Month: October 2018

Mixer, heal thyself.

Twenty years ago, after recording a lot of music on cassette tape, I started thinking the ability to overdub the odd vocal harmony or a bit of percussion might be fun. Dustin — the mysterious vanishing piano teacher of yore — told me I ought to get myself a Tascam Portastudio. I went to Long & McQuade with Johnny Smith to ask if I could rent or buy one of those things and the salesperson said, “Pfffft. You don’t want another tape recorder. Digital recording is where it’s at now! You want one of these!” He showed us a Roland VS-880 and talked us into taking it home.

I didn’t know where to begin with such a complicated piece of equipment, but I got a kick out of playing with the built-in effects, making myself sound like Barry White or a slick radio DJ. I had to order the CD burner through some strange back channel. It took forever to show up, and it was ridiculously expensive. I remember it being somewhere in the neighbourhood of a thousand bucks. When I finally got it after months of waiting, I learned it wasn’t even compatible with the VS-880. I needed the next step up — a VS-880 EX.

I still remember the name of the guy who sold me the CD burner and assured me it would work with my specific mixer. Fred Carver. That name will never leave my brain.

I traded in the VS-880 for an 880 EX. By now I had a few dynamic mics, a few good keyboards, a crummy acoustic guitar, and a crummy electric guitar. I was in heaven. I thought I had the world at my fingertips. That mixer was a great friend to have as I slowly learned about digital recording through trial and error. Within a year or two I was recording things that were actually starting to sound pretty good.

In the summer of 2000 I upgraded to a VS-1680 and my brain almost exploded. The sonic possibilities seemed almost endless now. It would be a long time before I came close to maxing out all sixteen tracks. Anything beyond half of that seemed a little nutty to me. I was excited enough about not being limited to six tracks anymore, now that I could use something called the Mastering Room and didn’t need to keep the last two tracks open so I had somewhere to send my final mixdown.

The VS-1680 has been the crux of my home studio ever since. Everything around it has changed over the years as I’ve accumulated outboard mic preamps, EQ, compression, more microphones, and more musical instruments — starting with really low-end stuff and gradually working my way up — but once a sound is recorded on the 1680 it stays there. I still mix and master in the box, still burn things onto CD through the SCSI drive, and still back everything up on CD-R. You don’t want to know how many backup CDs I’ve accumulated after almost two decades of near-constant recording.

I understand why most people have either left archaic hard drive recorders like these in the dust or now use them as a front end for computer-based recording. I’ve been tempted to switch over a time or two myself. For whatever reason, this machine just works for me. I’m comfortable with it, I know its quirks, and I like being limited to sixteen tracks. It forces me to think about arrangements and what I want the sonics of a song to say without allowing me to get into turd-polishing territory by layering a mediocre song with endless overdubs. With good mics and preamps I find I’m able to get the sounds I want without much trouble. I’ve spent enough time tinkering with the mastering effects templates to figure out settings that work for me and tighten things up without sounding like they’re doing much of anything at all. Even with good outboard effects at my disposal, I still find some of the VS-1680’s built-in effects very useful. I’ve always been a fan of TapeEcho201 for an instant John Lennon slap-back echo vocal sound, and some of the modulation effects are nice and lush. Input eight stopped working years ago, but that’s easy to work around by recording through a different input and routing it to that track. I can’t remember the last time I needed or wanted to record eight tracks at once, so I don’t see it ever posing a serious problem.

I know it’s beyond obsolete. Back when I got my 1680 new it cost more than $4,000. I think you can find them used and in good condition on eBay for about $200 now. I had a recording engineer “friend” who used to throw all kinds of condescending snark my way about it. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I can’t believe you run those beautiful mics and pres into that hunk of junk and its outdated converters,” or some variation on the theme.

That hunk of junk allows me to do everything I want to do. I have no complaints. Neither do any of the people who have hired me to record them. It still bewilders me a little that anyone would want me to record their music in the first place, and it isn’t a service I advertise or treat as a conventional job (it’s much more a once in a while, word of mouth kind of thing), but I seem to attract artists who like things a little rough around the edges, the same way I do. I always walk away having learned something new or honed an existing skill into a sharper tool. I’ve yet to have anyone decide they’d rather record elsewhere because my DAW is outdated.

