Thursday, February 10, 2011

the gory details- recording blog: recording 'field of flowers'

i just finished the final part on 'field of flowers' and did the last mix yesterday and i've been thinking a lot about the incredibly intense and tumultuous time spent recording the majority of it last summer. what i'm referring to is the four months that brandon spent in the band which somehow ended up flipping the whole thing upside down. back in april of last year we had just released 'all hope is blind' on vinyl and we'd already begun playing out with our strings trio and it was working out quite remarkably. stefanie and i met brandon through a friend of ours from the lorna's laces days. we made plans for him to come by and 'jam.' i don't really 'jam'- i usually try to teach potential new bandmates my songs and see if something works out and he came over under the auspices that i was going to try and build a giant band soon and it wouldn't hurt to start trying to get this accomplished- i taught him one song that had been around for a while and only demoed entitled 'sunny day' which i wrote during the starbucks days (i can remember walking around in the spring of 2006 in our old neighborhood listening to the electric prunes first album and envisioning the song). the other song i taught him i had just recorded, which was called 'blind for you.' it was so new that it didn't even have that title yet. it went reasonably well, but took about three or four hours for me to teach him two three chord songs and there was an incident where he asked me why he didn't get creative control over what he would be playing on these songs.
at the end of the month we moved into our new apartment in old irving park and recorded the majority of the songs over the next series of months.

'cut from marble'- this song was written at some point in early 2010, i can't really remember when, but i would guess some time after christmas of 2009. it was recorded mostly in our apartment in edgewater before brandon even came along. i wanted to have a 12-string guitar on the track, but didn't have one so what i did was build a guide track out of four acoustic guitar parts- two that were doubled standard chord formations and then two more that would approximate the chords being played on a high-strung acoustic guitar (basically a six-string guitar that would be strung with the higher strings that would be placed on a 12-string guitar). i bounced those down to one track and added the vocals- the main verse vocals were done on a harmonica mic and the chorus vocals were done clean with a beta57 and a ksm27. i tried adding reverb to them and doubling, but didn't feel that they ever needed either. there are very few pristine clean vocals on any of our songs and i felt that it might be a good time to give that aesthetic a shot since we'd done damn near everything else and i was comfortable with how my vocal sounded in such a raw state. the vocals were bounced down to one track and then i added the guitars- one was an electric with reverb and the ronsound trem-o-matic, which was an effect that i'd gotten for christmas. it was a custom-shop effect made to approximate the 'repeater' effect which could be found on most vox guitars that were made in the late 60s. around this time i was lusting after a vox ultrasonic xii that i found at chicago music exchange priced at a very prohibitive $2400. the other guitar was done in the standard way for a dense reverse-reverbed and distorted guitar- two fender amps pointed towards each other and miked in five different spots and at excessive volume. stefanie added her drum part- which comes in during the second verse rather than after the chorus as it does in the final mix- i wasn't entirely sure of the arrangement that i was going to use so i kind had everything started at once figuring i could figure out the arrangement through the mixing process- which isn't something i normally do. we even recorded the strings in the old edgewater apartment, possibly in february of 2010. we tried to get them all together at the same time, but never succeeded at that until we'd gotten into the new apartment in old irving park. what ended up happening was that two of them showed up at the same time and then the third had to overdub their part later. i had the strings playing throughout the entire song as i didn't know where i wanted them to come in yet.
what i ended up settling on during what i thought was the first final mix (which is what's up on our myspace page right now) is what i've gone back to since the end of all of this brandon nonsense. after we moved and started having more success getting all three of the strings players together in one room i found that they did, indeed, play much better when they were all together and it was also possible to use only one mic and get a very nice, clean, ambient and more compressed sound- a bonus attribute to something that was much, much easier than doing them one at a time or in seperate batches. once i discovered this we did the strings again in this manner and i was much happier with how the strings sounded- it was much clearer and more together. by this point brandon was ensconced in the band and i'd used some extra money that i'd intended to save towards that aforementioned vox 12-string i found a much cheaper and similar baldwin 12-string guitar that i could afford and ended up buying that. trying to get a good sound with it in my recording setup was getting difficult and i ended up trying to use it on the recording since the live arrangement we worked out involved brandon playing the chords of the song on the chorus and the third verse. we'd tried a live arrangement where he played the arpeggiated chords with the trem-o-matic that make up the verse, but when we were playing it at the empty bottle the song fell to pieces in the middle so we worked out an arrangement where i was able to play that part and brandon strummed the chords to fill things out a bit more and that worked better when we played the song at mortville in may. once i had the 12-string and had figured out how to record the sound of it decently i had brandon record the chords as he did when we played it live and then mixed that version as the final version and was very happy with it. the current final mix does not have this 12-string played by him in it because now that he's gone we have no one to play that part and it seems sort of pointless now, so it's out.

