24 February 2008

idlewheel/dan may tour diary

idlewheel/dan may tour diary - february 2008


itinerary:

february 15th - the turning point, piermont, NY
february 16th - landhaven, barto PA
february 17th (afternoon) - lois and greg's house concert, belvidere NJ
february 17th (evening) - the tin angel, philadelphia PA
february 19th - the cutting room, new york city


personnel:

IDLEWHEEL:

jack sundrud: guitars, mandolin, vocals
craig bickhardt: guitars, vocals
tom hampton: guitar, mandolin, lap steel, dobro, vocals
tom geddes: drums (all shows but 2/19)
mike beeson: drums on 2/19
mike kurman: bass


DAN MAY:

dan may: vocals
heather fili: vocals
alan sheltzer: piano
tom hampton: guitar, mandolin, lap steel, dobro, vocals
tom geddes: drums (all shows but 2/19)
mike beeson: drums on 2/19
mike kurman: bass


(as i play with dan on a regular basis, most of this information will be centered around the idlewheel circumstances...but not exclusively. it's just a perspective on our little trip down the road this month.)



ok, so by normal standards, this wasn't much of a tour, but it was what we could put together in the time that we had to devote to making it happen. the plan (for lack of a better word) was that we would pair idlewheel with dan may for some of the dates where time and location made it both feasible and beneficial for both acts. plus, there was the added benefit of being able to share band members - since idlewheel doesn't have a full time rhythm section for live dates, we could use the players who are already onboard with dan to round out the lineup.

tommy geddes, craig's go-to percussion guy, wasn't able to make the date at the cutting room, so i lined up mike beeson to cover that show. i've worked with mike several times, going back to charlie degenharts' "bridge street main" era band, and i knew he'd have the necessary sensitivity to pull the show off, and do so in a professional manner. mike is inclined to get a little worked up from time to time, with regard to his preparation and his penchant to sweat the gig on occasion...especially in a situation like this one, where he's playing for both bands. but what that tells me is that he has a genuine passion for what he does and that he wants it to be the best it can possibly be. it never manifests itself as stagefright or anything of that nature - just a bit of an edgy disposition at showtime.

i had sucked mike kurman into dan mays' band, based on having played with him in the barley boys - i was really impressed with how quickly mike had learned the barleys' repertoire, and we hit it off on our commute to a festival in connecticut (which turned out to be my last barley gig), so he was a natural choice for the idlewheel gig.

it would also make for a quick set change when the opener concluded his set and the band came on for the headliner slot. it turned out to be something of a stroke of genius on our parts, because it made for great turnovers and a nice continuity between acts. the downside was that both mike the drummer and mike the bass player were relatively new to dans' band, and were still learning his songs at the point that they were asked to learn the idlewheel material - but, it has to be said, they both did an amazing job.


jack had a short window of time available before a poco commitment at the end of the week of the tour, so we did what we could...jack and craig had come up with a preliminary setlist well in advance of the shows, so i was able to farm the material out to the rest of the guys in the band and give them ample opportunity to learn the songs prior to the first rehearsals - and there would only be two.


jack arrived in philadelphia from nashville on the 13th, and we had a rehearsal studio reserved for the 13th and 14th. since the shows were going to be in both acoustic and full band formats, we decided to focus one rehearsal on the full band shows, and one rehearsal on the acoustic shows. beeson was only available for the first rehearsal, so we had him and tommy both set up their kits at the studio and we played through the entire set twice - we'd do each song with tommy and then with mike...which worked out well, because tommy set the bar pretty high for mike, and he hit it every time.

(it should be mentioned that beeson has been very verbal about the fact that tommy geddes was one of the reasons that he started playing music in the first place - tommy and fred ditomasso were the rhythm section in a philly band called hoi polloi some years ago, and beeson used to go see them a lot in his formative years. he's made no secret of the fact that he's a big fan of tommys' playing.)

the second rehearsal was as a quartet consisting of jack, craig, myself and tommy geddes. we pulled everything back down to the "unplugged" level and worked out how the songs would unfold in that format, since the first show (at the turning point in piermont) would be in that format...as would the next two (at lois and gregs' and landhaven).

jack and craig were somewhat apprehensive about doing the shows without a bassist after the first rehearsal, and i'm not sure that they still weren't after the final rehearsal, but the show at the turning point was received extremely well - the lack of a traditional rhythm section allowed us to put the songs - and especially the vocal harmonies - right up front and center. having been sick as a dog for almost a week just prior to the rehearsals, i was scared shitless of how much i'd be able to contribute vocally to the shows. i don't think, even now, that i was ever at one hundred percent vocally for any of the shows. i managed to hit what i needed to a majority of the time, and i guess that's about the best i could have hoped, all things considered. the songs that demanded the most of me - "taste for life" and "howl like a lonesome wind" - were both at the end of the set. some of the material that was easier for me to reach, like "prodigals' lament" and "georgia burning" were towards the front of the setlist and allowed me to get some stretching in before the higher notes in some of the other songs.

