Month: July 2018

Learning when to let it be.

Ron’s album is at the mixing and mastering stage now. I’ve been plugging away at that over the last little while. The goal is always to get things to sound as good as I can, but every once in a while I’ll get an amusing reminder that it’s best not to over-think it.

There are people out there who spend more time mixing a single song than they would working an eight-hour shift. They won’t rest until they’ve found a way to get every sound to live in its own perfectly defined little sonic space.

It’s a valid way of doing things, and it can lead to some incredible-sounding and immersive mixes, but I can’t work that way. My mind and my ears won’t work that way. I’m pretty sure if I spent that much time focused on just one song, I would lose the plot and end up with a mix that felt flat.

For me, mixing is more about energy than anything else. I try to get the sounds I want at the recording stage to make life a little easier later on. I usually dial in whatever compression and EQ I want on the way in. A lot of people will tell you this is something you should never do, because it limits your options later on, but I tend to use compression more for taming peaks than for character. As for EQ, my mindset there is pretty much the same as it was a decade ago. I’ll add a bit of a high boost to the stereo ribbon mic I use to record drums, to compensate for that mic’s high end roll-off. I’ll cut out some lows on acoustic guitars because I like to get the mics pretty close to pick up as much nuance as I can, and nuance can bring some mud with it. Other than that, I almost never EQ anything, and I don’t believe in applying a high-pass filter to 80% of your tracks to get them to sit better in the mix. I think I’ve used a high-pass filter exactly three times in my life.

If I’m honest, a lot of modern music sounds way too processed to me. It isn’t subtle. You get to a point where you have no idea what the song sounded like as a somewhat human performance, if it ever was one before someone added six hundred plug-ins to it, tuned the lead vocal to fix all the flat or sharp bits, and replaced all the drum hits with samples that sound nothing like any drums you’ve ever heard played by a person with hands.

Again, this is a legitimate way of working. It’s a sound that sells records and gets you on the radio, if nothing else. But most of the time it does nothing for me. It doesn’t move me at all. Even with some of the music I enjoy, I’ll sometimes find myself listening to an album and wishing there’d been a different cook in the kitchen.

When all other considerations are swept aside, I think this is the main reason I probably won’t ever be comfortable paying someone else to record my music. I don’t want to make something that sounds like it belongs on mainstream radio. I don’t want a sound that blends in. I want to make music that doesn’t blend in with everything else, that isn’t processed to death, that retains some semblance of realism and won’t sound dated in five or ten years when recording technology experiences another paradigm shift.

I’m not saying all the music being made now is trash and all the people recording and producing it are lazy. Plug-ins can even be great creative tools when they’re used by someone with an adventurous spirit. And not all processing stomps the life out of music. It can be used to create some truly special and unique soundscapes.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule. I see which way the wind is blowing, and I’m going to keep sprinting as hard as I can in the other direction. If I’m recording drums, I want them to sound the way my drum kit sounds in my room. If I’m recording piano, I want it to sound the way my piano sounds in my room. If I’m recording a vocal performance, I want to get the closest thing I can to a continuous, uninterrupted take. If there are mistakes or hesitations that crop up along the way, GOOD. Let them serve as reminders that the music is being played and sung by a person, not a software component.

Still, doubts crop up sometimes when I’m recording someone else’s music. The ethos I’ve developed over time has a sound that comes with it, and it isn’t going to be a sound everyone wants to hear. Lucky for me, most of the people I’ve recorded up to this point seem to share at least some of my sensibilities, and I haven’t yet had someone say to me, “You ruined my music.”

Ron and I have been on the same page from the beginning, and he’s been all for preserving the integrity of interesting performances, right down to leaving in some between-song banter (which I always love). I think we’ve got a pretty special album here, and it’s not just because of the songs, though that’s a big part of it. It feels alive. You can close your eyes and imagine being in the room where the music was created without much trouble. It may have been built up a piece at a time with a cast of just two main players and two guests, but instead of creating an artificial sound world I think we documented a real, naturally evolving one. That’s something I’m proud of.

