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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Worthy Host

A friend of mine committed suicide on June 30, 2014. When I heard the news, I wrote down my thoughts with the intention of capturing something I might craft into a poem or essay to help me process the riot of emotions I felt. I haven't touched it since, until today. Robin Williams' death reminded me of that unfinished work, so I vowed not to let another day pass before I wrapped up my thoughts and feelings about the act of suicide and the legacy it leaves.

by Trinity Demask

My friend killed herself.

Her daughter called to tell me, to utter, “she took her life” in a practical, cordial tone that broke like waves on the rocky shore of those four words. In that moment, I became an unwitting participant in a thoughtless, invisibly violent act no child should be asked to endure. All the disbelieving questions died in my throat. I could not ask them of this woman who had been so cruelly drafted to bear and spread this toxic burden.

My friend undoubtedly had not considered the resiliency of her pain. She sought to escape it, diving into that gaping unknown where nothing could follow. In her dash for freedom she unleashed this plague upon all who loved her, binding her agony to their own, propagating a new suffering fresh in its virility and ancient in its will to survive; a parasite of misery perpetually seeking a worthy host to spread its seed anew.

I inherited this infection. The strain passed from my mother whose emotional firmament is fickle and flighty as the child she’d been when her father bequeathed his agony to his wife and four daughters. I carry in my mind two images of him, neither first-hand. My mother possessed only a single washed-out photo of a squinting, pinched-faced man in a gray fedora.

The other image I hold contains no face, only work boots swinging just above the reach of the basement’s dirt floor, an overturned bottle of liquid courage resting on its side on the cool earth. I imagine his suffering released, floating heavy in the air, briefly disembodied until it reached the nostrils of my grandmother whose maternal intuition stopped my mother from descending the stairs.

And so it was my strong, Midwestern, no-nonsense grandma who found him – she who had already borne the loss of two children and in that private torment had made acquaintance with the rising waters of despair and had learned to tread them quiet and steady – it was she who discovered her husband’s failed attempt to swing above those waters from a thick rope. And still, after all that grief and the hardship that lay ahead, she arose from that basement stoic and uncompromising in her will to survive: an unworthy host.

My mother hosted her share with a willful dissociation that kept the contagion’s touch at bay even as it crippled her ability to love and mother with any true connection. She passed it to me without instruction or explanation, a mark on my cellular memory like a smallpox inoculation scar for which I have no conscious recollection. Its ownership, however faint, serves as a warning against the spread of this engulfing despair, an unspoken pact to contain it within until it can be carried naturally, honorably into darkness.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Never Underestimate Your Ability to Make Someone's Day

Never underestimate your ability to make someone's day, even a complete stranger. 

Case in point: I was recently chosen by the U.S. Census Bureau for a Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is how they obtain data to update the Consumer Price Index (yeah, sounds like fun, don't it?). A field representative came to my house to conduct the hour-long survey. She will come back once each quarter for the next five quarters to conduct more surveys to document my spending.

The field rep was a woman (I'm keeping this anonymous out of respect for her privacy) I would estimate to be in her mid to late 60s and she clearly had some health issues because she used a cane and seemed to have limited mobility in general. She was very friendly and as a self-described "people person," it was clear she really enjoyed her work. She has been working for the bureau for several years and I found her to be quite interesting because she was so gregarious, but at the same time maintained the professionalism of the bureaucrat. 

We completed the survey, made an appointment for the next one, and she went on her way. Today, I get a handwritten card (yes, you heard me, I said hand-freakin'-written) in the mail with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census seal on it. She wrote:

"Dear Trinity,
      I want to thank you for participating in the CPI survey. Your information is a valuable contribution to statistics.
     You made my day.
     Wish you well and see you in May.
Respectfully, (signature)" 

Maybe it's policy to send handwritten cards to thank participants in order to ensure their cooperation in the future. After all, a lot of people would find this to be an inconvenience, or might even be freaked out by having a government employee come to their home to ask them questions about how they've spent their money over the course of a particular period. 

But I don't think she's directed by the agency to tell someone they "made her day." Did I really do something special? Was it because I understood what a lousy job that might be at times and I let her know that I was happy to participate. Was is because I was hospitable and offered her a glass of water when she arrived? Or does she write that on everyone's card to build a rapport to help ensure that they won't feel quite so inconvenienced next time?

Did I really make her day? I can tell you one thing, with this card she made mine.