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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Value of Preparation

For this recording, and for the CD I produced for Jane, my plan included a lot of preparation. I believe that unless you are an experienced studio musician, the unfamiliarity of recording can diminish or stifle the quality or genuine nature of your performance.

Playing a gig is one thing, and recording is another. At a gig, time and errors fly by without much notice. In recording, however, an error is there to be replayed a thousand times. This possibility can cause even seasoned performers to scrutinize their singing and playing to a degree that can make the performance tight and unnatural. It’s like being a kid in a new school for the first time. You can get so self-conscious that you trip over your own feet!

For me, the best way to dissolve this overbearing scrutiny is to do a great deal of preparation, the first being preproduction arrangement. Using my laptop, I create rough recordings of the songs and sort out as much arrangement detail as possible. I then create detailed charts and mp3s for everyone prior to rehearsal. In rehearsal, I make sure those arrangements are adjusted with player input and finalized. If required, I make rough recordings of the rehearsed versions and distribute them again.

This preparation encourages players and singers to know their parts ahead of session, which allows energy to be focused on playing and having a good time. In contrast, when arrangements are being tackled during a session with others waiting and the clock ticking, tensions inevitably arise that stifle natural performance. Spontaneity is fine during recording, but I’d prefer it to arise out of a solid foundation.

Another aspect of preparation for the “At Home” sessions was tending to the challenge of having to sing, play, oversee, and produce all at the same time. I know that in performance I am very affected by my surroundings, and every little distraction drains my attention. If there is a cord under my foot, the mic is blocking part of my sightline, my strap is twisted across my back—part of my brain is noticing those things instead of fully playing and singing.

To deal with this issue, I decided to replicate some of the recording environment in rehearsal. I found a solid, comfortable chair for the sessions and always sat on it while practicing. I set my strap length and guitar position the same as I would in session, placed my music stand and lyrics the same, sang into a microphone, and played with headphones and a metronome. Although a click might not always be used in session, the metronome helped to broaden my awareness of keeping solid time with the “other,” whether a click or the band.

When the sessions arrived, all of the paraphernalia surrounding me was already familiar and transparent. I was able to relax, connect with everyone, and make music in my home.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Gang

Here’s a picture taken by Larry Kurtz on our back porch, Saturday, April 23. From Left, Jesse Turton, bass; Sam Turton, guitar and lead vocals, Jane Lewis, harmony vocals; Adam Bowman, drums, Nik Tjelios, recording engineer; in front, Tannis Slimmon, harmony vocals. Larry, the photographer, played blues harp on “Ain’t Gonna.” Wait ‘til you hear it!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Food and Music

The “At Home” project is about being here. It’s about appreciating and celebrating what we have—in this case, that the music we regularly make in our home is good as it is. It doesn’t need to be neatened up in a fancy studio, it doesn’t need to be autotuned, and it doesn’t need smoke machines and a light show.

Whenever we make music at home, we have friends and good food. The kitchen—even our little one—is the centre, and the good feelings and music flow from there. In Nova Scotian rural homes where I hung out in the 70s, kitchens had a cozy woodstove, comfy chairs and a couch. Food, good music, and friends can’t be beat.

Jesse and Adam chowing down. Too bad we don't have room for a couch . . .

Jesse and homemade cookies, brownies, roasted almonds, broccoli, celery, carrots with super-garlic hummous, homemade biscuits and casserole—thanks Janet and Jane!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sound and Drums

One of the reasons I decided to record at home was to capture the sound of the house, because every home has a unique sonic environment. I wanted listeners to hear the band together—the drums in the dining room, the bass in the hallway, the guitar in the living room.

My intention was not to turn this into another recording studio with each instrument being recorded in pristine isolation. I wanted the sounds to blend into an organic whole, and still allow enough separation for mixing.

In this situation, the biggest challenge was how to allow a great drum sound while maintaining limits—and keeping Adam visible so we could communicate and feel the groove.

