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Category Archives: recording

smash in the studio

I haven’t recorded much new music for you since we moved into our house in 2010, which is downright odd, since now I have an entire music studio to produce in instead of an itty little 12′x12′ home office slash studio slash dressing room slash equipment shed.

The space is a plus and a minus. It’s a plus to not have all of my guitars piled up on top of each other in my walk in closet so I can never play any of them. The minus is, I’m only really working in the studio if I’m working in the studio. Do you catch my drift? It’s not like I’m trying to choose a shirt to wear to a party and taking a quick listen to a mix, or EQing vocals between blog posts.

Just after agreeing to try being a band, as shot by @SuzyMags. Yes, I am wielding a neon green yoga mat, like the fucking rock star I am.

I spent yesterday locked in the studio, building an acoustic track from scratch for my new covers side project, Smash Fantastic.

I know, I know – another project? Am I ever going to make a freaking blog post, let alone focus on a band?

My excuse is that Smash Fantastic really plugged a hole in what I want to be doing. I love cover songs, and I love big-voiced woman. I tend to err in those directions for my own solo sets, but there’s only a pretty specific audience for my covering Kelly Clarkson and Lady Gaga.

Plus, let’s be honest, when am I every playing solo anymore?

Enter my friend and colleague Ashley. She has the pipes for those sorts of songs, but not an outlet for the sound. After a few months of messing around progressed to having a serious repertoire and a pair of performances, it seemed like time to have a demo.

Thus my day in the studio – first alone, and later with Ashley, covering one of our favorite songs line by line.

It felt really good. Not just the recording of it, but the knowing what I was doing, and the having the space to execute my vision without clearing a pile of clothes from where it was hanging over a microphone stand.

Now I just have to spend enough more time in the studio to turn the sum of 28 multi-track recordings from Arcati Crisis, Filmstar, and Smash Fantastic into actual, listenable songs.

I guess what I’m saying is: new music, coming soon!

Trust

I am sitting alone on the step in the small front hallway of my house, playing guitar.

A cage of microphones, stands, and cables surround my body in such a way that I can’t turn or stretch. If I drop a pick it’s lost to me. I just grab another from the tin sitting beside me and keep playing.

Gina, Zina, and Jake are less than 25 feet away – I know, because that is how long the 1/4” cable plugged into my guitar stretches. I can’t see them. We have erected a wall of cardboard boxes in the door frame that leads from our hall into the living room. Gina and I puzzled it together on Saturday while she hummed the theme to Tetris.

I can hear them. Only faintly through the boxes, but loud and clear over my massive, ear-cupping headphones. Gina chirps in a variety of accents through her control room mic, keeping me informed of the action in the other room and singing my songs on my behalf. Jake and Zina communicate via their instruments.

Every track I have ever released has been engineered, mixed, and produced by me. That means any time you have listened to me as a performer I was also busy thinking about a lot of other things, like if the mics are placed correctly or if the bridge is going to clip.

I can’t do that from this side of my wall of boxes. The control room is 25 feet away. Gina and Jake are the ones engineering my songs, and Zina is driving them. My only job is to sit on this step and play guitar the best I know how.

It was hard during my first song. I was still barking commands and telling Gina just how to cue each track. That did not last for long. It didn’t need to. If I can put my musical life in Gina’s hands, then who else can I trust?

That’s the word I keep coming back to in my tiny guitar room, stare fixed on the sideways logos on cardboard boxes as Gina cues up another track. Trust. I don’t know if I ever understood rock bands before now. I liked them and obsessed over every detail of their album credits, but I don’t know if I understood them.

Now, in my little box, I understand.

Rock bands are about trust. Every note, every rhythm and chord, is another blind fall. If you cannot trust the rest of the band to catch you it will never ring true.

I am ready to plummet through another take.

break it and build it again

I wasn’t allowed to sing for two weeks. It’s a story I’ll get around to telling once it stops freaking me out quite so much.

That meant no Arcati Crisis rehearsals. My singing is much less central to Filmstar, so we kept rehearsing sans my mic stand.

