recording

You sound like I feel.

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.

You are much more adept at enunciating with a shoe in your mouth.

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.

Bass Shakes the Salmon

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.

This is also the song I was listening to when it hit me what important roles silence and space have come to play in my songwriting.

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.

Home, home on the lack of dynamic range.

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.

In the meantime, I’ve been reacquainting myself with this handy database that measures the dynamic range of just about every commercially released album in existence. If you’re like me and you thought maybe the Loudness War wasn’t as bad as it used to be, it makes for some pretty sobering reading. Take a look at some of the things that have already been released this year and try not to weep.

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 still complaining 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 four decibels. 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.

A home at the end of the frozen river.

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.

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

When the winning song was announced, it wasn’t mine. I was expecting that. What surprised me was the song that did win. It was one of the worst things I’d ever heard in my life. The lyrics alone were so awful they defied belief.

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 of self-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.

Yes? Woah.

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.

Phone it in.

These fellas have moved on to greener pastures. I’ve had pretty good luck with selling gear on Kijiji for quite a while now, and here again a little bit of patience paid off.

I haven’t used these headphones much at all in the fifteen years I’ve had them. Their pristine condition all but gives it away. Thought they’d be better served in the hands and on the head of someone who could get some use out of them, because they’re fine ‘phones.

Waving goodbye to them got me thinking about all the different headphones I’ve owned over the years.

The first “real” pair of headphones I got were Koss TD/60s in 1994 or early 1995. After settling for Gameboy earbuds and the free, cheaply-made headphones you’d get with pretty much any inexpensive Walkman (complete with a headband that always seemed to want to catch on your hair), these guys felt like a BMW wrapped around my head.

They were mainstays until my first serious set of headphones came along in early 1999 — a pair of Sennheiser HD 265s. The difference in sound almost blew my head off. Everything was so much more vivid and three-dimensional.

I bought a backup pair of HD 265s when I got the feeling they were going to stop selling them soon. One day I sat on that second pair while they were resting on the seat of the chair that sits in the heart of the studio, destroying them in a split-second of absentminded movement. By then my hunch had come to pass and the model had been discontinued.

Now I make sure if any headphones are going to be hanging out on that chair they’re hooked on an armrest, and not anywhere my thoughtless ass can cause them pain.

The first pair of HD 265s remain. They’ve been my workhorse headphones for almost two decades now, getting heavy use both in the studio and in more casual listening situations. These are the headphones I would wear when I was in high school, walking around at lunchtime with my DiscMan stuffed into my inside coat pocket, oblivious to how funny I might have looked to anyone else. They’re the headphones I use today when I’m tracking anything that isn’t loud electric guitar or drums. They’re what I listen on when I’m in my bed that doubles as a desk.

They’ve been through a lot, but they refuse to die.

What doesn’t refuse to die is the stereo headphone cable. I’m convinced they designed it to break down after a few years so they could make more money selling replacement cables.

The first one went on me in 2003, not long after OH YOU THIS was finished. Until I was able to scrounge up a new cable I was forced to pull out my old Koss friends. It surprised me how decent they sounded. Sure, they were no match for the Sennheiser headphones, but they didn’t embarrass themselves.

I’d be curious to give them another listen today. I had two sets of them. I know I gave one to a friend a long time ago. The other pair must be buried in a box in the basement somewhere.

Since then, the HD 265 cable has died on me every three years like clockwork. Lucky for me, between Glen at Audio Two and a few good contacts at Sennheiser, replacing it has never been a problem.

Around the same time I picked up that first set of HD 265s, I grabbed a pair of Sennheiser HD 570s. That way I’d have both closed and open-back headphones to work with.

The 570s have also long since been discontinued. Mine are still kicking, though I haven’t used them much in a long while. Never had any issues with the sound, and the cord never went goofy on me. I just found myself reaching for them less and less.

They did get quite a bit of use for a few years there early on. There’s some pretty hilarious footage of Tyson wearing them while recording guitar for SEED OF HATE — hilarious because death metal is the last thing in the world these headphones were voiced for.

The closed headphones Sennheiser advertised as the next step up after the HD 265s were phased out and presented as something of a replacement for them were the HD 280 PROs. I bought a pair when they first came out. They’re still made today.

I’ve never understood the hype these things get. To me they’ve always sounded horrible and uninspiring. To this day, the HD 265 is the best closed headphone design with a sane price tag I’ve ever heard. The soundstage is wide and full. They’re comfortable to wear over a long period of time. Maybe there’s a little more bass than some people like to hear, but to my ears the sound has always been balanced, natural, and just right.

The HD 280s sound like junk — boxy, thin, and lifeless, with very little depth or definition. I have no idea what everyone else has been hearing all this time.

I gave them to Gord when his cheap headphones died on him. He seems to like them. Better they get to live out the rest of their existence somewhere they’ll be appreciated, right?

The AKG 271s were another backup choice. They did the job, but I was never moved to reach for them over my go-to Sennheiser cans. They were there more so someone else would have something to listen on when I needed to have more than one set of headphones active at a time.

Later on I got a pair of Extreme Isolation headphones — the last thing you’d ever want use as a mixing reference, but great for recording loud sounds without endangering your hearing. If you saw me play live in any high volume situation between 2008 and 2012, I was probably wearing them to protect my ears.

A few years ago I sat on these headphones and broke them. What is it with me and sitting on things?

I bought a pair of Vic Firth isolation headphones to replace them. At half the price they isolate just as well and don’t seem to sound any worse. Works for me.

When I was working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS I started reading about Denon headphones. I’d read about pricier ‘phones before, made by Grado and Stax and others. But these Denon AH-D7000 headphones were advertised as being some of the most open-sounding closed headphones on the market.

