Track seven from Inchoatery – a barroom bootstrap pep-talk from a well-meaning drinking buddy while a band plays in the background.
I like blues rock but I’ve never been very dedicated to the genre; I don’t have a good vocal feel for it and I’ve never felt comfortable working there lyrically either, but I like fucking around on a guitar on the pentatonic.
This track is sort of an excuse to record some blues music by self-consciously deconstructing the idea of a blues song—I’m not putting out a blues song, I’m putting out a situation in which a blues song is being played; the role of a constructed blues lyric with its prototypical phrasal redundancies is taken up instead by alyrical monologuing which itself is full of unselfconsciously redundant themes; the notional lament of the blues is replaced by the annoyed second-hand lament of the friend-of-the-depressed; guitar solo turnaround breaks on the left and vocal patter on the right trading licks—which all in all is a hell of a stretch but I had a good time and that’s what matters in the end.
Part of the challenge with this track was to recreate that feel as much as possible, to really make this feel like somebody shouting over a band near a camcorder that wasn’t really up to the job of recording a live show’s raw volume. To the degree that getting this right is a matter of engineering rather than one of songwriting, the demo for this song is deeply underwhelming compared to the album track.
Here’s what I did to try and sell the live sound:
1. Reverb. I do most of my loud recording in the basement of my house, which is a large, unfinished concrete rectangle, so there’s a certain amount of natural reverberation in everything I record if I don’t take special care to put mics very close to the source. In this case, I intentionally backed my mic away from the amplifier for the guitar and bass tracks, and used more overhead mic and less on-drum mics for the drum tracks. Beyond that, I used more of the Garageband reverb effect than would normally be sane, to help knock things around on the mixed track even more and create some intentionally muddled audio.
2. Panning. Everything in the “band” is panned significantly to the left in the stereo field, as if the microphone picking this all up is pointed a bit to the right of the stage. Stereo is great in normal recordings for adding some sense of space and depth to a recording, but it’s usually not used in a lopsided fashion like this because it leaves the recording feeling pretty far out of whack. But that helps here, because with the band on the left, I can stick the song’s vocals on the right, and suddenly that lopsidedness is selling a weird balance that really, really puts the voice of the bar buddy in a different physical position on the track than the band. There’s also much less reverb on the friend, which encourages the listener’s auditory cortex to treat the sound as being closer to them.
3. Field audio. I used a couple of specific Creative Commons-licensed tracks (the credits for which I need to look up and list here, in fact) to create the crowd atmosphere of this fictional bar. A stereo field recording of a bar crowd in the background established the scene, and some underlying audio balance, for the lopsided band-left, buddy-right argument stuff above to nestle into; another recording of small-crowd, small-room applause sells the audience reaction at the end.
4. Distortion. With everything else in place, the last thing I did was apply some gentle digital distortion to the whole master mix of the track. This is a terrible idea in general, but it’s pretty much exactly what I wanted for this. Digital distortion, especially cheap digital distortion (which is what Garageband’s basic distortion effect is) has a very specific sort of sound that I don’t really like in general, especially for electric guitar sounds. Give me a nice tube amp any day for electric guitar stuff; I definitely found that religion once I got my Fender Deville.
But harsh digital distortion is pretty much exactly what I needed here; it’s the sound of audio equipment failing to live up to expectations. Think of a crappy stereo turned up too loud, or someone blasting music from cheap computer speakers, or a phonecall from someone at a rock show. The signal just starts chopping up and rattling and going to hell. This is pretty much what happens if you camcorder a live show and can’t (or just don’t) lower the gain on the built-in microphone, too. And that’s what I wanted.
All this taken together makes for a loud, obnoxious, lively sound. The vocals are hard to hear, because it’s loud and it’s hard to hear someone at a bar when a band is playing; but the vocals don’t matter too much because it’s fairly predictable, and fairly redundant, contemporaneous buddy talk.