I’m not bragging. I made a lot of awful-sounding recordings on the way to teaching myself how to do all of this stuff. It’s taken me this long to get to a point where I can honestly say I feel I’m pretty good at it. I look at it as a lifelong learning process. I still do a lot of things the wrong way, but I think I’ve developed a sound that’s unique to me. I’d still be doing this even if I never graduated beyond that first little Sony tape recorder. I’ve just been lucky enough to gather some equipment over the years that’s allowed me to document things with more clarity as the music itself has grown more vivid and complex.

It hasn’t been a drama-free adventure. There have been a few “crashes”. I was in the middle of working on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN when something went wrong and I had to run a drive check for the first time. There were errors. I was told I was going to lose some data. All I lost was the bass part for “Creepy Crawly Things”. I rerecorded it in about two minutes and all was well in the world. Six years later everything locked up on me in a much more disconcerting way. A drive check cleared that up once I found a way to trick the mixer into running one. A few years after that I found I couldn’t recover anything I’d backed up on a CD anymore. Guess what fixed the problem? Another drive check.

I was beginning to think this VS-1680 was invincible. Every time I thought it was dying on me it would turn around and repair itself.

Then I had to go and spill coffee on it.

I have this massive steel desk Johnny Smith got for me twenty-some-odd years ago when an office building was closing up shop and auctioning off all their equipment and furniture for next to nothing. It’s built like a tank, and there’s an incredible amount of storage space in its many drawers. There are things I put in there back in 1996 that are still there. You couldn’t ask for a better desk.

Once upon a time I used to sit here and do my homework. Now it’s my studio desk. The 1680 sits in the middle, and all around it are pieces of outboard gear. I can lean in and lose myself in the music, with any adjustment I need to make a quick turn of the wrist or a slight reach of the arm away.

I make a habit of never drinking anything but bottled water when I’m working in this area.

Even if I knock it over, the bottle is always capped. Nothing happens. It’s the smart way to go.

The one time Gord offered me a beer and I decided to live dangerously and put it on the desk, I ended up knocking it over. The mixer and a whole lot of other stuff got pretty beery, but nothing was damaged. I cleaned up. I told myself I was lucky and I wouldn’t do that again.

Apparently a good cup of coffee can short-circuit good sense. Last night I was drinking a nice cup of decaf. I thought I’d set it down on the desk. I wanted to sip at it while I was working on something.

You know what’s coming.

Within five minutes I found a way to send the mug flying. A bit of coffee landed on the mixer right around where the play and record buttons are. I scrambled to grab some paper towels before the river of Nabob could get too unwieldy and was doing my best to mop up the mess when I noticed the 1680 was going haywire. In hindsight I wish I’d thought to film it for posterity, because I’ve never seen anything like this. It was as if half a dozen invisible children were pressing every random button they could over and over again. Track indicators would light up at random, six or ten or more at a time, blinking wildly. Every half-second the LCD screen would switch to a different mode. Ten seconds or so of the song I was working on would play and then stop with no provocation. All of this was happening at once. Almost none of the buttons did anything. The time wheel seemed to still be functioning, but that was no help. The 1680 was losing its mind, indifferent to my efforts to calm it down.

The worst part — the song I was working on was just some silly little instrumental thing I was recording as a bit of a joke. It wasn’t even a song I cared much about (though sampling an aluminum foil pan with the Yamaha VSS-30 and building a percussion track out of it was pretty amusing).

I figured I must have fried the circuit board or something. Some coffee must have trickled inside. Twenty or thirty times I manually powered down and back up again. The startup screen did its usual business, the mixer recognized the CD burner, and everything was fine until the song loaded. Then it was random chaos all over again. Sometimes in the middle of one of the mixer’s spastic fits I would press one of the track buttons that was lit up and it would send things into an even more intense tailspin. Sometimes I would hit play and the music would stop. The stop button didn’t do a thing. Then I’d get stuck in EZ Routing mode or somewhere else, everything would become unresponsive, and all I could do was force another restart. I tried all the tricks to force a drive check or a drive reformat. Nothing.