They were also more expensive than any pair of headphones I’d ever bought before.

I threw caution to the wind (the wind said, “Hey, thanks for the caution, pal,”) and ordered a pair through Live Wire Audio before that place closed. The day they came in, the store owner asked if he could have a listen. We plugged them into a hi-fi system, I put on Manu Katché’s album Playground, he slid them on, and his eyes got as big as grapefruits.

These are true reference headphones. They waste no time in letting you know what’s what. Badly-recorded music sounds awful through them. Things that have been recorded and mixed with care sound stunning. And the clarity is unreal. When I first got these monsters, I heard things I didn’t know were there in songs I knew inside and out.

When someone else comes over here to record something with me, these are usually what I give them to wear. Something like the Stax SR-009s might blow them away, but the AH-D7000s are the best I’ve ever heard and the most money I’ll ever be willing to spend on this sort of thing. They’re plenty good enough for me and what I do.

For all the time and thought that went into designing the guts of these headphones and making them sound good, I don’t think much went into making sure the exterior was robust enough to stand the test of time. Though I decided early on not to baby them and they picked up a few scuff marks in the line of duty, by and large they’ve been treated well.

It didn’t matter. One day one of the little screws that attach the ear cups to the hinges connected to the headband popped out without any encouragement. Everything collapsed on one side, and there was no getting the screw back in. These headphones, like my favourite Sennheiser ‘phones before them, have been discontinued. Finding another cable is one thing. Getting a replacement screw from the source? That was out of the question.

Johnny Smith put in a valiant effort, even investing in a set of tiny screwdrivers, but none of his work paid off. An eyeglasses place that once reattached a broken arm on my favourite pair of wire frame glasses took a shot at it. They fared no better.

Then the Smithster said, “What about Steve Chapman?”

Steve is a wizard with guitars. But would he even want to try and Macgyver some temperamental headphones back together?

I never should have doubted him. He determined that the screw Denon used was the wrong size to begin with. He found one that fit and screwed it in. Then, to guard against this sort of thing happening again on either side, he reinforced the hinges with twist ties and two small pieces of foam rubber.

Good as new. Better than new. And now these headphones have added character.

Before I sold the AKGs and gave away the Sennheisers I never liked, I was thinking it would be nice to have better-sounding headphones on hand when I needed to take care of more than just myself and one other person. My headphone amp has four outputs, and there have been times when I’ve maxed that out recording group vocals. Someone would always end up with the isolation headphones or something else that — at least in my opinion — gave them a pretty mediocre representation of what was happening.

There had to be something out there that was cheap but decent. I did some research. The Audio-Technica ATH-M20X headphones caught my eye. There were a lot of good reviews, and I could get two of them for less than what a single pair of the HD 280 PROs ran me. Worst case scenario, I’d donate them to CJAM and then swear about it here when I found out someone stole them from the station.

Within about thirty seconds of unboxing one pair I knew neither one of them were going anywhere. These might not quite have the extension of the HD 265s, but they’re easily some of the best, most natural-sounding closed headphones I’ve heard in a long while. At this price point the sound quality is pretty ridiculous. I don’t think you’re going to find a better $60 set of headphones anywhere.

Even Eli, Elliott’s long-lost evil twin brother, is a fan.

Under different circumstances I would recommend the Sennheiser HD 265 as a great sleeper for anyone looking for some good closed headphones. There’s one problem. They’re almost impossible to find on the used market. Almost no one who has them seems to want to part with them. When they do show up on eBay, prices range from $300 (a little more than they used to cost new, but still a decent deal) to $600 (stupid). For a lot less money, those Audio-Technica headphones aren’t a bad way to go at all.

While we’re here, a quick bit of advice to fellow home studio warriors:

I see a lot of threads on recording-related message boards that have people asking what the best headphones are to mix on. Sometimes they’re in an apartment or they’re working in a room with no sound treatment, and they feel the monitors they’d be able to afford wouldn’t give them an honest representation of what’s going on in their recordings or they wouldn’t be able to turn them up loud enough to get the most out of them.

Headphones are often necessary when you’re tracking. They can be an important reference when you’re mixing, allowing you to check phase relationships and stereo balances and no end of other things. But to mix on headphones alone…that’s a mistake.

I know because I used to do it.

Very few of the things I mixed exclusively on headphones ever transferred over very well to other systems. There was always something that sounded off. On the other hand, when I get a mix to sound right on the monitors, it almost always sounds good on headphones and everywhere else.

I know a lot of us are working in rooms that aren’t perfect. But even a middling set of monitors can make a world of difference. There are things your most expensive headphones won’t tell you. They can play tricks on your ears sometimes, especially when it comes to the perceived volume of tracks that are hard-panned. And from my experience, monitoring at a low or moderate volume often leads to better results than cranking the volume. The louder things get, the easier it is to get caught up in the energy and stop listening critically. Ear fatigue becomes an issue as well.

The real trick is to get to know your listening equipment and — where applicable — how it reacts to your room. I’ve found I get the best results by switching back and forth between headphones and monitors. If I can get something to sound balanced on the monitors and my trusty Sennheiser and Denon headphones, usually it means I’m on the right track. Then I audition a mix on as many sources as I can, from different stereos to laptop speakers, and make adjustments based on what I hear.

(I used to use car speakers as another reference. I’m too lazy to do that these days. It doesn’t seem to have hurt my mixes.)

Some folks will put a lot of effort into getting a mix to sound big and punchy on tiny speakers. The idea is that most people will be listening to the music on their computer or an iPod, so you want it to sound its best there. I understand that, but I’ve never done it. I mix things to sound as good as possible on a full-range system. Too many strange things start happening to the low end and midrange when you try to compensate for speakers with weird frequency responses and very little bass.

