Friday, May 7, 2010

recording blog: making 'all hope is blind'

i started filming new videos for the 'all hope is blind' songs- the idea being to create videos for each song. no idea how i will do this, but i have a solid foundation for the two lead-off tracks. they were going to be very simple and textural but i've decided to try and challenge myself and make them very engaging, beautiful pieces of art. i came across what i called the 'down to sleep' diary. i tried to document the making of the record and completely failed miserably. what i ended up with was more of a diary of impressions from the passing of time during the making of the record- small things that happened, etc. i wished that i had documented the making of 'all hope is blind' but i've noticed that when i tend to get into recording mode it's actually not always obvious to me to turn a camera on before i start doing whatever i'm doing- so i miss a lot. i thought i'd kind of put this up here as a sort of document for myself, if for no one else.
'all hope is blind' began conceptually probably as early as 1998. once i'd come up with the framework for 'petals' as well as 'down to sleep' (and several jumping-off point songs) other things began to fall into place as well and i came up with a concept for a real glacially-paced, atmospheric and grey extended mood piece- something like a combination of 'faith' by the cure and 'adore' by the smashing pumpkins (which had just been released at that point, been nearly universally loathed, but also listened to and loved like few other records of that time by myself- it was exactly what i needed at that time and to me is the last good smashing pumpkins record). i wanted it to be brief as well as minimal (which are both touchstones of those two records). as the years went by and i started to pull out of a crippling year-long depression i found myself living back in kansas city and going to umkc, kicking myself for not staying in chicago. i began writing songs for this 'faith'/'adore'-like record- in fact the earliest versions of 'windsong' and 'paper doves' were written that year as well as several others that didn't end up making the cut. 'forever drowning' was written that year in my first one-bedroom apartment and i opened with it at the first shalloboi show in 2001. 'whisper' was demoed in 2004 while we were living in portland.

'forever drowning'- written in 1999. the lyrics and the chords for this song have barely changed. i think there was an Em that became a Gm at some point, but i actually don't even remember how it was done on the record. i wrote the lyrics for a poetry class i was taking with one of the most unengaging teachers i've ever encountered. my boredom in class gave birth to my propensity for textural line drawings- the drawing on the cover of 'blue-eyed' was ripped out of my notebook for this class. after the 'down to sleep' album was finished and much of the 'dandelions' material was finished on my part (as this will illustrate, strings tend to be difficult to coordinate) i decided i should start working on 'all hope is blind.' i had about 18 songs in mind at this point- some of the songs required no percussion. the idea after 'down to sleep' was that i wanted to buy a few more nice mics and really work on capturing a good drum sound, as i felt like that was my weakness in recording at that point. since we didn't have any money to buy new equipment at that point and a tour looming in september i worked out arrangements for this song and 'ashes ashes' on july 2nd. both involved looping the sound of me hitting the guitar strings with my palm and running it through a dense, floating reverb. the loop speed was influenced by the maximum capacity for looping on the boss dd-5 digital delay pedal. i had two of them at that point- one for looping and the other just for delay. then basically what i did was set up the looped percussive sound, started recording, counted in the guitars, the strings and sang a scratch vocal part along with the looped percussion all as guide tracks to build upon. at the end i turned off the loop and then overdubbed the two bowed guitar parts, which had to be done separately because each song is in a very different tuning- 'forever drowning' is in a standard tuning with the 2nd string tuned to C. after that i arranged the strings. at that point i only had billy on cello and had just met chris and he was playing violin most of the time, so the sheet music has the low part in bass clef as well as the middle part. i went back to kansas city on the megabus at some point during october to record string parts and that would be when this song's low and middle parts were recorded. after returning chris was busy with a play that he was in and we were trying to get 'christmas song revisited' finished for a christmas compilation that was due in late november. without a violinist i had to place an ad on craigslist for one, which is how we had met chris. two people responded- andrew royal was the first and he came in quickly and did the two parts we needed from him for 'christmas song revisited' as well as the violin part for 'glasslands' off of 'dandelions' (chris's part had gone well but there was too much leakage from my acoustic guitar guide track- a shame as chris's part was very beautiful) and then a week later katelyn eldridge emailed me and i had her come by to play on five of the new songs in december. at that point the album was not a priority because we basically just had the seeds planted, but i wasn't about to turn an enthusiastic player away. katelyn recorded all five first take and essentially her first session with us made the album- she picked up on everything very quickly. the vocals were added next- stefanie and i sang them together on the same mic and then i was going to send them through an amp in the stairwell down the hallway (which we'd done for all of the vocals up to and including 'christmas song revisited'). the day i was supposed to do it someone tried to steal my ksm27 after i'd gotten everything set up and i was too freaked out to bother with it, so once the album was nearly done i started to set up an ambient mic in our shower and ran the vocals through my fender twin reverb with the reverb from that. this produced a similar effect, but somehow captured more of a dry, claustrophobic, suffocated effect that worked very well for the songs, so most of the reverbs were done this way instead of using the stairwell. the glockenspiel was done by me one day during the last few months of finishing up the album. stefanie didn't know the part and i knew what i wanted so i had to do it twice very quickly to match the sound up perfectly because i was going for the glockenspiel sound of 'don't go' on 'down to sleep' and when doubling the glockenspiel if it isn't exactly the same setup and sound it just doesn't work- the air coming off of the bells causes a fucked up and ugly phasing effect that fucks with the matching tones. that part was one of a few parts that were finished last.

