Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Leaving Ann Arbor

I'm in the SpinTunes 2 songwriting contest, and I've completed the first challenge: a little ditty called "Leaving Ann Arbor."

You can find the tune on BandCamp, complete with lyrics, here. I made a quick lip-sync'ed/finger-sync'ed video for YouTube which you can find here.

Here's approximately what my studio-in-progress looks like now:

On this track, I played the Applause ukulele, the black Steinberger XP bass, and added a few accents in the form of chorused guitar chords played on the Parker Fly. All the guitars went through the Radial JDV direct box, which did just what I was hoping it would do -- loaded the pickups, both piezo and electric, the way they should be loaded, and made the instruments sound the way they are supposed to sound. I haven't been able to do a direct comparison between this box and some other direct boxes I was considering -- for example, the Summit Audio TD-100, which also has a variable load control -- but I definitely don't have any regrets about buying the Radial box. I'm very satisified with the way the instruments came out.

As for the vocals -- well, I think they are still kind of my weak spot. I did as many retakes as I had time for. My recording time is very limited. If the kids are in the building, and awake, I can't really record vocals. I did most of my tracking very late at night, after the kids were in bed and there were no lawnmowers, jackhammers, or leaf blowers running in the neighborhood, and no traffic on our street. I had to give up a lot of sleep working on this song. I've discovered that singing (or playing) when I'm very tired really doesn't produce the best results, but that's the time I had to work on it, and it is what it is.

It didn't help that I chose some intervals in my melody that were a little tricky for me: for example, on the line "One cafe was all I needed," there's a minor second interval on the word "cafe." Apparently I'm terrible at singing half steps, at least in that note range, and I just couldn't hear that bit of melody in my head correctly in order to sing it accurately. I finally had to put together a track of MIDI keyboard just to listen to in my headphones, as a pitch reference, to get it anywhere near correct, and it's still pretty loose. And all this is double-tracked, so I had to sing it twice, synchronizing the takes as well as I could.

The instrumental accompaniment was kind of picked out by ear -- I'm not even really certain what key the song is in, and there's something that is, to my ear, not quite right about the way they fit together. Had there been more time, I might have been able to fully write out the melody and chords and listen to them as MIDI parts to make sure they fit together the way I wanted. But again: tight deadline, late-night recording, and a lot of takes; it is what it is.

If you're interested in the process, my scrawled notes kind of illustrate some of how it went. First, I had to pick a town. I was born in Seattle, but only lived there for three years. spent the ages of 3-10 or so living in North East, PA, then moved to Harborcreek, PA and lived there until I left for college. I spent four years of college in Ohio, then most of a year in an internship in the same place, then moved to Ann Arbor in (if I recall correctly) June of 1990. I lived in Ann Arbor until June 1st of this year. So I've lived in Ann Arbor longer than anywhere else, and having just left, it was definitely uppermost in my mind -- and I was full of mixed and conflicting feelings about my time there, viewing it both warmly and with disgust, and seeing it as both a success and a failure.

I started with the beginning of the first verse in my head. The silliness of the first verse was intentional -- I wanted to do the silly wordplay and artificial word breaks to force a rhyme:

Ann Arbor / You haven't got a harbor
But you've got a big arbor-
etum... and enormous U-

So I had the first few lines in my head. Every Sunday we take the kids over to my mother-in-law's house, and I usually bring a guitar. This past Sunday I took the ukulele, since I had the vague idea that I wanted this song to have uke accompaniment. I got an hour or two where the kids were mostly out of my hair, with the ukulele, to try to come up with a melody and an accompanying ukulele part. I wrote out that riff and some chords (just picked out by ear, written down in ukulele tab, without really knowing what chords they all were), and that's my first page of notes:

Then, basically, another session or two of scribbling ideas for possible lyrics (both literal rhyming phrases and words/phrases that didn't fit but which I hoped I could eventually make fit). I think I wrote some of these out while waiting for my son to finish his Hapkido lesson. (As a parent, I've got to take what down time I can). Note that at this stage I feel that it is pretty important to write things down on paper, in pen, instead of typing them on the computer -- for one thing, I can do that anywhere, and for another, there is no deleting -- although lines are scratched out, they are still readable. You never know when you might want to go back to one of your original ideas and refine it. If you delete that line on the computer, doing editing on the fly, it is gone. (Of course I'm ignoring the idea that you might use version control, but most people don't do that, and you want to resist the temptation to delete anything you wrote even if you deleted it immediately, on the fly, between saving separate versions).

The first thing I recorded was the ukulele, and the first vocal part I finished was the chorus. I recorded a separate ukulele track of the melody for the chorus for reference when singing. I didn't have a melody for the verses for some time. In a later evening session I finally picked out a melody and recorded the first verse on ukulele for reference. The song sat like that until the next night, then I did a scratch vocal of the second verse with the kids screaming in the background, and of course realized that the second verse didn't exactly match the first verse. Despair, editing backing uke loops, retakes!

