Workin’ In a Coal Room, Goin’ Down Down Down

My house was built in 1876 and while it does boast such modern amenities as plumbing and electricity, it also has some unique features including three limestone walls in the basement and a coal room where the fuel for the old furnace had been stored before the conversion to natural gas.

Since the basement is the home of The Nuclear Gopher as well as the furnace (which is loud when it runs in the winter) I occasionally use the coal room as an isolation booth.  This past Sunday I decided to take that approach to some acoustic recordings for a new project I had in mind.

The coal room is basically a closet in the corner of my basement, perhaps 7×7, I haven’t measured, but that seems about right.  I actually do use it as a closet and it contains a set of shelves loaded up with model car kits, a homemade bookscanner, a sewing machine, an airbrush, an old Super-8 camera, a cookie tin full of spare parts for guitars, and various puzzles.  There is also (bizarrely) a dilapidated bandsaw, my microphone collection, a drawer full of tube preamps, all my old 4-track tapes, spare drum hardware, and god knows what else in there.  Not exactly tons of space left over at the end of the day.   Also, the door handle is a loop of duct tape.

This didn’t stop me from putting a chair, two mic stands, a music stand, a guitar, and a small folding table with my laptop and audio interface in there and cozying up for a day of recording.

The Coal Room Artist’s Eye View

I recently acquired the debut Julie London album “Julie Is Her Name” and was absolutely astonished by how little accompaniment was provided and how little it seemed to matter.  Julie sings to one guitar and an upright bass.  No percussion, no vocal doubling, no studio trickery, just a trio playing together.  Ever since I heard that record I’ve wanted to attempt something more spare than my usual production approaches.   On the song “Trio” from the King Crimson album “Starless and Bible Black” drummer Bill Bruford is credited with “admirable restraint” for sitting behind the drums playing nothing because he didn’t feel the music called for it.  I’ve always loved that.  I wanted to keep that in mind for this project.

After the standard level checks, connections, etc, I was in a good position to record the first song so I hit record and was on my way.  There isn’t a ton to say about the hours that followed.  It was a pretty standard series of takes and re-takes, contemplating which songs to do, occasionally breaking to stretch my legs, the traditional Sunday football break (Vikings over Jets in overtime!), drinking some juice, some coffee, and basically keeping relaxed and enjoying the process until I decided to call it a day with six songs laid down, three new ones, two covers, and one new version of an old Lavone song.   The whole thing was really relaxing and enjoyable.

Even in the coal room, I noticed a tendency of my two condenser mics to pick up the furnace noise a little when it was running but I managed to get takes of all six songs at points when the furnace was off so the background sound is absolutely silent, probably the most pristine recordings I’ve ever managed.

I tossed together an initial mix render of the songs and put it on my iPhone to listen to the following day.  Listening to that I discovered a half dozen little flubs or errors I wanted to correct so I did those micro-edits.  I also found that the different songs asked for slightly different EQ and compression treatments because of the dynamics of the voice and guitar, and I’ve been tweaking those on and off for a couple of days.

The big question now is…  Do I stick with 6 acoustic songs, call it an EP, and just finish the mix/master or do I add a little more accompaniment keeping the “admirable restraint” rule in mind?  I’m leaning towards some additional tracking, which I will also do in the coal room with the same approach so the acoustics all match.  I’m no Julie London, but I like the sound of my voice on these recordings and I do think the spare production helps highlight it.  Any additional accompaniment will be spare.  I’m thinking there is room for bass, a few places could handle a light snare with brushes, a little violin, perhaps some accordion on one of the songs.  I’m looking forward to the resulting EP.  I have an idea already for making it the first in a series but I’ll hold off on writing too much about that.  We’ll have to see.   I’m just hoping to have it done before the new year so 2014 doesn’t go by without a new release.

If you are interested in hearing the result when it’s done, head to my ReverbNation page and subscribe.  I’ll be sending out an email notification when the EP is ready.