All this because I wasn’t smart enough to leave my coffee on the table where it belonged, a short walk away from the desk.

At least I had the foresight to buy a backup 1680 about ten years ago. Worst case scenario, I could pop the effects cards out of this one, transfer them into the alternate 1680, and start fresh. But I was going to lose a few songs I really liked that I didn’t have a chance to back up. That stung.

I kept wrestling with the angry thing. Power off. Power on. Insane 1680 tantrum. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Finally the shift key started to function again. I could get to the screen I needed to run a drive check, but I couldn’t activate it. The stupid song would start playing every time I tried to get in, blocking my access. I hit play and F5 at the same time and got the music to stop long enough to get where I needed to go. The drive check told me there were nine hundred and ninety-nine errors, but all the songs were fine.

I think what “999 ERR” really means is, “There’s so much wrong right now I’m going to max out the numbers as a way of telling you you’re in deep shit.”

So that did nothing. But now I was able to access both partitions of the drive. That was progress. I switched over to the second partition. The song that loaded started playing on its own, which still wasn’t good. It played all the way through this time, though. I got it to stop and ran another drive check. This time there were no errors. I popped a CD into the drive and tried backing up the songs I thought I might lose. No issues there. At least I knew my data was intact and salvageable, even if that first partition was toast. My heart started to pound out something closer to a sane rhythm again.

And then the 1680 stopped acting up. Just like that. I noticed the song that was loaded didn’t start playing on its own a second time once the backup CD popped out. The play button did what it was supposed to. So did the stop button. I messed around with the settings for a few individual tracks without any trouble. Switched back to the first partition where everything went crazy, and again all was well. I didn’t even lose the silly little instrumental song.

I don’t know if the coffee that got inside the mixer dried up after a while, if the 1680 decided to assimilate it after its initial violent protests, or if I just jostled the mixer in a way it didn’t like when I was in Horrified Damage Control mode and the coffee was never the issue at all. I have no idea what happened there. But now I think whoever designed these VS recorders was a genius. Eighteen years of continuous use, a few serious scares, half a cup of coffee, and STILL the thing refuses to die. It keeps on healing itself and saying, “Is that all you got?”

So I raise my glass to the mind-boggling resilience of the Roland VS-1680 — in another room, on another floor of the house, just to be safe.

The little box that could.

Ten years ago, when I was in the middle of working on the album that would become AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, I was paying for some CDs and used records at Dr. Disc when Liam handed me this little orange thing that looked like a dictaphone.

“Have you ever used one of these before?” he asked me.

“No,” I said. “I don’t even know what it is.”

“Take it,” he said. “Maybe you can have some fun with it.”

I figured it was something an electronics-savvy friend made for him and assumed the letters “FM” on the front were a reference to frequency modulation synthesis. A volume knob doubled as an on/off switch. A button toggled through a dozen or so weird little lo-fi loops. I used it on the song “Roof Rats”, holding the internal speaker up to a microphone, messing with the mixer’s recording speed to bend the sounds even more out of shape.

Then I noticed there was a headphone jack I could have used as an output for cleaner sound. D’oh.

I more or less forgot I had this strange little orange noise-generator until I was working on a really psychedelic-sounding song for the soon-to-be-finished Papa Ghostface album. I thought one of its drones might make a perfect little five-second ambient intro. I used it on one more song after that (more of an immersive semi-electronic thing), and then I thought to flip it over for the first time in ten years and look at its bottom.

All the information I wanted was right there the whole time, if only I would have known where to look for it.

This little orange thing has a proper name after all. It’s called the FM3 Buddha Machine. It was created by the Beijing-based musical duo Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian. Special editions have been made in collaboration with Throbbing Gristle and Phillip Glass.

