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Trying not to panic

It’s February 22th; by the end of Feb 28th, I need to be done with this album. A lot of it is not done.

I recorded draft final drum tracks on Friday, for basically everything (Uh Uh still needs doing because the Macbook I’m recording on started being weird that day), doing two or three takes per so that I can hopefully surgery away anything that’s conspicuously bad. Today I’ve recorded bass and electric guitar parts for basically everything, though I don’t feel like the guitar stuff went great. But hopefully I’m just being pessimistic.

There are definitely some parts that seemed written in my head but turned out to be a bit full of holes when fingers met fret.

Still to do:

- piano stuff for several songs
- synth/vocoder bits with Hiram, who is coming over tomorrow to help me geek out with his Mini Korg
- acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, uke, upright bass bits on various songs
- washboard and misc. percussion additions to complement existing drum work
- final vocals

Plus whatever minor bits need doing. But that’ll account for 99% of the album. How much of it I can get done tomorrow and the next day I don’t know, but it’d be great to have most of the draft recording done by Wednesday so that I can take the rest of the workweek to rework the loud bits (drums, elec. guitar) while my wife is at work and get started on the mixing.

Trying to believe it’ll all get done in a sane fashion. Really trying to believe.

Pathetic: rough mix

Getting down to serious final-draft work on the album. Here’s a rough mix of a partly-finished final draft of Pathetic:

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For comparison, here’s the original scratch demo again:

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The new recording is much closer to what I had in mind — bass in there tied to the drums somewhat (wish I was better at conceiving and executing really tight bass/drum syncs but drums are still pretty catch-as-catch-can and I don’t write many basslines either), electric guitars driving the whole thing, vocals are much more strongly executed than they were on the scratch demo.


- the lead guitar main solo in the first half of the song absolutely needs to be replaced. Some of the more atmospheric stuff going on with that might stay around, I’m not sure, but today was just not a great improvised-solo day and I haven’t written anything specific for the solo to try and execute by rote.

- some small problems with the vocals still. The overlap from one stanza to the next in the chorus is not quite a solved problem, I need to figure out how to do that.

- not wholly satisfied with electric guitar sound. Close-miking an amp is not something I have a lot of practical experience with, so I continue to fiddle with it. This recording has both a Gibson L6-S (for the heavier distorted parts) and an Epiphone Casino (for the chimier and less distorted bits), both going through a Pod XT into my Fender Deville 2×12.

- wondering if I should incorporate some acoustic into this after all. The plucky-electric is more what I had in mind for the final mix, but the bright feel of the acoustic might give the mix a little extra sparkle and character at some parts.

- drums are…not great, but I’m not going to turn into an amazing drummer in the next week so I’ll have to settle for pretty clean. I did reposition my overheads and crack open the kick to muffle some of the resonance with a couple of old towels today.

- bass part has a total flub about one minute in that I can probably patch with a quick cut-and-paste.

- the complicated climbing changeover from the chorus to the bridge about halfway through feels insufficiently punchy and kick-ass. Not sure how to fix. This is something that in a band we would fix by fucking with it over a series of rehearsals. Not so sure how to pull that off by myself when I can’t play all the instruments at once and get to it by way of feel.

- the mix in general feels pretty soggy and overdone at the moment. I need to work on some EQ and maybe pull some things out in general more.

And structurally this went from a 5 minute demo to a 6 minute final. Longest track on the album easily. It’s got a lot of changes and is intentionally on the big-epic side, but that’s a lot of song. But at this point I’m close to committed to the structure unless I want to do a bunch of careful surgery, and even then I’m not sure it wouldn’t come off a bit Frankenstein. We’ll see.

All that said, I’m feeling pretty good about this. I got off to a lousy start today with a couple disastrous attempts at guitar tracks after laying down the drums (I’m trying to start with drums on the final drafts, against a throwaway reference track, more on that in another post if it turns out to work well for me), but coming back to it later things went reasonably well and this is where I finished up for the day.

Hopefully I can get more done tomorrow; I’d love to get at least the skeleton of two more songs in the can. I’d like to have everything Mostly Done with still a few days to spare for re-recording and careful mixing.

New song, new demo

This will be the second to last song on the album, I think, picking up where Meanwhile left off by bringing it back to the protagonist in a letter to his ex that addresses and at least partially closes down some of the hanging threads earlier in the playlist. I’m calling it Rewrite at this point.

