Hoop and Wire
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Tender Loving Empire pre-release page
#1: The ‘Idea’ + Devices
Q: At what point in your process do you ‘demo’ something and what format do you demo ideas in?
Every work of art has a beginning. For a song, that could be a vocal melody, a few key words, a story idea, a ‘feeling’, a beat, or some sort of riff on an instrument. I would assume that for most of us song writers and/or collaborators the beginning of a ‘song’ is when two or more of those elements come together at the same time. When an idea truly becomes a ‘song’ is anybody’s guess. For me, something is a legit song idea when it’s been in my head a few times and I can’t seem to shake it. And that’s when I record something like this:
I used the ‘Voice Memo’ app from my iPhone (which currently has yet to be updated for iPhone version 3). The most important thing about an audio ‘demo’ to me is that it capture the ‘space’ of the idea. That way, if I pick up a guitar at a later time, I can make sure the rhythmic flavor of the initial demo is preserved so that I don’t simply end up strumming a different version of something I have already recorded in the past. In that way, a voice memo serves as a constant reminder as to what an idea’s rhythmic feel will be like and/or what it’s vocal/sax/guitar/synth melody flavors will do.
I threw down most of my current collection of voice memos while driving from Spokane to Missoula on May 22nd of 2009. I had just finished the first show of a three week tour of the West, so my energy level was peaking—I was ready to do something creative. When I got home, I loaded all of the voice memos from the past several months onto a track in Digital Performer. With the file over eight minutes long and containing twelve distinct song ideas, I figured it was time to start recording a new album.
Most of these ideas had been kicking around my brain for a while. Often they ‘appear’ during my bike ride to and from the day job. My rout takes about twelve minutes and I think that window is a perfect amount of time for an idea to naturally come to the surface, go somewhere new, and be set free to go back to where it came. Only after it reappears several times do I find an idea to be ready to ‘demo’. This process leaves an open canvass—like staring into your imagination in the same way a sculpture look’s over a new slab of marble.
#2: Beat Selection
Q: What’s your favorite beat?
When I first started making music as BEDM, I composed beats on an MPC 2000. My main objective was to make them sound like ‘real’ drums. Then I discovered the turntable, and all it took was a decent breaks record before I realized my love of the drum kit as a whole instrument rather than just a collection of different drum sounds. That was when I recorded ‘Pleasure’, and I prefer working with ‘real’ drum performances to this day.
Every BEDM song starts off with a general idea of key and tempo, and some very specific syncopated parts in mind. Syncopated just means things match up—they’re accented—like a bass, guitar or sax line where the drums will definitely be playing something very specific. So I drop the needle into one of the grooves of a breaks record looking for a drum performance that matches the general tempo of one of songs I’m working on. My turntable, a standard Technics 1200, seems to be able to shift the pitch one ‘step’ in each direction, as well as change 33 rpm to 45 rpm (I use this method a couple times on the new disc). Changing the pitch of a sound changes it’s ‘tempo’ too, so I have a bit of ‘wiggle room’ with beats in finding something that ‘fits’. Sometimes I find a beat that has elements in it which are EXACTLY what I am looking for, but usually I need to manipulate the turntable a bit to ‘tweak’ it and make it accent appropriately. Once the break or series of drum ‘performances’ is recorded into the computer, I start chopping it/them into useful pieces. On the song ‘!!!’, that sounds like this:
As you can see, I found a (disco) beat that matches the general tempo I was looking for and chopped it up so that it syncopates with the bass and sax, which I will be recording over the top of the beat in the future. In time, the syncopations in the latter half of the beat will be reinforced by a tom tom drum, a low synth ‘hit’, and the sound of a cassette deck opening and snapping shut.
This week is really a combination of two totally different steps in the recording: beat selection and drum editing. I could go on for hours about beat selection, and I DO go on for hours while editing drums. So I’ll do my best to be brief about the former, while sparing you the boring details of the latter (imagine hours and hours of a dude slumped forward in a chair staring at a screen and sipping coffee every 5 minutes—I think that covers it…).