You should do what works best for you, of course. But headphones will only give you part of the picture. Before I had proper studio monitors I used to monitor through a BoomBox, and then a stereo/record player I found in a pawn shop with slightly bigger speakers. While the mixes I made in those days weren’t great, being able to hear the music moving around in the open air taught me a lot about sound.

You can find an infinite amount of information on the internet about recording and mixing. A hundred people will tell you a hundred different ways to do a given thing. As great as it is to have those resources at our fingertips, I still think there’s no better way to learn than to experiment and use your ears. Some of the best sounds I’ve ever captured have come out of doing things the wrong way, and sometimes rough mixes that were made in the heat of the moment have managed to beat out later, more considered mixes.

Talking on the phone like an unsure bride.

In the early summer of 2008 I still had a Myspace page. Once in a while I used it as a place to post a song or two from whatever album I was working on at any given time. One day I was floating around to see what I could scrounge up when I came across a music page for this guy named Joshua Jesty.

I had no idea what to expect. Thought I’d hit the little play button just for fun. I listened to one of the songs on his playlist.

“I like this,” I thought. “This is catchy. The kind of catchy where you want to get it stuck in your head. This is good.”

I listened to another song, and then another. The more I listened, the more I liked what I was hearing. I checked out his website, which was rich with information about all the different music he’d made over the years. His writing was like his songs — smart, funny, and full of life.

I wrote him a long, rambling email telling him how much I dug his songs and sharing a few of mine. I also told him I was his long-lost twin brother who looked nothing like him, and though he’d never been told of my existence, I’d been watching him with pride from a distance for all these years. As you do.

I have a long history of being ignored by most of the artists I try to start a dialogue with, whether they’re local or a thousand miles away. In those pre-CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN times it was about as one-sided as it ever got. I kept trying to connect with people, and nothing would come back. It felt like I was screaming into a void. So when Josh responded to my goofy email, I almost fell out of my chair and broke my collarbone.

We started firing emails back and forth. We sent CDs to each other in the mail. Nine years later, we’re still sending emails and sharing music. We’ve had a lot of laughs, shouted about our triumphs, wept hot, salty digital tears when life has knocked us on our asses, and though we’ve only met in person once, Josh has become one of my favourite people and one of my most trusted friends. In a way he’s like the wise big brother I didn’t have growing up.

The outlines of our respective musical lives are almost mirror images. We both made a lot of wild and silly music when we were younger, on our way to finding our voices as songwriters. We both fronted bands that sometimes made pretty aggressive music and tested our vocal cords with the kind of screaming we’d probably be a little afraid to attempt now. We both turned to recording on our own at home and playing all the instruments ourselves when those bands broke up, making some of the most ambitious music of our lives when no one was looking.

Even now, we’ve both started bringing other singers and musicians into our solo music to introduce new textures, and we’ll both take on the occasional gig producing someone else when we really like them and their music.

We also both enjoy making videos that incorporate hand puppets.

Josh once told me if we traced our family trees back far enough we’d probably discover we’re related somehow. I believe it.

We have different approaches when it comes to live performance (he’s toured and played a lot of different places; I tend to play live about as often as it rains shrieking badgers from the sky) and distribution (he’s embraced the online tools at his disposal, while I’m too stubborn and set in my ways to let go of my physical-albums-only philosophy). But even twins who look completely different and were born on different days, in different months and years, and on different sides of the Canada/US border are going to have different philosophies now and then.

One other thing we have in common: we’ve both made a whole lot of albums. Visit the Joshua Jesty Bandcamp page and you’ll find a bewildering selection of music that touches on many different sounds and emotional states. All of it is well worth exploring, but the best starting points for my money are 2009’s Girl and 2011’s Portugal — self-described “big” albums that take in everything from power pop, to folk, to ambient interludes, to acoustic guitar-driven salsa, all without ever losing the feeling of being self-contained artistic statements pulsing with deep personal meaning. Girl remains one of my favourite albums by anyone.

Both These Violent Young Lovers albums are great fun. All four of the “Like Rabbits” EPs are full of beautiful songs. And the stripped-to-the-bone Skeleton makes for a harrowing but rewarding listen.

What I’m saying here is you should listen to everything he’s done, pretty much. In an ideal world, the man would be a household name.

The two of us have been talking for years now about making some sort of long-distance collaborative album. Life and other musical commitments keep getting in the way, but I’m pretty confident it’ll happen one of these days. We’ve at least taken care of some of the preliminary world-building, working out the kind of album we want to make and how best to approach it.

If/when that album comes to fruition, if someone writes a review they’ll probably tell you there’s a sort of Lennon-McCcartney dynamic at work, with Josh more of the thoughtful craftsman and me more of the anarchist. I’m not sure that’s true, though. We can both get pretty demented when the moon is right. For every “How We Float When We Shit” and “Mary Anne Says Grace” in my catalogue, there’s a “Freaky Sexy Clown Jam” and “Dirty Talk” in Josh’s. And while I think he tends to be more open-hearted in his songwriting and I tend to get pretty cynical in mine, we’re both serious fans of a good old-fashioned BSME (Big Sprawling Musical Explosion).

The first Joshua Jesty song to dig its fingernails into my ribs way back when was “From Invincible to Invisible”. The juxtaposition of sounds that might have been awkward in someone else’s hands — DI’d electric guitar set against a looped disco beat, weird underwater-sounding synth during the instrumental bridge, a lot of chord changes over an unchanging bass line — felt like the only arrangement that ever could have made sense, and there was something quietly devastating about the whole thing. It was like a naked admission of defeat made alone in the dark, with synthesized handclaps.

