Above: “It’s No Mystery” project file screenshot (click to fullsize)
“It’s No Mystery” was the last track to be finished for the YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK album. Like “An Accident Of Birth”, “It’s No Mystery” was built from the bottom up by first sequencing the drums and then adding the rhythm guitars on top of them. In this case, I just put the drums basically in the ballpark of what I wanted at first and then continually tweaked them a bit here and a bit there as the construction of the rest of the song progressed, adjusting the sequencing to fit the contours of the track as it developed.
By this point in time I was familiar and comfortable enough with my studio space and equipment that once I had a half-decent drum track together I could bang out rhythm guitar tracks without much fuss, at least in cases where a song was actually written ahead of time and not composed on the fly. The rhythm guitars here were the Gibson Explorer through the Line 6 POD; I don’t think any guitar on YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK was done direct into the DAW without the POD at least acting as an amp simulator. Similarly, bass guitar was run through the Hartke VXL Bass Attack Pedal and Direct Box — as per usual for this album, though I’ve since begun playing some bass direct into the DAW and applying amp simulation after the fact.
With the basic tracking done I laid down the vocals, and after some basic comping to put the vocal track together the song was basically all there. Unfortunately I thought the track itself was still lacking something — the song was fully recorded as it had been written, but just as it was it didn’t really do much to excite me. This wasn’t a great tragedy or anything — I’ve written and recorded plenty of songs you’ll never hear –but rather than force the issue I decided just to leave it be and move on to something else in the meantime.
After letting the track sit for a bit I came back to it and decided the problem was that the song was a bit light on melodic content — which made sense, as it had been written to be played live with me singing and playing rhythm guitar at the same time, which makes adding detailed melodic embellishment very difficult unless one is a highly skilled instrumental genius. (Jimi Hendrix’ ability to do precisely this is largely what elevates his playing to the point where he sits atop every list of ‘best electric guitar players ever’.)
As the track also seemed somewhat lacking in consonant textures, I strongly considered trying out some different keyboard patches to see if maybe some rotary organ or synthetic string pads would help, but as I had some new guitar equipment on hand I’d been itching to play with I went that direction instead. If you can’t occasionally indulge the whim of the moment, frankly this whole making music thing can get be be a huge draggy slog (I can’t imagine how boring playing in one of those carbon-copy cover bands would be) so playing with guitar toys swiftly became the order of the day.
Since the Explorer had been used for the rhythm guitars I decided to play the Traveler EG-1 for contrast on the lead lines: where the Explorer has a nice low-midrange sound, the Traveler gets more of a upper midrange presence that wouldn’t interfere with the rhythm guitars and would remain distinct regardless what effects I threw at it…and I definitely threw a good amount of effects on the lead lines here.
Above: “It’s No Mystery” lead guitar signal chain (click to fullsize)
The photo above represents the signal chain used on the “It’s No Mystery” lead guitar tracks; from right to left, the lead from the Traveler guitar goes into a TC Electronic PolyTune Chromatic Pedal Tuner, then into the Dunlop 95Q Cry Baby Wah, which I don’t think I used on this track in the traditional ‘wah-wah’ sense, but rather set it to one position and left it as a tone control, for which the 95Q is great — far more useful than the tone knobs on guitars, actually. (There’s a reason a lot of artists’ signature guitar models omit tone knobs entirely.) The 95Q also has a switchable distortion circuit; I’m not sure if it was engaged here, but I’d guess not simply because one of the new toys I was wanting to play with is next in the chain: the Fulltone GT-500 FET Distortion + Booster and Overdrive. With two separate distortion and overdrive gain stages, I could get plenty of saturated guitar tone out of the GT-500 along without kicking the 95Q distortion on top of it, but then again if I happened to kick it on and it sounded good, I would have left it, but I don’t think I did so here.
