In pursuit of perfection (and a mop mark free floor)

The final stages of mixing this album remind me somewhat of working at McDonalds back in my college days…

“That floor needs mopping”

“But I just mopped it”

“Oh, well do it again, it isn’t perfectly clean”

“Where isn’t it perfectly clean?”

“I’m not sure but I can just tell it isn’t”

5 minutes later

“I’ve re-mopped it”

“You’ve left a mop mark”

“what?”

“You’ve made a mop mark, there in the corner. People can see it has been mopped.”

“Of course they can, they just saw me mop it”

“I know, but it needs to be better finished”

2 Minutes later

“I’ve mopped up the mop mark.”

“I know, well done, but now it looks uneven because the rest of the floor has already dried. You will have to start again.”

Ok, so was probably a slightly more enthusiastic employee than that. You don’t get your gold star for “cleaning and mopping and stuff like that” by talking back to the boss. Now, I’ve forgotten what point I was making. Hang on…..

Oh YES! It’s like mixing an album. I’m not painting Scott as the perfectionist boss, at least his suggestions all make sense, but it’s similar in that every time you change something, it creates a new problem, sometimes creating one that you can’t quite put your finger on. I turn the bass down -2db, suddenly the reverb on the vocal sounds a little heavy, reduce the amount of reverb but now the vocal sounds a bit thin, adjust the eq on the vocal but now the bloody bass sounds too loud again!

You really could go on forever with it, it’s definitely the part of the whole process I find hardest. We have however slogged away and at last have 5 tracks pretty much finished, and it feels as though we are closing in on the others.

It really is hard to get a perspective on songs when you’ve been working on them for so long. One thing that has helped is revisiting the original demo tracks I recorded and comparing to where they are now. I’ve put together a little comparison track…

The track below starts out as the original demo for Faces to Hide, which is essentially in the style of most of my music before this album. Programmed drums, strings from a keyboard, both lead and backing vocals my own, guitar recorded at home. It starts as the old demo and then switches back and forth with the current mix, hopefully it’s pretty easy to tell where the demo switches with the final track.

Apart from emailing back and forth with Scott, trying to get these mixes sorted, I’ve started to think about artwork and also how I’m going to release the album, so we really are getting closer, slowly.

A liking for Recycling

You know it’s been too long since you updated your blog, when your password no longer works. You know it’s REALLY been to long when you realise that’s because you’re trying to sign into blogspot.com instead of WordPress.

Having finally found my way here, a quick update. 5 songs are mixed and just need a small amount of tweaking, 4 songs are recorded and partially mixed but not ‘properly’ mixed yet, and 1 song is being reworked.

The song being reworked was called ‘Beliefs’. It’s sometimes hard to admit that a song just isn’t working out, especially after putting so much time into it. In this case, it wasn’t that hard. Every time I listened to it I wanted to go back in time and punch myself in the face, I hated the verse, I hated the chorus. It wasn’t actually bad, it was just so decidedly average in every single way that I could feel my brain melting with mediocrity as I listened. It was the ‘Ford Escort’ of songs, not fast, not slow, not angry, not happy, not sad, not making a point, not anything, just….ok.

But, there were a few things I liked, and which could possibly be salvaged. The drums were quite cool, and it would be a shame to waste the violin. So I set about recycling the track.

I started with this… This is the instrumental part of the old chorus (which as I said, is ok).

I cut out the bits I did like, the drums and violin, in fact I took just the first half of the violin, then I looped it.

and then simply started playing over the top, and the start of a new song was born from the ashes.

The next job was to build it up a bit, bass, more guitars etc…

But it’s still missing something, what happens if I apply some heavy reverb and some distortion to the drum loop?

No distortion –

Distortion –

Ooooooh. So now we have…

Maybe for a bit of variation later on I could add more strings. But none of the originals work with the new melody except for the small bit I have. How does it sound backwards?

and with the original violin too? Quite good actually (I nearly wrote nice, but realise I can never again use that to describe something in a positive way).

So before you know it, the start of a quite cool sounding new track.

