The Recording Diaries part 6: Rockin’ on

And a productive week it has been. Just as well, because my darling daughter T returned from SIngapore (school trip) and has promptly moved back into my recording studio (er??? her bedroom). it’s great to have her around again 🙂 But it does limit my time to work. I’m back to setting up after she’s gone to school and packing it away at 3:45

Which is not so bad, as I have gotten so accustomed to what I’m doing (it’s been a bit like a job) that I know exactly where everything goes. In fact I have evolved it all into a neat little pod where i can sit on a stool (for playing acoustic guitar) or stand (for everything else) and have everything within reach and sight: computer, audio interface, mouse and keyboard, tuner, and a selection of guitars.
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I realised after I finished the last two songs that it was time for a change. I don’t want this album to be full of quiet, acoustic reflective songs. I think I started with them because it was a bit less daunting to contemplate solo recording those songs than more complex and energetic ones.
I’d also received my “thanks but no thanks” letter from the Darebin Songwriting Award, and was probably feeling like kicking some butt.
I started with a track called Like Me that I wrote early last year. It was a song that I would have brought to the band if we had been active at all at the time (or subsequently). i approached it similar to the others, except that after I had recorded the bass guitar I muted the acoustic guitar track and recorded the electric guitars just against the bass. This helped get it much tighter (as needed for such a track) and later I edited the acoustic guitar track to align it better with the strong rhythms.
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After recording Like Me, I went up to Kyneton for a day and a half to hang out with my girlfriend (who has been sorely neglected due to my focus on this project). Had a fantastic time, walking and cooking and op-shopping and the like. Felt like I was on holidays, and I guess I was, as I have been approaching the recording like a job. Then I was back and, with one day left before having to pick up T from the airport, I recorded all the parts for another song, Talk To You, that I had written earlier this year. It was only after picking up T and heading into the weekend that I found the time to edit and mix both the songs.
talk to you rough.mp3
There were a few challenges with these songs. One was the limitations of the room. I need to record at fairly high volume to get the right sound for the guitar and bass, but this made all sorts of things in the room vibrate. A recording studio is designed to be a neutral and clear space, but I have bookcases, desks with knick knacks, and all sorts of other things to contend with. I also have a drum kit and a few amps in the room, with big hollow spaces that love to ring out in harmony with particular notes I might play. in the end I had all these things covered with blankets,and had to angle the amps carefully to minimise setting up standing sound waves; but this still only reduced, not eliminated the problem.
The other challenge was one I’ve mentioned before, but which became more of an issue with these more upbeat and band-type songs: I’ve never really figured out what the different instruments should do. What beats should the bass emphasise? (they will need to fit with the drums later on). What should the rhythm guitar do? How to approach the instrumental? And how to vary the arrangement in the verses so it doesn???t all sound the same? All these things are much easier to figure out in a band ??? with a bunch of people all involved and able to try things out ??? than by yourself, when you have to record each instrument one at a time and you never really hear it all together until it’s all done. In particular, in Talk To You I completely redid the bass line after listening to the first rough mix because although it felt right to play it like that, it sounded all wrong. So the new bass line felt all wrong to play but sounded all right. Bizarre.
The lead guitar was also difficult. In the end I just recorded many takes, trying out different things, and then I mixed and matched them when editing to make something that worked. It feels like cheating, but it’s not a competition: it’s really akin to editing a novel after writing it ??? a distinct but integral part of the creative process.
In the case of Like Me, I decided that I would bring another instrument (maybe sax?) in for the instrumental, so I have left it empty (although on impulse I recorded some harmonica in the second part; I’m not sure if I’ll keep this, but if I do I’ll need to edit the first note cos it comes in a tiny bit late).
All in all, I’m really happy with these songs (especially Talk To You). They definitely need drums, but I am amazed how much they hold together rhythmically without them, and how much it sounds like a band. In fact, I am so happy with Talk To You that I’ve decided I need more than my own mediocre drumming, so I have asked the drummer from my band, John Watson (he’s also a talented photographer) to do the deed. I’m a little disappointed that it means I won???t have played all the main instruments; but I’m happier that it will have excellent drumming.
Now I only have a few days left before I’m back to work (though since my job is only guaranteed for another two weeks, it’s possible that I’ll soon have all the time in the world???), so I expect to record maybe two more songs, bringing the total to eight, before my time is not my own again. I could leave it at that, and do a short album; but I’m more inclined to keep working, recording on weekends and editing on weeknights, until I have twelve or thirteen. I believe in the songs, and I am so happy with the quality of the recordings I’m getting (I know they don’t sound like ‘real’ songs yet but once they’re been mixed and mastered properly by a real sound engineer, they will) that I want to see it right through.