Nik started by walking the house and listening to sound reflections. He proposed that the drums be placed in the northeast corner of the dining room and asked us to lay carpets over the hardwood floor to manage sound reflection from below. We rolled out a 9’ x 12’ carpet from Jane’s parents in the dining room, two smaller ones from Adam in the living room, and a Nepalese carpet of Jane’s in the front hallway under the bass station.

In order to soften reflections from behind the drums, Jane and I pinned two foam mattress covers over the corner walls and lay big pillows along the floor. As a final touch, Jane removed two legs from our dining room table and Nik covered it with carpet underlay and placed it in front of the drums.

With simple household items we managed to achieve a natural balance—and the kit sounded great.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Separation and Connection, Part 1

The intention of live recording is to capture the organic chemistry of the performance moment. Being close to your band mates and hearing/seeing/feeling them sparks an inspirational cascade that leads to a soul-full musical “happening.”

When recording live, however, the key to a balanced final mix is making sure some instruments don’t overpower others. Drums and amplified guitars are the most obvious challenge. So, in order to get a strong individual signal from each performer, some sonic separation has to be created, while leaving a certain amount of “bleed,” to make it sound like the single performance it really is.

Nik placed Tannis and Jane in the upstairs hallway for adequate sonic separation, but we risked disconnection because they could not directly see Adam, Jesse, or me. Tannis suggested we set up a mirror, and it worked like a charm.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Microphone test

Not all microphones are the same—even the highly expensive ones. In order to find the ideal microphone for my voice, Nik set up a test. He arranged four mics in a close array and then had me sing a couple lines.

He recorded each microphone on a different track, and then we sat in the control room and listened. To make it easier to discern the difference, he “A-B’d” them, that is, he flipped back and forth from one mic track (A) to another (B) while the tracks were playing. 

This is the mic array and Nik laying out cables.

We went with the Rode NT1A plugged into a Drawmer 1960 tube preamplifier/compressor. That's the rectangular one at the bottom.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A slow Sunday

Today was a slow, restful Easter Sunday. A day to rest my ears and putter around the old homestead.

The parsnip seeds I soaked last week had sprouted, so I planted a seedling tray with 72 cells. I also transplanted some of my paste tomato seedlings and put three trays of lettuce, chard, and kale in the movable "sun" frame.

In the next few days I’ll be posting images from our sessions. All imagery is by the amazing Jane Lewis—poet, author, composer, pianist, singer, graphic designer, caterer/cook, photographer, and now videographer. Not too talented. Oh yeah—she shot the blog header image too. I think it’s a stunning composition.

Here’s a youtube photo compilation of our home recording transformation that Jane put together -

And here are a few shots -

Nik took over my office!

Ready to play - with a mirror so Tannis and Jane could see me from their upstairs microphones.

A video capture of Tannis and Jane singing upstairs. Although we were playing and singing at the same time, each microphone was sending a signal to it's own track. To make sure we could mix each of these inputs in a balanced way, we had to create enough separation so that sound from one part (especially the drums) wasn't too loud in other mics.

 Larry Kurtz blowin' up a storm on harp.

When Jesse saw the sun today he said, "I have to wear something tropical or I'll go crazy."

Adam Bowman, the kung fu kickin', monster groove drummin' dude.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Recording - Day 2

After too many nights with too little sleep, I went to bed last night with the intention of getting 9 hours. Unfortunately, I woke again at 6:00 am and that was it. That slightly shaky state of overtiredness was not what I wanted to be feeling going into this day.

The first order of business was to tighten the tuning of my National to open E for the first song. Before bed I had tuned it up a half step from open D to let it gradually get used to the greater tension.

At 10:00 am Larry Kurtz arrived to play blues harp on the first tune. He’s the founder and Artistic Director of the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival, and a soulful player who fronts the band Trouble & Strife.

