Friday, June 12, 2009

In The Studio - Part 4

It's Thursday night right now and not long ago the Lakers just beat the Magic in a nail biting win in overtime. The Lakers now lead the finals series 3-1 (for those unfamiliar with the NBA the grand final is actually a 7 game series. The winner is the first to win 4 games). It's cool being in a city when there's a big time sporting event happening. Everyone gets pumped up about it and there's a buzz happening. People seem to get very patriotic about their hometown when one of their sporting teams is in a final and it's great. The only bad thing is it's just not possible to get seats at the game when it's the finals. It's just too expensive. Which is a real shame because I would have loved to have seen a Lakers game live. But enough about sport.

The last few days in the studio have started to get really great. Well everyday in the studio has been great but I guess the closer you get to the end of a record, the more complete the songs sound and, well, the stuff you've been working really hard on starts to sound good. On Tuesday we started laying all the secondary vocal tracks. I sung the backups on the songs Greg sings lead on and vice versa. I also got to lay down my final guitar parts. And that was it really. We went home and watched the Lakers game. I know it sounds like we do pretty much nothing during the day and then just go home and watch basketball but I swear we're working hard. It just so happens that a Lakers game is on every second night because of the finals.

That just left synth parts to track for the next few days. Andrew was getting all excited leading up to this part of the recording. He couldn't wait to get his hands on some really old school synths. There's been something about playing music with vintage gear that's really hard to describe. You kind of feel like you're part of a way bigger story and that somehow the geniuses who have used the gear before you will somehow impart some of their awesomeness into what you're doing. Up until this point it started to become really obvious that synths were missing and you get impatient wanting to record them. Because I work so closely with Andrew, my guitar parts sometimes don't really make all that much sense without his synth parts and so to hear synth finally being injected into the songs made me feel a lot better about life. One of the coolest synths was this really old suitcase (literally it opened like a suitcase) Moog that made crazy sounds. It had a life of its own. We couldn't really control it so we just went with what it wanted to do and got a really cool sound out of it for one of the tracks. When unplugging it though Andrew electrocuted himself and had a numb right arm for the rest of the day. It's 115 volts or something over here. I wonder whether you get a bigger electric shock back home with 240 volts?

The next day we did a taping for a music TV show. It was good fun. Performed a couple of acoustic songs and an interview. We didn't make it into the studio that day so instead, while we were in Hollywood, we took a trip to The Guitar Center on Sunset. It's a massive store and I headed straight to the vintage section and then straight to the Fender wall. I'm a die hard Fender Stratocaster loyalist and there were some amazing guitars in that store. Really old guitars with original parts. Shame they were going for between $30,000 and $100,000. One day maybe. I also saw one of the original '58 Fender Twins I'm using in the studio at the moment. It too was fetching a nice $30k. I guess it's good to have something to aim towards...

Friday and it was time for more synths. We arrived at the studio to be greeted by a CS-80. Now that probably won't mean that much to most people. But I'm not lying, this synth was the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life. I know there are factions of people out there who believe that digital modelling of original analogue gear is just as good as the real thing. No offence to them but it's just not true. The sounds that were being generated by this thing were simply mindblowing. I was literally getting goosebumps listening to the sounds. One of the cool things about analogue gear as well is that once you get a sound you like, you'd better record it because you're unlikely to ever find that same sound again. That means no one else is likely to have ever created that exact same sound. When you're making a record, that's cool.

So we wrapped up Friday with most of the synths tracked. I also sung the backups for the last track. Oh yeah, and we decided to get a string quartet in for the last song as well. I can't wait to see/hear that in action. Kevin got busy starting the mixes so the next time we're in (hopefully tomorrow) we'll be hearing the first mixes. A most exciting time!!

