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.



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



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.

The Recording Diaries: part 2 ??? an actual beginning

I’ve had a busy week. I bought a new couch last weekend, so the old one and a bookcase ended up in the recording studio (which is also my daughter’s part time bedroom) making it impossible to do anything until it was sorted. Since I still had a massive cut on my guitar-playing fingertip (and another on my thumb thanks to a couch-moving accident), it wasn’t really making any difference.

So I ended up doing this massive house reorganise thing where I must have moved at least one bit of furniture from each room into another. Took the old couch to the Op Shop. Got into a bit of a cleaning frenzy and got the place looking so good I will no longer be embarrassed if the kids’ friends’ parents drop by. it was a bit overdue; and having the place a bit more civilised makes it much easier to give energy to the recording project.

During the week I also had to go into work to tie up a few loose ends, and do a day’s voluntary work for Friends of Merri Creek (I design and lay out their quarterly magazine). Aas the end of the week loomed closer I was starting to feel like time was slipping away from me; so on Thursday afternoon I managed to grab some time to drag my guitar and little amp into the lounge room and go over the two songs I’d already decided to record first, in order to get a rough basic mix of each to submit to the Darebin Songwriters’ Award (which closes Thursday 5 August).


Friday morning I was determined to make a start. My daughter (T) was returning from school camp at 2pm so I needed to be done by about 1:30. Thus this was the perfect time for my computer to totally crap out. It’s been doing this thing lately (erratically of course) where it won???t wake up from sleep. You just have to shut it off and restart it, and sometimes it starts up still asleep, and you have to do all sorts of esoteric things to it to get it going again. So I spent about an hour on this, and then a similar amount of time wrestling with my audio software trying to get it to work properly. It’s a great, full-featured professional quality free open-source multitrack audio workstation (Ardour) but it needs to be run in conjunction with another great, pro-quality audio routing utility (Jack) and they just don’t always play well together. So by the time I was ready to go at last, I had only around two hours, which is really not that much time.


But I made the most of it! By the time I had to pack up and jump in the car I’d recorded several takes of an acoustic guitar track for one song, and an electric guitar track for the other. I decided in the end that the acoustic guitar track was too slow, so I’d need to do it again; but at least figured out exactly how I want to play it. And I figured out the optimal microphone placement, and that I’d need to remove the scratchplate from the guitar so it wouldn???t squeak when I played it.

Saturday dawned and I had a two-hour block in between taxiing T to and from her theatre class. I unfortunately spent a lot of that time faffing about with Ardour and Jack again. it’s great when it’s working, but an almighty pain when it’s not.


I managed to get the new acoustic guitar part down, and while I got the speed right I just wasn’t quite happy with it. Fortunately T was quite happy for me to continue using her room for a few hours after we got home again. So I finally got that guitar part done (it’s a bit flawed but has a good vibe so I think I’ll keep it as is), and vocals for both songs. The first one ??? to go with the acoustic guitar track ??? was similarly flawed but with that special something. The other is acceptable but not really good enough; it’ll be fine for the songwriting competition entry, but I’ll redo it for the album.

In the early evening i ferried the kids to various places and came back to have the house to myself for the night. I made the most of this, recording the harmonica part for one song, and mixing both of them.

Stereo recording
I’m using a stereo recording technique I learned on a webpage somewhere, with a matched pair of condenser mics (R??de NT1-As) aimed across each other.


The sound I’m getting is unbelievably good. A real natural vibe. On the acoustic guitar, I position them right opposite where the neck meets the body, so one is getting more of the sound projected from the guitar body while the other gets more of the close by room sound. Listening to it it doesn???t sound like it’s left or right or anything: it just sounds like it’s in the room with you. For the electric guitar, one is aimed at the middle of one speaker and the other is aimed at the edge. For the harmonica they are positioned right in the middle, and listening back there’s a very subtle spread of low notes to high notes from right to left. By recording the vocals in mono and sticking them right in the middle, everything is anchored but just so expansive.

This is the tricky bit. i don’t have proper monitor speakers or a neutral monitor amp. Instead I’m running it through my hifi amp and speakers, which add the sort of colour that is really nice when you???re playing a CD, but not really ideal for mixing raw audio. It will have to do, but I’m thinking that I will do all the mixing at a friend’s place with the right gear.

I’m really a very amateur sound engineer, so I’m trying to have a really light touch, knowing how easy it is to destroy tracks by over-engineering. I’m just adding a little compression to the electric guitar (and to one of the vocals that was a bit erratic volume-wise) and some light natural reverb to the vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. By using good mics and instruments I don’t really need to EQ anything.

The songs
OK, so I have actually recorded two songs. The first one I’m thinking is ready for the album (what it lacks in polish it makes up for with vibe); the second is not  but I will use it as a guide track to do a better version.

Simple Song

I wrote this back in early 1990 during a bout of depression. I had been writing heaps of songs and I was stuck in this thing of using unusual chord progressions and complex melodies to try to be original or good or something. Brainlessness. Suddenly, i guess, I’d had enough and came out with this. It’s one of my favourites of my own songs. I’m planning to open the album with this, and as a (slightly ironic) reprise repeat it as an instrumental with a big wall-of-sound type production.

