In what’s become a frustrating recurring theme, I once again find myself getting sick when I’m days away from wrapping up the album I’m working on.
I still need to tweak a few mixes, and there’s one vocal performance I want to take another crack at. All of that’s going to have to wait a bit, because my voice and ears are not quite at their best right now (thanks, congestion).
There’s good news, though. For the first time in years, instead of one of those brutal colds that knocks me out for a few weeks, what I’ve been saddled with this time is little more than your average seasonal cold. There’s been no bullfrog voice, no hacking up a lung, and no feeling like my head’s going to explode if I cough or sneeze one more time. I haven’t had to pop a single throat lozenge. I’ve felt a little run-down here and there, but for the most part my energy has been good. I’ve been getting a lot of fresh air and staying just as active as I was before I got sick (which is more active than you might think).
It’s the third time I’ve been sick this year. That’s a little irritating. But I’ll take this mild inconvenience over the alternative any day.
Because of the time I’m losing, I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be able to get YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK release-ready by the end of the year now. I’m still confident I’ll have a final master of the album by the end of the month, but I doubt I’ll have a chance to work out the packaging side of things before the holidays. And I’m okay with that.
As impatient as I am when it comes to releasing things — especially when I haven’t put out a solo album since 2011 — and as much as I enjoy the perversity of tossing something out there at the tail end of a calendar year, knowing it’s probably going to get buried and ignored, I think this album deserves a little better than that. It’s been a long time since I had an opportunity to come roaring out of the gate with a new album right at the beginning of a brand new year. It would be kind of fun to have that experience again, and to see what impact it has on my momentum through the rest of 2020.
So that’s the new plan. It feels like a good note to start the year on.
There are three songs that still need a bit of work before I can mix them, four songs I need to fine-tune the mixes for, and then YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is done.
It’s a strange feeling to be this close to the end after spending years feeling like it was a mountain I could never climb. There’s satisfaction, but it’s laced with disbelief. Some part of my brain is having a difficult time processing the idea that I’ve really made it this far.
I’ve saved some of the most intimidating songs for last. A few of them have arrangements that are so ambitious and fluid, mixing one song becomes more like mixing three or four at once. You’d think it would make more sense to get these things out of the way early on, but I feel better tackling them after getting most of the other mixes the way I want them, using the confidence and momentum I’ve accumulated as fuel.
So far I haven’t had to take ten different passes at a mix the way I did with one of the tracks on WHAT WE LOST IN THE FLOOD. So there’s that. A lot of times the rough mixes are pretty good, and the difference between “rough” and “album-ready” is only a few small adjustments. The lead vocal comes up a bit, a secondary guitar part gets nudged down in the mix, and suddenly everything fits together just right.
Every time I tried to guess at a “release date” in the past, it was little more than a prayer-filled shot in the dark. Now I can say with some degree of confidence that there’s no reason I shouldn’t have the album packaged and ready to share sometime in December — probably in time for Christmas.
Attentive readers will notice that the picture above marks the end of Maximum Beardage™ (2017-2019). I let it go for two years, which has to be a new record for me. It was fun, the hair didn’t get in the way too much when I was eating, and my plan was to hold off on trimming it down until the album was finished.
I looked in the mirror a week or two ago and saw this:
That’s a pretty fine beard if you ask me. I could have tidied up a few scraggly bits and gone about my day. But then I started thinking. I’m a tall guy. Most people who look at me don’t see me at eye level. They get a view that might look more like this:
I kind of got tired of all the grey hair in there anyway. So I grabbed the scissors and marvelled at the amount of hair that came off of my face. I still have a significant beard, but it’s much neater now, and birds are less likely to try and nest there for the winter.
Ron just redesigned his website, and while he was at it he snuck his new album in there. You’ll find it if you scroll about halfway down the page. It’s just below the video for “Ballad of Bob Probert”. You can’t download it just yet, but you can stream all the songs. The plan is to give it a more visible online release soon, and then a physical release (complete with a CD release show) early in the New Year.
If you’d like, you can read all about my take on the making of the album over here. Spoiler alert: I give away a few recording secrets.
I had a great time working with Ron on this one, and I think the culmination of that work is both a great Ron Leary album and some of the best work I’ve done as a producer/arranger/stuff-doer. I’m excited for people to hear it.
About the video at the top of this post — I didn’t capture anywhere near as much recording footage as I wanted to, but I did document most of the title track being put down on digital tape. I say “most” because my camera’s battery died before I could get all of Ron’s acoustic guitar track. That’s why it fades out before the song is finished. I think it’s still a neat little behind-the-scenes vignette, even if the grainy vocal footage stands out like a sore thumb (I used both the T5i and the old Flip camera for different things, and the contrast between the two is…not subtle).