Basically, I hope each BEDM song takes the listener somewhere new, so I look for beats that don’t convey any sort of ‘cultural baggage’. That’s not to say ‘cultural baggage’ is a bad thing. In fact, it’s an incredibly useful ingredient in the right context. Part of what makes hip hop so fun is it’s constant references to past works. The ‘thief’ part of sampling isn’t just finding effective musical sounds, it also makes a statement about the artist, what they like, and what/who they associate with. When I listen to Paul’s Boutique, I get pretty stoked about all of the Beastie Boys’ samples. It’s not just a proclamation of the Beastie Boys’ rhymes and philosophies, it’s a celebration of all kinds of great music and, coupled with some awesome moog lines and turntable textures, Paul’s Boutique comes off as a unique work which stands on it’s own. It’s a ‘new’ thing, even some 20 years later.
On the furthest end of the ‘cultural baggage’ spectrum stand the clever ‘mashups’ of Girl Talk. His songs aren’t just skillful conglomerations of sound, they’re collisions of successful brands. It’s your favorite Starbucks caramel mixed into your favorite melted Snickers bar dumped liberally over the top of your favorite Voodoo Donut. It’s a barrage of familiar flavors, expertly concocted, and easily digested. But the effect isn’t just musical, each sample in a GT song is likely to bring forth a memory and/or cultural association in the listener’s mind. Every memory triggered—every moment that particular song was the soundtrack for—every memory comes washing back and into a new light. The associations linked to the original work, be they West coast rap or classic rock samples—each association is now digestible and chopped into a convenient sample sized cup anyone can choke down—while profusely shaking ass. That’s a potent recording technique indeed.
So I enjoy the various examples of sample based music. As a songwriter, however, I really want the listener to go somewhere completely ‘new’. So I look for beats and samples I think work toward that end. I’ll write more about that in a couple weeks when I talk more specifically about sampling from vinyl. For now, the beat is selected, tweaked, and edited. The ‘table’ has been set, and we’re ready start adding more goodies.
#3: Bass Synth
Q: Ok. A synthesizer does what now?
Now that the beat is selected and edited, the song is ready for my favorite thing in the world: tacos. Wait…I meant to say “bass”, as in, bass synth. Of course, there is no such thing as a “bass synth” per se—although there are many variations in their appearance and characteristics, all synthesizers basically do the same thing: make electronic sounds. Some do so by using physical electrical components and wires (analog synth). Some use a computer chip that calculates the sound (digital / hybrids / virtual analog). Some are even inside your computer software itself (soft synth). Regardless, a synth is generally controlled by a key board (see pictured: the Pulse doesn’t have a keyboard built in), which sends the synth data, telling it which notes to play and/or how the sound should be affected.
All three of these sounds were made with my Waldorf Pulse, which is a modern German analog synthesizer with some digital components:
The verse sound is run through my memory man—an analog delay—which gives it a sort of “warm” video gaming vibe. Since the chorus will have lots of singing and guitar playing and such, the two sounds I used there are very basic and either swoop down on the low note or simply augment the drum hits with a sort of “thoooo” sound. The Pulse is a mono synth, so it can only receive one note at a time, making it ideal for use as a “bass synth”.
Whether a bass part plugs along the root note of a chord or plays a more elaborate melody, it is generally the “glue” of the song, pulling together the rhythmic feel and the primary chords and melodies of the song. I spend a few hours on each song’s bass part, trying different feels and sounds before settling on something I like.
