Portage Closeup: Brothers of Penitence, Part 4 — Drums and Guitar, Over and Over and Over Again

This post represents segment 4/5 in a series of blog entries on my first time in the recording studio. Herein detailed is the final day in the studio (for our current sessions), as well as some closing thoughts on the process to this point. Dan will be chronicling his final thoughts in Part 5. Follow the links at the bottom of the post for Parts 1 – 3. 

Friday, June 25th

6 – 7 p.m. – Arrival + Fresh Pots

Dan and I were eager to get back into the studio, but a long workweek plus the extra driving started to get to Dan, who decided it’d be a good idea to completely reconstitute his body with caffeinated products. He downed his second Redbull of the day on the drive to the studio, and then fired up the kettle for his second (third? fourth?) cup of coffee when we arrived.

6 – 8 p.m. – Drum Mics

While he was getting wired, so was Justin—wiring the drum mics, that is (ha! ha! see what I did there?). Since our last visit, Justin had replaced the stock snare drum head with an Evans’ one, aiming for the highest quality sound he could achieve on the first recordings done in Sinthany Studios. He also modified his computer setup, allowing for some extra microphones to be used on the kit. Unfortunately, the combination of new microphones (and the subsequent rearrangement of the other mics) with a new snare meant some tedious tuning; retuning; rearranging; jiggling this thing; shifting that thing slightly to the left—no, not that far; and lots of Coheed and Cambria. Allow me to explain:

Justin had me sound-checking the kit setup each time something changed. He recorded a few audio clips so that Dan and I could understand what problems he was hearing, (which I’ll elucidate in a moment), and in one such clip I had played the drum part from “Welcome Home.” In order to properly compare the different snare sounds with different mic positions consistently, I had to play the song over…and over…and over…and yup, you guessed it, over again.

The reason Justin was (thankfully) uncompromising on the snare sound (Dan and I were having a much harder time picking up the issues with the early drum recordings) has to do with what’s a called a ‘scoop.’ If you hate Metallica’s St. Anger as much as, well, everyone else, this sound probably has something to do with it. In essence, the ‘scoop’ comes from the wave representation of a drum sound, where the mid-range sounds disappear; the bassy resonance after the drum is struck immediately overtakes the initial ‘attack,’ producing a divot in the soundwave. In other words, the overtones and undertones exist without the fleshy ‘mids’ of the note that make the note what it is.

Beware, it’s terrible:

Somewhere along the way, the coffee got the best of Dan—

IMG_20140627_211957

–but it was eventually time for him re-record his scratches with a metronome.

8:00 – 8:30 – Arrangements

10464169_682776161772241_2580768222650272243_nBefore Dan and I got back into the booth, we* wanted to make sure (*Justin wanted us to make sure) that our songs were intricately arranged, and that we agreed on the arrangements, so we played through the songs, piece by piece, meticulously counting beats, adjusting lyrics, bickering and so forth, until we had figured out the exact length, in measures, of each song. Dan’s job, now, was to match those to the click and play them (mostly) flawlessly.

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Re-recording scratch tracks (the right way)

Clicks are hard. I’m sure Dan’s account of Day 3 will detail as much. Fighting natural rhythms and tendencies, and matching up the stiff “CLICK, click, click, click, CLICK” of the metronome with guitar essentially equates to the sound of blood boiling and spurting from your ear canals. Persistence is key and with just the right amount of caffeine coursing through Dan’s veins, and with Justin tapping the click-rhythm out for him, the scratches were eventually in enough order that I could play along.

10:30 – 11:30 p.m. – PIZZA

Like great athletes, great musicians, too, must choose the right fuel to support the body through the rigours of recording–pizza and coffee, naturally.

11:30 p.m. – 5:30 a.m. – Play drums until you hate yourself!

Alright, so with new scratches in place, all of my excuses for failure had dissipated and I sat down to play through our tracks. To produce clean takes (and enough extra material to fill in any hang-ups in the mostly clean ones) it took roughly 8 full trackings of each song, which doesn’t sound so bad, right? 25-35 minutes/song with only three tracks being recorded this week means a solid hour and half, maybe two and we’re done, right?

