13 June 2006

session log, volume six

song: "conquering the world"
artist: charlie heffley

instrument(s) played: chandler lap steel, goldtop les paul w/p-90 pickups

studio: philadelphia international records, 309 s. broad street

engineer: craig white

producer: simon illa

sometimes, as a session musician, you get to be present for a little piece of magic. maybe it'll be something that the world will sit up and take notice of, and maybe it'll be something that'll end up being a shared little secret that only you and a few folks will ever be privvy to. the thing is, in this business there's no way of knowing at the point that you're working on it where it'll end up on that scale. people who have been doing this for a long time will tell you that they've worked on things that they didn't give a second thought to that took off and became huge, and other things that they believed with all their heart and soul would be a hit record never even registered a blip on the radar.

you know, though, in the moment that you're hearing a song become a record, that there's something great about it. that was definitely the case with this song.

while we were working on the song, craig said, "this is gonna end up in a movie, i'm tellin' ya...this is some 'breakfast club' shit, right here." we all got a chuckle out of it, but it's true...it's that kind of song.

this is the first thing that simon contracted me to play on since we made each others' acquaintance working on skip denenbergs' "lucky man". let me say first, before i go on, what it is that makes simon and craig so much fun to work with. they're both consummate professionals, but they're also a good hang - when i started working with the two of them on skips' project, i immediately felt comfortable with both of them. they're inspiring, non-judgemental, and supportive...and they know how to get your best work out of you.

they're both also funny as hell, and that don't hurt.

anyway, simon sent me an mp3 of charlies' song a few days before we were to go in, and i was able to import the track into adobe audition on my laptop and actually record a couple of rough passes to send back to him, so that he could get an idea of what i heard for the song. (in fact, it might be worth mentioning that the roughs for this song were the first thing actually recorded in the new studio space. i took the laptop over there along with the steel and an amp because i didn't want to make the noise at home.) i knew that he had some specific ideas about melodic parts that he wanted in certain spots, and i gave him the option of putting those down on the track before he sent it, but he seemed relatively confident that we'd be able to nail those down once we got into the studio.

when i got there, craig had the track up and was cleaning up a couple of things, and simon had his guitar strapped on...he had a couple of fills that he wanted to put down before we started recording the lap steel parts. simon had a blue ibanez guitar that he was using that was immediately dubbed "the sibanez" by craig, and the name stuck. once his parts were down, craig mic'ed up my princeton reverb with an AKG 414 and we dialed in a tone that worked. simon had a specific melody line that he wanted for the intro, but that was the only specific guidance that he gave me (after a couple of passes, i actually managed to nail it - it came in on the "three" but i kept hearing it on the "one", and i had to break myself from the habit of following my instinct on this one...which should've taken less time than it did. thankfully, we got a really good pass of it after only a couple of miscues.).

we did several passes, just so they'd have a lot of "comp" ammunition. as is usually the case with me, the second pass seemed to be the best single-take track that we got. the first one was a little tentative, and the third one was rather apparently looking for different things that i hadn't done on either of the first two passes...that seems to be a common thing for me. anyway, after we wrapped that up, i brought out the electric and we did a couple of passes with that - one a "strictly rhythm" track that was for the outro only, and the other a slowly building arpeggiated picking pattern. for reasons that i'm not quite sure of, the lap steel worked its usual magic through the princeton, but when i switched to the electric, i started hearing this weird clipping sound from the amp on the lower notes. i'm thinking that maybe it's time for a re-tube. we switched to the in-house early seventies' vintage fender twin for the guitar tracks, and that seemed to cure the clipping issue...i made a couple of minor adjustments to the voodoo labs sparkle drive pedal that i had between the two of them, and we were back in business.

there was one particular line that simon played at the tag on electric that i put a harmony on top of with the lap steel - i'm anxious to hear how that plays out when the song is ready for the final mix...it was actually one of the cooler moments of the session.

after the parts were finished, craig did a rough mix for simon to take with him - he was flying out to cleveland the next morning, and one of the things on his itinerary was charlies' show that night at house of blues, and he wanted to have a rough to play for him when he met with him. i had gone through the live room and did a general cleanup (put the mic away, cords and such) so craig wouldn't have so much to do when we were done...he stood in the lobby with us for another half hour or so discussing our progress on the studio build, and we were outta there around 2am or so.