the turning point is a great little room - fire code capacity for the room is less than seventy, and you can't really get much more intimate that a show there. john mcavoy, the owner, is a dyed-in-the-wool music fan, and was a pleasure to deal with. we were happy to see so many familiar faces there - a lot of the poconut crowd showed up, including jon & georgina rosenbaum, claudia upton, mark and sharon smith, "new york paul" (whose last name i have to make a point of finding out next time), as well as some new faces that i hadn't seen before. dan may had one couple who'd come down from boston for this show!

again, as the concept was to share rhythm sections for the tour, tommy geddes played with dan for his set as well as for the idlewheel set - and there had been a total of zero rehearsals with tommy and dan, but tommy - pro that he is - came in and sat down behind the kit for the show and nailed the whole thing. in addition to tommys' capabilities as a drummer, he has an enthusiasm for playing that's absolutely infectious. fact is, if you don't enjoy playing with tommy geddes, you probably don't like making music that much to begin with. dan's set was extremely well received by the largely new crowd - many of the folks who had come specifically to see him were first-timers, and the poconuts loved him...then there was the idlewheel set.

whatever misgivings surfaced during the second rehearsal were largely dismissed by the end of the turning point show - tommy did a great job of finding a middle ground between using the full kit the way you typically would when a bass player is present and the spot that he normally occupies with craig...that of percussionist with a minimal rig.

the transition from traditional band to the deluxe unplugged show that we did at the turning point obviously affects my choices, as well. for the shows like the turning point and the show the following night at landhaven, i brought only one electric instrument - my rickenbacker lap steel, which i only used on a couple of songs. the other songs were played either on dobro or mandolin while craig and jack held down the acoustic guitars. the beauty of this setup was that it brought the vocals right up front...and once i'd gotten through the night at the turning point, my voice seemed to open up a bit. the high, high notes didn't get any lower, mind you, but i had been hitting them prior to having gotten sick, and i was able to hit the lion's share of them. one "cheat" that i employed was to back away from the microphone initially and make sure i'd gotten enough air out to land the note and then creep into the mic - now, obviously, this has to happen pretty quickly and you have to make a judgement call based on what you're hearing of your voice in your head, as opposed to through the PA or the monitors....and sometimes, you just have to decide whether it "feels" right or not, and stick your face in there and trust your judgement. for the "non-band" shows, though, it was usually pretty easy to tell. and besides, all three of the first shows on the tour were in that format.


the second night of the tour was at a restored bed and breakfast/general store in the wilds of berks county that i had been relatively unaware of until we set foot inside the place on saturday night. let me tell you, though - once you walk into the room, you won't soon forget it. one minute, you're standing out on the street, and the next - you're standing in the middle of the Olsson's general store from "little house on the prairie". there are floor to ceiling shelves on the walls, lined with various antiques and curiosities...like a program from the 1939 worlds' fair, for instance. the stage is at the back end of the room and, unlike the stage at the turning point, actually allowed enough room for all three of us to stand in front of the drumkit. :)

the lands, owners of the place, are relocated chicago natives, and they obviously love what they do...there's music there nearly every weekend, and it ranges from john jorgensons' gypsy jazz band to celtic music to alt country to trad folk and everywhere in between.

the thing that impressed me most about this show was that a large percentage of the audience were unfamiliar to us - which stands as a testament to the community that they've built up at the venue itself. it isn't often that you find places where people will implicitly trust that whoever they might see there will be good enough to be worth a night out, whether they're familiar with them or not.

one technical problem that i'd encountered at the turning point followed me to landhaven.

the way my rig is configured, i have a single cable that goes into a volume pedal that i use to control the dynamics of whatever instrument i happen to be playing at a given time. out of the volume pedal, one output goes to a custom buffered splitter box that feeds four separate outputs - one for dobro, one for mandolin, one for acoustic guitar or weissenborn, and one for electric guitar. the other output from the volume pedal is a tuner output. on gigs where i play pedal steel, that one cable that i used for everything feeds one side of a splitter box, while the other side is fed by a separate volume pedal for the pedal steel.

i know this seems like a lot of information...bear with me.

the selector box feeds into a snake that goes to a rack directly behind me that accepts the tuner output and every channel from the selector, which is then separated into separate channels of an ashly preamp that has separate EQ for everything that goes through it. the electric doesn't go into the ashly, it goes into a vintage ibanez UE-400 multi effects unit that has distortion, compression, chorus and a phase shifter in it.

i'm gettin' there, i'm gettin' there...