'ashes ashes'- done in the same way as the last song. written in 2005 during my first job in chicago at ceda and the same week as 'angels floating on the head of a pin'- in the same tuning as well- EAC#C#C#C# (low to high). this song was intended for 'down to sleep' but we never got to it and it had loops, but none of them suited the song very well as well as the reverse reverb effect/thickening delay combo that most of the guitars on 'down to sleep' have didn't suit it either. it also had no distortion and worked best quietly. it was demoed in the closet in our first studio apartment in town which is where we recorded most of 'learning how to crawl.' for some reason acoustic instruments sounded amazing in there. the strings have the same story as 'forever drowning.' stefanie originally sang her vocal through the harmonica mic, but the gritty feel of it just didn't suit the way she sang it at all, so we just recorded it straight with a ksm27 and sm57a and we even had a pop filter at that point (we used to just use a sock on a hanger). she suggested we double it and it sounded absolutely perfect. i could never think of anything else to add, the string arrangement just sounded so perfect and it didn't need any drums or any other melody so it stayed. for whatever reason the original middle part that billy recorded had to be re-recorded, most likely because of a mixing issue. at some point in the process it had to be bounced to a different track in order to make room for another track and since the songs were recorded together essentially i ended up having him re-record it so that the middle part on both songs was on the same input, removing the stress of making a switch so quickly during mixing.