One final thing. Greg and I decided to go catch a movie that night and took a massive trek by public transport to find a cinema. I'm really liking LA, but it is the worst city for getting around by public transport. Getting anywhere is a huge mission that requires intricate planning and lots of time. We didn't have either but I think people like coming to the aid of helplessly lost human beings like ourselves, and some locals aided us to our destination. We saw the new Terminator and my recommendation is to skip it. Boring boring boring. Even the action scenes were pretty boring. Looking forward to Transformers. Hot tip - Aussie actress Isbabel Lucas (ex-Home and Away star) is in it. How good!!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In The Studio - Part 3

Yesterday I wrote briefly about how the Hollywood sign was determined to remain elusive despite each of its letters being 45 feet high. Today, before going into the studio, we went on a trek to see the Hollywood sign. Actually our real mission was to sit on the Hollywood sign.

Straight off I'll say that the sign looks deceptively small and deceptively close. In fact it's massive and really far away. So Kevin took us to the base of the hills in his awesome car and then the five of us began the trek. I will say at this point that there are roads that you can walk on but being adventurous we decided to take the more rustic trails that wind up the hill. I guess at some point we sort of lost perspective of where we were in relation to the sign itself but worked out the basic direction we had to head in. As we were walking (sorry, hiking) Kevin casually mentioned that we had to go off road (as in off the already kind of off road track) and that if any rangers found us we should do all the talking because we obviously sound like we're not from around here and that we could act dumb. At that point it became clear we weren't actually allowed to go near the sign. But there weren't actually any signs saying we couldn't go off the track so we figured that was their bad not ours.

I'll reiterate that the sign looks deceptively small and deceptively close. We thought that if we traversed a gully and climbed the ridge adjacent to the one we were on we would emerge from the scrub to be greeted by the glorious view of the 9 white letters. Wrong!! Also, we figured that despite there being no track we could quite easily find our own way. That was also incorrect. When we made it out of the gully to the top of the ridge bleeding, bruised and pretty buggered, we found that there were two more gullies and ridges to traverse and climb before we'd get to the sign. When we reached the top of the second of those ridges we realised there were about three more after that. Despite this setback we persevered and finally found ourselves at the base of the iconic Hollywood sign (which by the way used to say "Hollywoodland"). Greg and Kevin were at the front of the group and managed to set off some sort of alarm and then a voice came over a loudspeaker saying, "Stop hiking now!" So we did. We stayed put and climbed the letters. The voice didn't say anything more specific than that so we technically didn't do anything wrong. Then a ranger came out of nowhere and shouted at us that we were trespassing so we bolted down the hill only to find at ground level fences and many signs saying that it was illegal to climb up to the sign.

Get this. By getting lost and taking the most roundabout, off the beaten path route to the sign we avoided all the "Do Not Enter" signs and fences and slipped under the radar of the rangers long enough to get to the sign and climb it. How good! So worth the bleeding arms and legs and quite an eventful start to the morning. Then, driving on our way to the studio, to add to the excitement, a car in front of us (a Prius, quite small) ran a red light (as you do) and got collected by a massive truck (I use the American term "truck" here to describe what Aussies would call a "ute" so don't go picturing semi-trailers or anything like that). But it was a pretty full on crash - three cars. Everyone seemed alright though.

And then we were back in the studio. Unlike the other three tracks, we came to LA with the fourth song being left completely bare. We wanted to shape it in the studio and capture that spontaneity on record. We hadn't actually played the song as a band so this was real experimentation territory for us. We chatted a bit about what we were going for, set up the mics and then John started playing drums to a scratch track. Kevin actually set up the drums in the entrance way to the studio for a really different sound. It was cool. Anyway John played one take, the first he'd ever played of the song, and that was him done. We loved it. Andrew jumped on the piano and played a take and then overdubbed a Rhodes solo and that was him finished as well. Then it came to Greg's vocal take. He nailed it in one in a really emotional, bare everything take. It was actually really beautiful to watch. So that was the song, pretty much finished. And it was a really great feeling to have captured the energy we were looking for straightaway, just as we'd hoped for.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

In The Studio - Part 2

It's 1pm on Sunday afternoon at the moment in LA. I just woke up. We have a day off from recording today so we went out for dinner last night at a British pub called "The Fox and Hounds". It was like stepping out of America the moment we walked in there. There's something about British pubs that's just awesome. They definitely got something right there. The bizarre thing was that a couple of hours after we got there a band started playing that was straight out of the fifties. Don't get me wrong they were awesome, but we were sitting there listening to Elvis and Johnny Cash and heaps of Rockabilly Americano stuff in a British pub. I felt like I was sitting in a movie set. I've been feeling like that a bit actually since being in Hollywood. I think it's because I've seen so much Hollywood stuff in film and TV, that by just being here it feels a bit like a movie.

