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.
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.
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.
Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend about recording other people. When someone comes here to record an album or an EP, most of the time they want me to do some amount of playing and arranging. “Just do your thing,” is a wonderful thing to hear. Even so, you want to make sure you don’t bring so much of yourself into someone else’s music that it starts to sound like they’re little more than a singer in your band of evil clones. You want to add layers to their voice without diluting it.
This has always been an enjoyable challenge for me — finding a way to incorporate whatever ideas I have while serving the songs. In my own music, I can throw an intentionally off-key bugle blast or the slowed-down sound of a squirrel screaming in the middle of a ballad and think nothing of it. In someone else’s song, that’s usually not going to fly.
My friend and I were talking about all of this when I sent along a rough mix of a song written and sung by someone else that had me playing most of the instruments. “There’s that familiar Johnny West snare sound,” he said. And I thought, I have a recognizable drum sound? Really? How did that happen?
I imagine this is what most producers are chasing on at least some level. A sound that’s their own. It’s just a little weird when you realize you got there almost by default, while trying to avoid certain sounds.
I do seem to have a drum sound that’s “mine”. The thing is, it only ended up that way because as much fun as it was to hear my drum sound change every few albums when I tried out some new mic placement strategy, I got tired of having to move those mics around all the time and wanted to stick with something simple that ate up less tracks on the mixer. I also wanted to get away from anything that felt like it resembled a conventional “produced” drum sound. Too many homogenous drum recordings heard on mainstream radio stations took their toll on me over the years.
So I stuck a stereo ribbon mic in front of my drum kit, patched it into a nice mic preamp, added a bit of compression and a slight EQ boost to counteract the high frequency roll-off inherent in most ribbon mics, and said, “That sounds about right.” Give or take a few experiments with adding a distant room mic, this is the way I’ve been recording acoustic drums for ten years now. It’s by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with a single approach.
This means my “drum sound” is the sound of my drums in my room, recorded to sound as natural and unaffected as possible. That’s kind of hilarious. An anti-sound became a sound.
I’ve developed ways of recording other instruments that work for me, even if in some cases they might be a little unorthodox. Sometimes recording with other people has opened up alternate approaches I wouldn’t have been able to attempt on my own. The way I like to record acoustic guitars with Gord when we’re working on Papa Ghostface songs, both of us playing at the same time, with the guitars mic’d in such a way that the bleed is emphasized instead of negated, and then doing it a second time and layering the tracks — that’s impossible when I’m recording by myself, for the obvious reasons. I love experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things, but when I’m recording someone else’s songs and they ask me to play a lot of different instruments, I’m going to grab the microphones I know work for me and put them in the places where I tend to get the best sounds.
If someone asked me to throw more mics on the drums, I would. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s because every time a drummer is supposed to come in and play on an album I’m recording for someone else, they never show up, and I end up having to do it myself.
It would probably sound like a mess if I tried recording a different drummer the way I record myself. I’ve learned how to get the most out of this setup. I had to change the way I play to make it work. I used to be a much busier drummer, as you can hear on things like the PAVEMENT HUGGING DADDIES EP and BRAND NEW SHINY LIE. These days I prefer a more minimal approach. Something tells me that would have happened anyway, regardless of what microphones were involved.
As with any other studio, if an artist has any thoughts about recording here, I imagine it’s because they like at least some of the sounds I’m getting. I always want to keep an active dialogue going so I know what they want to hear, what their musical vision is, and whether or not what I’m doing feels right to them. But I do have a pretty specific way of doing things, and it isn’t going to be for everyone.
The great thing about not advertising and keeping this whole thing low-key is I end up working with people I already know, or people who have heard enough of my work to know what they’re getting themselves into if they come here. Working with people you like, recording music you can get excited about, and sensing they’re happy with the work you’ve done when it’s all over and they wouldn’t fire you out of a cannon into a vat of bacon grease if given the chance…that’s a pretty great gig.
Now, if someday Vampire Kate Beckinsale hears an album I’ve produced for another artist, without knowing I was involved, and says, “Hey, I know where this was recorded! That’s the Johnny West drum sound!” my life will be complete.
Ric was over here tuning the piano on Valentine’s Day. My Yamaha U1 has the Piano Life Saver System installed, pulling double duty as an internal humidifier and dehumidifier. It’s helped a lot during those times when the air has been less than kind to instruments that crave moisture. Even so, Ric said it might not be a bad idea to pick up a hygrometer and a room humidifier, to guard against the damage the cold months can do and keep the piano happy.