After the GT-500 is the Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy Analog Echo and Chorus, which I cranked up to give me a nice smooth tone with lots of sustain before finally running the signal into the ZT Lunchbox amplifier. Again, the Lunchbox does have a gain stage built in but it also has a great clarity at lower volumes, which is what I was looking for here: a clear representation of the distorted, overdriven, sustaining tone I was getting from the pedals. I miked up the Lunchbox with the V67G condenser mic at a distance of about a foot and a half (or 50cm, for those in the civilized world) using the Golden Age Project Pre-73 preamp, and came out at the end of the chain with a guitar tone consisting of almost organ-like timbres that inspired me in an entirely different direction for the lead guitar melodies and helped push the track up that one extra notch, at least in my mind.
Above: “It’s No Mystery” version history screenshot (click to fullsize)
Although admittedly “It’s No Mystery” did begin late in the tracking process, mixing was the main reason it was the last song done for the album. During the end stages of assembling YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK, I’d compile my album mixes (by this point track sequence was pretty much nailed down) load them into my ipod and take them outside the studio to see how they held up in the real world, or more specifically: 1. on the living room entertainment center speakers, 2. on the bookshelf-sized speakers in the bedroom, 3. in the car, and 4. on headphones (though not necessarily in that order). For some reason, “It’s No Mystery” just would not sound right in all locations; if the bass sounded good on the living room speakers, it’d be overpowering in the car, and then when I cut it back it’d be inaudible in headphones. It took a lot of tweaking to get the mix to a point I was reasonably satisfied with, but even there I was starting to get worried I was overworking the track to the point where I was losing perspective. Everything else for the album was finalized and ready to ship off for mastering, but I seriously considered delaying the album to give myself a week or two to walk away from the “It’s No Mystery” mix and come back to it with fresh ears — or maybe even start again with a entirely fresh, new mix!
In the end, I fell back on my anti-obsessive/compulsive mantra, “good enough is good enough,” and I settled for a mix that was about 95% of the way to where I’d have liked it to be rather than continue to drive myself nuts. Because really — in life in general as well as with music in specific — it’s incredibly easy to get obsessed with what are ultimately incredibly minor details in the larger picture. That’s why there’s never been another album by My Bloody Valentine or the La’s. Was the level of the lead guitar track going to make or break “It’s No Mystery”? Not really. Was it worth taking another week or two weeks to obsess over it? Not really. The mix was fine, it was just that after months of highly refined, detail-oriented listening getting everything in shape for the album my hearing was tuned into differences so minute I’d be surprised if anyone but experienced audio engineers would be able to hear them without me pointing them out.
Of course, the minute I made that decision I started worrying that after I got the mastered album back I’d decide that I’d fucked up the mix after all and have to redo it — possibly pay someone else to mix it, even! — as well as pay to have the mastering redone. And of course, when the finished album came back from mastering at Mr. Toad’s, “It’s No Mystery” sounded fine — but I’ll admit to holding my breath a bit before the track played when I was auditioning the master for the first time.
That’s one of the main reasons I’ve chosen to use professional mastering on my albums: when you’re doing everything yourself, it’s good for that last link in the chain to be someone who’s not locked into your perspective. A good mastering engineer can work wonders as far as getting tracks to gel, albums to sound consistent, and problems to sound less problematic, and especially as more and more music is home-recorded that last professional tweak can make a world of difference when it comes from someone who really knows their stuff. I don’t know what all Tardon Feathered uses in his mastering chain up at Mr. Toad’s and I don’t need to know: he’s done good work on both the projects I’ve had him work on and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his services to anyone in need of a good mastering engineer. If not Mr. Toad’s, there are plenty of skilled mastering engineers out there — I frequently scorn people who throw good money after bad in pursuit of their musical ambitions, but this is one area where I highly recommend refraining from cheaping out. Do your research, get some quotes, and don’t even think “I’ll just have my buddy who pirated the Ozone Mastering plugin do it” is a viable strategy.