the dobro - god bless it - is always the problem child. (or, i should say, is usually the problem child. we haven't gotten to the cutting room yet.)

there's a nasty howl that emanates from the dobro when amplified at around 200Hz in the frequency range, and if you try to pump the volume too loudly through the system, the dobro will punish you for it by making chewbacca-like noises that are usually traced back to the fact that the dobro's whole modus operandi is based around a large metal cone - a resonator - that acts as a speaker cone of sorts, taking the vibrations from the strings and transferring that energy into sound.

but in the same manner as acting like a speaker, it can also act as a microphone, picking up resonant frequencies and turning them into feedback...and the dobro excels at this unfortunate little quirk in its construction.

now, the ashly preamp that all these instruments run through has extensive EQ on the master output, and individual EQ on each channel...but it's not enough for the dobro. so i put a rane 31 band EQ into the rack and patched the dobro channel through it. i may eventually do the same for the mandolin, as well...but that's another story.

the crux of my problem is this - soundmen generally don't understand the concept of the volume pedal philosophy.

one of the exceedingly useful benefits of a rig like this is that it enables you to get a consistent sound at a certain volume...and then be able to back away from that volume when you're not playing at full tilt.

theoretcially.

what happens in practice is that soundmen, who by their very nature are experts in the school of "if it ain't broke, break it", simply cannot leave a fader untouched for more than a few minutes at a time. so, when i take a solo and then back the volume pedal off to blend in with the other instruments, the soundman immediately thinks, "hey - where'd the dobro go? i'd better turn that puppy up!"

which they do...and then when i step on the volume pedal to play a turnaround or a solo, chewbacca appears instantly and i look like a douchebag.

you wouldn't believe how hard it is to talk a soundman into the whole "set it and forget it" mindset. the minute i back the volume off the instrument, they feel as though some paradigm has shifted, and it's their job to make the universe whole again by gettin' that sucker back up to its previous volume - whether it's actually musically necessary or not.

and that, in and of itself, is a big part of the problem...soundmen (with exceptions, obviously) often operate from the technical side of their brain as opposed to the musical side. guys who defy that particular stereotype in the philly area would be mike lightkep (currently the house soundman at puck live in doylestown) and george pearson (the house soundman at the tin angel in philadelphia). now, while john at the turning point and the fellas at landhaven certainly were capable soundmen and did their best, this dobro thing kept biting both of them (and me) in the ass. two gigs in, and i still hadn't managed to conquer it.

i was certainly looking forward to our tin angel gig at this point.

the next gig, though, would be feedback-free.


sunday morning, we all got up and headed for belvidere, NJ, for a house concert. now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the burdgeoning house concert movement, the name implies all you need to know...the artist sets up in an informal setting at the home of a host, who invites friends, family, other fans, whomever, to attend. it's part hootenanny, part tupperware party...and you can't really get any more intimate, in terms of the distance between the artist and the audience, than a house concert. any closer, and some form of STD protection would be necessary. but, hey - no dobro feedback at this gig!

from an artists' perspective, performers tend to really shine or really wilt in this setting. either they don't know what to do with themselves, or they become addicted to playing in this environment. as for us, i think we held our own...it was a little odd, in terms of having no PA or sound reinforcement...but i think that by the second or third song, it was sinking in and we acclimated pretty well. unfortunately, we didn't get to spend a great deal of time with the folks who were good enough to come see us at lois and greg's, because we had to peel out in the direction of philadelphia for our show at the tin angel. we had a 7pm showtime and had to hustle in order to get there in time for soundcheck - which would probably take a little longer, since it was our first full band show of the run.

talk about going from one end of the extreme to the other - from unamplified in someones' living room to the full complement of electric guitars, bass, and drums in a matter of hours on the same day. nonetheless, i was confident that we'd be fine. george had never let me down.


when he's actually there, that is...which, on this occasion, he wasn't.


i still don't remember the guy's name who was there...and, considering the disparity between the amount of time he spent at the console versus the amount of time he spent smoking out back, that's probably not surprising. so, that being said, the show was a bit of a letdown, in terms of what i was expecting to hear versus what i heard. this night, though, there weren't so many problems with the dobro as usual...probably largely because you couldn't hear it at all, no matter where the volume pedal was situated.

if anything, though, that proves that he was actually capable of "setting it and forgetting it"...it's just that he didn't really get the necessary handle on the "set" part of the equation.


nonetheless, both bands were again very well received - by their own audiences as well as the others'. after having done three largely acoustic shows in a row, the adjustment to having the electric guitars onstage seemed like a bit of a jar to everyone (in the dan camp as well as the idlewheel camp), but the adjustment didn't take long....which is a good thing, because there was only one show left after this one.


everyone else got monday night off...and while i didn't have to play, i did stay up until midnight helping dylan complete a 160 point project for western civilization that he hadn't even started that was due the next day....so much for getting to bed early.