Anyway, I guess we've reached the end of week 1 in the studio. It has been awesome by the way. It's so great to just be able to spend every day in the studio making a record. On Tuesday it was all drum and bass. The tape machine was rolling - yeah we're recording to tape. There's something so cool about having to rewind the tape before a take. It sounds like a spaceship taking off through the monitors. The sound though is just incredible. I've never heard cymbals sound like this before. John was using cymbals from the 1920s as well which made for some awesome full bodied sounds. Recording digitally does something to the sound of cymbals so hearing them recorded to tape was something else.

We finished drum and bass on Tuesday so John's job was over in one day. I'm pretty sure he had a few beers that night.

The piano Andrew chose to use was a Grand Steinway more than 100 years old. It had to be tuned so we had Wednesday off. What I forgot to mention was that on Monday we went to take our rental car back only to discover that someone had keyed it. Unfortunately when we rented the car we got all confused about which level of insurance to take out and so we weren't covered. So we have to pay to fix it. Awesome hey! We're still waiting to get the bill for that so we can't really afford to get another car. In LA it's pretty much impossible to get around without one. The point being on Wednesday we did pretty much nothing.

On Thursday we got stuck into keyboards and guitars. And that's when I discovered the original Roland Space Echo. I nearly died. This piece of gear is really old and just awesome. It's a tape echo/reverb. I've heard about it before but never actually seen one in real life. I had a great time getting sounds out of that thing and it sounds amazing. The only bad thing was my guitar got knocked around a bit by the airline so I had to get the intonation looked at. Andrew tracked some good keyboard tracks though. Friday was much of the same except that before we started in the studio we took a trip to this discount warehouse supermarket sort of thing called Costco to pick up a harddrive. This place is kind of gross really. You have to buy in bulk and it has everything from flat screen TVs to deli foods. We did get some beer for really cheap though as well as the harddrive of course. We seem to be finding any sort of excuse to go for a ride in Kevin's car actually. And we have a rotation system for riding in the front seat. You see, the front seat has a built in massage feature and it also hugs you as you go around corners. No kidding, the seat moves so that you remain perfectly upright. It's cool. What was I saying. Oh yeah, on Friday we did more guitars and keyboards. Then we went home and watched the Lakers smash the Magic in the first game of the NBA finals. No actually that game was on Thursday. We must have just gone home and gone to bed on Friday. Boring. Talking about the Lakers game Kevin found us five floor seats for Sunday's game so we could all go. The only blocker to that idea was that the tickets were $32,433 each!! I'm not kidding. So we got out the credit card... kidding.

Saturday was a big day, the first day of vocals. Greg and I were pumped. I've mentioned it before but the microphone we're singing into is the one Michael Jackson recorded "Thriller" with. That's incredible!! If you glanced over that last sentence (well the one two sentences ago) I implore you to read it again such is the gravity of the subject. So we felt a sense of awesomeness standing in front of that thing. When vocals get added to a track the song really starts to come to life. We got the lead vocal for three tracks done on Saturday. And that was it for the first week of recording.

We're back in on Monday. We're doing four tracks all up for the record and so far we've only tackled three. Tomorrow we'll be starting on the fourth track. It's different to anything we've ever done before and we're not exactly sure what the end product is going to be like which is a few parts exciting and the rest a little scary. But I think it's a great song so whatever happens doesn't matter really.

It's actually 10pm on Sunday night now. I got a bit distracted from when I started writing this post.

