Ron’s album is officially finished. The final mixes and master have been approved. Brand new dances have been invented and danced with gusto. Now it’s just a matter of Ron taking care of the packaging and duplication side of things. I can’t give you an exact release date, but my hope is that it sneaks out into the world before the end of the year.
It was strange coming to terms with it all being over. I don’t think this sort of thing used to register at all, but these days a lot more time, thought, and effort is involved in making an album for me, whether it’s my music I’m recording or someone else’s. There’s almost always some sort of emotional investment that happens along the way, and when the album is finished it feels like the end of a relationship. In a way I guess it is. Sometimes you get to play some of the songs live and have a nostalgic roll in the hay after the fact. Most of the time you just move on to the next one.
Now I find myself with nothing but my own music to focus on, for the first time in four or five years. When I channelled all of my energy into finishing Ron’s album, I got pretty ruthless about it. It was good to be reminded how efficient I can be when I’m dialled in and working toward a well-defined goal.
With that album complete, I’ve done my best to take the energy I tapped into near the end and redirect it into my own music. So far, so good. As before, I’m working on finishing that Papa Ghostface album first, so I can then focus on that other big thing without any distractions. Right now there are twenty-two keeper tracks. Whether or not they all end being kept is a matter for time to decide. Six of them have mixes that feel good enough to be left alone. Eight only need a small amount of work — either a better mix or a few final touches. Another eight need some serious surgery.
I’d say things are moving along pretty well. If I can manage to get at least one song somewhere near the final mix stage every day or two, I’ll be in good shape.
You’re probably wondering who’s playing trumpet in that picture up there at the top of the post. That would be Austin Di Pietro. He was over here last week scattering magical music dust all over the place.
I’ve had pretty rotten luck with horn players throughout this whole YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK adventure. For every Anthony Giglio and Michael Stone — great guys who played some great flugelhorn and trombone, respectively, on songs you’ll hopefully get to hear soon — there have been something like a dozen trumpet players who have either ignored every effort I’ve made to start a dialogue with them or expressed an interest in playing on something only to turn around and stop acknowledging me for no apparent reason.
You don’t want to know how many musicians in general have done that to me. It’s getting a little scary. I’ve learned a lot through this whole lumpy process. Some of it’s been about me and how I’m a more capable and adaptable producer than I thought I was (yay for me!). A lot of it’s been about our city’s music scene. It isn’t quite as inclusive as it wants you to believe it is. There are some very talented people in Windsor’s artistic community who also happen to be open-minded and generous with their time. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with several of them. There are also some self-important douche canoes who have no interest in interacting with anyone outside of their established circle of collaborators and hangers-on. And some people mean well but are just giant flakes.
To that end, I was in touch with a trumpet player who seemed enthusiastic about doing something right up until the moment I figured out what I wanted him to play on. I sent him a rough mix of the song and never heard from him again. Austin ended up taking that person’s place and playing on a second song as well.
I have Amanda Hanson to thank for this. She was another horn player I talked to, and when I finally got around to sending her a message with a few songs I wanted to run by her, instead of ignoring me she levelled with me and said her improv chops weren’t where she wanted them to be. She was concerned she wouldn’t be able to give me what I was after. She did know a few people she could recommend to take her place. At the top of her list was Austin.
One thing I’ve discovered about myself while working with so many different singers and musicians over the last few years: I can usually coax a good performance out of someone if they need some coaxing, regardless of their skill or comfort level. And that’s rewarding work. But when you get someone in the studio who’s such a good musician they don’t need any significant direction and you can just stand back and let them do their thing…those are fun moments.
Austin is one of those people. The first song he played on was a laid-back bossa nova-inspired thing. We got a few takes down with him playing trumpet, and I would have been happy to live with one of them, but then he switched to flugelhorn and nailed it in a single take. Something about the mellower tone of that horn and the way he played it felt like it completed the song. As usual, I stuck the trusty old Pearlman TM-1 in the middle of the room, put it in omni, and all was well in the world.
To mix things up, I asked Austin to play on a twisted spoken word piece that lived on a different planet from the bossa nova tune. For the first song I had a written melody (or “head”, if you like), and then there was room for a bit of improv. Here there was nothing mapped out at all. It was wide open for him to do anything he wanted. I ran his trumpet through my old Digitech guitar effects processor friend, using my favourite ambient effect. Instead of being put off by the weirdness of all the cascading delays smearing the sound of his horn, he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to go a little crazy, using the effect to build up dissonant chord clusters. Again, it was just what the song needed.
I grabbed some video footage while he was here, but I don’t want to give too many more surprises away before these albums are done, so I think I’ll sit on that for now. Good things are coming, though. Believe you me.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
It was a bit of a nervy performance, which was probably to be expected, because the last time I played live on the radio was about a third of my life ago. And I had a hell of a time figuring out which three songs to play. But it was fun. The Omnichord didn’t end up making the trip, only because it was too much to carry.
I opted for two newer songs and an oldie in the middle. You also get to hear a tiny bit of another new song at the very end, in proper recorded form. I chose to fade out on that instead of letting it play all the way through, because surprises are the stuff Baby Jesus lines his moccasins with.