Enter this little guy:
And his co-conspirator:
The humidity in the studio is now hovering between 30 and 40% all the time. Not quite ideal, but a marked improvement over the horrifying 16% the hygrometer was reading before the new humidifier started doing its thing. It should help pick up some of the slack so the Life Saver System doesn’t have to work so hard.
It’s funny what a difference it can make when you’ve got something to counteract the way your furnace sucks all the moisture out of a room. Breathing the air in there even feels better now.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to perform a little humidity treatment on a 1939 Kalamazoo mandola. I have a habit of leaving this instrument out of its case for long stretches of time (not smart, I know), and when winter shows up it lets me know it isn’t happy. It’s about as upset with me right now as it’s ever been.
The other day I shoved a Dampit inside of each F-hole and stuck the mandola on top of the Ace Tone combo organ, as close as I could get it to the humidifier without putting it somewhere I might forget about it and knock it over. Already we’re down from four or five dead frets to just one that’s a little bit buzzy. Talk about a fast turnaround. If I promise to make sure the mandola gets the moisture it needs from now on, maybe it’ll find it in its headstock to forgive me.
The dying gasp of that residual coughing crap is still hanging on, but my voice seems to be fine. Time to get back down to business and regain some of the momentum I had going at the end of 2017 before stupid germs stole it from me. To paraphrase the great Dolph Lundgren: “If I cough, I cough.”
I wanted to post a song to make up for the relative scarcity of blog updates so far this year. Of course, instead of working on something new, my brain made a direct beeline for the past. I had to go along for the ride. You really don’t have a choice in a situation like that, unless you want to experience spontaneous psychic decapitation.
If you were around during the infancy of this blog, you might remember a little sketch I posted in July of 2009. Here it is again. Blast from the past!
(Washed-out image care of the Flip camera’s protective adhesive plastic lens cover, which I didn’t realize you were supposed to remove until a day or two later.)
It took a while for the sketch to turn into a finished song. The music was easy. That came right away. The words were the tricky part. I got a verse or two right off the bat, and then nothing for a few months, until the rest of the words decided to show up one day without any fanfare.
Over the back half of 2009, Mark Plancke (owner and operator of Sharktank Productions, a long-running Windsor recording studio) reached out to just about every music-making life form in the city and invited them to be a part of a compilation he was putting together called From the Tank. I was one of those life forms.
The idea behind the compilation was this: he would record as many artists and bands operating in as many different genres as possible. The end result would be a convenient musical business card he could use to advertise his services. In return, the musicians involved would get to record a song in a professional studio environment.
Sounded interesting in theory. I’ve written before about how some part of me will always wonder what would happen if, as an experiment, I tried recording in someone else’s studio and let an outside producer have their way with my music. With the passage of time that part of me has shrunk down to almost nothing, but I think some vague echo of it will always be there.
When I was mulling it over, the first and only song that came to mind was this one. It was a very clear, immediate thought: “If I decide to go through with it, this is the song I want to record.”
I was curious to see how the other half lived — how people did things in a “proper” studio. And Mark had an impressive list of gear. But I had some good gear of my own. A lot of money and time and effort went into accumulating those tools and teaching myself how to use them. For someone who’s spent a lifetime working in untreated rooms, I’ve had a ridiculous amount of luck, never finding myself saddled with a space that’s posed any serious acoustic problems. I was happy with my room and the recordings I was making in it.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved or not. What knocked me off the fence was the discovery that the Tank, like most other local studios, didn’t have a real acoustic piano. Once I got my upright, there was no going back, and no amount of expensive processing was going to make a digital piano sound like the real deal.
I recorded the song myself in the summer of 2010 while working on MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEART, knowing it was destined for THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if it ended up anywhere at all. The whole thing was built around a nice Larrivée acoustic guitar I was trying to make a point of playing more after neglecting it for a while. I spent one afternoon in June working on it and then left it unmixed for over a year.
In late 2011, after getting GIFT FOR A SPIDER out of my system, I gave it a fresh listen, added some combo organ and a bit of melodica, and mixed it. Around this time, someone told me they thought the snare drum didn’t come through in my mixes as much as it should. That got stuck in my head for a while, and I ended up making some mixes that were far too drum-heavy in an effort to make up for that supposed oversight.
Good sense prevailed before too long, and I decided the drums were right where I wanted them to be. But the original mix of this song is one that came out of that short-lived Jack up the Drums period of uncertainty. For more than six years I’ve been meaning to revisit it and give it a new mix. Today seemed like a good day to get it done.
