recording

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 and tea and good music. Jess is one of those people who fills up a room with positive energy and 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, and 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, and 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 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 in comparison — 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. Well-recorded music sounds 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 that connect 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. A 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 someone stole them.

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. Given the cost, 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 (outrageous). 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, with the idea that most people will be listening to the music on their computer or an iPod. 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, and people will tell you a hundred different ways to do any 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 188 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. 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, because it’s almost 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 Brian Davies’ ClickRepair program a shot, and that did the trick. 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 188 songs, at least 100 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, meatier 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.

You say you got a need for a celebratory season.

Work continues on the next Papa Ghostface album, though my sleep issues and Gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.

Yesterday was our first session in a while. The last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. Then I started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, Gord joined in, I started singing the lyrics for “Be Sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.

“Be Sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. It had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have almost sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. It was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.

Whatever high school class I was pretending to pay attention in when I wrote the words, I had Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright” in my head. I thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.

But songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. The day I pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on Kildare, I started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “All Along the Watchtower” than Joe Cocker. Gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little Zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now. I found an appropriate drum pattern on the Clavinova, and we got down to business.

I ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:

Popsicle head in a European convict’s mind.
You don’t pay attention.
Blood red blush in a rush of amputated loveless fear.
You don’t pay attention.
So kiss my head — my hairless head.
Kiss my head, or I’ll make you pay.
Kiss my head. Kiss my head.
Number five — your creation is terminated

What that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. I sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.

Slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. It was just one of those happy accidents. The new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words I ever wrote. Defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.

We got down the acoustic guitars. I added some bass. Then we left it alone. I meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. I still haven’t done that.

When Gord came over yesterday, he brought his old acoustic twelve-string with him. The idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. There was one problem: his axe is in much rougher shape than I thought it was. The intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.

My own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. I gave it to Gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “Be Sorry” in a few different places.

I’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. Still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap Washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. All I did here was aim a single Pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.

I still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. This was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. I think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. So it came out a little grainy.

But I have to say I’m enjoying this camera a lot. The autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus, and there’s no way I could ever shoot handheld with either of the Flip cameras and get movement this smooth.

Until the sun blows up, I’m never gonna let you down.

All through high school, I wrote songs for assignments every chance I got. It made life more fun and kept me on my toes. I had the most success doing this when Mrs. Gilham — one of the few great high school teachers I had — was teaching English or French, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.

One time I stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in French about celebrity endorsements. The song was called “Les Atheletes qui Chante”. “Je suis Michael Jordan,” went one bit. “J’aime les Ball Park Franks.” Another time, for a group assignment, I played the part of Bill Clinton. I was very attached to my pet pig, Oinky, played by Matt Strukelj. When Oinky died, I hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music I recorded at home the night before.

I liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.

In grade eleven one of the books my English class dug into was The Catcher in the Rye. We were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. I asked if I could write a song from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. Mrs. Gilham gave me the go-ahead.

I wrote a song called “Holden On”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. It was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.

I brought my crummy Vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period English class, and sang my song. It went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if I could play it again at the end of the period. That blew my mind a little. I went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that I was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “Henry the Horny Hamster” from my X-rated Christmas album before Mrs. Gilham shot me a look that said, “That’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”

The guitar came with me to my second period society class. Sean Lauria was one of the guys I shared that class with. He asked me what the deal was with the axe. I told him about my English assignment and “Holden On”. He asked if he could hear it. I told him I’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.

He stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. I almost fell over. I handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. He wasn’t giving up, though. He talked Ms. Davis into letting me play the song for the class. So I sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.

I only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was Gord. It seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. The same year my English class was analyzing The Catcher in the Rye, his was reading Animal Farm. He wrote a song in the voice of Boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.

For a while I only heard bits and pieces of the song. Brodie Johnston, who was in Gord’s class when he debuted his ode to Boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. Gord played part of it for me outside of school. But I didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.

Most of the songs I wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “Holden On” was never documented in any meaningful way. Gord’s Boxer song was another story.

In late 1999, Amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. It has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.

Three years later, I asked Gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. He wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. We got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, Gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.

And then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.

When we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the Boxer song came up. I learned Gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.

I finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since I didn’t think it added much.

Ode to Boxer (2002 demo)

We both felt this was the version to build on. It lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with Gord improvising some words at the end about a sugarcane mountain that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.

We sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and I recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.

Ode to Boxer (2016 demo)

Gord first had Benjamin the donkey predicting Boxer’s fate. A quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig Old Major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. I tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.

We picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. An instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. Brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.

Recording it was pretty straightforward. We got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. There’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. In the past we never talked much about what we were doing. We just did it. Now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.

When Gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “Situations” on STEW is a good example. The bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. It dances.

With this song, I thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 “sugarcane mountain” section if it wasn’t so busy. I asked Gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. As for me, after I recorded a rough drum track Gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. I tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.

