The Exited Door – One Year, One Album (Part 5)

29 Jan

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 fifth in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part one covers the initial conception, part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer. Part six covers mixing, editing and mastering the tracks, and part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.

The record is now available at CDBaby.com, as well as for download from iTunes and Digstation. Tracks from the disc are streaming on my myspace page.

Part Five: Final Recording Sessions and Initial Mixing

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As the tracks started to reach their final state in terms of content, it grew a lot easier for me to mix them.  I’m just not able to mix things separately – I have no way of knowing if the sound that I get on, say, the drums alone will sound good once the bass, guitars, and vocals are added, so it just wasn’t possible to tackle the mixing until everything had been recorded.

It was quite a process, and was the most challenging part of the album’s creation. The transition from demo to full recording required me to put down my preconceptions of the songs at every turn. One of the dangers of making complete recorded demos of tunes is that it’s pretty easy to get used to the demo – to the mistakes, the odd mixes, and lackluster instrument sounds – to the point that it can be jarring to mix in real instruments played by real humans.  Since the sampled instruments and the real musicians were in utterly different universes, both in terms of mix and groove, I held off attempting any mixing until I had everything in place.

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It ain’t the hit factory, but it worked.

My initial thought had been that I’d do most of my recording at Urban, maybe do a few sessions at my apartment, then do all of the mixing at Urban, on the big board. The reality of mixing over there was a different story – not even taking into account the trouble of having a bus ride between me and the studio, the ergonomics at Urban’s board just don’t work for me in an extended mixing session, and the atmosphere also felt off.  Pretty early on in the final mixing/recording process, it became clear that I’d need to mix the album at home, and would just have to work around Pro Tools LE’s 32-track ceiling by doing mixdowns of the drums and rhythm instruments.

So, I started by editing the drums and bass, and the process was pretty easy – Brian Carmody and I had gotten oodles of great drum takes down, so it was more of a matter of picking which ones worked best with the bass tracks that Fox had laid down.  Fox’s bass tracks were very consistent, so that was more about editing out the occasional funky note. One of the benefits of writing out all the drum and bass parts pretty specifically is that it helps to get multiple takes that are consistent with each other in terms of content.

Several tunes came together pretty quickly – the only one that didn’t quite sound right was “Sweet Revenge.” Originally written for Squaretape, it was a pretty straight-ahead 6/8 rock tune, and it wasn’t really blending with the sound of the other tunes. After breaking my head over the tune trying to get it to sound right, it became clear that it just wasn’t going to work, and I made my final cut, taking the tune off of the album.  It was a tough call – I really, really like that song, and Dan, Lindsay and I had worked really hard and come up with a killer vocal re-imagining of it, but it just wasn’t enough, and the tune didn’t work out.  Alas.

At the same time that I was chipping away at the general mix on each track, I was getting the rest of the instruments recorded – the “auxiliary” instruments like woodwinds, acoustic guitars, mandolin, electric guitars, and all of my piano parts.

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Melissa and Youky laying it down.

For one of the first of these sessions, I met with my buds (and fellow UMiami music friends) Youky Koh (oboe) and Melissa De Bartolomeo (bassoon) for a double-reed session.  I was hearing them on the instrumental section of “You’ve Changed,” and also really wanted to get some bassoon on “Lock You In The Attic” as a counter to the brass at the beginning.  In the end, Melissa’s playing is my favorite part of that track – the intro sounds so freaking cool with those bopping bassoon notes in there!

Another UMiami compatriot that I wanted to record was New York guitarist Kenji Shinagawa, and the way we pulled it off was really cool. Kenji and I have been friends since our first year at Miami ten years ago, and his playing is so thoughtful and well-reasoned that I really wanted to get him on the album.

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Kenji and his Ukulele in NYC.

I knew that he had Pro Tools and an MBox at his apartment in NY, so I decided to send him a copy of the session for the album’s one ballad, “Oh, Brother,” and have him plug it into his rig and lay down some tremolo electric guitar fills on his groovy new Tele.  After I actually managed to put together a version of the tune that worked, timing-wise (kind of harder than it should have been), I sent it out to him.  He got back to me after listening to it and said “You know, I’m really hearing mandolin on this tune.”  Kenji’s also a great mandolin player, and I totally trust his instincts, so of course I said, “Go for it.”  A few weeks later he mailed me several takes of beautiful mandolin playing on the tune – mixing that into what we already had was a pleasure, and it really tied the tune together.  Kenji’s got a really cool thing going in New York, and released a fantastic album of instrumental music last year – check out his site here, and if you’d like to order his album, you can buy it here.

Recording my piano parts was an arduous process. The baby grand at Urban is a beautiful instrument, and I was excited to get its big sound recorded. When I’m doing something like that, I prefer to work alone, since I do a lot of taking and re-taking of parts, and get very specific about my punch-ins. The problem was that the control room at Urban has a huge Control | 24 board, and it’s really tough to get from there into the main room, where the piano is.  I wound up rolling the piano over right to the door to the control room, putting my headphone amp in between the two, cuing up a big pre-roll, hitting record, and running over to the piano while keeping track of where my entrance was.  It wasn’t exactly the most conducive atmosphere for relaxed, focused playing, and as a result, most of my memories of recording the piano parts are clouded by feelings of anxiousness and frustration. Oy. It was a lot of work, but after four sessions, I had everything I needed on the tunes, and as I mixed them in, the difficulty of recording the tracks faded, and I was left with some wonderful sounding piano takes.