Nik, Adam, Jesse, and Tannis arrived next, and the organic coffee and wild blender shakes got us going. Adam took one look at Jesse standing by his upright with his 2L mason jar potion, and blurted out, “Man, what are you drinkin’? Paint?” So I launched into a take-off of Howlin’ Wolf’s, “I Asked For Water (She gave Me Gasoline” -

I asked my babe for breakfast
And she gave me a bottle of paint
Oh, I asked my babe for breakfast
Whoa, she gave me a bottle of paint
She said, drink it down, my sweetheart
And I told her, no, I cain’t
No, no, I cain’t

Cain’t! Now that’s a rhyme for ya!

The first song up was “Ain’t Gonna,” a swampy blues thing with three part harmony. I like to use the gospel approach to harmony in my blues. Nik placed Tannis and Jane in the upstairs hallway to get them away from the drums. We even managed to set up a mirror on the living room floor so that they could see me!

This one settled in fairly quickly and Larry was killin’ it on the harp. After a few takes and a few critical listens, we got it down. Then Tannis said, “Let’s do one more—and pull out the cork!” So we did!

And the sun came out.

We took a lunch break and I tuned my National back down to D and grabbed the opportunity to put my tray of 32 baby lettuce plants outside in the rays. I have 11 more trays with kale, chard, onions, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, and peppers itching to get outside too. Just in time.

We hung out on the back porch for a bit, and then Tannis and Larry bid us adieu. Now it was time for the last song of this series—“Hard Task,“ a rolling, droning lament. The main guitar riff is literally the first thing that came to me after I bought the guitar. Adam created a mesmeric beat with a brush and a mallet, and Jesse had big growling tones rolling out of his bass.

I was starting to feel the body buzz of exhaustion. True enough, it affected my ability to settle into the groove, and also resulted in an ungrounded, shaky vibrato in my voice. Everyone else sounded amazing.

We did three takes and I identified the issue and did my best to slow down inside, breathe, and “lay back.” It got a bit better for the next three takes, but it was still there. I concluded that in my present state, this might be as good as it gets today, and that we should do three more and call it a day. If we got a good one, great, if not, we’d do it again another day.

Adam had pointed out that my strumming hand and leg were moving in a fast eighth note pattern, when the groove he and Jesse were putting down was much more open. Being true Kung Fu dude, he read me a Taoist passage from Bruce Lee about letting go of ideas of perfection and allowing things be as they are. I added, “And call me Grasshopper!” Although it was a funny moment, something in me shifted from high and off-balance to low and grounded. A natural deep breath came, and I realized that they were playing a half-time feel, and I was still seeing it as busier because of my strumming hand. Suddenly I felt the whole thing as “boom - te-kaah - tuh . . . boom - te-kaah - tuh . . . “ and I was there.

The shakiness left, my voice got richer, and for the first time it stopped being work and became enjoyable. Three takes and we were done. What an amazing feeling. Thanks, Adam. Thanks, Lao Tzu!

It was before 3:00 pm—we were done early. Adam took his drums down and motored off to another gig in Toronto (the man is a drummin’ warrior!), so Nik, Jane, and I moseyed along, dismantling the “At Home” studio at our own pace.

Ahhhhhhhh . . .

Friday, April 22, 2011

Recording - Day 1

I woke up at 6:00 am, and went downstairs for a hit of vitamin C to keep away the virus that’s floating around. I paused at the bottom of the stairs in the half-light. The instruments, microphones, and wires reminded me of . . . Christmas morning when I was little. Something magical had descended on our little home.

After a bit more sleep and an easy start to the day, Nik swung by at 11:00 am and fired up the gear. We started working on the first song, a solo instrumental entitled Chapter Eleven (Peace), which refers not to US bankruptcy law, but to a chapter in the I Ching:

“This hexagram denotes a time in nature when heaven seems to be on earth. Heaven has placed itself beneath the earth, and so their powers unite in deep harmony. Then peace and blessing descend upon all living things.”