Late one night when I had a horrible sinus infection and Girl wasn’t finished yet and was calling itself Finally, Joshua Jesty is making a record with a short title, and the title of the record is “Girl”, I spent more time than most people would want to admit syncing up the music video with the rough mix of this song Josh posted on myspace, just so I could hear it in stereo on headphones while I watched. When I finally managed to time it just right, I forgot about being sick for a few minutes and lost myself in the music.

That music video proves you don’t need a big budget, a fancy setting, or a fifty thousand dollar camera to make something great. All you need is any kind of camera that shoots video, some open-minded friends, and your imagination. I keep holding out hope an HD version will sneak out into the world someday, with the mastered album version of the song on the audio track.

Though the final mix tightened things up and got a new vocal track, I’ve always been glad the soul of that rougher version I first fell in love with stuck around.

A few years back, when our projected Jesty Westy album came up again in conversation, Josh floated the idea of covering a few of each other’s songs. I reached for this one right away. In turn, he recorded a surprising, beautifully nuanced take on “Is You My Lover Still?” from IF I HAD A QUARTER.

I’ve wanted to return to my cover and give it a fresh mix for a while now. Today felt like a good day to give it a shot.

At the time I recorded this, I was going through a bit of a weird piano mic’ing period. I couldn’t seem to get things to sound right no matter what I did, when getting a good piano sound had never been a problem for me before.

Turned out the placement of the Neumann KM184s I use as piano mics was off in an almost microscopic way, just enough to throw things out of whack a little. You’ve got your sensitive microphones, and then you’ve got those guys.

It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and set it right. At the same time, I was driving the mic preamp those mics were plugged into more than usual, hitting the transformers a little harder, again without realizing it.

Those two slight changes were responsible for a piano sound that was a little more bottom-heavy and compressed-sounding than usual.

The first thing I did today was strip away almost all of the effects. A few years ago I had a thing for using rhythmic delays all over the place. Here I had some pretty audible delay on most of the guitars and the drums, and it made things muddier than they needed to be. I got rid of the reverb on my voice too. Everything started to sound more intimate and better-defined.

The strangest thing was the piano. I was prepared to re-record it from scratch, but when I was working on making a new mix the existing piano track sounded better than I remembered. Maybe not quite as open as I might have wanted it, but more than good enough to do the job.

I wasn’t expecting that. Maybe the excessive delay was pranking my ears all this time.

The spastic-sounding piano-thing that kicks in during the instrumental bits is one of the first recorded appearances of my friend the Casio SK-1. I sampled myself playing a few notes at the piano, sped it up to an insane degree (before slowing it down at the very end), double-tracked it, and for some odd reason it felt appropriate. I wanted to respect the original spirit of the song, but I also wanted to put my own spin on it.

From Invincible to Invisible

When I was finished I noticed some extra tracks that weren’t in use, so I gave them a listen. There were a few takes I tried behind the drums with sticks before deciding on brushes. I also messed around with the flute sound on the SK-1 over the bridge before hitting on the idea of the piano sample, and recorded some clean electric guitar through the whole song that was later replaced with the acoustic guitar that shadows the piano and a bit of backwards electric guitar that comes in later.

I have no memory of recording any of these things. And I don’t forget a whole lot of musical details. So it was a fun little surprise to stumble across these unused elements.

I think the sounds I chose to use in the end were the right ones. At the same time, I think it’s interesting to hear the different direction things might have gone. If I’d forsaken the acoustic guitar for electric and the brushes for sticks, everything would have felt a little dreamier.

Like this:

From Invincible to Invisible (alternate mix fragment)

No regrets. But man, I have to say I kind of like that different slant on it. Maybe I’ll make an alternate mix along those lines so they’ve got something to tack on as a bonus track when the after-we’re-gone reissue starts making the rounds.

I don’t know if this is still my favourite Joshua Jesty song. There are a lot of contenders vying for the top spot. But it’s probably still the one that speaks to me the loudest.

Da Doo Ron Ron.

Ron was here earlier today to lay down a few things. It’s always a treat to hear that fella in my headphones.

The last time Ron came over to record, he played the Takamine guitar he’s had forever on all but one of the songs we recorded. I think it’s an EF341SC? I’m not positive. but that’s what it looks like.

I’m pretty sure that was the first time it was ever brought into the studio. It’s always been more of a gigging and songwriting guitar. The thing is a beast. When I caught Ron playing with Kelly Hoppe at Taloola, I was convinced he was hiding a small amp somewhere. No way could a dreadnought — with a cutaway, even — put out that kind of volume without a little help.

I was wrong. There was no amp. Just an axe with a lot of love to give.

With a few mics in front of it, the Takamine almost seems to morph into a different guitar. There’s some nice natural compression happening when Ron digs in a bit. It’s bright, but not in a bad way. It’ll retain a nice amount of punch no matter how dense a mix might get. That’s a valuable quality for a guitar to have.

This time Ron played my old Gibson LG-2. He’s got such a distinctive way of playing guitar, he’s going to sound like himself no matter what, but it’s interesting to hear the different personalities of the two instruments. I think they play well together, even if they haven’t found themselves both being played in the same song.

We’ve got seven and-a-half songs in the can now. Two and-a-half more and I can get to work on figuring out what shirts and shoes they want to wear. I’m looking forward to it. This album is going to have a pretty different feel to it from Tobacco Fields, but the songs are great, and Ron’s great. So if I don’t screw it up, the end result should be…triple-great.

Here are a few pictures I took.

Pump down the volume.


I’ve rambled a bit before about this thing called the Loudness War.

(Unintentional rhyme! Score!)