'under the flood'- written in 2005 on the way home from the brian jonestown massacre show. anton talked about new orleans a lot because it'd just happened, so it's built around a lot of that kind of imagery. i made up the chords as well and possibly the tuning. it's a weird one and this is the only song i've used it for- CGCGAC (low to high). the loop was recorded in the studio apartment closet- it was bass and i also used the toy piano that made a few appearances on the 'down to sleep' album that we later gave away as a gift to our nephew in portland once we'd bought a glockenspiel. i added reverb to the bass in the congress theater in the main part- i put the bass amp up on the stage and a mic out in the middle of the floor and i recorded it backwards and forwards which is why it has that odd slurred quality. the maintenance men in the building were having a conversation while i was setting up the mics and everything and i had to wait about 10 minutes for them to leave so i could record. they ruined many a take when i was in there recording vocals in the many stairways and open spaces. the tambourine came along later, once we'd moved into the place on winthrop- it was done in the abandoned stairwell- i recorded it forwards and then doubled it backwards and it created a nice, rhythmic suction sound. one of my neighbors heard me in the stairwell and was very surprised to open the door and see me sitting there with a toy piano on my lap and all of my recording equipment surrounding me. i just said, 'hi, there.' the guy couldn't look me in the eye for the next three years we lived there. it really freaked him out, i guess. i recorded a demo of this song in 2006 or 2007 while i was suffering from a 9-month long debilitating dry cough that was most likely the result of inhaling chemical dyes while working at lorna's laces. kind of a shame as it changed my voice at a time when i was getting particularly strong. i'd done the demo with the intention of building the song up around it (several of the 'down to sleep' songs that weren't based around loops were built up this way), but once the loop was fixed it became ephemeral, although the strained vocal has a certain restrained honesty and beauty to it. it would make a good outtake if that day were to come. the guitars were recorded a day or two after 'forever drowning' and 'ashes ashes' with the same dense floating reverb. since the guitar was tuned so low and it was on the fender jaguar, which i hadn't had that long at that point and was unaccustomed to bowing i ended up having to manipulate these giant booming drones when i would hit certain chords. at first i thought it wouldn't be usable, but it gives the guitar a really interesting and consistently tumultuous bent that somehow doesn't overpower the rest of the track. the strings are from the october visit to kansas city and katelyn's first session with us. i liked the way the track sounded with just the loop, guitar and repeating strings so much that i made an instrumental mix that is quite a nice outtake as i had to bounce the strings to a single track in order to make room for the vocals and the drums as the loop was panned in stereo and the guitar had to go on two tracks panned to either side (i've done this trick from the first album onward) so that it doesn't take up too much space but is still audible and powerful. that left us with only three tracks for everything else. we did the vocals next- we did something unique to get the sound as well- the mic was set up in the shower again and stefanie and i sang from the hallway in front of the bathroom and then we doubled it and we had the playback coming in through an amp that we sang along with. at one point our cat tilly came into the hallway to mew at us while i was singing. we had to do a few punch-ins but it's a nice, spontaneous take. we never did any other vocals that way, either, but that's what makes it so nice. the drums were recorded first once i had some new mics and still didn't know quite what i was doing with them, so the drums sound a bit muffled. it was just as well since the loop was the driving force anyway, and the performance was good and quick so we kept it. ironically the track turned out very well with all of its raggedness and weirdness.

'whisper'- first demoed as an instrumental in 2004 in portland. this uses the same tuning as 'invisible against the sun'- the 2nd string is A, the 1st is C#. i also tuned the 3rd string down to F just to make the chords easier to grab. it originally was driven by a delay setting that created rhythmic repeats one could play along with. the 'chorus' if you want to call it that came to me during our first trip home to kansas city for christmas from chicago. for some reason i'd brought my 4-track and i got up and set it up and recorded the vocal hook as best as i could at 4am. it worked. i remembered it in the morning. of course, then stefanie sang it completely differently once she did her vocal, so that's where my vocal overdub came from- i started doing it while we were practicing for the first strings trio show at elastic arts foundation. around january of 2009 we started to do more live recording to build tracks over mainly out of necessity. this was the second song we did that way and it turned out perfectly because we were able to get a great sense of space from doing the guitar and the drums at the same time. it also made the recordings nice and snappy. this one only took a month or so and really that was just a few days spread out over that period of time. the vocals were done very quickly, stefanie sang them once in one take and the pristine vocal still exists on one of the inputs as i was thinking of keeping it over the one with the reverb on it. the strings were done with katelyn and chris playing together live and the cello was added during a trip to kansas city in april. i had no count-offs so i added them off the cuff while i was recording with billy and they were right on the first try and i didn't have to resort to some of the craziness i normally have to do out of necessity (i.e. flipping over a tape and recording the count in backwards so that it's right). a little too easy.