Those unfamiliar with the I Ching and ancient Chinese philosophy may still be familiar with the song “Chapter 24” from Pink Floyd’s debut album “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Syd Barrett based his lyrics on lines from the same book.

When I first got my National resonator guitar, I was mesmerized by the symphony of resonant harmonics that would ring out when I played the slide. I eventually developed a meditative solo based on that experience. It seemed a fitting way to begin.

Nik’s depth of sonic knowledge began to dawn on me as he set up a number of different mics to capture those delicate resonations. Recorded, it sounded like my ears were inside the guitar—absolutely transfixing. After a few takes we were done. We had achieved lift off!

We called Jesse over from next door and we prepared to track a duet with upright bass and slide, called “I’d Rather Be With You.” It’s a love song for Jane that listeners have been requesting for some time. I needed to really relax and let the richer side of my voice flow out. Deep breath, grounded feet, and a warm heart (Jane was perched on the stairs with a camera and a smile).

My National (Estralita Deluxe) is so resonant that it acoustically amplifies every little sound, including bumps, scratches and rattles. So I wasn’t sure I had the technical proficiency to pull off such a gentle song. But in this patient and supportive environment, I managed to surpass my expectations. It doesn’t hurt to have a son who plays bass like a big old tree. Thanks, Jes.

Time for lunch—homemade California rolls, hummous, veggies, and carrot/coconut soup with free-range hard-boiled eggs on the side. Filling but light—perfect prep for singing. Oh, I almost forgot the chocolate bunny from Lewis Melville!

Which reminds me to say thanks right now to members of our Guelph musical family who graced us with their recording gear—Lewis Melville, Andrew McPherson, Scott Merritt, and James Gordon. I love this town!

Tannis arrived at 2:00 pm and we got ready for the last song of the day—our slow version of “Oh Susannah.” Jane is getting over a cold, and luckily, it gave her voice a richness that suited the lower harmony part. Tannis is an angel, so we know how she sounded!

This one has an intricate counterpoint instrumental section, so I figured I’d need a click track (metronome) in my headphones to keep me steady. After a few takes, however, I realized that the added sound was keeping me from being fully in my body. So I dropped the click and the instrumental began to gel. We paced ourselves, stuck with it, and before long, it was wrapped with a bow.

I think it is Christmas—we had three songs done, live and organic, right “At Home.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's Alive!

Today we cleared out the house, rolled out carpets, tacked up foam behind the drums, and laid down our dining room table as a drum baffle.

Nik arrived with a car full of gear—computers, speakers, compressors, mics, stands, snakes, cables and a host of equipment I don’t understand. With my office as his home base, he began the laborious task of hooking it up and getting it all working. Amazing.

Adam came later in the afternoon, walked over to the drum carpet, and happily sat down cross-legged. Instead of meditating, he whipped out an electric drill-drum-tuner and buzzed away putting new heads on some of his drums. When the whole kit came together it sounded huge.

With camera and new Zoom videocam in hand, Jane gleefully documented the process starting with a bunch of before shots and ending with some great live footage of Jesse, Adam and I jamming through a sound check.

The first job was to test out the live sound of the basic acoustic trio—Adam on kit, Jesse on upright bass, and me on National resonator—so we did my swampy blues tune “Ain’t Gonna.” We ran through it and piled into the control room for a listen. What came out of the speakers was amazing—big, rich, and real. Shit, it’s happening!

Then the party started. Tannis Slimmon, Katherine Wheatley, Jeff Bersche, and Jeff Daniels arrived for the next test—adding harmony vocals and acoustic piano. Jeff D. took his place at the keys and Tannis, Katherine, Jane, and Jeff B. gathered around a mic in the hallway. We counted in and went into a rendition of the soulful new tune, “Sinner’s Child.”