I sent an email to Christiaan and Zhang through their website to ask about sample clearance. The two songs I used the Buddha Machine on incorporate its loops as short-lived ambient touches. We’re pretty far away from a “Bitter Sweet Symphony” situation here. Even so, I wanted to make sure I did right by them. I sent links to MP3s for both songs so they could hear which loops I made use of and how I used them, and asked if there was a clearance fee.

It’s been at least a good month now and I’ve yet to hear back. I’m starting to get the feeling I’m never going to get a response. With a limited amount of time left in this house (long story), there’s no way I’m holding off on releasing an album that’s weeks away from being CD-ready until I hear back from a few guys who probably have much more pressing things to attend to.

Here’s what I’m thinking. This album is going to sell zero copies, because it isn’t going to be for sale anywhere. So I won’t be making any money off of it. There will only be forty or fifty copies made, tops, and those are all going to friends. There’s only one radio station on the planet that might give the music some airplay, and that’s CJAM. The Buddha Machine loops I’ve dropped into two of the songs have been used in a transformative way. I didn’t use them as building blocks to write the songs around the way some producers do. I stitched them into original music of my own. And I’ll make sure to credit the Buddha Machine, its creators, and the specific loops used in the CD booklet.

I think I’m in the clear here. I tried to do the right thing the right way, and it’s not as if I’m sampling something uncredited and trying to pass it off as my own work.

One thing I have to say: hearing pristine recordings of the Buddha Machine over here is almost freakish. I didn’t realize just how gritty-sounding my FM3 had become. It’s been living off of the same two AA batteries since 2008. In that time, the pitch has dropped at least half a step and some distortion has crept into the sound. I kind of like it that way.

Watching you without me.

Leo Kottke once described his singing voice as sounding “like geese farts on a muggy day”.

I think he deserves immortality for that alone, but he’s much more than a self-deprecating part-time vocalist. He’s a great storyteller and a brilliant guitarist. Throughout a fifty-year career he’s traversed a long and sinuous musical road. It’s almost impossible to believe the mind-bending syncopation and speed heard on 6- and 12-String Guitar and the spacious, meditative pieces on A Shout Toward Noon are the work of the same person. And yet they are. And those are just two of the many varied and eclectic albums in his discography.

He’s worked with high-profile artists as disparate as Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, and Phish, without ever seeming to catch the spotlight himself. Something tells me he prefers the artistic freedom a low profile affords him. Though he hasn’t made an album in well over a decade, he continues to play live into his seventies. The man probably won’t put down the guitar until he doesn’t have the strength to hold it anymore.

In a recent interview with the Times Colonist, he said: “I’ve been trained to think — we all have — that when you get old, everything gets old. But it’s exactly the opposite. If you have something, one little handle of some kind — writing, playing — I think everything does continue, and it is a work in progress. If that isn’t happening, what’s the alternative?”

My introduction to Leo’s music came in late 1997 care of the Sessions at West 54th TV program — something of a short-lived sister to Austin City Limits. I was channel-surfing with Johnny Smith late on a Saturday night. We came across Leo and stuck around to hear him do his thing.

For twenty-one years one specific song from that show has haunted the back of my brain. Last night I was able to give the song a name. It’s called “Across the Street”. I thought I’d search for it on YouTube, not expecting much. And there it was.

The finer details were lost to me over time. I remembered the story being about a father and his son. Not quite. But the sense of loss and the sombre quality of the music…that wasn’t a twisted or faulty memory.

To begin with, it’s a haunting story. But the way Leo tells it, it doesn’t feel like an introduction to a song. It feels like the music takes over mid-thought, filling the space between what isn’t said and what can only be imagined.

It may be the simplest piece of music he’s ever written. I think it’s also the most powerful. This must be the definitive performance, stripped of the strange reverb tails that threaten to overwhelm the sound of the guitar on the studio version from the 1997 album Standing in My Shoes.

At the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995, Leo told a longer version of the tale behind “Across the Street”. I’ve made just a few light edits for grammar and readability. I think it makes for a compelling short story in its own right.