For the first time since I started work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing, I can see the finish line. It’s almost close enough to touch. Worst case scenario, I should be able to get it in the hands of the few people I’m planning on sharing it with in time for Christmas. After beginning to feel like one of those blowhards who’s always talking about some project they never manage to finish, it smells a bit like vindication. And cinnamon.
(Don’t tell me finish lines are scentless. I’ll never believe it.)
In spite of all the progress made, I’ve been wrestling with the track list for some time now. It wasn’t too difficult to work out a sequence for the first disc that felt right, but the second disc has given me all kinds of grief. I couldn’t get past the feeling that there were too many subdued, mid-tempo songs. At the same time, whenever I tried throwing in something catchy and upbeat to shake things up, it felt like it cheapened the whole album — like I was letting a song sneak in not because I felt it was my best work, but because it made for a more accessible listening experience.
It took a bit of banging my head against the wall, but I decided if the second disc wanted to be a little more low-key than the first, I might as well let it. Bad things happen when I try to force the music somewhere it doesn’t want to go.
Within a few days of making that decision, a peppy little bluegrass song I thought was an outtake became album material out of nowhere — fleshing out the arrangement really transformed it — and I recorded a ninety-second rock song called “Your Music in Commercials After You Die” that was too much fun not to include. Three guesses what that last one’s about!
So I got a little bit of what I thought I needed, but in a much more organic way.
The second disc is still going to be a less hyper-eclectic affair than the first one, but in all fairness the first half of this album is probably the most diverse collection of songs I’ve ever squeezed onto a single CD. It takes in experimental rock, progressive piano pop, sombre folk, shoegaze/dream pop, doo-wop — and that’s just the first five songs.
Needless to say, if you’re one of those folks who’s always longed for me to make a concise ten-song album that stays rooted to one place, you’re not going to find that here.
Along the way, a lot of things have fallen by the wayside. I think I’d have to go all the way back to 2003’s NUDGE YOU ALIVE to find the last album I made where every song that was recorded made the cut. As more thought has gone into the crafting of each album as an artistic statement, outtakes have become a fact of life. Sometimes a song sounds like a keeper when you’re carrying it around in your head, but when you get around to recording it there’s something missing. Other times the song is strong enough, but it doesn’t fit in with the emotional or sonic arc you’re trying to create with the album. In some cases the arrangement doesn’t feel right and you abandon the song before it even gets a rough mix.
It almost always boils down to a gut feeling for me, even with the most random-seeming segues — does this belong?
It stands to reason that when you take ten times longer than usual to make an album, you’re going to end up with a pretty substantial collection of outtakes. This YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK situation is a new one for me, though. It’s the first time in my life the outtakes have outnumbered the album tracks.
I’m going to try and squeeze fifty songs onto these two CDs. The limitations of the media will determine whether or not I can. Even if I do manage to pull it off, there are still eighty-four songs I’ve recorded for the album that won’t be moving on. And that’s not counting any of the sketches or demos. There are hundreds of those by now.
I’m not bragging. I’m a little bewildered. I expected there to be a fair amount of outtakes, but not this many.
Some of these songs are destined for a second “misfits” compilation somewhere down the road. A few might sneak onto THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if I ever finish that thing. A whole whack of them will probably never see the light of day at all, or else I’ll re-record them from scratch at a later date if it feels like they’re right for a different album.
Some of my favourites still haven’t been given a proper mix, but a handful of them have. After all, I thought at least some of these things were potential album material at one time or another.
Here’s a little taste of what didn’t make it out of the kitchen.
I wrote more piano ballads for this album than I knew what to do with. Somewhere around half of them made the cut. This one didn’t. I like it — especially the way it starts out so sparse and then ends as an overdriven wall of sound — but my dreamy, hazy side is already well represented in a number of other songs that take more interesting turns.
A song written in Spanish, sung with a straight face when the lyrics are secretly ridiculous? That’s right up my alley. So why isn’t it going on the album?
It’s fun, but it feels a little thin to me — more of a novelty song. I also never quite got the arrangement the way I wanted it. The plan was to punctuate the end of each verse with mariachi trumpets. By the time I got around to fleshing this one out, I was pretty sure I never wanted to bring another outside musician into my music again. I settled for singing into the Yamaha VSS-30 and utilizing the oversampling function, creating some silly lo-fi operatic vocal harmonies where the horns were supposed to be. The highlight of the recording process might have been singing “chin to chin” through a child’s voice transforming toy and layering some grimy harmonies.
In English, the title is “Night Is Alive with the Folly of Men”. If you’re curious, this is what the lyrics translate to:
These gifts you bring me —
they are such abysmal shit.
