Month: February 2020

Silly typos, lyric booklets are for kids.

YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is somehow already at #3 on the CJAM charts, even though not a lot of DJs have had it long enough to give it much airplay yet. I’m a little surprised to see it debut so high.

There are a few other new albums being released right now by local artists with much higher profiles than mine. I have a twisted premonition that this will be the first thing I’ve done in years to never make it to #1 and in the weeks ahead it’ll get repeatedly lodged in the second or third spot behind the cool kids. Given all that’s transpired over the last little while, it would be kind of fitting to be on the outside looking in.

I’ll find out if my hunch is correct soon enough.

Also, if you got one of the first copies of SLEEPWALK, I owe you an apology. In spite of all the painstaking proofreading I subjected myself to, I still managed to miss two mistakes in the initial run of booklets. They’re two things most people will probably never notice — a missing bit of punctuation at the end of one song, and one printed word that isn’t the word being sung (though it sounds like it could be).

That I would forget a line in one of my own songs gives you an idea of how long I lived with this music and how much I had to try and keep in my head. I had dreams about screwing up the packaging even after I knew everything was fine. It took a while before I could relax and stop worrying about some other boneheaded blunder hiding in plain sight.

(One thing that looks like it might be an oversight is a deliberate stylistic choice. The word “Bible” appears in two different songs. In “Wherever the Lord May Be” I meant it in the literal, Old Testament sense, so I capitalized it. In “Losing Light” the phrase “black-eyed bible” refers to the unreliable words of some unsavoury characters. In that case it felt more appropriate to forego the capital B.)

Invisible though the typos may be to the naked and partially-clothed eye, I’m always a little miffed when these things sneak through. But I guess I have to accept human error creeping in once in a while. One wrong word and a missing period does hurt a little less than some of my hits of the past like “bilss” and “electic guitar”.

I made the necessary corrections and had more booklets made. If you’re one of the lucky few to receive one of the typo-enhanced copies, you now own a collector’s item.

No need to thank me. It’s what I do.

Now my heart is full.

It’s everyone’s favourite Hallmark holiday today, and you know what that means — time for a gooey song about holding hands and learning to understand while wearing a single leather glove and opening an umbrella to shield yourself from some stuff that’s falling from above.

I’ve kind of had my fill of love songs. Given how little there is left to say that hasn’t already been said on the subject, I thought I might provide a useful service to the world by writing a one-size-fits-all love song so no one else would ever have to write another uninspired variation on the theme.

This was one of the last things slated for inclusion on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK to find itself on the chopping block. It’s one of my favourite songs that didn’t make it onto the album. I felt like I never quite got the arrangement right, I wanted to take another crack at singing it, and in the end time constraints kept it from finding a place on either disc.

I dumped it back onto the mixer this afternoon because I thought it would be a fun thing to polish off and share on the day before Half-Price Chocolate Day. I was a little surprised to find I liked the arrangement just fine after some time away from it and didn’t feel I could do a whole lot to improve on the existing vocal take. The mix is a bit of a quickie job, and I’ll probably fine-tune it a little, but it feels good enough to share.

Turn the lights down low, pour yourself a glass of onion juice, and let the love in.

This Is an Overwrought Love Song

This is an overwrought love song
written for someone who doesn’t exist,
given a name and attributes
broad enough to allow you to project
the likeness of just about anyone
and whatever feelings you have for them
onto this uninspired canvas so you can tell yourself
the words were written just for you.

Well, if this song were a small town,
it would have a population of a hundred and nine,
and all of the people who lived there
would dream up poetic ways to pass the time,
like finding a name for a fragrance impossible to articulate.
And that’s the smell of the person you love,
whoever they may be.

Maybe you’d call it deceptive.
Maybe you’d say it was something sweet
with the breath of menace inside it —
a metaphor for something you weren’t wise enough

to recognize when it might have done you some good.
And now the song has grown bitter.
But you’re bitter too, so it’s nothing offensive or jarring.

Now this is the part where a new melody
is introduced to keep you engaged.
The setting has changed but your clothes are the same.
There’s a lazy trope you can hang your hat on.
The music conveys a hint of regret,
but it hasn’t collapsed into self-pity yet.
That’s another song for another time.
You won’t find it here.
It’s not one of mine.