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Again, this is a rough structural demo, and it’s honestly a bit rougher than the others. I got started late on it this afternoon and tore my hair out a bit over some click track stuff that shouldn’t have been as hard as it was. The song makes a move from 4/4 to 3/4 (or maybe it’s 6/8) about two thirds of the way through, something that I may have to fudge the recording of by just recording the two portions as separate elements and then gluing them together with some transitional cover after the fact, because trying to pull of the switch in one take today didn’t go well.

Other than getting that song written, not a lot of concrete work accomplished for the album-in-a-month since the grand demoing spree last week; mostly I’ve been listening to the existing demos and trying to think through structural changes that need to be made (more of this part because it’s over too quick, less of that part because it’s tedious in the demo, move a bridge, change this or that harmonic detail) and trying to fill out some of the lyrical bits that didn’t seem done yet.

But I need to quit dicking around and start really putting down final tracks. I can’t do the proper recordings in one day like I did the demos, which means I need to not wait till February 27th or so to get serious.

Die Antwoord

I don’t know what the fuck this is, exactly, but I can’t stop listening to it:

Die Antwoord.

Hat tip to JoeTheDough, who sums it up like so: “Fuck yeah, inbred Afrikaans hip hop. They’re like the Anti-Lady-Gaga”.

Blogging about a song about a letter about a breakup

I’m trying to round out the end of the album; there needs to be something redemptive going on by the time the thing is over, or it’s just a bunch of wallowing for no reason at all. (I suppose there could be something cathartic and tragic at the end instead, but it’s already a whole album about breakup and misery and neurosis, so that just seems like a bit much.)

And I think I’ve got it; so far I’ve got about five stanzas of the nth draft of a letter from the protagonist to the largely-absent-from-the-album’s-text ex-girlfriend, some sort of attempt at, if not reconciliation, then at least reckoning and fair acknowledgment of what went between them.

Part of the challenge is not just coming up with a thematically-appropriate, narrative-capping pile of lyrics, but to put it in a musical context that’ll satisfy how I want the album to flow. I see this song as coming after Tell It All and Meanwhile, which are both mucking around in ballad territory. And I like a good ballad, but I don’t want things getting too repetitive, and when I set out to write this album part of what I wanted to do was focus on making recordings more in a rock vein than I generally have. So this thing needs to be more up-tempo, a little more chunky and driven.

I’ll cut a demo in the next day or two. I got started writing it yesterday but otherwise spent the day mostly off from music, playing some video games and taking care of Metafilter and just sort of recharging, so hopefully today I can finish most of this song up and nail down a couple of the arrangement ideas I’ve had as I’ve listened to the existing demos ad nauseum. (It’d be great to be able to brainwash myself every couple days so the music would be new to me again. Familiarity, contempt, breeding, etc.)

Album scratch demos!

After the marathon of recording yesterday (basically from 8am to 6pm, by myself), I didn’t have the time or energy to actually make a post about it last night. So here we go!

I’ve recorded ten tracks yesterday, adding up to about 28.5 minutes of material in raw form though there’s a minute or two of chaff mixed in there with untrimmed starts and ends. The demos are made up almost entirely of piano, acoustic guitar, vox, and drums (with a couple bits of uke and upright bass popping up here and there); this isn’t the form I expect the final album to take, but in the interest of keeping things simple yesterday I deliberately kept the instrumentation to a minimum.

Here’s the rough demos, in track order:

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As I said, these are not attempts to nail down the actual sound of the final recordings I have in mind; they’re structural demos that are more about putting the shape of songs down on tape than anything. If you think something sounds kind of wonky or underwhelming (cf. various acoustic guitar lead bits), I probably think so too. Still, these will be really useful me to tear apart over the next week or so, and here’s why:

One of the problems I have with arranging things in my head is that I get lazy about the hard parts: I’ll have a fairly clear idea of how most parts of a song will be recorded, but then there will be a section here or there where my plan for how to execute it turns out to be about as substantial as “Then A Miracle Occurs“. Doing these demos means that I can’t keep just glossing over those bits of what’s in my head. I’m forced to make a decision, to put something down on tape.

Whether forcing my own hand like this leads to a the correct decision is a different matter; some of these put-up-or-shut-up moments reveal serious problems with an arrangement; some of them prove that I had a workable idea just needing to get hammered out; some are happy accidents that improve the song without me having planned for it at all. The important thing is I can evaluate what’s actually there and decide how to deal with it. The really important thing is I can do that while I’ve still got most of the month to make corrections.