I didn’t change much. All the HELLHOUND-period effects — the medium delay I was favouring on my vocal tracks at the time, the reverb on the organ, the ping-pong delay on the piano — were left intact. The drums got pulled down quite a bit, but not so much that they disappeared. They sit in the pocket better now, driving the music without getting too vocal about it. The electric guitar came up a titch, and I snipped out a few lip smacks and unwanted ambient noises I was too lazy to get rid of the first time. Other than that, I left it alone.
I like how the bridge section feels kind of aimless, with the singing sounding unsure of what melodic logic it wants to follow, and then everything kicks back in after the first of two false endings with a renewed sense of purpose. The piano and electric guitar are both first-take scratch tracks I meant to either re-record or get rid of. I improvised them without knowing what I was doing. All this time later, I like the way they provide a bit of colour without ever settling down into conventional or studied “parts”, and the way the piano drifts into jazzy dissonance now and then to keep things a little off-balance. So they get to stay, unedited.
The little lead melody during the instrumental break was supposed to be a guitar solo. For whatever reason, it seemed more compelling to me when I played it on the combo organ and then doubled it with melodica. Take that, intended guitar solo!
The piano line at the beginning might sound familiar if you’ve listened to a fair amount of my music. When I wasn’t sure if this song was album material, I took that little musical idea and repurposed it, sticking it in the middle of the instrumental bridge section in “No Better Than Before”, the opening track on MEDIUM-FI MUSIC. Most of the time I try to avoid recycling melodies and riffs with about as much force as I try to avoid being subjected to the musical halitosis of my old pal the Paddle Pop Lion, but every once in a great while you come across an idea that wants to get out and make some friends. To clip its wings would just be cruel.
The title can be read as either one fish shaking another, or sound frequencies causing the salmon to vibrate. If you want to get absurd, it can even be an action performed by a bass guitar with a mind and a will of its own. I still haven’t decided which reading I prefer, and none of them have anything to do with what the lyrics have to say.
You can look at it as a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing.
For some weird, logic-defying reason it’s one of my favourite ANGLE songs. It’s more of a lazy lope of a deep album cut than anything, showing up well past the halfway mark on the first disc of my failed attempt at sequencing and finishing the album back in 2012. I can’t explain what it is. There’s just something about the song I’ve always really liked.
Today I kind of wish I could say I went ahead and tried recording it at the Sharktank around the same time I was recording my own version at home. It would be fun to be able to compare two very different recordings of the same source material, interpreted by two producers with profoundly different philosophies and methodologies. I can only guess at how the recorded-by-someone-else version of this song would have sounded. The drums probably would have come out sounding a lot more “produced”, with more microphones on the kit. You’d have Wurlitzer in place of the piano part and Hammond organ in place of the Ace Tone. The melodica-and-organ solo would probably be the more conventional guitar solo it started out as in my head. The mics and their placement, effects, and mixing choices would all be very different.
It would have been interesting. But I’m not sure it would have really sounded or felt like me. So maybe it all worked out the way it was supposed to.
Speaking of the quadruple CD that almost was…
In 2012, THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE had my undivided attention. I was convinced I would be able to shape that years-in-the-making mess into something that made sense as a self-contained album. I was so sure of myself, I went ahead and sequenced the first two discs of an intended four-disc set, paid to have inserts printed, copied a large batch of CDs, and gave everything a copyright date of 2012.
The plan was to put a different picture I’d taken on the cover of each individual CD. Then those pictures and others would form a collage that would serve as the “master cover”, and all the CDs would be housed in a fancy slipcase. All I had to do was finish the other two discs, get a huge lyric booklet printed, and work out how and where to get a slipcase made.
I thought it was a smart move. It turned out to be a serious tactical error. By dating the back of those first two CDs, I gave myself a limited amount of time to tie up all the loose ends. I took my best shot at it, recording a lot of new songs, mixing and remixing a lot of old ones, but I just couldn’t get it done in time. 2012 gave way to 2013, I started feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing, and before too long I’d kicked it to the side and given up on it — not for the first or last time.
I was at least able to repurpose the CD jewel cases for other albums. The hundreds of inserts I had printed became useless, along with the hundreds of CDs I spent hours copying and printing myself. I had to eat those expenses.
Lesson learned: don’t package your album before it’s finished.
