Monkey Mind (The Story of a Recording Session)

I woke up Sunday morning with the strong conviction that it was a day for recording music.  I poured some coffee and adjourned to The Nuclear Gopher Too1, as the sign reads on the door to my basement.

Important pre-requisites for a recording session at NG include comfortable footwear (preferably slippers), a coffee mug (there is a K-cup machine in the corner so you don’t need to BYOC), and most importantly, most vitally for true productivity, coming into the session with no clue whatsoever what you are planning to do.  This is a long-standing Nuclear Gopher tradition and explains most of the albums The Lavone recorded.

So, I’m kinda Buddhisty (it’s unfair to actual Buddhists who attend sanghas and follow a school or lineage to call myself a proper Buddhist) and I practice meditation.  The Buddhist term “monkey mind” is something I have great familiarity with and I have learned via practice that it can be a great help to spend a little time wrestling with the monkey when you want to create something.  When your brain won’t shut up, odds are you have something you might want to say if only you listen, and that could be the basis for a song, maybe even something as brilliant as “Shaq’s Been Traded to the Phoenix Suns“.  If you’re very very lucky.

The process then, is thus:

  1. Sit with coffee and slippers on
  2. Find paper and writing utensil
  3. Start writing crap until non-crap appears
  4. If the non-crap is non-musical, keep going, you’re hunting wabbits
  5. If the non-crap is musical, write as much of it as flows naturally and then go find a musical instrument that seems appropriate and try to play the nascent song
  6. If the song seems to pick up steam, keep at it, if it peeters out, go back to Step 3 and write something else or Step 5 and try a different instrument
  7. If you have chords and words and you can play the song in some way, it’s time to record!

This part of the process was easy yesterday.  Like, 10 minutes.  Lovely.  There wasn’t a song, and then, suddenly, there was a little bitty baby song.  Nice.  I had to try a couple different guitars and a keyboard before I managed to figure out what I needed to do to write the music but it wasn’t bad.  Excellent. Time to record the little bugger.

Starting a recording when you are working totally alone and have to be songwriter, performer, engineer, producer, roadie, coffee maker, AND stop yourself from checking Facebook or playing Tetris is partially science, partially art.  The tiniest bit of triviality can derail all your mojo, like, “Oh, I don’t know if I can drum this, plus setting up drum mics is a PITA, plus there are all these loops in this software I could use, and hey I have this digital drum kit, and damn I’m hungry, maybe I need some toast…”  Three hours later you have forgotten the song you sort of wrote.  Therefore it is my strong opinion that you treat developing a baby song like building a fire with damp tinder on a cold day.  You need to nurture the process in the early stages, keep at it, don’t let it die out, because it will and you will wind up with damp sticks instead of a blazing fire with toasted marshmallows.  Perhaps the metaphor has gotten away from me, but still, a song may start with a riff, a lyric, an idea, a metaphor, a feeling, a piece of cool gear that makes a noise that hurts your hair, but it’s not a SONG yet.  It’s the potential for a song.  The idea behind developing material by recording it is to build the song to find out what it is.

I was nearly sidetracked in the early stages yesterday, but happily I decided to just PSTFDOT (Put Something The Fuck Down On Tape).  That something was the rhythm guitar backbone of the song, recorded through a DI box along with a metronome.  In the process of doing that, I figured out song structure.  I had written two verses and a middle part, so verse/bridge/verse was the obvious song structure.  But I thought maybe I might write more verses or something so I decided to go verse(lyrics)/verse(musical)/bridge(vocal)/verse(musical)/verse(lyrics) which would either make room for another verse or would make a cool kinda of palindromic structural symmetry.

Equipped with a song structure, a draft of some lyrics, and a mostly accurate performance guide guitar and metronome track, I plopped some cans on (us recordists call headphones “cans”, but in my case it was literally two cans of mock duck strapped to my head, as is customary to do in my country) and I sat down behind that intimidating beast…  The Drum Set.  After replacing the mock duck with actual headphones, I set about composing the drum part, which consisted of hitting things, swearing, wishing I was a better drummer, clicking repeat, and ultimately reaching a sort of zen space in which I could practice non-attachment in relation to perfecting my drums on a song I would chalk up to a demo and probably re-record and most likely would just replace my drums with Battery 4 MIDI stuff anyhow and god dammit.