'i am'- this is an old song that was written in portland in 2004 or 2005. i was never able to come up with lyrics for it until my back was against the wall and i just needed something to sing over the instrumental that i made around the time of 'cut from marble' at our apartment in edgewater. the first version was me playing along with a click track, but when we had stefanie add her drum part it, again, sounded stiff so we redid it live together. this made sense since it had been intended to go on 'all hope is blind' but wasn't begun in time to be considered. plus it was a bit different from the other songs aesthetically, although it does have that icy minimalism that the rest of the record has. once we did the song live i sang a scratch vocal until stefanie could sub in hers and also added the second electric guitar and the strings were recorded at the apartment in edgewater. we were happy enough with them not to bother redoing them. brandon asked if he could redo the rhythm guitar part, as that was one of his parts when we played it live and i would've let him but there was no way to sub in that original guitar that i'd played live along with stefanie. plus it sounded so perfect. stefanie finally added her vocal once we were in the new apartment. she sang with the reverb from my old fender princeton amp, which is how we used to record all of the reverb for all of the vocals on the first three shalloboi records.

'you're a vision'- this song was intended for 'chinese blue.' it formed from absolutely nothing- an experiment where i tried the sonic boom method of recording guitars. i figured out a nice, minimal and semi-melodic chord progression on my fender jaguar and then laid that down direct into the recorder- probably through a tube preamp to warm up the sound a bit. once that was done i got an idea for another melodic guitar, laid that down and then got another idea and so on until i had about four guitar tracks and a spontaneously developed arrangement for a song that didn't exist yet. the song languished on the shelf for a long time until one day i happened to find it and realised that i had intended to try adding effects to the guitars later. i began to add the really dense reverb to two of the guitars, then a few of the others i sent the signal through my amp and some effects and re-recorded them that way. once i was done the inputs on the 8-track were finished and i had a nice instrumental which i did a mix of and listened to on my ipod. one day i was bored at work and lyrics started to come to me, just two verses with dovetailing melodic patterns. i recorded a clean vocal and then had a problem of space as i was getting more ideas of instruments to add- drums, strings, keyboards, etc. what i then did was try to use the elliott smith method of recording as i had two tascam 8-tracks at this time and dumped the mix of those guitars onto the first two inputs of another tape in stereo (i'd had to pan all of the guitars to make things somewhat distinguishable) and then i tried to sync the two up so that the one vocal part i had recorded could be doubled, which didn't work at all. what i did next was try to record that original vocal onto the new tape so that they would match up just enough that they would be doubled, as they sounded so nice when they were in sync, but not have to double it later. what ended up happening was about six or seven tries in i had a version where the vocal starts out perfectly synched and falls slowly out of sync and it caused an ever-evolving slow delay effect which i then decided i liked and kept. once i had transferred the parts to another tape and had five extra inputs i added a drum part and a keyboard part. i don't normally like keyboards that much, but next door at the apartment in edgewater they had unearthed this beautiful analog hammond organ with footpedals and a small leslie speaker and i started to use that on some of my recordings including this particular one. it was always an adventure going over there to record- i'm not sure how i ever got anything finished when i went over there. the final piece were the strings- the first run-through was recorded during that first session- which i believe was katelyn and aleksa recorded together and then chris added later- at our apartment in edgewater. this one was the other of those three that we redid together at the apartment in old irving park. not sure why we never redid the strings for 'i am.' one thing about that second take of these songs is that brandon wanted to come over while we were recording- which i had tried to prevent since i didn't want it to be a social visit and there would be nothing for him to do. he ended up coming over and inviting his mom over, who was in town that weekend. we ended up having a hell of a time getting things started as everyone showed up, started drinking and chit-chatting and, of course, i had to put it all to a halt so that we could record. because of this the strings on 'cut from marble' and 'you're a vision' have a certain weird, feisty energy to them. i suppose i can give brandon credit for getting the three of them all excited and hopped up before recording, which is normally a bit more solemn and serious. this string arrangement in particular i remember as quite nice and soaring as opposed to the old version, which sounded a bit wooden.