Baby Jesus, if you aren’t familiar with him, is the finest bluesman still standing. His new album Mocha Sins is well worth investigating. Highlights include “With This Water I Can Get You Drunk” and a fiery cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs”.
But seriously, thanks to Ron for the invite. And thanks to Johnny Smith for taking that picture up there. Taking a selfie and getting the huge CJAM logo in the frame is just about impossible, as you can see from what happened when I gave it a try:
Two of the three songs I played are pretty self-explanatory. “A Puppet Playing Possum” comes from GIFT FOR A SPIDER and has snuck up on me over the years, growing from a song that was just kind of there to one I’m really fond of. “Monster’s Truce” was recorded a while back and will probably show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. “Rat Shearer” is the odd man out.
It came from a dream, sort of. I have this annoying habit of dreaming music that’s really interesting and then remembering everything about it when I wake up — from the instruments used to the way they were recorded — except for the chords, melodies, and words. You know, the stuff that would actually allow me to flesh out and/or record those dream songs.
That’s what happened here. I had a dream I was in the car listening to this great lost Alex Chilton song from the late 1970s. It had the chaotic spirit you’d expect from Alex during that period, but it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d ever heard him do. There was an almost queasy feeling to the music, with some great vocal harmonies. It kind of sounded like the Beach Boys on a disconcerting acid trip.
When the dream was over I remembered the feeling of the music without retaining the nuts and bolts of it. But the song title stuck around: “Rat Shearer”. I thought it was worth trying to write a song of my own around it.
The rough GarageBand demo will give you a better idea of how it might sound once I get around to recording it for keeps. This is one of the songs I still want to record for the ambitious solo album I’ve been working on.
It’s more Johnny West than Alex Chilton, but I think I managed to capture at least a little bit of the chewed-up psychedelic spirit of the elusive dream song. The hope is that I can carry the haziness of the demo over to a more polished recording, and then expand on it. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Mic cables are forming heart shapes again. It’s only the second time this has ever happened to me. Could it mean love is in the air?
I don’t think so. But it’s fun to look down and see a thing like this in the studio.
I’m realizing I don’t use this blog as a “keeping tabs on myself” tool much anymore, when I used to do a whole lot of that. As bland as those posts probably were to read, they helped to keep me honest and motivated at a time when I needed an extra little kick in the posterior. So here’s where things are at right now.
This is Boardy McBoardface as he looked at the end of November:
Here he is now:
When I feel like I haven’t been making much progress, I take a look at that thing. There are thirty-three songs enclosed in red boxes that weren’t in boxes before (thirty-four if you count an accidental duplicate), including some that are recent or brand new additions to the board. Pretty soon, all one hundred and two of those songs, and maybe a few more, will exist in recorded form. That’s not so bad for having to multitask as much as I do these days.
Ron’s album aside, the next Papa Ghostface album is closest to the finish line out of everything that’s on the go right now. Thirty-three songs have been recorded for it, though a few of those are holdovers from the STEW sessions. I figure about a dozen of them will end up on the cutting room floor for one reason or another. There are another two or three I still want to record — catchier, more uptempo things to offset some of the slower and more morbid moments — and then it’s just a matter of filling out some arrangements, mixing things until they sound about right, and figuring out a good sequence. The cover art is already taken care of.
It’s the last Papa Ghostface album there’s ever going to be. I didn’t know that going into it. But it feels like a good note to end on.
More about that when the music is ready for public consumption.
One hundred and one songs have been recorded for YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. That sounds ridiculous until you think about how long I’ve been working on this album (four years). When I don’t finish an album within a “normal” period of time, there’s bound to be a lot of material. There are about ten more tunes I want to record, a few more guests I’d like to try and get over here for some musical cameos, and then I can start hammering nails into that massive thing and making an album out of it.
The less said about THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE, the better. I’m still confident I’ll clothe and bathe that beast someday, but right now it’s taking a very long nap.
While The O-L West is on hiatus for the time being, I’ve heard some rumblings about new Tire Swing Co. material. Looking forward to hearing and recording that whenever Steve feels the itch to get back in the studio. And there’s another collaborative project with a friend that’s being picked at here and there, but I don’t think we’ve even decided on a band name yet. It’s tough to come up with something good these days. I thought it might be amusing to call ourselves All the Good Names Were Taken, but there are at least two bands calling themselves that already (in Michigan and New York, respectively). Phooey.
A friendly reminder for those who may be interested: I’ll be popping in at CJAM on Monday, June 25th to play a few songs on Ron’s Travelling Salesman radio show at about 5:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. When the moment of truth arrives, you can listen live online over HERE if you’d like. Of course, if you miss it, it’s no big thing. As always, I’ll post an MP3 here to commemorate the occasion.
Maybe “current” is a bit of a stretch. This isn’t my bed situation at this very moment. Right now it’s going through one of its rare debris-free periods. But this was my bed situation a few days ago.
I made a fun little discovery about the Omnichord while it was hanging out in bed with me. Unlike the autoharp — its acoustic counterpart — it doesn’t have actual strings, so when you transition from one chord button to another there’s a split-second where the sound cuts out. It’s almost impossible to avoid unless you’re somehow able to keep a finger on a chord button at all times. Even then, you’re settling for something that either feels or sounds a little awkward.