We were both right.

It’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.

A great example of this philosophy in action: I assumed Gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. He asked me to sing it instead. I did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.

I really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies I came up with for my demo. When it came right down to it, including them in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. So that fell by the wayside. But there was still room for banjo and piano. As for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” Magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. This might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.

I thought it was about time I performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because I’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. The moving pictures come to you from John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animated film version of Animal Farm from 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! The last time I saw it was when my own English class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so I couldn’t remember how much of Boxer was in there. As it turned out, there was more than enough material for what I wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than I was expecting them to be.

And there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.

Snag You.

I don’t really fancy myself a mastering engineer of other people’s music. So it was a bit of a surprise when I got the call to master the first two Shimmer Demolition albums. Adam is one of my very best friends, and I had a lot of fun working with his songs, trying to give them the extra volume and punch he was after without going too crazy.

For his third album he decided to go it alone on the mastering front. It’s been a long time coming, but I think the album is only a few weeks away from being released now.

A little over three years ago Adam emailed me an MP3 of a song he’d just finished recording — the song that now serves as the album’s first single. As soon as its infectious wordless chorus kicked in and I started singing along, I knew I had to try to talk him into letting me sing on it.

His process is about as insular as mine is. He’s got his creative vision, and he knows how to get the sounds he’s after without anyone else’s help. I get that. But I heard a vocal harmony in my head, and I knew it would work if I got the chance to try it.

He was reluctant at first. I got him to give me a shot by promising if he didn’t like what I did he didn’t have to use it, and I wouldn’t be offended. We sat together in his basement and I sang into a microphone held together with duct tape.

I couldn’t hear myself in my headphones. You’d think that would help my pitch, but I didn’t sing all that well the first time through. The confidence wasn’t there.

I asked adam if he could mute his own vocal tracks. I gave it another shot and pretty much got what I was after. We doubled it. Then I threw in a high third-part harmony at the end. We doubled that too. I could feel Adam making a slow transition from thinking, “I’m not so sure about this,” to, “Maybe it was a good idea after all.”

He made a rough mix and we listened to it upstairs five times before ordering pizza. I did sitting arm pushups with his cat Nemo on my lap, and Nemo winked at me because he liked the song and my singing on it. At least that’s what I told myself then, and it’s the story i’m sticking with now.

The third-part harmony that came in on the last chorus made me visualize a music video that ended with us dressed up in suits and ties, adam ahead of me, standing outside the bedroom window of the object of his affection, singing to her without words because there weren’t any right ones for the feeling being expressed and “ah” was the only one that would do, so we both opened wide and sang it out.

It was a good enough mental music video for me to put in regular rotation for a while. I realized it was a cliché — the whole “singing at your star-crossed lover’s window” thing. But the music took it somewhere sweet and heavy, almost making it new again.

Eight years ago I sang a bit of harmony on a song that ended up on an album the artist now likes to pretend never existed. That was very much a spur of the moment thing. This was different. I had an idea, and thanks to Adam I got to run with it and be a small part of what I think is one of the best songs he’s written. Of the few vocal cameos I’ve had on the albums of others so far, this is my favourite one.

Remastering update #2.

Hark! I hath passed the halfway mark!

98 songs down. 90 still to go.

More surprises and mostly-forgotten little audio relics:

  • An unused kick drum part to bolster the stomping and tambourine-shaking on “Everything He Asked You”
  • Drums recorded for “Creepy Crawly Things” but left out of the final mix
  • The rain at the beginning of “Wait All Morning” fades out just before I get into an argument with the sky, asking for (and not receiving) thunder
  • As with “Raccoon Eyes”, “Everything Matters, Everyone Cares” started out as some improv behind the drums recorded with the idea of building some music around it after the fact; unlike what happened with “Raccoon Eyes”, I ended up casting out the initial drum part once it became clear it didn’t play well with the music it inspired
  • Some out-of-tune piano over the bridge section on “What I Would Do for You” that was junked at the mixing stage
  • The tenor banjo at the end of “I Love You” goes on quite a bit longer than the CD mix would have you believe (and longer than I remembered), growing even more crazed and dissonant
  • An unused bass harmonics overdub in the middle of “95 Streets (Is Where I Will Find the Heart of You)”
  • An alternate lead vocal for “Fat Mouth” that does some pretty serious attempted Springsteen-channeling circa Darkness on the Edge of Town
  • Some acoustic guitar accents recorded for “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue” right where the drums kick in, but abandoned after about thirty seconds and not present in the final mix
  • Several foul-mouthed arguments with an interrupting phone and/or fax machine
  • More forgotten riffs and licks sandwiched between proper songs

I’m still not as far along as I’d like to be, but I’m beginning to think I might actually finish this pet project someday.