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.

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