You do not know me at all.
You make my anus weep such tears of disappointment.
I want to walk naked on the moon
and urinate in silence
as God would do
if He drank a lot of beer.
I want to eliminate your nipples
from my memories and visions,
but life is long and hard,
so spank me gently.
This is one of those catchy little tunes I tried to sneak onto the second disc before realizing it was best to leave things alone. The swearing at the end was inspired by my neighbours. The afternoon I sat down to record the basic tracks, everyone on the block decided to cut their grass. But they didn’t do it all at once. They took turns. As soon as one person finished, another would start. This went on for hours. It got pretty irritating after the seventh or eighth person decided the world was going to end if they waited another day to mow their lawn.
It might not surprise you to know I did a little internal celebration when we got our first real snowfall of the season the other day. No more lawnmowers until next year. Hallelujah.
As many different places as this album goes musically, “excerpt from a futuristic soft porn soundtrack” felt a little too random even for me. This one is all Alesis Micron and VSS-30. The Micron supplies the synth bass and the percussion that sounds a little like it’s short-circuiting. Everything else is the VSS-30, and the sound that holds everything together is my voice, oversampled about a hundred times (okay, maybe five or six). It’s kind of funky, isn’t it?
I always try to end an album with something that feels like an ending. There’s usually one song that jumps out at me and grabs that spot. This time a number of tracks were considered. This one got voted off the island, but I still like its unpredictable harmonic movement.
I wasn’t able to nail the feeling I wanted here. I was going for something with a bit of punky energy, and it all came out sounding pretty bloodless. I didn’t have it in me to push for the more aggressive vocal performance the song needed to put it over the top. It didn’t help that I ran out of tracks on the mixer and couldn’t add the group vocals I hoped would punch things up a bit.
The initial GarageBand demo somehow got a lot closer to what I was after:
Now, this is a tiny song I like an awful lot, even if there isn’t much to it. A bunch of guitars do melodic things while love is interred and finds itself more appreciated as a cadaver. Sounds like a winter rom-com hit to me. I really tried to find a place for this one in the album sequence. It wasn’t meant to be.
There’s a lot more, but I think that gives you at least some idea of the sheer breadth of stuff we’re dealing with here. It almost feels like a miracle that I’ve been able to pare things down to a lean two-disc set. I’ve had to kill some of my darlings along the way, but sometimes that’s the cost of doing business.
Headphones can be such a nuisance.
Since the beginning of time, every year or two the cord for my Sennheiser HD265s craps out on me — though I seem to have solved this problem at long last by using separate cords upstairs and downstairs, cutting down on wear and tear. If I’m not accidentally sitting on a pair and destroying them (sorry, Direct Sound EX29s), I’m swearing when one of the drivers stops working and I’m left with sound in only one ear (I’m looking at you, Vic Firth isolation headphones).
The most frustrating of them all might be my Denon AH-D7000s — and not for any of the reasons you’d expect.
I bought them ten years ago, right in the middle of recording LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS. They ran me about a thousand bucks. I was reluctant to spend that much money on a pair of headphones, but these were worth it. Some headphones will lie to you and make poorly-recorded music sound okay. Not these guys. Bad recordings and bad mixes are revealed in all their awful, glorious mediocrity. At the other end of the spectrum, when something is recorded and mixed well, it sounds otherworldly on these headphones. They’re a little on the bright side, but that allows me to hone in on and eliminate lip smacks, tongue clicks, and other unwanted incidental sounds that might otherwise slip through the cracks.
I’m sure something like the Stax SR-009s would blow the AH-D7000s away. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t begin to consider spending $10,000 on those headphones and the amp needed to drive them. The AH-D7000s do the job just fine for me.
They’ve become an indispensable mixing tool. If I can get a song to sound good on my monitors, the darker (and somewhat more flattering) Sennheiser headphones, and these Denon headphones, I know it’s going to translate just about anywhere, whether it’s a full-range hi-fi setup or tiny laptop speakers.
All was well until three or four years ago, when something strange started to happen. Every once in a while I would leave one of my spiral notebooks lying around in the studio and a small splotch would appear somewhere on whatever page the book was flipped open to. I don’t have oily fingers, so it was a bit of a mystery to me. I started to think maybe there was a friendly ghost wandering around in our house and he/she enjoyed reading my lyrics. Nothing else made much sense.
Then I noticed I kept leaving the Denon AH-D7000s on top of whatever notebook I was using. It wasn’t greasy ghost fingers making those splotches. It was the ear pads on the headphones.
I’ve never been rough with the AH-D7000s — I take care of my stuff — but they’ve been very well-used in the time I’ve had them. When one of the structural screws popped out, forcing Steve Chapman to turn into MacGyver and save the day, it was shoddy craftsmanship on Denon’s part that led to the problem, not headphone abuse on my part.