I have no idea what the sequencing of ANGLE is going to look like when it’s finished, but I know it won’t even begin to resemble what I put together in 2012. Half the songs that made it onto those two discs back then might not even make the final cut. Whatever album it might have been had I managed to pull it together six years ago, I’m convinced it’ll be a much stronger piece of work when it finally sees the light of day in 2089.
The mega cold is gone, but there’s a stupid residual cough that keeps hanging around. So instead of kicking off 2018 with a bang and carrying over the momentum I was able to generate in December, I’ve recorded almost nothing so far this year. Fun times. At least we got a bit more work done on Ron’s album, and almost all the basic tracks are in the can now, so that’s something.
You start to notice some interesting trends if you dig deep enough. Certain mastering engineers seem to have decided dynamic range is their enemy, or else they’ve become the first choice of any record label bigwig who decides loudness trumps musicality because the payday is more important to them than taking a stand, even if it means disrespecting and degrading the craft they worked so hard to master.
(Pun not intended, but I’ll take it.)
There’s one guy who stands out. I’m not going to name him, because I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s work, but this is someone who’s mastered albums for artists as disparate as Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Cash, Linkin Park, Oasis, Metallica, Shakira, Weezer, and too many more to list. He’s considered one of the best in the business. If you look at all the albums he’s mastered over a period of decades, it’s almost impossible to find even one that has anything approaching a healthy amount of dynamic range. He mastered the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Californication, for rice’s sake. People are stillcomplaining about how rotten and distorted that one sounds nineteen years later, with good reason.
Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, celebrated as one of the best albums ever made in the hip-hop genre, has an average dynamic range of five decibels. The quietest and loudest parts of several songs are separated by no more than two decibels, and there’s clipping all over the place. Fans of my Uncle Kanye will tell you that’s the way he wanted it to sound.
The most recent albums by Beck, Afghan Whigs, Mogwai, A Perfect Circle, and Death From Above 1979 all have an average dynamic range of fourdecibels. A lot of money went into making these albums. They all sound like absolute garbage on any half-decent system because of what was done at the mastering stage.
I don’t know if a lot of people’s ears have been desensitized by years of listening to music that’s been butchered at the mastering stage, and they’ve adapted and don’t find it fatiguing or painful to listen to anymore, or what the deal is. All I know is if I bought more than a handful of the albums that continue to fall prey to this sad fate, I’d be asking for my money back. Life’s too short to waste on music that’s been made almost unlistenable for no good reason.
It’s not limited to high profile commercial releases, either. There was a local album that came out some years back. The band got a “name” mastering engineer to work on it and paid him a lot of money. What he gave them back wasn’t much different than what they could have done themselves with a free computer program. One song was compressed so much, when it got to what was supposed to be the most intense, loudest part, instead of a huge rush of sound what you heard was an absurd amount of compressor pumping, with an impenetrable ceiling clamping down on the sound world.
You hear this exaggerated side-chain compression thing in EDM a lot. It works for club bangers, even if I think it sounds awful in that context too. This was a rock song without a synthesized sound in sight.
That’s…I don’t even know what that is.
But this is the world we live in. This is what we’ve decided is acceptable. Digital recording affords us an incredible amount of dynamic range to play with, and yet we reject it, ignore it, destroy it, or narrow it down to almost nothing so we can make something that will grab your attention because it’s so loud and harsh-sounding it threatens to cook your ears from the inside. And the way things are going, it doesn’t look like this “louder is better, even when it isn’t” mentality is going anywhere anytime soon.
It’s a sad affair, man. I’m gonna go watch a video of cats being goofballs or something so I don’t have to think about it anymore.
Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.
I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.
So I decided to go for it.
I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.
By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.
This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.
A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.
The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.
It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.
If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:
For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know that keeps my temperament even during times of snow. I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow. It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low. Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do. But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.
We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.
There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.
Sufjan had this to say about his decision:
“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”
I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.
As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.
It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.
At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.
Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.
Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.
The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.
A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.
Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.
I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.
I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.
(As for how to describe the scent ofself-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)
About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.
I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.
Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.
Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).
“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.
I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.
If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?
Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.
I’m always surprised by the people who want to come and record music in my humble little laboratory. Nothing that walks out of here is ever going to sound super slick or mainstream radio-ready, but maybe some artists are after something more human, without all the character airbrushed out of the frame, and maybe in some of those situations I’m not the most off-the-wall choice out there. Just the second or third most off-the-wall choice.
The most recent visitor was this talented human here. She came over on Friday and we recorded a whole album live off the floor in an afternoon, except for one ukulele song that wasn’t quite live.