i got a call from simon the next afternoon while he was waiting for charlie to pick him up at the cleveland airport, and he was happy with what we'd managed to get done the night before. he was also marvelling at how the flight to cleveland from philadelphia takes roughly 20 minutes, but the preparation at the airport takes 4 to 5 times that amount of time.

there are a few things that remain to be done on the track, including some vocal things that i might be contributing to, so this particular track may be unfinished business at this point.

session log, volume five

song: "stories"
artist: darcie miner

instrument(s) played: gretsch rally electric guitar, drums

studio: mad dragon studio, drexel university campus

engineer: toby seay

i did something kinda messed up on this session.

first, let me say - darcie is underrated as a guitarist, and some of that is self-inflicted. she doesn't fancy herself a guitar player, and she's certianly not gonna be the next Yngwie Satriani (thank God), but her style perfectly fits what she does - she's solid, good rhythm, and clean.

so for this song, i already knew that i was going to put a john hiattish, arrpegiated vibrato part over the top of the whole thing. but darcie had said that she didn't even want acoustic guitar on this track, so that meant that there would need to be a rhythm part as well.

so i kept my mouth shut until i got to the studio...we set up my princeton reverb in the booth, got everything plugged in and tuned up, and i handed the guitar to darcie.

she resisted mightily at first, but by the third pass, she had whipped out a kickass rhythm part, and it doubled her acoustic part exactly the way it should have. i could have done it, but it wouldn't have been the same.

and this was, essentially, my plan from the outset....but i didn't say anything to her until i handed her the guitar, because i kinda had a sneaking suspicion that she'd fight me on it, and i didn't want to give her a lot of time to formulate an argument. :)

so, after her track was finished, i went in and cranked up the tremolo on the amp and put down my part...the two parts fit together nicely, with her rhythm part sitting on top of the acoustic guitar. i made a brief mention that she might want to reconsider eliminating the acoustic part, and she acknowledged my suggestion, but i think it evaporated pretty quickly. anyway...

once the two guitar parts were finished, we mic'ed up the drums and did a few passes to see what fit. first, i did the jazzy, brushes-on-the-snare-only pass, which was vetoed...then we went to a more aggressive approach, and i had toby run the track while i moved around to different parts of the kit...they settled on a pattern with the ride cymbal and snare with the brushes, and we picked a spot for the drums to come in, and we did the drumkit in one pass.

most of the mics used on the kit were obvious choices - AKG D112 on the kick, sennheiser 421's on the toms, SM57 on the snare...and it sounded great. the snare, particularly, had a nice presence with the brushes. kudos, guys.

the track was for the same compilation release that the other songs i worked on was for, due out on Mad Dragon records upon completion.

session log, volume four

song: "lucky man"
artist: skip denenberg

instrument(s) played (deep breath): rickenbacker 12 string guitar, danelectro DC-3 electric guitar, 40's gibson lap steel, dobro, mandolin, harmony vocals (exhale....)

studio: phildelphia international records, 309 s. broad street, philadelphia PA

engineer: craig white

producer(s): skip denenberg, simon illa, craig white

mixed by: craig white, skip denenberg

this session was my first introduction to the studios at 309 s. broad street, the headquarters of philadelphia international records for the past three and a half decades. before that, it was home to the cameo-parkway record label and studios, where "at the hop" by danny and the juniors and "the twist" by chubby checker were recorded. the building was a frequent haunt for young songwriters kenny gamble and leon huff while they were honing their craft, although cameo-parkway didn't have the time of day for them. when they took their business to sigma sound and set up shop in the schubert building right across the street, things started to happen for them and they had front row seats as cameo-parkways' fortunes took a turn for the worse. if you look up irony in the dictionary, you could very well see a picture of the enterprising kenny gamble and leon huff buying the building at 309 s. broad street, where they'd been denied a chance for all those years, and moving their thriving philadelphia international records into the building and putting philadelphia on the map in the seventies with artists such as the o'jays, teddy pendergrass, the intruders, lou rawls, billy paul, the three degrees and many others (this doesn't even take into account fellow songwriter thom bell's successes with the stylistics, the delfonics, the spinners, and other acts that weren't under the PIR umbrella).