'dried blooms...'- old, old song. intended for 'down to sleep.' it's built around a bunch of simple, repeating patterns in the style of 'lazer guided melodies' spiritualized. i have an old loop loaded in the sampler with them all. we were going to try to flesh it out that way and there is a recorded version of it done this way. when it didn't work i tried it out again one day when i was bored at home in the edgewater apartment. after an hour i had recorded the song. not sure what i used as a guide track, but the whole thing flowed so nicely and was done so quickly. even the drum part was easy for me to play (although there is a mistake in there). the vocal was supposed to be redone, but never was and the strings part was done live in the old irving park apartment. it'd probably be a good song to play live, but there are so many others that are so much higher of a priority that it's just never panned out.

'curve'- another reasonably old song that was intended for 'chinese blue.' this version was just intended as a demo- done in a day at the edgewater apartment, complete with a scratch vocal from myself. if i'm not mistaken the beta57 was used on pretty much every instrument, except for the drums. once we'd gotten to the old irving park apartment i added the strings (a very relaxed and productive session) and the 12-string guitar, which replaced an old guitar part that i had never been that happy with. stefanie did her vocal last i believe. i tried to have brandon play the 12-string guitar part, but he was unable to do so and gave up. beautiful song and we really should start playing it live soon.

'all gone'- ancient song intended for 'chinese blue.' we played this song at the davey's uptown acoustic show right after christmas of 2006. there's an old version of this song called 'everyone is gone' where i had multi-tracked the drums (and they somehow still manage to sound crappy). this was done one day at the apartment in old irving park- i doubled the acoustic guitar, doubled the main vocal and then doubled the harmony leaving enough room for a few experiments with reverb. what i settled on was what i call the 'lee hazlewood trick.' this involves running the vocals through reverb and then adding delay onto the reverb afterwards. it's the best approximation of the amazing, natural reverbs i'd get in the stairwell at the apartment in edgewater, but i try to use this effect somewhat sparingly. once the tape was loaded up i did a sub-mix and ran it into the other 8-track so that i could add more tracks. i added a droning bowed guitar looped through one of my delay pedals and run through a dense reverb and then added two low bowed guitar parts, bouncing them onto one track. i also had brandon add a reverse-reverbed 12-string guitar part that i hadn't been able to get laid down properly myself. this is the only guitar part that he contributed that is remaining. the strings were recorded during the same relaxed session as 'curve' as well as several acoustic demos that i recorded to show to my sister (we were playing the music at her wedding). the drums we re-recorded time and time and time again- i think they were redone about three or four times. i kept trying to get a good sound out of a disengaged snare drum (which we'd done for an 'all hope is blind' outtake of the title track and stefanie had been able to get effortlessly) and could never get one that survived the transition to the ipod (which is how i test out all of my mixes- ipods sound so shitty that if you can get the song to sound good on one of those it'll sound great on anything). it would always sound muddy and quiet and i could never get enough treble mixed onto since i'd used a maraca and it would just end up sounding deafening. i even tried to have stefanie do it, but she wasn't able to play along with the acoustic guitar guide tracks i'd used as the song's foundation. i finally recorded a decent sounding set of drums a few days ago and believe i finally have a final mix that achieves what i'm after- it sounds like a floating city. very beautiful.