And here's a couple of random things to finish. We've been in Hollywood for 10 days now and we haven't yet seen the Hollywood sign. I swear it's incredibly elusive, like it doesn't want to be seen. We spent the first three days driving around trying to see it without success. And then apparently we were in the right spot one time but it was at night and it's never lit up so that was no good. Kevin decided that to fix this problem he's going to take us hiking up the hill to the actual sign itself. Andrew reckons there's like motion detectors and stuff up there to prevent people doing that so we'll see how we go. I'll report back next time.

The other cool thing is that the new album by Phoenix is really really good. I was going to say it is 'awesome' but I just realised I may have overused that word in this post. You should definitely listen to it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In The Studio - Part 1

On Monday we headed into Fairfax Recordings in North Hollywood to meet our producer Kevin Augunas and see the studio. I might have mentioned already that Andrew had been spinning stories for the past couple of months that Kevin is a 6'5" psycho who was going to rip my head off if I made a mistake. So I was a little bit trepidatious about this first encounter. Monday revealed (as I had suspected) that Andrew is full of shit (I already kind of knew he was joking but you can never be sure you know). Kevin is a champion, but he is actually 6'5".

So we entered the studio and my head nearly exploded. I have never seen so much awesome, ridiculously vintage gear in all my life, let alone in one place. For starters, his mixing desk was specially built for Abbey Road Studios back in the '70s. Here's a blurb about it.

EMI Mixing Console TG 12345 Mark IV

The Fairfax mixing console is one of only two that were specially built for Abbey Road Studios, London. The console was the first of two delivered and was initially installed in Abbey Road Studio Three in December 1971. It remained in Studio Three for three years, after which it was removed and reinstalled in Studio One in November 1974. The console was used to record many famous records and film scores, one of the more notable being for the Pink Floyd film "The Wall". The console remained in studio one until December 1983.

And that is literally just the start. There's a whole bunch of really really old pianos, the youngest of which is 106 years old. My favourite thing though was his collection of vintage guitar amps, and after speaking with Kevin, the one I'll be using most is an old '51 Fender Twin. It was like being a little kid in a toy store. We've taken some awesome video footage of the place which we'll post somewhere when we get a chance. For now just trust me, this place is unbelievable.

So we spent Monday afternoon going through the demos we'd put together and talking about how we wanted to approach the record. We're recording everything to tape by the way which is a dream come true right there. Then John and Kevin spent hours sorting through his drum kits to find the right tone for our record. In the end they settled on a vintage Ludwig classic maple kit from the '60s. It was kind of freaky really. John recently acquired a new Ludwig classic maple kit in the same dimensions as this one. Only this one was more than 40 years old!!

I could go on and on about all the gear but I'll stop. But here's a pearler Kevin casually dropped. One of the vocal mics we'll be using was THE microphone that Michael Jackson used for all the songs on the Thriller album!! That's the highest selling album of all time by the King of Pop, MJ himself, and I'll be singing into it!

So that was day 1. Pretty casual but I'm not sure we actually could have performed anything after seeing all the gear. And we actually get to play all this stuff!

LA Land

We're in Los Angeles!! Hooray!! But I've been somewhat super lazy writing blogs recently so I'll do a really quick catchup on stuff we've been doing before getting to LA.

Last time I posted it was like a month ago. Around about that time it started to become pretty real that we were going to LA to produce a record. Before that it seemed a little far away and something that wasn't quite real. But when that four week period hit, for me anyway, the idea of doing a record in LA turned from nervous excitement to an increasing level of terror. The terror part mostly had to do with the fact that Andrew decided it would be fun to make up stories about our producer being a psycho (he's not by the way, the opposite in fact) which led me to have really weird dreams about my head being ripped off in the studio. But despite his best attempts to see me end myself I continued to write tunes for the new record. And we rehearsed a lot. Actually we rehearsed heaps. I guess we spent so much time rehearsing that we kind of forgot about all the other stuff that needed to be done before we left. You know, like visas and flights and insurance and accommodation and stuff like that.