you walk in the front door and back into the elevator and up to the third floor. the elevator opens and you see a larger-than-life poster with the images of gamble and huff on it. to its left as you get out of the elevator is a glass case with a smattering of gold and platinum albums in it. when you round the corner and walk through the doorway at the end of the foyer, you go into the main hallway leading to the studio, and that's where you get your first real sense of the history of the building - the entire wall to your right as you walk back to the studio is lined with gold and platinum albums...almost two dozen just in the first ten yards of the hallway. newspaper articles and such accompany the records to further drive home the history engrained in the space you're standing in.

the studio itself hasn't changed a great deal since the salad days of the seventies - hot orange and lime green carpet adorns sections of the walls and the floor, and the place has the retro vibe like you wouldn't believe...as if you could turn around any minute and see norman harris and bobby eli tuning up for a session while earl young was poundin' away at the kit behind the half-wall that isolates the drums from the rest of the room. a yamaha grand piano sits on the other side of the room with keys eggshelled from age - the instrument that bore responsibility for so many of those songs that were immortalized in oxide during that time period.

this particular session started at 8pm, and began with basic tracks. george manney played drums on the track, mike demartinez played guitar, and dave humphries played bass. george, dave, and skip did the basic track as a rhythm section, with skip cutting a scratch acoustic track as a reference for the section.

it can't be overstated how important it is to get a solid take of the rhythm section. the session was done to a click, so there was a reference point for any future flubs that had to be fixed, but having a solid track to build on is essential. after a few opinions flew back and forth as to where the accents should be and such, the basic tracks were done at around 10:30. mike began working on his part shortly thereafter and was done with his part between 12:30 and 1am. after he was finished, i began working on my parts. between 1 am or so and a little after 3am, we put down a danelectro rhythm track, a 12 string guitar track, a lap steel part, and a mandolin rhythm track. we wisely decided to forego doing any vocals at that point, as everyone was fried, and i'm not certain that anyone would be making solid decisions about what was a keeper and what wasn't at that point.

there were a number of reasons why we were able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. one, the song itself was a great canvas to work from. simple, earnest, and well arranged. by putting down such a tight rhythm track, my job was a lot easier. also, skip knew almost exactly what he wanted, and he's good at communicating his wishes to the session guys. craig and simon are also incredibly easy to work with. often, when you're working on the other side of the glass, you can feel whatever the vibe is in the control room coming through the walls...and even after working all those hours, they were still encouraging and positive...and it's easy to do good work for people like that.

so we broke up the first session for this song at a little after 3am, and called it for a week. we went back in the following monday, and i put down a dobro part, followed by skip doing the final vocal take. while we were out, he'd also had someone put a hammond part on, and simon had added some strings to it.

skip executed his first pass on the vocal, and simon addressed him on the talkback:

"i think you have a very bright future in the fast food industry."

everyone, including skip, cracked at that point. it was the perfect moment of levity to break up whatever tension or self-confidence issues might've escalated from that point forward. as skip worked on punching in whatever fixes needed to be made, simon would "promote" him: "that was excellent. you can work the fryer now." or, "i think you're finally ready for the register."

two subsequent sessions saw me adding "ooohs" and beginning cleanup for mixdown. the mix itself took a couple of sessions, as we kept them relatively short to reduce fatigue and/or burnout.

craig actually did a few mixes, one of which was a "campfire mix" that featured all the acoustic instruments that we put down on the sessions, sans drums and bass. that one i haven't heard yet, but i know it's out there somewhere.

the song was recorded for submission for the sountrack of a feature film - its fate is, as yet, unknown. it was played on WIP during the morning show the day after the final mix was finished, though.

this could very easily become my favorite studio to work in...craig, simon and i all hit it off right away, and i absolutely love the history of the place...and it's a great studio to work in.