When it comes to the mixing process, no matter what I’m working on, I try to achieve the best balance I can. But it always comes back to energy. If the energy feels right, that’s the mix I’ll go with almost every time instead of something slicker that has no life in it. As with every other step along the way, I don’t want the human quality to get lost.

That humanness has been there from the very beginning, though it didn’t always equate to good-sounding albums. In 1999, when I was recording YOU’RE A NATION with Gord, he invited me to hang out at his girlfriend Amanda’s house for Halloween. We’d just recorded a song called “Nothing from Nothing”. It was this creepy Tom Waits-inspired improvised spoken word piece that felt like a perfect Halloween song. I wanted to play it for everyone that night, but I couldn’t get it onto a CD in time to bring it with me.

Amanda had one of those CD players that held five or six discs at a time. She loaded up the disc changer with Soup by Blind Melon, A Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, some Marilyn Manson, some Pearl Jam, and — to my amazement — Papa Ghostface. Both SCREAMING NIPPLES and the first half of the double-CD HORSEMOUTH (AND OTHER BEDTIME STORIES) made the cut somehow. Then she hit the “random” button and let the playlist program itself all night.

I think it was the first time I heard any of my own music in a public setting. It was weirdly humiliating. Here were all these professionally-recorded songs that had everything balanced just right, and then out of nowhere you’d get one of our songs torturing the speakers with a lot of unpleasant clipping and way too much bass.

When one of the girls who was there found out Gord and I were responsible for that lo-fi noise, I tried to tell her the new music we were working on sounded better than any of this stuff.

“Hey, I’ve definitely heard worse,” she said, looking sympathetic.

There are a lot of things you’d like to hear someone say while they’re listening to your music for the very first time. That’s not one of them.

I was sixteen years old and just starting to teach myself the rudiments of digital recording after years of recording everything live in one shot on a boombox with a built-in microphone. It was more than a little unrealistic to expect to start pumping out brilliant recordings right away. But that night I felt like the most inept, talentless piece of shit who ever lived.

I vowed never to let myself be embarrassed like that again. I would get better. A lot better. I had no training and didn’t know what I was doing with any of the equipment I was cobbling together. I had no home computer, no regular internet access, and no one to guide me. It didn’t matter. I was determined to find a way to learn what I needed to know to get good at this recording thing.

When I was a guest on Ron’s CJAM show a month ago, he played a brand new song I gave him on a CD. It was my first time hearing it in the CJAM studio. It came roaring out of the speakers with a force that almost took my head off. It sounded huge. And this isn’t a song that has a lot going on arrangement-wise. It’s pretty stripped-down.

When I’m mixing something, I do everything I can to make sure it translates in as many different settings as possible. In spite of my best efforts, there’s only so much I can account for. My main priority is to get a song sounding good on a full-range system — not to get the best sound on earbuds or laptop speakers, where you’re losing a lot of information no matter what you do.

To hear something that didn’t just hang with a bunch of songs recorded in professional studios without embarrassing itself but stood out as being more open and dynamic-sounding than most of them, and then to realize it was my work…that was a pretty cool feeling.

It was the opposite of everything I felt almost two decades ago at Amanda’s house. I was proud. It made me feel like I was pretty good at this whole thing.

This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly some mixing genius. Not even close. I don’t think a “perfect” mix is ever going to be within my reach. But I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a lot in the intervening years, and I look at each album I work on as an opportunity to keep learning and honing whatever skills I’ve developed.

With Ron’s album, the mixing process has been pretty straightforward. There are ten songs (one got pushed aside), and as of last night I felt good about the mixes for nine of them. There was just one song giving me a bit of trouble.

It’s always one specific song that decides it wants to be a thorn in my side. It never fails.

