Anatomy Of A Song #12: Let It Be

Ah, dear hearts- there comes a time in the anatomy of any of my songs where I battle the beast of self-doubt. Shocking, I know. Like a gnu in the stomach of an anaconda this lump will assert itself at any time during the process. Usually it comes when most overdubs have been completed and I find myself looking at every element of which the song will be comprised. Nothing is more discouraging to the recording songwriter than the foul, smelly mess that is the Rough Mix.

Now I'm convinced it's all crap. All a waste of time. Self-indulgent, unfocused, derivative, bleugh.

Maybe I'll scrap th' whole fucking thing. It's only been three weeks of my life, man.

But wait! What light through yonder window comes!

The solution is always at hand- we simply tune out and spend maybe a half hour listening to commercial radio. "I Could Try" is once again apt. Once again bursting with potential. Once again vital. Thank you Alanis. Thank you everyone. Hey, Nickelback- what do you guys do to get back in touch with the validity of what you're doing when you have doubts? Listen to The Who Live At Leeds? Remind yourselves that at least you're not those execrable louts The Rolling Stones?

All this aside, if there's one thing "I Could Try" ain't it's "unfocused". It's a fuckin' laser of a song. Everything in the arrangement points at and is informed by everything else. It's breezily, unapologetically ambitious, almost showboat-ey. It's like some 60's spaceage bachelor pad makeout pop. It's got a nice bunch of very beefy, organic sounds, the sort of things I always beat myself up for using- leslied organ, leslied guitar, phased drums, tube-saturated bass, all the usual suspects of early psychedelia. Fuck it- I am what I am. My job is to make the beast roar.

The reason that I wanted to do the "Anatomy Of A Song" series is that it's always such a classic story. Man against the seemingly insurmountable. You see, this song was a mountain, man. They fucking all are. And do you see how it was climbed? One foothold at a time? I know one man and his struggles don't amount to a hill 'a' beans in this world but the message I want to impart above all others is the effort is always beautiful. The effort is prayer. My effort or anyone's motherfuckin' effort. It's prayer. It's prayer for people who don't believe in today's God registered trademark. And if you are a machine that is built to do something, do you think you should not do it? Check yer fucking oil and get to work. It's a big mountain but there's always a way up it and the path is usually revealed in th' wanting.

Anyway, in the last couple of days we have stolen valuable hours between gigs and sessions and work to lay all lead and remaining background vocals for "I Could Try". They're damn good. I was worried that I'd modulated the choruses right out of my range but in fact they allow a poignant introduction of falsetto. We have also completed work on the Broken Music Box with some final tweaking, a new, Ringo-ey drum fill and the addition of a tape-rewinding sound that segues neatly into the second-to-last climax of the C major chorus.

I've done a fair amount of "comping", but I don't use this term in the traditional sense. "Comping" usually refers to the practice of "compositing" several takes of a vocal. Your Shitney Pukestons and Michael Boltons and Mariahs, when in the process of recording a lead vocal, will record several, often dozens, of takes and leave it to the hapless producer and engineer to carefully "composite" a final take from this unchristly mess. The engineer will often end up putting the final take together a syllable at a god damn time. Jesus Christ. Nothing left to chance in this day 'n' age, eh?


(A brief aside: Dear World; it isn't pundints. It's pundits. P.S. It isn't renumeration. It's remuneration. Last I checked.)

Anyway, I don't do that crap. Sounds like a fucking waste of time to me. What I do like to do is go through all my vocals and find places where they need a volume tweak up or down. I will perform these volume tweaks as I record each single vocal to an open track and then reassemble the whole mess. I don't have any automation or nothin'. Thus, when I mix I won't have to ride them up and down when I'm trying to get a mouthful of coffee or something equally as important. Digital permits this. We like it.

Woah! We've got all our vocals down! Woah! All instruments! All touches and little points of interest are tracked! This leaves only our trumpet overdubs.

The timing couldn't be better. If I score out all the trumpet parts tonight (there will be a couple of three-part fanfares and some solo instrumental passages) I can give them to our session trumpet player. I'm starting a 5-night run at th' Foxwoods Casino tomorrow with th' occasionally mighty Soulfinger and will be indisposed. Hopefully by midweek we can convene for a simple and stressfree overdub session. Recording trumpet is a bear sometimes- it often ends up sounding like a bad keyboard patch. The trick usually is to close-mic it and then mic the room bigtime. A dry unmuted trumpet is always a harsh and strident thing. I might well have him playing in the studio and crank his tone out into the basement through a speaker and mic that and mix it in.