session log, volume three

song: "boys"
artist: darcie miner

instrument(s) played: banjo, drums (scratched), mandolin

studio: mad dragon studio, drexel university campus

engineer: toby seay

when darcie and i talked about this song, she heard banjo. and i could hear it, too - although i wasn't sure that what i heard and what she wanted would necessarily be the same thing.

this is the one great challenge of session work - the potential signal degradation that can sometimes exist in the communication line between the artist or producer and the session musician.

the rhythm of the song pushed what i was to play on it pretty hard in one direction - the tempo of the song made it hard to play anything really fast without it sounding overbearing, so i settled into a rolling, eighth-note pattern that felt good for the song. sixteenth notes would've pushed it into take-it-easyville, and it just didn't fit...and anything slower would've dragged it.

so toby mic'ed me up and we took a couple of passes - and i could feel the lukewarm response through the glass. they just weren't diggin' it. toby suggested possibly just doing fills with the banjo, which we tried - but it was missed when it dropped out.

so we took stock of the situation, and abandoned the banjo. i had another idea up my sleeve, anyway, and as it was becoming more and more apparent that the banjo wasn't working, i asked toby to roll the track back and let me try something else. i pulled the mandolin out and had him roll it while i played an arrpegiated part over the top of darcie's acoustic guitar part.

and it fit perfectly. toby swapped out the mic, opting for what i think was a neumann TLM-103, and we cut it.

it added just the right amount of sparkle to what darcie was already playing, and i could imagine that the two instruments could have been mixed to sound like one big otherworldly guitar that doesn't exist anywhere but on that track. it was similar to the "nashville tuning" effect - where you string a regular acoustic guitar with light enough strings that the lower four strings can be tuned an octave higher, like the high set of a twelve string acoustic guitar, but with all the sparkle and none of the jangle.

anyway, after cutting the mandolin, we took two passes at adding drums - i did one pass straight ahead, sticks on hi-hat and snare, but it was too much...then i did a brush pattern on the snare, and that was too little...so it was the consensus that this song just didn't really need the drums as badly as we thought it did. as such, we laid it to rest at that point with darcies' vocal and guitar and the mandolin track.

the track was for the same compilation release that the other songs i worked on was for, due out on Mad Dragon records upon completion.

session log, volume two

song: "explain this to me"
artist: darcie miner

instrument(s) played: gibson lap steel guitar

studio: mad dragon studio, drexel university campus

engineer: toby seay

this is a song that i first heard on darcie's myspace page when she had the rough demo posted there. it's one of those great intimate songs that would probably be intimate no matter how you arranged it - solo acoustic or full band.

when we first started talking about what to do with this one, there was never any real question as to what we were hearing...it's one of those haunting songs that just screams for the david lindley treatment, and that was how i planned on approaching it. long, sustained, singing glissando stuff on lap steel. she had given me some guidelines with regard to where she heard it coming in and such, but that was about it.

there was one thing, specifically, that i wanted to do...she held a long, sustained vocal note going into the middle eight where the lap steel solo was going to be, and i wanted to use the volume pedal to fade in on the same note she was singing...and that worked wonderfully. parts of the song, in fact, remind me a bit sonically of the song "rainy day" from the first america album, which david lindley played on.

the song was cut at the mad dragon studio on the campus of drexel university - this one and two others, "boys" and "stories" (both of which i played on as well...see their respective studio logs). the studio is set up for use in an educational setting, but the only tipoff to this is that where the stereotypical sofa would normally sit - a few feet behind the console - there are four rows of chairs in a theatre configuration. also, a large LCD hangs above the glass that mirrors the image displayed on the computer monitor, so that the students can see what's happening while it's going on. from an operational standpoint, though, those are the only two tipoffs that something is a little out of the ordinary about the place. they have top-notch gear, and an engineer/instructor who knows it intimately.

since i had heard the song and had a chance to form some thoughts about approaching it, i brought my gibson lap steel as the go-to instrument for this particular song. it needed a darker quality, and the gibson has that in spades. it's not a particularly loud or bright instrument, and i was pretty sure that it, coupled with my princeton reverb, would be just what the doctor ordered for this particular track.

