You know how I said a lot of times songs know what they want to be better than I do? Here’s some recent proof.
A few weeks back I mentioned this song I recorded electric guitars for one day when I was playing around with an SM57 and a guitar amp for the first time in ages. Over the past few weeks I’ve been chipping away at it here and there.
The lyrics were there almost immediately, so I recorded the vocals. I left it alone for a while. A few days ago I set up the R88 in front of the drum set (now that I have extension patch cords, I can actually move the mic around a bit) and thought I’d try a few passes at recording drums for the song, mostly just to see how the mic fared.
Since I still don’t have a mic clip that will hold the mic properly, I couldn’t use it as a straight overhead mic. I set it up as a front-of-kit mic a few feet out front, with the top of the mic just below my head level. Probably far from the ideal place to record a drum set. Not that I’ve ever been anything approaching an expert at mic placement.
Anyway, I spent a few seconds getting the mic centered and got on with recording. Then I listened to what I’d recorded and said, “Jesus Christ, this microphone is nuts. Why did I let it sit in its case for more than a year before thinking to start using it? What was I thinkin’ in my head?!”
(Dig the Sly Stone reference. He’s a quotable guy.)
After a few passes I got a take that seemed decent enough to keep. I found I had to hit the snare a bit harder than usual to get it to come through, and I’m not a hard hitter behind the drums. But when you consider one stereo microphone was capturing all of the drums and cymbals, with no close mics or overheads used, the sound that came out of the monitors was pretty insane.
With no mic on the kick and no EQ, I think this is my favourite kick drum sound I’ve ever managed to record. It just sounds right. It sounds real. No mud, not too bassy or thumpy, no hype, but it’s not wimpy either. It sits where I want it to in the mix. It might not come through as well on computer speakers, but it sure sounds good on headphones and studio monitors. I don’t think my cymbals have ever sounded this good before either.
I added a generous amount of high frequency EQ to bring out a little more shimmer, or sparkle, or whatever word you prefer for “that which doth not fizzle but maketh mine pikestaff grow nonetheless”. I don’t have any good outboard EQ at my disposal. Actually, that’s not quite true. There’s the EQ strip on a Chandler TG Channel mic pre, but I’ve yet to really put that thing through its paces. Otherwise, I’m limited to what lives inside of the VS-1680.
If I need to cut lows or something, it works fine. If I want to boost high frequencies, it’s going to sound much closer to “my ears are bleeding!” than “auditory sweetness”.
Real outboard EQ is what you want to use for this sort of thing. The problem is, I went so crazy on mic preamps when I was retooling the studio, I didn’t think to get at least two channels of high quality EQ while I was at it. So I try to get it right the first time, as Billy Joel suggested back in the mid-late 1970s, and I avoid the use of EQ as much as possible.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying, “My EQ is not sexy. It cries at night. So sad.”
So, knowing nothing good would come of it, I tried boosting some highs just for fun. And it sounded good. It didn’t really change the character of the mic. It just added that extra bit of air I wanted.
If the mic plays this well with shitty EQ, I can only imagine how good it might sound with something more worthy.
Now that the drums were recorded, my original plan to leave the guitars alone wasn’t going to work anymore. Some more low end was needed. So bass was recorded, and I managed to improvise a few countermelodies I liked.
Either I’m a much better bassist than I used to be or the Chandler Germanium is the best bass DI there ever was, because I didn’t have to do anything at all to the tone. Again, it just sat where I wanted it to. In the past I would EQ the mucus out of my bass tracks and add a “bass amp simulator” effect in order to get things to sound as defined as I could while cutting out the mud. I like the bass sounds I got doing that (heard on everything from OH YOU THIS forward — before that, I wouldn’t use any EQ and things would get a little muddy sometimes), but it’s nice not to have to do it anymore. Maybe the new pickups I souped the bass up with a while back deserve some thanks too.
The song still felt like it was missing something. I recorded a little bit of Wurlitzer electric piano, and that seemed to be what it needed. Part of me wishes I’d thrown another mic in there to make the snare cut a little more, and there’s a sloppy vocal moment where my voices sing “that” and “who” at the same time instead of deciding on some common ground, but as usual I didn’t feel like polishing the song to within an inch of its life. So I think those rough edges will always be there.
What’s funny is, as rough as it is, this song sounds so much more polished than the stuff I was doing a few years ago. I did a rough mix today just to see how it all sounded on CD. I’m not sure if it’ll be the final mix, but I put it up on my Myspace page instead of posting it here. Gotta mix things up and keep people on their toes.
So, a song goes from being pretty stripped-down and looking like it’ll stay that way, to being a little less stripped-down, without me having much to do with it on an active level. It just sort of happened. I can hear all kinds of other things I could have added in my head — layers of guitars and stuff — but it would have been a little tricky with only sixteen tracks to work with. I didn’t feel like bouncing things all over the place. I guess I just don’t roll that way. Austerity is in my bones, no matter how many times I try to send myself somewhere else.
