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...

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