Above: “Overrich Diet” project file screenshot (click to fullsize)
This track was another brand-new song created from the ground up for YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK, in the sense that it was written in the studio during the recording process. I’ve found that having a song fully written before beginning the recording process often makes for a faster recording since there’s a clear roadmap to follow, but it can feel a little robotic at times — more craftsmanlike than expressive. In a sense, there is something more purely creative about sitting down without preexisting ideas and making something out of nothing, but the flipside is that if the ideas aren’t forthcoming you can easily end up with uninspired, meandering improvisations and tracks that don’t ever go anywhere. Then again, that’s what editing is for — all the boring stuff goes away, never to be heard by the ears of others. In reality, I find that when composing on the fly via DAW recording, the best results spring from somewhere between inspiration and recitation — when you literally have no idea of what might be coming out of your fingers next, you can come out with some gems that surprise even you — but once you’re finished playing, you’d better be prepared to spend some time trimming and highlighting the keeper parts for future reference or they will quickly get misplaced.
In the case of “Overrich Diet” I had nothing but an intention to try out what I think of as the “Herbie Flowers bass technique” after the prominent session musician who played with David Bowie (Space Oddity, Diamond Dogs), Lou Reed (“Walk On The Wild Side”), and T. Rex (Dandy In The Underworld). Bass is notoriously difficult to record properly and many rock albums have lousy bass tone (which often went unnoticed, given how undermixed bass tended to be on vinyl masters), but all the records Flowers played on have a great bass sound that he apparently got in a very counterintuitive fashion: rather than using overpowered amplifiers to drive massive stacks of bass bins loaded with speakers or by plugging the bass into the mixing board via a direct input (DI) box, Flowers played with a pick through a small practice amp played at a reasonable listening level and recorded with a single mic. Flowers himself described the signature tone obtained via this method as a “nice puddingy sound”; I call it “creamy”.
First, I set up a small 10W bass practice amp and plugged in the Yamaha bass; when I play bass I generally play with a pick anyway, as I don’t play the instrument often enough for the strings not to tear up my fingers. Next I set up a Shure SM-58 mic at a distance of about six inches from the front of the amp, pointing slightly off-axis and off-center into the amp’s speaker cone. This signal was amplified with the GA-73 preamp before going into the DAW to impart some of the ‘vintage character’ of the analog mixing desk circuitry that would have been used in Flowers’ heyday, and after tweaking the mic placement by listening through my monitoring speakers I loaded up some drum loops to play against and just jammed out on the bass for awhile, having fun.
Fun is important! Although I would generally characterize the whole process of creating music as “fun” for me, there’s a lot of difficult detail-oriented work involved in the process that is really more accurately described as “rewarding” than “fun”, but slamming out bass riffs with no stakes or pressure attached to the outcome is a blast. I’m a lot more likely to have big, stupid grin on my face after ten minutes of jamming out on “creamy” sounding electric bass than editing and sequencing drum samples for an hour.
When I’m playing like this I try not to think too hard about what I’m playing or how I’m going to make it into a song later, as I find those thought processes just get in the way: as much as possible, I’m playing for the enjoyment of playing itself. It’s only after I’m done — with bass, generally my fingers tell me I need to stop before I give myself a blister — and I listen back to what I’ve played that I start to apply critical judgment to the results of my free flight. Often things that are enjoyable to play are enjoyable to listen to although that’s certainly not always the case, so taking some time between recording and editing is often helpful in keeping the enthusiasm of the moment from running away with me and making a fun-to-play-but-maybe-not-very-interesting part the centerpiece of a song.
I tend to think of the shaping of this kind of improvisatory part into the backbone of a song as a process analogous to sculpting or painting: I note striking bits that sound like they could work as verses, choruses, or instrumental breaks, move pieces of audio around, and generally cut away anything that sounds like it doesn’t fit. In this case, since I was working with just bass and drums, I also resequenced the drum parts along with the bass line, essentially composing the backbone rhythmic structure of the song.
This is the part I would characterize as less “fun”, but taking something that would otherwise remain an ephemeral solo jam and shaping it into a framework around which something can be built is creatively rewarding enough to compensate. However, a working familiarity with your DAW of choice is absolutely necessary to do this efficiently, as hitting a roadblock can be frustrating enough to derail a session and prevent you from getting anywhere that day; experience enough similarly frustrating sessions and one will abandon the ideas contained therein rather than face another (doing things this way in Cubase didn’t work for me at all).