Once I had successfully drummed the part twice in a row without screwing it up too badly, I went into engineer mode.  This consisted of setting up the drum mics.  Now, everybody says miking drums and getting a result you don’t hate in a small studio is super complicated.  Especially without sound treatment in an unfinished old farmhouse basement with bumpy limestone walls.  But here’s the thing: digital plugins can hide a multitude of sins and if you’ve experimented enough to know your gear and you keep it generally simple, it can be done.  Over the last couple years, I’ve settled on a basic 3-5 mic approach that works for me.  Details in the footnote2.  After setting these up, along with the laptop/mixing board back behind the drums where I can hit record/play, I laid down the drums.  It was definitely less painful than it has been in the past.  I got it in maybe 6 takes.

Now, going back to my baby fire analogy, getting from “I think I should make music today” to “lyrics written and guitar and drum tracks recorded” is like moving from “shit it’s cold” to “how could you forget the marshmallows again?”  It’s great.  Momentum starts to take hold.  There’s, like, an actual song there.  It’s not done, and there are still 23 Pictures of Adorable Wallaby Babies on Teh Internetz but you’ve got something.  You’re not just feeding pine needles to matches and cursing your mother for bringing you into the world.  This is when you remember why you have this stupid hobby.  Because it’s FUN.

At this point a new phase begins.  The phase of OPTIONS, oh so many options.  This is the part where you can be like “Zither!  I need zi… wait, no, how about I plug my guitar into the waffle iron..  or, no, wait, SYNTHS!  I downloaded this awesome soft-synth with 110 virtual buttons and knobs that combines the Rokorg Moogaphonaprophet SEM-80 with the MiniBooger Whapdoodle Modular 17-Voice and it has a preset only dogs can hear!  Let’s try that!”  The thing is… if it makes noise you can record it.  And maybe you should, but taking a minute to find your coffee cup, take a deep breath (and a swig of the coffee that is now cold because you forgot about it earlier), and seriously deciding what you might be aiming for is usually helpful at this stage.  I opted for vocals.  I knew that part was going to have to happen, I wasn’t sure what else, so I figured that maybe filling out a known piece of the puzzle might bring clarity to the rest when it happened.

I plugged in a large condenser mic and, while still standing behind the drum set, laid down a vocal track, then a double of it, then a harmony on a couple parts, then a double of that and, voila, vocals.  What then?  Piano?  Keys?  Bass?  I wasn’t sure.

I resolved the dilemma by experimentation.  First I tried some synth pads, nope.  Then some synth bass.  Uh uh.  I thought about taking out my bass guitar but wasn’t in the mood and it was several feet away from where I was standing, so…  I tried some sampled strings.  Nope.  Horns.  Nope.  Grand piano…  Grand piano?  It was working but I wasn’t sure how I wanted it to go and I didn’t want to compose a piano part quite yet.  Backburnered the piano.  Then I remembered I recently acquired an ancient Crumar Roadrunner digital piano from the 80’s.  I decided to try that.  The piano sound of it was wrong for most of the song but I liked it on the bridge.  Even more importantly, the bass sound was excellent.  I worked up a bass part and started recording it.

This particular instrument lived in a shed for years before I bought it off Craigslist.  It is filthy, and has many keys that don’t work.  It was also out of tune.  I managed to adjust the pitch to get it in tune, and the keys I needed seemed to work so I started tracking.  I had the whole part nailed except for one flub and decided to delete that track and take another go at it and at that moment the E-flat on the bass portion of the keyboard stopped working.  I needed E-flat.  Damn.  I could no longer play the part I wrote.

I was bummed until it hit me that I might have a fallback.  This is where taking stock of your gear can save your ass.  I had recently made a list of all instruments I have, as well as the “virtual instruments”, namely, emulated keyboards and softsynths I have in software on my MacBook or PC.  I entered it into a Google Drive spreadsheet.  I also cataloged all the modeled guitars and amps and all the effects plugins and what they do.  I still have to go through guitar effects pedals and emulations.  Anyhow… I knew there was some Crumar stuff in the list so I looked and, sure enough, the Roady (bass and e-piano!) was sampled in the Retro Machines plugin.   I pulled out a USB keyboard and brought up the Retro Machines thing and sure enough, there it was.  Practically indistinguishable from the real thing.  It sounded exactly the same as my real Roady, but less noisy and with keys that all worked.   I got the bass and electric piano parts I wanted in two more takes.

At this point it was 12:15 and I realized the Vikings and Packers were facing off upstairs on the television machine.  I had enough song recorded to trust that I would be able to return and complete, so I went upstairs to eat and watch the game.  The Vikings lost, so maybe this was a mistake, but you live you learn.

