"How Not To Record A Song."
"The triumph of hope over idiocy."
June/July /August 2020
Lock-down hits the country and I decamp to my Mother's house in the country, giving up my flat and sanity in one fell swoop. Decide to use the time usefully by beginning recording of U.F.O, song I wrote in 2017 (I think) and have long suspected will be an epic struggle and true pain in the ass to achieve.
Shakers: the plan is to use the sound of shakers to hold the track together, so begin there, decide on my tempo, and create the Shaker line, do this by finding a cabbasa sample on line, breaking it up and then rearranging it to make the rhythm I'm looking for, give it nice layered tone by playing an egg shaker into a mic ( sat on a step in my Mother's attic). Surprisingly , turns out ok. This bodes well !
Drums : cannot play the drums, but, having made drum lines before from sampled drum kits, and never having been very pleased with the results, am determined to use real drums on this track. In a moment of lock-down madness , decide that now is the time to learn. Mother's attic not really suited to proper drum kit, so purchase an electric kit.
Spend three weeks learning some basic rhythms and a few simple fills, hitting a drumkit, good therapy. Eventually decide am ready to record, spend a little time working out the kick pattern, variations and fills for chorus and middle 8/instrumental break, and am ready to go. Recording goes well, but electric kit not really designed for recording, has one output line for all the parts of the kit (so no separate control for the snare, the kick drum, the high hat , etc), this will be a problem , later on.
A Flat of One's Own: have saved sufficient cash by living with dear old Ma (and working online throughout, no slacker here) that can afford to strike out on my own and get a flat back in the city (hurrah !). Move in, set up little home studio (laptop, couple of decent speakers, Focusrite audio box, mic, cables, guitars) and start on the guitars. Health not great, can only play in shortish bursts but keep going. Record acoustic rhythm and electric rhythm, going for a combination of warmth and bite. Record the electric in line, using VoxJam amp simulator, and also, disastrously, headphones. Not really aware that the headphone sound is completely different from the sound that comes out of the speakers (or if I was aware, probably thought it would be an easy fix). This could be a problem later on.
Vocals: out of shyness, cheapness and possibly a little illness, decide to record vocals at home. Choose the bedroom, as it seems the quietest, hook up laptop outside door so fan doesn't get picked up by the mic, set up mic,stand and pop-blocker, wait till neighboroughs seem to have left the building, and away we go. Record dozens of takes, normal habit, going well, but keep messing up the last few notes of the song. Take run after run at it, doesn't seem to work. Eventually give up, exhausted, decide needs some thought.
Next day, realise that I couldn't sing the end of the song because I have no idea how it's supposed to go, haven't actually written it. Always had some kind of vague idea, but just generally bluffed it when playing live. Sit down, work out exactly what I'm supposed to be singing, record a guide line on the guitar just to be helpful, and get it done. Piece it together over the next couple of weeks, triple tracked, quite pleased. Lead Vocal, done.
Bass: recorded inline, on an older Ibanez SDGR, strings never been changed since it was bought 10 years ago, needs set up as action too high. Job done, but lots of squeaks and whistles, may, er...prove to be a problem later on.
Backing Vocals: always imagined a couple of female voices on the backing vocals (going for a Sympathy for the Devil kind of tone), reach out to Jobe Sullivan, he ok's the use of his space in Erdington, organise a session with Karen Swan and Emma Reading, lovely evening but recording doesn't quite work. Mr Jobe then puts me in touch with Zawe A Philippa and Vanessa Henderson, fabulous sound, back to Erdington, backing vocals done.
Added a little bit electric solo in the middle, had an idea for a military type drum beat half way through the instrumental break, try it, either can't play it or just doesn't work. So just double up the bass solo lines with the electric on top. And done. Do a basic mix of my own, still far to reliant on headphones, and book self in to see mastering engineer. Quite pleased.
Mastering/ First Release/ Overwhelming sense of despair.
Song sounds splendid in the mastering suite, watching Dave fine tune things, am quite excited by how it all seems to be coming together. We finish, and I take a copy home, to play on various different speakers, try out the sound.
Something not right: bass drops out entirely on smaller speakers, not just less bass, but no bass: electric guitar sounds thin and ugly (sounded fabulous on headphones, and studio speakers), main vocal sounds thin and without punch, and throughout the chorus, the high hat is disturbingly loud (tcht, tcht, tcht, tcht, tcht, tcht...). Still, if people listen to it on the right kind of speakers then it should be ok, should it
Release the song, (essntially, getting it online for friends and family to listen to, whlist sticking it up on Spotify, Soundcloud etc, not exactly Sergeant Pepper, but these things are all relative) to generally muted response. Listening in the car with friends the following week, it is clear that, as it exists, it is simply not OK. Even worse, friend has recently released album, we play this in the car as well, sounds glorious compared to my shoddy workmanship, oh dear.
