Friday, July 29, 2016

recording blog: making 'deprivation'

‘deprivation’ was written and recorded very quickly—there’s only one song on it that pre-dates 2012. To put things into context it’s the sound of me building the band back up from the ashes. By the summer of 2011 the band was pretty much in its death throes—I was burned out, two of our three strings players had long distance moves on the horizon and getting everyone together to practice was increasingly difficult. Getting everyone together to record was even harder. In May I lost a job that I’d held for three and-a-half years and I started a new job after returning from a wedding in Kansas City. My new job didn’t have the set, flexible schedule that I’d been used to for so long and most of my time spent there was at night—I was working at the Drake hotel, which is not very mass-transit accessible. We had the last strings show in our living room on a night that many of our friends couldn’t make it—but the planning had been such a difficult puzzle to piece together that the deadline arrived before we could find a decent solution to suit everyone’s logistic obligations. Consequently barely any of my friends or family could make it, which was a shame as the show was very musically rewarding and emotional. Then there was a really nasty fallout with one of the former bandmates due to a few minor misunderstandings. After that happened I was so upset about the way the band had ended (after all, I’d started it from nothing while I was still in college and had given every year of my 20s to it) that, after talking with Stefanie about it, I decided to reboot the band and give it another shot as just a duo. What ended up happening was we booked a few shows in the fall and the winter of 2011 and another in spring of 2012. What was interesting about the period inbetween was that I hadn’t written a single song for about six months, which was atypical to say the least. The new job I’d gotten was taking a toll on me as well—slinging coffee in the richest part of town is not going to do your fragile self-worth or confidence any favors. Add to that the fact that my main emotional outlet had gone dormant and it made for an all-around dreary day-to-day existence. Once we’d rebooted the band I finally got an idea for a new song after a pair of shows in December.

’14.2.12’—This was written as a valentine’s day gift, which was something I’ve been known to do occasionally over the course of my relationship with Stefanie. It turned out beautifully—I hadn’t written anything in my favored open C tuning in far too long, which served as a fresh source of inspiration. I’d watched a documentary on the making of ‘The Soft Bulletin’ by the Flaming Lips (which is my favorite album of theirs) and they were talking about how they recorded the drums for ‘Race for the Prize’—the loud, pounding drums were recorded with a single room mic and the quiet drums during the verses were done with multiple close mics. I’d never tried anything like that before, so I gave it a shot and was incredibly pleased with the results—it ended up giving me a lot of unexpected control during the final mix as well. I ended up using the bombastic single-mic drum treatment (which was done with a Shure KSM27) on many of the other songs on the record as well. I believe that I recorded a guide guitar track first that I played along with—drums, guitar, vocals and then a guitar loop. The vocals were doubled three times, I believe. I doubt that I had the patience to double them ten times, like I have in the past, and they have no effects. This was one of the first recordings where I used a Boss PN2 tremolo/pan pedal as an outboard effect—that pedal is all over the place on this album because it’s so versatile and it had been my most recent purchase (and one that I’d been after for about 10 years at that point). The final mix was done by running my Tascam 8-track through my ¼” 2-track tape machine and then into Audacity to make a digital final mix, which was something I’d started doing so that I could have digital mixdown files that retained a lot of warmth and detail. The version that I finally got to work was probably the third or fourth time I’d attempted it—the pan during the distorted guitars moves between two rate settings, which had to be done manually and then during the quiet verses I wanted the loop to do a simple, slow circular pan, so altogether there are three different pan settings that I had to physically maneuver while mixing. On top of that the distorted guitar on the source track wasn’t loud enough so I had to fade it up—it was sitting over two inputs for more separation as well, so I had to move two faders up while turning the rate dial on the pan up, then had to move the two faders down at a subtle rate when the distorted part ended and then move the rate dial on the pan pedal all the way down slowly enough that the change wasn’t jarring. It required perfect timing—when I listen to it I’m aware of the change, but got it to a point where it at least sounded subtle.