Now it’s the same thing again. Here’s a company that charges a lot of money for high-end headphones, and they can’t be bothered to use a PVC solution that won’t completely break down over time.
It’s been getting worse over the last little while. Now both the headband and the ear pads are degrading, and some days I’m finding bits of pleather in my hair and on my face.
Laurette, the owner and alterationist at Seams to Fit, has done a fair bit of mending for us over the years. Seventeen years ago, Johnny Smith brought Jiffy — a stuffed giraffe I’ve had since I was a baby — to her for some surgical intervention. Too many trips to the washing machine in my childhood left him with some awful scoliosis, and he couldn’t even raise his head anymore. Thanks to Laurette, Jiffy got his swagger (and his posture) back, and he’s still going strong today at the age of thirty-six.
If anyone was going to be able to do something to salvage these headphones, I thought it might be Laurette.
I asked her what she thought about sewing a fabric over the headband to cover the decrepit pleather so it wouldn’t break off in my hair anymore. Without batting an eye, she said, “What about vinyl?” She had an extra piece squirreled away that looked like it was just the right size. It was black, and it looked and felt very similar to the material the existing headband was made out of. She said she could rig something up with velcro so it would be removable, in case I ever wanted to clean it.
Two days later it was ready. She charged me all of five bucks. From a distance, you wouldn’t even guess the headphones have been altered in any way.
The ear pads are another story.
A lot of third party companies sell replacement pads that cost anywhere from thirty to sixty dollars. That sounds semi-reasonable, but there’s a serious drawback. Because none of these ear pads are manufactured from the original materials Denon used, they all change the way the headphones sound. That wasn’t going to work for me.
You’d think I could just buy replacement ear pads from Denon themselves. Nope. They used to sell replacement parts, but they’ve discontinued most of the headphones they used to make, and though the new AH-D7200s look almost identical to the AH-D7000s, you can’t even buy replacement ear pads for them. Talk about not standing behind your products.
After doing some research, I discovered Fostex is the only reputable company making replacement ear pads that are more or less interchangeable with the original AH-D7000 pads, and they won’t alter the sonic signature of the headphones too much. After shipping, they would run me well over a hundred dollars. For ear pads. Made of the same material that will someday degrade and flake off on my face all over again.
“Nuts to that,” says I.
I’m sticking with the decaying ear pads I’ve got. I don’t mind picking the occasional tiny bit of pleather off of the side of my face. At least I don’t have to worry about it getting stuck in my hair anymore. That’s progress.
I spent a memorable chunk of the summer of 1996 reading Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison, by James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky. I started reading that biography in a movie theatre before the coming attractions. I still had my nose in it during a weekend spent in Toronto with Johnny Smith. I was mesmerized by the train-wreck that was Jim’s life.
I remember confusing a fancy packet of blue hotel room liquid soap with hair gel that weekend. I massaged some of it into my hair and watched it start to froth. Then I wiped the foam away and used enough of my own gel in its place to fashion a small animal into a weapon.
There was a homeless girl sitting outside the lip of a store that afternoon or the next. I can still see her face and her hooded sweatshirt. In a small, frightened-sounding voice, she asked a few people if they had any spare change. No one looked at her. They just kept walking.
I think I had some vague notion of what a homeless person was, but the reality of homelessness didn’t hit me until that moment. I was twelve years old, going on thirteen. This girl didn’t look any older than me. It shook me up a little.
I wish I could tell you I sat down and had a conversation with her, if only to offer a moment of human connection and let her know someone saw her. I didn’t have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had anything to say that would help her anyway. I was just a kid. What did I know about anything?
I still think about her every once in a while. I wonder what her name was, if she ran away because things were bad at home, if she found a safe place to stay.
All these years later, I thought I’d dust off Break on Through and skim it a little to see how it’s held up. It might still be the definitive Jim Morrison biography. There isn’t as much of the hero worship some of the other books about Jim get bogged down in, and I think this was the first published piece of writing to reveal how he really died. He didn’t have a heart attack in the bathtub at the age of twenty-seven. He got into his girlfriend’s heroin stash and overdosed.
The other day I was reading about the last months of Jim’s life. He thought he might be able to sort himself out in Paris, but he couldn’t stop drinking, and while he never stopped writing poetry, he felt he’d hit a creative wall he couldn’t scale or chisel his way through.
I read this (not Jim’s words, but James and Jerry’s):
“…being an artist for the long haul means more than harnessing sudden and terrible inspirations. It means being able to study and grow in one’s character as well as one’s art. It means overcoming toil and trouble and mastering that enemy of all creative forces — doubt. In the end, the race doesn’t belong to the swift, but to the one who has the tenacity and the belief in himself or in something greater in order to hang in there the longest. When you come right down to it, it’s much easier to be a genius at twenty-two than it is to sustain it at forty-two — or even twenty-seven.”