As far as the final sound of the thing goes, I’m planning on having a lot of electric guitar on the album, and to tie in a lot more electric bass, to give the album a more solid rock feel. I may also bring in a bit of synth stuff for texture (esp. on Uh Uh); I’ve got a couple ideas for banjo cameos (Stumble, maybe Meanwhile); some slide guitar could fit in on the faux-blues-bar thing on Get You Laid; and so on. Theremin, harmonica, shakers, washboard, there’s a lot of little things that will creep into the final recordings by February 28.

I’ll be sure to talk about the individual demos here, and the distance between them and where I want to be at the end of the month (which varies a good bit from song to song), over the next week or two. I feel like I still need another song or two to help glue things together as well, specifically at the end, and I’d like to see the running time come up a bit too. We’ll see what happens. I’m excited!

Go go go go go

Fueling up on coffee and getting ready to start laying down rough demos of the songs written so far. There are a lot of gaps still in the individual lyrics and in the overall flow of the album itself, and until I sit down and rough these things out properly I really won’t know how much running time I have either (wager: it will turn out to be less than 30 minutes). But no use speculating about it: I need to get to work. More later today!

Album progress, six days in

Things are going well; after a lot of hair-tearing in the first couple days of the month, I’ve settled down to a theme and gotten started on ten concrete song ideas. Album is taking the form of a post-breakup narrative, tracking a series of vignettes as the protagonist (for lack of a better word) lives out the aftermath of the splitting-for-good fight the album will start with.

I was nervous about locking into a specific theme, and especially with the stronger-yet constraint of a (god help me) Concept Album, but at this point I’m feeling like I’ve got a pretty workable start that feels like a linear narrative, and I guess it’s hard to get much more concept-y than that. There’s a lot to say about the whole topic of concept albums and musicals and rock operas and the whole weird continuum these sort of things take up various points on, and that should probably be another blog post entirely. Leave it for now at this: I’ll be happy if at the end of the month I end up with something with a little more narrative transparency than The Wall and that is at least half as listenable as Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

So I’ve got song ideas, a rough developing view of the shape of the overall album (and a sense of some of the gaps that still need filling), and a bunch of lyrics ranging from barely-started to nearly-done. This weekend I’m going to try to fill out and polish up those lyrics, and then on Monday it may be time to sit down and cut some simple demos for reference (and for fun) and start more seriously planning for the recording stage of the project.

Where Is My Mind, Theremin edition

While I’m trying to work out a bunch of songs for the album in a month, none of that is really ready for any serious recording yet, and I’ve got a lot of antsiness and musical energy building up in the mean time.

And so: time to record a cover. Specifically, the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind:

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You can check out the new recording on the Song page (look for “Theremin” in the sidebar) and compare it to a couple of terrible rehearsal renditions from years ago, including a banjo take. The recording also lives in the 2010 collection, where all the miscellaneous things I record this year will go.

It was hard to figure out how much theremin is too much theremin; I chopped out as much as I could stand to, but since its the main sound on this recording that’s markedly different from the original version I didn’t want to set it entirely by the way side. And the theremin is brand new to me (thanks, awesome wife!), so this is its virgin trip besides. I think the main thing the recording would have benefited from is me being a better theremin player, but only time (if that!) will help there.

This recording also has better drum micing than I’ve had in the past; I recently bought a little Audix mic kit, and so this features a rough stereo mix off a collection of mics instead of just one room overhead. But that’s probably another post for another day.

Also: cowbell. (Thanks, awesome Chad!)

How to write an album

It’s day three of this album-in-a-month thing, and so far I’ve got five little piano themes written out and about a stanza and a half of lyrics, and they don’t go together, and in any case I’m still looking for some kind of sense of direction.

I didn’t have any over-arching theme when I did this three years ago; Manifests was largely just a collection of songs that happened, tied together more in musical/production terms than in any specific semantic sense.

Do I need a theme this time? Not necessarily. But sitting here and having songs not Just Happening, I’m looking for a hook. Something to bootstrap the writing process. An album about the arc of a fictional bad breakup? A series of songs about food in my fridge? What do I have something to say about right now?

I’ve thought about unabashedly starting with the music and worrying about the lyrics after, something that I have basically never done before. I like the idea in theory, for the adventure and for the idea that it might let me work in a different way, but I’m afraid it’ll just add up to me retrofitting lyrics awkwardly onto instrumental tracks.

Gotta come up with something. Month won’t last forever.