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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!


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.


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!