My friend Matt Cullen was in a Charisma band in th' nineties called The Sighs that made an album with producer Ed Stasium at A&M studios in LA. He said Stasium would pump the drums through a monstrous 3-way PA on the third floor and pick it up with mics on the second floor.

All that aside, we are TWO Anatomies away from a song. We will have spent the equivalent of almost three 40-hour work weeks on our little friend "I Could Try" when we complete it next week. I don't regret it: I'm making up for lost time. And having the luxury to think and re-think, to throw away a couple of canvases, is what I've bought with my golden bullet train ticket to obscurity. The least I can do is revel in it and use it to my creative advantage.

You've all been just so wonderful. I feel so close to all of you right now. And I'd like you all to join in now on this next chorus of this very special song all you want to do is riiidearound sally


Antatomy Of A Song #12: It's All Too Much

Christ, this is a lot of work isn't it? Can you imagine trying to do this in a 500-dollar-an-hour studio? Woah! That's why all the records I ever made in 500-dollar-an-hour studios sound like they were made in a hurry.

Y'know, when I exited LA stage-left it was with the understanding that I would at long last be able to make music MY fucking way, and that I would be able to midwife my compositions the way I saw fit. There wasn't a lot of that out there, and it wasn't just putrid record people- a lot of it was band members. No one will ever punish you more for bringing good songs to the table than a goddamn guitarist who can't write or a drummer who doesn't know what a major third is.

Look, I know that sometimes when someone talented throws up a mic and picks up an acoustic they can make the album of the decade in one session. I made a record like that myself in '02, "The Imperial Beach Sessions" (aside from th' album of the decade thing). Solo voice and piano. Just because. And because I didn't have a working multitrack and I wasn't going to let that stop me. In art, every dead end has the potential of providing a new direction. Heck, sometimes that direction involves a bottle of Jack 'n' a .38 but at least it's new.

With the work I'm doing now I'm doing what I've always done- using the tools at hand. I've got 8 tracks of digital, I've got a nice vocal mic, and I've got 24 years of experience. And I've always, always wanted to know what it would be like to cut records that I would never have to listen to and hear the deficiencies imposed by budgets, schedules, or ignorant cunts with instruments.

One must always make careful note of what it is one has to bring to the table that is unique. My voice isn't particularly unique; it's professional. I'm always being accused of having a professional voice. My approach to instruments isn't unique. My brilliance ends sharply at my wrists. What I have that is unique, especially in this day and goddamn age, is sheer arcane ability. I am a student of all the Lost Arts. I am a ninja of the arcane. No one can touch me for being able to do with mics and speakers and electronics and studio-sleight-of-hand what anyone now can do with a hunnerd dollar plug-in.

If my stuff has anything going for it it's top-notch arrangement. Instruments, voices, all of it. That's my trademark because, well, because nowadays it ain't anybody else's. Maybe nowadays it's a sign of not being authentic to display this sort of skill instead of jacking off with a old acoustic. There's this new guy, this 21-year old kid called Willie Mason who has this song called "Oxygen" that's a huge anthem in th' UK and he's all authentic 'cause he can't sing and he sounds just like Dylan so he's a fresh new voice for th' disenfranchised. Yeah, he's so authentic. Fresh. Unprecedented. Innovative. Fuck off. What's authentic? Does it mean you paid some dues? Does it mean that you really, really mean what you do? Does it mean that your voice comes straight from your heart? Does it mean you're real, man?

Nah. Means you spank off with an old acoustic and some words that sound like third-form Dylan. Fuck, man- there's nothing wrong with Dylan and old acoustics and words! Fuck knows!

But man, it doesn't give you th' market on authenticity, Willy. You know what? I already knew how it felt to live on fucking grits for a week before you was born, little pisces dylan authentic man. And because I make it smooth and rich (for the specific reason that there's all this crap that's so pseudo tough and totally commodified) I'm inauthentic or something. I get it- authentic means "well marketed as authentic registered trademark" now. Ain't it fucking great.