Because of this, I felt I was pretty limited in what I could do with the instrument. I could turn off the chording function and use the synthetic strings on their own as a textural thing, but that was about it. It was enough to make me happy.
Lo and behold, the makers of the Omnichord decided to hide something helpful in plain sight. Or at least they did when they were designing the model I have, the System Two OM84. Instead of giving it a straightforward name like “sustain”, they called it a “chord memory interface”. You turn it on and suddenly chords start sustaining for as long as you’d like, with no need to keep your fingers glued to the relevant buttons after pressing down on them.
I feel a little goofy for only discovering this now. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities and makes writing songs on the Omnichord a less maddening prospect. Ron has invited me to be a guest on his Travelling Salesman show on CJAM on June 25th. My goal now is to perform at least one song on the Omnichord, whether it’s something brand new or a drastic rearrangement of an existing song.
It’ll be my first time playing live on the radio since 2004. Should be fun. Ron was one of the very first people at CJAM to ever invite me onto his show, a decade and-a-half ago. It didn’t pan out at the time, mostly because of a bit of skittishness on my end, so this will be a bit of long overdue penance on my part.
Something else that was long overdue: getting some new headphone extension cables.
The ones at Long & McQuade are ridiculously overpriced, like almost everything else they sell there. This is one of the many reasons I will never do business with that place again. In the past I was able to find extension cables online for a more reasonable price, but no matter what brand I bought, they stopped working after a year or two. I’m now convinced they manufacture these things to break down so you’ll have to come back for replacements.
I like to have four headphone extension cables at my disposal to take care of each output on my headphone amp. You never know when you might want to record some group vocals, and in those situations it helps to give everyone as much mobility as possible. As it happens, I’ve got a group vocal session coming up next week…and until a few days ago, I had only one headphone extension cable that was still functioning.
Everything I looked at this time was either cheap-looking or more money than I wanted to spend. Johnny Smith came to the rescue once again and found what I needed. These ones don’t seem to have a brand name, but all the reviews I’ve read comment on how robust they are — an unusual attribute for a headphone extension cable. Most of the time these things are pretty flimsy.
I ordered three extension cables for not much more than ten bucks a pop, and when they showed up I learned just how well-made they were. These things look and feel like they can take a beating. They feel meaningful in the hand. They need a 1/4-inch adapter to plug into a headphone amp, but that’s a small price to pay.
They make a nifty hair accessory as well, for those days when you’re in a vaguely cyberpunk mood.
Completely unrelated to music:
I had an urge to pull out the old NES system for a bit of nostalgic fun. I wanted to see if I could beat a few games that have always given me trouble. The jury’s still out on whether or not I can finish Ninja Gaiden without throwing my television out the window, but I did manage to finish the Second Quest in The Legend of Zelda.
I’d made it through the First Quest before. This time I was able to do it without losing a single life. I was pretty proud of myself, until I started the Second Quest and realized how much more difficult it was. I ended up dying seven times. But I made it to the end, even after one of those stupid Like Likes (enemies that look like walking stacks of pancakes) stole my magic shield in the final dungeon. At least I’m not alone in despising these little pests — Sam Greenspan mentions them in his 11 Biggest A-Holes in The Legend of Zelda countdown.
Without knowing I was doing it, I reminded Ron of a song he meant to record that kind of got lost in the shuffle, and he decided it would make a perfect closing track.
Last week he came over so we could get down the bed tracks. Recording the guitar was quick and easy, as usual. Recording the lead vocal was another story.
I’ve talked before about how my Pearlman TM-1 has become a magic bullet when it comes to tracking vocals. At this point there must be somewhere near twenty different singers I’ve put in front of it, with vocal ranges and timbres that are all over the map, and it’s never once been the wrong choice. Even when I’ve auditioned a different mic for fun, I always come back to the TM-1. It’s the mic I’ve used to record Ron’s voice and all the vocal harmonies I’ve added from day one.
This night, for the first time, it didn’t work.
The song we were recording might feature the most dynamic vocal performance of any song Ron’s written. He starts out right at the bottom of his vocal range, just above a whisper, and then in a matter of seconds he’s belting it out with a lot of force at the very top of his range.
I’ve never had any trouble smoothing out this sort of thing before. Usually mic placement and a bit of compression will do the trick. This time the difference in volume between the quiet parts and the loud parts was astronomical, and there was no way to get the two to coexist in a way that sounded natural. I tried putting the mic in omni to cancel out the proximity effect. That helped a little, but not enough.
At times like these I’m glad I invested in so many different microphones over the years, whether I needed them at the time or not.
My first thought was to try switching to a dynamic mic. Maybe the relative lack of sensitivity there would have a narrowing effect. The SM7B that decided to be a dickface when Jess was here was in a kinder mood this time around and worked without any issues. The volume discrepancy wasn’t as bad, but way too much of the detail in Ron’s voice was getting lost.
When that didn’t cut it, I figured the Pearlman TM-250 I’ve come to love on violin, cello, and certain acoustic guitar tracks was worth a shot. I don’t know what’s going on in this mic’s guts, but somehow it smoothed things out to the point that the fader-riding I was expecting to have to do even in a best-case scenario was no longer necessary. It was nuts. A little kiss of compression and it sounded just right. The dynamics were still there, but now they lived in a comfortable, sane range.