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The Destroyer.

The last major session at Urban was recording Dan Nervo on guitar – we used his Fender Deluxe for the clean tones and cranked up his Marshall Vintage Modern half-stack for the dirty tones on “The First Time” and “The Mayor.” To get a full sound, we double-miked everything – one SM57 on the speaker and a Shure KSM-109 out against the wall. Our main focus was on “The Mayor,” getting his tone to really, really scream and man, did it ever!  Jeez.  There is truly no substitute for a cranked Marshall half-stack – there was almost nothing I needed to do to the tone we got on that solo other than a tiny bit of EQ and compression.  Nervo just nailed the crap out of it – we spent a good deal of time coming up with some of those lines, working out how the harmonies would fit together, and the end result is an absolutely shredding solo that is one of the record’s musical highlights.

Just after recording Nervo’s parts, I went ahead and recorded my own guitar parts – I had demoed all of them using my PodXT at home, and cranking up my Traynor 40Watt in the studio gave them a big, fat, awesome sound – the distorted parts on “The Mayor” and “The First Time” really came alive with real guitar tones, let me tell you.  No matter how great Line 6 gets at emulating guitar tone, there will never be a substitution for the real thing.

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Sorry, Lindsay. Thanks for being such a pro.

Around the same time that we recorded the final guitar parts, Lindsay and Dan came in to record final takes on the vocals.  Another challenge brought about by making such a comprehensive demo was that when we recorded the first demo takes, we were pretty relaxed, since the assumption was that we’d be re-doing everything later on.  When it came time to record the final takes, everything had a more “final” energy, and we wound up sweating some minor details that we maybe didn’t need to worry about as much.  Also not helping things was my decision to use Urban’s Rode vocal microphone for some of the takes. I brought it home to record a few of my takes and got good enough sounds, though there was a serious proximity effect, and the tracks required substantially different EQing from the demo tracks that we’d recorded with my own vocal mic, a Studio Projects C1.  Lindsay came by, and we did an entire run of all of her solo parts on the album – as we were recording them, I was noticing some oddness in the takes, but attributed it mostly to the new mic and EQ settings I’d need.  After she left, I sat down to mix the tracks and slowly realized that they were all totally jacked-up and unfixable.  It was awful; we’d spent an afternoon recording and, thanks to my failure to catch the problem, lost all of our work.  I even wrote a “bad poetry” poem about it.

Deep breath, accept the reality, move on – I broke the news to Lindsay, and she was a champ about it. We got together again, I made her lunch and told her over and over how she was such a good singer and had pretty hair, and we recorded again, this time using my SP mic.  We got fantastic takes, and all was well.

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Born to be “The Mayor.”

The surprising thing about the vocals was how many of the demo tracks I wound up using on the record – while we re-did all of the solo parts, a lot of the group singing (“Down By The Water,” some of the choruses on the other tunes) made the final cut, and, as I mentioned back in part 3, Dan’s entire take of “The Mayor,” save a few minor tweaks, made it to the final version.  Several times, as well, I used the demo tracks as doubles up against the final tracks – we re-recorded the choruses on “The First Time” and “If You’re Feeling Out of It,” but having parts of the demo tracks going as well, really low in the mix, really worked to give a big sound to the vocals.

Another small session I did around this time involved getting my buddy Jamal Cool to come in and do some more spoken word on “Theme.”  I was really into how that tune was coming together and for whatever reason, one time while I was mixing, I started to hear a deep male voice coming in and doubling some of Khamara’s spoken lines.  Jamal immediately came to mind – the dude has a great, rich bass voice, and it seemed like a natural and fun way to get him on the album. He came by, talked into the mic, and and it became immediately apparent that his voice would be small but a really cool addition to the tune. He also did a great job of matching Khamara’s phrasing – the blend of their voices had just the slightly-twisted effect I was going for.

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His last name isn’t “Cool” for nothing.

I continued to mix the new instruments and final vocal takes, and the album was really taking shape.  The very last recording session for the whole album was in early December with Scott Foster, the burning jazz guitarist with whom I teach at Urban.  There was a section in the middle of “Down By The Water” that needed a cool acoustic guitar riff. I had been going for a sort of Avishai Cohen thing on that tune, and I wanted to sort of get the Oud sound that he gets on his earlier albums.  Scott has this killer custom archtop acoustic guitar, made by a guy named Alan Stassforth, called the “Jazz Master #1,” and I thought it’d be awesome to record him playing it on the track.  The line we came up with and recorded was killer – I actually already ranted at length about it in a post a while ago.

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Awesome lick.

It was a fitting final session – totally pro, fun, just hanging and making music with a friend and colleague.  The whole recording process had felt that way, just getting to spend time with the musicians I know, working out ways to make them sound great, then sitting back and listening to them go.  That feeling of being in the home stretch started to set in, and while there was not yet time for too much reflection, I could tell that yes, I was actually going to finish this record, and yes, it was going to be good.

After everything was recorded and preliminarily mixed, it was time to tackle the most daunting task of all – getting everything in a finished state, mixed, edited, and arranged, and ready to be mastered.  In other words: Finishing the album. That process, which involved a couple of weeks of really intense work followed by one of the most enjoyable mastering sessions I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending, will be the subject of the next, penultimate, post.

Previous: Part Four – Recording the Musicians

Next: Part Six – Mixing, Editing, and Mastering

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