‘daisychain’—This was the second song I wrote in January of 2012. I wanted something based around a very simple two-chord pattern. I recorded two versions of this song—the first was very long and a little plodding. When I record a new song oftentimes I find myself making arrangement choices as I’m laying down the guide track. I’ve found this usually helps to solve dynamic or arrangement problems that I’m unsure of while I’m working on a song—usually a split decision made spontaneously based on the song’s feel can save a lot of time and headache later on. The first version of this song didn’t go so well in that regard, so I recorded the second version—I made the song punchier and faster and cleaned up the dynamics of the ending. I tried a mix where the first version was sped up using the speed control knob and then faded before things got muddy at the end, but then I was losing the melodic guitar part that bookended the song so nicely. Since I was playing the guide track on a guitar I kept having to remind myself to play fast, so the speed changes more than a handful of times. I don’t think it sounds too jarring as the changes are subtle and seem to recur in patterns. Since I’d noticed I’d done this the first thing I added were the drums—one part was done with just the KSM27 room mic and the second was done with multiple close mics (a Shure D112 on the floor tom, a Shure SM57 on the snare and the KSM27 as a room mic). I was able to get them synched up easily enough and pull off the closest thing to a roll as I can do. Next I did three guitar parts—one was through a late 70s Fender Twin Reverb reverb channel with a Rat distortion during the loud parts and the other through the clean channel of the twin with reverse reverb from a Yamaha SPX90 during the verses and distortion with delay from a Boss DD5 during the loud parts. When we play live I split the guitar signal using both channels, but for some reason this doesn’t work when I record—I do them as two separate parts and then I’m allowed to make more mixing choices between the two different tones and control how they intersect. Plus it sounds fuller, richer and more texturally diverse. Since I do a lot of work with the whammy bar on my rhythm guitar parts (I usually use it to accent rhythmic points in a riff since there are a lot of effects that I use to render the chords sort of a formless wall of drone) it causes a sort of hypnotic effect to hear the two playing at the same time but using slightly different pitch bends. The third guitar part was the melodic lead part which splits the guitar signal between the reverb channel and the clean channel with reverse reverb and delay and some distortion during the solo part near the end. The solo part was something that I came up with spur of the moment while I was recording the first version. I hadn’t planned on doing anything of the sort until I got to that long middle section and my instincts told me to step on the distortion pedal and play a guitar solo and it sounded so awesome I did it on the second version as well. There’s also a clean vocal that Stefanie and I sang separately on the second version. I’d sung both on the first version and it’s tough to tell much of a difference. There is also a guitar loop made with the loop setting on the DD5 that runs through the entire song. Since it was one of the last songs that I mixed I left the guitar loop alone (there was a version with a slow pan, but it popped up so much over the course of the album that I had to leave it out of a few songs so it didn’t get annoying). As far as the lyrics go it’s a bunch of rhyming nonsense and a mildly pervy line or two—I probably made this song up while making sandwiches at work.

‘wash over me’—This song has been around in some form for years. This version was written in 2010 and the lyrics were finished later on. I’d originally intended for it to have fully fleshed-out strings and be really huge and epic like a Spiritualized song. Around that time I’d experimented with recording my voice over and over again at different distances from the KSM27 room mic and as different characters so as to approximate the sound of a choir—kind of similar to what Prince used to do. I had a forced-sounding soul song that I first tried this effect on that didn’t quite work, but ended up trying it again on this song with a lot more success. I ended up calling it the ‘Tyler choir.’ It was time-consuming, but worth it—I had to come up with a three-part harmony with a few more close-harmonies within that as well. I did two voices in the lower register, three in a mid-range and then five in a higher register. It took about three hours. The rest of the track was a lot easier and it just revolves around a guitar with reverb that played the stark melodic chords on the verse and the melody during the breaks (which had the Boss DD5 delay added to it as an outboard effect), a reverse reverb guitar with delay from the DD5 and a Marshall Shredmaster during the loud parts that I recorded at an extremely high level using a method I used on ‘down to sleep’ that involved pointing two amps towards each other with five mics at different points between them (a Shure Beta SM57, D112, a few SM57s and the KSM27 in the middle), an alternately-tuned bass part and a simple drum part. There’s also a textural loop that runs through the track and has some nicely-layered oscillating effects that I found on my BOSS SP-303 sampler. I don’t remember what the origin of the loop was or what I intended to use to it for (it might’ve been for a cover version that I was asked to do years and years ago), but I layered a few effects (a BOSS TR2 Tremolo, a BOSS PH2 Phaser and a Colorsound Wah/Swell for some decay) on it and recorded it through the Fender Twin, having it get louder and louder during the extended feedback of the middle section by running it through a Vox Over-the-Top Boost pedal that I’ve been using for years as a sort of mid-gain pedal live—it proved to be too much to run the loop through a distortion pedal.

