Above: “Last Call” project file screenshot (click to fullsize)
A live version of “Last Call” recorded at the Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana was originally released on the Daisy Glaze CD “One Way Out”; while that version has a certain ragged charm, it also has a lot of things wrong with it. The fact is, the song was never properly recorded and all of the live recordings on that CD were used less out of satisfaction with the way the songs were represented and more due to the fact that was all we could afford. And as if the cost of multitrack recording at the time wasn’t enough, all the mixes of the live Daisy Glaze tracks came out hideously unbalanced with one of the stereo channels much, much louder than the other, a problem that was only partially corrected before mastering. Finally — and most important in my mind — the spare arrangement necessitated by live performance didn’t really suit the melodic structure of the song, and I simply hadn’t sung it very well. Reason enough to execute a proper recording!
Because a previously recorded version of the song (however unsatisfactory) did exist in this case, I decided to take advantage of that fact and outsource the drums to Mike Cook at drumsnpercussion.com rather than attempt them myself. I also thought an actual drummer would be more likely than sequenced or quantized tracks to maintain the feel of the song; while the extreme looseness of the live version was one of the main reasons for doing a proper studio version, I didn’t want to go too far in the opposite direction and end up with a sterile, robotic track — ideally, I wanted something that maintained the power of a live rock band while bringing out the melody and clarity that had previously been buried in the murk. Mike’s first take on the track was slightly wide of the mark and pushed the song’s rhythm in a fast punky direction that didn’t quite fit, but after some guidance his second take hit the mark squarely.
With a solid drum track in hand on which to build and a preexisting song I’d played many, many times before to work with, the rest of the tracking went quickly. First, I laid down two tracks of acoustic guitar — one with the Ovation 2078TC and one with the Fender Catalina, in order to to bring out slightly different timbres — to serve as the spine of the song. Structure in place, I proceeded to lay down electric bass through the Hartke VXL Bass Attack Pedal and Direct Box; this took slightly longer than the guitars as I hadn’t played bass on “Last Call” before (I’ve typically sung and played guitar when playing live). Fortunately, between knowing the song by heart and having the reference of the early version to work with it didn’t take long to figure out. Once I’d doped out what bassline I wanted to play, in order to minimize the necessity of chopping and editing the bass track after the fact I practiced it a bit more than usual before pressing ‘record’ ; the acoustic guitars had been played mostly live with very few edits to help maintain the ‘band’ feel and I was determined to do the same with the bass. This approach worked out pretty well and it only took a couple of takes before I had a bassline I was satisfied with.
With the bass down and the the acoustic tracks to guide me, it was almost a trivial matter to record the electric guitars; while the project file screenshot above shows a number of edits on the electric tracks, those were nearly all added in the mixing stage for reasons of adjusting volume dynamics rather than comping parts together or eliminating errors. Both electric guitar tracks were done with the Gibson Explorer — the same guitar used on the older recording — played through the Line 6 POD’s Crunch setting, and after a few level adjustments I had a solid backing track in place.
Above: “Last Call” version history screenshot (click to fullsize)
Having previously used the services of Kurt Baumer at Fiddletrax.com to record violin tracks for “Encore” (the track breakdown for which is coming later, in its proper album sequence) and been pleased with the results, I sent the rough mix off to Kurt with instructions not to simply replicate what had been played on the live version, but to start with a similar feel and elaborate as he wished. Based on Kurt’s performance on the earlier track, I was fairly confident that giving him free rein to do what he felt most appropriate would produce better results than micromanaging his contribution.
In my experience, unwarranted micromanagement is one of the worst habits of local musicians: people whose creative output might otherwise be completely viable constantly shoot themselves in the feet by affecting unearned authoritative stances based on their own insecurities. I played a few times with one nascent local band whose bassist referred to himself as the band’s “musical director” despite having no previous experience whatsoever playing in a band, let alone the training or skill that goes along with such a lofty title. He never let this lack of knowledge inhibit him, though, constantly interjecting ill-informed opinions at every stage; my favorite of his halfbaked theories was “A band should release everything they record, no matter how it turns out” — had he never bought a reissued album with terrible previously unreleased bonus tracks tacked on? This made every little choice into a teeth-gritting ordeal, from deciding which song to play next to ascertaining whether a break in a song should be 4, 8, or 11 bars (correct answer: no one cares but you — and if you really cared that much you should have worked it out beforehand rather than wasting valuable practice time with pointless bullshit).
Unsurprisingly, the same drummer never showed up twice during the three times I played with that band; after all, it’s one thing to give a helpful indication of a song’s direction to a stranger who’s never heard the material before and then let them do their thing; it’s entirely another to critique every aspect of someone’s performance to their face after every song, particularly when one isn’t a drummer and doesn’t have a clear, communicable vision. Sensing a fundamental instability in the band’s organization and having previously seen the same self-destructive tendencies keep many a musical project from ever getting anywhere, I quit soon after the third practice, wishing them luck and vaguely citing an “opportunity I couldn’t pass up” — the opportunity not to waste any more of my time.