And here’s where a key change would happen
if I cared enough to engage in histrionics
common to the artistic vernacular,
employed in moments such as these,
but this is an overwrought love song
written for an idealized, nonexistent subject,
and if they were real a last-minute key change
wouldn’t appeal 
to their sensibilities.
So fuck all that.

This wasn’t really a love song, was it?

You’re just filler, ’til the real thing comes along.

If you get a copy of YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK (which has now been officially “released”, to the extent that I release anything anymore), you might notice a link in the liner notes to the album’s video companion.

My goal was to have a DIY documentary-like thing edited before the album was finished so both could go live at the same time. If I had two brains I might have been able to pull it off. As it stands, some segments have been edited, but there’s still a bit of work left to do. I need to record some more voiceover material, film a few more things, make a few more choices about what to use and how to use it (I’m working with something like sixty hours of raw footage), and try to get Bono to sit down for an interview so I can pour a pint of Guinness on his head.

I should have everything finished in a week or two. In the meantime, here’s a little teaser/placeholder video so the URL will actually link to something.

Adventures in drum recording.

I got the chance to record a real drum set for the first time in late 1999. I piled most of my gear into the car one afternoon and brought it over to Gord’s friend Andrew’s place. The three of us became “Papa Ghostface and Friend” for a day and recorded two songs that found a home on the HERE COMES TROUBLE EP. I stuck a Shure SM57 in front of Andrew’s kick drum, put up another SM57 as a mono overhead, and that was it.

My next experiment in drum recording came in early 2000 while working on what was supposed to be a full-length Soul Crossing album. This time I used four mics — an SM57 on the kick, another pointing at the bottom of the snare, and two more dynamic mics serving as stereo overheads (an SM58 and a cheap RadioShack mic). I couldn’t believe how much more depth the sound had with just a few more microphones added to the mix.

I bought my own drum set in the summer of 2000 and started using a similar four-microphone setup, with the snare mic’d from the top and the kick mic leaning against the shell of the resonant head. I only had three mic stands, so I had to improvise. One overhead mic came in from above the high-hat. The other was situated near the ride cymbal. I had no preamps, no compression, and no idea what I was doing, but the results sounded pretty good to me.

Things got more chaotic when I found myself in band situations. For a few years those four dynamic microphones were all I had. I was recording everything live off-the-floor, with only the occasional overdub. When I needed something to sing into, the drums had to take a hit. Sometimes I would stick a single SM57 in front of the kit and hope for the best. Sometimes I could spare another mic or two. When I recorded someone else’s band, I used anywhere from two to six microphones. It was always changing depending on the nature of the music, how many extra mics they had to lend to the cause, and whatever limitations were imposed by the space we were recording in.

After trying out a few different two-mic configurations with Tyson in the GWD days, I settled on one SM57 for an overhead (we called it the “crotch mic” for obvious reasons) and another on the beater side of the kick drum. The trick was not pointing the second mic at the kick. Instead, I placed it at a ninety-degree angle so it picked up some snap from the snare. Those two mics captured a surprisingly balanced sound with a lot of character.

That wonky setup lasted longer than most, carrying over to the three solo albums I made after the band broke up. By the time of OH YOU THIS I felt it was time to start using a few more microphones again. I picked up a Rode NT1 and an NT4 stereo mic. The ART preamps and Aphex compressor I’d been using for the two-mic approach were usurped by two DBX 576 preamps and a 1046 compressor. I recorded acoustic guitar tracks with the NT4 and sang into the NT1. Then I moved the NT1 across the room, aimed it at the kick drum, used the NT4 as an overhead mic, and stuck an SM57 on the snare.

With just a touch of EQ and compression, I felt like this was the tightest drum sound I’d ever managed to get. The best part was how easy it was to dial in, with the stereo overhead mic eliminating phase issues. The sound got even tighter when I picked up an AKG D112 before recording BRAND NEW SHINY LIE, removed the resonant head from my kick drum, stuck a blanket inside, and messed with the tuning a little. Having a dedicated kick mic made my life a little simpler, and I got more “air” in the overheads when I moved the NT4 to the other side of the drum kit so it was pointed at me, where before I had it looking down at the drums from my perspective.

I was content with all of this until I upgraded my mic preamps again after finishing THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET and started hearing what was really going on. All at once those Rode mics stopped doing it for me. I bought an AEA R88 stereo ribbon mic without knowing much about it, since I liked the convenience of being able to stick a single mic in front of the drums, filling in the rest by spot-mic’ing the kick and snare.

