Pro Techniques
Pro Techniques from Rob Cavallo & Doug McKean of Green Day
By Randy Alberts

Green Day; photo by Marina Chavez
Green Day met producer Rob Cavallo when he was VP of A&R at Reprise Records in the early '90s, resulting in the neo-punk genre-defining, 14 million-selling Dookie. Cavallo, a Grammy award-winning producer who has also produced major film soundtracks and worked with such artists as the Goo Goo Dolls, Alanis Morissette, Less Than Jake, John Rzeznik, and Eric Clapton, went on to co-produce every Green Day record since that first album.

But none of his Green Day experiences to date — including Dookie, Nimrod, Insomniac, Warning, and dozens of singles and EPs — quite prepared Cavallo for this year's seven major Grammy nominations. Green Day's epic punk rock opus, American Idiot, was nominated for awards including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Rock Song, and another Producer of the Year nod to Cavallo. And on February 13, 2005, American Idiot was named Best Rock Album of 2004.

Pro Tools in Studio Green Day
American Idiot was recorded at Ocean Way Recording and Capitol Records' Studio B by Cavallo, Chris Lord-Alge, and recording engineer/Pro Tools expert Doug McKean. A Pro Tools user since 1994, McKean has also worked with Live, Tom Tom Club, the X-Ecutioners, and other major artists. He and Cavallo have worked together many times in the past, including projects for the Goo Goo Dolls and new albums for Lalaine and Paris Hilton.

McKean was able to exercise all his Pro Tools skills for American Idiot's complex arrangements and huge sound. And it took a system like their massive Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel workstation, which Cavallo refers to as "the largest system in the world," to handle this amazing record and its varied arrangements.

Green Day's American Idiot won "Best Rock
Album" at the 2004 Grammy® awards ceremony.
"Pro Tools|HD was essential to the recording process for American Idiot," McKean says. "Using the computer to store and organize basic takes and overdubs gave Rob and the band the freedom to experiment and piece together the album in a way that would have been nearly impossible using traditional recording methods."

Pro Tools played a significant part outside the recording studio as well, adds McKean. "Billie [Joe Armstrong] has his own Pro Tools setup for working on songs at home. The band wanted to create an album that worked as a whole, musically, thematically, and sonically. With Pro Tools, we were able to make dramatic changes to any part of the record at any time."

The "largest system in the world" was especially welcome when it came time to work with the drums. "Pro Tools allowed us to edit the drums on American Idiot efficiently," Cavallo says. "You just can't beat editing drums with Pro Tools."

Delivering Rent On Time with Pro Tools
Cavallo and McKean are currently using their Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel and Pro Tools|HD 2 Accel systems together to record the upcoming film soundtrack of the musical Rent. Working with new arrangements from director Chris Columbus, they'll soon head to Skywalker Studio in Northern California, where they will spend a month recording the cast's vocals for the soundtrack.

"We're taking video and audio from the Rent rehearsals and concurrently building tracks around the new arrangements the director is coming up with," McKean explains. "The new tracks will be mixed to stems for playback for the actual shoot, allowing them to make changes, if necessary, right on the set. By keeping the project completely within Pro Tools|HD for all the production phases, we can make both subtle and significant changes whenever necessary. And by using the great automation features in Pro Tools 6.7, we plan to tailor the sonics to better match the visual FX in the film."

For Cavallo, Pro Tools has been instrumental in meeting the challenges of the Rent sessions. "We had to track 28 songs in 25 days, many of which are very complicated pieces of music," he says, noting that the Rent tracks include rock, punk, salsa, Latin percussion, tango, and large orchestral pieces, reflecting the roles of the film's various cast characters. "We'll be tracking as many as 32 vocalists per song up at Skywalker. Doug and I could not have taken on this project without Pro Tools."

Pro Technique 1 — Matching guitar tremolo swells to tempo maps
McKean initially tracked Green Day's American Idiot to a click track, but in many places he pulled the click out or generated a new click after recording the band. This allowed him and Cavallo to capture more natural tempos for specific transitions and passages between songs — though sometimes it wasn't easy to accomplish.

"This example may seem a bit crude, but it is one I use all the time," says McKean. "The song ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams' opens with a tremolo guitar part played through an outboard FX box that Billie likes to use. The only problem was that the box's tremolo tempo couldn't be locked to Pro Tools' tempo accurately enough for us to use it."

To remedy the tempo lock problem after the fact, Doug copied the shape of the tremolo box's amplitude onto a master fader track by manually drawing in the level to match the box's waveform.

"We tracked the drums, built a quarter-note-accurate tempo map from the unedited drums, and then passed each tremolo swell automation to the new tempo map. This makes it sound as if it took us quite a while to do it, but it took only 15 or 20 minutes, and resulted in exactly what the band was looking for."

Pro Technique 2 — Improving layered vocal sweeps with Auto-Tune and VocALign
Many pop and R&B vocalists love to layer lots of doubled and harmony tracks on top of their lead vocal lines. Even the best singers, those capable of recreating virtually identical doubles with each pass, have a hard time doing so when the lead line includes a long downward or upward swooping bend of a word from one note pitch to another. McKean offers this simple two-step process for creating tighter, more natural-sounding sweeps.

"It's hard for even the best vocalists I work with to perfectly match the really long sweeps that take a while to go from one pitch to the next," he says. "All those layered vocals start to smear and sound weird. Auto-Tune can help, but if that's all you use to tighten up that many vocal tracks, especially in a longer sweep, it just doesn't sound as natural as it should."

Antares Auto-Tune 4
McKean suggests first using Synchro Arts' VocALign plug-in to get the words and phrasing of each layered part aligned with the lead vocal track's inflections. Then, since one or more of the layered tracks usually starts to bend up or down too soon or late when a long pitched sweep happens in the lead vocal part, he'll use Auto-Tune to tighten up every track in the sweep.

"In Manual mode, I first highlight the main vocal line region where the sweep begins with Auto-Tune, analyze it, and then click on Make Vibrato Curve so that it traces and then draws the same curve. After taking Auto-Tune off the lead track's insert and sliding it over to the second track's insert, I move that curve selection down to the second vocal track and reanalyze it the same way. Now I impose that traced-out curve from the lead track to the second track, so I can see how far off the second track is from the first. At this point I'll adjust the Tracking knob down a little until the two parts are tracking well and I can see every single note there. That move isn't as vital as adjusting the Retune control knob."

Once he's applied the same steps to each succeeding vocal track in the layer, McKean then applies the Auto-Tune corrections to taste. The Retune control opens up at a default setting of 20, which to his ears is far too unnatural sounding.

"I begin by turning Retune to 30, and depending on the part, usually end up at 40 or 50," says McKean. "At 100 you can barely hear the Auto-Tune effect, and at zero it sounds like an over-the-top Cher type of effect."