A Long Day in the Studio
Saturday November 25. Recording session for “Nova,” scheduled 3pm - 10pm.
I get to Titan Studios (formerly WJSP), a little bit early. I’m usually edgy on the day I go in to record. Not nervous exactly, more like deep in anticipation. Anticipation of ending up with something new that didn’t exist the day before, anticipation of the effort of the creative process, anticipation of being one step closer to being done with the project. And as pretty much always, I’m tweaked by a perhaps overactive sense of self doubt. What if I don’t know my parts well enough? What if I take too long to record and we waste the recording time? What if I play the part perfectly but it turns out it sucks? Will I be able to adjust? Will I be able to take performance notes and adjust?
Will Snyder, or engineer, lets me in. We talk for a few minutes on the plan for today. We’re starting with drums, bass, and rhythm guitar for Better Now and Crusader. These are the least done of the 14 tracks we’re recording; Better Now just has my 12 String guitar part and a scratch vocal and Crusader basically has nothing. To save time, our producer Matt Tonner suggested we record the drums, bass, and rhythm parts all at the same time. It’s faster if you’re going to do multiple parts, and it can give you a more organic feel than tracking them all separately.
Tony arrives. Will starts setting up the drums. The snare, bass, high hit cymbal, and the toms all have their own mics and Will sets up two overhead room mics above the kit. We’re in studio A, which has a large irregularly shaped room which has been designed specifically to optimize sound reflections. The drums are against the back wall. Tony sets up in the middle of the room. He’s plugged directly into the soundboard in the adjacent control room, visible through a glass partition across from the drums. The studio is wired so the mics plug into XLR cable boxes in the walls that are routed to the control room soundboard and mixing console. The control room is sound isolated from the main room.
Since Tony is plugged directly into the mixing console he can be in the same room as Justin; there’s no mic near Tony that the drums will bleed onto and Tony won’t be generating enough noise to bleed onto Justin’s drum mics. They’ll hear the bass through the headphones.
The acoustic guitar will be set up in front of a mic in another adjoining sound isolated room near Tony. The door to that room is glass, so I’ll be able to see Tony, though I won’t be in the right spot to see Justin or Will in the control room (I’ll hear them on the headphones). Since the room is sound isolated, I shouldn’t have to worry about Justin’s drums bleeding onto my mic.
I’m standing near the drum kit watching Will do his thing while Tony warms up. Will is hitting the drum heads and adjusting them with a drum key to even out the tension and ensure that the sound coming out is the same no matter where the drum is struck.
I try to pay attention whenever Will is setting up and I ask questions if I can without distracting him, but it’s mostly black magic to me.
We tend to get into really odd discourses in the studio. One ends with Will saying, “The wood the crow is perched on is but an appetizer.” Sounds legit.
Justin arrives. He has no drumsticks and no...beard. I’ve never seen him completely clean shaven before. His birthday’s this coming Friday. Trying to hang on to his youth?
JB starts warming up with the chewed up studio sticks. Tony gets plugged in.
Will sets up his ProTools (sort of the industry standard recording software) session. He turns some knobs on the mixing board, adjusts pre-amps, and pretty much does some more black magic. Justin and Tony jam in the big room.
Drums and bass are coming through the speakers in the control room. Will adjust pre-amps, levels, and plug in settings. Tony and Justin keep jamming so Will can tweak the sound. They play off each other well and after some more free form they run through Crusader a few times. Will adjusts mic placement on the drums to change the sound. Not sure what he’s listening for. Not my forte.
JB slowly starts accelerating during the Crusader run throughs, mostly to screw with Tony. By the end he’s going about 20 beats per minute faster than we usually play it and he’s still cranking up. Tony, admirably and impressively, keeps up.
I check with Tony after their third run through. He wants me to play Crusader on guitar with them to help them keep their place in the song. Sean isn’t here yet but I’ve been practicing his part all week with a metronome in case we got to it before he arrived. (I play the mandolin on this song; Sean wrote the music to Crusader and his guitar is the driving rhythm instrument)
Tony has brought the Full Sail Live run-through DVD the students recorded on Tuesday. It’s stashed in a Verve Pipe self titled album case, which has some very odd dissected frog cover art. Tony, who does all our graphic design, gives the art a skeptical look. “If I came to you with this, you guys would kick me in the dick.”
Our producer, Matt Tonner, arrives. Will and I are in the control room. Justin and Tony are still jamming.
