Monday, May 19, 2014

Real time

Another Nashville entry!

Thursday, April 24

Here's another shot of the amazing Steinway grand at RCA Studio B and the person who was lucky enough to get to play it. (Me! That's me!)

Did you notice that there's something draped over the lid of the piano?

That's an acoustic blanket. It enabled us to record in real time.

Back when we made Highways and Hiking Shoes, we laid down all the parts separately. The sequence went like this:
  1. Ron recorded his drum tracks, along with my scratch vocals and scratch keyboard. (Scratch tracks are what you record to accompany the musicians laying down the real tracks. Without them, Ron would be playing by himself.
  2. I recorded my piano parts while listening to Ron's drum tracks and my scratch vocals on headphones.
  3. I recorded my vocals while listening to Ron's drums and my piano on headphones.
The point behind doing one part at a time is isolation. If something needs to be fixed after the recording sessions are over (which is going to happen unless you have all the time time in the world for recording, which we didn't), recording engineers can work their magic on that one part. While you have a more spontaneous feel when you throw down all the parts at once, it's difficult to impossible to fix (for instance) an off note in the vocals if you can't separate it from the drums and keys.

Hence the acoustic blankets. Producer Drew brought them to the studio to separate my vocal mic from the piano mic. If everything went according to plan, the vocals and piano wouldn't bleed into each other. (Producer Drew told us we should go back to Electric Kite Studio later to record additional vocals as a fallback, just in case everything didn't go to plan.)

The studio also had baffles, large wooden structures on wheels, to separate drums from the keyboard and vocals.

Recording in real time felt different than doing it studio-style. More immediate, more in the now. Ben, our recording engineer, had leaned toward this approach because he thought it would yield better energy.

I see what he means.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

RCA Studio B

Hey, I promised you more posts about Nashville, didn't I. Sorry for the delay. I was waiting on some pics, and then came ME Awareness Day, and ... Well, at any rate, the Nashville tales resume here. All photos courtesy of Greg Stager.

Thursday, April 24

Historic RCA Studio B is where Elvis Presley recorded 60 percent of his hits. It's also where we just laid down a bunch of tracks.

In fact, the piano I played was the same one Elvis's pianists played.

The awe factor was pretty high going in. I expected ... I'm not sure, exactly. For there to be an aura about the place. For it to look like the kind of studio famous people used. But it seemed unassuming. That's the best word I can think of. It looked like any recording studio.

I mentioned this to Drew Raison, our producer, as he gave me a tour. Drew agreed. He said the entire neighborhood was like that—all these little studios with jaw-dropping history, housed in buildings that didn't call attention to themselves.

Once we settled in, I realized there was something kinda cool about the modest-ness of the rooms. Something neat about the idea that Elvis Presley came in here to work, and he wasn't surrounded by settings that existed to highlight how important he was. I imagined him stepping in, as we did, and saying, "Let's get 'er done."

We got a lot done in RCA Studio B tonight. I just hope our doings are worthy of those who came before us.

Monday, May 12, 2014

ME Awareness Day: Free Karina Hansen

ME/CFS AwarenessI've mentioned before that under normal circumstances, I have little use for "awareness" campaigns as they pertain to diseases. My being aware of illness X does nothing for people who suffer from it. Not unless I do something helpful with my newly acquired knowledge, like contributing to research for a cure.

So-called invisible illnesses like myalgic encephalomyelitis are the exception. Despite the fact that ME causes chronic, debilitating pain, crushing exhaustion not relieved by rest, and greater susceptibility to fatal cancers and heart failure, just to name a few symptoms, many people don't take it seriously. This may have something to do with the name it's commonly called in the US: "chronic fatigue syndrome."

Not taking this disease seriously can have dire consequences. Just ask Karina Hansen, a young Danish woman who was diagnosed with the disease. On February 12, 2013, Karina was forcibly removed from her home—against her wishes and against the wishes of her mother, who was caring for her—and taken to Hammel Neurocenter for psychiatric treatment.

She is still there.

The people at Hammel Neurocenter ignore the medical diagnosis of ME she received, likely because they don't believe ME is real. They refuse to allow her to even obtain a second opinion.

Injustices like this can only persist in a culture of ignorance. I don't know how to help Karina Hansen and others like her except to keep asking people not to be part of the problem.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Coming home to the Tucson Folk Festival

We played in the Tucson Folk Festival today, so I'm going to interrupt my ramblings about our week in Nashville to talk about that.

The theme for this year's Folk Fest: hot. It was in the mid-90s when we got there and the high 90s by the time we played. Even for Tucson, this is unusual. I was afraid people would opt to stay home with the AC blasting.