I’ve built the track up a bit further, it has some new lyrics now, but having gone that far with the ‘recycling’ I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would be much improved if I could get Harry to put a new drum track together, rather than relying on the loops. The resulting ‘recycled song’ will be a bit like Trigger’s broom (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbha4XclSMU), it’s the same song but it’s just had new drums, new guitar parts, new vocals, different chords, the melody is different, the lyrics have changed, BUT….there is a 2 second violin loop from the original.

So I have Harry booked in for March 20th, and once that’s recorded I really am nearly there, and you will be the first to know about it, provided I can find my way back to this blog.

James

Join the Caravan, of James

If you’ve ever thought to yourself “I would really like to see four versions of James performing an acapella version of one of his tracks”, and let’s be honest who hasn’t, you’re in the right place…

Laura and I recently watched a film called Julie & Julia (obviously I wanted to watch something more manly, like ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ but this was Laura’s choice), which had been written based on a succesful blog. It was the first film ever to be adapted from a blog.

I did briefly wonder whether my blog could be similarly adapted. Unfortunately, I concluded it would require a huge amount of artistic licence to make it film-worthy. I can’t really picture a decent trailer even… “THE NEVERENDING ALBUM. The story of a man, sitting in a room, picking up a guitar, breaking a string, changing the string, doing some singing, deleting the singing, doing the singing again, deleting the singing, emailing Scott, doing the singing again…” You see where I’m going with that.

I guess something could be made of having to drive to Trowbridge to pick up Harry, maybe it could be a race against time for some reason, or perhaps I could be chased by the headmaster of the school I work at, in a Ferrari, angry that I’m not paying for using the studio (not that I’m supposed to, but that could be added too).

Nope, it would be a crap film.

The only thing it would have going for it is the potential for a good, old fashioned montage. This could revolve around my singing. I’m currently finishing off the vocals for the album and the singing lessons I had a year ago are finally paying off.

The montage could start with me struggling to hit a note, and getting frustrated, looking up to the sky and screaming “NOOOOOOOOO”. Then the music could kick in (something along the lines of ‘You’re the Best’ from the original Karate Kid film). Over this music I would be shown doing chin ups whilst singing scales, standing in the crane position whilst practicing my breathing, improving my singing posture by some obsure method like tying a zebra to the back of my head to help me keep my chin up. Then the end shot where I’m suddenly singing like Charlotte Church.

Nope. It would still be a crap film.

Oh well. Onto the reason for the title of the post. As I said, my singing lessons are finally paying off. I took a number of things from those lessons… A greater understanding of how sounds are physically produced, a better idea of my strengths and limitations (and how to gear my writing around them), but most of all I took confidence. Lizzie (my singing teacher) simply gave me a lot more confidence in the voice I already had, and gave me the belief that if I practiced I was a decent singer. For that alone, the lessons were worth every penny. Some of the technical stuff she tought me has perhaps not stuck, I’ve found it incredibly hard to change singing habits ingrained over 15 years, but the confidence has stuck (mostly), and for me to no longer be completely riddled with doubt over my singing is just brilliant.

To demonstrate this point, I have recorded an acapella version of a song (a bit like the Housemartins, although not quite as cheerful, hence the slightly obscure post title) and uploaded it to youtube. Just over a year ago I would NEVER have had the confidence to do this.

I know I’m still never going to win x-factor (although I do appear to have the wavy hand motions you need to be succesful), but for the first time ever really, I’m almost comfortable with it.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!

(In case the video doesn’t work, here’s the link… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yP9wqV_Dvq4)

Screw you, doubt.

So, I’ve mostly been recording vocals recently. As such I haven’t updated the blog, as all it would be is a less than endearing outpouring of self-doubt.

I spent 5 hours recording vocals on Saturday, and didn’t like any of it. So as a big (well, medium sized at least) “screw you” to the lack of confidence which rather pathetically follows me around, here is a video of me doing some singing.

Look out for what I think is rather unfortunately me dancing like my Dad during the instrumental bits. Also, I’ve never noticed before but I do appear to rub my nose on the pop shield an awful lot, lucky it’s my own personal nose-rubbed pop shield.

I left that effect on the video purely because it makes it look as though I have no eyes, which I like, for some reason.