Right now we’re in pre- pre-production for our next recording. For our last one we started with recording drums to click tracks, and even if is taking me forever and ever to mix them into something listenable it was certainly worth the effort. Being able to steal sounds from any take and blend them together seamlessly was totally worth the tempo wrangling. Plus, everything is nice and consistent!

An outtake from our recent Filmstar photo shoot.

Unless you are playing the most obvious 1-2-3-4 rhythm on the planet, when you play to a click it is like the musical world you are creating from within has had its gravitational value altered. Songs feel too slow when you play them quietly and deliberately, but too fast at full blast. Syncopation puts your emphasis off-click, which feels like swimming against tide. You discover parts where you subtly speed up or slow down, and the seconds of discontinuity give you musical vertigo.

To that imbalance, this week we have returned my singing to the equation, but it’s different, too. Yes, I am more cautious of my high notes, but it’s more than that. My voice doesn’t have that worn-in groove that it usually has, where I can settle in and belt. I have to actually think about where I am placing my notes, and how I will support them.

Add to that a new set of strings on my bass and a handful of new effects pedals, and it really feels like I am playing these songs again for the first time, relearning my parts piece by piece.

What makes that so interesting is that these are the songs we learned after I joined the band. The pieces are mine. The parts came from my brain. Instead of fiddling with someone else’s bass line that doesn’t quite fit me to begin with, I am rebuilding each song from components of my own design.

It is totally different. I get to ask questions about my own musical logic. I am tearing down old rhythms and fingering for things that are more efficient or intricate, or both.

I know it is the same band of the same four people and these are songs I have been playing for a long time – two years, for some of them – but I can’t help it: it feels new to me.

The next Filmstar show is on Sunday, August 5th at NorthStar Bar, where we will have the pleasure of sharing the bill with the darling boys of Venice Sunlight.

You should come.

independence doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help

On a top-secret mission to Sine Studios at 127 S. 22nd Street in Philadelphia, just above Walnut.

Happy Independence Day!

Last night Jake and I conducted a special, top secret Arcati Crisis mission at Sine Studios, my favorite studio in Philly.

I can’t get into the details of our journey just yet, but given the context of today it made me think about what independence and DIY really means to me – and to you.

For a long time I was DIY because I had to be – because no one else wanted to help me make music or publish my writing or code my website. I didn’t have the money or the clout to attract anyone to my projects, so I did them all myself.

I’m sure you’ve found yourself in the same place. Nobody would do it for you, so you did it for yourself!

That do-it-yourself know-how is a wonderful thing to have. I love that I’ve never been to a recording studio and that I’ve coded all my own websites from scratch or with open source. I love being capable and autonomous.

But being independent doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help.

This weekend in my JavaScript coding I got super-stuck more than once. Luckily, I am married to a self-taught JavaScript expert. I was happy to have her help. Last summer E laid down a set of beautiful new slate steps in our back yard, but mixing a new cement panel for our front walk was beyond her. We hired a local contractor, and they took care if it in a matter of hours a few weeks ago.

E and I never stopped being independent and capable. We still did our research and learned new things from the process. We just called in the experts when the time was right.

I have been working on recording projects for both Arcati Crisis and Filmstar over the past year. Recording a full rock band is a tall task. It’s not just about putting up a ton of microphones and rolling tape. You have to deal with noise, separation, splitting signals, phase issues, and tons of other aspects.

I can handle that myself as a recording engineer, but that takes a lot out of me as a performer. Add to that a fiercely played full drum set, and the hamster in my brain will run itself right off of his wheel.

That’s what lead to our top secret trip to Sine. I was asking for help from experts that I trust.

It doesn’t mean we’re not independent. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t do it myself if I wanted to. It just means that now I know when it’s time to reach out to someone I trust instead of suffering through difficulties on my own.

That’s what independence means to me today.

What does independence mean to you?