We lucked out, though. The stage we were assigned was La Cocina at Old Town Artisans. A huge tree grows in the middle of the seating area, providing shade aplenty. Even better, we had an appreciative audience. Really seemed to like us. Not bad, given that a decent number of the folks didn't know who we were and had probably only decided to stay so they wouldn't get baked.

A couple of songs into the set, I mentioned that we'd just gotten back after recording in Nashville. "It's been hard acclimating to day-to-day life after being there for a week," I said. "But playing at the Tucson Folk Festival makes the reentry a lot easier."

It's true, too. I can't imagine a better homecoming.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Which way did we go?

Thursday and Friday, April 24–April 25

Nashville is a good place to lose yourself.

I don't mean metaphorically, like forgetting your troubles amidst the enchanting sights and sounds, or surrendering your ego to experience the oneness of the universe. I mean lost, as in don't know where you are.

Last night, Ron and I got hopelessly mislaid while driving home from Electric Kite Studio, where we had made some scratch tracks. One wrong turn set us way off course. Even though we quickly realized what we'd done, there was no way to right ourselves, no place to exit and get back on the road where we were supposed to be. Unfortunately, it seemed that all the roads were like that. And by "roads," I mean freeways. I've never seen so many freeways crisscrossing each other in my life.

Many stops for directions later, we found our way back to the hotel, having learned an important lesson: Wherever we wanted to be in the future, we needed to give ourselves plenty of time for traveling.

The next day, we were scheduled to record in RCA Studio B, located in downtown Nashville, at 5:30 p.m. The trip was supposed to take maybe 15 minutes. Playing it safe, we left at 4:45.

We got there at 6:00.


It could've been worse. We kept calling Ben, the recording engineer, to ask for directions every time we veered off course AGAIN. Everyone at the studio knew we weren't back at the hotel smoking heroin. (Heroin is something you can smoke, right? I don't do drugs.) When we finally got there, nobody seemed mad.

Still, half an hour late. That just kills me.

At least we didn't get lost on the way back.

Kidding. We totally got lost on the way back. So, so lost.

The moral of the story? Use GPS. Except, we tried that. Ron signed up for a 30-day free trial of some GPS app or another, then held the phone close to his face, preparing to give it instructions. In my mind I heard Scotty: "Compuuuuuter?" We hadn't quite reached our glorious Star Trek future, however. The voice recognition software never understood what Ron was trying to say. He gave up after it decided that we wanted to get to Maryland.

Yes, we did try giving it written directions instead. I even managed to type in our correct destination. What I couldn't do was make it comprehend that we wanted it to tell us how to GO THERE.

* * *

My next Nashville entry will be about music, I promise. I probably should've skipped right to the part about music. It's just, when we finally got to our hotel room around 1:30 a.m. or so, and I cracked open my tiny journal, I was so keyed up about our multitudinous attempts to unlose ourselves that I couldn't even try to write about the studio experience until I furiously scribbled our tales of getting lost. You would have had to be there to truly understand how frustrating it was. Maybe you should've been there. You're probably a better navigator than me.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Nashville mystique

Yeah, there's thirteen hundred and fifty-two
Guitar cases in Nashville
And any one that unpacks his guitar could play
Twice as better than I will

—Lovin Spoonful, "Nashville Cats"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Live country music spilled out of the restaurant/bar on our right as Ron and I walked by. It was the kind of thing we would have expected from our Nashville experience, except that we hadn't even left the airport yet. We peered inside to confirm that the music wasn't recorded. Sure enough, there was a man at the back of the establishment singing and playing guitar.

As soon as we got past the restaurant, Ron turned to me. "Did you notice that?"

"Notice what?"

"The guy singing. He wasn't all that good."

I thought about it. "He wasn't bad. I mean, nothing spectacular, but not awful. He was ... fine."

"Yeah. I just thought he'd be a little bit better."

Of course, neither of us had harbored any expectations of this particular unnamed individual. But I knew what Ron meant. Weren't all the Nashville musicians supposed to be on a higher plane? Sure, anybody could move here and try to launch a music career—nothing stopping you—but with all the talent around, you wouldn't have a chance of getting in front of people unless you were something special. Even if you were just playing in an airport bar.

Except, maybe not.

Later that night, we went to Electric Kite Studio to lay down some just-in-case-we-need-them vocal scratch recordings, and I related the story to Benjamin Stager, our recording engineer for this trip. Ben wasn't surprised. He explained that yeah, there were a lot of great musicians in Nashville, but there were also a lot of people who were willing to pay to play.

Ron nodded knowingly. He liked to tell stories about the LA scene, where musicians had to buy tickets to their own shows, then try as best they could to sell them.

I didn't know that was a thing here too.

The idea of recording in Nashville had seemed somewhat intimidating before. I felt like I wasn't fit to breathe the same air as the Nashville players. Now? I might not be the best of the best, but I'm as good as any Nashville wannabe.

Let the games begin.