At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know. It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.
This is the third in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its Part one covers the album’s initial conception. Part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer, and Part five covers the final recording sessions and the initial mixing process, and part six covers mixing, editing and mastering the tracks. Part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.
Part Three: Lyrics and Demos
After finishing the initial writing and scoring process for the majority of the material for The Exited Door, the next step was making a demo of the album. I was bringing together an unprecedented number of musicians (for me, anyway), so my goal, in order to ensure that everything went smoothly, was to make it as easy on all of the musicians as possible. That meant having a really clear idea of what we wanted to record well before we entered the recording studio, and having recordings and charts for everyone to learn beforehand.
For me, demoing songs is very much an extension of the writing process. Demoing the tracks for The Exited Door was no different – I entered the demo phase with a solid idea of how the tunes would sound, but many of them were quite incomplete. Most didn’t have finished (or even started) lyrics, and a good amount of the orchestration, particularly the string and horn parts, had not yet been written.
My demoing/writing setup is as follows – I open up MS Word, Pro Tools with Reason running through re-wire, and Sibelius. With the score and the lyrics open in Sibelius and Word, I set about plugging in the tracks to Reason and Pro Tools. Some of the tunes, like “Down By The Water” and “Bird Women” were far too organic to use sampled drums or bass for demoing, but a good number of the other tunes were straight-ahead enough that sampled drums would cut it for a demo.
The tunes that didn’t have drum set needed percussion, so I did all of that acoustically, playing shaker, tambourine, and drumming on the body of my acoustic guitar. After the other sequenced instruments were laid down, it was time to add the other acoustic instruments – guitars, both electric (through my Line 6 PodXT) and acoustic, as well as any horn I could add.
On a few tunes, I exported some parts from my scores in Sibelius into MIDI files, then imported them into Pro Tools and sent them through the Reason instruments, editing them after the fact to get a more organic performance. In a lot of cases, however, particularly with drums, I just recorded a fresh performances into MIDI in Pro Tools.
The hardest thing on the demos was the sacrifice that was necessary in getting the “horn section” into the tunes. Fake horns make my head hurt, and these fake horns were no exception. All of the brass had to be sampled, so my trombones and trumpets, try as I might with my performances, just did not sound groovy, even with me playing alto, tenor, and soprano saxes and flute along with them. Ah, well, I told myself. It’s a demo.
While laying down the groundwork for the tunes, I also started recording vocals for everything (at least, wherever I had the lyrics done). That meant singing all of the parts – high up in my falsetto for Lindsay’s parts, belting for all I was worth for Dan, and really trying to impart a sense of the “character” of each of their voices. The plan all along, however, was to do two runs of demos – the first one only for Dan and Lindsay, then have them come in and sing scratch takes on their parts in order to have a second demo to send to the other musicians that sounded closer to the way the finished record would sound.
I’ll say this – those initial demos are hilarious. There’s nothing quite like hearing a three-way vocal war with yourself (on “The First Time”), or singing in your high-high voice, all girly-like, up to a high Eb (on “You’ve Changed”). Needless to say, there are no copies of those demos out there anywhere (I HOPE), but sometime maybe I’ll post one somewhere. They’re pretty funny. It’s like “Kirk, featuring Kirk, Kirk, and the toy band.” Not pretty.
While that was going on, I was finishing the lyrics, and they were going really well. I was working out the theme of the album – the passage of time and the changes that passage brings – and it was cool to write so many songs simultaneously about a single theme. They ran the gambit from straight-up standard rhyme schemes (The Intro Song, The First Time) to combinations of different patterns (No Crow, Scarecrow, Lock You) to tunes that didn’t really rhyme at all (Bird Women, Down By The Water).
When writing for Squaretape, I got into the bad habit of reusing chorus lyrics over and over again; I guess it was an ingrained behavior from years of listening to radio pop or something. When I realized that most of the music I like barely even rhymes, let alone re-uses choruses, I made a conscious effort to write “through-composed” lyrics that didn’t repeat. As a result, there are no repeated lyrics anywhere on the entire album, save the choruses on “Oh, Brother.”
For most of the months of March and April, I carried a notebook with me wherever I went, and when I had a free minute, I’d try to write some lyrics to one song or another. At this point, the tunes were all well-formed enough that it was pretty easy hear them in my head and make decisions on the fly about where to place things, as well as how to change phrase-lengths and even re-arrange the tunes. I also got a lot of work done while running in the park every day.
With most of the lyrics done, I recorded them into the demo sessions, keeping track of my changes to the arrangement in the scores in Sibelius. I’ve actually written at length about arranging and recording simultaneously; the process was made so easy by having access both to Pro Tools and Sibelius on my computer. When I needed a new section, I could record it and notate it, but more than that, being able to move and mix the instruments on the fly made it a lot easier to hear how things would sound in the final product, and opened up a lot of new areas for the arrangements.
For example, during the first bridge of “The First Time,” right after my first vocal entrance, I managed to work in quite a few instrumental countermelodies that I would not have ordinarily thought of while scoring. The string entrance didn’t come out like it should have in the score, and the arpeggiating guitar that enters 8 bars in (one of my favorite little bits on that song) didn’t exist in the score at all. Using both programs at the same time opened those and a lot of other sections up.
It only took a couple of weeks to get everything done, and then I had a complete album. I cannot even describe the feeling I got as the tunes came together in a real, listenable form – I had put my successful last band on hiatus, taken months to write this material, all on the assumption that it would work when recorded, but you never know until you know, you know? After recording the demos and putting them together, I knew – this album was going to work. I believe I have never felt so creatively excited.
The last step was to get the demos to Lindsay and Dan and to get demo vocal performances from both of them. Over the next few weeks, we met up at my place a lot and recorded scratch tracks – I made lots of omelets and guacamole and said “sounds great, let’s do another one” a lot. They both did just fantastically. Lindsay brought a level of preparedness to the studio that unreal – she had everything worked out for “You’ve Changed,” which was a good thing, because that tune is really hard! It goes from her absolute lowest note (F on the first line) to pretty damn high (the melody has a two-octave range). It’s funny how some singers focus so much on making high notes sound great, when in reality, the hardest notes to get good takes of in the studio are the low ones. She did an amazing job.
Dan’s parts were a bit easier, mainly because I had been writing for him for a few years, so I had a better idea what to shoot for. “The Mayor” was particularly fun to record – a six-pack or so into the night, he laid into the tune, getting up on the microphone and belting notes like some ungodly combination of Evil Elvis and Foghorn Leghorn. It was amazing (I’ve probably never laughed so much in the studio), and we got such a great performance in his last take. I had a feeling at the time that it would wind up being the take we used on the record which, surprise, it was!
I also scheduled a bit of time with Khamara to record the spoken part for “Theme,” which was a blast. I’d never produced a voiceover before, and Khamara brought an awesome level of flexibility to the session. She also has a beautiful speaking voice, so that was fun.
Mixing and editing the demos with the new vocals took far less time than I thought it would, mostly due to the awesome level of preparedness that both Lindsay and Dan brought. By the first week of June, I had a demo of the entire album in the mail to all of the other musicians.
With that done, I started scheduling time to record everyone – another great thing about Pro Tools is that it makes sessions really modular – all I had to do to move my home sessions over to the big HD system at The Urban School was dump them onto a USB drive and catch the buss.
The recording process, which lasted through the summer, will be the topic of my next post.