Skylines and the Horizon: 2011, part 2

In the previous blog, I began talking about the process of recording at my friends’ house back in 2011. I realized things were getting lengthy, so I decided to cut it into two parts. In this entry, I’ll going to share what I remember about the recording experience of the individual songs, but not really details about the songs themselves.

Most links will point to my Soundcloud profile where you can find the four songs that ended up “complete” in a playlist.

As far as I remember, every guitar track was recorded using a Sterling Audio ST55 condenser mic, except where noted on ALTG.

Spin

Spin has always been the tune I’d open any CD or EP with. Although the backwards/reverse thing is probably overplayed, I’ve always loved the way it sounds and builds into the song, especially once I’d changed the into to have a more driving drum and guitar part. Once it recorded, I felt like it lacked something…it needed a solo to start out the song. This from the mind of someone who isn’t a “lead” player.

I don’t how many things I tried but nothing was working right. I was frustrated, tired, my fingers hurt, and I was about to give up when I finally hit the opening notes. Finally, after too many attempts, I hit the wrong note to start and bent two strings up in frustration, but it was exactly what I was looking for.

The rest came out over the course of a frantic 5-10 minutes. The solo I’d come up with also found its way to the last chorus with a slight variation at the end.

ALTG

“ALTG” is, in my opinion, the albatross of the 2011 Watauga Sessions. Nothing productive came out of the recording process, nothing was rewritten, and the song didn’t move forward at all.

At some point either before or during the week I recorded, I saw a video of Butch Vig talking about the Nirvana song “Drain You” and how he layered guitars in order to get the track to sound the way it does on the record. Separately, each track sounded OK, but the sum of the parts was incredible. I thought, “I can do that!”

Spoilers: I can’t.

Butch Vig is an experienced, professional producer and I’m just a dude with one amp, a handful of mics, and little experience. I didn’t even make it into the same neighborhood. I was the slums to his uptown. I drank pretty heavily that night because it was a sobering experience.

“ALTG” is a song I have a ton of experience recording. You’d think I wouldn’t have an issue playing a song with a total of four different chords in two of the most overused progressions in the history of music that I’d played hundreds of times. You’d have been wrong.

The resulting mess of a song nearly derailed the entire situation. Now, granted, at one point, my friend Matt (the little brother of JD) even commented “This is everything that’s right with 90’s music” when the harmonizing guitar came in at the end, but I don’t think he meant the tones I’d captured, just how the two parts went together.

Four different tracks were recorded: one with the Egnater Tweaker’s built in gain mic’d with a Sterling Audio ST55, one with an SM57, one with an MXL R144, and another track with the gain provided by a v1 OCD pedal. Unlike the Butch Vig video, each track sounds just short of OK and together, they all sound terrible.

To my ears, everything about it sounded flat and dead. Even now, having learned a few more tricks, there’s little I can do to fix it. “ALTG” was the driving force behind me wanting to redo my songs and was the first song I worked on for the 2018 session.

Before this blog, I’d never posted a mixdown of ALTG. It was just too painful. You might listen to it and say “Yeah, that’s not that bad, man…you need to stop <insert whatever it is you might say> and stop being so hard on yourself. You might be right, but even listening now, I don’t get any kind of fulfillment from it. Maybe someone with a lot more time and know-how could go in there, play with levels and make magic out of it, but that person isn’t me.

So Far

“So Far” didn’t present me with much of a challenge. I had the parts down, but I was pretty unhappy with the second guitar through the verses. I spent a lot of time trying to find something differnt to play, tried it an octave down, and couldn’t ever land on something that I felt made the song stronger. I’ve deleted the files, but I remember this taking a lot of takes. I’d miss a bend, poorly fret a note, or any number of other things that’d derail me.

At the time, I described the solo to “So Far” as a collection of every trick I knew. One of my uncles referred to it as my “Skynard” moment. I wanted a delay effect at the end of it kind of like Mike McCready did on Pearl Jam’s “Nothing as it Seems” but couldn’t quite get the timing right. Keep in mind that by the time I recorded this song, I’d already dealt with the nightmare of “ALTG” and my patience was thin. I couldn’t just move on because I was, and still am, very much a “one song at a time” kind of person when it comes to instruments.

Before I could get to the delay, I had to practice to solo. More often than not, I played one of the two ending cycles too fast or missed the timing of the cymbal hits coming out of the solo.

Of all the songs I recorded during the Watauga Sessions, “So Far” changed the least. I thought I’d come up with a couple of parts during that session, but having gone back and listened to a recording or two from the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, very little changed.

I do remember using my PRS SC245 Ted McCarty Soapbar to record the rhythm guitar along with my Zvex Box of Rock and REALLY digging the tone at the time. There’s a little bit of break up in the signal (which is primarily in the left channel) but there’s still enough clarity that the single notes I play here and there ring out. In the mixdown above, I spaced out the rhythm and lead guitars a bit more than I normally do because I intended to record an acoustic guitar for the duration of the song and at the end, but never got around to it.