All we hear is….. Radial Fractures

So, it appears that I angered the gods of bass. Having openly mocked the suggestion that not warming up to play could cause serious injury, they apparently took matters into their own hands because a week later I broke my arm. Admittedly, I didn’t break it actually playing bass, but it is clear to me that the ‘bass gods’ went and had a quiet word with the ‘clumsy lanky idiot playing football gods’ and arranged for me to injure myself. So, bass gods, I apologise.

My stupid arm has prevented me from doing much recording of my own. That hasn’t stopped me roping in a number of unsuspecting musicians, Caroline (violin/viola), Martin (piano) and Claire (viola). These recording sessions have followed a fairly common pattern.

Firstly I send the musician in question a recording of me playing the part badly (on a keyboard) and a score. They look over the score and mistake it for one that’s been written by somebody who knows what they’re doing. Assuming that as it looks like a proper score it will bear some relation to the part they’ve heard, they put it to one side. They turn up for the recording session and we start to record only to find out that my scores are in fact (in no particular order) in the wrong key, missing some pages, in the wrong time signature, only physically possible to play if you have 6 hands etc etc. We then spend some time working out what to do before the musician in question eventually bails me out with their general musical talent.

You would think that somebody who has written and recorded music for about 15 years would be able to respond to the question “are these meant to be quavers?” with something other than “sorry are you talking about crisps?”, but alas, I am entirely reliant on my computer for producing anything vaguely resembling a score.

Anyway, all three of them were absolutely brilliant and I am massively grateful for them giving up their time to help me out. Here are some pictures of Martin and Caroline in the studio, I completely forgot to take any of Claire so have created an artist’s impression. I might try to get a job doing those courtroom drawings next, as long as nobody turns up with a viola I would probably be fine.

As with the drums previously, the effect of replacing the synthesized or sampled versions of these instruments with the real thing can really help bring a track to life.

Here is a section of ‘Faces to Hide’ with synthesized strings.

and here is the version with the real thing, a massive improvement I hope you will agree 

It’s even more obvious in a quieter song….

Here is a snippet from ‘Chasing Shadows’ with me playing the piano (I say playing, it really consists of mashing the keys in the hope the right notes come out), and with synthesized strings.

and here is the same song now, with Martin playing the piano part and some viola from Claire

It should go without saying that I’m much, much happier with the newer versions of these songs. Chasing Shadows in particular has been transformed by having somebody who can play the piano with some sort of subtlety.

Next up, cello and backing vocals this week, then just my vocals to do before the real work starts when I have to mix it.

Cheers for reading.

The Ace of Bass

I’ve not updated the blog for a while, that doesn’t mean that I’m not making progress it just means the progress I am making is too mind numbingly boring to write about, nonetheless I shall try (and there’s an opening sentence that’s GUARANTEED to raise my readership figures).

Mostly I’ve been recording bass guitar parts. I’ve also been working with a violinist but I’m going to save that for the next post and instead thrill you with bass guitar information only.

I’m trying to be methodical as I work my way through, which goes against the grain somewhat. In what is either very organised or very sad (probably both), I’ve created a nice wall chart (essentially an excuse to get my colouring pens out).

A yellow box means ‘this song needs this instrument’, a black line through the yellow box means it’s done. So as you can see I’m getting there. Progress is slow but steady and each black line through a yellow box takes me slightly closer to finishing the album which I’ve now worked on for 9 months.

Having dazzled you with my exciting chart I will now move back to the bass guitar. I used to love playing bass in my school band, but these days I find recording it a pretty torturous affair. The drums and bass guitar hold everything together, if they are rhythmically a bit sloppy the whole song sounds loose and basically a bit crap. If they are together and on the money, it can make the whole recording sound much tighter. I am a decent bass player, but prone to lapses of concentration which can make the whole process a little frustrating.

Out of interest I looked up the following article to see how many of the criteria of a ‘good bassist’ I meet http://www.wikihow.com/Play-Bass

Well it’s not a bad start, I do actually own a bass AND I have somewhere to practice, 2-0 to me. But then it all starts going a bit wrong … I’ve never had a bass guitar book, or a teacher, I don’t know what all the notes are called, I haven’t researched music theory, what the hell is a triad? I don’t think I’ve ever played a scale on the bass, in fact I’ve never played anything on bass that I didn’t write myself, I’ve never played music written for other instruments, and is there really such a thing as a bass pick (plectrum)? I just use my guitar plectrum to play.