for the final show of the tour, the baton was passed from tommy geddes on drums to the talented and capable mike beeson, the new drummer in dan's band. mike had done his necessary homework and really shone at rehearsal, so no one (that i'm aware of, anyway) was terribly worried about whether or not he'd be able to pull it off...i picked him up on the way to NYC and we listened to the set on the way and reviewed stops and starts, some of the differences in the way we were playing the songs from the way they were rendered on the disc that we all learned the songs from...so on and so forth.

the cutting room in NYC is something of an east coast viper room...it's celebrity-owned (chris noth, of sex in the city and law and order, is the principal owner) and there seems to be a perpetual preoccupation with maintaining a degree of trendiness - but it's a great room...intimate but big enough to ease the volume knob up a notch, too.

and yet, the soundcheck for this gig was the worst. the WORST.


now, i should point out that, save for the dobro issues discussed prior, everything else has worked like a charm on this jaunt. yet, when we got there, the soundman complained of noise coming from my rig, of low line level buzzing, of this, of that...you name it. he asked me to skip this or that component in the signal chain, take this out, replace that cable, so on and so forth...until we'd wasted half an hour of time. even more frustrating is the fact that the instrument he complained about was my acoustic guitar - an instrument that i've gotten nothing but compliments about from other soundmen. now, granted, the output level from the pickup in my trusty 'bone shenandoah martin isn't terribly hot, but that's why i have the two preamps in series coming out of the instrument - the first is a passac EC-100, used more for tone shaping than gain. the second, the ultra-rare whirlwind commander, is there to put the oomph into the signal. and, seriously - no one EVER complains about this instrument in this configuration. the only time i've ever had problems with it was at mount gretna during the "stand by your man" run...but that was fixed easily enough by replacing a battery in one of the units.


so, after spending half an hour arguing with moby at the console, i finally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a surrender, and decided to just play dan's set on electric guitar. i had brought my walnut telecaster with me specifically for the idlewheel set, and ended up playing it on most of dans' set. i'm assuming it was a weather issue, but i couldn't keep that guitar in tune to save my life that night. after dan's set, he hurried off with alan and heather and jack and craig came on - i ran through the necessary instruments and tuned what i could (since the tuner was out of my chain, thanks to moby's insistence that i bypass my rack) and we got ready to hit the ground running.


this set was one of those instances where, somehow, the vibe of the performance transcended the conditions set upon us by the venue. it should be mentioned that neither larry (our manager) nor myself went into this show with much of a smile on our faces - since the venue had decided to convienently wait until mere weeks before the show to put tickets on sale, then didn't bill the show correctly, then omitted us from the index page, and opted to book a 10PM show the same night...which left us an hour and 45 minutes for both bands.

yet somehow, when the set started, everyone was all smiles...hell, i even managed to overcome my frustrations long enough to enjoy the final night of the tour. some songs i played better than others...i had certainly managed to allow a few of them to float to the top of my favorites list, and i felt like i played especially well on "nothing i can do about the rain", "georgia burning" and "prodigal's lament". my voice was definitely showing the strain of having strung all these dates together in february by the end of the night...by the time "howl like a lonesome wind" came around, i don't know if actual noise was coming out of my mouth or not. i could feel air moving, but i couldn't hear anything.

also, for "howl", i picked up the tele...which was so horribly out of tune that i wanted to crawl under my rack and hide. then i put that down and picked up my strat, and it wasn't much better, for some reason...i tried to quietly "ding it in" (tuning w/harmonics) and get on the road, but it was too late - the band was already full throttle and there was no going back at that point. i got it in somewhat close and soldiered through it.

i had worked out a basic structure for a solo for that song on electric, but i never actually used it. the other shows saw me playing that song on dobro, and i never really executed that song properly in either of the electric shows. next time, though, look out.

there were a bevy of folks who had come to the shows to support us, some of them coming to nearly every one of them...and there were some new faces that i'd never seen before, as well. i can say that everyone involved in the tour from our side of the desk was thrilled at the amount of support that we got from fans of both dan's and idlewheel...after the show, we all said our goodbyes in front of the club as the equipment was being loaded - jack was flying back to nashville the next morning, and the tour was over just as we were getting our legs underneath us.

but that's the nature of the beast these days...almost all bands, save for those who find the most favor with the labels and the public, tour sporadically, if at all. gigs are "flown out" as often as not, with agents and managers usually accepting an "anchor date" and filling in dates around it as best as they can to maximize earnings and exposure. seldom do artists get the opportunity to pile onto the bus, as in olden days, and go from venue to venue, hotel to hotel, playing shows in an organized fashion in one fell swoop - by and large, it seems to be done much in the fashion that we've just done - largely DIY. we booked the dates, coordinated schedules, designed and distributed posters, promoted the shows, arranged travel - the whole nine yards. there was an element of risk involved, as we had overhead involved, and the prospect of losing money was very real...but it appears that, while no one got rich, that we're pretty solidly in the black. enough so that everyone was, at a minimum, reimbursed for their expenses (i personally spent roughly $120 on gas, $37 for NYC parking, $15 for philly parking...you get the idea).

the payoff, for me anyway, was the shows - judging from all the reviews that have surfaced (on the poconut forum and elsewhere, the shows were incredibly well received by the folks who were there, and that definitely bodes well for the next one.


hope to see you then. :)





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....