Sure enough, within a few months the other guitar player flipped out and quit the band, telling the bassist that not only didn’t she want to play with him, but that she didn’t want to be his friend and he should never contact her again! To his credit, the bassist recruited more members and kept going (now that every other position had turned over multiple times, he could at least insist on keeping the cringeworthy band name he came up with) but only a few more months later that version of the band had dissolved as well; they haven’t been heard from since. Ironically, now that he has the experience under his belt of getting a band to that first hurdle of doing small recording sessions and playing a few local gigs, he might actually be tempered enough to play with other people — if he’s learned the right lessons along the way and worked the preponderance of his unfeasible and unrealistic ideas out of his system.
The lesson: playing in a band is not an excuse to act like a rock star, and putting an ad on Craigslist doesn’t make you a bandleader. If you can’t work well with other people, a band is not for you. No one is going to show up for free week after week to take orders and worship at the font of your genius, so if that’s how you always imagined playing in a band to be you’d better have independent wealth or extremely indulgent parents to finance your delusions. And if you really do have strong ideas for all the other instrumental parts on which you can’t (won’t) compromise, well then buy an interface, learn how to record, and do it all yourself. This isn’t 1960; if you want total control of how your music comes out, just take it! If nothing else, I hope these track breakdowns help get the fact across that it’s really not all that hard, you’ll save a lot of time and hassle, and you’ll probably be happier with the results in the end. But if you want other people involved and you’re not intending on letting them have any input into the music then you don’t have a band, you have a solo project with supporting musicians — and that situation only works when the supporting musicians are getting paid.
Fortunately, the inexorable march of technology now allows those who have managed to accumulate both instrumental and social skills to market their abilities and let others make use of those abilities for a reasonable fee. Where it used to cost thousands of dollars simply to rent a studio and hire a musician or two, the rise of home recording and the interconnectivity of the internet has lowered the cost of custom bespoke music tracks to much more affordable levels. And while those same technological advancements have made instruments like drums and violin far easier to simulate synthetically, the feel of a human being playing an instrument made of wood is still irreplicable. It’s not hard for me to create something that sounds a lot like a violin line, but that doesn’t make me a violinist any more than being a bossy prick makes one a bandleader. Hence, when I hire someone to create a track for one of my songs I want them to bring their lifetime of skills to the table, not restrict their playing to my idea of what’s possible. If they are too far off the mark, then yes, I’ll guide them back towards what I’m looking for — that’s the prerogative of the client: if you’re paying, you’re calling the shots — but letting someone bring in ideas you would never have thought of is the point of playing with other people.
Getting back to this particular track, at the time my email asking him to do the violin work on “Last Call” reached Kurt he happened to be on tour, so during the interim I proceeded to record and edit the vocals for the song. (Kurt offered to record his tracks while still on tour — he brings recording equipment with him on the road in order to serve clients who need violin tracks tout suite — but I told him to take his time since I wasn’t in any rush and had plenty on hand to keep me busy.) Again, having sung this song many times before was a real help insofar as recording quickly; nothing lends confidence to a vocal like properly doing the work of trying out and discarding various vocal approaches ahead of time. Of course, this isn’t always possible — or even desirable — but the difference is nearly always audible.
I had initially thought to use vocal harmonies to flesh out the melodic content a bit, but in the vocal editing stage I ended up cutting back and cutting back until I basically had one lead vocal with a second used for intermittent doubling. I find this to be the case more often than not with vocals: as someone who’s not in love with the sound of his own voice, I tend to pile on the tracks during recording, then later during editing I realize how indistinct and ‘blurry’ the overlapping vocals sound and I end up cutting them back to one strong lead track and perhaps a few harmonic embellishments.
When Kurt got back to me with his finished violin tracks (not long at all) the vocals were edited and mixed, so after dropping the custom tracks into the project file I brought the mix up on the monitoring speakers to hear them in context. One great thing about Kurt is that he records a few takes with slightly different parts on each job, so one has the choice of using any one of the provided takes, comping the various takes together to make one part, or even using all the tracks together! In this case, while each Kurt’s three slightly different takes on “Last Call” sounded good individually, when placed atop the rest of the instrumentation and panned left to right within the stereo field, the violin tracks together achieved a string quartet-like quality as well as providing the additional melodic content I was looking for earlier. I can honestly say that I literally could not have been more pleased with the results of Kurt’s efforts and I would recommend his services to absolutely anyone looking for custom violin tracks.
From this point forward, all that remained was mixing; as “Last Call” was among the final tracks finished for the album, I recall looking forward to wrapping it up and getting everything sent off for mastering. As the screenshot above shows, after the violin tracks were added in the last week of September 2011 the version history is simply a series of mixes and remixes, largely just tweaking the levels of the guitars (mostly for dynamics, as mentioned above) and violin tracks to get everything to gel as well as possible. Fortunately, it took relatively few back-and-forth trips between the studio and my various listening environments (as detailed in the post in this series for “It’s No Mystery”) before I settled on a “Last Call” mix I was pleased with. In the end, it turned out to be exactly one month between finalizing the “Last Call” mix on October 17 and finally getting to listen to the completed master for YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK in mid-November.
To hear “Last Call” and the rest of YOU HAD TO LEAVE YOUR MARK, listen to the album via the links below.