This one was the very first thing we recorded, before we had any idea we were making an album. For every other song, I recorded Ron’s acoustic guitar the same way I always record a solo acoustic performance, with two Neumann KM184s. Here, instead of SDCs I thought I’d use two LDCs for a different stereo sound — in this case a Pearlman TM-LE and a TM-250. Ron’s parts were recorded in 2014, and I added the rest in early 2015.

Now that we’re dealing with a full album and all the other songs have been fleshed out, the difference in acoustic guitar sound doesn’t stand out as much as I thought it would. The electric guitar is a different story. This is one of the few tracks I used the Telecaster on, and the sound is brighter than anything I captured on any of the other songs.

I thought if I re-recorded my guitar part and got a darker sound it would fit in better. It was easy enough to play, but I couldn’t recapture the spirit of the original take. Figures. I decided to leave it alone and focus on trying to dial in a mix that would fit in with the others. The more I worked on it, the farther away I got from where I wanted to be.

Today I went back to the original rough mix I made in 2015. It wasn’t perfect, but it had the energy I wanted. In that respect it destroyed every one of the new mixes I’d been messing around with over the last few days. I used the rough mix as a guide, made a few small adjustments, and decided that was as good as it was going to get. It wasn’t a cop-out. It was a moment of accepting that sometimes you do (almost) get it right the first time, regardless of what your brain might want you to believe.

As Kenny Rogers sang, you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when a mix is fine the way it is.

Progress, part 753.

You know how I said the Papa Ghostface album was the closest thing to hitting the finish line out of everything I’m working on right now, and I was going to concentrate on tying up all the loose ends there? I was wrong. Ron’s album was — and is — even closer to being done. So I’ve been giving that one my focus over the last few weeks. Felt like the sensible thing to do. I was doing a pretty good multitasking job, but there’s something refreshing about spitting all your energy into one album for a while as if it’s the only thing in the world demanding your attention. I’d kind of forgotten what that was like.

You’re probably wondering what an album being “almost done” even means with me anymore. In this case, it means it’s so close you could probably see the pores in its face if you looked hard enough. There’s one song left that needs some dressing up. My plan is to get that taken care of tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest. Then it’s just a matter of tidying up some mixes and trying to get them as good as they can be. Those mixes will go on a CD, and if Ron likes what he hears, my job is pretty much done.

It’s a strange feeling to be so near the end. It felt like we were about three quarters of the way there for a long time. Now it’s possible I’ll have an almost-final assembly put together within a week or so. I hear whispers there might be an advance single coming out sometime before the summer’s gone.

Speaking of advance singles, one of the songs Jess recorded over here a little while back just snuck out into the world. Have a listen, if you’re in a listening mood.

You stink, levy.

When I first made the switch from cassette tapes to digital recording — a transition fraught with both growing pains and excitement — I never imagined I would someday be operating as my own DIY record label. The thought of making more than a single copy of a given album and sharing the music with anyone outside of my home was still a foreign concept to me.

The second proper song I recorded on my spiffy new eight-track mixer in the summer of 1999 was a twelve-minute improvised piece about the hypothetical death and unwanted resurrection of a bully I would pretend to kill off in a few more songs down the road. This was their first imagined death. Things were going well until a little past the nine minute mark, when I threw in a little spoken word passage.

“From the corner of the swing set, someone was watching,” I said in a faux-British accent. “Someone was watching very closely. What they were watching was unclear, but it was indeed something.”

What I wanted to say next was, “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know was what it was.”

Instead, I tripped over my self-made tongue twister, and what came out was this: “What it was, no one would ever know. And what no one would ever know what was it was. That was was t’was tos tosteestostas. Teestostas. Tosteestostas.”

I have no idea how the song would have ended if I didn’t accidentally reverse the order of “was” and “what”, turning my mistake into an excuse to do away with intelligible words altogether. There’s no way to know. There’s only what happened in the moment, and it’s preserved on CD for as long as CDs continue to function. Over my best synthesized impression of a string section, I repeated this nonsense word “tosteestostas” dozens of times, wailing it, screaming it, moaning it, turning it into the climax (and unexpected title) of the song.