‘iridescent’—I wrote this song while I was riding my bike home from work on an obscenely hot summer day. I was listening to a lot of Rowland S. Howard songs around that time. I started singing the lyrics while I was riding up a hill on Wilson over the Chicago river—when I used to be on swim team I would write songs while I was swimming this way—I’d sing whatever lines came to me over and over and over until I could write them down. If necessary I’ve had to sing a song to myself for hours—at which point I’ve had full verses memorized and arranged. This was that type of song. This was also the last song I wrote for the record and it was added almost as an after-thought. It was short enough to fit and solve some logistical problems and I liked it quite a bit so on it went. I’d just gotten a Line 6 delay pedal so that I could start building guitar loops while playing live and this is the first time I ever used it—there’s a simple ascending melodic figure that was made up of some bowed guitar, there are high pitch-bent accenting harmonies over the top and then I strummed the rhythm on the guitar strings and added delay from the BOSS RE-2 Space Echo later as an outboard effect to the whole thing. I built the loop, then played the acoustic guitar along with it. There was some bleed, but once the other parts were added it wasn’t noticeable. I’d never really intended for the song to have drums, so I added a reverse reverb guitar with a sharp pan that got loud and distorted (using the Rat distortion) at the end, a distorted guitar overdub that just had a black Russian Big Muff and reverb to smooth out the choppiness of the reverse reverb guitar and then I used the backwards setting on the Line 6 for a high melodic part—I was going to flip the tape over and record an actual backwards guitar part, but the backwards setting on the Line 6 had a quality to it that worked beautifully in its own way. The vocals were done through a Shure green bullet harmonica mic and a tiny Squier practice amp.

‘mae’—When I started working at Metropolis I wrote a bunch of new songs and this was the first of that bunch. I was trying to write a song similar to ‘Common Burn’ by Mazzy Star. I wanted something melodic and arpeggiated so the acoustic guitar was done first followed by a high electric guitar with delay—the chord progression demanded that I tune the low E string up to G so that the electric guitar could add a little more fullness to the mix since there’s no bass to fill in the low end. The first time I did the electric guitar I thought it sounded a little too shrill in places so I did another take on a separate input which was almost the same but still sounded a little flimsy and muddled. During a playback when I was trying to pick which one to keep I played them both at the same time panned to either side and they matched up almost perfectly while improving the clarity of the notes and leaving enough room in the mix for the vocals and the other instruments so I ended up keeping both of them. Most of my recordings are filled with happy accidents, but this one might be the title-holder in that category. In addition to accidentally duplicating a guitar part perfectly I’d wanted to have Stefanie harmonize with my vocal, the only problem was that my vocal was too high for her to do a normal harmony over. I’d just read an interview with Sharon Van Etten about her use of close-harmonies and I thought that her explanation that she almost always heard two different melodies for nearly every vocal line was really intriguing so when it came time to record Stefanie’s vocal I did an experiment and had her sing her own melody without hearing mine. When we played the two together it was incredibly eerie how they matched up and how alike they sounded. I doubt anyone but us can tell who is who. There’s also a melodic 12-string guitar part with a bunch of reverse reverb and delay that floats through the mix like a keyboard part. If the string players had still been around I’d imagine I could’ve done a really nice arrangement for this one, but I’m still really happy with how it turned out. This is also one of only two songs on the record where Stefanie is playing the drums.

‘ema’—Unsurprisingly this was the second song I wrote when I first started at Metropolis. I’d thought that this would’ve been a good b-side for ‘mae,’ so rather than think up a new title I just moved the letters around because I’m clever like that. It was one of those cases where the working title just becomes the actual title for lack of a better possibility. This song was the result of listening to tons of Sigur Rós while commuting really early in the morning—‘Valtari’ was playing most mornings when I was headed to work around then. I wanted to try and do a song that was like one of those older Cat Power songs where she just plays one chord through the entire thing—this ended up being one chord for the verses and another for the choruses. I have a Fender Mustang that is often neglected as it’s been used as a back-up guitar since I got the Fender Jaguar—it used to be permanently tuned for ‘wish’ off of ‘petals,’ which we used to end every show with. It sits in its case and is usually tuned a step below standard tuning—it was usually used to play ‘4am train’ when we’d play it live. Since I felt bad that I’d been neglecting it I wrote this song on it and recorded all of the parts with it as well. There are three parts—the Fender Twin reverb channel guitar with delay that plays the main arpeggiated figure, the bowed guitar that gets distorted at the end and then the melodic guitar that uses the Ronsound Trem-o-matic (which sounds like the Repeater effect that was included on many Vox guitars from the late 60s). The vocal was sung into the KSM27 room mic—which was propped up against a wall on the other side of the room, the drums use a disengaged snare sound and the entire song was built around that weird rhythm from the delay of the arpeggiated guitar. I did the drums second so that I’d be able to play the distorted guitars along to something I’d be able to hear, but I ended up getting really lost in the strong, choppy rhythm of the Trem-o-matic while playing them, so there are a few moments where they start to fall out of time a bit but that’s never been something I’ve shied away from before so why start now? We played this live once at a quieter show and it was surprisingly easy to play live, which I’d think wouldn’t be the case what with having to sing over a part in a really weird off-beat rhythm (every note is plucked on the upbeat rather than the downbeat) that’s completely different from the vocal line.