As far as I can work it out, at some point in the early or mid-1990s someone involved in the music industry — no one’s clear on who — thought it was time to start pushing the limits of how much overall volume CDs could handle. The idea caught fire, everyone started trying to outdo everyone else, and it all got a bit out of control by the time we were in the mid-2000s. Some vinyl singles were cut hot back in the 1960s so they would jump out of a jukebox and demand your attention. This was a whole new beast.

There are a lot of high profile albums that have been damaged, if not ruined, by mastering engineers pushing the levels far past any sane place. I defy anyone to listen to Metallica’s Death Magnetic, Iggy Pop’s 1997 remixed and remastered version of Raw Power, or the first version of Rush’s Vapor Trails without getting a headache, an earache, and a brain-ache, in that order. Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope and Bruce Springsteen’s Magic are a little better but still pretty harsh and fatiguing to listen to on headphones for any length of time. I’ve even heard local albums that have been compressed to smithereens to get them as loud as everything else.

On the whole, it’s not quite as bad now as it used to be. The remastering of an album once meant little more than making it as loud as possible and beefing up the bass, whatever the cost to the integrity of the original recordings. Check out the awful Slowdive remasters from about a decade ago for just one example. There’s so much unnecessary compression added to the brilliant Pygmalion, the soft brushed drums on “Blue Skied an’ Clear” take on a dead, gated sound. I’m happy to say a number of recent remastering campaigns have gone in the opposite direction and opted for dynamics and richness over maximum volume. The “Legacy Edition” of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, the mono and stereo Beatles remasters (but not the remixed/remastered version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band George Martin’s son slammed to death), and the remastering of the classic albums by Sly and the Family Stone come to mind. You even get the odd new album that’s got a surprising amount of dynamic range to it.

But the sad truth is a lot of albums both in and out of the mainstream are still mastered far hotter than they need to be, and television and radio commercials continue to be over-compressed to make them six million times louder than everything that surrounds them.

Note to the people who first thought it was a good idea to do this second thing, and to those who keep the legacy alive: it doesn’t make anyone want to buy what you’re selling. It makes them mute the sound or change the channel/station until what they were watching/listening to comes back on.

It’s not attention-grabbing. It’s obnoxious.

One of the problems is how easy it can be to buy into the whole “louder is better” myth, either because your brain perceives sounds that are louder as having more energy, or because you get a little self-conscious about your own music maybe not being as loud as you’ve been conditioned to believe it should be.

It happened to me.

When I was first able to experiment with digital recording in 1999 after years of recording everything on cassette tape, I didn’t know a thing about gain staging. There’s a fair bit of clipping on the early CDs I recorded while I was trying to figure it all out.

By the middle of 2000 I had a much better handle on things. It seemed to me the most sensible approach was to do the best recording and mixing job I could with the equipment and skills I had at any given time, and then get out of the way and not do anything to mess with the results. I didn’t see the point in trying to make anything loud just for the sake of being loud. I could always turn the music up after the fact on a CD player or computer.

This means you get a lot of CDs over a period of half a dozen years that are pretty quiet, without any clipping at all, because they’re not even coming close to eating up all the available headroom. I did get a kick out of the way GROWING SIDEWAYS gained a little extra volume and booty when I paid someone to master it professionally, but I never would have signed off on it if it didn’t sound good. The music still has a pretty healthy dynamic range, with only a few moments where you can really hear some compression happening (the loudest section of “Oven Head” comes to mind), and there’s no clipping anywhere.

I thought it was going to be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with that mastering house. It wasn’t. The follow-up album was more or less left to master itself while we ate lunch. Really. Compression and limiting were used in such a strange way, the quieter passages in the middle of some songs disappeared. 

I don’t know how you even make that happen.

My efforts to get a master that didn’t sound like garbage were met with some pretty thick condescension from the guy who ran the studio. I got two “makeup” masters that weren’t much better than the initial train-wreck I paid for. In some ways they might have been worse. After that, I was told I’d have to cough up more money if I wanted any additional work done.

I chalked it up to an expensive learning experience and went back to handling the mastering myself, keeping things quiet and dynamic. That was the last time I paid someone else to master anything I recorded. Barring a winning lottery ticket or a future vinyl release — which isn’t likely to happen without a winning lottery ticket — it’ll probably stay that way.

(The mastering engineer did send me a final revision sometime later, out of nowhere, long after my relationship with the studio had been severed. It was his way of trying to apologize and make up for what happened. By then my self-mastered version of the album had been pressed and out in the world for a while. It was a nice gesture, I guess, though a belated refund would have been nice too.)

With the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP and THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET, I learned almost by accident that I could push the volume a little without anything getting too hairy. Things got a little bit louder there. Then I retooled the studio and figured I might as well try pushing it even more, to see if I could get closer to the general volume of the new albums I was buying in record stores and online. They all seemed to hover around a built-in volume much higher than anything I was doing.

I don’t know why I started thinking in this direction. It wasn’t as if I thought more than three people would ever hear my music. But THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE was by far the loudest thing I’d ever done, and for the first time in eight years there was some noticeable clipping.

I guess I did it to see if I could. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t using an insane amount of compression. I was just turning everything up so someone else wouldn’t have to. Some occasional digital distortion didn’t feel like it hurt the music, and I told myself it was okay if it was a little lo-fi.

Then a lot more than three people heard that album.

No one complained about it being mastered too hot. I kept pushing the volume with the next few albums. It took me three or four years to realize what I’d done and how destructive it was.

One day I asked myself: do I really want part of my imaginary musical legacy to be that some of my most widely-heard (and some would say best) albums are marred by pointless, annoying distortion I introduced after the mixing stage just because I started feeling weird about everyone needing to turn my CDs up a little louder than most of the other music in their collection?