When I was finished recording it, I thought, “That’s it. There’s my imaginary publishing company and record label wrapped up in a neat little bow. Tosteestostas Music.” I can’t explain why it felt so right. I think it was the absurdity of it that appealed to me. I could have spent months trying to come up with something meaningful, and I never would have found a phrase that grabbed me as much as this one word that wasn’t a word at all, that came out of a moment of tongue-tied silliness.

Even before I knew anything about album packaging, when my idea of liner notes was turning whatever inserts came with a CD-R inside-out and writing whatever information I could fit in the available space, copyright information was always attributed to Tosteestostas Music. Once I figured out I could have proper inserts printed without too much trouble, it started appearing on album spines along with the name of the album and the catalogue number.

Somewhere along the line Tosteestostas became something like a real record label, albeit a very low-key one. If you really think about it, I do everything a label would do for me if we lived in an alternate universe in which I sold my music and some A&R person was insane enough to want to sign me, from the recording and production of an album, to working out cover art and designing the packaging, to getting inserts and booklets printed, to duplicating the CDs myself, to “distributing” them (which now involves little more than giving them to a handful of friends, but used to be a much more involved process) and “promoting” them (which I don’t do at all anymore aside from writing about what I’m working on here, but again, promotion used to be a thing I flirted with, sometimes, sort of). I even make my own music videos, if you can call them that, and book my own shows when I play live every century or two.

So what began as a made-up thing isn’t so made-up at all anymore.

I came within a cough and a sneeze of registering it as an official business the other day. The nudge to do that came from the strangest place.

There’s this thing called the Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC, if you like acronyms). In the interest of education, here’s some of the information they offer on their website:

Established in 1999, the CPCC is a non-profit umbrella organization whose member collectives represent songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies. It is responsible for collecting and distributing private copying levies.

A “private copy” is a copy of a recorded track of music, or of a substantial part of such a track, that is made by an individual for his or her own personal use. A personal compilation of favourite tracks is a good example of how people typically create private copies.

Part VIII of the Copyright Act allows consumers to copy recorded music for their own personal use. In exchange, the private copying levy was created to compensate music rights holders for private copies made of their music. Similar levies are collected in over forty countries around the world. Copies of music have value — if they didn’t, people wouldn’t make them. In a public opinion poll conducted by Praxicus Public Strategies Inc., 67% responded that music rights holders should be paid when copies are made of their music.

The private copying levy is a royalty that exists to provide compensation to songwriters, composers, music publishers, recording artists, musicians, and record companies for private copies made of their music. It is applied to the kinds of media that are ordinarily used for private copying. The media that the levy applies to and the rates that are charged are determined by the Copyright Board of Canada, based upon evidence presented in a formal hearing.

The private copying levy is not a tax. It is a royalty paid to music rights holders. Unlike a tax, which is collected by the government, the private copying levy is collected by the CPCC to provide remuneration to rights holders for private copying. The private copying levy is earned income for rights holders and helps them to continue to create music.

Private copying royalties are distributed to music authors, music publishers, recording artists, and record companies through the CPCC’s member collectives. While music authors and publishers may qualify regardless of their nationality, only Canadian performers and Canadian record companies qualify to receive the private copying levy.

I first noticed this levy around 2012 or 2013 when I ordered some recordable CDs and the price was higher than usual. I paid the levy and didn’t think much of it. I went on paying every time I had to stock up on CDs.

Long before that, when I got serious about taking care of the duplication side of things myself, I tried a lot of different brands of so-called high-end recordable media, settling on inkjet printer-friendly Taiyo Yuden CDs after a whole lot of over-thinking and hair-splitting. These were touted as being just about the best CD-Rs money could buy, and it turned out the touting was justified. In all my years of buying recordable CDs, these have by far been the most reliable for both archival and musical purposes.

