2013/07/10

Crazy love

My band Lisa's Hotcakes just completed recording and mixing our second record, a six-song collection that currently does not have even a working title. I keep referring to it on Twitter as #hotcakesep2, "EP" being the abbreviation for "extended play," which is what a record that is more than a single but less than a full album is called.

We made the last record in 22 hours. We recorded five songs and used four (with the fifth being a bonus track). This time I booked 30 hours, three 10-hour days, but I wanted to record six songs. And due to various commitments as well as two shows in June, we had less time to really work through all the songs. Even worse, there was a song I wrote specifically to be the closer, but we had barely rehearsed it. And yet I really wanted it to complete the set. So right off the bat, I was making unreasonable requests of the band.

Day 1

We loaded in on Saturday at 10 in the morning. Our friend Pat Steward, drummer for the Odds, was kind enough not only to lend our drummer T some equipment but also to spend a few hours with us getting the drums set up. He had done this for the previous session as well. It made such a difference in setup time and also in drum sound, and drum sound is so important for a rock record. Humble thanks and much love to Pat!

After setup, we had a light lunch and started working. The first thing we recorded were the bed tracks, which in our case consisted of drums, bass, guitar (sometimes scratch, sometimes a keeper), and a scratch vocal (to help everyone know where they were in the song). You might think recording six of these in eight hours would be easy, but it's not at all. We knew four of these songs quite well, but even those took time. You get warmed up. You start a take. Something goes wrong. You do a complete take. You decide whether to keep it. You might have a listen in the control booth and then maybe do another take. You need short breaks, and you need a longer dinner break toward evening.

By end of day, we had five bed tracks that we thought were keepers. We struggled with the new song, as might be expected. When you haven't been playing a song for long, you don't have the muscle memory to play it without thinking. And thinking while you're playing can be deadly. In the end, we decided to save the final bed track for the next day.

We were all exhausted and in need of rest. Recording is really a lot more work than it might sound, both physically and mentally. After a day like that, knowing we wanted to try to get the sixth track, my brain wouldn't let go. I was thinking through how I needed to change the guitar part. I was thinking of how to keep the whole sound together. It's a good thing I was exhausted, because that finally let my brain and body get some sleep.

Day 2

We started on Sunday at 10 again. Our singer G was late, so since I was planning to replace the guitar track for the final song anyway, I decided I could do a scratch vocal while playing. And even though it was an ungodly hour for rock and roll, we got a decent take. Then G arrived, and we laid down one more. Between the two takes, we had the basics of our sixth song.

After the bed tracks, Sweetie fixed one spot on bass, and then we spent the rest of the day (with breaks) alternating between the lead vocal and the guitar overdubs. That way, neither G nor I got too burned out. Laying down vocals in the studio is gruelling, and I admire how cool G stays while doing repeated takes and retakes, sometimes one line at a time. And despite that, she not only hits the notes but the emotional notes as well. Most of the guitar work is relatively easy for me, but it still requires a lot of energy. And some parts are quite difficult. I'm not that good a guitarist, and occasionally I overreach.

Still, by the end of the day, we had lead vocals and guitars for five songs. That left us with the brand new song. I'd written some parts that really weren't in the best range for G. So I got even more unreasonable than having the band do the song at all. I asked G if she could basically rewrite the final chorus to fit her range better. And make the melody interesting. And then sing the chorus twice. She didn't hesitate. She didn't tell me to get bent (which I might have). She figured out a new melody and then proceeded to nail the whole song, including the brand new parts. Really nail it. She did great vocals all the way through the session, but that last one, at the end of the day, when we were all tired and a wee bit lubricated ("sponsored by Makers Mark"), with G singing brand new lines, might be the best.

New moon that night. My esbat on the back deck was especially heartfelt.

Day 3

Monday was supposed to be for mixing, but I hadn't finished all the overdubs. We started at 9, just me and our engineer. I did my harmony vocals (with no bourbon), then laid down the guitar parts for the new song, and finally added some tambourine to one song and a bit of cowbell, yes cowbell, to another. There were other things I would have liked to have done, including work on that lead guitar part for a few hours until I was really happy, but it was already late to start mixing.

Our engineer and co-producer, however, is not only a genius but also amazingly fast. The first song takes the longest to set up, but then once that is done, the others go more quickly because you're basically adjusting from a starting point. He is also great for me as a co-producer to work with. Sometimes I have specific, coherent requests for how I want the sound to be different. But sometimes I know what I want but don't know how to express it. Like when I said that one song had gotten too classic rock and needed its Lou Reed back. Somehow, that made sense to the engineer, and I was much happier with the result.

We finished all the songs, including that rather difficult new song, by the end of the day. Thirty hours total, a ridiculously short amount of time to do what we did. But I think the result will speak for itself. It's far from perfect. There are things I would like to change. And yet there is nothing I can't live with and much that I am proud of. In fact, I'm really quite proud of it overall.

Blood, toil, sweat, and tears

It's all still under wraps for now, this work with no name. There is another step called mastering that the songs have to go through. They get sent to a specialized studio where they are adjusted (mostly small boosts or cuts at various frequencies) so that the CDs will sound as good as possible. We also need artwork. And then it all has to be sent to one company or another that manufactures the CDs and prints the artwork onto folders. And hopefully we have a wildly successful record release party. And get some reviews. Et cetera.

For now, we have tracks to listen to and hopefully we get to relax a bit. I love being in the studio, but there's no question it can be a difficult process. It's play, but it's also real work. And making music is not just about playing notes. It's about telling stories and conveying feelings. We pour that into what we play in the hope that others will feel it too, and the process of pouring it in can leave you drained. I'm exhausted. Our drummer is sick. That's what this process can do to you.

There was one song that was particularly difficult to write. Last winter into early spring, n the midst of the worst depression I've been through in a long time, I needed to write. Being somewhat stuck, I went back to basics. I worked out a simple chord pattern. I knew how the rhythm would go. I had a melody and even the phrasing of the lyrics. But the words themselves would not come for a long time. I kept working at it, and out came a song about hope. In the studio, I played the second guitar incredibly loud, right on the edge of feedback, and it came out just the way I wanted. I went into the control room, heard what the song sounded like at that point with the brand new guitar part, and cried. And when the song was complete, I cried again.

That's what creating music means to me. That how creating music affects me. I only hope that listeners feel even a fraction of what we put into it.

2 comments:

Lyra said...

fantastic to read! you should do a studio blog? kinda write up each day, notes of each song? I'd read it, this kind of stuff fascinates me, and I know you enjoy it too!
hoping the finished product is all you wished for!

Véronique said...

Thank you! I'm writing a follow-up post with stuff that didn't fit in the day-by-day. I will like write another post later about the individual songs once they are available to listen to. Otherwise it's all a bit abstract. I realize I will have forgotten at least some of how the song came about, but oh well.