No. I don’t want that at all.

Around the time of LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS I started pulling back a little. But I would still sometimes trade in a bit of sound quality for some extra volume. “Animal Altruism” and “Bent Bird, Broken Wing” were allowed to clip for this reason, which is no good reason at all.

It wasn’t until a failed attempt at finishing THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE in 2012 and the recording of Steven’s album INAMORATA in 2013 that I said to myself, “You know what, self…this is stupid. So what if everyone has to turn it up a little? I want this music to sound as good as I can get it. Period. I want people to be able to enjoy listening to the things I’ve recorded without their ears starting to yell at them halfway through. I don’t want to wince every time I hear something clip, and I don’t want to have to find a way to justify to myself why I allowed it to happen.”

I promised myself I wouldn’t dance that dance anymore. I’d get an album to the best general volume I could within reason, and then I’d leave it alone. If anything started to get even a little nasty, I wouldn’t bring the volume of everything around it up to compensate. I’d make everything quieter to kill the nastiness. I wouldn’t do anything to damage the work I did when I was recording and mixing the stuff. I’d just get out of the way, like I used to.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

For years I’ve wanted to go back and remaster some of those albums that got hit the worst. When AFTERTHOUGHTS was finished and the city decided to mess with my ability to record during the most useful hours of the day by installing a new water mains no one asked for or needed, turning a job that should have taken a month into a clusterfuck that dragged on for more than half a year, I thought maybe it was a good time to stop thinking about it and start making it happen.

The idea was to tackle two or three albums and be done with it. Instead, I ended up remastering every song on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, IF I HAD A QUARTER, CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, MY HELLHOUND CROOKED HEARTMEDIUM-FI MUSIC FOR MENTALLY UNSTABLE YOUNG LOVERS, and GIFT FOR A SPIDER. Those last four weren’t pushed quite as hard as the first four, and it would have been easier to live with the way most of the songs sounded as they were, but once I got started it felt like it was worth it to go all the way. The deeper I went, the more it hit me how proud I still am of this music, and the stronger the need to preserve it in its best-sounding form became.

I posted MP3s of both the original and remastered versions of “Weak Bladder Blues” a while back as an illustration of what a difference a lighter touch can make. Here I’d like to offer a visual example, using the same song.

Here’s what the too-hot 2008 master looks like as a waveform.

With more than a few songs that have been released commercially in the last two decades, you’d see pretty much nothing but blue. This isn’t that horrific. It still has dynamics. But you can see all those peaks are clipping. They’re so loud they have nowhere to go.

Here’s what the new, quieter master looks like.

Bit of a difference, right? Nothing is smacking its head on the ceiling anymore. And believe me, I know how it feels to crack your head like that. It’s not a whole lot of fun.

Several songs on the first MISFITS collection were pushed way too hard as well. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to those. After remastering a hundred and eighty-eight songs, I’ve had pretty much all the remastering I can handle for now. I have other things I need to work on. I think the second misfits collection is going to be more interesting than the first one was anyway.

IF I HAD A QUARTER needed the most medical attention out of anything. The original master had clipping in almost every song. Today I’m a little embarrassed I ever let that happen. Listening to it now in its kinder-to-the-ears form, the way it always should have sounded, I’m realizing I like the album more than I thought I did. It’s not as much of a haphazard mess as I thought it was when I was making it.

Along the way, I took the opportunity to remix a few songs I never quite felt I got right. Most of the changes I made were pretty minimal. And we’re talking about a whopping total of nine songs here:

  • “Please Remember to Forget Me” (got rid of the sound of the dust cover being slipped back onto the ribbon mic at the end so I could give the song a proper fade that didn’t feel rushed, and fixed the weird drum panning that was at odds with all the other songs on the album)
  • “Your Sweaty Golden Mouth” (the drums were a little too low and the vocals a little too overpowering, and that always bugged me but I was too lazy to fix it until now)
  • “Getting into Character” (more compression was used on the drums here than on almost every other song on the album, and I wanted to correct that)
  • “Once More, Without Feeling” (same thing)
  • “I Must Be Your Prey” (the vocal tracks fluctuated in volume to an insane degree and I should have done something about it the first time around)
  • “Cinders” (I wanted to get the mid-song dissonant bugle blasts at a volume that was a little less ridiculous and better-integrated into the music)
  • “How These Things Tend to Go” (same thing as “Getting into Character”, plus the harmonica at the end was a little too loud and strident)
  • “Zombies on Parade” (the vocals were a little too loud here, making for an off-balance mix; so was the scrap metal during the intro)
  • “Bent Bird, Broken Wing” (same story here, minus the scrap metal)

It was an interesting challenge. If I mixed these songs based on my current sensibilities, they would sound more than a little out of place on their respective albums. I had to try and find a balance between fixing some issues and keeping enough of the spirit of the original mixes that it wouldn’t sound like much had changed at all.

I think I was able to find the sweet spot.

I’ve been working with backup CDs that are getting up there in age. Some of them are almost a decade old now. For the most part they’ve held up just fine over the years. There were a few scares along the way, but I was always able to find a different source when one CD went funny on me — until deep in the homestretch when it all got a little more complicated.

“Hostages” was backed up on two different CDs. Both of them were toast. Unable to remaster the song any conventional way, I had to use the “clip restore” tool in Audacity and hope for the best.

I know it’s technically impossible to “fix” clipping this way. You’re trying to replace information that’s been lost and can’t be recovered. But whatever sonic trickery was performed — by a free program, no less — I can’t find too much fault in it. The distorted peaks are gone. Maybe there’s a little less “air” in the sound of the song now compared to the others, but its a tradeoff I’m willing to accept.