Before I could try out my new three-microphone setup, a trio of drug dealers moved in next door and partied nonstop for seven months, robbing me of my ability to record anything. The R88 sat in its carrying case, wrestling with troubling existential questions. I didn’t unsheathe it for the first time until after we moved into this house.

When the R88 finally did come out of its case, I learned the swivel mount attachment it came with was defective. I screwed the mic into a heavy duty boom stand, tried it in front of the drum kit, and almost fell over. I heard the sound of my drums in my room, with a three-dimensional quality that didn’t exist in any recording I’d made before. There was no need for a close mic to reinforce anything. I took the SM57 off the snare and sold my AKG D112.

It took me an album or two to get a good handle on how I needed to play if I wanted to get the most out of using just a stereo front-of-kit mic. A lot of the drumming habits I developed over the years weren’t going to work anymore. I had to lay off the cymbals and simplify my approach. I was always a quiet drummer, but now I found the softer I played the more the tone seemed to open up. I got some of my best sounds using brushes. When I did play with sticks, I started keeping a brush or a mallet in one hand so I could hit the crash with a lighter touch.

The Great River MP-2NV gave me all the gain I needed to drive the R88. I added some high frequency EQ on my mixer to compensate for the ribbon mic’s rolloff at 8k and 20k. Then I got an A-Designs Hammer tube EQ in the middle of recording CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, started using that in place of the digital EQ, and almost fell over a second time.

I’ve been recording my drums this way for twelve years now. Every once in a while I’ll put up a large diaphragm condenser as a distant room mic if I want to add some extra ambience or a weird effect, and I’ve recorded a few brushed snare parts with an LDC up close, but that doesn’t happen often. Most of what you hear on every album I’ve made since 2008 is just the stereo ribbon mic in front of the drums. I’ve stuck with the same approach on albums I’ve recorded for other artists. I wouldn’t have a problem putting more microphones on the kit if someone wanted me to, but no one’s ever asked.

I’m the only person who’s played drums on any of those albums, which is pretty funny to me. This way of recording forces you to “mix” your own playing, since there are no close mics to compensate for whatever might be off. A surprising amount of people seem to have trouble controlling their dynamics. But that isn’t the reason no one else has sat on the drum throne for anything I’ve recorded since 2002.

It’s because I’m the only one who shows up to play.

When I was making final adjustments to a few mixes for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I started thinking the drums sounded kind of anemic. It was a strange thing to experience after being happy with the sound I was getting for so long. It wasn’t even based on anything I was hearing. It was my brain’s way of trying to find something wrong with the album. I was having a hard time processing the idea of finishing something I’d been working on for almost a fifth of my life.

That lasted about two days. Then I came to my senses. I think I’ve heard too many soulless modern recordings where the drums are pumped-up and sound-replaced to within an inch of their lives. Sometimes you get it in your head that drums are supposed to sound that way all the time, even when you know better.

Before that weird little brain blip, I was thinking about making a change. After twelve years of recording drums this way — by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach — maybe it wouldn’t hurt me to put a few more mics in front of the kit again. The single-mic method has taught me a lot about subtlety, and I’m a big fan of the naturalistic approach, but sometimes you want a harder-hitting sound.

I did some experimenting on Wednesday. I tried out a few different things before settling on an over-the-shoulder position for the R88. I pointed an SM57 at the snare drum for the first time in fifteen years. In the absence of an AKG D112, I tried a Sennheiser 421 on the kick.

The first thing I noticed was how much sound I was getting from the R88. It was insane how vividly it captured every part of the drum kit no matter where I put it. Once I brought the snare and kick mics into the mix, it started sounding like a record.

And I hated it.

I wasn’t expecting that. The bigger, punchier sound was what I thought I wanted. As soon as the close mics came into play, I felt all the great dynamics the overheads captured starting to get choked and flattened out. More than anything, I missed all the space that lives in the sound when the R88 is out in front of the drums. This more traditional configuration sounded artificial in a way that didn’t appeal to me at all. I could have moved the mics around some more, but it wouldn’t have made much difference. I found out what I needed to know.

I moved the R88 back where it belonged.

Conclusions? I’ve got a few.

The AEA R88 is one serious microphone. Easily one of the best recording-related investments I’ve ever made. I haven’t begun to scratch the surface of its potential by limiting it to drum-recording applications, but no other combination of mics I’ve used has ever done a better, more honest job of reproducing the sound of my drum set.