The Recording Diaries part 5: Flying away

One of the really important parts of this project is listening to music recorded by others. I’ve been quite deliberately listening to a lot of music that has sounds and feels and production values that I like and that I think accords with what I am trying to do. Some of this has been music with prominent acoustic guitar (such as the Indigo Girls and Jakob Dylan’s solo albums), while some of it has been the messy but energetic and exciting rock of artists like Okkervil River and Neil Young.

One album that has been unexpectedly inspirational has been Dan Kelly’s Dream, released this month. I stumbled across it while searching for a CD to give to a friend for his birthday (I bought him Sgt Pepper and snapped up Dan Kelly’s Dream for myself) and discovered that, like me, Dan had recorded the album largely himself (though with a few helpers) and using a weird-arse guitar (in this case a Japanese Fender Jaguar) with an imperfect but idiosyncratic sound. He’s been really creative and bold with is arrangements, and his lyrics are probably more witty and in-your-face than usual. I’ve been listening to it over and over???

???which is how I got the name (that name) for my album. There was a lyric in one of his songs: “how many times must I repeat myself/how many times must I defeat myself”. He was singing about making the same fucked up choices over and over again. I had been thinking the same day how so many of my songs are about the same types of situations, repeated again and again over two and a half decades of my life. Here I was bringing together songs from 1998 and from 2007 lamenting the same foolishness, describing the same heartache. And here I am recording them by myself: first playing the acoustic guitar four times over; then the bass six times over; then singing the lyrics three times over; then playing electric guitar eight times over; then playing it all back 20 times over while I mix and edit and try to get it sounding right. So much repetition. So Over and Over seemed the perfect name for the album.

Doing it again
So I returned to Fly Away, the song that just wouldn???t come together last time. the acoustic guitar was ordinary. The electric rhythm guitar was out of tune. The electric lead guitar needed something??? it just need more presence or something. The acoustic bass guitar didn’t seem to anchor it properly. The vocal was OK though, and the guitar solos were sort of alright. What to do?

1) new bass guitar
I put the acoustic bass guitar away and grabbed the electric. Unfortunately this is my crappiest guitar. It’s a functional but elementary low-end bass I originally bought for my daughter T when she was learning at school. It’s actually pretty OK, but I’ve spent enough time as a professional musician and using professional grade equipment to be quite unsatisfied with it. I hoped (correctly it turned out) that my rather excellent bass amp and speaker cabinet would turn  this sow’s ear into at least a polyester purse.

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I’m recording the bass using a direct line as well as an economical but quite good quality dynamic microphone designed to record a bass drum. It works brilliantly! It’s really helped by the amp and cabinet combination. The amp has a valve pre-amp, a six-band graphic equaliser and a built-in compressor; the cabinet weighs a ton (actually 23 kg) and has four 10″ speakers and a 5″ tweeter. Altogether this gives a punchy and round sound with some delicate highs but a fat bottom end. I’m amazed I can get such a great sound from a $300 bass guitar. And my guess was right: the smooth, more consistent and incredibly punchy bass is perfect for the song.

