We’re lighter than air now.

Today I got around to recording the new (to me, not to the world) 1932 Washburn 5200 acoustic guitar for the first time, with unexpected results. There’s so much music to work on around here right now, it can be difficult to know what to tackle when. This afternoon I thought I’d mess around a bit with two songs recorded during the CREATIVE NIGHTMARES sessions. Neither one was finished in time for inclusion. Neither one was even intended for that album, really. These songs would be more at home on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE.

One is a ridiculous thing built around several tracks of me barking into a red toy megaphone and playing dissonant things on a strange one-string ethnic instrument. The working title is “Toy Megaphone Grunge Dance”, which does a reasonable job of describing what it sounds like. The other is a bright, bouncy, synth-tinged song about Steven Seagal. I kid you not. The toy megaphone grunge dance thing got some weird sub-bass synth kick drum added to it along with some beat-boxing, and is now pretty close to being finished.

The other one still needs some work, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to give the virginal Washburn some attention, since the open C tuning was right for the harmonic movement of the song. Instead of recording it with the two Neumann KM184s like I normally would with stringed instruments, I thought I’d try using the pearlman TM-LE, double-tracking it and using quite a bit of compression care of my friend and yours, the UBK Fatso. The sound that came out had a nice upfront sheen to it and sat nicely in the mix. I didn’t feel much like sticking it out and doing the necessary experimenting to get the song to the point where I could mix the song and put it on a CD, though. Working on something new seemed a lot more enticing.

I was going to record a little song I wrote a week or two ago on a cheap 1930s Vega tenor banjo. That didn’t happen. I found myself playing a catchy lick on the Washburn. I recorded the idea to preserve it. Then I decided it needed to turn into a proper song. So Steven Seagal was forgotten, and it was on to something newer than new. The newest newness of all. The only line I had, which I sang to get the vocal melody idea across, was, “I’ve been failing left and right.” I figured I’d record the music and then write more lyrics after the fact.

These days I don’t tend to record something unless the words are there already, but recording music before I have any idea what I’m going to sing on top of it has worked out well before with songs like “The Danger of All Things Adhesive”, “The Ass, Enchanted with the Sound”, and “Anthropomorphism Dance”, to name three.

I left the km184s over at the piano and stuck with the one-mic, double-tracked, compressed-more-than-usual approach. That TM-LE is turning into one of my favourite mics for auxiliary guitar parts and Wurlitzer, but it seems to sound good on just about anything, and it was interesting to play with a bit of a different acoustic guitar sound as the first building block for a song.

Then I recorded five vocal tracks of that one line repeated over and over again, for about three minutes. I realized I kind of liked it as a mantra and didn’t feel like writing any more words. Added some bass, toyed with the idea of some electric guitar but decided against it, added some double-tracked tenor banjo (the aforementioned 1930s Vega, which sounds far better than its price tag would encourage anyone to expect and looks really cool), piano, and drums. I thought I might go double-tracking crazy and try recording the drums in the same way as the guitar, but there the sound was too compressed for me, so I found myself back in the arms of the AEA R88 that still lives in front of the drums and probably will for quite some time to come.

And there was a new song. Done.

I like how it turned out. The music sounds absurdly happy, especially given the lyrics’ repeated admission of failure. As if I’m kind of elated to be failing all the time, or I just don’t care. Juxtaposition is fun. It’s just the same line and the same few chords over and over again (aside from the percussive guitar-slapping that bookends the song), but the dynamics keep shifting every so often to keep things interesting. I think it would be fun to perform live. Get a few people who can sing vocal harmonies and get the audience to sing along, and just keep building it up, bringing it down, and building it up again. Even if some people started singing at different times, it would still sound good.

I thought about building up more vocal tracks and maybe trying to get some actual group vocals happening for that overlapping sound, but I kind of like it the way it is. It sounds pretty beefy even without anyone else lending their larynx to the cause. Recording the drums was fun, because I started out playing with a drum stick in one hand and a tambourine in the other, and near the end I wanted to play something quite a bit different, so I had to drop the tambourine and stick and pick up the brushes I was holding between my knees without losing tempo. Some people would have just recorded two different drum performances on different tracks. I enjoy ridiculous challenges like this. Besides, why eat up twice as many tracks as you need to just for the sake of convenience?

Another thing that’s fun is putting a banjo on a chair, forgetting it’s there, sitting on it, and accidentally knocking the bridge flat on the body, skewing all the strings. Luckily I was able to loosen those strings, shift the bridge back into place, and fix it in about two minutes. Can’t say I’ve ever sat on a banjo and made it cry before. Not before today, anyway.

And now, a random segue.

