Monday, December 29, 2014

The "Elemental" Recording Diary: Session 1

In my last blog post, I explained why I've always done multitrack recording up until this point. Given the major budget restrictions on this CD (as of this date I've raised $2,000 of my $15,000 goal), I'm trying to move forward in the most efficient and inexpensive way possible.

I don't have a regular band these days as I'm generally performing solo, but I do play most Sundays with a band at Living Water Spiritual Community, and these guys are amazingly talented. It's my privilege to play with two of Denver's finest jazz musicians: Doug Roche (piano) and Don Grove (drums). Rounding out the band is bluesman Clarence Johnsen (bass). Combined with my folk/Americana, it's an interesting combination of genres and the cover tunes we play together range from jazz to rock and bluegrass to pop. And of course, we play many of my songs, including much of the new material I'm recording. I'm very fortunate to have these three signed on to play on "Elemental." There will be other folks lending their talents as well, but Doug, Don, and Clarence are the foundation of this effort.

In an attempt to save time and money, and to also try to capture more of the live vibe we get when we play together, I opted to try to record Doug, Don, and Clarence playing together rather than multitracking. Doug has an electric piano and a good sounding room, so we miced the drum kit and ran the piano and bass direct (meaning they weren't amplified so the only sounds the mics were picking up was the drum kit. They played to a scratch track of my vocal and guitar. Odds are I'll want to rerecord the piano tracks using Doug's beautiful Yamaha grand, but that can always be done at a later date.

Now, there is something that just needs to be stated up front because I'm sure later down the line I will hear folks wondering aloud why everything is taking so long. A lot of it should be self-explanatory if you think about it. If you record for four hours, it'll take at least four hours to listen to and evaluate that which you've recorded. And if you need to listen to several things multiple times to compare and contrast to make your final decision, it takes much longer.

However, there is another reason things can take a lot of time. Musicians have many challenges, not least of which is a pretty mundane, yet often thoroughly vexing necessity: scheduling. You've heard of herding cats? Sometimes scheduling five musicians for a rehearsal or recording session is equivalent to herding parakeets. In the case of our first recording session as a band, it wasn't quite the nightmarish activity I've experienced in the past, but it took some work. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I heard that Don, the drummer, had come down with a nasty virus two days before the session.

When the day rolled around, Don surprisingly felt up to the task and we gathered at Doug's house and set ourselves to the laborious task of setting everything up. Micing a drum kit takes a good deal of time, as does setting up all the recording gear, getting headphone mixes where everyone wants them, and troubleshooting various technical problems that pop up (and believe me, there is almost always some gremlin who rears his ugly little head). When recording outside the studio, it's always best to bring just about every gadget you own, because you'll wind up needing some cable, adapter, or widget that you never expected to need when a problem arises and you have to create a work-around. Recording musicians have to be creative on many levels. ;-)

There was also a lot of discussion to be had about what everyone should play on each song and when. I often have very strong ideas about songs or sections of songs. These are things that I just "hear" and have heard since I wrote the song. But there are a lot of abstract or vague descriptions I have about the vibe of the song and not any sort of specific instrumental direction (i.e., dark and sparse here, really driving there, something ethereal and light, etc.). And worse, I often have several different versions with different instrumentation playing in my head. I know from experience, that I can't create exactly what I'm hearing in my head, but if I can convey it well enough to the right musicians, if I can point them in the right direction, they will take off with it. When this happens, what they create is a glorious surprise that just happens to be what I had in mind... and then some.

What I loved about working with the guys in this live environment was that it wasn't just me, one musician, and the engineer there focusing on one instrument's part of the song. All of us had input and ideas about what each other was doing and that creativity tends to feed on itself. One person's playing influenced and informed another's playing. It became a group effort and it's exciting to be in the midst of that energy. The song becomes more of a true musical conversation.

The first session was about seven hours which included a dinner break to scarf the quintessential recording meal: pizza, of course. We managed to get through five songs (woohoo!), but that was a bit too much for Don and he had a relapse of his cold/flu bug for the next few days (sorry Don!). I haven't yet heard what we recorded, but my gut feeling is that we definitely captured some good stuff. There were some really beautiful moments that I remember marveling at in the moment they were played.