“Kings” was only backed up on one CD in finished form, and it just happened to be one of those Verbatim CDs I stopped using a long time ago thanks to how glitchy and unreliable they became. That one was dead too. For some reason I thought to back up an unmixed version of the song, when that wasn’t something I did much at the time. That CD wasn’t dead. Talk about getting lucky.

I tried to reconstruct the original mix on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS to the best of my ability. I don’t think you can hear too many differences between the two. A few of the reverb swells early in the song are a little different in the new mix. I’m applying reverb to the entire mix there for a few seconds, and it’s impossible to dial that sort of thing in the same way twice. Otherwise it’s about the same as before.

All the other mixes were left alone.

I don’t really believe in revisionist mixing. Give a listen to Harry Maslin’s soul-destroying sound-replaced 2010 mix of David Bowie’s Station to Station if you want to hear just how wrong that whole thing can go. Seriously, what was the dude thinking trying to make a classic Bowie album from the 1970s sound like homogenous modern rock?

Could I do a better job today than I did back then? Sure. An album like CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN would sound better if I remixed the whole thing with the benefit of nine years of hindsight and additional mixing experience. For a while I had a habit of pushing my voice up a lot higher in the mix than I needed to, and the panning of some elements could get kind of off-kilter. I was still getting used to the sounds coming out of the new mics and preamps I was working with. It took a while before I was as comfortable with those tools as I was with the ones I’d grown close to before.

It also took me an album or two to figure out the drums leaned pretty far to the left of the stereo field when I kept the two outputs of the stereo ribbon mic I was now using as an all-in-one drum-mic’ing solution at the same level on the mixing board and didn’t make any panning adjustments, given where the drums and the mic were placed in the room.

But better isn’t always right. These are the mixes I made at the time, for better or worse. A small handful of minor changes aside — changes I felt I would have been foolish not to make — I’m sticking with them.

There were a few changes that didn’t involve remixing anything:

  • “Water to Town” used to have a very abrupt fade-out so you wouldn’t hear me swearing at myself after hitting a wrong note. Now it plays all the way through to the end, dirty word and all. I think it feels more natural this way. Also, there’s always been a very audible click in the first verse. It was something my mouth did mid-phrase when I was singing, “While the heat sleeps lightly on every rooftop.” I didn’t notice it until it was too late to go back and do a little split-second vocal replacement surgery. There was no way to fix it in the mix, so I just lived with it. I thought I’d give Audacity another try here, honing in on the offensive sound with the “click removal” tool. It did nothing. I gave the ClickRepair program Brian Davies created a shot, not expecting much since it was designed with damaged old vinyl records in mind. It worked like a charm. No more click.
  • A little bit of random banter was restored to the beginning of “Abandoned House Burning Down”. The only reason I snipped it out in the first place was because I knew I was pushing the limits of what I could fit on one CD, and I thought a few extra seconds of space here and there might come in handy down the stretch.
  • I always wanted the last bit of the reverb tail on the organ at the end of “Revenge Is Sweet” to cut straight to the beginning of “New Ways of Saying Old Things” on AN ABSENCE OF SWAY, but I didn’t have a CD burning program that would let me make that happen at the time. Now there isn’t any dead space between those two songs and they’re heard as one unbroken thing, as intended.
  • “Bring Rain in Case of Fire” has a slightly longer fade at the end now, with a few extra seconds of backwards combo organ.
  • The slide guitar at the end of “Kamikaze Daybreak” used to be a fair bit louder than the rest of the song. It was kind of jarring. I brought the volume of that section down to integrate it a little better and make up for the oversight.
  • Likewise with the instrumental jig at the end of “Laugh like a God of Death”.
  • “Oh, You Pretty Little Narcissist” now has a clean ending instead of an abrupt, somewhat unnatural-sounding fade.
  • “Flatten the Learning Curve” used to suffer from a split-second glitch in the middle of the song, thanks my mixer-specific CD burner being on its last legs. That CD burner has since been replaced two times over, and the glitch is gone.

Most fades at the end of songs have been made to match the original mixer moves as closely as possible. In a few cases a song fades out a little sooner or later than before. We’re getting into hair-splitting territory here, though. Even if you know these albums very well, you probably won’t notice much (if any) difference.

I did play with the spaces between songs in a few other places when I wasn’t expecting to. The end of “Skull Jugglers” never used to smash-cut to the beginning of “Jesus Don’t Know My Name”. As soon as I tried that, I thought, “Why didn’t I do this the first time?” Likewise with the end of “Molly, Go Home” cutting right to the start of “The Penultimate Kiss”. It felt right.

In most cases I took great care to match the exact length of pauses between tracks present on the original CDs. But when I saw a few opportunities to improve the rhythm of the listening experience a little or make it more interesting, I took them.

Track spacing is a whole art unto itself. No one seems to talk much about it in the context of making an album. I think it’s a lot more important than most people realize. A few seconds here and there can make a world of difference in the way the songs flow into and out of one another.

This all took a lot longer than I ever thought it would when I started the remastering process. I thought I’d be finished sometime in the spring at the latest. Here I am only wrapping up now, deep in the heart of summer. I think it was worth the effort, though, because now you get to hear the music the way it should have been presented in the first place.

As for me, I no longer need to brace myself every time I know things are about to distort in the middle of a song. Those moments of distortion that used to almost cause me physical pain no longer exist. They’re dead. Every one of them. And they’re never coming back to life.

Getting to hear some of these songs in unblemished form for the first time in years has been a revelation. And the surprises I’ve uncovered along the way have been a lot of fun to experience. Even though I wasn’t touching most of the mixes, I took a quick look at them anyway.