But it’s not just the fact that I use a guitar plectrum, apparently even using an official bass one is something to be ashamed of… “For people who play with picks, people who use their fingers may ridicule you!” Wow, what kind of evil bastard musicians do these people hang around with? Should any fellow bass players be thinking of ridiculing me for this, I would like to point out that your bass playing will most likely go rapidly downhill once I poke you in the eye with a guitar plectrum 🙂

This also frightens me quite a bit… “Always ALWAYS warm up before playing. Failing to do so may result in permanent hand injuries!”

Right. Well today I’m going to the studio to record some more bass, acoustic guitar and piano, I guess I’d better run there in order to warm up and avoid any bass related hand maiming, wish me luck.

Plectrum-tastic

Status Quo and their perpetual nightmare

Hello.

I’ve not posted for a whole month, largely down to the fact that there’s not been much to report. I’m at the stage where I’m just working on building the tracks up, a guitar part here, a kazoo part there (well, not yet actually), and slowly the tracks are taking shape. I’ve started to send scores to my violinist so hopefully we will get those parts recorded soon.

It’s not easy building the tracks up, largely because I am pretty sick of the songs having listened to them repeatedly since December! I really wonder how these old bands like the Rolling Stones do it, playing the same songs over and over and still enjoying it, although I guess that being a multi-millionaire softens the blow somehow. Imagine being in Status Quo though, if I think about what hell might be like, there’s the devil and he’s forcing me to play ‘Rockin All Over the World’ OVER AND OVER AGAIN!!! Perhaps Status Quo are actually dead and we are all imaginary parts of their hell, I would actually consider my life fairly worthwhile if I simply played a small part in a perpetual nightmare that’s designed to torture ‘The Quo’ with their own music.

I’ve just read that back and I suspect I may be guilty of simply typing out whatever thoughts enter my head, ah well might as well leave it there. I should probably get back on course though, so here’s a quick look at how I’m building the tracks up at the moment…

When I was writing the songs back at the start of the year I uploaded this… ..which was an acoustic version of a song called Healthy Distance.

The first thing I had to do was add a drum part to send to Harry, I also lowered the key to make it fit my vocal range better –

and get Harry to replicate those drums only better

Then I added a bass part

I then played things to my assistant executive co-producer Scott ‘don’t be a div’ Greenshields, who suggested I try distorting the bass a bit for the chorus

That led me down a slightly heavier route and I ditched the acoustic guitar for electrics

Before adding some background synth

A couple of backing vocals later I stick it all together and it’s a fairly dramatic change… It’s still a long way from polished, but as long as I don’t have another confidence crisis ‘div’ moment this is  much what the finished version will sound like .

Now, I’m in need of some inspiration, where did I put that 7″ of ‘Whatever You Want’?

 

 

The Harry Effect

So having talked at length last month about Harry the drummer, I am going to risk inflating his ego slightly further.

Harry appears to have had a strange effect on my songwriting. I was in the studio on Monday trying to get a guitar part recorded, it wasn’t going very well and I kept forgetting it and arse-ing it up. Then, out of nowhere, a thought that has never occured to me before. “I should write it down”.

I don’t write anything down, I never have. I come up with a song, I record a rough version and then when it comes to playing it again I listen to it and work out what I did first time around. I know that doesn’t sound very productive, and that’s because it really isn’t. So Harry turning up with sheets of hand-written notes was something of an eye opener and this idea appears to have since been lurking in my head waiting for me to be a bit useless, it didn’t have to wait too long.

So to you it may look like a sheet of badly written notes, but to me it is quite an epiphony. Part of the problem is probably that I’ve always been quite good at playing things ‘from ear’ so I’ve kind of relied on that rather than thinking “how can I make this as easy for myself as possible”. The fact that it took a drummer to make me realise this speaks volumes!