2) The guitar parts
After recording the new bass line I muted all the tracks except the bass and the vocal and recorded a new acoustic guitar track. Much better. I then re-recorded the rhythm guitar with the instrument in tune. Marvellous! This left me with the lead guitar part to deal with. I’d pretty much figured out that at least part of the track ??? these little half chords that ring out in between the verses ??? needed more sustain. This suggests using a solid-body electric guitar (I had so far only used the semi-acoustic L-202), so I bought a set of guitar strings and dragged my old Maton Mastersound MS-500 out from under my bed.

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This used to be my main guitar before I bought the L-202 last year. In many ways it’s a better guitar: it has a fuller sound, a better neck, no buzzes and it stays in tune for more than one song. i prefer the L-202 for its very distinctive retro sound, but the Mastersound is really a workhorse guitar. With a rear single coil pickup and a front humbucker that can be switched to single coil, it can emulate the most common guitar sounds (the Les Paul, the Telecaster and the Stratocaster) readily. If I played in a cover band this would be my top choice of guitar ??? you can go from Jimmy Page to Jimi Hendrix with the flick of two switches.

I was right about it, too. it was the perfect guitar for Fly Away.  And the song was really improved by having a greater difference in tone and feel among the electric guitar parts. I decided there and then to use both guitars in future recordings as a matter of course, rather than playing different parts on the same instrument.

Fly Away
It was done then. it still lacks something (apart from drums, which all the songs are lacking so far), a different instrument altogether for the instrumental break and probably a bit of noodling around in other places too. Perhaps piano accordion (by now I had written but not recorded the piano accordion part for Sleep All Day, and thinking of using it in a few other songs as well); though I may have a stab at synthesiser, or perhaps just do a harmonica solo. But whichever way it will go, I now have a rough mix of Fly Away to share with the world (or at least the part of the world that is reading this blog)

Life intrudes
Following the completion of Fly Away I became quite preoccupied and busy thanks to the looming federal election. I had sort of accidentally volunteered to coordinate volunteers on election day for GetUp!, handing out “scorecards” at my local polling booth showing where the three major parties stand on a number of policy issues relating to social justice.

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Had a fantastic time! We had more volunteers than all the political parties combined at our polling booth. And I was pretty pleased to discover that in our electorate, the safest seat in the country (held by Labor with a 27% margin), 25% of first preference voted went to the progressive Greens party. At the end of the day Labor won the seat of course, but their margin was down to 16%. That???s quite an achievement I reckon, and a sign I think that Australian voters are more actively rejecting the two-party system (reflected of course in the overall election result in which neither major party gained a majority of seats).

Enough for now! Another chapter coming soon with two more songs.

The Recording Diaries part 4: A milestone of sorts

Forgive me reader, for I have slackened. It is 12 days since my last blog entry???

As expected, I am discovering that this is harder than I anticipated. Partly because I am really having to write the songs as I go along; not the basic songs, which are already written ??? lyrics and chords and riffs and tunes ??? but everything else: the bass lines, the other parts. I’m spending heaps of time just playing bass guitar or electric guitar along with the basic tracks trying to figure out what will sound good; what will give each song that special something. I’ve done this before of course in bands, with a bunch of other people with one instrument each, trying different things and having cool ideas. But it’s so different when it’s just you, trying one thing at a time. How much falls through the gaps? Maybe those two mediocre guitar parts will sound fantastic together? I’ll never know.

Secondly, other parts of life necessarily intrude, or need attention. Not all begrudgingly either. Sure I didn???t need that house inspection from my landlord (though the frantic cleanup has done wonders for my peace of mind), and I certainly resent the time I have to spend shopping, and doing washing, and sometimes cooking. But hanging out and chatting with my kids and my girlfriend; visiting an old friend in hospital after a bypass operation, helping my daughter get ready for her first trip overseas, catching up with other friends, looking over my son’s VCE design folio as it comes together??? these are part of the rich tapestry of life that I wouldn???t trade for anything. I’m baffled as to why it never occurred to me that these things would be sharing my time with my ambitious recording project.