There were some hilarious moments, too, that unfortunately weren't recorded. It won't be nearly as funny in the retelling, but at one point late in the session, Don came in too early on a drum fill. You kind of had to be there, but it was a big, bombastic fill at an entirely inappropriate moment and we all were in stitches. I was laughing so hard I couldn't stop. I was doubled over on the floor and Clarence kept saying, "you broke Trinity!" to Don. I honestly have not laughed that hard in over a year.   

As I'm finishing this up, I just got word from Sean that he's sending me files from that session to listen to so I'd better grab the headphones and get to it! Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Multitrack Recording 101

It's official. The recording of "Elemental" has begun. I'm nowhere near my funding goal, but I'm moving forward with the money I have and hoping I eventually gain enough support to finish it. (To become involved in the making of this CD visit and I will be eternally grateful!)

I realize there are a lot of folks out there who have no idea how the recording process works, so I'm going to blog about it to educate those who are curious and to capture the journey of this particular project.

While some bands still go into a studio to record together to capture their songs as they are played live, many (if not most) do what is called multitracking. To multitrack is to lay down one instrument at a time. If one records the instruments at the same time, each instrument needs to be miced and isolated (or relatively isolated) from the other instruments, otherwise the mics pick up the other instruments (we call this "bleed"). If there are any mistakes on one instrument, it's harder to fix them if they are picked up on the other mics. Also, it can be harder to EQ the instruments individually if there's too much bleed.

I've always multitracked because I've never had the budget to go into a pro studio where each instrument can be recorded in a separate sound-proof space. Also, in the past my musical partner Tom was playing more than one instrument and unfortunately, we never found a way to clone him. Thanks to the availability of home recording gear and lots of moving blankets to deaden the space (my "fort-building" skills from childhood came in handy) I've recorded at home, in the drummer's basement, and even in a Sunday school room in a church. If you have the know-how, the right equipment (or good make-shift equipment), persistence, creativity, discernment, resourcefulness, a boatload of patience, and a quiet space, you can make a professional-quality recording anywhere.

So, how does this work? Since each musician will be recording to something that is recorded and there won't be any cues, you typically want to record to a click track. This is a metronome track (or in my case, a really basic drum machine track because I can't play to a metronome). I choose the exact tempo for the song, which is often something I agonize over since it's going to be "set in stone," then I record myself singing and playing guitar to that click track. This recording is called a scratch track and it's really just a blueprint used to build the song.

The first "real" track I capture is the drum track (if there's going to be drums on the song) since it is the rhythmic foundation the rest of the song will be built on. The drummer records to the scratch track. Then I record the bass, then my rhythm guitar. At this point, I can record lead instruments (guitar, piano, cello, etc.) or my vocal tracks. When I record the vocals, I record to the drum, bass, and guitar tracks that have been laid down and the scratch track is tossed out (scratched - hence the name).

Musicians generally record multiple takes of a song and whichever track is deemed best is used. Tracks can also be comped (composited), which means that you can splice together the good pieces from multiple takes. For instance, if you record two takes and you flubbed a note or a strum was a little late on the first one, you can replace the section with the mistake using that section from the second take. Sometimes this can be tricky depending on the instrument and what it's doing at the time, but a good engineer who knows his software can make it happen pretty easily unless the sound quality is too different between the two takes (for instance, if the instrument was farther away from the mic on one take or the musician was playing it very differently and the sound quality of the takes doesn't match).

So, that said, I am multitracking "Elemental" as I have always done. Except when I'm not...

Yesterday, we (Sean Gill, my patient engineer/sounding board/reality-checker) took the studio on the road to Doug Roche's house to record drums, bass, and piano in a "live" environment. It was a first for me and definitely much more fun than recording one person at a time. More about that in my next posting. Stay tuned...

If anyone has any questions about the process, the songs, or anything related to this project please post it and I'll be happy to answer it for you in my next posting.