And it went through me like a bullet.
I have no memory of reading those words twenty-three years ago. I’m sure I read them. I’m just as sure they meant nothing to me at the time. Today they couldn’t be more pertinent.
Reading that passage helped me to see how I’ve been looking at this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing the wrong way. I’ve been working on finishing this album more out of a sense of duty than anything when that isn’t the way I operate. Even the most miserable music I’ve made has always been driven by a deep-seated need to express something — not an attitude of, “Well, I guess I need to finish this stuff so I can forget about it and move on to something else.”
I’ve been calling the experience of making the album “one of the great artistic adventures of my life”. I still feel that way, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a difficult, somewhat soul-destroying experience on a personal level. Finishing it on my own after spending years chasing a lot of my musical guests in order to get them over here has become a more emotionally complicated process after a number of those guests caused the collapse of an event I put an incredible amount of time, thought, and work into constructing.
For the most part I’ve been able to separate my feelings of disappointment from the music. I haven’t gone around erasing the contributions of everyone who let me down. It helps that none of these people contributed to the actual writing of any of the songs they appear on. In many cases I wrote their parts for them and they brought none of their own musical ideas to the table. I’m able to look at them less as human beings who failed me when I was counting on them and more as tools I used to bring my creative vision to life.
I’ve been picking away at this album for more than five years now. I was getting a lot of unanticipated work recording other people for a while there, and it took time away from my own music. It took me years to get some musicians to commit to showing up, and I had a very hard time finding people to fill certain instrumental and vocal roles. Many people ignored me or led me on only to jump ship at the last possible second. I lost huge chunks of recording time thanks to unnecessary construction work that dragged on forever (it didn’t help that the people doing the work were lazy and borderline incompetent) and thoughtless neighbours. I tried to commission a number of filmmakers to make me some sort of artistic music video. I wasn’t a high-profile enough artist for any of them to even consider working with me.
All of this is true. There’s been a lot of unpleasant shit to deal with. But instead of looking at the different ways I’ve managed to absorb it, repurpose it, and transcend it, I’ve been fixated on the stink.
Yes, the album has been half a decade in the making. That’s an eternity for me. But one of the benefits of a long-range process like this is the amount of time everything is given to settle into itself. These songs represent the absolute best work I felt I was capable of doing during this specific period of time. Some of my favourite songs have been written pretty late in the game. They wouldn’t be on the album if I’d finished it a few years earlier, and I think it would be a weaker collection without them.
Yes, it’s been an immense amount of work, between writing, arranging, producing, recording, mixing, and mastering all the songs, curating the supporting cast, writing parts for other musicians or setting up structured frameworks for them to improvise inside of, playing all of the instruments myself on most of the songs, and finding a way to fit some pretty textured arrangements onto the sixteen tracks available on my mixer. But I’ve learned a lot about myself as a producer along the way and stretched myself in ways I never thought I could.
Yes, a staggering amount of people have flaked out on me, lied to me, or rejected me in one way or another. Even some of the people who did show up forced me to pursue them with a determination that bordered on insanity. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that musicians tend to be a pretty flaky bunch. I learned “flaky” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Some of them were a nightmare to deal with. I know that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but I’ve never bullshitted here, and I’m not about to start now.
And yet…I got all of these people to sing and play on a Johnny West album:
That’s a substantial accomplishment any way you look at it. Especially for a supposed “enigmatic recluse” like me.
My goal was to cobble together a cast of thirty players and singers. I got as far as twenty-nine. So close. Then I kicked a few folks off the album for being douchebags, bringing the final tally down to twenty-six (twenty-seven if you count me). Even here there’s a silver lining, somehow: I got rid of a song that wasn’t really album material, and another song was made stronger by my own voice replacing a guest’s somewhat listless performance.
I got more than a dozen visual artists to contribute to the lyric booklet, though a few pieces didn’t make the final cut. And I’ve been able to grab a lot of great video footage of the music being created and craft some pretty neat DIY music videos all on my own.
Almost everyone declined my offer of payment, making it clear they were happy just to be a part of the album. I’ll always be grateful for that. One person bucked the trend, though, and he was happy to empty my pockets. All of my post-production costs combined won’t begin to approach the amount of money I had to pay him.
He’s a great musician. I’m happy with the performances he gave me. But I had to fight with myself not to remove them from the album out of spite once I found out he was only in it for the money. This is someone who wouldn’t even speak to me unless he was sure the conversation would lead to another payday. Someone like that has no business being a part of my music.