Food and a break gave me the energy to come back at the song and revisit the grand piano.  I opted to use it, but slightly sparingly.  Then I felt like those musical verses on either side of the bridge needed some sort of lead part…  analog synth?  Guitar?  I wasn’t sure.  I tried the synth first and couldn’t find anything I was happy with, so I plugged my Les Paul into an over-driven tube amp head turned down to 5W of output, plugged into a cabinet, and close-miked with my SM-57.  I also ran the signal via DI to a second track on my DAW in case I might want to re-amp later.  If none of that made sense to you you’re probably not an audio engineer.

I did four takes of lead and I wound up panning my two favorites to opposite speakers so I wouldn’t have to choose between them.  The resulting dueling guitar solo thing made me happy, even if I hadn’t planned it that way.  Finally, I figured out what I wanted to do with analog synths.  I wanted something nasty and sawtoothed during the bridge and bookend bridge guitar solos that would feel a little like the Mellotron from Watcher of the Skies.  Like a pad, but one that was a bit discordant and ugly.  I patch surfed until I found something that fit the bill in Arturia Analog Lab and then that was done.

It was at this point that I realized I had forgotten something.  I had built the song up and up without ever replacing my humble little initial guide guitar track.  I originally recorded an electric guitar through a DI and I really wanted an acoustic, so I pulled out my Martin and tuned it up.  Only problem was, the dogs upstairs were barking like crazy.   I was afraid to mic an acoustic and wind up also recording Barky Bark and the Furry Bunch.  So, I reached for a stick-on piezo pickup and hoped that would work in the mix.  It turns out that it worked very well, because it was nice and bright and percussive and the rest of the mix had the bottom end taken care of.

And that, as they say, was that, as far as general tracking was concerned.  I slapped some placeholder dynamics plugins with reasonable presets on the various tracks and did a quick and dirty preliminary mix down to throw out on SoundCloud and listen to throughout the next few weeks in different settings.  I will critique it, make note of mistakes that need fixing, check the sound in various listening environments like my car, my different pairs of phones, my two sets of monitors, etc.  I may opt to re-record some things or edit some things or re-amp or re-equalize, but I think I’m keeping the recording as a whole, it turned out.  Sometimes I just decided I would like to re-record the whole thing, but not this time.  This doesn’t guarantee it will be on an album or that I won’t change my mind, but that was the process from baby fire to marshmallows in my tummy as I got into my tent to sleep for the night.

I hope sharing this experience was interesting.  Here is the song, complete with random animated GIF music video:

goo.gl/QwCyud

And here is the plain SoundCloud player:

Thanks for reading!

1 The Nuclear Gopher Too is, of course, the spiritual successor to the original Nuclear Gopher studio which is now an exercise room in my dad’s basement.   I’m sure all you Lavone fans from way back already know that.  Hah.

2 I nearly always use the same kick and snare mic (E/V N/D868 very near the soundhole of the kick and Shure SM-57 on the snare, usually on the top, sometimes the bottom, for those of you playing at home) and then I mess around with overheads and room mics.  I own two ribbons (a Cascade Fat Head II and an MXL R40 that I modded to not sound shitty), and several large and small diaphragm condensers, including a matched pair of AKG condensers that I often put in an XY configuration for that hip stereophonic sound all the kids are raving about these days at the malt shop.  My recording technique is: get the kick, snare, and overheads to sounding at least 85% right straight off the mixing board.  I set the board up with a laptop on a little table back behind the drums with me.  I try to minimize bleed but don’t usually panic about bleed issues for kick and snare because my channel strip plugin will gate that shit right out.  Overheads need to be EQ’d pretty close to the tone I want and level-set correctly, but that’s about it.   If I am working on a song that heavily features toms, I may add a couple close dynamic mics to that part of the kit.  I pretty much always add a channel strip plugin to each track KICK/SNARE/OH1/OH2/TOM1/TOM2 and then create a folder in Reaper for the lot of them and and add a bus compressor to that.  The result tends to sit pretty well in just about any mix and if your kick and snare are solid in terms of levels and bleed, you can use the signal to trigger MIDI to replace those sounds with something better later using Slate Drums or Battery or something, so my snare isn’t great but I don’t lose sleep over it.   Yesterday I opted for a three-mic setup, kick, snare, and the R40 overhead, angled towards the hi-hat/crash and fairly low.