Zombies

This song is what solidified my love for the 2001 PRS Singlecut I used to record both tracks on this. Getting rid of that guitar is one of the biggest gear regrets I have. Interestingly enough, earlier this year I traded for a PRS SC250 and feel the same way, even though the Fender tele I traded it for was really nice and Gibson Midtown I have as the result of selling that tele, I miss that SC250 almost as much as I miss that Singlecut. If you check out the other songs on my Soundcloud and listen to Zombies 2018 v2 (or whatever I’m up to now), the lead guitar was recorded with that SC250.

I digress.

The rhythm track of this version of “Zombies” came courtesy of my old Zvex Box of Rock. There’s just something about the crunch of it that set the tone for the song. It’s distorted but not overly so and the extra thump that pedal gives (and some people dislike) was exactly what I wanted. The accents of the rhythm guitar changed from how I normally played it while singing at the same time and, although it was a subtle change, it became more predictable.

The lead track utilized my Fulltone OCD v1. I don’t know what I did settings wise, but this song had more feedback in it than any other song. I never got around to editing it, but I loved the idea of the feedback at around the 13s mark fading into the second guitar line coming in, but never got around to fading it in. There’s also a moment at towards the end of the first verse where the lingering note starts to feedback as well.

“Zombies” is the best sounding song of the five I worked on during the Watauga sessions. Maybe it was because I’d been recording music all week or perhaps it was the volume I was recording at pushed the tubes to the point that they finally “came to life”. Either way, I still feel a sense of accomplishment when I listen back to this song.

I’d have to go back and listen to older versions, but I believe I ended up changing up the drums a bit on this song. That is a huge benefit to recording with a program like Superior Drummer 2 or EZ Drummer. If I want to go back and change where a snare hit goes, change a cymbal, lower volumes on certain drums, or use a different filter to get a totally different sound, I can do that without having to record the drums all over again. That was huge back in 2011 and it’s been huge as I’ve been working on the songs again.

One and Three

“OAT” is the last song I worked on. I had planned to save my acoustic recordings, starting with this song, for last so that I could set the mic up once and get a consistent sound. There are few things that I find more frustrating than setting up a mic, getting an acoustic tone that I’m happy with (one of the more difficult feats in my recording experience) and then being able to duplicate that at a later date. Maybe that’s part of recording in a space shared by others and that might be subject to things shifting around as compared to a studio where things have a more “static” place.

I had ideas for the bass and second guitar part, as evidenced by previous recordings I found, but nothing was even remotely close to set in stone for the latter. Heck, even the bass part had a bit of fluidity to how I arranged it. This provided an opportunity to change how I wrote my songs and knew it might change the “identity” of my songs.

After the end of Nailbox (the band in high school I had with JD), I started writing songs and trying to make my guitar parts more complicated to make up for the fact it was just me. I needed to fill the space of one guitarist. Once I started writing music for Soulhitter (the other band JD played in) and through the course of Soulhitter, I began writing less complicated parts and writing a second guitar part to fill the void. That led what I feel like defines my “style”, or did for a long time. It definitely came out in helping JD and his brother write songs for their EP…my musical voice rears its ugly head every once in a while.

Bass wasn’t an afterthought, but it was never part of the planning of a song. I definitely don’t complicated bass parts, but I do write parts that are more than just root notes. “OAT” provided me with an opportunity to write and build a bass line that the rest of the song was built on and I’d have to fit the second guitar part in where I could. Once I was done, I felt like I’d written my first “bass part” instead of writing another part using an instrument that was conveniently an octave lower than the guitar.

I never did find a second guitar part I was happy with nor could I come up with a solo that covered enough ground at the end of the song. The progression was lifted from another song of mine called “Give” and so I lifted the solo from it as well for the first of three small, four-cycle long solos. I spent the last remaining time trying to come up with these parts and just couldn’t.

For the life of me, I cannot find the tracks that make up the acoustic guitar and bass in the link above. I have no clue what happened to them. The link above is the first time I’ve publicly posted this version of “One and Three” before, although I’ve shared it with friends. It is supposed to have a fade out at the end, but similar to the 2018 version I’ve posted, I left it whole so I could have plenty of bars to practice the solo and/or second guitar parts.

Parting thoughts…

Thinking back, I do wonder how much I recorded on June 7th, as that’s my wedding anniversary. I might have cut the day off early to cook the meal my wife and I normally make to celebrate it. One of the nights was spent drinking “Four Lokos” and Knob Creek bourbon. I remember one of the guys that lived there saying “I’ve never seen you so schnockered!” and he might have been drunk along with me. That night was the first night I tried bourbon, got sick to my stomach, and swore I’d never drink it again. That wasn’t true.

Part of me is quite happy with what I accomplished in 4 or 5 days of 5 hour recordings. Part of me laments that I didn’t get more done. I bit off a lot more than I could chew and I think that led to part of why it took me so long to revisit these songs. I didn’t want to take over someone else’s house for a week or two again, I couldn’t record like that at my house with a newborn (my daughter would be born the following year), and spending a week of vacation without my wife involved wasn’t really fair to her.

I do look back on the Watauga Sessions of 2011 fondly because it gave me a chance to grow as an amateur sound engineer, a chance to get immediate feedback from a house full of other musicians, and a chance to hang out with my friends.

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