For this recording I am also using two other synthesizers: my trusty Yamaha PSS-140 (remember the little tinkering bells on “Pleasure Theme Song”?) and Benjy’s sweeeeeet Moog Opus 3, which I am getting some beautiful “string” sounds and psychedelic textures from (I borrowed an ARP Solina String Ensemble for those types of sounds on “Booomboxxx”). More about synth, and the other gear I have borrowed later…
The turntable is the least predictable part of the BEDM recording process. Sifting through rare and unusual grooved recordings from the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s, I look for an interesting sound that will take the song a fun direction. Drum break compilations, musicals, choirs, rare Latin American folk, strange stringed instruments, and Oregon field recordings: these have been the staples for the “grabs” (samples off of vinyl) of the last 4 BEDM LP’s. I always look for something unique. I don’t want the sample to distract, but neither do I want it to be completely unnoticed. I wish for it’s origin to be unrecognizable but for it’s gritty quality to shine through. These sounds served a purpose in history then were essentially discarded. That’s right…I’m recycling.
For this latest album, I chose to dig for samples right after laying down bass for each song. My main reason for this method was to avoid situations where instruments like guitar, synth, and saxophone have been recorded and I find a grab that completely changes the syncopation (distinct rhythmic accents that match up for “tight” effect) of the part, forcing me to re-record a few things and even re-edit the drums. The songs “Booomboxxx” and “We Are An Army” off of the last BEDM LP come to mind. They both contain koto flourishes that demand center stage. But those stringed leads ‘clashed’ with what was in place. In both instances I went back and reworked the parts around the performances of the grabs, all the while asking myself why I didn’t just move turntable up in the recording process. So that’s what I did this time. Generally, the grab is kind of like icing on a part: you can fudge with it’s positioning and composition a bit but you still need to plan ahead so that the flavors match.
Also, I want the grab to be fun to perform live. I didn’t just get into turntablism because of how neat digging up old sounds can be; turntable has stuck with me because it is simply a fun instrument to perform with. I see it as one of the few rebellious instruments out there too. In my humble opinion, scarcely can one truly rebel with a guitar. It’s all been done. Feedback. Bashings. Solos whilst on fire. That was all perfected over FORTY years ago! But the turntable is still accepted as a very young instrument—when viewed as an instrument at all. I once asked a Portland music teacher if he were interested in having a guest come in and show his kids turntablism to get them more excited about musical forms and his response was: “No! I’m trying to teach them about REAL music.” He responded similarly to one who judges a book’s contents by the type of word processor used to write it. A song is the product of imagination and process, tools are merely vehicles to that end.
So…yeah…this whole blog took an esoteric turn, right? As it turns out, the two parts of “Constellation” (by the way—the song is called “Constellation”) I am focusing on doesn’t have any grabs. It contains a disco beat pulled off of Drum Drops (we already covered that), thick mono synth (ditto), a blasting guitar (next time?), a bunch of vocals, and the snapping sound of a cassette deck opening and shutting in time with several tom tom drums. Please do stick around.
Guitar is the first instrument I learned to play in a live band setting. Generally I use it to either fill out a part or play a specific hook. For the verse and chorus of “Constellation” (formerly known simply as “!!!”), I came up with this:
As you can see, I like to keep guitar parts simple. I want them to either be twangy hooks, spooky echos, or good clean punchy accents. To get those sounds, I use a 60′s Hopf Telstar guitar with flat wound strings, a 60′s Fender Vibro Champ amp, and often a Memory Man (analog delay) and Fulltone Fulldrive 2 (clean gain). The summer before I recorded “Pleasure”, I found the guitar at a flea market in Germany for 100 euros. SCORE. It may be the only flea market find of my life.
This album has quite a bit of guitar in it, generally as a punchy accent or spooky backdrop.
Drunk dude at Berbati’s Pan: “Wow. You’ve got some guts playing sax. Hehe. Where did you get the idea to play THAT?”
Me: “Um. Yeah. I started playing in middle school.”
“Yea. Me too! Although, I had the common sense to quit when I had the chance.”