It’s fun having to problem-solve like this on the fly sometimes. Almost makes me feel like I’ll be a real recording engineer someday, Pinocchio-style.
Oh yeah — at long last, I found someone selling a pair of Sennheiser HD 265 headphones on eBay for a not-stupid price. Score! This is an expense I can justify, because these are my utility headphones. Used pairs in any sort of decent condition are almost impossible to come by now that they’ve been discontinued for so long, and if anything ever happened to my grizzled old pair, I’d be in a bit of a bind. I feel better having a backup pair around.
They’re in near-mint condition. There are only one or two little scuffs. Next to the pair I’ve been using for pretty much everything for twenty years now, they almost look like a different species.
That’s just messed up.
The physical degradation of my long-suffering pair of HD 265s has been such a gradual process, I didn’t notice the sound was changing along with the appearance. As the headband has lost most of its shape and the faux-leather ear pads have exploded, allowing the cloth and foam inside to escape, it’s turned these cans into something closer to a closed/open hybrid. The ear pads, or what’s left of them, sit on the ear more than they wrap around it. All of these factors have combined to create — for me, at least — the ideal headphones.
No wonder I didn’t understand why most of the old reviews I read online had people complaining about how bass-heavy these headphones were. The ones I’ve been using scarcely sound like themselves anymore. They’re much more open and balanced, with a great, deep soundstage.
Who knew something could evolve into a better version of itself while falling apart?
Putting on a pair that might as well have come straight out of the box was a strange experience. I’d forgotten how well these things isolate sound with a headband that hasn’t lost most of its grab. And holy hell, there is a lot of bass when the ear pads cup your ears the way they’re supposed to. Too much for my taste.
It’s going to take a while to break these guys in, but I’m confident someday they can look as dilapidated and sound as good as their brethren.
I just can’t do it. I can’t finish putting my long-gestating pedal board together.
I put a lot of thought into the final pedal I was adding to the group. I had room for one more. I came close to pulling the trigger on a Walrus Audio Julia and then an Earthquaker Devices Transmisser. The Julia is a really pretty-sounding chorus/vibrato pedal, but the Count to Five can get me some similar sounds, the POD (which I only use for effects now, and never for its amp-modelling) can fill in most of the rest, and I can’t see myself wanting to use chorus all that often. The Transmisser only does one thing, and while it does it in a way that sounds like nothing else, after falling in love with it I realized I wouldn’t be able to use it too often without it becoming something of a cliché.
If I was going to get anything, it was going to have to be a pedal that was a real wildcard — something unique and versatile.
I knew I’d found what I was looking for when I saw this.
The Shallow Water isn’t quite chorus or vibrato, though it can create sounds that live in both of those worlds. It calls itself a K-Field Modulator. There are two things that set it apart from your average modulation pedal.
The first thing is the low pass filter, which is incredibly sensitive to dynamics and can go from “subtle”, to “dark and mysterious”, to “the universe is swallowing up my sound source and only faint suggestions of its soul remain”. When the LPF isn’t engaged and you’ve got a full wet mix, you get some noise, but I kind of like that. Sometimes you want things to get a little lo-fi. It can add character.
The second thing is the modulation itself. It’s random. There’s something about modulation that can’t be predicted. A strangely emotional quality. It engages the brain in a different way. You’re listening for a pattern, and there isn’t one.
This thing is deep as hell. It can do lush chorus sounds. It can also make your guitar or synth sound like it’s violently drowning in a small pool of water. Its name is very apt. It’s going to take me a while to learn all the ins and outs and harness everything it can do, but I think we’re going to be friends.
So I bought this pedal, the final one, I put money on the credit card to buy a power supply and the cables I needed, and then I hesitated. And I hesitated some more. And then I noticed a month had gone by since I was supposed to order the stuff, and I still hadn’t done it.
What it comes down to is this: I can’t justify spending more than three hundred dollars on an isolated power supply and a few feet of Mogami cable. I just can’t. To me, that’s outrageous, and borderline offensive. Three hundred dollars can buy an awful lot of food. It can pay a few bills. It can buy a fancy dinner for a medium-large group of reformed miscreants. It can buy a lot of recordable CDs, ink cartridges, jewel cases, and other practical supplies. It can change someone’s life in a small but pivotal way.
Besides, I think the Wurlitzer looks pretty nifty with some of my pedals sitting on top.
So I’ll live with the mess it creates on the floor when I feel a need to have a few pedals running at once, and I’ll clean it up when I’m done. It’s not like I play live, ever. Putting my board together would make things a little more convenient, sure. But convenience isn’t worth that amount of money to me. Not right now. Not in this situation.
Sorry, Captain Convenience. I’ll have to drink from your cup some other time.
I did make good on something else I’ve been meaning to do for a while now. I finallyhad enough mixer space — if only for a moment — and the motivation to make it happen. I’m talking about taking the raw camcorder footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded back in November of 2001 and editing it into something more digestible.
It was more of a pain in the ass than it should have been.