Back in late January, Gord and I had our first real Papa Ghostface recording session in years. Only one song came out of it — a far cry from the hyper-productive days of old — but the knowledge that there was even the seed of a new Papa Ghostface song had at least three imaginary people in hysterics. We recorded bass and synthesizer, with me playing one-handed hip-hop synth drums for a bit of the song, and left it at that.
After Gord took off, I messed around with recording some vocals. I came up with some melodic ideas I liked, but the words weren’t really going anywhere interesting. I would write better words later on, I figured. I also added a bit of electric guitar and showed my neglected wah pedal some love. It had a long way to go, but the song was at least starting to sound more evolved.
There’s some video footage of us recording elements of this tune that I plan to put up here as soon as I have the necessary equipment to import it into my computer and edit it together — some bits of Gord and I shaping the music, and also a bit where I go through an early, unfinished mix of the song.
(Edit: nine years later I finally edited some of that raw footage into something coherent. So much for “soon”, eh?)
I had some plans for the song, but it took a while to set them in motion. The “chorus” was supposed to incorporate a piano figure that came to me in a dream sometime back. Gord’s bass-playing ended up halving the intended tempo, so I thought I’d play it in slowed-down form during those passages of the song and then add a coda where it could be heard the way it was originally conceived. I also wanted to add acoustic drums. Tried overdubbing some more of the synth drums that open the song, but it just didn’t seem quite right. So I thought I’d play something subdued with the snare open.
I didn’t finally get around to doing any of this until just the other day. I ended up keeping almost all of my original improvised vocals, only touching up one little bit. There isn’t much of any lyrical substance there, and the words don’t make any sense (not that my lyrics often make much sense these days), but I was going more for mood. While anything I replaced the existing vocals with would probably have been more polished and interesting, I couldn’t come up with any coherent narrative to graft onto the music. Besides, there’s a bit of a Wax Mannequin vocal quote in there. I couldn’t very well get rid of that, could I?
I tried recording drums through most of the song. It turned out they only felt right during a few brief passages. As with that first song, the snare didn’t cut through as much as it might have, because again I was only using the R88. On a whim I toyed with replacing the intended piano part with some Fender Rhodes, and again it didn’t seem to fit in some of the places I wanted it to go, so I ended up with a very simplified version of the original idea during the second “chorus” and a sketchy coda that briefly nods to what I meant to weave in and out of the whole song.
I wanted more percussion in there. I tried all kinds of different things: African drums, a circular piece of metal that used to function as the top of a little table (a cool, metallic sound full of possibilities, but not right for this song), and just hitting the toms behind the drum kit. Nothing really seemed to work.
It turned out the song didn’t want much in the way of drums or percussion. During the last instrumental section I added some more singing (repeating the word “somebody” over and over again for some reason that still evades me), and then I worked on putting a rough mix together.
Here, then, is the first new Papa Ghostface song since the still-unmixed-and-untitled instrumental oddity we recorded in late 2002.
I wanted to come up with a more interesting title but didn’t have any ideas. As with the other tune, I’m not sure if this is going to be the final mix by any means. At least it gets the idea across for now.
It’s an odd little song, really, mostly because of how not-odd it is. It’s grounded in the key of A minor, which I try to stay away from most of the time these days. Even though the music was improvised, the structure is very much a standard A-B-A form, which is also something I’ve been staying away from for years now. Almost everything is swimming in reverb — again, something I tend to avoid at this point.
I did dial back some of the reverb on my voice. It was a bit too much in the original work mix. But this is basically the opposite of the way I’ve been mixing my own stuff lately. I seem to be keeping everything dry most of the time.
It doesn’t feel like anything else Gord and I have ever done together. It’s a lot more “normal” than most other Papa Ghostface songs, though my singing gets a little weird in parts. It doesn’t really feel like something I would have done if left completely to my own devices, even though I did end up playing everything aside from the bass, more or less shaping the song on my own. I don’t know what it is. The beginning of a new Papa Ghostface chapter, or just a fluke?
Whatever the case, it’s the longest song I’ve recorded in a while, in stark contrast to all the tiny songs I’ve been posting here. While everything was improvised like in the old days, it feels like it’s coming from some other place. I dig Gord’s bass-playing. It’s nice to be able to hear every nuance of it, now that I have better equipment and sometimes know what I’m doing, or at least more than I did back in the crazy old days.
If a full album does end up coming out of this, the end result will operate on a sonic level far above anything we’ve ever done before as a two-man quasi-band. The hiss in this song comes from the Arp Omni-2 — an old analog synth that puts out a bit of noise I can’t mask without killing some of the tone. So I left it in.
I really should experiment with adding at least one more mic over the drums as a mono overhead, regardless of what happens on the Papa Ghostface front. It would be nice to get the snare and toms coming through with a bit more pop. Otherwise, I think I’m pretty happy with this new drum sound. I’ve thought about trying another four-mic approach, with a kick mic, a snare mic, and maybe two SM57s as overheads just for fun, but I’m not sure I’ll get around to testing it out anytime soon.