'paper doves'- written mostly in 1999. 2nd string is tuned down to A. i think i rewrote the words to the verses in summer of 2005 or 2006. i can't remember- they just came to me one day and i recycled some of the older lyrics into new ones. the guitars were done along with a guide track since they were in that loud, dense, watery style of 'down to sleep.' i got it with reverse reverb and a ringing delay to thicken it up. the chorus is not done with a distortion box- it's a vox over the top boost, which is more of a tone booster than a distortion box. i bought it for the 2008 tour as a way to get the dirty tone that the twin reverb gets with an excess of volume. it runs on a tube and sounds really good. it's a nice inbetween that isn't too distorted but also not too squeaky clean. i did 'falling stars' on the same day with the same set up. for the guitars on 'down to sleep' i would take two guitar amps and face them towards each other- the twin reverb and the princeton chorus (which is a very loud amp, despite its size) about a foot and a half apart then i'd put the ksm27 inbetween the two, then the d112 and a beta57a on the two speakers for the twin and sm57s on the two speakers for the princeton chorus, run it all through a mixer and then record it into the 8-track. the vocals were done next. for this one i did a 'down to sleep' style vocal, which involved singing the main vocal and then doubling it nine times and then adding reverb and adjusting it all together. this time i ran the vocals through the ksm27 in the bathroom to give it a drier sound. they were done into the 8-track and bounced as i went along and then all bounced together once i got the sound i was after. katelyn and chris were supposed to do this one together at the same time, but ended up having to do it seperately. billy did his cello track during that april trip to kc. the drums were done last. after a few from those first five tracks this one and 'falling stars' were the first finished tracks from album. stefanie and i got into an argument about this one because she did it second and couldn't play along with the guitar guide track (i picked a weird strumming pattern for this one for some reason and it was a little bit weird at the beginning). she was frustrated because we'd already been playing the song live and she could do it, but the pace of the track on tape was very sluggish because we hadn't played it yet at all and live it had started to pop and work as a very visceral, fast song. stefanie was used to the popping version and she was having trouble playing it slow. i had a try and got the drums down in one take. she played along with my drum track later, but soundwise it wasn't as good as my take, even though the playing was a touch shaky in places. so that's why it's the only track i play drums on on the new record and why it's the only song that stefanie did nothing on. i had to speed up the tempo a bit during mixing as well because it was so painfully slow.

'you can choke on your own breath'- written in 2006 or 2007. can't remember. the break riff is something i wrote for a song of tony presley's (aka real live tigers). i played a show with him at the hideout and that was the line i played during 'requiem for sunken ships.' when he didn't use it on the record (i recorded 'there is a storm that sleeps inside us' with him over christmas 2005 and april 2006) i made it into this song. i liked the riff too much to not use it. the song ended up echoing his own song a bit, but melodically it fell in a pretty different space. i think it's really fun to sing really evil, hateful lyrics in such a quiet, listless way. this song has brutal lyrics. stefanie and i did this one live and then katelyn and chris were able to do their parts live as well. the cello was added in june during my last megabus trip to kansas city to record with billy. the vocals were done in a similar way to 'forever drowning.'

'falling stars'- written in 2008 or 2009. can't remember. it's the newest song on the record, i do know that. it was written in an arrangement for 'chinese blue' and right after we started using the harmonica mic- which would date it early 2009. i tried it in a watery guitar style- the original 'chinese blue' demo had a rhythm guitar with a soft tremelo, a plate reverb and then amp reverb and then a reverse reverb guitar, a floating reverb lead guitar over the second half and a different drumbeat and a direct fuzz bass. i ended up liking the watery guitar version better and adapted the different parts from the demo into a string arrangement- the lead guitar became the violin part, the bass part became the cello part, the harmonica mic stayed and stefanie recorded her own drum part, which used less variable sounds but somehow filled the space and drove the song forward in a better way. since it was written in a strange key the top two strings had to be tuned down half a step so that they would ring and drone in key. this is very typical of the type of beat stefanie comes up with- it's not showy at all, simple as can be but it keeps the song moving at an appropriate clip. the strings were done during the same session as 'paper doves.' this also has that vox over the top boost. for some reason the first of mix this song was better than what ended up on the album- the guitars were a touch louder as on the album they are a bit too much in the background. if we were ever end up repressing the record i might have to fix this as the fade in for 'whisper' is also a touch late.