The weekend before LA we had shows booked in Melbourne. Virgin Blue are awesome by the way. We had way too much baggage but they didn't really seem to care. On the way down they didn't charge us anything extra for our gear and we got given the emergency exit row as well. And on the way back, no charge once again and we got upgraded to premium economy. They're cool. We played a show at The Espy on the Friday night and then somewhere in Fitzroy on Saturday. Both were really cool shows. There's a lot more to say about Melbourne but that should have been done in a separate post and, well, I haven't done that have I?

Very shortly after that (very shortly as in like five days later) we found ourselves back at Brisbane Airport, but Brisbane International this time. No one had really slept because the night before we decided we'd run out of money and couldn't really afford to stay in our rehearsal room while we were away and not using it. So we spent a stack of time packing our room up. It was somewhat of a nostalgic moment really. We'd spent quite a while at that studio and there's some serious history there. Anyway, after our recent awesome experiences with Virgin Blue we thought V Australia would be just as awesome when it came to excess baggage. Wrong! The girl on the counter was really nice and I swear she was going to let us through for free but she had to check with her supervisor and her supervisor was hating life that Friday morning. So we got burned with baggage charges. So we started budgeting and realised we had to cut down to two meals a day for a while.

I love planes and airports. Some people are just weird at airports though. And weird was out in force. You know how swine flu hit and everyone freaked out but then it turned out it wasn't really that bad and while heaps of people were getting it it wasn't actually much worse than normal flu. Well some people forgot that last part and were wearing those masks that make it look like the end of the world is nigh. I think we got them on film. The flight was good though. Except that Greg had two kids behind him who decided it would be fun to kick his chair all the time and hit him in the face with socks. Yeah socks!! And then we were in LA.

I'm not sure whether it's just me but I expected California this time of year to be sunny and, you know, summer-like. We stepped out of the plane to weather that was pretty much identical to what we'd left in Brisbane in winter. Turns out we were experiencing what was known as "May Grey" which moved into something else called "June Gloom". And apparently summer doesn't actually start until June 21 which is pretty much when we leave. Anyway, I won't complain. Los Angeles is somewhat of an epic city. It's huge!! But the time difference is shit. We left Brisbane at 11am on Friday and after a 12 hour flight arrived in LA at 7am on Friday. Go figure. We then spent the rest of the day trying to stay awake in order to avoid jetlag which involved drinking about 6 coffees and going to meetings where people would ask "Are you guys alright?" Everything seemed to get a little delirious at some point there but we finally arrived at our accommodation at about 6pm. Get this, our landlady is an Aussie, her husband is a Brit and they're both paparazzi photographers!! How good is that! So we had some beers with them and then decided to go to sleep but realised we'd moved out of the ridiculously tired stage to the "way too tired to go to sleep" stage. So no one slept. But then at 10am the next morning we got tired and accidentally fell asleep, woke up at 4pm and realised our plans to avoid jetlag were officially screwed. We explored LA a bit for the next couple of days. Well I'm using the word "day" a bit loosely here. It was more like evening by the time we woke up.

And then it was time to meet our producer and go into the studio.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

iPhone Revelation

Now I know you might read the title of this post and go, "Really, you have to post about an iPhone? Like that hasn't been done before." Fair enough point. But be assured I'm merely writing about how it's changed the process of writing a song. Well, at least, how it's made it easier. Well maybe not easier but more convenient.

You see in the past if I happened to be roaming around the place, as one often does, if I suddenly had a great song idea (well at least I might think it was great at the time) depending on where I was there often wasn't a lot I could do in order to make sure I somehow recorded the idea before it ran away to never be seen again. I'll point out at this point that my memory is so bad that, for example, in the time it takes me to walk from the upstairs level of my house to the downstairs level, I will often have forgotten why I needed to go downstairs in the first place. I'll then walk upstairs again. I might then be prompted to remember the reason I went downstairs and so begin the descent again only to get down there and realise I've once again completely forgotten why I was down there. I would then go upstairs again and be prompted to remember the reason I went downstairs in the first place and so then head downstairs again. Chances are I would have forgotten again... Look I'll stop but you get the idea. I've wasted a lot of time going up and down the stairs in my house. Now I've forgotten what I was talking about. Oh yeah, so when I would get a song idea when I wasn't near a guitar or tape recorder (yeah they still exist) I had a couple of options:

(1) The repeat technique. This technique would involve me singing the melodic idea relentlessly until I was able to pick up a guitar and had access to a tape recorder. As you can probably imagine this technique has serious inherent flaws right from the get go. I'll point out a couple. (a) It's not uncommon for an idea to happen when you're around other people, and when you start singing suddenly in public people think you're weird. (b) Oftentimes an idea can happen when you're a significant distance away from a guitar and tape recorder. In this situation it becomes difficult to repeat a 20 sec melody for more than 30 minutes. (c) Any melodic interference from other sources (eg radio) will flummox this technique as confusion can ensue and suddenly you find yourself singing a weird combination of your idea and the song you just heard. (d) Even if you successfully manage to sing the melodic idea repeatedly for the time required to reach a tape recorder, 9 out of 10 times the idea will be crap and you can end up hating yourself for wasting 45 minutes singing a crap tune.

(2) The voicemail technique. This technique would involve me calling my own phone number and leaving a message. Once again, serious flaws. (a) People think you're weird singing a random tune into a phone. They think you're more weird when you try to explain that you're not singing to anyone you're just leaving yourself a voicemail. (b) Voicemail sound quality isn't exactly awesome. Most times you'll listen back and be unable to decipher anything. (c) Calling your voicemail 30 times to get the gist of a song is f*#king expensive!!

That's just for melodic ideas. When I had ideas for lyrics in the past I would find that I always seemed to be without an easy way to write them down. By the amount of stuff you see written on the doors of public toilets you wouldn't be stupid to think that everyone seems to carry around pens. Well that's everyone except me! I never have a pen when I need one. Well, almost never. And then you need paper, or at least something to write on. An arm does work but it becomes awkward when the second verse finishes behind your tricep. You also have the cliched napkin option but I always leave them in my pockets and they go through the wash and that's your lyrics gone right there as well as a whole washing load full of napkin pieces.

This all seems very dramatic doesn't it? I suppose what I'm trying to say is that when you get an idea for a song you're rarely in the appropriate situation and surrounds to quickly get that idea written down, recorded and remembered. That used to be the case anyway.

Enter the iPhone. I downloaded a free application where you can record in high quality .aiff format with the built in microphone or an external one. Press one button and you're away. You can then transfer all the recorded files to your computer quickly and easily. The sound is surprisingly good using just the built in microphone. I'm never going to forget a melodic idea again. Then there's the notes application. When lyrics come to mind it's as easy as typing it out in the notes section. Hit save and that's it. Never forget a lyric again. I suppose these things by themselves don't seem that extraordinary. It's extraordinary because all this stuff is built into my phone. And my phone is one of 3 things (the other two are my wallet and keys) that I never leave the house without.

Remembering a song has never been easier. And for me that's a big plus. Sure you don't have the nostalgia of a little tape recorder and hundreds of napkins with words written on the back. But I've been there and done that. Time to move on.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I Just Want More Time

Does anyone else ever wish they had more time to do things? By the way that was a rhetorical question. Everyone I know wishes they had more time.

Anyway I do. Today I've been trying to do a million things and yet I feel like I've done nothing. I know your probable retort to that would be "Just concentrate on one thing at a time". Ah of course, focus. And yeah I agree that's probably a good idea but all this logic seems to fall over when I'm trying to write songs.

You see for most tasks you can set a goal to be achieved, allot a specific amount of time to achieve it and then get it done, tick the box and move on. I don't know whether I'm a useless songwriter or whatever but setting goals and time constraints doesn't work. So you can't just say, "Right, let's bust out a song in the next 2 hours and then move on to the 36 emails I need to respond to".

I guess what I'm saying is that 1 of 2 things would be awesome: a slowing down of the space time continnuum; or someone who can do all that other shit for me. Actually there's a third: both. Wait maybe a fourth: songs that write themselves. No that last one was stupid - that's the best part. Let's leave it at option 3 and be done.