I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience. I thought I was making a lot of new friends along the way. I came to find out in a pretty brutal way that I was wrong. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again. It’s getting a little old now. I did build a few new friendships that have endured past the honeymoon stage, but I don’t ever want to go through anything like this again. I’ve spent most of my life reaching out. My arms are tired. In the future, if someone wants to work with me they can do the reaching. I’m not a difficult person to find, and I’m through with chasing people. There are more enjoyable ways of getting exercise.
There’s a part of me that would be glad to have those five years back so I could pump out a bunch of pure solo albums in the place of this one, trading all the string and horn parts and guest vocalists for a little less grey in my hair and a better opinion of people. I’m proud of these songs and the performances I’ve captured, and I’ve put everything I have into making this album the strongest musical statement it can be, but in some ways I’ve had to gut it out through stubbornness and determination.
To wit: I have a ninety-eight-page Word document cataloguing all one hundred and one singers and musicians, all forty-five visual artists, and all seventeen filmmakers I tried to involve in one way or another. It’s quite the saga.
I’d like to say I’m able to take the long view and appreciate the ride in spite of all the turbulence. I’m not sure how true that is right now, but I think I’ll get there. I’m working on it.
My interest in sampling should have started with the Casio SK-10 I had as a kid. Here I had the ability to record and warp short bursts of any sound I could think of, and the best idea I could come up with was getting the built-in demonstration songs to play symphonies of armpit farts. I sampled the TV a few times, but that was as creative as I got.
In the mid-2000s I heard a Bjork song in a restaurant. I think it was right before I really got into her music. I’ve never been able to figure out which song it was, but I remember there was this sound swimming through the whole thing — something like a field of wind chimes being upended by a swarm of locusts.
“Sampling!” I thought. “Yes! I must get a sampler! I must make sounds like this! No more farting with my arms! I’m a grownup now!”
I could have had a lot of fun with the SK-10 right about then, but it was collecting dust in a house full of people I never wanted to see again. So much for an emotional, armpit fart-free reunion.
The Roland V-Synth looked like an attractive option for a while. Then I discovered I already had a synthesizer with sampling capabilities — a Korg Triton LE. For a fraction of the cost of a V-Synth I could get an EXB-SMPL sampling board, slip it into the guts of the Triton, and go nuts.
I can’t remember if the sampling board came with instructions. If it did, they weren’t very helpful. Johnny Smith helped me wedge the thing inside of the Triton, but we had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t get it to work. One of the high A# keys stopped functioning not long after that, and I’ve always wondered if it had anything to do with my little sampling misadventure.
A few days ago we opened the Triton up for the first time in close to fifteen years. I thought it was about time I got some use out of the EXB-SMPL. Thanks to a helpful YouTube tutorial, it wasn’t going to be so difficult to set up this time.
What we found was…well, this:
What you see there is an empty space where the sampling card is supposed to be. We must have taken it out when it didn’t work and chucked it back in the box. I guess that high A# stopped working all on its own.
Maybe I was never meant to sample anything with this synth. The way it worked out, I found other solutions.
In early 2014, a few months before work began on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. An unbent Yamaha VSS-30 followed a little while later. For the last five years, I’ve been having a blast sampling all kinds of things. As great as the SK-1 is — and most of the time I’m not even engaging the bends — it’s the VSS-30 that’s become an indispensable sonic weapon. From here on out, I can’t imagine making an album that doesn’t feature it in a pretty integral role.
There’s one specific sound that’s always appealed to me. It’s what happens when a human voice gets chopped up and bent out of shape. You hear a lot of this in different strains of electronica-driven modern pop music.
A few examples:
That’s right. I just posted a song featuring Justin Bieber, and not in an ironic way. Be afraid. The high-pitched distorted synthesizer-sounding thing you hear during the instrumental choruses is the Biebernator’s voice, believe it or not. That’s what sampling and mangling can do.
Now, if I had access to something like this, I would be in heaven:
Disembodied voices, all primed and ready to be manipulated? Sign me up.
Alas, I don’t use a computer to record, so software like this isn’t an option for me. If I want to get sounds that live in that world, I have to create them myself.
(I know I said I was done sharing excerpts from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing. I lied. Jesus, look at all that grey hair.)
I’m loving the Zoom H1 for voice-capturing purposes when I’m recording video and my face needs to be on the screen. It’s easy to put on a mini-stand and point in my general direction, allowing me to speak freely regardless of where the camera is. Whenever I was using one of the Flip cameras, I always had to try and get my face as close as possible to the camera if I wanted to get something resembling clean, present sound out of the built-in microphone. Now it’s not an issue. Even when I point the H1 at the monitors so the playback takes precedence over my voice, what I’m saying still comes through loud and clear.