In my case, as detailed in earlier posts in this series I chose Presonus Studio One as my DAW largely based on its expeditious workflow and I have a lifetime of experience (including professional training in audio technology) on which to draw, but I still took the time to watch basic instructional videos on using Studio One as well as general home recording and audio production. You don’t have to know everything before you start — no one does — but you can save yourself hours of frustration by learning the basics and reviewing them at regular intervals.
In this case, I had a couple sections that broke down easily into a verse/chorus type of structure as well as a fun bass lead part that showed off the “creamy” bass tone in a way that would make for a good break, bridge, or outro. Once I hammered the parts into a rough sequence, I had a pretty strong barebones song structure over which I laid electric guitar tracks with the Explorer, and after a little editing I pretty much had the instrumentation for “Overrich Diet” down.
One reason the electric guitar tracking went so quickly is Studio One’s loop recording feature. Basically, what this allows me to do is set up a song or section of a song to repeat while I record, so it’s possible to record two or more takes without stopping after each take. Granted, the time required to set up a new track for recording is minimal — a minute or less — but it’s a question of momentum: it’s much, much easier to keep the vibe when all you have to do is keep playing it than it is to hit ‘stop’, set up a new track, mute the previous track, double-check you’re not overwriting the previous track, and hit ‘record’ again. Additionally, I’ve found several times that the best comped track ends up being the end of one take added to the beginning of the next, as if I’d found my groove somewhere during a take and continued it through as recording rolled on; if I’d had to stop in between those two takes, I would almost certainly have lost that groove. It’s great for improvisation too, as it makes it incredibly easy and fun to just keep playing after a take, throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. If it’s all garbage, it’s easy enough to delete and cut the recording back to the proper take, but you never know what might come out. Besides, it’s a great excuse to let loose, fly free, and have more of that fun I mentioned above.
Above: “Overrich Diet” version history screenshot (click to fullsize)
With the drums, bass, and guitar in place I had a basic track completed, but because this track had been composed on the fly I now hit the point where real work had to be done: it was time to work out the vocals. Song that are written ahead of time often come to me with lyrics attached as they tend to get built outwards from fragments of words and melody in my head; typically what happens if I think of a melody is that I have to attach it to some words to remember it, and then those words imply other words, and the melodies imply other melodies and the songs are constructed as support for those words and melodies. A song like “Overrich Diet” is a different challenge, a lot like coming up with vocals and vocal melodies for music someone else has written and brought into a band. For me, it’s a process of getting a reasonably listenable version of the music to work with and then playing it repeatedly, humming and singing to myself until fragments of words and melody start coming to me, writing them down, and continuing until I have enough idea of what the song is and where it’s going to finish it up to my satisfaction. It’s really one of the most exhausting and annoying stages of making music, to be honest: I don’t care how interesting and cool a song is, listen to it on repeat play for three hours and its charm will inevitably begin to wear on you. Fortunately, it’s also one of the most rewarding as I’m always somewhat surprised at what comes out of this method, and when it really works the end result is a vocal line strong enough that it would have merited building a song around it had I conceived it separately. (For me, that bit in “Overrich Diet” is the chorus.)
Once the vocals and lyrics were written, the sections of the song were rearranged to properly accommodate them and finalize the song structure. The vocals were then laid down using the V67G condenser mic through the Golden Age Project Pre-73 preamp — I think it might have been my first use of the GA Pre-73, but I’m not 100% on that — and after that, the history of “Overrich Diet” is a long series of mixes and remixes. The final mix is obviously of huge importance to a song, but particularly so with songs that are composed in the studio: if a song has never been played live by a band it’s less likely that any preexisting notions of what the mix should sound like will come into play. This can be both good and bad: good, because you’re not limited by perspectives possibly developed under faulty conditions (each member of a band generally thinks their instrument should be higher in the mix because that’s the way they always hear it standing next to their amp); bad, because you may not even know what you’re going for. In this case I thought a fairly straightforward approach would be best; although the song hadn’t been played with a band, I wanted it to sound as though it might have been and mixed it with that in mind. This mostly consisted of a lot of adjusting guitar levels to fit in and around the vocals — which, remember, had been recorded after the guitars, so I was looking to give the impression the guitars were somewhat reactive with the vocal line. Based on the version history above, it looks like I kept coming back to the track and remixing it about once every two weeks until the YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK album was starting to get finalized, at which point I stepped it up and kept tweaking it until I had a master-ready final mix. In the end I was pretty pleased with the ‘live rock’ feel of the song — especially considering its origins were anything but!
To hear the results, check out the “Overrich Diet” video and listen to the album via the links below.