I have a friend in Ljubljana who I’ve been unable to find recently named Seka Tavčar. I met her when I first did a tour in the old Yugoslavia with Paco de Lucia, who started in Ljubljana and went to places like Spit and Una and a couple of others I don’t remember. I came back every year for about four years and did this same little tour.

On our fist stop, we were introduced to Seka Tavčar and a mountain climber, a heart surgeon, a physicist, and some other people the government at the time trotted out to meet everybody. Nobody wanted to be there. We tried to be polite to one another and admit it was something that had to be done. We were forced to have dinner together after the show.

By that time we were enjoying ourselves naturally and I asked Seka, since I didn’t know yet, what she did. She was the token artist in the group. She was a lithographer.

I said, “Oh, lithographer from Ljubljana,” and she did not smile.

I gave up on limericks and asked, “Could I see your lithographs?”

She said, “No, you can’t.”

So I said, “Sorry.”

And she said, “No…I’ve only made TEN of them.”

I couldn’t figure that out. I asked her why, and she said, “I break the stone.”

Usually, as I understand it, you make a lithograph. You run off three to five hundred copies of this lithograph. Then you smooth the stone and make another one. Otherwise it’s like Sisyphus or somebody, to break the stone. It sounded nuts. So now it was a lunatic lithographer from Ljubljana.

I asked her why she did that.

She said, “It’s none of your business.”

I saw her again the next year and she said, “I can’t stay for the show. My father found his way home. He’s sick. I’d better go back and take care of him.”

The year after that she came to the show and I asked, “How is your father?” picking up the conversation where we left it off.

She said, “He died.”

I said, “Oh.”

She said, “Would you like to see some of the things he did?”

The next day she took me to downtown Ljubljana and showed me, among other things — he was an engineer and an architect — a bridge he had built. And while she was showing me this, she said he had been arrested when she was three years old and imprisoned. And I asked why. Which is a question you wouldn’t have to ask, I guess, if you’d lived there. She ignored me and showed me the bridge, which was a beautiful bridge, starting on one side of the river with three roads, which in the course of the bridge merged into one road on the other side of the river. So I had an idea why he’d been arrested.

It was a beautiful bridge. And as I looked at this thing, she told me what had happened. She said he was imprisoned for twenty-six years.

“We were never told,” she said, “where he was imprisoned, why he was imprisoned, or for how long he would be in prison. What we were told, once a year at some indeterminate time, was that he was still alive. That’s all we ever knew.”

When he got sick, they let him out after twenty-six years.

“That’s,” she said, “when I found out he’d been imprisoned across the street. And for twenty-six years, he’d been able to look up through a gun slit window in his cell and see my sister and I grow up playing on the balcony of our apartment.”

And then she said, “That is why I break the stone.”

Tapey goodness.

Jess’s album QUIET BEASTS is officially out in the world as part of a split cassette (!) with the Shhh album 32 Original Drawings on the flip side. It’s also available as a standalone digital release. This is the first thing I’ve recorded that’s landed on a cassette tape in many a moon. It’s also one of the few times I’ve named someone else’s album without really meaning to.

In the middle of work on the first Tire Swing Co. album, Steven was looking for another word for a romantic partner or an object of desire. I mentioned INAMORATA, and the rest is rigatoni. I wasn’t expecting it to become the album title, but it played really well off of Greg’s cover art and a lot of the subject matter of the songs themselves.

This time, when I was working on final mixes and adding metadata to the songs so they’d show up as themselves in a media player, I felt funny leaving the album title field blank. So I called it QUIET BEASTS, lifting a phrase from one of the songs (“Quiet beasts don’t seek acceptance,” goes the full line in “Was Asking for Everything”).

I said, “I just wanted to give it a temporary title…feel free to throw it away and call it whatever you wish.”

Jess said, “I like it! I’m keeping it!”

And so it was kept.

Jess is one of my very favourite people I’ve met through music in recent years, and it’s great to see people responding to this album — which was great fun to record — with such enthusiasm. It just spent two weeks in a row at #1 on the CHRW charts and has already garnered some nice bits of press here and here.