Give up: write it off as a failed experiment, a learning experience, move on to the next song, the next thing.
Problem: I still like the song, still think it has potential to sound great, cannot give up on it.
Blame the mastering: yeah, that's right, maybe it was his fault. Twiddling his knobs and messing with my perfect creation. (At this point, I should send out a big note of thanks to Mark "Fingermix" Smith, who I asked to have a go at remastering the damn thing, and who returned it to me, letting me know that the fault was not in my stars, but in my own bloody mistakes, and my headphones).
Before getting to the obvious conclusion, I think it's worth mentioning the state of mind this kind of thing leaves you in. I'm not unaware that some might see this behaviour as a kind of delusional, narcissistic insanity. I am not a known musician, make no money from the pursuit, and generally have to travel forwards in a bubble of my own self belief and stubborness. A song, which was written over a couple of weeks, has at this point in the tale, taken an entire year to record, and is, from all angles a bit of a mess.
However, "because it's there", as some previous idiot from long ago once said. So I put Frankenstein back in the slab, and got to work.
September 2021 -Setember 2022 (an entire fricking year)
I'm not going to date these, as I've no idea when particular tasks started and ended, but I probably learnt more about recording this year than the previous 10
1) THE DRUMS : this was a task. Because the whole kit had been recorded on one input, it was impossible to simply turn down the high hat (tcht, tcht, tcht), without turning down everything else, and you couldn't isolate the frequencies because it just ended up sounding weird. So, the long way round was the only way round. I listened to the drum track, and found moments when I had hit only one part of the kit, eventually finding enough individual hits that I had the whole kit in single beat/ sample form. I then recreated the original drumline, every bit, but with the different parts of the kit on different tracks, giving me control of each part (I could now lower the high hat without screwing up everything else).
I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND THIS
(people have suggested that I should simply have gone into a studio and recorded a new drum line on a regular kit, but whatever little skill I had built up in those lockdown weeks, had long since evaporated.)
2) ELECTRIC RHYTHM GUITAR: in theory, should have been easy to fix. Because it was recorded inline, then the clean sound of the guitar should exist separately, and I would simply have to choose some different setting on the VoxJam virtual amp, and bob's your uncle. Unfortunately, my state of the art Windows 7 laptop collapsed at this point, one virus or another duelling it out over the DAW, and I was, as they say, stuffed. Thankfully , at this point, my brother and his family, saints in human form, stepped in and bankrolled a new laptop. Software installed, guitar sorted.
3) THE BASS: was a mess, and in the end, I simply decided I would redo the whole thing. Took a couple of weeks to play and mix it in, but in the end it was clean enough that it would pass for professional stuff.
4) LEAD VOCAL: this was tricky, I wanted the vocal to have more edge, but my natural tone tends towards the clean. And so it was, my friends, that I discovered Vocal Distortion, or more specifically Vintage Tube Saturator (wave arts), free vst plugins , they're just the best.
Huzzah, I thought to myself, it is done. But I was mistaken, for I had one last moment of idiocy left in the bag, one final throw of the idiot dice.
"Damn mastering engineers,"I thought to myself, "they always mess things up. I've learnt to do everything else myself, why not mastering?", and so the decision was made, I would master the track myself, because, dear friends, there is no bottom to the idiot well.
TWO MONTHS LATER
I give up trying to master the song myself and discover, by chance, the real hero of the story, Tom Livemore. A prince among men and, more importantly, a gifted mastering engineer, able to tease out the best mix of the song.
OCTOBER 28th 2022
Tom sends me back the song, it's late when I get to it, and turn the speakers down very low. Not so much thinking about my neighboroughs, but if it doesn't sound right, then a low volume might make it a little less painful. I play the track and I find myself smiling, involuntarily grinning from ear to ear. Done.
Note 1) At some point in early 2022 I became so fed up with the entire process,that I decided to take a break from the damn thing for a couple of months and record something else, hence Down With The Bees.
Note, the most important note of all: the song is a piece of art, and so, for all my efforts, people may not like it, or even worse, be indifferent to it. You can never tell. You can only shape it the best you can, release it into the world, and hope against hope that it has some sort of life beyond you.