Justin and Tony see Tonner in the control room through the window. They start whooping in greeting. They sound like siamangs.
We set up my acoustic. We’re starting with Better Now. We have 12 string already recorded but we’re going to add an acoustic guitar double for coverage. I usually record sitting down but I’m standing now; I play standing up live (and I practiced my parts both sitting and standing just in case) so it shouldn’t matter for the performance, but my lower back has been bothering me the last two days so I’m a little concerned that it’s going to give me problems if this takes a long time. More incentive to focus and try to get it right faster. I tune up using my Korg Pitch Black that all of us have used on this album. We use the same tuner for everything to make sure all our instruments are exactly in tune with each other. The engineer on our first two EPs, Mark Brasel of Zone Productions in Melbourne, had a story about a band recording where all the players inadvertently used tuners that were not all set to exactly the same baseline and it caused total chaos before they figured out what the problem was. (The band apparently blamed the violin player for a while). We took that lesson to heart.
We start on Better Now. We do about 5 takes. My part is pretty easy and, in addition to writing it with Tonner, I recorded the 12 string part last month so I am rehearsed and comfortable with it.
We haven’t played this song live yet and not a whole lot of times in practice either so Tony and Justin have to make some adjustments as we go. This song, Crusader, and Live in Me are unique for us in that they are really the first songs we’ve recorded that we haven’t extensively “road tested” live first. So I anticipate for these songs we’ll have to make some on the fly changes as we hear things we hadn’t noticed in our limited practice time and they might end up in a different place than we envisioned when they were still skeletons. Part of the process, we just have to be flexible and see what works the best.
Matt makes some drum notes - kick drum placement, buildup etc. and suggests a slight adjustment to Tony’s part. He’s right. The last take is definitely the best.
Crusader. The first take is a disaster. There’s no scratch tracks for this, so we were just playing to the click and trying to keep track in our heads of where we are in the song. Following the click and keeping track of where you are without the vocal cues can be challenging, especially when theres two other people trying to simultaneously do the same. And Crusader is another one we don’t have many reps on. We’ve faked our way through it live twice, but none of us are automatic with it yet. Justin yells through the door that he’ll follow my lead.
My back is starting to tighten up. Just have to push through a little longer; I hope we get it soon or I might have to ask for a break and that feels like surrender.
I suggest I do a quick scratch track to the click with the guitar to give us a structure to follow. It’ll be a little easier for me to follow a mental map if I only have to listen to the click and myself. The take is pretty tight to the click but I am one verse chord cycle short. (I knew it as soon as it happened, but didn't want to stop since the rest of the take was pretty good.)
It’s a mental chore, particularly as this isn’t my normal part for this song. Will and Matt do a quick copy paste to get the song structure right.
We go back through so I can sing a scratch track to give us the verse / chorus cues. I’ve never sung this before and I don’t know all the words; Justin wrote the lyrics to this one but doesn’t have a mic he can sing into in the current recording configuration - the overheads are too far from him. I haven’t seen the lyrics written down either, so I’m just going on what I think I’ve heard Justin and Dan sing at practice. I get most of them, but I fake the rest. “Something something words that I don’t know” is one of my less than impressive ad libs. Close enough.
We do another take. Much better. I lose track of where I am in the long instrumental break and flub a change. I ask to turn the vocals down in the headphones. It’s distracting me from the click a bit and I can’t hear my guitar super well over it. Also, I hate the sound of my voice on recordings. It makes me very self-conscious and I need to focus on the unfamiliar guitar part so I don’t train wreck us.
Sean texts that he’s at the front door.
After the 4th take, Sean swaps out with me. Relief. I go back to the control room. Dan is here, too. I didn’t see him come in.
The 1st take with Sean is a little bit of a mess. He’s still warming up. Tony and JB are locked in as they’ve been playing for over an hour today. After the take we have Sean swap his Timberline guitar for my Martin. Will doesn’t much like how Sean’s guitar sounds recorded. He briefly messed with the settings on the mixer before Tonner said “We do have a Martin and a Gibson in this room.” (My guitar is a Martin, Dan has a Gibson J45). Will thinks my Martin would sound the best.
After the swap they do a few more takes. Will, as is his wont, ad libs some lyrics to himself as they go “Turtles in my face cream. They are very small.” (He likes singing about turtles. The guys in the booth can’t hear him, but it never fails to amuse me. He should start a turtle themed slam poetry group).