Christ, I have a fucking song to record. I can't get into this now. For once.


Anatomy Of A Song #11: Try, Try, Try

Yesterday evening, having reduced our work so far to glorious stereo, we began the preliminary work on the most work-intensive part of the recording process: harmony vocals. "I Could Try" is a natural for several instances of four- and five-part harmony and making these happen is a profoundly time-consuming process that requires every bit of arrangement expertise and experience I possess.

Before I began this I took care of the much less arduous task of performing the acoustic and electric piano solos that dominate the ending and fade-out of the song. The acoustic piano solos over two run-throughs of the verse structure in Db major. This instrumental section is also punctuated by short runs from the trumpet which I have guided in with an awful fake trumpet sound. During our next session I will score out all trumpet parts in concert key and give them, along with a rough mix of the instrumental "I Could Try" to our session trumpet player.

After two runs of the verse on piano the whole affair modulates back to the home key of A major with an effect not unlike a plane finally coming in to land. The soundscape is much sparser here and the bass guitar syncopates with the timpani in a very English Settlement sort of way that is extremely appealing to me. The Rhodes electric piano takes over from the acoustic with little or no pause and the effect is pretty funky as we dive right into some runs that tend towards major and tease pentatonic with a couple of rolling thirds and trills.

Time has come to pull out the staff paper and the pencil. And th' candelabra.

The first harmony sections we will attack will be the countermelodies in the choruses. These occur in a series of escalating drama as the choruses move through their keys of A, C and Db. The hypnotic, repeating lyric motif of "try...try...try..." will be a perfect medium for some pretty rich jazz harmony. We begin by scoring the main countermelody up at the top and fill in three more voices underneath. I pay extremely close attention to the chords and use the vocals to re-spell them in various inversions and with some more added tones.

The first, simplest chorus lets the "try...try...try..." phrase melt into "ooohs" to establish a platform to take off from later. Over a sequence of Amaj. 7 C#m7/F#m7 F#9(A#)/Bm7/E7sus repeated twice we hear the first iteration of the gooey stacked harmonies thus (I have solo-d up the harmony parts without instrumental backing for clarity):

Example 1

On the next chorus we permit ourselves a little cultural enrichment, eschewing the "oooohs" for an onslaught of quarternote movement, chords changing fast and furious, the motion hopefully reminiscent of a series of arcs:

Example 2

In the final example of the stacked four-part harmony arrangement we rein in our proclivities for the second-to-last chorus in the key of C, returning to the "oohs" on the closing phrase. Then, as the chorus moves to the final repeat in Db we pull out all the stops for the climax, reveling in wide open dominant 13 chords, minor 9nths and simple triads in open-closed-open chords spellings that stretch in and out like an accordian:

Example 3

During our next session we will continue painstakingly scoring out and recording harmony parts, moving through the song, redoing, scrapping sections, and hopefully finding some unforeseen inspiration that will take us to some unexpected places.

Woah! Bobby's TV Roundup!

Woo-hoooo!! Yippee! It's Bobby Lightfoot's TV reviews! Couldn't you just have a embolism?

This Week:

American Idol: Some talentless, brain-infected karaoke singin' teen gets 8 billion dollars. Yucks aplenty!! I look down in dismay at the warm, spreading stain on m'pants!!

VH1's Celebreality: Several irritating lisping queens try to make you think things matter that matter not a whit! Like your existence!

Fox News: Look, I know I'm not going to make any friends here! You know how much I care! Gotta get this off my chest! I'M FUCKING GLAD THAT LITTLE TROLLOP NATALIE HOLLOWAY IS SHARK FOOD, FUCKERS! YAY! tHE WITCH IS FUCKING DEAD!!! 1 DOWN SIX FUCKING TRILLION TO GO!! Kill! Kill! Kill!!!

All Th' Hospital Shows:
A bunch of fucking overpaid actors walk around in lab coats and sample each other's tonsils in broom closets this week. Woah! Woah!

Th' White House: My fave reality show so far! Season six rocks the hardest so far! You fuckin' asshole.



Me And Kim Gordon

Goddamnit if I'm not always running into Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. She and Sonic guitarist Thurston Moore are married and live in Northampton. I walked by her on the street a couple of times and I ran into her at th' Salvation Army in Hadley.