10 March 2006

noises' first top five list

some of the things that recording at home has taught me about myself:


1. (and probably first and foremost):

nothing motivates me like a deadline.



i'm sure that i'm not the only person of which this could be said...knowing something absolutely, positively, has to be done on a certain day has a way of lighting a fire under all of us. i've seen this manifested twice here in just the past month or so, in terms of trying to finish things for people or for events. it's maddening, but it definitely gets results.

what exactly is it that i did, you might ask?


well, i had resigned myself to not having anything of substance to sell at the show last month...but i decided to do some actual detective work, and found that there are options out there that i hadn't considered that could actually put discs and t-shirts in my hands in time for the show.

pertinent to this particular discussion is dean sciarra of it's about music and his assistant, fern brodkin. one of the services they offer is called CD On Demand - since they do their own manufacturing, this allows you to upload artwork and completed masters and get finished, manufactured CD's back in, oh, twenty minutes or so.

alright...it's not that quick, but they're pretty damned fast.


to me, this is just phenomenal...when you consider how long this used to take. i don't know if i ever shared any of the horror stories related to the artwork on our mutual angels or not, but they were legion....hiring hacks to do it initially, who screwed it up so bad that i had to hire someone else after the fact to completely redesign the artwork from the ground up and drive the film to oasis in virginia in order to get the discs done in time for the CD release party.


this time, as fate would have it, it's the other way around...i'm actually finished with the artwork first, and i'm still working on getting the final master ready for the duplicator, and the discs will be ready less than 24 hours after he takes delivery of the master.


things sure have changed in the time since i went through this the last time.


but, to get back to my point - i could've had these songs finished, ready for mixing...i could've taken my time and gotten them closer to actual release quality...if i'd been as motivated a few months ago as i've been forced to be. and the reality of this situation is that the concept for noises was pretty vague up until quite recently. still, once the idea of having to be finished by thursday was implanted in my head, i worked like a friggin' madman to finish this thing.


so, to recap....for me, deadlines=flurry of feverish activity.




2. i have infinite patience for multiple takes, but no patience for comping.


...which is to say, i'll do it over and over again until i get it right, but i can't be bothered to keep any of the other takes and "comp" them later, except under very specific circumstances. i think this is the result of scar tissue that i accumulated working on my first album, which was comp central - but then steve had infinite patience for that stuff. he'd listen to the same line of a song eight times, sung the same way eight times, and would swear that he could tell a slight difference between one and the other. i don't know if it's that he truly heard things i didn't, or if he was just listening harder...or if perhaps some other factor might've crept in. but for my particular way of working, i just find that i'm much better off in the long run punching in and out if need be to get the one perfect take and leaving it at that. that way, i know that the track marked "vocal" is just that...not vocal one, vocal two, vocal with good chorus, vocal with mucous...none o' that. just one solid vocal and that's it.

every time i go to mix, i thank myself for that.


3. physical fatigue is the studio equivalent of beer goggles.


when i get tired, things start to sound good. reeeall good. so good, in fact, that i can't think of anything else that i could possibly do to this song to improve on it, so it's ok to go to bed now.

except it's never as "okay" as i remember it being when i come back to it with some energy and a fresh set of ears.

what that tells me is that my standards seem to be inextricably linked to my physical stamina. so that should be easy enough to avoid, if i only work when i've had sufficient rest and plenty of time to delve into whatever i'm working on, right?


well, if you know anything about my life, you know how often those conditions exist. which means that i'll just have to try and be as sensitive to the impending auditory beer goggles as i can and know when to call it a day.


4. do not EQ to taste during mixing.


when i finished assembling the songs for the first volume of noises, i took my burned CD to my bass player tony's house, and we put them up on his stereo and listened to the first track. tony listened intently for a minute or so, and then looked at me and said, "it's boomy."

now this was after i'd listened to it through two different sets of speakers in the studio, on two different boom boxes, and in the car. it sounded different everywhere i listened to it, but i had tried to mix it as neutrally as i could. i knew that i hated the way it sounded in the car, and i was already all set to go and make some improvements before i turned it in...and tony's observation sealed the deal. so i stayed up and remixed the full band arrangements and pulled up the solo acoustic songs in audition and compressed the mixed version of the song and used the same threshold for everything...and i have to say, it was a lot better than it had been the first pass.

so i took it to dean, the head of my label, so he could listen to it before we went to press with it.