We got a good piano sound and enough separation from the other instruments, which was the initial concern. The singers sounded great and even though one-mic-in-the-hallway will not be our final back-up vocal scenario, that turned out well.

10:30 pm and we were done! The test was a success—and tomorrow the recording begins!

Food and practice

According to Nik Tjelios, our masterful project engineer, good food makes for good recording. So Jane and her mother Janet have been cooking up a storm all day! First they dug through the bins of veggies from last summer’s garden and whipped up a giant, spicy carrot/coconut soup. Then it was on to sushi rolls, a veggie casserole, brownies, and a host of other goodies. The last time I recorded, all I ate was mixed nuts and chocolate chips. Thanks a million, Janet!

As the aroma of good food wafted through the house, I was able to sit by myself and focus on the songs. I gradually shifted my awareness from a “playing” perspective to a “listening” perspective, and began to notice all the little sections that needed attention: parts where I leave a solo and forget to breathe deeply enough to get the first line; parts where I make unnecessary noise with the slide because I’m thinking about the intonation; parts where I’m a little flat because my back isn’t straight.

Then, with self-compassion and genuine curiosity, I allowed the field of my awareness to broaden, and with each pass, the rough bits started to sort themselves out. By the time I was done, the songs were sitting much better and the prospect of recording was starting to feel even more fun that I originally thought!

At 3:30 pm, Paul Wall swung by from Kitchener to tune our 40’s Nordheimer piano for our first session. He tunes the grand pianos at the River Run Centre in Guelph and The Centre In the Square in Kitchener. He does a masterful job—and he’s a sweet guy, too.

At around 5:30 pm, Tannis Slimmon arrived for a vocal rehearsal. I’m so lucky to have her angelic voice and spirit with us on this project. Jane took a break from the kitchen and we sat in the living room (soon to be a recording studio!) and worked through the harmonies on a number of songs.

Then at 8:00 pm, Jeff Daniels dropped by to sort out the piano arrangements for the tunes he’ll be playing on. He plays with Jesse and Adam for jazz gigs around town, and has a good feel for different styles. We ran though “We Want Peace,” and “Sinner’s Child,” and he got the gospel/soul voicings down pat.

At around 9:30 pm, Jane and I composed a final harmony part for our slow, melodic version of “Oh Susannah.” When she finally sang it, I got the shivers!

And now it’s time for bed . . .

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beginning "At Home"

“At Home” is the title of my new recording project, and this blog, in addition to photography and video, will document the process.

Jane and I believe strongly in the power of singing and music to heal, grow, and bring people together in community. We write and perform music that dissolves the performer/audience barrier. We also lead singalongs, offer workshops, and regularly fill our home with musicians and singers of all ages and experience.

For me, music begins and belongs in the home. The songs find me here, I sit back and play them here, and some of my happiest times have been hearing this old house resonating with instruments, voices, laughter, and song.

So when it came time to record another album, the thought of going into the studio and laying down tracks in the modern way—separately, one player at a time—didn’t feel right. Sure, with multiple tracks and overdubs I could get rid of errors and make the recording more pristine, but at what cost? I wouldn’t get the rough-and-ready soul of live roots music made by people having a great time doing it together.

That’s the way music used to be recorded. The Beatles laid down their entire first album live-off-the-floor in one day. Robert Johnson recorded his legendary tracks in a hotel room in three days. Most of the classic songs we love were recorded this way.

So I decided to take a leap of faith and record my entire album right here at home, live, with all the players and singers together, like when we jam for fun.

Today was the first official rehearsal with my super-talented son Jesse on bass, the extraordinary Adam Bowman on drums, the brilliant and phenomenally supportive Jane Lewis on harmony and accordion, and me on vocals and guitars (many guitars!). It felt great playing through tunes and sorting out arrangements. We got a solid groove and had some priceless laughs (Adam, you’re such a kidder!).

The project will roll on through the next few months, with the first recording sessions happening this week—so stay tuned for daily entries!