Crushing On: RedCo Audio

RedCo Audio saved my studio, my sanity, and my bank account. If you are wiring a studio, a patch bay, a home theatre, or any other kind of DIY multimedia project you should buy your cables exclusively from RedCo.

Is that a ringing enough endorsement?

Let’s backtrack for a second. In every occupation, hobby, or pastime there are hidden costs that do not reveal themselves until you are in too deep to avoid them.

Well, maybe not entirely hidden, but at least not obvious. When you buy a new photo printer, you know it will need paper and ink, but you aren’t always thinking about how expensive those glossy papers and photo inks will be, and how you might need a new card reader for all your massive files.

The same goes for any musical hobby. You assume your big expenditures will be your instrument, amplification, and various tone devices – and wow that is already a lot to expend, let me tell you. Instead of equipping myself to play bass from scratch in the last 12 months I could have put a down payment on a brand new car or a timeshare.

Eventually you get there. I did, and I am historically terrified of electric rock signal chain technology. I’d prefer something lower-fi, like a stick tied to a washtub. But I persevered – I got my ideal instrument and signal chain set up in my custom home studio, only to realize I didn’t have enough cables, and when I looked them up online I found that a 2ft patch cable costs THIRTY DOLLARS.

WHY WOULD THAT BE?

This actually looks pretty elegant, as washtub basses go.

I have learned my lesson from cheap cables that crap out every six months. I now understand that the cheapest option will always cost you double in the long run. After nearly falling out of my chair from seeing how much the patch cable was I hesitantly searched for the 35ft XLR I needed from high-end brands like Mogami and Monster…

…all the blood rushed from my face. I almost fell out of my chair.

I was going to have to drain my entire savings account to cable my studio. Not only that, but the cables weren’t even what I needed! In one case I needed a 35ft, not 50ft, and right angle TS connector, not straight TRS – but that didn’t exist. I’d be spending a mint on the wrong options!

Enter RedCo Audio. They are a small company in Connecticut specializing in hand-made custom cables. And, not just custom lengths. You can pick everything from the gauge of the cable down to the angle of the connection. They can make audio cables, coax connections, and custom multi-channel snakes. They have every option you could every imagine, including the very same materials used by Mogami and other boutique brands.

A 50ft Mogami studio-quality XLR? $110 list price. A 50ft RedCo XLR with the same materials? $55. That doesn’t even account for the fact that you might only need 45ft, and wouldn’t mind a lighter cable gauge. (New price? $38)

A $300 spend at RedCo got me a dozen new cables totaling over 250 feet, which would have cost more than $1000 to buy retail. I’ll admit, it was super-confusing to pick all the right cables and connectors, but I left notes in each order about what I planned to use the cable for and RedCo gave me an unexpected personal call to recommend a few changes in my order, which they made for no additional cost.

Two weeks later, I had a box of brand new custom cables on my doorstep, each the perfect solution to a need in my home studio.

I love RedCo Audio. Love love love. I will never in my life buy studio cable anywhere else, and I’ll always get exactly what I need.

Filmstar Double A-Side: Drum Mixdowns

I am radically Do-It-Yourself when it comes to music.

Since Gina is also a dedicated DIYer we always go that route with Arcati Crisis with no questions asked. We record ourselves, design our own graphics and websites, rehearse at home, and are now working on creating our own merchandise.

Filmstar is different. They DIY some things, but not others. They’ve been to a recording studio, used a rehearsal space, hired a photographer, and are even discussing working with a manager.

I try not to unduly influence the band with my mutinous DIY ways, but when it came to dropping big dollars on studio recording when we had never been through the process before I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. The result was last month’s drum engineering session in our dining room, which I spent a big chunk of yesterday mixing down. Read more…

Now the entire band has a set complete drum compilation CDs, which run about 140 minutes altogether. We have to do some careful listening to whittle that down to the 15ish minutes of rhythm that will become a part of our final songs. They could be entire takes or – thanks to recording to a click track – the best pieces of several different takes. After we agree on our selections, E will dub in a scratch vocal and I’ll go to work recording permanent bass parts.