the engineer brought in two mics for the amp - an SM-57 (standard choice for something like this) and a coles 4038 ribbon microphone. he ended up using the coles, because i had the amp at a relatively low volume, and it brought out a certain character that he seemed to like. i could hear a slight difference, but it wasn't really that different to my ears from the booth. i didn't get a chance to hear an A/B comparison in the control room...he made his call and we moved ahead with that combination before i'd cut the track.

we did two passes - of which (i think) the second was the keeper - and i went back in to listen. as soon as the lap steel came in after the first chorus, it was apparent that there'd be no reason to debate mic choice or placement. i don't know what he was using for front end between the mic and the disk, but it sounded great. to the credit of my magic little princeton reverb, i don't think i made his job very difficult...because anything i plug into that amp just sounds amazing. but the steel sat just where it should've in the mix, and didn't compete with the acoustic guitar for any particular frequency. also, the engineer had added a baritone guitar part that i hadn't heard until he brought it up in the mix while we were listening to the playback...and it was unobtrusive enough that it wasn't an issue, where frequency collisions or toestepping might have been concerned.

the track was for the same compilation release that the other songs i worked on was for, due out on Mad Dragon records upon completion.

session log, volume one

song: "higher love"
artist: boris garcia

instrument(s) played: 40's gibson lap steel

studio: studio four, conshohocken PA

engineer: frank moore

producer: bob stirner and jeff otto

mixed by: phil nicolo

this song is due for release on boris garcia's second album, "mother's finest", which will be out sometime in july of 2006. it's also one of the last projects to be recorded in the upstairs tracking room at the legendary studio four in conshohocken. phil nicolo and his brother joe (collectively known as the butcher brothers) have ushered a lot of talent through those doors in the years that they've been there. some of their credits include billy joel, the fugees, dishwalla, the hooters, urge overkill, kris kross, cypress hill and so on and so forth. the original studio 4 was built in center city in 1980, and they moved to conshohocken in 1994. the first record they made there was dishwalla's debut (which featured the single counting blue cars). now, the last record they're making in this space is the follow up to boris garcias' debut.

not that there's a sense of finality hovering over their heads - they're simply moving to another space in the same building. but, i gotta tell you...the tracking room they're leaving behind is an amazing room, and it's a damn shame to see it go. i felt priveleged to get to do some work there before it was ripped out and moved to the new space.

for this particular song, i had a pretty specific idea of what i wanted to do. bob had given me a grand total of two words' direction for the session:

sneaky pete.

well, ok. point taken. now i know what you want.

lots of high, haunting, sustained notes with as much soul as you can muster. that pretty much fills that particular prescription.

i went with my standard gear for a lap steel session - either the gibson or the chandler lap steel (in most cases...i also brought the rickenbacker, but i was pretty certain that i wouldn't be using it...it's a little midrangey for this kind of session - much better for overdriven tones), my princeton reverb, and my voodoo labs sparkle drive pedal, for "just in case".

i'm ashamed to say that i can't remember what mic they used on the amp for the session. i simply wasn't paying attention. in typical fashion, though, i did two passes once we started recording, and they kept the two for "comp" purposes. i'm pretty sure the second one was the winner - it usually is.

that seems to be my prescription: three takes.

first take - usually a bit tentative or unsure of itself, as i'm still finding my way around the song.

second take - almost always the keeper. i've had a pass to get comfortable, and now i'm ready to do it for real.

third take - usually made up of whatever ideas i might've had during the first two that i didn't execute - usually done for "comp" purposes, or because they just want to make sure they've got enough good stuff for the track before they unplug and move on. sometimes we don't even make it this far.

if i need to go beyond that, it's usually to punch in any mistakes i might've made on one of the three passes.

anyway, this session was no different - we got a couple of passes, and i suggested to frank, the engineer, that this song would sound great with a rickenbacker 12 string on it, and he agreed enthusiastically - but we never had time to go back and add it in. the clock ran out on us.

the track was one of two that i was hoping to get to play on, based on roughs that i'd heard during the making of the record...but you know, when the walls of the studio are literally falling down around you as you're trying to work, you gotta choose your battles....