I’ve heard sax is the easiest woodwind instrument to play. Many years removed from my experience playing alto saxophone in the Binnsmead Middle School marching band in Southeast Portland, I picked up the instrument, practiced for a couple weeks, and was honking fairly effective lines for “Two Ghosts” (2007). So I’m thankful for the ease with which a sax can be manipulated. It’s not a particularly tricky device, assuming one can hear pitch and has the muscle memory to force the right air pressure into the wiggling reed. Unfortunately, that ease with which notes can be bent also makes the sax the vessel through which countless noodling solos and tacky, ear piercing notes have been uttered.
On the flip side, the sax is also a versatile instrument, with warm tones and percussive, funky, gorgeously ‘distorted’ notes well within it’s capabilities. And that’s what I’m going for when I pick up my tenor sax. I bought it while composing “Booomboxxx” (2008), and it is prominently displayed in “Hoop and Wire” (2010) as well (Oh—btw—this new disc is called “Hoop and Wire”). I love Motown. I love the strings. I love the horns. I want my sax playing to sound like the trumpets in those songs and match the funky hits that the drums make. Also, I want the parts to NOT sound anything like a cheesy 80′s ballad solo. And there it is.
I generally capture the sound coming out of the bell of my sax with my AKG 414, a condenser microphone that sounds pretty smooth on just about anything. Similar to “Booomboxxx”, “Hoop and Wire” has a few songs where the sax is a primary hook instrument, as well as several songs where it is more of a flavor in the foreground. I always record sax in the middle of the process, somewhere before percussion, vocals, and finishing touches. So, to catch up with the recording process, by the time I get to recording sax I have some drums and bass to listen to in the headphones while I blast away. These parts are usually informed by the vocal demo I sing into my phone before the recording begins. Otherwise, I might be tempted to noodle away on the sax. And we don’t need that happening…;)
I used the snapping shut sound of this lil’ cassette deck to augment the tom toms on Constellation. Here’s how it worked out:
Percussion, extra keyboard parts, and guitar feedback are all examples of miscellaneous sounds that help add layers to the recording. In my process they’re usually added last. I sit and listen, hear a place that could use a bit more depth, and try various things until something sounds right. Fun! Next up: vocals…
Being the ever-capable mooch that I am, I borrowed a Shure SM7 from Jeff Stuart Saltzman, who is also responsible for mastering this recording. It’s a very solid mic, and is clean and tidy in dealing with low frequencies. That’s important, because my voice tends to be a bit low. Also, my (ahem) studio isn’t *quite* the top notch space you might find commercially successful artists recording in. The room’s square walls create sound reflections that aren’t totally pleasing to the ears. Therefore, a highly sensitive condenser mic isn’t necessarily my best option. Sure, it’ll pick up the subtle nuances of the voice, but it also might catch the boxy sounding reflections bouncing off of the dry wall too—possibly even some metallic echo from my Empire Strikes Back lunch box. So the SM7, an affordable dynamic mic, is a nice option because it tends to pick up what is right in front of it (and not much else).
So basically, Condenser mic: can often be set to pickup sound all around it in varying patterns (front and back only or 360 degree circle, for instance) and usually in sensitive fashion. Dynamic mic: generally picks up sound right in front of it in “I-can’t-hear-unless-you-get-all-upons” fashion. Geeky.
All I can think of when I try to sum up recording vocals is that it’s awkward, frustrating, yet strangely satisfying. It’s rather like my first kiss in middle school: I thought I knew what I was doing, quickly discovered that I didn’t know what I was doing, managed to salvage the occasion by relaxing my mouth and enduring the moment, only to discover later that her, let’s just say, “spinning javelin” technique, was not universally accepted as proper form. Likewise, I rarely have a euphoric Mariah Carey-with-one-headphone-on-moment when recording vocals. More often than not, I’m singing, stopping, slumping to the right and hitting space bar, “apple/Z”, a mouse click to the correct part of the song, space bar again, then getting back to the mic for another pass. It’s a fickle smooch buddy but the mic is my pal. I try to remember that.
The keys to vocals for me are “do I mean it?”, “does it sound like I mean it?”, and “is it basically in the same key the song is in?”. Vocals: I love them, but damn am I glad they’re over…
next up: mixing