Thirdly: to put it bluntly, I am not actually a particularly good musician. Sure, I’m better than your average person-who-can-play-a-few-songs-on-guitar. But I find it really difficult to get one good take of anything without little mistakes or buzzes or whatever. It reminds me why in bands I have always tried to work with better musicians than myself. Essentially I’m a songwriter, not a guitar hero, and it’s starting to show. I’m just hoping that when it all comes together it will have that slightly messy but captivating feel that you find on albums by, say, The Kinks or Okkervil River, rather than just messy and out of time.

Anyway, shortly after my last blog entry I grabbed my acoustic bass guitar and started work on one of the songs I’d already recorded: Sleep All Day.

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The bass warrants a little digression. A true piece of Australian  musical history, it is one of only 40 “Bindara”s made in 1966 by Maton (though they did make another short run in about 1970). It’s based on the guitarr??n mexicano basses used by mariachi bands and has the deepest, richest tone of any acoustic bass guitar I’ve ever tried (and I’ve tried a few). I really like the sound of acoustic bass guitars and I think they especially complement acoustic guitar music. It’s also great for busking.

After recording the bass I recorded some electric guitar. I decided to just dream up and record three or four different electric guitar parts for each song so I could then listen back and decide which ones to use. So for Sleep All Day I did a few takes each of some quiet tremolo chords, a duplication of the acoustic guitar picking style, and some little guitar melodies. In the end I liked them all, so after the recording session I spent some time fooling around with the tracks, dropping bits in and out, working out relative volumes, trying some different reverbs on the lead guitar??? and I actually revisited it a few times over the following week, until I ended up with what I thought was a pretty good basic version of the song. (Bearing in mind that I will later be adding drums and, where appropriate, piano accordion or percussion or synthesiser or flute or something else; and re-record vocals for every song after all this icing has been added.) I played this to my kids and my girlfriend and they all gave very helpful suggestions: frank and fearless and not afraid to be critical ??? off-putting but of course exactly what was needed. I heeded their advice and ended up with an even better track:

(Remember, this is the same recording as the one from my last blog entry, just with the extra stuff added to it. I reckon it’s a great example of how you build songs up in the studio (and in your mind) from the bare bones to something with a bit more meat on it.)

The day after I recorded all the extra parts for Sleep All Day I recorded all the basic parts (acoustic guitar, vocal, acoustic bass guitar and three electric guitar parts) for another song, Occupied Zone (interestingly, written about the same dysfunctional relationship). A few days later I did the same for another song, Fly Away. The next several days were occupied with other things, but by the weekend I was able to grab some time to edit and mix both of those songs. Both were really hard, and I wondered whether I would ever get anything good out of them. Later I realised how fortunate I was to have had such an easy run with Sleep All Day. If I had have tried either of these other two first I may well have despaired too much.

In the end I got Occupied Zone to an acceptable state. i have to keep reminding myself that they don’t need to sound perfect: once drums and percussion and one or two other things are added to the mix, it;as amazing what little glitches and not-quite-right sounding stuff disappears. 

Fly Away had more serious problems. One of the electric guitar tracks was out of tune, the acoustic guitar track was a bit ordinary, and overall it felt like something was lacking somewhere. I will strip it back to basics and re-record bits.

The electric guitar also warrants an aside. Maton made just 133 L-202s from 1966-67 (they also made a smaller number of bass guitars in the same style). I was fortunate enough to pick up a rather decrepit example early last year in the Music Swop Shop in Carlton, and I spent quite some time restoring it (documented on flickr of course).