Sleep All Day

This is from three or four years ago. I was going out with someone who was actually n love with someone else. Not recommended unless you wanna write a cool song. The final version of this will have a couple of guitars, bass, drums, maybe one or two other things. Sparse but complex

Coming up…
That’s really it for the weekend; I’ll be hanging out with T and tidying up the garden a bit, as my landlord is coming over for an inspection in a week and a half 😦 But i’ll have the house to myself come Monday, so now that I’ve popped the cork I’ll be doing some more intensive work ??? building up Sleep All Day and getting started on maybe two more. And getting my voice working properly! One thing I learned this last few days is that when you don’t song for a while your voice gets a bit dodgy. Will have to start singing louder in the shower.

The Recording Diaries: day 1 – a germ of a beginning

Today I rode my bike to the Music Swop Shop in Carlton and handed over my broken tremolo pedal to be repaired. This is not the first thing I have done for my ambitious home-recording project (I have already put new strings on my guitars; bought a bass amp, four microphones, and some other recording hardware; shortlisted a dozen songs; and spent quite a bit of time recording bits and pieces of songs that I ultimately wasn’t happy with), but it’s the first thing I have done in the block of time I have set aside for it, so I reckon it counts as a beginning of sorts. Everything already done can be the prologue.

While at the Swop Shop I also fell in love with a beautiful 1964 Epiphone semi-acoustic bass guitar


I’ve been after a nice semi-acoustic bass to use in some of the songs. (I have loved them ever since I first played my friend Isabelle’s gorgeous 1968 Maton one). This one is going for $3,500 or thereabouts, and I was sorely tempted to dig into my meagre savings to buy it (I don’t have a credit card – this is the perfect illustration of why I have chosen thus), but somehow I managed to resist. Partly I think because it was high up on the wall and I would have had to ask the guy to get it down for me. If I had have played it, and it was good, I don’t know what I would have done.

Anyway, after feeling so painfully bereft for having walked out of the shop without it (consumerism is an insidious disease), I drowned my sorrows in Readings and spent some of the voucher I was given by my workmates last week on the occasion of me commencing seven weeks long service leave (this is why I have a chunk of time to record with). I bought Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (on the strength of having loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), and something that, with all due respect to Michael, seems much more interesting: Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric, a recently published book of photographs taken by Barry Feinstein around Hollywood movie studios in the early 1960s accompanied by poems written by Bob Dylan inspired by the photos. Barry photographed The Times They Are A-Changin’ album cover and Dylan’s 1966 tour; later Bob accompanied Barry on a road trip from Denver to New York, delivering a Rolls-Royce to Bob’s manager Albert Grossman. Bob and Barry became friends, Barry showed Bob all these photographs he’d taken in Hollywood in the early sixties (including Marilyn Monroe’s swimming pool on the day she died, and protestors calling Marlon Brando a “nigger-loving creep”), and Bob was so taken with them he wrote 23 poems inspired by particular shots.

It’s a beautiful book, with striking photographs and sharp but poignant lyrical prose (if you’re familiar with the rambling prose poems on the back of some of Dylan’s early albums, this is what it’s like). Its relevance to the recording project? I’m gonna try to write a song based on one of the poems and put it on the album. My creativity has vanished this last twelve months, and I really need something to kick-start it.

In other news, I managed to cut about 8mm into the middle finger of my left hand (I was trying to open a wedge of goat cheese sealed in plastic for dinner, so I blame my cow-dairy-intolerant son). It bled buckets for 20 minutes and is still terribly painful hours later, so it will probably delay the commencement of recording (I planned to start tomorrow or Friday) and I’m hoping there is no serious damage that could throw all my plans down the toilet. We shall see I guess.

The only other thing is that despite having my iPod on random all day (using a cool iPhone app called Groove that makes up random playlists based on various criteria, including associations between artists garnered from’s extensive online database) it played shitloads of stuff that has a direct bearing on the recording project – namely songs, artists and albums whose styles i want to draw on in developing the sound for mine. Yusuf Islam’s (Cat Stevens) 2006 comeback An Other Cup (really rich and strong acoustic guitar sounds with solid supporting instruments [as an aside, his cover of The Animals “Don’t let Me Be Misunderstood;” on here is masterful]); various selections from The Smallgoods (60s-flavoured pop-rock), Ice Cream Hands (similar but more rock than pop) and Small Faces (edgy 60s rock and such great energy); quite some Okkervil River (with dominant acoustic guitar and piano amid strong rock stylings and rough Neil Youngy electric guitar); and Neil Young himself of course. This is a really important part of the process, because as soon as you start recording you get beyond the song and the guitar and you have to start thinking about what type of sound you want, what instruments you will use, and all that stuff.

So my thoughts are: an acoustic guitar core (I have a really nice 1950s archtop that has an amazing and distinctive sound), with sparse but upfront semi-acoustic just-breaking-up rhythm guitar (I have this weird-arse late 60s Maton for this and an old Vox valve amp)


and a little searing, scorching Neil Young-type lead guitar (I have a 10-year-old Maton that is more Les Paul than a Les Paul). Forward-mixed, melodic bass using an acoustic bass guitar for some, an electric bass for others, and borrowing my girlfriend’s brother to play double bass where required. Simple but effective drums. Some piano accordion where you might otherwise have an organ or synth chords (maybe some piano accordion melodies too). And maybe some actual analogue synth lines where it really hits the spot (I have an old Juno-106 – the last of the analogue synths – for this).


Oh and some harmonica of course – a no-brainer really, since it’s actually the instrument I play best. I should at least use it to cover up the drumming mistakes.

That’s the plan anyway. In reality, we shall see. I’m sure that, like many things, this tale will grow in the telling.