I also took my new found organisation to another level when recording the piano for ‘Enforcers’. I’m not much of a piano player, but rather than do my usual, with failed attempt after failed attempt to play a part (resulting in me wanting only to set fire to the piano), I turned up with coloured stickers to mark out the keys for each chord in the piece. Again, this may look fairly obvious but it has never occured to me before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other area on which Harry has had an effect is my bank balance. Before he arrived I had recorded the school drum kit as a test, which is a pretty decent kit. However, Harry turned up with his special ‘DW’ kit and comparing the two recordings I suddenly remembered how important it is to invest in quality instruments. So therefore it is entirely his fault that I bought a new guitar on Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for the songs, I spent two days in the studio over the bank holiday and the songs are starting to build up nicely. It’s encouraging to occasionally go back and hear how the songs were a couple of months back, and then listen to the current versions.

Here is a clip from ‘Enforcers’ 6 weeks ago – Drum machine drums, synthesized piano, acoustic guitar…

…and here is a clip from it now (still nowhere near finished but coming along) – Real drums, real piano, other parts added.

Thanks as always for reading. Please send the link to anybody you think might be interested!

James

Drum n’ Bass

So with the drums finally recorded it’s time to get moving. First up, bass parts. I started my musical journey playing bass for ‘Amber’ when I was 15. Actually, “playing” is probably too strong a word, more like blindly hitting the strings in the hope that at least 50% of the notes would match what the others were doing.

The top one is us playing on the back of a lorry in a pub carpark, the other is us playing at a school fete, rock and roll! Aren’t my shoes shiny! Anyway, that is where my bass skills were first honed to perfection, despite the fact that my bass weighed more than I did and had a neck that was thicker than my arm.

So with such a wealth of bass experience I can’t possibly go wrong really. I am going to work on the tracks in batches of 3, mostly because I don’t write anything down and will forget how to play them if I try todo more.

I’ve written the first 3 and it’s just a case of practising them until I’m happy they’re good enough to record at the moment. Here’s a clip from ‘Fall Back’ as it stands currently, not very interesting with just Drum and Bass but this is where I’m at.

Also, here is another youtube clip, another acoustic track. This one is in black and white because it’s all arty and that.

What a difference a drum makes

What a difference a drum makes, or should I say a drummer.

It’s seemed like ages waiting but yesterday was drum recording day at last. Now, I’ve had some great drummers in the bands I’ve been in but they’ve never been the most organised of people, so when Harry emailed to say his car had failed its MOT and he couldn’t drive down it all seemed to be drummer business as usual.

However when we finally got him to the studio and he asked for a music stand for his hand written sheets of drum music and detailed notes for each song, I realised he was taking it pretty seriously.

I would like to say a massive thank you to Harry for the time he’s put into learning the songs, working on the drum parts, and giving up his weekend to record them. His professionalism belied his relatively young age and he can definitely go a long way with that attitude.

As I have mentioned before, having him down for the drumming was a bit of a leap of faith, I hadn’t really heard him play for 4 years (when he was 14 or 15). But I had heard enough good things to think it wasn’t too much of a risk. Nonetheless when we finally got the kit set up and I played the first track to his headphones for a practice run I was nervous to hear what he had come up with. The nerves lasted all of about 30 seconds and within a minute I was sitting in the control room with a huge grin on my face, it sounded awesome.

The drum machine vs drummer debate is an ultimately one sided argument in my opinion, despite the fact that a drum machine will never forget it’s sticks or turn up drunk to a rehearsal, there’s just no comparison for this type of music. There are clever people who can make programmed drums sound very close to the real thing, but I’m not one of them, no matter how hard I try.

So, to demonstrate here are two audio files. They are both the end section of a song called Healthy Distance. One is the version I sent Harry, with my drums to show him what I was after. The other is Harry’s version from yesterday. Only demo’s again at this stage, I’ve only spent 5 minutes mixing the drums but you should get my point nonetheless.

Hopefully that shows what a difference recorded drums can make, even just on a rough demo. If you only listened to one bar you might be fooled but over a whole section, Harry’s drumming adds so much!

Basically, the songs that I loved, I hoped the drums would help them live up to my expectations, and they did. The songs that I wasn’t yet 100% sure about, I hoped that the drums would bring them to life, and they really have.

So now the real work for me starts as I can start working on building the tracks up and doing some serious recording. Watch this space.

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