In a studio our budget to date would be hovering around $780 for the work thus far.

Our DIY project budget remains at $0 (although E and I pooled personal money to upgrade me to Cubase 6 for the rest of mixing – still spending less than our $780 studio budget).

Viva la DIY!

The 30 for 30 Project

When I hatched one of my typically insane musical project ideas – to record 30 songs from the 30 years of my life for my 30th birthday (maybe in the 30 days of September?) – I was working from the assumption it would stay an idea due to my perfectionism. The concept would be safely tucked away as an iTunes playlist with all of the other covers projects that I’d never started.

"Endless Love" by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie was the number one record in America the day I was born. While I won't say that I'll NEVER cover it, you definitely won't be hearing it later today as my pick from 1981.

Then, August happened. I kept posting every day, and really enjoying it. I finally found a blogging rhythm, eleven years into my experiment. I thought, maybe the idea isn’t so crazy after all. Maybe I should do it.

The issue is that I haven’t recorded any new solo music since we moved into the house last June. I have hatched half a dozen cool projects in my head, but I haven’t launched a single one.

This seems paradoxical. I have a studio now. Space to set up and stay set up without having to drape suit jackets over my microphone poles and check email from within a lattice of quarter-inch cables.

I mean that literally. At the old house my studio was my office was my dressing room. It was common to find a discarded microphone atop a pile of wireframe sketches and freshly laundered underwear. Gear shared a walk-in closet with board games and old copies of Rolling Stone. Switching to a different guitar meant risking sending up a tinker-tape parade of brightly colored Monopoly money in my hallway if I moved a box the wrong way.

And you know what? It didn’t stop me. I recorded two seasons of Trio, four Arcati Crisis Live @ Rehearsals, and over a dozen solo demos that became my Brown Bag Demos, Vol. 1. Now I have an entire attic committed solely to recording, and the well has suddenly run dry.

Actually, the well is quite wet. I have the best intentions. The new wrinkle is that with space to set up a perfect signal chain the issue is no longer my willingness, but my perfection. Everything has to be perfect. Perfectly planned, perfectly rehearsed, perfectly executed.

The Rolling Stones' 18th American LP, Tattoo You, held the top album spot when I was born. I won't be playing "Start Me Up" at any point in this project.

Perfect makes things hard. Bobbling that one chord change? Delay it. Tickle in my throat? Cancel it.

30 for 30 is different. I am not promising perfection. I am not promising that I’m going to get it done in 30 days. I am not promising you will know all the songs. I am not promising polished studio cuts. I am not promising all of the covers will be perfectly played.

And, I am certainly not representing it as a collection of my favorite, most-cherished songs.

No. All of that leads to perfectionism paralysis.

What I am promising is a single take video play-through of a song from every year from 1981 to 2010, with some commentary along the way. No cherished favorites. No multi-track demos. No perfection.

Just me and the music.

30 for 30 starts later today, in 1981.

Drum Engineering w/Filmstar

As if the Philly Geek Awards weren’t enough excitement for one weekend, I woke up on Saturday morning to face the daunting task of setting up our dining room as a drumming room for recording Filmstar.

After shopping around to some fantastic local studios last fall we realized we weren’t quite ready to drop major cash on pro recording for our first EP. To make studio time worthwhile you need to be playing solid takes of songs, know what you want them to sound like, and understand what you want to add.

Our first pass at that preparation was the Live @ Rehearsal style recording sessions for The Desperate Times EP last winter. For that session we recorded the band live with scratch vocals, going back to recut lead and backing vocals (plus acoustic guitar) on top of our full band takes.

I outdid my prior bests in mixing the EP, but I was flummoxed by the limitations of our recording process. Particularly, it was impossible to stitch together the best parts of multiple takes because we hadn’t recorded to a click track.

Thus, the mission for our new double A-side single: record perfectly in-tempo, click-tracked drums, as many times as we could withstand. Continue reading ›

New demos for a new album(!)