'christmas song, pt. iii'- written in 2005. we rehearsed this with billy for the davey's uptown acoustic show in december of 2006. i wrote this while i was listening to a ton of dirty three. i recorded a demo for this in the aforementioned closet and it turned out really well- it was originally played with a bow and the melody was on the bottom string. i revamped it once i started playing in an open C tuning. i played this along with a click track because of the whole 'paper doves' debacle. i also did an outtake called 'pale' at around this time and started a version of 'narcoleptic.' both played along with a click track. the vocals were just doubled- nothing else fancy done to them. stefanie did the drums very quickly after this was done. we figured out the part together. this also has the vox over the top boost during the ending part. it has a textural loop that was taken from 'the sun is so bright...' on 'down to sleep', but this marked the death of the idea of adding textural backgrounds to any of these songs because they already had so much dense reverb that everything needed to be kept spare and open. katelyn and chris were able to do this one together and billy did his cello part either in june of 2009. i arranged the strings for this and 'you can choke on your own breath' during the april 2009 kansas city visit- i think i got stuck at my parents' place for an excess of hours because i had no car, so i ended up hanging out at the filling station for a few hours a few days in a row which allowed me ample time to write out the arrangements and then score the individual parts. as always, boredom is responsible for some of the best stuff. string arranging is a fun thing for me to do when i'm going through writer's block- you don't have to come up with anything new as far as chord progressions or lyrics. it's almost like a form of math or putting together a puzzle. besides that it gets you back into an inspired and energized mode about music.

'windsong'- written in 1999. this uses the same vocal/bass sample chords that are on 'fully bloomed' off of 'petals.' i was going to redo them in a different way, but recorded this version and once the strings were added it seemed different enough to me to just keep them. i figured no one would notice or care anyway. 'fully bloomed' was written on a piano- i picked a key that used almost entirely black keys- i believe it's F# or Bb minor. the lyrics were written in the student lounge in royall hall at umkc, as was the glockenspiel melody. it was sort of weird to find it all those years later still intact. it was miraculous, in fact as who knows how the notebook survived so many moves. i did a demo of this song in portland in 2004 that turned out particularly beautifully. the glockenspiel melody was done on the toy piano backwards with a tape speed adjustment to make it in key. that's when it was arranged as well. i wanted it to be very short. i was disappointed when it clocked in at just over three minutes in the final version. the initial basic tracks must've been recorded at some point in 2006 around the time of '4am train.' it's all very murky because this song was one of the first to be started and the last to be finished. i played the sampler like a keyboard through the long, dense reverb through a volume pedal while i counted along through a microphone. i sang a scratch vocal over that and then wrote the string arrangement based on this version. billy recorded his cello parts in april of 2008 when i was home for my aunt's funeral. katelyn recorded the violin in december that year for her first session. stefanie sang the vocal very late in the game through the harmonica mic. she is still not happy with it, says she sounds too tentative, but i refused to let her redo it because i think that the shyness suits the song and when it takes off at the chorus it makes it all the more magical and beautiful. the glockenspiel part was one of the last things we did for the album just before mastering it. i taught it to stefanie and she played it in her own way. we still haven't been able to figure out a way to do this one live, which is a shame since it'd probably be a beautiful song to hear live- the string arrangement is particularly nice.