It's weird because she'll do like a little misstep like she's anticipating me recognizing her; I guess I'm the right age and am sufficiently pierced and bleached. Like I'm going to ask her for an autograph or some crap. Yo Kim I didn't ask for Flea's autograph or Chris Martin's or Scott Weiland's or Perry Ferrell's or Dave Navarro's or fuckin' Matt Sorum's or Chris Cornell's or Snoop Dogg's or Andy Partridge's or Colin Moulding's or Ringo Starr's when I ran into them either so I reckon I'm all set.

I always got the impression that Thurston might be sort of a childish, wanky guy- like he'd laugh at your record collection. Kim is an amazing bassist, though.

Just kidding.

Bobby Lightfoot's A Sad Day For Rock 'n' Roll Number 1 Of A Series

October 2, 1967: Dave Matthews is born.

May 17, 1972: Robert Plant is given a copy of "The Hobbit"

November 8, 1973: Madonna has first orgasm. In church.

December 21, 1974: Gene Simmons quits day job.

June 14, 1971: First Hard Rock Cafe opens in London.

April 26, 1980: Sting discovers Jung's Modern Man In Search Of A Soul.

July 30, 1984: Yamaha DX7 keyboard released.

January 6, 1987: George Harrison smokes "that" cigarette.

July 12, 1987: Crash Test Dummies discover XTC.


Anatomy Of A Song #10: All Mixed Up

Friends of th' Process! What the fuck does it take to wash one's hands of the filthy, filthy world and wend one's way back to these sweet blue walls? It's like th' polesmoking Odyssey trying to get back to the important, important work of completing "I Could Try".

Let us raise a glass and bestow many thanks upon th' gods of the road that allow us to once again return to the arms of our sweet and complex Penelope.

When we left our friends on Thursday the last, we had completed all rhythm instruments, culminating with clean guitar and leslie'd guitar. Over the course of the next few days I was able to throw up a rough mix of "I Could Try" and slap it onto a CD. Listening on various systems out there in the world was invaluable, and I'm able to return to the song with a fresh perspective and some new ideas.

First things first, however; we must commit our 8 tracks to two-track stereo mix so that we can open up tracks to continue with vocals, trumpets, keyboard solos and the inevitable stacks of (ostensibly) warm, creamy harmony. The Beatles would have called this a "reduction mix" and they would generally have taken four tracks of instruments and summed them to a single, mono track. This is the point at which George would have stepped in to record his guitar solos and vocals would have been cut and all that. As they headed into the "Revolver" era, Paul would show an increasing tendency to cut his bass part at this juncture. It wasn't just bettered technology that inspired Paul's heights of imaginative bass playing; it was also the ability to compose it to a largely finished instrumental track.

I work on a TASCAM digital 8-track which works in tandem with my computer for signal processing, mixing down and mastering. I could probably just run some huge-ass 24-track thing on my computer but I like the old knobs, you see? And eight tracks for me, especially digital, is always enough. In fact, it's decadent. Plus, setting up th' whole computer deal would take valuable writing and recording time. So; we have eight instrumental tracks to mix. They are distributed thus:

1. Rhodes piano
2. Bass guitar
3/4 (stereo pair) Acoustic piano and leslied guitar. "Music Box" recording.
5. organ
6. electric guitar
7/8 (stereo pair) percussion, loops, drums

How 'bout that, hey? What to do? How to make a stew from these bits of bone 'n' celery? How about this:

The Rhodes: we give the Rhodes a tiny kiss of room ambience and a touch of tube saturation. We throw it over to a mix position of about 10:30 or 11 o'clock, or "soft soft left".

Th' bass guitar: the bass is almost center-situated in the soundscape. Nothing ever truly ends up in the middle- this is one of the best tricks to keep space open for the all-important lead vocal. Hence, we place the bass guitar one or two "C.H"'s (official studio term of measurement) to the right, say about two minutes past midnight. You foller me?

We also apply a limiting-type of compression to the bass guitar. This means a very fast high-threshold, high ratio compression; it will not touch the signal until it reaches a certain level at which point it will step on it harder'n a college boy on an eightball. This is strictly for level management as opposed to signal treatment. Makes life a little easier. You see, I don't use compression for effect on the bass guitar. Compression on bass is for those who don't play the god damn thing right. And I, my dears, play the little fucker right. Don't call me for locksmithing or the eradication of pests, but if you have a bass needs playing I'm your man.