"that's real boomy", he said.

well, after my eyes rolled back to their normal forward positions, i listened as he imported the audio into his computer and began working on it...and it wasn't long until i realized what my rookie mistake had been. the sad thing is that i totally know better and yet i did it anyway.

instead of aiming for a truly neutral EQ curve, i went for a truly neutral EQ curve that reflected my own personal preferences, in terms of balance. for instance, i'm a big fan of that stephen stills bass sound that you hear on the first CSN album, and that's ultimately what ends up on tape when i play bass on something. that's not, however, necessarily how it's represented in the mix. i played bass on "on a stone" on the blake allen record, and it doesn't sound like that in the final mix, although it sure as hell did in some of the preliminary mixes...

so i have to be a lot more diligent about making neutrality the focus of my EQ curves while i'm mixing. it'll save a lot of heartache later.



5. the more i learn, the less i know.



seriously.


for every cool tip or trick that i figure out, i become aware that there a a few hundred that it opens the door for.

i don't think that syndrome ever goes away...and it's probably a good thing.


because - after all, what happens to you once you've got it all figured out?




13 February 2006

noises from the basement...volume one

so the first project done completely in my home studio is now finished, duplicated, and will soon be available for purchase.

i've been busy working on the poco album - with the objective of having something mixable to give to them when i saw them this past week, which i accomplished. i finished a rough mix of "childs' claim to fame" and gave it to them over a week ago...and so last night, when we played together in phoenixville, they called me up on stage to do the song with them. so i'm assuming that they must've liked it....


anyway, i've been considering this idea - ever since i started this blog, really - of recording some things specifically for the purpose of discussing them here...in terms of how they were recorded, what i did to get specific sounds, things of that nature...and calling it noises from the basement, but it didn't seem like reason enough to actually release something. but as i started thinking about it, i remembered how iain matthews and his series of live alone albums...which are essentially solo acoustic albums that he recorded himself and released as fan club-type deals. and then there are my friends in simon apple who release demos, live tracks, and rarities and such...and i thought, there's a cool way to do this.

so i thought, ok - if i'm going to release stuff that i recorded in the home studio, i'm going to do it warts-and-all, and have them be what they are - demos, unreleased stuff, live tracks - things that would have never seen the light of day otherwise. the only reason for releasing something that had already been on an "official" release would be if the version were drastically different than what was on the album. i wouldn't let myself get completely caught up in making them "perfect"...because if that's the motivation, then the songs belong on an "official" album. these are supposed to be things recorded on a lark, for fun, or songs that made it to the recording stage but wouldn't see the light of day on an official release.

also, i didn't want to create the impression that i was throwing these out into the world to cash in on them...so to that end, i've decided to donate part of what i take in from the sales of these discs to charity...the first benefactor to be the grace oughton cancer foundation.


so...to this end, i'm releasing noises from the basement, volume one through my new label partner, it's about music, within the next week or so. it contains ten songs - three originals that have never been released among covers of songs by artists from shane nicholson to pure prairie league. there are studio tracks interspersed with live tracks, interspersed with demos that predate our mutual angels. on each track on the album, every instrument you hear is played by yours truly - every single one. all vocals as well. that will not be a hard and fast rule moving forward, but it's entirely likely to be the case in almost every instance that isn't a live, full band situation.


i would like to take a minute to talk about it's about music and the job they've done in making this disc available.

i conceived this project as it currently stands roughly two weeks ago. not even that, really. i'd say the middle of the week before last. i called dean sciarra, the president of the label, about their cd-on-demand service and how it worked, and what their turnaround times were - all the usual initial questions. i had already spoken with dean at length about the poco project, and he's shown a great deal of interest in that particular release...and he was more than willing to help with this project, as well. in fact, he went well above and beyond the call of duty to get this project not only ready for release, but ready for release in record time.

how fast?


this fast - he received the artwork on tuesday, the master recording on thursday, and the finished, shrink-wrapped CD's were available for sale at the colonial theatre show on friday night.


i'm not sure i can even speak to what a huge difference that is in the ordeal that i went through with the artwork design and packaging process on mutual angels alone...


i'm looking forward to a long and rewarding relationship with dean sciarra and company in the future...there'll be another noises from the basement volume coming up at years' end, as well as the poco tribute album this spring...and the first album of all-original music in nine years this fall.



and you can probably look forward to lots of rants about what a pain in the ass home recording is in this particular space as i dig deeper into these projects....true to the spirit of this particular journal, there'll be a track by track dissection of the first volume of noises in the not too distant future.




