Studio nerd

I'm sure there are bands that go into a recording studio and just bang out their songs, leaving all the technical aspects to others. But I think for most musicians a recording studio is a magical place. Some serious wizardry happens in studios! I find it more fun to immerse myself in the magic than just to be a player and singer. I don't know nearly as much as some, but I'm learning.

And this time was different than previous studio sessions. I've spent lots of time in recording studios where it was only an engineer and me. That's usually how it has for mixdowns. I don't remember any band members being particularly interested in those. And sometimes, being the guitarist, harmony singer, and occasional percussionist, I would go in by myself for overdubs. But these three sessions were the first I ever did both by myself and for myself.

The object was really to create a demo—decent recordings of a few songs that I can link to when I try to get someone to hire me. But I aimed for a bit more than that. I wanted the tracks to sound pretty much like they do when I play them live, but I also wanted to fill them out a little.

I took four songs in. I was well prepared. I had been practising with a metronome to get used to playing with a click track. All of the song tempos were where they sounded best to me.

At the same time, I knew that I didn't have to have everything planned in advance. I wanted results within two sessions, more realistically three, but this being my first experience as the sole creator of the music (engineering is also a creative process), I also wanted to give myself time to relax, be happy (and not just okay) with takes, and maybe even to come up with new things.

The first session was about guitar and vocals. I recorded bed tracks—just a guitar, in this case—for each of the songs I had planned to record. Something about the fourth song didn't feel right when I was playing it, and playback confirmed it. It wasn't right. It didn't feel like it should be in a set with the other three. More surprising, it didn't feel like V. Diz. I had not suspected that before, but I was sure of it now. I abandoned that track, got inspired, and played another song from my list. And I realized that was the one I wanted to record. Which I did. At the end of day one, I had guitar tracks and most vocals for "Drive By," "Normal Day," "If We Pretend," and "Hunting Season"—the new song, which is actually an old song, which is another story.

After listening to the rough mixes for a week, I had a plan for the second session. Some things went right. I nailed a vocal section that had given me trouble at the end of day one. I played more guitar parts. I might have subtracted a track or two of guitar from the previous session. And then the engineer and I set to mixing. Initial setup takes a bit of time. Fortunately, the setup provides a starting point for the subsequent tracks. We got a possible keeper mix of "Drive By" and a mix of "Normal Day" that I knew had been done too hastily and would need more work.

Listening to the two mixes confirmed that at least "Normal Day" needed work. I had several weeks to listen and consider and come up with ideas. One idea was for percussion. In session two I had intended to play djembe (African hand drum) on a couple of songs but I had forgotten to bring it. Just as well! I needed a lot of practice. I'm happy to say that I have gone from being a djembe dabbler to actually playing the djembe—perhaps not in a traditional way, but mostly in rhythm.

So for session three, I started with the drum. I did a couple of takes for "If We Pretend" and a couple more for "Hunting Season." And then it was time to do the serious mixing.

We put "Drive By" aside as potentially being a keeper and started with "If We Pretend," because it's very simple, not even a second guitar, just one guitar, djembe, and vocal. I ended up putting the vocal well in front of the instruments. That's a scary thing for me, but it sounded better that way because the song is a story. At least I'm reasonably happy with the singing.

We changed a few things before getting the sound I was looking for on "Normal Day." I wanted to go psychedelic on it, because I have psych in my blood from way back. Swirly guitar, fuzz guitar, processed vocal.

On "Hunting Season" I decided to drop the djembe from the beginning of the song and have it start at the chorus and continue to the end. I think it's more effective that way. And you can blame me for the echo on the chorus vocal. Totally my idea.

Finally we went back to "Drive By." I wanted more of a sound change on the bridge. So we put a chorus effect on the guitar (I play it live through my flanger) and ran the overlapping vocal tracks through software that emulates a Leslie speaker. More psychedelia! I guess I indulged myself, but hopefully it sounds good to others as well.

None of the tracks has been mastered, a step that involves matching volume levels among songs, sometimes changing equalization or compression, and making sure that the songs sound like they belong together. I need to book that. But it's been so long since I had any recorded output other than my home recordings that I have to preview, at least. So here is the debut of "Normal Day" (premaster):