'breathe'- this is a pretty new song that achieves several things i've been chasing for eons now it seems. i wrote the lyrics for this song while i was riding my bike home from a particularly stressful day at work (i often get a touch into the suicidal and hopeless mentality when i'm at work). it was like a paranoid, suicidal nursery rhyme. the first sian alice group single is my favourite of theirs ever and i've been dying to do something similar in my own way ever since i heard it back in 2008. it's a two-part song called 'nightsong' and it's structured such that the first part works as a somewhat straightforward song with lyrics and a few minimal chord changes- sort of a hazy, drumless beautiful song. the second part of the song is a single chord extension of the first part. 'glasslands' was also attempting this sort of a structure, but not as successfully as 'breathe.' 'breathe' is seperated into two parts- the first is a familiar sort of shalloboi song structure- reverse-reverbed, big sounding droning/melodic guitar part that expands as the song goes on- starting out quiet and with tremolo and gaining momentum and larger chord structure over drones, doubled drum part, vocal part doubled 10 times in the style of most of the vocals on 'down to sleep,' and then it adds some more melodic elements- most notably a bona-fide lead guitar part which has sort of a spiritualized-styled melody at the beginning and then a noisy ascending pattern that uses the wonderful sweep of the colorsound wah. the strings sort of foreshadowed the types of arrangements i would have to start relying on once chris left after i'd fired brandon. i didn't even have to bother with any transposition of any sort for this song- i had the viola playing a very mid-range melody that was in close harmony with what the cello was playing. a typical 'all hope is blind' arrangement was built around inverted harmonies between the violin and viola (which has all had to be transposed wayyyyy down to be played on a cello) while the cello filled the function of the missing bass or filling in melodically when the guitar is particularly drony (as on a song like 'christmas song, pt. iii). what ended up happening was that the mid-range was brought out much more leaving the melodic guitar part and the violin (which is playing some very high, lonely-sounding notes in harmony with what the guitar is doing) with a lot of their own space. because of this it was an incredibly easy song to mix and hasn't varied much at all from that original first mix. i played the drum parts and it was my first successful attempt at recording drums in the new music room (which is completely different in sound from the apartment in edgewater). the first part was done with a click track. in terms of this actual guitar part it came from an improvised jam that we had one night after a particularly productive practice, which was aleksa's idea. i told them to play in G and the semi-melodic chords that i made up that night ended up forming the structure for this song. i'd already had the songs sitting in my little pocket notebook for a few months and they fit together quite nicely. i'd intended the lyrics to be used for something minimal a la 'windsong' off of 'all hope is blind.'
the second part is kind of a completely different animal, although based melodically on the first part and built in a similar way. when mixing both parts i have the advantage of the option to separate them completely or have the bleed into each other which will be perfect for putting the two parts on separate sides of a 7" or into one long digital file (which is what's up on our myspace page right now). the second part is different rhythmically from the first part and it's built around the trem-o-matic. i wanted to do something similar to 'how does it feel?'/'repeater' by spacemen 3 as well as spectrums beautiful extension of their cover of 'walking and falling' by laurie anderson (which is on the 'war sucks' ep and is titled 'over and over'). it ended up sounding a bit like 'feel so sad' by spiritualized as well. i tried to play the guitar part with the trem-o-matic along with a click track but it really wouldn't work so well for me- the rhythm of the trem-o-matic kept getting out of sync with the click track so i tried doing the rhythm guitar by itself. i was worried that i wouldn't be able to play the drums along with it when the time came, but as i added parts the rhythm of that trem-o-matic was so strong and clear that it was impossible to get off track. the drums were incredibly easy to sync up with it. i was so emboldened by it that i did two drum parts (which i hadn't originally planned on). the fender bass vi makes a few appearances here as i'd been talking about selling it again- this happens a lot because i rarely use it. what ends up happening is i use it and it makes me never want to sell it. on this particular occasion i didn't use any effects on it, instead just playing it through the fender twin completely clean resulting in some nice, clear, cutting notes. the melodies were made up on the spot and were designed to work in opposition to each other. the repeating melody of the viola during the first part is repeated and embellished by the cello at the end of the song during the wind-up and wind down. no vocals. there was a second, distorted rhythm guitar added later on in accordance with the way that the track would be performed live (should that ever happen- stefanie and i have played through the whole thing ourselves once before- hopefully we can get it together at some point soon). i tried to teach brandon the melodic parts of this song, but we only got as far as the first half of the song. we even rehearsed it together without the strings and he was never quite able to master the rhythm of the melody and it would throw both me and stefanie off once i tried to start singing the words. a shame as i was going to have him re-record the part. this was around the time of the show at cole's in august (which ended up being his last show). we were trying to get the song ready to be played there, but it just never came together.