05 February 2006

the first rough mix

went to see the boys from poco last night in lancaster, pa, where they were appearing with america on the Legends Who Lost A Founding Member To God Tour (not the official marketing angle, just my personal nickname).

i thought i'd summon some oft-neglected courage and burn a copy of something to take along with me...alphabetically, the closest to completion was "child's claim to fame", so i dumped that onto discs and gave one to each of the band members after the show. it still has the scratch vocal and the original guitar on it, but it was a decent mix. there's a few things to be added to it yet, but i think it sounds pretty close to what it's going to sound like (minus the harmonies at this point).

paul cotton is back with the band and sounding better than ever.

this friday, i'm opening for poco at the colonial theatre in phoenixville with my band.


there's another project i'm hoping to have finished by then as well...which i'll talk more about a little later....either here or over at the official site.



01 February 2006

snare drums and the men who love them

so what exactly is it with snare drums?


it's funny - you hear them on a record, and you'd think that nothing could be easier to record...i mean, i've been in situations where less-than-desirable sounds originating from the drum itself have been made to sound like the hammer of the gods...so you wouldn't think that it'd be that difficult to coax a decent recorded tone out of the kit in my studio.

right?



right?


well, let's put it this way - it's taken a lot longer than i'd prefer that it take to get this phase of the record on its feet and underway. i do understand now, in a way that perhaps i didn't before, what must go into getting a solid, tight drum sound in the studio.


all i've ever really been privvy to in my time as a musician, in terms of getting the drums from point A to point B in the studio, is the setup, tuning, and miking of the kit. and from everything i've read, these three steps are certainly the most important. but there are two other considerations that i'm finding to be potentially crippling if you don't prepare for them - compression settings and phase issues.

compression is still something of a mystery to me.

(i can hear the pros moaning to themselves now..."ohhhhboy - is this poor bastard ever in for it....")


and yet, it's true...i know the principles behind compression, what its purpose is, all that...but ratios and attack and release times are all greek to me. i know, from listening to the sound as i adjust those particular properties, what result to expect when i adjust a particular parameter...but the mechanics of how it works and what it does is over my head at the moment. i know that the primary function is to keep a signal from exceeding a threshold set by the user, and that if used creatively, it colors the sound a certain way.

there. that's really about it, in terms of what i know. those two things.


now, where this gets interesting in the context of a solo recording environment is when you start trying to put even those two simple principles into practice.


in my own scenario, i have the recording equipment in one room and the drumkit in another. i initially set out to mic the drums using the audix mics that came in my audix six pack that i got from a fellow tape-opper a while back...and for the most part, the kick and the toms sound pretty good, right out of the box. however, the overheads were a little washed out, and i wasn't getting any signal out of one of them...the hi-hats got an SM57 on them, which turned out to be largely unnecessary, save for a little added presence, and i used one of the audix mics on the snare, initially.

now, the snare exhibited this nasty, nasal ringing tone at first - and that's after applying deadener around the rim and taping a rolled up piece of tube sock to the edge of the head.


so, i resorted to the reggie treece treatment, and i got a shop rag and covered the head with it and taped it down.

that got rid of the ring well enough. still, though, even though i could hear the drum in the room and knew that it had plenty of the snares in the overall sound of the drum, and that it wasn't hurting for snap at all...but it sure as hell wasn't translating to tape that way. in fact, it sounded largely like cardboard. like cardboard with no snares on it. it was just this faint thud with zero character....and even with the treble boosted all the way, the snares were almost unintelligible. it really sounded like a tightly tuned high tom.


so the first thing i did was to double-mic the snare...i put an SM57 on it as a companion to the audix mic that was already on it, and ran it into a different channel on the console, and a different track on the ADAT. i got roughly the same result, which surprised me, because i was ready to blame the mic.

i should probably backtrack a bit and interject that i used a test CD that i downloaded from the internet to tune the monitors with a pair of Rane EQ's as a temporary fix to having a somewhat crappy and inaccurate power amp running my monitors - so i've been operating on the assumption that what i'm monitoring through the speakers is significantly more accurate than what i've been accustomed to.

however, what i found last night - after spending some time working on the DAW in the studio and getting a little closer to having it run with some modicum of stability - is that after i imported the tracks into the DAW with samplitude, they seemed to come to life.

what - what, i ask - does this mean?


the preliminary conclusions i can draw, up to this point, are these:


one - the board is doing a decent job of getting the audio from the mic stage to the record stage of the adats, otherwise what i'm hearing from the PC would be a lot more similar to what my monitors are telling me. but there's a seriously audible difference between the two.

two - once the audio has entered the digital realm via the ADAT, i don't have to worry about inconsistencies between the audio after that point in the signal path. what's going into the computer, in other words, is exactly what's coming off the ADAT's and back through the monitoring chain (console inputs, amp, speakers).