As a rule I like to record vocal tracks as an isolated thing, separate from whatever instruments are being played. It wasn’t always like this. I used to be all about keeping everything live and unembellished. Then I got better, more sensitive microphones, and I found there was a world of difference between recording acoustic guitar and vocals at the same time with, say, a Shure SM57 and an SM58, and some hyper-sensitive condenser microphones that will pick up the sound of a squirrel throwing a tantrum six miles away. Once I wasn’t using dynamic mics on acoustic instruments anymore, when I did try to record guitar and vocals in one shot I found the bleed too difficult to control, phase issues too tricky to avoid, and centipede visitors not prevalent enough during daylight hours.
Jess writes songs that blur the lines between folk, indie rock, soul, and punk. They’re wonderfully dynamic, with a lot of unpredictable shifts in tempo and intensity and some great, evocative lyrics.
Not exactly the sort of thing that lends itself to piecemeal recording. We tried, but it was clear from the start it was going to feel pretty awkward for her if we tried to separate guitar and voice. You can do all the takes you want, but in the end the best performances are going to come when the artist is relaxed. Sometimes that’s only going to happen if they can play and sing at the same time.
I thought I’d slide the Shure SM7B in there as a vocal mic and we’d be set. I should have accounted for the way my SM7B seems to pick and choose when it wants to cooperate with me. Friday was one of its testy days. No matter what preamp/compressor configuration I plugged it into, the thing wouldn’t pass sound. Even after I routed it in what I thought was a pretty foolproof way, I still wasn’t getting any signal. It got to the point where my face was covered in sweat and I was starting to think whatever recording knowledge I once possessed had been stolen from me while I slept, sucked out of my brain through one of those plastic syringes they give you to fill with water so you can keep the inside of your mouth clean after wisdom teeth removal surgery.
Right about then, I noticed the compressor I was using as the last piece in the signal chain wasn’t turned on.
After wiping off my face, I told the SM7B to go to hell in the nicest way I could and swapped it out for my trusty Pearlman TM-1.
I know everyone and their Chia Pet will tell you it’s important to audition different microphones on a singer, especially when you’re dealing with a voice you haven’t recorded before. You never know how a given mic’s frequency response is going to respond to something as varied as the human voice. And that’s sound advice. But I’ve lost count now of how many different singers I’ve stuck in front of the TM-1, and it’s never been the wrong choice. Not even once. It always sounds like the truest representation of that person’s voice I could hope to capture, whether they’re screaming their head off or barely breaking a whisper.
It was the right choice again on Friday. Because I was able to mic up the guitar amp with dynamic mics that are much more directional than those insane Neumann small-diaphragm condenser fellas I would have been using on an acoustic guitar, the only bleed I had to worry about was what the vocal mic picked up from the amp. And while there was no way to avoid it, in a strange way I think it helped, making everything a little bolder and more exciting, capturing some room sound where the SM7B would have been maybe too dry.
There’s good bleed, and there’s bad bleed. My ears told me this wasn’t bad bleed at all. It was bleed you’d be glad to take out for a night on the town.
Jess brought her very cool Danelectro electric guitar with her (it looks like a U1, but I’m not sure). She plugged into my Fender Twin and I invited her to adjust anything on the amp she wanted. She did something to the bass and mids that was subtle, but it made an immediate difference for the better. I think I’m going to leave the EQ just the way she set it until the end of time.
She also dialled in a bit of reverb. The problem I’ve always had with the spring reverb in this amp is the hum it introduces the second you turn it on. The more reverb you want, the louder the hum gets. At a lower volume it wasn’t awful. Still, I thought we might later find ourselves cursing the hum when it called attention to itself during some of the quieter moments in her songs. I turned off the reverb on the amp and stuck the Strymon Flint in the signal path. It just happens to have a spring reverb setting that sounded to us like a dead ringer for the real thing in the Fender Twin, minus the extraneous noise.
With just the TM-1 on her voice, and an SM57 and 421 on the amp, I think we got a good three-dimensional representation of the way things sounded in the room. Recording the guitar and vocals separately might have given me a little more control come mixing time, but I don’t think it would have sounded better. And this should still be pretty straightforward to mix.
Technical stuff aside, it was a great afternoon full of clementines, tea, and good music. Jess is one of those people who fills up a room with positive energy. She makes this sort of thing feel less like a job and more like you’re just hanging out with someone who happens to be playing some music. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun recording someone other than myself.
Hopefully I can take some of those good feelings and carry them over to my own work, which has been feeling a little neglected and unsure of itself lately.