A conventional, “produced” drum sound doesn’t work for my music anymore. It isn’t what I want to hear. I’m not sure if it’s because of what my ears have grown accustomed to or the specific aesthetic I’ve developed, but it’s inescapable. My drum sound has become — quite literally — the sound of my drums.

I guess I’m sticking with what works.

Proof of concept.

I hold in my hands a proof.

Okay, so I’m holding it in one hand between my thumb and a few fingers. And I’m not holding it right now. But I was holding it when I took this picture with my free hand.

I’ve been designing my own CD inserts and booklets for seventeen years. While I wouldn’t call myself a professional graphic designer, by now I have a pretty good handle on how to get the most out of the format. I’ve even taken care of the layout side of things for a few of the albums I’ve recorded for other people (Ron’s album is the most recent example). You only need to look at the first-issued versions of OH YOU THIS and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE to understand how unlikely it was that anyone else would ever trust me to do this for them. I have no idea how I got here.

I enjoy this stuff. I enjoyed it even before I knew what I was doing. I know a lot of people don’t bother to read album liner notes or lyric booklets anymore. I know sometimes you just want to let the music wash over you with your eyes closed in the dark, shutting out the rest of the world. But having something visual to explore can add another layer to the listening experience. A lot of my favourite music was first absorbed while reading the lyrics so my eyes could follow along with what I was hearing. I’m not sure if the music would have had the same impact on me if I’d listened to it in a different way.

This is one of the reasons the whole digital distribution thing doesn’t cut it for me. Bandcamp allows you to include collapsible lyrics for each song you upload, but it isn’t the same as holding a physical album in your hands and digging into its guts for whatever secrets it might contain. I have no idea how many listeners bother to read my lyric booklets. Maybe no one does. It doesn’t really matter. I like making them for selfish reasons.

I can’t say I’ve ever made a lyric booklet quite like this one. It’s full of art that plays off of the words. Putting it together was a real challenge. I had to find a way to fit all the words and images into a booklet that wouldn’t be too thick to get inside of a jewel case. The number of pages had to be divisible by four. My first finished draft ran thirty-two pages. With a little massaging, I was able to get it down to twenty-eight. The text couldn’t be too large, but it had to be easy enough to read. Some images needed to bleed right through to the edges of the page, with no white space around them. There needed to be musician credits after each song. I used one font for the outer layer and another for the body text in the booklet. Those two fonts needed to be able to play off of each other. I had to get creative with the spacing to make everything work.

You can make something look good on a computer screen, but you never know how it’s going to translate until you see it on a bunch of pages stapled together. I was a little worried this one would come out looking like a lumpy mess until Joe (who has become my main man at Herald Press) called on Thursday to tell me the proof was ready.

“How does it look?” I asked him. “Do you think I laid everything out okay?”

“I think it looks pretty damn good,” he said.

He was right. It’s pretty powerful to see everything put together. This is going to sound strange, but reading the booklet hammers home for me just how much time and care went into making this thing in a way listening to it doesn’t. It isn’t just a bunch of music and words. It’s something more than that.

I made some boneheaded typos. My brain has this habit of compensating for the odd missing word, and sometimes it causes me to miss what’s missing. I wish there was a switch I could flip to turn that off. It’s a convenient cerebral function when you’re reading someone else’s words. Not so much when you want to make sure your own work is solid. More than once I’ve had to pay for a booklet to be printed twice when I failed to catch a mistake until it was too late. I’m hoping to avoid that this time.

One of the nice things about having a proof is getting another chance to catch what’s amiss. I might have been able to live with giving myself credit for playing tambourine on a song that doesn’t feature any tambourine in the final mix or forgetting to credit myself with playing shaker on a song that does feature the instrument, but it would have been pretty embarrassing if I never noticed how I somehow managed to list two songs on the back insert in reverse order.

As impatient as I am, I’d rather have things put together a day or two later than planned instead of rushing the process and letting these mistakes slip through the cracks. I have to say I’m usually a lot better at catching most of these stragglers before a proof is even made. Then again, I’ve rarely dealt with anything close to this amount of text in a lyric booklet. It’s beyond tedious to go through each page over and over again at a snail’s pace, but it’ll all be worth it when I’ve got a stack of error-free booklets and inserts in front of me a week or so from now.