If I wanted to have better quality audio to punch up some of the recording segments, there was only one way to make that happen. I was going to have to go back and remix most of the songs without the vocal tracks. There’s a lot more footage of us getting the music down without Jay than there is of him and Tyson summoning the best screams they had to offer the following day, and what the camcorder’s built-in microphone captured in most of those instances is either drum-heavy to the almost total exclusion of all other musical elements, or little more than headphone bleed (which made syncing up the proper recordings with the camera’s audio a task and a half).
The album was recorded in a single song file on my mixer, separated by track markers, and backed up on two CDs. Those CDs are now sixteen and-a-half years old. With these multiple-CD backup jobs, all it takes is one disc crapping out on me and the whole thing is lost forever. I found that out the hard way when I tried to remix some of the late-period GWD albums about eight years back.
I braced myself for the worst. Both discs dumped their aging guts back onto the mixer without a hitch. Score one for Maxell.
Making instrumental mixes was pretty straightforward. I had no notes to rely on, so I used my ears to dial in mixes that were as close to the originals as I could get them. That seemed to be the smart way to go. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on music this heavy, and treating it with my current sensibilities would probably be a recipe for sonic weirdness. I did bring up Tyson’s guitar a little to highlight how creative his work on the fretboard was. Other than that, I tried to keep things sounding about the same.
A few interesting discoveries were made along the way.
I took the time to type in a name for each track, using the super-tedious “select one letter at a time to make words” function the mixer provides. Things like “L Guitar”, “R Guitar”, and “Bass” show up on the LCD screen when specific tracks are selected. It’s pretty surreal. I don’t remember ever doing that for anything else I recorded back then. I don’t even remember doing it this time. I sure as sugar cookies don’t do it now.
There were even more mics on the drums than I remembered — six. We mic’d up the kick, snare, floor tom, rack toms, set up a general mono overhead to capture the cymbals, and had more of an ambient room mic going as well. How much ambience it added is debatable, since all the mics were SM57s and 58s, but this is the tightest and most conventional drum sound you’ll find on anything I’ve ever recorded. I’m not likely to use that many microphones on a drum kit again.
And I got to solve a small mystery. All the false starts, count-ins, and between-song moments of banter were erased at Tyson’s request, but one brief bit of dialogue survived at the end of the last song. The mics we were using were so directional, and so far away from most of the people talking, I could never make out a thing being said. Now, after cranking the volume on the mixer, I can rest knowing the song I called “Your Friendly Neighourhood Waterbed” in the absence of a proper title ends with Tyson saying, “Yeah! That’s the best we’ve ever played that!” and Brandon muttering, “Not really.”
“That all sounds pretty hassle-free,” you’re thinking. And you’re right. What got me swearing at the sky was the editing process.
I spent chunks of a few days chopping out superfluous crap until I had an eighty-minute assembly I was happy with. It feels like a pretty honest picture of the recording process and the surrounding shenanigans. Really, all I got rid of were things no one needs to see, like Gord filming a light fixture for ten minutes (I exaggerate, but not by much), and a few moments where the burned-in camera effects got kind of maddening.
For example, when we were recording the vocal tracks, Gord hit the “fade to white” button, causing the audio and video to disappear…only to have it come back three seconds later. Then he did it again three or four more times. It broke up the natural rhythm the footage should have had and made synchronizing the audio from the CD impossible. I made a few cuts, lived with whatever choppiness was created, and that problem was solved.
There were times when I wanted to go back in time and tell Gord to stop using every built-in effect the camera had to offer, and just point the thing at what was happening and film it. Close to half of this footage was marred with a negative image or “ghost” effect that looks cool for about ten seconds and then gets old fast. I was able to reverse this by inverting the image a second time, effectively cancelling out the effect. I left a bit of it intact in a few places, but believe me when I tell you most of the scenes I removed it from are much better off without it. You can actually see what’s going on and who’s saying what, for one thing.
The other effects range from the sometimes-effective “double image” to an infuriating and distracting rapid zooming in and out that I can only imagine was designed to simulate motion sickness. There’s nothing I can do to counteract any of those. I can only hope you find them charming or amusing. They drive me nuts.
Gross overuse of effects aside, I have to say Gord did a decent job of capturing what was going on. The one serious exception, and some footage I wish I could have included, is a bit where Tyson talks me through one of the songs while we listen to a rough instrumental mix. He points out different moments, highlighting the abilities of the other musicians in the band, talks about how hearing the music recorded in a more professional way gives him a deeper appreciation for it, and delivers a fascinating monologue that makes it clear just how much thought went into crafting these songs.
The whole time this is happening, the camera is pointed at the wall, nowhere near either one of us. I wanted to weep when I saw it. You might think I should have included it anyway, but five minutes of looking at a wall is pretty hard to take, no matter how good the soundtrack is.
If only I had the ability to create a little animated short to serve as a replacement to the nothingness captured by the camera. But I’m not an animator. At least there are a lot of other fun moments in there, and you get to watch a bunch of teenagers alternate between goofing off and doing some serious recording. And there are a few moments of supreme lunacy from a skinny, beardless version of yours truly. I don’t remember saying any of those demented things I said, but the camera doesn’t lie.
