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!

Today’s studio adventure

May 23, 2011

Wow. Today’s session in the recording studio kicked my ASS.

I spent the weekend with family in Chicago for my niece’s wedding, then hot-footed it back down to Bloomington to be ready in time. It turned out I woke up two hours early this morn and then kept falling asleep behind the wheel on the drive home. I am grateful for those raised bars on the sides of roads that suddenly bring you back to reality.

I had time for a nap, spine realignment, and episode of Glee before heading over to Rhino’s to meet everybody. It’s a hot, humid day which usually means tempos and pitches sag. Fortunately the studio was like a freezer so we snapped back up.

I had about 6 tunes I wanted to get in the can today, but I knew that was aggressive. We did a good job, though, nailing a couple in only three takes. But everything unraveled on Pata Pata. We can’t do the vocals without the percussion and we can’t do the percussion without the vocals. So we just kept trying to record things in fits and starts. By the end of it we were all exhausted and I have no idea if we have anything salvageable.

I’m a little concerned about recording Lu Lops. We nailed it perfectly when we performed it at the UU gig last month but usually we just can’t get it together. I don’t know what it is about that piece. I changed the arrangement at our last rehearsal to have everyone come in at the start of each verse rather than having just the mezzos lead us in. That made a huge difference in the sound—it’s much fuller now, which is great. But I don’t feel like we really own it yet.

Some people are still having trouble with the lyrics. There are some songs like that, that you just can’t get some piece of. I have never been able to get all the lyrics to Oi, Rano, for instance. Of course, it has six verses, so maybe that’s part of the problem, but there comes a point where the brainspace has to be devoted elsewhere. I made lyric sheets and we use them to cheat during performances.

Oh, I guess I really don’t have anything to say except, “I’m utterly spent.” That’s not so very interesting so we’ll leave it there for the night.

P.S. Big props to the sistahs for hanging in there today.

Garage Band 001

June 20, 2009

Yesterday I began learning the most basic Garage Band features with Kevin, mighty Teacher of All. We worked on Redbird and I learned how to chop off unwanted parts of each track and how to do fade-ins and fade-outs.

Garage Band has all the ease of use that Apple is famed for. Especially once you get into any Mac program, you begin to pick up the inner logic, and one task follows sensibly to the next.

Kevin has mentioned previously that, at a conference he attended, an Industry Bigwig noted that most of the music we hear today as incidental music in commercials and such is made in personal recording studios and mixed in programs like Garage Band. Like Photoshop and Dreamweaver, Garage Band democratizes the creative process. It still doesn’t mean you’ll create great music; it just means your great music is easier to create on a low budget!

Our next challenge will be adding reverb to a bleed-through track. I was right on top of the Zoom H2 and Kevin was standing back a bit when we recorded, so my vocals are on both the “vocals” and “instrumental” tracks. We wanted to add reverb just to the instrumental but the bleed-through makes it impossible. We’ll find a happy medium. Kevin’s also going to teach me how to record directly into Garage Band.

I’m really looking forward to learning more about the tools of the craft—now if only I were writing songs to record!

All Around The Kitchen

April 5, 2009

On Friday I had another recording session with Kevin and Lara, this time to focus on “All Around The Kitchen,” an old Woody Guthrie tune. As usual, Lara’s funked it up with a jaunty beat and Kevin’s rockin’ acoustic guitar accompaniment. 

My part is to sing a counterpoint harmony and remember the bloody words! It’s one of those “put your hands on your head, put your hands on your shoulders” kind of tunes and I keep forgetting that hips exist. 

We had about 40 minutes to throw it together and it’s possible that the last cut was a keeper. We’re using the Zoom H2 (enthuse, enthuse) and it really picks out Every Single Thing you sing. I finally cupped my ear to make sure I could hear myself and hit my notes more squarely.

We end with this funky “all around all around all around” bit that I came up with and then Lara smacks the drum. Am hoping we nailed it to her satisfaction. I love these stolen Friday lunch sessions. We’ve got about 10 more songs to go and so little time to do them in!

Kevin’s tidbit for the day was that he knows a woman whose sense of pitch is so keen that, even if his guitar is not perfectly in tune, if it’s tune to 439 instead of 440, she’s in agony. I also have a dog’s sense of hearing, but this level of tuning is a curse rather than a blessing! 🙂

When is it enough?

March 1, 2009

Kevin and I finally made a recording of “Redbird” (AKA “Deadbird”). Actually, we made four recordings, the third of which I immediately thought might be “it.”

He sent me a copy a week or so ago and I’ve been listening to it. This is a mistake. The more you listen, the more imperfections you hear. I’m now at the point where I’d like to record it again but it’s really up to him, since he’s managing it all as a favor to me. 

I keep remembering my recording session with Sam Lowry, where he was reluctant to re-record any of my lines. His belief was that recordings should carry a little of the imperfections of live performance. You obviously don’t want to include clinkers, but a little waver here and there adds texture and personality. Otherwise you run the risk of sounding like the Robert Shaw Chorale.

I get that on an intellectual level, but what happens if (gasp) people think I can’t do any better than what’s on the recording? What if they think that I can’t hear what’s not perfect? When is enough enough?

I have no answers. Just a song that I love and that I want to share with people who might actually care.

Speedy crawdads

December 6, 2008

Today we started recording Lara Weaver‘s children’s songs album. She, (her husband) Kevin MacDowell (AKA Kid Kazooey), and I clustered around a righteous handheld digital recorder and learned/ran “Fishin’ Medley” 3 times.

In the meantime, I’ll say what a treat it is to work with Lara. She is so open and vibrant and ready for anything. She has a vision for each piece but also allows it to grow organically as others give input. I have no idea how she so graciously makes it seem like everyone’s piece equally when it’s really hers, but it’s truly a gift.

For all his clowning elsewhere, Kevin is a professional when it comes to studio work. He wastes no time in fluffy conversation. He gets his equipment tuned and ready to go, and stays focused throughout the session. He’s there to make music, and it really makes you want to step up and give your best.

For my part, I felt a bit unprepared and tried to get into the groove as quickly as possible. Lara handed me a new (solo) verse when I walked in and then let me completely change the tune — indeed, I changed it every time I sang it, since I had no idea what I was doing! I love singing with Lara — we have a very similar New Orleans jazz feel on some pieces — but I admit I am stymied by the word “crawdad.” She has a particular pronunciation that I haven’t quite nailed yet. “Crawdad.” Hm.

It’s fun singing backup with the lyric sheet right in your hand. There’s lots of repetition and little pressure. The worst part every time is listening to the playback, since all you do is pick apart every slightly off-pitch note and brain yourself for being an utter loser in the face of this other talent. 🙂 

We got a pretty good recording last time through but the balance was a little off on “my” verse, so next week we’ll record once more before going on to the next song. I’m doing some Leon Redbone-sounding trumpet sound effects on one piece in the medley and I hope to perfect the lip-buzz so I’m not spitting quite so much. This is quite the groovin’ sound, unlike any kids music I’ve heard before, and I’m looking forward to continuing the journey. Apparently Lara’s already got us a gig with Sophia Travis in February, so maybe I’ll need to learn the words by then!