three - i've done some of the outtakes from the blake allen album both ways - both by mixing the ADAT's directly to the PC through the console and monitoring through the PC speakers, and by importing the ADAT audio digitally into the PC and mixing it "in the box". in both of those instances, i got what i felt was a pretty accurate representation of the contents of the tracks. so it can't be established - in fact, it can be all but ruled out - that the input stage of the console is where the issue lies.



so...what the hell is it, then?


let's recap.


monitors

probably not. i replaced what i believed to be defective monitors with a set of alesis monitor ones from eBay not long after setting up, and i have sufficient reason to believe that there's absolutely nothing wrong with them. i have friends whose opinion i respect who use them shamelessly, so i'm not ready to point at them.


power amp

still my personal favorite target of blame...it's a tascam PA-40 (?) that was a companion piece to a cassette 4-track that i got from a former manager, and it got the job by default when it came time to set this whole rig up. i never would've thought that it would have been a problem to the magnitude that it's become, if it in fact is the root of all this head-scratching. i thought, though, that i'd corrected the misrepresentation issue somewhat when i "calibrated" the speakers a while back.

oddly - as a secondary thought - the other instruments sounded relatively normal, in comparison to the drums.


console


gaining on the power amp, in terms of positioning on the suspicion scale - is something wired wrong? do i have a problem with a buss? do i have something plugged in backwards? am i monitoring from the wrong output? is it a summing issue?


man.


my head hurts.




24 January 2006

whether 'tis nobler to be true....





so i'm at a bit of an impasse here.


as i may or may not have mentioned earlier, there's a project i'm working on right now that involves recording an album of cover songs, all by the same band. now conceivably, there would be certain benefits that would come from focusing on the same band or the same style or a specific time period...but none of those really come into play with this project.

there was originally a thought that i might concentrate on a particular era of material, but that would be to the detriment of the project in my mind...as there would be a lot of great songs that would be left off.


but, really - all that aside, i find myself wrestling with a particular point during the recording, and that is:


do i try to stay faithful to the sounds of the era these songs were recorded in, or do i throw all that shit out the window and just put my own stamp on this thing?


typically, this would be a no-brainer...and most folks would say that there's no real reason to do someone elses' material unless the point is to put your own stamp on it. nonetheless, i've felt compelled to try and stay somewhat close to the spirit of the original versions of these songs.

as time goes by, i'm finding that's less and less important.


as a for-instance, i had set up and tuned the drums with this project in mind. i deadened the shit out of them, cranked the snare down pretty tight - did everything but take off the bottom heads and put duct tape on the cymbals (although i'm not above doing that too, if it comes to that).

but what i've found, in listening to the drums as i play them or as dylan uses the studio kit to practice for jazz band, is that i'm kinda digging the way they sound as they are. they're not necessarily true to the era that i'm recreating, but i think that they'll ultimately sit very well in the tracks as they build.

granted, these are the kinds of things that one typically thinks through before they dive headfirst into a project...and i did give it some thought, but i don't think i gave it the proportionate amount of thought. and at this point in time, and this point in the timeline of this thing, i'm thinking that i'm just going to let it fall together as it will. i don't know that there's any point in trying to recreate these songs note for note on every track...there's no flattery angle here - i'm not trying to prove anything to that end. i just want to do these songs the very best that i can.


i talked for a good while to my buddy marty higgins just before christmas, doing my own bob stirner impersonation and trying to convince him to get off his ass, write some songs, and bring them to my house so that we can record them. unlike me, though, when i'm in his position during The Bob Chronicles, marty actually seemed enthusiastic about the prospect - so this could actually happpen at some point in the not too distant future.


and in the spirit of other projects, i've decided that i'm going to start a "noises from the basement" series of discs...you know - "noises from the basement, volume one", "volume two", and so on and so forth. these are going to be relatively low-key recordings - covers, outtakes, alternate versions and the like.

crazy as it may seem, i got the idea from a discmakers email that came my way a few weeks ago...they now have the means to let you upload content directly to their site, assemble a j-card via their site, and place your entire duplication order via their site. they say the results of the order would be on your doorstep in less than a week.


now, seriously - how friggin' cool is that?


what that means, as i interpreted it, is that you can just sit at home and record shit, mix it, shoot it outta your mailbox, and have finished duplicated CD's back in a week or so! now, that's just too much temptation for me. shit - you thought the market was crowded with product before? just wail 'til this shit catches on.


anyway - i did record a couple of things for the potential first volume of "noises" - "top of the world" by patty griffin, "satellite song" by shane nicholson, and "your bright baby blues" by jackson browne...and i have a ton of other songs that i want to add to that...even some original tunes! can you imagine that?



boy...i dunno if i can even imagine that.