Adding to the desire to perhaps someday release something on vinyl was the revelation last night that Communiqué sounds ridiculously good on vinyl. I mean ridiculously good. No three dollar record should sound that fine. As Dire Straits albums go, I don’t think this one gets nearly enough love. Some look at it as an underwhelming rush-released follow-up to the self-titled debut album released nine months before, but I actually like it better than the first album. It’s got this great moody late-night vibe, and I always thought the drum sound was delicious. Even now, when I prefer more true-to-life, rough-around-the-edges drum sounds, there’s something about the pillowy sound of the kit on this album that just makes me want to eat it.

You heard me right. I eat pillows. And drums. And drums that sound like pillows.

I knew the CD sounded good (i didn’t bother to pick up the remastered version, because the original old-school CD issue I’ve owned since about 1996 has tons of dynamic range and I doubt the new mastering job went to the trouble of keeping it intact), but when I threw the record on last night I couldn’t get over how much better it sounded. That record makes most music being produced today sound like complete and utter garbage. There’s so much depth, space, and headroom there. Why the hell don’t more people still value these things? It’s all about making a recording as loud, distorted, and shit-sounding as possible, because that’s the way everything else sounds.

I’m talking mostly about popular music, but still. It’s one of the many reasons I’m glad I’ll never get signed to any record label. Getting into an argument over why your music doesn’t need to compete with the volume of everything else (that’s why they gave you a VOLUME CONTROL on every audio device ever created) isn’t my idea of a good time.

Bring back dynamic range, bitches.

Speaking of Dire Straits, I think Mark Knopfler is one of the most ridiculously underrated guitarists around. The guy can play circles around most people, but somehow nothing he does ever comes across as flash for the sake of flash. It’s a neat trick — playing things that are almost impossibly fluid and technically impressive, and still keeping it tasteful. Watching live footage is surreal, because there are no stupid guitar faces…he sings and tosses off these rapid-fire little phrases and ideas when there are a few seconds between the words without even looking at the guitar, like it’s nothing. Lots of people gush over Hendrix or Clapton, and while Jimi was undeniably a brain-melting guitarist (and Eric was good when he wanted to be, which sadly wasn’t often enough), Knopfler is up there in the pantheon too for me.

To illustrate my point, here’s a “calypso version” of “So Far Away”. Evidently it was only ever played this way once. They should have recorded it and thrown it on an album somewhere as a hidden track or something. Something like this is too good to keep a secret for more than twenty years.

5 comments

  1. The problem with CDs that were produced even as late as the mid 90s, is that the record companies simply took the masters they had, that had been made with the limitations of vinyl in mind, and printed them to CD. So those CDs came out sounding shrill and mid scooped. So of course the vinyl sounds better. I’d encourage you to at least look into the remastered CD. Hopefully (but alas, not certainly), the folks who remastered for CD where smart enough to retain the dynamics, and simply re-EQ.

    This is why you are seeing previously remastered CDs being remastered again. Because some moron went heavy on the compressor and light on the re-EQ bowing to the then desire of the day. Only now are the record companies and artists actually starting to properly EQ for the medium of CD. I won’t get into the vinyl/CD debate here, as there isn’t enough bandwidth in the world, but don’t automatically discount a properly mastered CD, they really can sound quite fantastic.

  2. Oh, I’ve heard some great-sounding remasters, to be sure…the recent Peter Gabriel Abbey Road remasters do a nice job of improving on the sound of the original CDs, which were sometimes a little muddy and almost TOO quiet, while keeping the dynamic range intact. The years-in-the-making Beatles remasters were a nice surprise in the same way. I just find it a little frustrating when an album is remastered for CD, and with all of the technology available now, instead of making it sound as good as they can the mastering engineer just squashes it completely so it’ll be as loud as everything released today. Sometimes it can be done without too many unpleasant artifacts (the Cocteau Twins reissues are all somehow insanely loud without sounding harsh), but sometimes it doesn’t turn out so well. Some recent reissues of old jazz albums, for instance, are far louder than they need to be, to the point of clipping. Here the vinyl is a revelation for me, because it has dynamics that are left intact.

    I’m a big fan of CDs, and I listen to them at least as much as I do records. I do think there are some really great-sounding CDs being made that haven’t been squashed to death at the mastering stage. I just wish this Loudness War trend would go away and more people would start to value music that actually sounds good again. Maybe it’ll happen someday.

    1. I agree completely. I think Nick has been having a really interesting and rewarding creative rebirth over the past little while, too. I enjoy it when an artist starts making some of their most vital work in later life, instead of running out of ideas or rehashing past glories. At the same time, “Cruel to Be Kind” is just catchy as all get-out, and always fun to hear on the radio. Nick plays bass on my favourite John Hiatt album too! A jack of all trades.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s