Sometime before autumn arrives I will begin to record my first full-length, multi-tracked, studio album since 2001′s Relief.

Wow. I knew that was true, but it’s pretty monumental to see it in print.

In 2001 I had 117 songs to choose from and two weeks of studio time to record and mix in Drexel’s tiny, single-room, analog recording studio. (They’ve vastly improved their resources since then.)

In 2009 I have 241 songs to choose from and an unlimited amount of studio time to record and mix in my own tiny, single-room, digital recording studio. (I’ve also vastly improved my resources since then.)

Of my 241 songs, 30 of them are in fierce competition for 13ish spots on the album. There’s also the other 211 songs, many of which are long overdue a fresh recording even though I’m not considering them for the album (and, maybe I would consider them if I had a fresh recording to listen to).

So, I’m planning to record live, single-take demos for each of my 30 top picks for the album, accompanying each one with a B-side from the other 211 songs. I’m sure I’ll toss a few covers in as well.

If I record a demo every day this month I’ll be ready to record my album by July! And, although that sounds implausible to me (and you) at the moment, CK reminds me that on three separate occasions I recorded 24 songs in less than a single week, and once I actually recorded 30 songs in a single month.

No matter how long it takes, it’ll be a chance for me (and you) to hear 60 of my songs in crisp, multi-tracked audio – and that should be enough new stuff to hold us over through however interminably long it takes me to record an actual album in my present state of dotage.

As sick as i may or may not be, there will be a new Trio tonight. If you have any requests, get them in now so i can rehearse.

So… this week there’ll be a Trio… i’m just not sure of what magnitude. I missed it two weeks ago because i was busy packing and cleaning, and i missed it last week because i was at home. But, aside from not being around to record it, i’ve sorta hit an impass with the songs themselves. You see, i’ve played every song that wanted to be played without interspersing enough filler, so now i feel as though i either need to write new songs, play filler, or repeat some old ones. And i really don’t want to do any of that. Out of my 100+ compositions, i think it’s fair to say that i wrote a decent 33%, and from that third of the songs there’s only a few left. That’s not to say that all of my other songs are crap, but they just aren’t as solid or well thought out as the others, partially because i never had enough time to develop them. So… there will be a concert this week… it’s just the content that’s up in the air.

Final completed: 3 of 4

Preparedness: 4/10

Difficulty: 2/10

Thank God for small favours. And also for big ones. My recording final was easier than remembering my own phone number, and i did remarkably well on the hands-on segment in the studio. Though my professor was aghast by the remarkably backwards way in which i shorten the signal chain while recording, i proved that i can work the console very well through my explanation of the backwards procedure to him. Happy to get this one over with; hopefully i get a big fat B since this is a 4-credit course (an A, though nice, probably isn’t a possibility).

I happen to be locked in the Drexel Recording Studio waiting for a fellow classmate to show up so i can get to work. Yes, i’m locked in a recording studio yet the most productive thing i can find to do is blog. I know, it is ironic.

I just valiantly trucked through a take of trio that just wasn’t all there. i’m hot, and the mess is making me claustrophobic, and my high string broke, and my finger hurts, and i am not in a music making mood. The tracks were going to be “Nothing to Say,” “Like Mine,” and “Give” – all of which qualify as being rather difficult for me to play, so apparently now is not the best time. It’s probably because my body expects some alcohol by this point in a week, even if it’s a ButterShot. I should keep a bottle of those around just for that purpose … wow, which would make me a Behind the Music episode ready to happen. I suppose all those rock and roll stars established their unhealthy patterns pretty young and they just blossomed in the limelight. Ack, what a horrible meandering post this is. Talk to you later.

Recorded an entirely kick-ass version of “Relief” down in the studio with sweetly mic-ed vocals and guitar in stereo. Oh yeah! However, i haven’t yet been told how to get from ADAT to compact disc or digital audio, so this amazing song will stay tucked away on my tape until i am told how to do things correctly. However, i got this down on my first take, which bodes well for the future of my next demo disc. Oh yeah!