‘raven’s eyes are blue’—This was written right after I started working at Metropolis as well. It’s a new type of song that I’ve been writing more of—like an argument with myself. My mind has always been exceptionally cruel to me, it can run off independent of every other influence and it gets stronger and stronger with time. This is the type of thing that results from a serious bout of insomnia (which I think I was the case while writing this, as well as the next song). I don’t remember how I started this one—I’m guessing that I did a guitar guide track, then drums, then two guitars and a guitar loop. There was a scratch vocal for the longest time. The drums were done in the same way as ‘daisychain’—one set was done with just the KSM27, the other with multiple close mics. I ended up panning them each to the side for some bigness via separation—which reveals a few mistakes. I’m not very good at drums, even a two-piece ‘kit.’ The guitars were done pretty much the same as ‘daisychain’ as well—a reverse reverb guitar with delay from the DD5 and distortion from the Rat and then a reverb channel guitar with just distortion and then a guitar looped from the DD5 that drones in A through the whole song. The loop is panned through the entire song as well. The final vocal was done in a really old-fashioned shalloboi-type way—back in the old days I used to run the vocal mic through my old guitar amp and run it back into the recorder through its headphone jack (it’s a mid-90s Fender Princeton Chorus) because I was always adding reverb to the vocals. Once the track was finished I noticed that it was a little plodding and slow and a little longer than I wanted it to be—on ‘deprivation’ I was trying to keep the running times shorter than six minutes whenever possible. To fix this I ended up changing the speed on the multi-track just enough that it was the speed I wanted while not losing the chunky heaviness.

‘deprivation’—This one was done using a painstaking sub-mixing method. I was going to make an old-school shalloboi lush sample, which would involve recording a bunch of instruments to fill up the inputs on the 8-track, then mixing them and sampling them on a sampler, but instead I ended up creating a guitar guide track over which I recorded a ton of raw sounds that I then ran through amps and outboard effects—I have two guitar loops with a simple counterpoint melody that I ran through two separate pan speeds on the PN2 and the Fender Twin, one guitar where the strings are strummed behind the bridge run direct through the Princeton Chorus headphone jack with delay all recorded backwards and then there was also a keyboard drone that was run through some conflicting effects that caused some oscillations and mild controlled feedback. The whole thing was mixed, panned and run into my second 8-track with some outboard delay added (that’s right, I have two for this very purpose) onto two inputs with the guide track taking up a third. Once the sub-mix was done I came with up with some ideas for vocal effects—the verse vocals I wanted to be done around some kind of outboard effects, so were recorded clean, but on the chorus I wanted a reverse delay since it was just a bunch of ‘aaaahhhs’ so I had to record the vocal forwards, add some outboard reverb via what I call ‘the Lee Hazlewood trick’ where delay is added to the reverb signal (which is coming through the SPX90) rather than the vocal signal and then I had to flip the tape and re-record the vocal part playing backwards while adding another ringing delay. Once that’s finished and the tape is played forwards the vocal fades in through the reversed delay and then decays causing a beautiful, textured effect. Once that was done I did the main verse vocal clean, then the reverse reverb guitar with just the Rat distortion as I was going to attempt to add delay to the guitar as an outboard effect in an effort to make it clearer and increase separation since this was a very full mix. After that Stefanie added her harmony vocals clean and her drum part. I then added a split-signal lead guitar part that I came up with on the spot using the DD5, the Ronsound Trem-o-matic and some reverse reverb on one of the channels. When the track was mixed I tried a few different delays to add to the reverse reverb guitar and the vocals and ended up relying on the ringing setting on the DD5 I use so much live. Since there were so many effects used the few outboard ones that I used ended up highlighting the breathing room between the parts rather than making the whole thing sound murky and muddy. It was a challenge to master it properly, though—of all of the eight songs ‘deprivation’ was the one I spent the most time on because it was so different. Lyrically it’s about my constant sleep-deprivation and insomnia—there’s some really weird imagery mixed in there—I think there’s a line about the sunlight stinging my eyes like wasps or something really dramatic like that.

While mastering ‘deprivation’ I was trying to capture a final sound that was similar to my bloody valentine’s ‘m b v’ album—loudness is sacrificed for massive low-end clarity. Because of this the final volume level of the album is fairly quiet, but there’s a lot of harmonic detail intact and as the album goes along it gets subtly louder with every track—the final two tracks are the loudest of the bunch as they should be—this is something that happens on ‘Methodrone’ by the Brian Jonestown Massacre as well. You’re kind of forced to turned the volume up as the album pulls you deeper and deeper and then the last track is mastered the loudest so it hits you full-on whether you want it to or not.

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