Combine digital piano and fake xylophone, and what do you get?

The answer is something that would sound ridiculous if said aloud, I’m sure.

I know I said I wasn’t going to put any more new songs up on Spyspace for a while, but I’m not sure what I want to do with this song. So here/there it is for at least a little while.

This track had a bit of an odd genesis. I recorded the (digital) piano way back in May of 2006 and then didn’t record vocals or any other instruments. The lyrics were already written — one couplet came from a dream — and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with the song, but the piano was recorded through the mic preamps I was using prior to the revamping of the studio and I thought the new preamps might be too hi-fi if they were used to track the rest. I didn’t want to go back to using the old preamps just for the sake of this song, and I wasn’t sure what kind of sonic continuity there might be if I didn’t do that. I kept meaning to work on it, but I never did. So technically it isn’t a new song.

Yesterday I thought I’d dump what there was of it back on the mixer for fun, to get back into the piano mindset in anticipation of the real piano that will soon be here. I ended up finishing the whole thing without really intending to. The Teisco once again decided to get a few shots in. I swear that electric guitar has a mind of its own. The digital piano sounded better than I remembered and wasn’t too difficult to work with. I know a real piano would sound a lot better, especially in the places where chords are just sustained and left to hang in the air for a while, but in this case there was a lot of improvisation involved in the original performance and I would never be able to capture it quite the same way again. That those improvised moments happened two years ago would make it even more difficult.

The end result probably isn’t going to fit in very well sonically with the songs I’ll be recording with the new piano, so I’m not quite sure where it’ll end up, but I kind of like the way it came out. I ended up dumping a few verses worth of lyrics even though I liked the words, because I came to prefer second half of the song left mostly instrumental.

Three funny things about this song:

(1) I’m generally good at remembering ideas even if it takes me a long time before I get around to recording them, but at one point I forgot the last part of this song and it wasn’t coming back. Everything else was there, but it was as if my memory of that one little piece of music had been wiped clean. I sat at the keyboard for a little while and tried to will myself to remember what was missing. To my amazement, it worked. Later, after getting down the whole piano track, I realized I forgot to insert a brief part that was meant to be an intro…but at that point I wasn’t going to mess with it, so I left it as it was.

(2) The pitch of the piano track changed by a hair a day or two after it was recorded. It must have been some odd digital fluke, because this isn’t something my mixer ever does to me. For whatever reason, the last two and-a-half minutes are much closer to being in proper concert tuning than the rest. In a funny little twist, that’s the part of the song that sounds out of tune, because your ears get used to the pitch of what comes before. I had to change the recording speed a little bit to record the vocal, guitar, bass, and drum tracks (they call me “the accidental purist”) and then change it back again to preserve a CD-friendly sampling rate. Because of this, if anyone ever tried to play along to the recording on a piano it would probably sound pretty ugly. I did try to correct the pitch after the fact, but it’s not so easy given the microscopic adjustment that needs to be made. Hopefully it doesn’t sound too wonky. Anyone with perfect pitch will probably have to stop listening almost right away in order to avoid feeling nauseous.

(3) Ever since I first recorded the piano part, I thought the latter half of the song should have an insistent kick/toms drum pattern played throughout. I still felt that way yesterday. My drums didn’t. I don’t know what it is. Ever since I picked up the brushes again when I was recording the last album, I find myself reaching for them over sticks most of the time. They seem to make me think more creatively behind the kit, and it becomes much easier to get out what’s in my head without thinking much about it, assuming I have any percussion-related ideas to begin with. For some reason I feel more connected to the drums when I’m playing with brushes now, when that was never the case before. I also just really like the sound of drums that are struck with brushes, and I’m still digging the R88 in that application without any close mics anywhere.

With sticks I couldn’t quite seem to get the sound I wanted yesterday, even after trying a few different passes. Once I grabbed the brushes, I just played through the song once without thinking about what I wanted to do and more or less got what I wanted. I prefer playing that way, recording cold without “rehearsing” or devising drum parts beforehand and limiting myself to one or two takes. It’s a way to get close to that old feeling of playing with other musicians and improvising collectively, keeping yourself a little unsure of what’s coming next, and in general I don’t like to let things get too studied or comfortable. But I’ve been saying that for years now. It seems to be the common thread that runs through everything I do — an intentional lack of polish.

Nail polish, however, is always a welcome addition. But that’s a different matter.

In other news, I’m still on CJAM’s charts. That’s three weeks in a row in the top ten, and once again I’m on the folk/roots/blues chart as well. This has never happened to me before. It looks like I was pretty far off the mark when I predicted no one would like the new album and it wouldn’t get much attention from anyone. Wonders never cease.

I’m going to try and get at least one more album of new material finished before the end of the year, along with that tricky little misfits compilation. Gotta keep the momentum going, now that I seem to be back in the swing of things.

2 comments

  1. I will listen to your song tomorrow and know it will be Nostiagatious!!

    I am not surprised by your latest CD staying high in the CJAM charts because that Chicken Angel Woman has been using her triangle to awake people up to your music. She strikes it softly and with a unique rhythm so that each song slowly seeps into the vascular cortex and cerebellum matters. Medically speaking, it is a successful breakthrough for all humankind. Congrats Dr. West!!

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