Then in preparation for actually recording the full vocal, I started transcribing what I had into a text file on the computer and editing that:

A few lines got cut: in the chorus I was considering using the lines "I once adored you / I now abhor you" before "I just can't afford to love you anymore," but it didn't really work. I had some extra verse lyrics: "I didn't have a lot of cash / At the Fleetwood, I ate hippie hash / I grew long hair / I was full of hot air" but the second verse was getting too long, but yet I didn't feel there was justification for a third verse.

The rap part was originally going to be sung, but essentially I wasn't having any luck coming up with a melody for the bridge. When it came about, I did it very rapidly, with only one or two takes of both the spoken voice tracks and the bass line, and assembled in an hour or two. The drums were Apple Loops. The keyboard part I never actually played -- I is just not even true chords, for the most part, mostly just two-note intervals, drawn in Logic's MIDI score window after picking out a cool-sounding synth sound. When I pieced it together I removed that "You'll be a renter once more" line because it had the wrong tone, but also because the section was getting too long. I liked the rap section quite a bit, but it was lacking a good sense of transition into and out of it. I eventually patched that together with more drum fills, tightening up the editing.

In one of these evenings I tried to add a 12-string guitar part, and that was the point where I tried to write out some chord names (and, I discovered later, screwed some of them up). The chord names below the arrows are transposed into my 12-string tuning, which is down a full step. So this is the closest thing I've got to a lead sheet for the song, and I know it's at least partially wrong. (That "Still Needs" checklist at the bottom rapidly expanded on the last day).

There was supposed to be a third verse, but the song was getting pretty long, so I improvised the outro part instead. The kazoo idea had been in my head from the beginning -- I went out and bought a kazoo especially for this song -- but the kazoo and shaker were recorded very late in the process. The kazoo came in a kit with shakers, a wood block, spoons, and a little tambourine and I recorded all those, but would up using only the shaker and kazoo.

I uploaded a "finished" track for safety, in case I screwed it up badly. After it was supposedly done, though, it took at a twelve-hour session hours of just cleanup and tweaking: mixing, mixing, mixing, setting volume envelopes on each track, adding bass line to the parts where it was lacking, coming up with an electric guitar part, re-tracking vocals, aligning vocals, re-tracking vocals again, aligning vocals again, tweaking plug-in effects, choosing mastering settings, bouncing some test tracks. During this time, I also went out and recorded Grace driving the van away. I also dug up the clip from one of our podcast chats.

This part is a bit of a blur. Basically, I worked until I was dizzy with exhaustion and had to stop. I uploaded one more version that I called "Final," and tried to pick up the remains of my weekend with the family -- and despite being so tired, slept very badly and started out the week feeling like death warmed over.

And I screwed it up in one respect: the final version that went to the judges had levels set way too low. I had been playing with the mastering plug-in settings, and had taken compression ratios way down so the quiet parts would sound more open, and so there would be a big volume difference between the verses and the rap section. I also set the downward expansion ratios in the multi-band compressor settings to unity, because I didn't want quiet ukulele bits to be faded downward when there was nothing else happening in that EQ band -- I wanted there to be some quiet space that wasn't silence, if that makes sense.

But when I did this, I brought down the overall volume of the track, and I was neglecting in not actually compare it, level-wise, to the way most pop tracks are mastered these days, even ones where limiting is used more judiciously than, say, in Metallica's famously loud mixes. Compression and limiting has been a bit of a thorn in my side -- I don't like a lot of modern pop mixes because there is no dynamic range left -- but when I have to listen to a CD in the car, I appreciate the fact that I can actually hear the details over the engine and road noise. So I try to walk a middle ground.

In the listening party I realized my experiment had resulted in a mix that was just way too quiet -- people just wouldn't expect the track to have such a wide dynamic range. So I had to quickly bounce a new one with more usual compression settings and with gain added going into the multi-band compressor, and with the final limiter stage (Izotope's "Loudness Maximizer") set to start working a few dB lower.

Now the rap section has a "haircut," without being totally squared-off buzz-cut, while the verses are still not hitting the limiter to speak of, which I suppose is a compromise I can live with, since I do want people to be able to listen to the track in real-world environments (in the car, on their iPods while riding the bus, etc., instead of just in soundproof listening rooms).

But of course I was very upset during the listening party and for hours afterwards, feeling like I had done so well until I blew it with a mix no one could hear. Had I gotten more time, I might have tried to do more of the volume correction on the original tracks -- but then again, maybe not, since it doesn't quite make sense to me that a delicately picked ukulele should be as loud as a snare drum hit.

It was too late to get that revised version to the judges, but it is the one on my Bandcamp page and in the SpinTunes album.

That's kind of how it goes with me: there's an idea, and a few words. It seems to be very important to my process to capture something at this stage, and then sleep on it. There's an expansion, and then a contraction. it's important to get out as much as I can before I start editing it down. The process for me is very much like writing an essay or short story.

Grace sees me stress out about this, and asks me once in a while "are you at least enjoying this?" To which I really don't have a satisfactory answer. It is stressful, it is exhausting, and it is miserable. But it is also very gratifying at times. The best I can say is that I enjoy having done it, especially when I can go back to a track after a few weeks of distance and assess it a little more fairly, and think, hey, there's some good-sounding stuff in there!

1 comment:

Spin said...

Cool, thanks for posting this. I just linked it in the blog.