The acoustic piano and stereo leslied guitar: these are recorded in stereo on a pair of tracks and never happen at the same time. When we have different signals on one or two tracks we can either watch their levels, eq's, etc. during mixdown and switch them back and forth or we can bounce one of the sources to another stereo pair at a level and eq setting that will be appropriate to the mix and then bounce it back. Thus we don't have to worry about it during the mix proper.

So: we set up a rough mix of the instruments and bounce the sections of this stereo pair to a pair of virtual tracks, adjusting the volume appropriately as we go. We then bounce the "new" stereo piano recording back to the stereo tracks over the old piano.

We compress the piano lightly and apply a small amount of reductive eq to it, removing a tiny bit of brashness. Both the piano and the guitar will be treated to a small amount of the ambient reverb we are using on the electric piano during the final mix.

At this stage we delay the right side of the stereo leslie guitar by about 25 or so milliseconds. This will widen the sound and give a feeling of space that will help it exist apart from the also-hard-panned stereo piano. Back in the day we had to run the signal through a digital delay at mixdown. In this day 'n' age we copy and move it. Brilliant. That much more time is opened up for listening to my new copy of spiritualized's superlative 1997 cd "ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space" later on. Sweent indeed.

Also on this stereo pair is the "Music Box" recording. This we will simply pull down in volume when it hits.

Let's deal with the organ now, shall we? Heh. I love playing keyboards on "Dance To The Music" by Sly because they have a section where the instruments are introduced: "you might want to hear my organ...we're gonna ride, Sally, ride..." I like to a) change this to, "you might want to see my organ..." or b) dial up some ridiculous patch on the synth and say, "you might want to hear my c'or anglais..."

Musician humor.

Anway- yucks aside- we want the organ to balance out the final remaining single track which is the guitar on track 6- we'll soft-pan these two elements opposite each other so the organ will go to the 9 o'clock position or soft left and the guitar (more later) will go to the 3 0'clock position.

Now, the organ is an instrument with no dynamic range- no matter how hard we strike the keys the volume is the same- hence it need not be tamed with any dynamic tools. Simple. The only fluctuation in volume with the organ is in the form of volume swells and these are intentional. We apply a fairly rich, long, mono reverb to the organ which we pan as far away from it as possible for separation i.e. to 5 o'clock.

This brings us to the mono guitar, which as we know is being panned soft right. We will leave this guitar dry but apply some stereo chorus to it for some much-needed modernity and some stereo spaciousness.

Finally we have our stereo pair of all drum and percussion elements. We run our mix from the top to see how these elements "sit" with all the panning and processing we've done with the other instruments. Pretty damn good, to be frank. Some of the shaker is a bit loud but we can ride this down in passages where no other percussion is happening. I also end up dialing out a bit of bottom from this stereo pair in the 80 Hz range to accomodate our bass guitar. This is not a drums-n-bass extravaganza so the loss won't hurt. In fact it's in character with the retro vibe- not a lot of 80 Hz going on on "Pet Sounds". Finally we squeeze this stereo pair with a little slow, subtle compression at a 1.1:1 ratio. Just for mental fun.

Woah! We're close, fuckers! Let's throw it up and see how everything lives together. It's all about clarity, separation and room for upcoming vocals at this point. We dial some upper mids out of the acoustic piano. We bring the organ up a tiny bit. A lot of the percussion is living in the space we've engineered for the vocals but these sounds are "transient", i.e. short and sharp, and won't disturb or mask the vocal.

Three takes later we have a lovely stereo mix of our rhythm tracks. We back up our work to CD, wipe all tracks and bounce our stereo mix to a newly open stereo pair.

Tomorrow we will cut a new guide vocal to stack harmonies against, perform our acoustic piano and Rhodes solos, lay down fake horn guides and score these on paper for upcoming trumpet sessions.

Today's listening for "I Could Try":

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space- Spiritualized
The Drugs Don't Work- The Verve
Joe Jackson- Symphony Number 1
Bobby Lightfoot- LA Lullaby

Today's Pallette Cleansers:

Bartok String Quartets
Frantic- Bryan Ferry
Buena- Morphine