At some point JVC took over production. The quality stayed pretty much the same. Then JVC/Taiyo Yuden announced they would be ceasing production of all optical media at the end of 2015. A company called CMC Pro bought all the necessary rights and dyes to continue producing the very same CDs, just under a different name. But things haven’t been the same at all.

In spite of their stated commitment to uphold the same standards of quality set by Taiyo Yuden, once CMC Pro took over the failure rate of their CDs jumped from almost nonexistent to somewhere around 30%. That’s atrocious. I’ve probably gone through a few thousand of the JVC-branded TY CDs over the years, and in that time I think maybe there have been two discs that failed on me.

Word on the street is CMC Pro have finally sorted things out and are now producing CDs more or less on par with the Taiyo Yuden media of old. But to go on making and distributing a product they knew was defective for years before deciding to do something about it…that’s not great business acumen. I’d rather not take a chance when everything I’ve read screams at me to run far away from what these once-great CDs have become.

My workaround was to buy up as much of the leftover JVC stock as I could. Sadly, eBay was the only place I had any luck, and I was only able to buy a few stacks of a hundred before they all seemed to disappear. I’ve only got a little more than a hundred of those trusted TY CDs left now.

Time to switch to another brand, then. Looks like some people in my position have had good results with Falcon Media CDs. From all the information I can gather, they seem to be a solid choice.

I was about to pull the trigger on a hundred of these discs when I noticed that pesky levy again. I don’t know if it’s increased over the last few years, but it effectively doubled the price, and I don’t remember that being the case before.

This got me to read up about just what this levy was designed to do. And it pissed me off a little.

am a songwriter, a musician, a recording artist, and a record company. This “royalty” is supposed to reimburse me for others privately copying my music without my knowledge. And yet I get nothing. It isn’t a royalty at all. It is a tax, and I’m the one paying it. As an independent artist, I’m being penalized for something I don’t do, when I only use any of this recordable media to make sound recordings of my own music — which I own the rights to and choose to distribute for free — and to back up data that pertains to…you guessed it…my music.

It’s pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but I still think it’s ridiculous. I mean, technically, the CPCC owes me money. I’ve been paying for a few years now for something I’ve never done.

The only way around this stupidity is to apply through the CPCC to have the levy waived. In order to do this, I either need to be a member of a recognized musician’s organization (no thanks), or I need to be the owner of a registered business. Registering my record company as a business made the most sense here, as far as I could see…until I read a sample of one of the CPCC’s application forms and learned I would need to keep meticulous books documenting how many recordable CDs I bought, where I bought them from, and what each disc was used for. I would have to agree to make myself available for an audit if the CPCC ever decided they wanted to check up on me. And I would need to pay a $60 application fee (plus tax), on top of the separate $60 fee to register my business, plus whatever “administrative fees” they decided to add on top. And then every year I would need to pay to renew my “membership”, if you can call it that.

I can understand this kind of policing when you’re dealing with distributors who buy and sell hundreds of thousands of recordable CDs and DVDs. Plenty of people in those positions have tried to screw the system, and there are court decisions documenting their startling lack of ingenuity. But by assuming everyone is using recordable media for the same thing, we all end up paying for something only a select group of people do. Does anyone even make “mix CDs” anymore when you can make a playlist on the internet much easier and full albums are made available to listen to for free on YouTube the moment they’re released?

Besides, do you know how many recordable CDs I buy in a year? Two, maybe three hundred. At the peak of my infamy, when I was making my albums as accessible to the public as I could, I probably went through a few hundred more. Even then, I doubt I ever bought more than five hundred CDs in a year, and every one of those discs was either used for backup purposes, for rough mixes, or to facilitate the free, independent distribution of my own music.

It’s outrageous that these people would have the right to audit me. Not that they’d find anything incriminating. I have very little to gain by cheating, and I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try. The whole thing is just goofy to me.

In the end, I decided it’s simpler to pay this absurd levy that again claims to be designed to benefit me when it does no such thing, eat the small bowl of liquid shit being served to me by the CPCC while they claim to have my best interests in mind, and live with it. It’s a little irritating to have to spend an extra $30 every time I want to buy a hundred CDs, but at least I don’t need to jump through hoops to satisfy an organization that couldn’t care less about someone like me.