these recordings ended up being fueled by a strange, desperate kind of energy. everyone in the band was super enthusiastic and everything was very emotionally intense. it'd always been a very relaxed sort of endeavor, but all of a sudden with brandon around all of our connections took on a very intense sort of air. this would've been a positive reason to keep him around if he hadn't been so difficult to work with and such a constant energy drain for myself. by the time of the cole's show i was practicing three times as much as everyone else in the band- saturday afternoons were taken up with exhausting, three-hour long sessions where i would spent ridiculous amounts of energy trying to teach him how to play my songs or figuring out different parts for him to play when he couldn't play what i was asking of him or dealing with his moodiness. these would be followed by practices with me, him and stefanie which would be slightly better, but not by much and finally the times when the six of us would all cram into my tiny music room in the middle of the summer and play through the set for the upcoming show. we only played three shows with brandon, but preparing for those three shows was an exercise in constant exhaustion for me and the results were often that once we'd both put in all of this time and energy he would show up to play onstage and make the same mistakes he'd make the very first time we'd attempted to play the songs. by the third show i'd been beyond fed up, which was to say nothing of the pipe debacle. i don't even want to get started on that...
in september we met with brandon at new wave coffee where i returned his nintendo and he returned my sampler that he'd borrowed and we spent an hour explaining to him over and over again that he was out of the band and that it was nothing personal, we just didn't think it was working out. i'd even gone to the trouble of talking to the others ahead of time to let them know that this was what i was doing and why i had to do it and then immediately following through so that if any of them talked to him they wouldn't have to pretend like they didn't know what was about to happen. even after all of this brandon started spending a lot of time with chris and stirring the pot of discontent until chris (who had started to air his grievances more and more forcefully, even immediately after we finished our set at cole's while we were still onstage and i was tearing down my equipment) finally quit the band via facebook message after stressing to me that i would have to fire brandon face to face. it was an incredibly stressful time as we were supposed to pack up and go to kansas city to play the music at my sister's wedding and i was trying to get my arrangements for that in order as it was all new stuff that we'd never played before. during this time 'christmas song, pt. iv' had started to come together. it's like a signpost for this entire era- the first strings recording session we'd planned for that had been for all three of them to come by right after brandon had been fired and chris is the one who flaked, so with the deadline of my sister's wedding looming in about a month we'd done a bunch of recording and rehearsing without him there and within a week chris had quit. i'd also planned for brandon to come up with his own guitar part for the song. such is life, i suppose. the silver lining is that the song turned out beautifully and it ended up being merilee's first recording session with us. it's sort of like the first rickety-legged baby of this new era of the band. you can hear all of the shakiness and uncertainty but in the end it works out so beautifully.

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