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It’s unusual in that it is a semi-acoustic electric guitar but with no f-holes (they are painted on) and with a solid piece down the middle. it has a totally flaky tremolo system that puts it out of tune of you’re not really gentle, and ??? like many 60s guitars ??? the pickups are wired out of phase with each other so using them together sounds totally different than using them separately. Basically it has a really distinctive retro sound which I love and I have been using it as my main electric ever since i got it back into shape (though my other one will be needed for situations where the sound needs to be more conventional). Paired with the Vox valve amp (a relatively recent model but based on the original 60s Vox circuitry, and running through an early 70s Vox cabinet) it sounds like it’s coming to you straight out of 1969. of course I couldn???t even play guitar when i was one year old, but if I could it would have sounded just like this.

The Recording Diaries part 3: A little victory

All yesterday I was going over Saturday’s recordings in my head. In particular, Sleep All Day. I knew it was a bit rough, I knew I hadn’t found my voice for the vocal, I knew the guitar was a bit lame… but it was fine for the songwriting competition entry. I was going to add a heap to it later, and I would definitely re-record the vocal once there was a bigger foundation. But I just couldn’t get it out of my head. In particular, there’s this little guitar bit that doubles the vocal line at the end of each verse, and it just grated.

On Sunday afternoon I went to 303, a local bar, for the bimonthly meeting of the Darebin Songwriters’ Guild. The Guild meetings are an organised open stage where local songwriters play three or four of their compositions one after the other, with a feature artist slap bang in the middle. Yesterday’s feature artists were my friend Frank Jones (of Whirling Furphies fame — but I know Frank because when I first moved to Northcote I lived across the road from him; plus our kids went to the same school) and his friend Brent Parlane. I also saw Fiona Claire and Phil Hudson, former bandmates from various other bits of my life. All in all it was pretty inspirational; and while I was walking home in the hail I decided to re-record Sleep All Day with acoustic instead of electric guitar. I will still record electric over the top of it for the finished version; but the little melodies that double the vocals need to be just on the acoustic, so they don’t leap out so much.

This morning after the kids went to school I set up my studio again in T’s bedroom.

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I only did three takes with the acoustic guitar because I have a weak thumb on my left hand and it’s hard to play barre chords on an acoustic (with higher action and thicker, tighter strings) for long. I didn’t get a perfect one — each take has the occasional buzzy or muted chord where my pissweak thumb gave way — but I managed to buzz in different spots each take so I used the best take and cut in chords from other takes where the buzzes were too prominent. This is now a finished track 🙂

Next I re-recorded the vocals. My voice is still quite out of condition, and of about ten takes I still got none I was happy with. However i was able to assemble a track out of three different takes that was significantly better than the one I did on the weekend, and I have decided to be satisfied with it for the competition entry recording. For the album, I will record all the vocals towards the end.

Anyway, I ended up with a much better version of Sleep All Day, all new except for the harmonica solo (which has an awful squeak in it that’s driving me crazy, but it’s just about perfect apart from that so I am leaving it).

 

When I was mixing it and EQing it and all that this evening, I drove the kids crazy (especially T) by playing it through the hifi over and over again til it was right. But they made some helpful suggestions, including to play some piano accordion in the verses. I can hear it in my head now, and I’ve decided I will keep working on this song until it’s done — acoustic bass guitar, some delicate drumming, electric guitar and the accordion of course.

An aside about the guitar

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I picked up this guitar about 16 years ago from Roger Lewis’s store in Russell Street. It was $900 and, with me living from hand to mouth in those days subsisting on Austudy and Family Payments, I had to pay a deposit and then pay Roger off over about six months. It’s an early Australian made guitar, made by Maton in 1957. in those days the serial numbers were simply sequential — so I know that mine was the 776th guitar they ever made. Acoustic guitars, like good wine, improve with age as the wood mellows. This one has its flaws, but such a beautiful tone that you put up with the odd buzz and the fat, short neck. With an original hand-wound bakelite pickup, it sounds incredible through an amp too (though it hums a bit). But I plan to record it acoustically.