I set a low-key goal to have a rough assembly of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK on CD by the end of this week, if only for my own peace of mind. There were two mixes that needed some last-minute tweaks and two songs that required a little more in the way of clothing before I could mix them. If I could get all of that taken care of and the sequencing felt right, I’d be able to focus on finalizing the layout of the lyric/art booklet.
I didn’t do myself any favours by leaving some of the most difficult work for last. These are four of the most ambitious songs on the album, with an average track count of twenty-five. Two of them are more than eight minutes long.
For those who work out of a commercial recording studio — and even for most home recordists — twenty-five tracks is nothing. For me and my humble sixteen-track mixer, it’s a lot.
The mixing process has developed all kinds of new and interesting wrinkles. Mixing a song was once almost a set-it-and-forget-it thing for me, because there were so few tracks to work with. Now it’s become a musical performance in itself, with countless pinpoint changes in panning, volume, and effects.
Early in the week, I tackled one of the songs that still needed some work at the recording stage. It was in a very unfinished state. I had an acoustic guitar track, bass, some rough piano, a scratch vocal, and multi-tracked trombone and cello.
I was never happy with the acoustic guitar sound I captured for this song. I used my Martin 000-15. I love that guitar, and it’s really opened up in the eight or so years I’ve had it, but I’ve come to rely on it more for accents and secondary parts. It can sound a little thin when you try to build a whole song around it. I prefer the warmer, richer-sound of the 1945 Martin 00-17 or the 1951 Gibson LG-2 for that sort of thing.
When I revisited the basic tracks the acoustic guitar part wasn’t doing it for me at all. It wasn’t just the sound that bothered me. It was flat and lifeless. It sounded more like I was trying to avoid hitting an ugly note than really letting go and expressing something through the instrument. So I junked it, plugged in the Telecaster, and rebuilt the whole arrangement around electric guitar instead. Everything started to feel more dynamic right away. The bass was good enough to keep. I ditched the piano in the body of the song and recorded some Fender Rhodes in its place, recorded some drums, added some of the crummy twelve-string acoustic that’s become an occasional secret weapon, nailed down some keeper vocal tracks (the vocals are layered at the beginning before collapsing down to a single, unembellished performance), bounced the trombone down to a stereo submix to make my life a little easier, threw in a bit of lap steel, and braced myself for a mixing nightmare.
This is one of those songs that goes out of its way to subvert anything resembling a traditional verse/chorus structure. I tend to do that anyway, rarely writing a chorus even when sections of music in a song repeat, but it’s often a subtler thing (at least compared to the violent refracting of song forms that drove albums like BRAND NEW SHINY LIE and GROWING SIDEWAYS). Here it’s not subtle. There are four distinct movements, and none of them recur once they’ve run their course. The instrumentation shifts a fair bit as well, with different elements coming and going. The only straightforward part from a mixing standpoint is the final section, which is kind of striking in its starkness compared to the rest of the song — just piano and cello.
I almost fainted when I listened to the first mix in a few different settings and it hit me that I only needed to make a few small adjustments. That doesn’t happen with songs like this. It almost always takes me at least a few mixes to get things right, or at least as right as I’m going to get them.
The second mix, which isn’t much different from the rough pass, became the final mix. It might be one of my better mixes on the album. It’s ridiculous.
Luck? A fluke? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
Full of self-belief, I jumped right into the other song that still needed some work, thought I might get it done in a day, and smacked face-first into a glass door. Proverbially speaking.
This one also has four movements, but they’re much more disparate, almost as if four different songs have been fused together. There are layers of vocals, saxophone, violin, many guitars (some acoustic, some electric, some backwards), bass, drums, and by the time I’m finished adding Wurlitzer and a few more atmospheric touches it’ll top out somewhere near thirty tracks. Not all of these elements are in play at the same time, which is part of what makes it such a delicate dance to pull all the threads together.
I added some new vocal tracks to the last section. Then I tried re-recording the vocal tracks for two other sections before deciding I liked the existing takes better. They may be imperfect, but there’s an energy there that feels right. I recorded some acoustic twelve-string guitar over the most propulsive part to thicken things up a little (using my own axe this time) and started forming some ideas about just how I’m going to mix this monstrous thing. I still need to replace some of the sax stabs with vocal harmonies and take another pass at the drum part.
It’s taking a little longer than I hoped, but given how complicated the thing is, it was probably unrealistic to think I could blow through it in an afternoon. Better to let it take its time. If that means another few days of experimenting before I figure out all the final touches the song needs, and if the two mixes I still need to fine-tune end up getting impatient and rolling their eyes at me, so be it.
I’m not quite there yet. But I’m close.