Done with Crusader.
Justin: “Do you want to touch my face?” I do not.
We all talk about what else these songs need and what is the best use of time.
Tonner adds a touch of Hammond organ to the choruses of Better Now. The song needs some underlying sustain instrument. It’s pretty subtle, the kind of thing that you kind of don’t notice unless someone takes it out.
Tamborine on Better Now and Crusader. We are probably going to add some more percussive layers, but we don’t have a shaker with us. We’ll come back and get it.
Sean lays a guitar track for Better Now that adds a nice buildup and counterpoint to the main guitar. Justin and Tony take off.
Sean gets prepared to lay the final acoustic guitar track on February Morning. Dan has a pretty strong vision for this song, so I leave him, Tonner, and Will to guide this one and I make a 7-11 run. As with road trips, one of my favorite parts of long recording sessions is the convenience store junk food run.
A Smart Water for Dan, an unsweet tea for Sean, and a blue Rockstar Energy drink for Will. I tried to talk Will out of it. “Heart palpitations and orange piss” I say. “Sounds fun,” he says. “I might just keel over in this chair.” I tell him that’s not allowed. “When this album is finished.... then you have my permission to die.”
Sean worked out a solo for February Morning that weaves in with the mandolin solo I laid down a few weeks ago so well that we can keep both. The mandolin part is based on a solo idea Dan had a few months ago. It’s a great melody and is phrased such that we don’t need to get rid of any of Tom Cooper’s pedal steel part. Originally the solo I laid down was just a placeholder, but now we can have all three “lead” instruments during that part and they don’t interfere with each other. We’re all happy with how it ended up. Tonner heads out.
Dan sets up for February Morning bridge vocals. The vocals themselves are great in this part, but he didn’t have the words fully worked out when he laid it down. He wants to make a lyrical tweak. The current ones use a “wonder / wander” wordplay that is great, but is from “Bustin’ Out.” He changes it to a “wonder / stronger” line. I was a little worried about what state Dan’s voice would be in. He’s a huge UCF fan and was at that epic UCF-USF game yesterday. My worries were unfounded; he sounds great.
Dan tracks Better Now. We do a 3 run throughs. He has a good handle on it. I make one note about having him sing it slightly more staccato in the first verse.
Will: “Do you love the new mic sound?”
Will: “He’s lying to me”
Dan: “I like it. We’re going to redo the entire album with it right?” Me: “You’ll be doing it with my foot in your ass”
As Dan is tracking I fiddle with a mandolin part to harmonize with the guitars. Will says, “You’re going to record that right?” I guess so.
Crusader . I’m not paying close attention. I can relax a bit when Dan’s doing vocals. He has a much better ear for vocal timbre, pitch, and vowel placement than I do and he’s pretty self critical. His bar of acceptable vocals will be higher than mine. I just double check he’s saying all of Justin’s lyrics correctly. He is.
We set up the mandolin. I have 40 minutes to do two songs, including I part I wrote a few minutes ago. Should be enough, but my doubt is creeping in. Do I have the time and focus to do two songs? My back has loosened up again, but I am very tired. Recording is pretty draining even when you’re not actually tracking. I suppose it’s the concentration it requires, the intentional listening, and constant attendant to detail. I’m ready, eager. Able?
Better Now. I’m a little unfocused at the start but happily the mandolin is holding it’s tuning really well, so that’s something.
I hit my stride. The part isn’t hard, but I’m not on autopilot so I have to focus. The cross picking section in the second verse is tricky to get perfect, but after 3 less than impressive tries I get it.
Will’s opening the Crusader session. My mandolin part isn’t terribly hard, but it is fast and I’ve been here a long time. And I played a lot earlier. Weariness may make staying on beat difficult if it takes me some time to lock in. I did play this song (albeit on the guitar) about 5 times earlier today so at least there’s that. But I am worried that I might run out of time.
... Or I might just do it in one take. So that went easier than I was mentally gearing up for. The song overall needs some timing tweaks. The guitar is a little off from the bass and drums but that’s an easy enough adjustment.
A productive day. We’ll listen to the mp3 bounces with fresh ears over the next day or two and see where we are. I think we’re in agreement that February Morning is fully tracked and ready for mix down. Better Now is just missing some harmony vocals and some more percussive elements. Crusader went from being nonexistent to almost done.
Nice when a plan comes together. Maybe two more recording sessions and we should be done tracking. Fingers crossed.