On a happier note, here’s a song off the forthcoming final Papa Ghostface album. I’m not sure if this is a final mix, but it feels pretty good at the moment.

Prayer for Redemption

Maybe call it a sneak peak instead of an advance single. I think singles tend to either be about putting your poppiest foot forward or offering a pretty clear idea of what the rest of the album sounds like in microcosm, and this does neither of those things (though the dark alt-folky flavour is an indication that some of the songs do have that taste to them). It isn’t any bold musical statement, it doesn’t begin to hint at some of the weirdness that transpires elsewhere on the album, and it’ll probably show up somewhere around the halfway mark. So it’s pretty much the definition of a “deep album cut”.

I think I just felt like sharing it because I was working on tidying up the mix and thought it was a neat little song.

All the electric guitar tracks were amplified care of this old friend:

Most of the time I use this amp for grittier moments when I want some natural tube breakup. Lately I’ve been trying something different, turning it down just past the point of being turned on — there’s very little headroom, which has always been part of the amp’s charm — and getting some nice clean sounds. There’s still a throaty quality that sets it apart from the Fender Twin, but I’ve been surprised by the depth and richness of some of the tones I’ve been getting.

Not bad for an amp I got for free as an add-on when I bought my first electric guitar many moons ago.

All the guitar tracks were mic’d in stereo with an SM57 and a Sennheiser 421. The initial rhythm part was played on the Telecaster I’ve been neglecting for a while. I added a bunch of fiddly bits on acoustic guitar, but it didn’t quite feel right, so I replaced all those parts with more electric guitar, this time playing the newer Jazzmaster that’s become one of my go-to guitars. It’s got this nice chiming thing going on in the middle pickup position, and that seemed to play well off of the Telecaster’s rounder sound.

Recording the leg slaps was, as usual, pretty tedious. When you want to create the illusion of a bunch of people smacking their thighs and it’s just you in front of the microphone, it takes a while to build up a decent bed of body percussion. I did six or eight tracks and then made a stereo sub-mix to free up most of those tracks for other things. Thought about adding drums, but I liked the feeling the song had with just the leg slaps.

I seem to gravitate toward this sound over handclaps a lot of the time. There’s a softness to it I like. Clapping is a more confrontational sound, and it doesn’t always work in a mix.

The last thing I added was the six-string banjo. I could feel something was missing, but I had no idea what it was. Since the main guitar riff almost felt like something I should have played on a banjo in the first place, it was the sensible thing to try, and once I worked out a few little counter-melodies it felt like the void had been filled. It’s funny how you can introduce a single acoustic instrument into a mix that’s swimming with electric guitars, and all at once everything opens up in a subtle way.

Technically this is a solo song, but Gord expressed some enthusiasm when I played him the music before it had any words to go with it, so there’s a good chance it would have ended up on the album even if things didn’t fall apart, and I probably would have ended up playing most or all of the instruments anyway. I guess the main difference, now that I’m going it alone the rest of the way, is the freedom to include whatever songs I want and arrange them however I like without being second-guessed, which is always nice.

I’m going to try and get this album finished — mixed, mastered, packaged, and everything — in the next month or two. Not sure I can pull it off, but I’m going to give it my best shot. When STEW was about as close to being finished as this one is now, I had a lot more on my plate and started doubting my ability to mix the songs to my satisfaction. Too much time was spent thinking about the work I needed to do instead of sitting down and doing it. I don’t want to let that happen again.

I know I’ve said this sort of thing in recent years and then failed to stick with it. I’ve been better over the past six or seven months — still prone to the occasional crummy lethargy lapse, but a lot more productive. Finishing things continues to be my achilles’ heel, when it used to be one of my strengths. Hopefully some sort of regression to the mean will happen one of these days and I’ll revert to my old routine of putting out at least a few albums a year.