Gord’s spur-of-the-moment decision to record over some of the footage from the second day is a mixed blessing. You lose Tyson trying to talk me into improvising a vocal track on the most melodic Fetal Pulp song, along with most of the sound effects he added in lieu of vocals. There was more of Jay in there too. But what Gord filmed on top of that is some of the only surviving GWD footage, even if it’s just me and Tyson running through a tongue-in-cheek medley of some of our “hits”.
(I’m saving that GWD footage for something else. It wouldn’t have made much sense to include it here, even if it was the way our second day of recording ended.)
I recorded a little voiceover to act as an introduction and a coda to the main course. I’m not sure I’ll be doing that again — it feels more natural talking to a camera when I’m doing this sort of thing — but it was fun to try something different. I think it works well enough, offering a little bit of context and allowing me to make use of a few pieces of music that will probably show up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE someday.
Even the rendering process wasn’t the disaster it could have been. The crusty old laptop I use for video editing purposes has experienced something of a rebirth since that nice fella at PC Outfitters blew a mountain of dust from the casing that holds the fans. It’s still slower than mud, but with a new swagger in its step. A slow swagger.
This was a real test for it. An hour and twenty minutes is by far the longest video project I’ve ever asked Sony Vegas to process. I think the meatiest thing I’d done before this was one packed video progress report that touched down around the fifty minute mark, and that was back when the laptop in question was still in its prime.
It took six hours, but the video rendered without the computer once overheating or shutting down. Not so long ago, expecting it to survive for a tenth of that time was pushing it. This gives me hope that when my semi-documentary about YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done, it too will render without the world coming to an end.
The trouble came after the video was finished rendering. I noticed the sound went out of sync around the halfway point. There was no explanation for it. I’ve never had this happen before with any video I’ve edited. Vegas was at least helpful enough to tell me how far things were out of sync, but it wouldn’t tell me the cause. Why I was able to see how much things had shifted was a mystery in itself.
There was only one fix. I painstakingly uncoupled the audio from every single clip past the forty-five-minute mark and inched it forward until everything was synchronized again. I rendered just the second half of the video. Then I discovered the last few minutes were still out of sync, so I fixed those bits and rendered that part. I was left with three separate video files I needed to trim and stitch together.
I assumed I could do this with the ever-handy MMPEG Streamclip without suffering any quality loss through additional compression. I was wrong. The program doesn’t recognize WMV files. The only thing I was able to find that seemed like it might help me was something called Machete. Only the “lite” version was free, but it had all the capabilities I needed. It wasn’t Mac-compatible, though. I had to download it on the sluggish laptop reserved for video editing.
Machete let me trim and join clips to my heart’s content. It left a second or two of ugly blank space where each edit was made, but I was okay with that…until I went to save the file and discovered it was going to take even longer than it did to process the full-length video in Vegas.
You failed me, Machete.
I was left with no choice but to start from scratch and render the whole video file all over again. That meant another five and-a-half hours of waiting, and then an additional four or five hours to upload to Vimeo.
There’s one little wonky editing mistake near the end where Tyson’s smile appears to break the space-time continuum. With all the audio I had to move around, I missed snipping out a split-second piece of footage that repeated itself. After all that frustration, I don’t care enough to go back and fix it. Maybe some other time.
Watching this makes me wish all over again that I could go back in time and buy a video camera of my own long before I started thinking it might be a good idea to get one. I missed out on capturing a whole lot of cool music-related things. At least there were weekends like this one when someone else had the foresight to grab a camera and let it roll. But what I wouldn’t give for some Papa Ghostface recording footage from 1999, or any number of other things…
Viewer discretion is advised: there’s a whole lot of swearing in this video, a bit of onscreen drug use (just a bit of pot being smoked, but still), and while I’m pretty sure Brandon only pretends to expose himself a little past the fifty-five minute mark, I’m not taking any chances with the powers that be at Vimeo. This one gets a “mature” rating.
Another period of blog neglect. Another lonely tear shed by a forgotten Tonka truck resting at the bottom of a toy chest.
At least I have a good excuse this time: I’ve been busy recording music. While my own album has remained the focus, there’s been the odd pleasant detour. On Thursday Ron’s friend Alison swung by to add some violin to one of his songs.
I like how this video still makes it look like a very inept special effects department took a shot at making Ron look like Evil Microphone Hybrid Man and failed with flying colours.
Before we got together, Ron asked if I had any ideas for songs we might have Alison play on. I picked the song that felt like the last one you’d expect violin to show up in, because these are the things I do.
I’m not sure Alison even heard the song before she played on it, but she gave us some great stuff. The last two takes in particular are full of perfect little countermelodies that add something special to the fabric of the song. Choosing a take or coming up with a composite that grabs the best moments from both is going to be a little tricky. But when you’re working with good material to begin with, you really can’t go wrong.
A few nights before all this, I was watching a bunch of “Steamed Hams” remix videos on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with them, these involve a memorable scene from “22 Short Films About Springfield” — an episode of The Simpsons from a time when the show was still operating at the height of its powers — being warped and/or re-contextualized in a number of ways. Some of the things people have come up with are pretty great.