Compare the above video to something like this and I think you’ll hear what I mean. You might notice a bit of a difference in the visual quality as well. Three cheers for the Canon T5i (and for opening the blinds to let in some natural light).
Sort of related, a little bit, maybe:
For years I had this itch in the back of my brain. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what would happen if someone else produced/recorded my music. I was pretty sure I would try handing the reigns over to someone else someday, if only for a song or a quick EP, so I could satisfy that curiosity.
It’s not something I wonder about anymore.
For better or worse, I’ve developed a recording aesthetic that’s very specific to me and what I do. By now it’s as much a part of my music as my voice or the way I play piano. Strip that away, put someone else in charge of dialling in the sounds they believe are appropriate and keeping the performances they like best, and I don’t think the results would sound a whole lot like me anymore.
Very few of the sounds coming out of professional recording studios right now do anything to move or inspire me. That’s just my own personal taste. The few producers I would have an interest in working with are nowhere near Windsor, and they charge such a disgusting amount of money for their services, I’d maybe be able to afford five seconds of studio time with them. Even if I won the lottery, after all the time and work and money that’s gone into building my studio into what it is today, it would make no sense to pay someone else to bark orders at me and spend two hours getting a drum sound they’re only going to obliterate later on with samples they bought in a bundle from Waves Audio.
I want to make it clear that I’m not dumping on this way of working. I’m only saying it isn’t what I’m after as a producer. I think any way of working is valid if it gets you the results you’re after.
Earlier this year, Ryan Lewis (owner/operator of RadSouls Studio) came over to record some piano and vocal tracks. When he told me to do whatever I wanted with the basic tracks, I saw it as a unique opportunity to compare my work to another producer’s. Though the song wasn’t my own, this was the closest I was ever likely to get to hearing what someone else would do with my music. We both started with the same source material and took it in very different directions.
Here’s Ryan’s mix:
And here’s mine:
As dissimilar as our mixes are in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, what really stands out to me is the use of compression. In my mix the piano is allowed to breathe in a natural way and the snapping is treated as just another sound. In Ryan’s mix the snapping is emphasized, the piano is pumped up with a ton of compression, and everything is a lot louder.
I’m not sure I could come up with a much better demonstration of what I mean when I say my sensibilities are almost violently out-of-sync with what most other producers seem to want to achieve. It’s right there in black and white.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of the elements I added to my take on the song, showcasing some of what the VSS-30 can do when you take the time to create your own samples.
A few years ago, I wrote a bit about this song that came from a dream.
If you don’t feel like backtracking to read that post, here’s the original GarageBand demo I recorded when I was still half-asleep, all the way back in March of 2014.
Ever since I acquired the ability to record overdubs twenty years ago, I’ve always enjoyed layering vocal harmonies. It’s come to feel like a pretty personal thing. Even with all the vocalists I’ve managed to involve in YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, most of their work has been limited to singing lead parts or contributing to group vocals.
I did try to get other people to sing harmony on a handful of songs, just to see what would happen. Only two of those people bothered to show up. One of them was Kaitlyn Kelly, who made time for me when she was in town for the holidays a few years ago and did some beautiful singing on a song that’s going on the album. The other was Leanna, who also sang a lead part on one of the “musical dialogues” I wrote.
The first session with Leanna was great. She came in and sang that part like she owned it. She said the song brought something special out of her. The second session was…not so great.
Five times we made plans. Five times she stood me up. The sixth time she managed to make it here. I was still doing my musical barter thing at the time. I offered to record a song of hers to thank her for singing on one of mine. She brought along her then-boyfriend, who I’ll call Chocolate Bar (his stage name is something pretty close to that), and an additional guitarist I wasn’t told was coming.
We attacked the harmony part on my song first. It was slow going. She hadn’t bothered to learn the song and didn’t seem to be nearly as into it as she was the first time. We recorded it piecemeal. I would sing her a line. She would sing it back until it was good enough to move on to the next line. After about an hour we were done.
The second guitarist asked to use the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes and not hearing a flush, I took a look to see if he was dropping off some kids or something. He never set foot in the bathroom. He was hiding around the corner, taking pictures of my gear with his phone.
If you’re over here working with me and you ask to take a picture of yourself singing into a microphone, playing an instrument, or giving me bunny ears, I have no problem with that. But to lie about having to take a piss so you can catalogue my equipment without my permission…that’s some sketchy shit. It makes me think you’re casing the place so you can decide whether or not it’s worth your while to try and break in at a later date.
Johnny Smith happened to be here when this was happening. When he saw what I saw, he told the budding photographer he could delete those pictures from his phone and sit where we could see him, or he could get the hell out of the house. He did as he was told, but he seemed to find the whole thing funny.
