In the studio

July 23, 2011

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but—we’ve been in the studio!! I’m working with the divine Lara Weaver and the living GOD Chip Reardin on take after take of Kaia’s forthcoming CD. At this point, it looks like we’ll have 22 tracks. And I am loving it. I feel like I finally know why I have ears!

It has long been a joke in Kaia that I have dog hearing, since I have a really good ear and can ferret out all kinds of tuning issues. Now I feel like I finally get it. This sound engineering is great stuff.

We start with rough takes—from 1 to 16—of a single song. Those are painful to listen to because the sound is absolutely naked. There’s no mixing going on, so I can hear each individual voice without any blend. We sound awful. 🙂

I listen to each take multiple times to pick the best one overall. Then I go back in and start dissecting the chosen take. If we have a sloppy entrance or exit (we have lots of sloppy exits, it’s embarrassing), I note that. If there’s a note that’s not quite in tune, another note. Notes for people who take breaths when they’re not supposed to or who forget the words. (I actually sang the wrong word in a piece that I wrote! How pathetic is that?) Suffice it to say, my notes are extensive. (They are also very small. I don’t know why, but I’m allocating very little space for them and my handwriting is cramped and teeny. But for the most part I can decipher it.)

We often have the option of grabbing a section from another take and punching it into the main take, but there’s also a lot of bleed-through on the sound. Since we all recorded in the same room (with a couple exceptions), the mikes picked up ambient sound as well as each voice. So sometimes we can’t punch something in because the ambient sound doesn’t match.

Lara is celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary in Kauai, so I’ve been working a lot with Chip directly. My goal is to get all the songs to a “penultimate mix” stage by the time she’s ready. Then she’ll just be focused on hopefully minor notes so the polishing phase can be quick.

Mixing: We go through my notes and Chip does absolute magic to make us sound fabulous. He adds reverb so our sound fills out and gets warmer. He mixes the voices so the melody comes forward and the harmony goes back. Then I take that home and dissect it some more. I run through each song about 4 times before declaring it ready for Lara.

We’re also sharing tracks with other creative directors, like with Angela for Kaiababies and Jane for Ergen Deda. It’s great to get their input, since they have a whole different set of expectations and they hear things very differently.

It is so much fun to go through all this stuff, even if it is super time-intensive. We’re heading towards 4 hours per track, and I’m sure that will go higher once Lara’s back. One good thing: I’m certainly learning the road back and forth to Airtime Studios (Krista Detor’s and Dave Weber’s house)! It’s north of the city and requires some quick reflexes for the twisty turns. But if I ever go back for parties, I will at least know how to get there this time!

The downside of all of this for Kaia is that I’m taking extensive performance notes for us and I will be even more nit-picky than ever when we return to our regular rehearsal schedule! But I know everyone will be up for the challenge. We want to do more performing this fall and we want everything to be taken up a notch.

So—that’s my life right now. Time for me to go listen to the latest set of mixes!

Kaia’s last day in studio

June 6, 2011

We had an intense but fun day in the studio yesterday. We began by re-recording Pata Pata, since our last recording of it was such a confusing mess. 🙂 We’d recorded the vocals first, then the percussion, then realized they didn’t match up, then tried to record the vocals again, and then Lara had a coughing fit and we all decided that was enough. 🙂

So yesterday was far more successful—Chip was able to sync up the percussion we’d already laid down with the new vocals we recorded. The wonder of technology.

I was antsy because I knew we’d need the bulk of our time to record Ergen Deda and Las Amarillas, but first we needed to do Lu Lops. It’s an intense song that takes immense concentration to get the emotional qualities just right. It’s in Occitan, which is a language sort of between French and Spanish, so there’s constant squabbling over the pronunciation of the Js (English J or French J? Blah blah blah).

More importantly, it tells this intense story of “The Wolves” who guard the prisons where, presumably, innocent villagers are held. The second verse tells of what the soldiers did when they attacked. It’s a disturbing account, full of blood and bones. “Watch out! They will jump on your bones like crazed people!” Translation always leaves something to be desired but we try to communicate the meaning even if only a couple hundred people in the world speak the language.

The third verse is our favorite—I think of it as the “partisan” verse. It starts out with “Venyez a mic” which is something along the lines of “To me! To me!” There’s a sense of planting a flag in the ground and calling to the oppressed to rise up. The verse paints a picture of freedom in the days to come, and ends by calling on comrades to stick together and help each other. It’s very stirring.

But then there’s this coda that repeats the opening of the song—the wolves are still howling. So did the villagers free themselves but they’re still surrounded? Or was the dream of freedom only that, a dream? The meaning is ambiguous. But chilling nonetheless.

It’s a lot to try to communicate, and it’s much easier done live when we can use our facial expressions and body language to get the point across. But we did our best in the studio. It’s not quite as tight as I would like, but it is good enough for this point in time. At some point we’ll likely get it recorded live, after we’ve had a chance to get it into our bones more, and it may be more powerful.

After Lu Lops came the challenge of Amarillas. As of Thursday, sistahs were saying they didn’t want to record it at all because they didn’t feel ready. I took on the unfamiliar role of cheerleader because I believed we could pull it off. And we did! It took about an hour and a quarter to record a song that lasts 3 minutes.

We recorded it in three sections, with a click-track to guide each one (it’s a very precise three-part piece where the parts rarely come together). We just recorded each section over and over again until we got the rhythm, pronunciation, and pitches correct. When I gave the starting pitches for the third section, we discovered to our horror that we had floated sharp by a half-step! This never happens—we are excellent at staying in tune.

So then a 10-minute period of discussion ensued as we tried to figure out what happened and if we could correct it. Long story short, we had to record the whole thing over again, this time with a tone (A) and a click track running through the whole thing. Chip quickly switched the click track to the faster tempos on each of the sections so we could stay in an Amarillas state of mind. 🙂 And then it was done! Almost.

We moved on to Ergen Deda, a new Balkan piece that people aren’t totally confident in. I think almost all of us were using our music or cheat sheets as props. It’s in 7/8 and there are a couple places where no one is exactly sure what the timing should be. We’re using a recording by the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus as a guide, but our version is slightly different. Though how different is still up to interpretation!

We had about 15 minutes to get that one in the can and it ended up taking about 20. Lara and Tristra sounded amazing on their duet—assuming you like Balkan music, it will knock your sox off.

The whole piece isn’t as tight as Bre Petrunko, our other Bulgarian piece, but it will get that tight, “knit” feeling over time.

And then! Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly eat more chocolate, we had another short break while Chip set up the mics for us to record the percussion on Amarillas. We talked Lara out of doing the stomps-that-aren’t-really-stomps, thank goodness, otherwise we might still be there. The percussion is claps, snaps, hand-slides, and side-slaps. And it all ended up being much more complicated than we expected. Took us about 20 minutes to record.

As we were wrapping up and dithering over whether we should record this part or that one more time, another band came in and that made the decision for us! It was hard to believe this journey of a year was finally over, but we quickly thanked Chip and got the heck out the door. Everyone was in good spirits, even if we still had the click track going in our brains!

Lara and I will be working with Chip this summer to do the mastering and mixing of everything. We still hope to have a CD release party in the Fall, though our schedule is getting so full I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. We all feel pretty good, though, at journey’s end. Many thanks to Chip for his endless patience with our singing, bickering, and fake Minnesota accents. 🙂