'4am train'- written in 2006 while i was working at starbucks. i used to have to open the shop, meaning i'd have to be downtown by 4:45am. this would put the time that i had to be on the red line at around 4am. during the wintertime the homeless would still be sleeping on the trains at this time, there would also be a mish-mash of people on their way to or from work and a few drunks stumbling home so this commute always had an extra eerie feeling. i'd just gotten 'pygmalion' by slowdive at this point and basically stole this song wholesale from it and made it my own. i remembered playing the song for tony in april of 2006 when he came to visit and finish 'there is a storm that sleeps inside us.' i keep my acoustic guitar tuned a full step down because it sounds better in that tuning- that's what elliott smith did and i'm pretty sure that's what helped immensely to give his songs such an edge. stefanie and i recorded this song live in our bedroom in november of 2006 and i immediately ran her vocal through an amp in the stairwell. this was before we'd even started doing the 'down to sleep' album in earnest. the reason for getting a recording finished so quickly was because it was a contender to play at the davey's uptown show around christmas that year. we were motivated to finish the vocals for 'crawl to you' off of 'down to sleep' because of this show as well. the windchimes were the type of ambience and subtle textures i wanted to use on the whole album, but ditched later. our cat robin shook his head and rang the bell on his collar while i was recording the chimes. billy recorded the cello parts in april of 2008 and this is the last of katelyn's first session in december of that year. she missed one of the slides and i didn't notice it until the album was mastered, but that's one of the reasons for recording quickly- mistakes like that become so ingrained that they become a blessing- something of that time and place that is more of an indication of the mood and moment than a rigid, perfect performance. i think she noticed she made it, but just figured i'd ask her to fix it. the electric guitar part was one of the first things i recorded on the new fender twin reverb in january of 2007. i think i made it up on the spot and it's a first take.

'narcoleptic'- written in 2006. we played this song a ton after i wrote it. we played it at davey's uptown for the first time and it was always a really beautiful song. it became our set-ender at the restrained shows we had to play around that time. all of the people we knew who put on shows were putting on acoustic shows so we had this brief period in early 2007 where we were playing these quiet electric shows all the time- we would sing without a p.a. but still play electrically and this song worked particularly well at those shows. i did a nice demo of it and tons of people heard it around that time. i tried to record it with a click track, but the whole thing was fucked from the get-go. all of my guitar parts were rigid and i kept fucking them up. even the vocal wasn't working at all. stefanie was trying to add her drum part to it and was the one who said 'maybe we should just wait and record this live like we're used to playing it.' it ended up being the first that we did around the time of 'whisper.' it was a bit strange the way that we did it- i had to do the lead guitar with absolutely no backing playing along with stefanie's drum part so that the ending would be fluid enough with all of the improvisation because when you have a finite time to fill you are always very aware of it and your improvisation suffers because of it. it ended up working like a charm. it did two things- minimized leakage and ended up providing a fertile environment for a very strong drum sound while maintaining a loose, live feel. every part that was recorded afterwards was done very quickly and with great ease. it's still one of the best drum sounds that i've ever captured. we did it in three takes because the first take was cut off and the second i forgot to hit 'record.' during the fade in stefanie says something to that effect- 'third time's a charm.' the feel is very palpable on the recording as well- very fluid and relaxed as the song should be, but also at a good pace with some momentum. the overdubs were all done very very quickly after that. the vocal was done in a single take and i ended up using just the reverb track for the breakdown in the middle (that is just the sound of the vocal coming through the twin reverb and into the mic in the shower). katelyn and chris recorded their parts live. billy did his earlier in april of 2009. sadly chris's viola got a bit buried- a sorry casualty of a song with so many parts- it has two guitar parts, vocals, drums, a bass loop and a string trio. something is bound to get lost in the shuffle. the bass loop was a bit of a breakthrough and was done at the same time as the title track of the album, which ended up becoming an outtake. since it was a digital loop through an sp-303 the bass loses a lot of its presence when it goes from the 8-track into the sampler and then back so in order to bring some of the presence back and do a bit of a digital-back-to-analog conversion i ran the bass loop through my bass amp (i know, quite a concept!) so that the low-end was more present. it's definitely easier to hear that way and brings back a lot of the warmth that's lost. i am forever crestfallen that i didn't make the end of this song a locked groove. it would've been perfect. if a remaster is ever called for, then it can be remedied.

i started dating the tapes during 'all hope is blind' just to see how our process 'flows' and basically it revealed to me how difficult it would be for an outside source to document the making of any of my records. i've been in this coffee shop for far too long and must go.

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