A few of my favourite variations on the theme:
At some point, this popped up on the sidebar:
…which led me to this:
And that was it for me and “Steamed Hams”.
I don’t know how many times I watched those last two videos that night, but it was a lot. I also don’t know how you make Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther seem like the saddest cartoons in the world. Whoever edited these videos found some untapped melancholy I never knew was there, and they bit down on it hard until they drew blood. As much as I appreciated that element of it, it was the voiceI kept coming back to. It was as beautiful as it was unusual.
That voice belongs to someone known only as Shiloh Dynasty. No one knows anything for sure about Shiloh’s gender, location, or age — or if they do, they’re not talking. Even the most cursory biographical details are impossible to come by. The only person to go on record saying they’ve had any contact with Shiloh used the pronoun “she”, so that’s what I’ll stick with until I’m told otherwise.
As far as I can work out, Shiloh posted a slew of videos on Vine and Instagram in 2014 and 2015, doing little to call attention to herself. Most of these were live acoustic guitar/vocal performances. A few were apparent vocal ad-libs over instrumental beats found on the internet. You can find a video on YouTube that features every known surviving Shiloh song fragment stitched together. It makes for hypnotic listening, and inspires more than a few thoughts of, “How on earth do you come up with vocal melodies like this?”
“Fragment” is the key word here. There are no full songs. Most performances are somewhere between six and twenty seconds long. It almost feels like this was done intentionally — to encourage producers to loop and cut up these mini-songs and stretch them out (something a whole host of people did, sharing the results on SoundCloud). It’s possible she was just getting down ideas using the camera in her phone. Whatever the case, there’s more heart, soul, and melodic invention in many of these gesture drawings than there are in most people’s full-length songs.
As Shiloh’s following grew, it seems she was uncomfortable with the rising interest in her music and chose to step back. People were left to speculate. Some minds drifted to dark places, starting rumours that she’d committed suicide.
Last summer, rapper XXXTentation released his debut album, 17. Three of its songs featured Shiloh, albeit in sampled form. Potsu, who produced those songs, had to get in touch with Shiloh at some point to clear those samples. According to people who claim to have spoken to Potsu, he’s said she’s alive and well. She just isn’t interested in having any kind of spotlight shining in her direction.
How someone could manage to remain an absolute mystery in spite of being a featured performer on an album that hit #2 on the Billboard charts and got a ton of publicity…it’s not easy to wrap your head around. But that’s Shiloh: a friendly ghost in the age of information overload. It’s kind of refreshing to know such a thing can still exist.
Try as I might, I can’t listen to her as a hook placed between someone else’s rapped verses. It feels like a perversion. An intrusion. Her voice needs to stand alone. Like this.
What Potsu did here, for the most part, was just make a beat to play off of Shiloh’s song fragment and then punch up the sound of her original lo-fi phone recording with some well-chosen reverb, compression, and EQ. It’s all about supporting what’s already there. As it should be. Sometimes less really is more.
As usual, I’m late to the party here. I didn’t find out about Shiloh until long after she retreated into the shadows. But listening to her and discovering just how little there was to be discovered about her got me thinking about the odd, two-faced relationship I have with mystery as a general thing.
Unsolved crimes and unexplained disappearances have always intrigued me, as morbid as that might sound. There’s often the feeling that if you could uncover just one crucial piece of information, the whole thing would snap into place and everything would be explained, but nothing ever quite adds up. For every rare case like Lori Ruff — whose real identity was finally revealed without offering much in the way of closure — there are insoluble enigmas like the bizarre case of Tamam Shud and the disappearances of Jean Spangler, Louis Le Prince, Ray Gricar, the Sodder children, and the entire crew of the MV Joyita.
I love reading about this stuff and playing armchair detective. At the same time, there’s a part of me that would almost be disappointed if some of these strange cases were ever solved. When the answer to an unanswerable question feels too mundane to do it justice, you can find yourself thinking it was all a lot more compelling when you didn’t know what to think.
This applies to music as well. I enjoy learning about the artists whose work speaks to me, but I’ve always had an attraction to those who are more obscure. The ones who seem somewhat unknowable. Here again the urge to know everything fights against the excitement of not knowing.
Syd Barrett is a good example.
I remember being twelve or thirteen years old, reading all the available information about Syd, and thinking he was the most interesting person I’d ever heard of. Here was a guy who, even as he was losing his grip on reality and was about to be kicked out of the band he was responsible for creating, still had enough of his wits about him to play a brilliant little practical joke on the rest of Pink Floyd.
One day he brought in a new song to show the band. It was called “Have You Got It Yet?” Syd tried teaching it to Roger Waters, but Roger was having a hell of a time trying to work it out.
After a few run-throughs he figured out what the problem was. Every time he played the song, Syd would change it just enough to make whatever memory remained of the previous version useless. He did it over and over again, always altering the music in some subtle but fundamental way. The one part that stayed the same each time was a call-and-response chorus that had Syd singing, “Have you got it yet?” and the rest of the band shouting, “No, no, no!”
No one else was ever going to be able to get it. Syd made sure of that.
