role of “remote cellist,” you are venturing a little beyond mere cello territory. You will now need to be engineer and composer (assuming you are coming up with your own parts). Check out my other articles going deeper into layering cello and how to mic cello as these are deep topics. But definitely watch some videos on the basics of recording to make sure your room isn’t too echoey, has poor reflections, or in other ways does not make the recording optimal for your sound. The cheapest way to get started is hanging blankets around any exposed walls. The best way to check: test your setup before recording so that you can tweak as needed for a great sound.
You’ll want to have a good mic, at least a few hundred dollars for one most likely. My favorite are the Shure SM7B, the AKG C414, the Avantone CV-12, and the Audio Technica AT4050. Ideally, use two mics, connected through an interface. Most low end interfaces have two inputs. PreSonus and Focusrite are tried and true brands. You’ll also need some sort of DAW, or digital audio workstation, to record into. If you have a MacBook, you can get started with Garageband, but Logic is not very expensive and much more powerful. For windows users, Audacity is free and easy to use, but getting Cubase or Reaper will again go much further. The standard mic technique for a normal sound is 3 to 4 feet in front of the instrument, a little bit higher than the bridge (so the f holes face it), and for pop or close mic’d cello, about a foot or two in front of the bass side f hole (bow hand side). Record with your gain such that your average gain is about -13db to -18db. You can record hotter, or louder, but mix engineers will likely reduce it to that anyway, as analog modeled plugins work best around -15db. Definitely don’t clip, or go about 0db, at any point.
A great rule of thumb for finding a nice, rich cello sound for a song is to figure out the roots of the chords. Be careful when doing this that the bass is not always the root, and that root motion movement is not always as linear as higher voice movement. One thing you can do before tracking is make a little transcription of the roots of all the chords. Recording a nice rendition of that can go a long way to warming up a mix, especially if you record it twice so it can be panned hard left and hard right. Use a similar process for finding higher voices, but I go deeper into this in another article.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure your parts are edited. Cut away any parts where you weren’t playing, being careful to add a fade at the start and end of each region so there isn’t a clipping sound. If you want/need, adjust pitch using one of various pitch correcting plugins, just being aware that this definitely changes the color of the recording, so it is better to listen closely for pitch and use comping, or slicing different takes together to make the ideal one, is the best process. Similarly, pay attention to rhythm/time. Where there are strong downbeats, you’ll want to line up with those, for example. Or in a big layered pop section, hits should be precisely on the grid. Cut and drag the part of the region with the note that’s not lined up so that it lines up, again being careful to crossfade so that it sounds natural. When everything sounds great, solo out each track and bounce/export it with a naming system that makes sense, like “Cello Roots L Mic 1.” This will help the file management of the producer. Before uploading for the client, you’ll last want to import the files into a new session of your DAW to check that a) it still sounds good to you b) there is no metronome click that bounced with the audio c) that they are all the same length, ie the full track bounced the same each time and all stems are lined up together, and d) look over the waveforms for any other irregularities, pops, etc. Finally, compress the folder with all the bounces and upload for your client with the upload service of your choice.
Thank you all for reading this brief overview of the remote recording process for cello. Hopefully you gained something useful from this article whatever your intended purpose is. For cellists, be sure to read my other articles going deeper into cello recording. For all, be sure to stay followed on youtube and instagram, @TheVagabondCellist. Thanks again for reading, and hope to see you soon.