When it comes to music — especially my own — my brain is a serious hoarder. I don’t tend to forget many things. So it was surreal to hear countless alternate vocal and drum takes, guitar and piano parts that didn’t make it into final mixes, unused intros and outros, and even sketches that were never developed, stashed between songs like invisible little bookmarks. I have almost no memory of recording any of this stuff.

Even when you don’t count any of the between-song sketches, out of these hundred and eighty-eight songs at least a hundred of them have recorded elements that weren’t used, ranging from subtle little things to “holy crap, this would have changed the feeling of the whole song if I kept it in the mix” things.

I’ve got a plan for some of this “lost” material. I’ll tell you more once it gets past the brainstorming stage.

Getting in tune.

The first musical instrument I was able to call my own was a Casio SK-10. I had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. My finest moment was probably warping “Heigh Ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.

I can still hear the intro in my head:

Bum
Bum hair
Bum hair
Bum hair

Bum
Bum hair
Bum hair
Bum hair

I got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.

When I started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. Through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to Johnny Smith. First there was a Roland EP-9. Then a Kawai X40-D. Then a few Yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.

(You don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when I never made a note of any of them at the time.)

The first musical instrument I ever fell in love with was that Kawai X40-D.

Its “Super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. Better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. While I was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.

Without the manual or any music theory knowledge, I didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. Most of the songs I recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.

The song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. A few favourites: “Kiss Me Honey, Don’t Sting Me”, “The Underwater Jellyfish (They Jump More Than You Think)”, and “Beyond Modern Temptation”.

The other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. They forced me to get a little better at playing without help. At the end of the year we stopped renting and I got my very first “serious” keyboard as a Christmas present — a Yamaha PSR-210.

A huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). For a full year I recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without Johnny Smith as my musical other half. Little by little, I figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on an instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.

Early in 1996 we got a Clavinova CVP-59S. The week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. There are few things I’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. I have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — I couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. I sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all I could think was, “Clavinova. Clavinova. Clavinova.”

The PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. But the Clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. I couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. The piano sounds were meaty and robust. And it just felt good to play. Like a real piano, only better (or so I thought).

A few synthesizers would join the fray later. The Clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. Even when I started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.

For a long time I thought, “What would I ever need a real acoustic piano for? I’ve got the Clavinova. It doesn’t need any maintenance.” It was always in tune. When I wanted to record, I didn’t need to worry about mic placement. All I had to do was plug it in. And it allowed me to record on its internal memory when I had an idea I wanted to get down fast.

Here’s a small piece of “The Things You Love (Are Always the First to Leave)” that was captured in this way, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.

When I was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE the Clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional next to the other more organic sounds I was recording. I worked around it by using either a Wurlitzer or a Fender Rhodes in all the places I wanted the piano to go.

Then I fell in love with a Yamaha C5 grand at Ouellette’s Pianos.

I’d played acoustic pianos before. Usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. This piano was different. It inspired me. It sang. For the very first time, I understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.

For about five days I was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. You’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.

I was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. But I thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm I got from playing the C5.

In the late summer of 2008, operation Find a Good Upright Instead was set in motion. I played a whole slew of upright pianos in the store. The one I liked best was a YUS series Yamaha. The price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights I was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. The Pearl River pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny to me. This one had class.

When I told Bob I was interested, he said, “Can I give you some advice? Wait about a week. I’ve got some new Yamaha U1s coming in. That’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”

I’ve never been the most patient person. When I want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, I want it last year. Bob convinced me to sit tight.

That week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when I waited for my Clavinova to come in. I was looking forward to trying out some pianos. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.

When the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. I must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. There were subtle differences. Hard stuff to put into words.

The upright I was going to buy before Bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. For not much more money, these were on another level. He was right. Holding off was the right move.

After a lot of waffling, I settled on the U1 I wanted. My grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will I was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. I inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. It was surreal.

My U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. Somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. It was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument I developed any kind of proficiency on. It isn’t an accident that the first album I recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty-two songs.

That was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. If you grow up playing keyboards, I don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. Just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. There’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. A real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.

Nine years later, I’m still in love with this piano. It’s never felt like a compromise. As much as I lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano I was meant to end up with. It’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.

Ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty-seventh time in its life. I snuck a picture as he was finishing up. Even its guts look like art.

When I told him I still sometimes feel like I’m on my honeymoon with the piano and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, Ric said, “It’s at its peak. It’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”

That got me thinking about the first song I recorded with the U1 — not the first song I wrote on it, but the first one I wrote specifically for it.

When I knew I was a few days away from getting my black and white beast, I wrote one last song on the Clavinova so I’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.

(I wasn’t kidding when I said I never gave much thought to whether or not my face and hands were visible when I was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)

The difference in sound when I was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.

You know that thing I said about being impatient? I couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before I started recording with it. The factory tuning held up well enough that I didn’t mind a bit of drift. I propped the lid open, moved two Neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. I’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.

Technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. I made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. I almost never do that. Most of the time I’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.

In this case every mix was different. The first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. None of them felt definitive. They all had elements I liked and didn’t like.

Three years later I took another crack at it. I always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. I was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, more robust drum track seemed to be all the song needed. I thought I was done.

About a month later I listened again. All at once, everything sounded wrong. The drumming was too aggressive. I went back and tried it a lot of different ways. Something more intricate with brushes. Something more subdued with mallets. Something more skeletal with sticks.

Nothing worked.

I thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. I tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. I thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals.

I didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. The more I tried to change, the less sure I was of where I was supposed to go.

The thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the Alesis Micron and playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. I got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (I always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).

After three years and far too many different mixes, at long last the song felt just right.

Someday Our Children Will Give Us Names

It’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. I’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. That’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.