I recorded a song Leanna and Chocolate Bar took turns singing lead on. I let Chocolate Bar play my 1951 Gibson LG-2. He hammered on the guitar like he was trying to break all the strings. It was his passive-aggressive way of shoving a middle finger in my face.
I never mixed that song.
Leanna later apologized for what happened. As for Chocolate Bar, not too long after that he had a short-lived stint as a cashier at Remark Farms. One day he had to check us out and bag our groceries. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone look more uncomfortable. Funny how people who have no problem disrespecting you in private turn into cowards when you see them in a public place. I’ve seen it happen a number of times now. All their arrogance vanishes, they try to avoid making eye contact, and they look like they want to run away.
I enjoy those moments.
A year or so ago, Chocolate Bar sent me a Facebook friend request. I ignored it. I mean, are you kidding me?
Anyway. I had a lot of trouble working out the arrangement for my own song. I couldn’t quite duplicate what I liked about the demo’s piano part. I tried some soft brushed snare, Wurlitzer, and lap steel with a backwards delay effect. None of it felt right.
In late 2016 I took another crack at it. I got rid of everything aside from my acoustic guitar and the vocal tracks, added a bit of third-part harmony, recorded brand new lap steel and piano tracks, and started to like it a bit more. I made a rough mix of what I’d done.
It still didn’t feel finished, but I didn’t know what else to do with it.
A few days ago I thought it would be fun to give it another look. I dumped it back on the mixer, only to discover I erased most of the tracks without thinking. My only option was to use an earlier backup. Hearing those original lap steel and Wurlitzer parts again, I found myself liking them more than I thought I would. I ditched the acoustic piano, didn’t bother to sing the third-part harmony again, recorded a new drum track, and added electric and acoustic twelve-string guitar.
All at once, it felt like the whole thing came to life.
I almost never use a high-pass filter on anything unless I’ve got a vocal track with some plosive sounds that are a little too powerful. Here I broke with that tradition. There was some irritating mud in the lap steel and Wurlitzer tracks. A little filtering did a nice job of cleaning it up.
I haven’t decided if this one’s an outtake or not. I like it well enough. I just don’t know if there’s a place for it on the album. If nothing else, it’s another example of the crappy twelve-string I inherited working its strange magic. That guitar may be a hunk of junk, but every once in a while it’s exactly what a song needs.
The stop button on my mixer hasn’t been working so well over the last little while. It still functions, but I have to wrestle with it now. When you’re doing vocal punch-ins or any kind of recording that requires some precise stop/start points, a sticky stop button is a huge pain in the posterior.
I should have expected there to be some repercussions when I spilled coffee on the old beast.
It got to be a little too frustrating after a while. So I dug out this foot switch I’ve probably had for close to twenty years but never used — the tank that calls itself my desk holds many forgotten and semi-hidden treasures — and plugged it into the back of the mixer. Any attached foot switch just happens to default to controlling play and stop functions, so I didn’t even have to tweak any settings on the mixer to get it to work.
I even got to make use of one of the crummy little patch cords I got when I was thinking about putting that pedal board together. I grabbed a bunch of them from Long & Delayed because they were dirt cheap, only to discover not all patch cords are created equal. I’ve accumulated a ridiculous amount of cabling over the years, and it runs the gamut from cheap no-name stuff from the mid-90s (all of which still works!) to pricey Mogami cables. I’ve never heard any difference in sound quality in any of them. That all changed when I bought these cheap Fender-branded pedal board cables. I tried them out when I got home and heard a marked loss of high frequency information. It wasn’t a pleasing warmth. It was a disconcerting dullness.
I spent quite a bit more money on some short patch cords made with Mogami 2524 cable. All those lost highs came back with a vengeance. But I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been shafted, regardless of how little I paid for those unusable Fender patch cords.
When you’re dealing with a foot switch that’s only performing mechanical duties, tone isn’t an issue. So there’s a bit of unexpected vindication for a little cable that didn’t really deserve it.
What else is new?
I’ve deactivated Facebook for the first time in years. The goal is to cut out some distractions and get into Merciless Album-Finishing Mode again. It seems to be helping at least a little bit. I’m still having some trouble working out the sequencing of the second disc. It’s tricky, because it needs to work as both a continuation of the first disc and a standalone musical statement.
I’ll figure it out at some point. I think. I hope.
More than half the songs now exist as mixes I like enough to call “final”. Come to think of it, almost all of the work I have left to do is mixing-related. There are only about half a dozen songs that need a bit of additional work at the recording stage. Sequencing issues aside, that’s a definite step in the right direction.
With a little elbow grease, I might get this album done before I turn to dust after all.