Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Weekend in Crayonland

We're now a day past Labor Day, meaning that summer is over according to folklore. A scientific side note: summer is "over" at the autumnal equinox, which is still a few weeks out. Also, September is one of the hottest months of the year in Southern California, so despite the supposed end of the season, I'm still in shorts and a t-shirt here. It certainly doesn't feel like fall just yet in the greater LA area.

But I had two great reasons to be very happy over this Labor Day weekend. First and foremost, last week I finished a work project that had caused me to work every day for weeks on end, including the weekends, so I finally had some time to catch up on my leisure. As a result, I spent almost the entire three days working on music for my alternative rock band, They Stole My Crayon. We had a specific reason to get some musical work accomplished (beyond the concept of actually finishing up this damn album and getting it out). Without being too specific about it, I'll just say that Kat pointed out an opportunity for our music to be featured somewhere that we enjoy, as well as being good for getting some increased exposure for The Crayon in the time frame before we wrap up the album. Also, we seemed to have the perfect song for the somewhat spooky setting in which we're hoping to be featured; the tune "Things Under Trees" seems to work very well in that context.

We hadn't touched "Things Under Trees" since April 2013. While we've been writing and working on many other tunes, that song kind of sat there. No particular reason; it's just that the song reached a point of being a good demo, and there was little need to push it past that level until we were ready to revise/re-record parts for the actual album. That is, until this possible opportunity came along. And, as I said, I had three whole days with no other big responsibilities (a huge luxury for me). It was time to make some music!

Getting Real
When we write songs, there are zero limitations on what we can and can't use. I've recorded a demo using a 5-gallon empty Sparkletts water bottle for a drum. It was handy and worked fine. You should never let a lack of the perfect equipment stop you from writing a song or capturing an idea. Sometimes, the stuff you use for the demo actually sounds good, and makes it through to the final recording. But often, it's just a placeholder until you can use the sounds that you really want. The original "Things Under Trees" demo was done by Bunny, based on a set of lyrics by Kat. At the time, my contribution was an arrangement of backing vocals. In any case, we did that demo in April 2013, and the demo's guitar and bass parts were done with computer-based samples. We knew all along that we'd want to replace those with real instrument performances. The funny thing is that the original samples sounded fine. But they also sounded too perfect; each virtual "strum" was the same as all the others, and the rhythmic feel was 100% perfect, meaning that it felt robotic and lacking in humanity. It turns out that whether people know it or not, they prefer the imperfections that only a human can give to a musical performance.

So, I started by taking the bass part Bunny had composed, and playing the same thing note-for-note on a real bass. It was a slight challenge in that the part had never been played on an actual fretted instrument before, but once I got the part locked in, it went well. I did the same thing for the acoustic guitar part. At the end, the piece was way more organic feeling, and my hopes were high.

Bunny Is God
It's so hard for three grown people with work and family responsibilities to spend time doing non-essential activities (like recording music), and even harder is coordinating all three schedules to do it together. It was, therefore, extremely fortunate that Bunny could jump in at this stage. His original "scratch" vocals ("scratch" meaning something you record just to get the idea down rather than intend it for final listening) had been done by singing into the built-in microphone on his computer... hardly the ideal sound for a professional record. He not only re-did every one of his vocal parts over Sunday night, but proceeded to take our stuff and do a mix of it on Monday night. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we work remotely, the FTP server becomes invaluable. We'll be doing tracks here at the beach while Bunny works some 30 miles away up in the Valley. Then we post our respective work so that the other party can listen and give input, and eventually combine to make a (hopefully) cohesive song.

There are many reasons why the "old way" of recording to analog tape is preferable. However, there is absolutely no possible way we could do that based on the limitations of time and money we have for this band. Instead, we use the current industry standard digital audio workstation (DAW) software like Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic, and then output each track as a high-resolution WAV file that can be mixed afterwards.

Once we had Bunny's vocals, it was time for Kat and I to re-do our backing vocals. Why? Two reasons. First, our original version was done quickly, and we were still learning the song while we recorded... hardly the way to put your best foot forward, musically speaking. Second, once Bunny had re-done his lead vocal, we needed the background voices to align perfectly with the newer version. These are details that matter, if you want a good-sounding record.

By Monday night, we'd wrapped up all the recording, and I sent Bunny the stems (individual tracks of various sources like vocals and drums and guitars and so on). While the album is being mixed by our friend, the talented Canadian engineer Spencer Crewe, we wanted to wrap up this version very quickly for the previously-mentioned opportunity. Also, Spencer and his wife Jackie just had their first child, and the last thing I'm going to do is ask a brand new dad to drop everything he's doing to work on my music. Instead, Bunny took the tracks that I delivered late last night, and went into a professional studio with a nice monitoring system to do the mix. We honestly didn't expect him to do that; he often goes above and beyond the call of duty, and we're happy to have a guy of his talent and commitment in our band.

What's Next?
We haven't heard Bunny's mix yet; I think he still has a few things he wants to tweak. But it seems as if we are indeed going to get "Things Under Trees" submitted in time for the opportunity that I mentioned. The best news is that even if it doesn't get selected, we still made huge progress on a really good, unique tune that had been lingering. If that's the worst thing that happens, we're very lucky people.

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