I devoured stories like this one, along with details about unreleased songs like “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” — songs I thought would be forever inaccessible to me. Then I got a little older, the internet grew some serious legs, and I got to hear those songs. As much as I enjoyed them, on some level I missed having to imagine for myself what they sounded like, creating half-formed songs for my brain to sing to itself in the absence of the real thing.
Maybe more than a “losing the mystery” thing it was a “losing some of the wide-eyed wonder of youth” thing, and Syd got mixed up in it. I’m not sure. But today you can even hear the mythical unreleased solo session Syd cut in 1974 without having to look very hard. It isn’t the “abortion” some witnesses described it as at the time. It sounds like Syd was having a bit of aimless fun jamming on a few rough guitar ideas, overdubbing his own bass tracks and the odd additional guitar part.
It’s nice to be able to hear it, if only to refute the claims of those who’d have you believe Syd was an acid-fried vegetable incapable of stringing anything coherent together on the guitar by the mid-1970s. There are moments that make you wonder what he might have been able to do if he kept showing up at the studio often enough to refine the sketches and record some vocal tracks. It wasn’t to be. After wandering for a while, the music retreats into itself before fading away, much like Syd was about to do himself.
The last time I got wrapped up in a good musical mystery was when an album called L’Amour hit the streets in 2014. It wasn’t a new album. It had been recorded all the way back in 1983, written and performed by a man named Randall Wulff who called himself Lewis.
Jack Fleischer’s liner notes for the Light in the Attic reissue are a compelling read. He was able to untangle some of Lewis’s story, but every bit of information he managed to unearth only raised more questions. What kind of person worked as a stockbroker in Calgary in the ’80s, lived in an apartment with all-white furniture, left town after writing a bad cheque to a photographer, and made music that sounded like…this? And why would he then go to such great lengths to fall off the face of the earth?
When L’Amour first gained a wider audience after existing for decades as an obscure self-funded private press LP, some listeners made comparisons to Arthur Russell. I can sort of hear it, maybe, a little, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two artists. Arthur sang softly to pull you closer. Lewis sounds more like he’s trying to keep his heart hidden at the same time he’s holding it out for you to see. Most of his lyrics are impossible to decipher. The harder you squint to try and see him, the less sure you are that he’s there at all.
L’Amour is an album out of time. It doesn’t sound much like anything else that was recorded in the 1980s, or in any other decade. You’ve got Lewis playing piano and acoustic guitar and mumbling his lyrics in his strange whisper-croon, and then you’ve got someone named Philip Lees (a mystery himself, and maybe a pseudonym invented to make it look like more than a one-man operation) playing a synthesizer that sounds like it has a malfunctioning pitch wheel. It’s as if one of the background characters in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street stumbled into a recording studio after a little too much cocaine and the microphones captured his dark night of the soul.
“Cool Night in Paris” was the first song I heard. I was transfixed. The bluesy acoustic guitar, the soft, warped synth sound, and that quivering voice created a sound that was a little unsettling, and impossible to forget.
Now that his album wasn’t just haunting the odd thrift shop anymore, people wanted to know more about this dude who made a point of dedicating one of his songs to model Christie Brinkley for no apparent reason. A second Lewis album — Romantic Times — was discovered and reissued in short order. If it didn’t have quite the same gravity as L’Amour, it had some gorgeous songs and richer soundscapes to recommend it. It wasn’t a simple retread. This time there was wailing saxophone! And a drum machine! And analog synths straight out of the Vangelis Blade Runner playbook.
For a while, the best source of Lewis-related intel was an epic thread on the hipinion message board. I tried to join so I could be a part of the fun, but it turns out you can’t just register and get an account there the way you can at any normal message board. You have to try and get the attention of an existing member who has some amount of clout, assuming you can find a way to contact them outside of the site. After that, maybe they’ll put in a good word for you and you’ll be allowed into the club, if you’re lucky. If not, your account will be “pending approval” forever.
That’s some pretty goofy shit right there. And if you know me, you probably know how I feel about “clubs” and “scene cred” and all that stuff. So you’ll be stunned to learn my account was never approved and is lying dormant somewhere inside the vast anus of cyberspace.
Still, there was some good discussion over there. A few posters even dug up some interesting nuggets. They were able to verify that Lewis used Randy Duke as another alias, recording some music in the late 1980s and early 1990s that got a belated release during the height of Lewismania. Most of it is pretty horrible, with some ham-fisted overdubs that do nothing to serve the music. The alien quality that gave the first two albums much of their power is gone. But that voice is still there, if a little older, harsher, and less concerned with melody.
Light in the Attic, acting on a tip they received from someone who knew Lewis, managed to track him down at one of his favourite coffee chops. He refused to reveal anything of substance about his past, turned down a royalty cheque, and seemed amused and a little surprised by the mystique his music had generated thirty years after it was made. He said he was still making music but had no desire to make any money off of it and no interest in discussing his earlier work.
Of course, he was wearing all white.
As a lover of mystery, you couldn’t hope for a much better ending to the Lewis story. Though there’s some amount of resolution, things are still left open-ended. And yet I can’t help wishing they never found the guy at all. Somehow it would be a better story if he remained an unseen subject of conjecture.
Shiloh knows where it’s at. When you have nothing else to go on, you’re forced to generate everything you think you know about an artist from their art alone. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.