Wrong. Before actually recording takes, I practiced with modified arrangements—over, and over, and over again (you’ve heard that before, haven’t you?). Dan gave me some emphatic rock sign language from the couch, through the window, whenever he felt I’d perfected a part and/or modified beats and patterns to his liking until I (apparently) had enough of a handle on each song to start recording.

And so, with half an hour of practice or so for each song, we’d start recording takes. And, inevitably, I’d screw up somewhere, throw something, kick something over &c. If I screwed something up enough times that it became routine, Justin would chime in through my headphones to say, in so many (much more polite) words, ‘Okay, so you clearly have no idea when ____ part comes in, so you’re going to practice these 4 bars, until you stop floundering and wasting my time.’ And can ya guess how many times I practiced? That’s right, over, and over, and over again.

Unfortunately, even with a click track, it’s easy enough to get into a rhythm. In fact, once Dan had stuck a song to the click rhythm, it seemed that he adopted the count as naturally as if the songs had always sounded that way. I say ‘unfortunately’ because there developed a couple of problematic instances of perfectly paced, but awkwardly counted, sections (one song ends with a series of open chords. Dan chose ~13-15. I can’t recall, a week removed). Essentially, Dan’s natural rockstar took over in a few places, and so, accordingly, a few choice words were hurled towards the soundproofed room the first, second, third, fourth and fifth time that I royally f—- up the ending to an otherwise solid take. Oddly enough, sticking the aforementioned section amounted less to trying to count out the awkward number of beats, and more so to following the intensity of Dan’s playing on the recording (and, also, to a little bit of guesswork…).

5:30 a.m. – Departures and Arrivals

As the sun rose over the sublime Chatham mountains—just kidding, it’s flatter than all of my attempts at humour in this post—I reluctantly relinquished my throne. I had hoped that I’d be able to nail my final take (having previously recorded two halves of a song separately), to end on a high note, but with four cups of coffee metabolized and drained, Dan and I decided to call it a night (or a morning, or two partial days) well spent. Dan ambitiously decided we’d hit the road and head for London (we arrived just after 7 and I promptly slept for one eternity), which left us some time to reflect on the experience to this point.

Reflections

Once on the road, we exchanged a few exasperated “F*ck yeahs,” which is, as inane as it first appears, perhaps the best way to describe the recording experience–even more so if the phrase is bifurcated. There were plenty of f-bombs dropped: searching for the right snare sound/mic combination; recording the initial scratches; attempting to record drums with said scratches; re-recording with the click; each and every wasted drum take–but the eventual success always outweighed the frustrations. When I nailed my only quasi-perfect take on “The Sun is Leaving” somewhere around 1:30 a.m. I rushed out of the increasingly-claustrophobic live room and into civilization (a.k.a. the control room) yelling a battle cry that could dissuade 300 spartans from valiant displays of courage and martyrdom (to be eventually skewed by some comic geeks thousands of years later).

The recording studio experience is a rare privilege. As Dan noted in the first section of the segment, our intention was never to achieve fame when we started playing music together, only to create for our sake. That said, being granted this opportunity to now polish our music (and probably make it sound better than it should) so that we can share it is humbling and exciting and probably the most enriching thing I’ve crossed off my bucket list in recent memory. That said, an opportunity like this doesn’t present itself without its fair share of nerves and frustrations. Nothing has tested my resolve, patience, or my mental and physical stamina quite like the slow ~6 year development of these songs (especially the last 6 hours of a.m. drumming). Still, as we ever-so-gradually approach the public distribution of our music, the excitement continues to mount and the surreality of the experience overwhelms.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more recording updates, and eventually for the recordings themselves, which will be hosted here, exclusively, for your aural pleasure (hopefully).

–M.G.

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One thought on “Portage Closeup: Brothers of Penitence, Part 4 — Drums and Guitar, Over and Over and Over Again

  1. Pingback: Portage Closeup: Brothers of Penitence, Part 5 – Coffee is my Muse | The Yonge Street Portage

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