Skylines and the Horizon: 2017, part 2

Sometimes, I regret not documenting what we used on the different songs when we recorded in 2017. As a musician and wannabe gear-head, I love learning what stuff was used to capture a particular sound, especially as I was getting a grasp of what certain guitars sound like. For example, the opening guitar for Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” is a Fender Strat. It has such a distinct sound…a sound I love out of a guitar I do not enjoy playing. Every time I hear that song, I want to buy a cheap Fender Strat and put some nice pickups in it just to have that sound.

During this particular entry, I will be mentioning the Lo-Fi Nice Try (LFNT from here on out) project that the Laird brothers and I worked on. Although my own songs didn’t change to as much as theirs did, the updates to some of these songs happened because of the experience I had in writing guitar parts for songs I didn’t write. That’s a wholly different experience than crafting a song from start to end. It allowed me to think about building the parts different and venturing slightly away from the comfort zone I’ve sat in for years and years now.

Looking back at the external hard drive I keep our music on, we started with a LFNT song called “Doing it Right”. During the August 2017 session, I didn’t play on the song,. I have always enjoyed the music the Lairds write and it was a great experience to sit back and watch a song come to life, get tweaked, and to sit back and both listen to and watch them listen to the fruits of their labor.

If you aren’t aware, and most of you probably won’t care, but the SM7b microphone we used to record vocals and guitar (not the best idea) is very “gain hungry”. This means that the mic requires a lot of volume to get to where its usable. In most studio environments, it’s not an issue because of the all the different preamps, mixing board, and God knows what else in there. We home recorders, however, generally don’t have the same solutions. That is what led me to pickup a Cloudlifter CL-1 microphone activator. It adds 25 dB of gain and makes getting a nice, crisp vocal take easy as pie.

Once “Doing it Right” was over, we set the mic up on the amp to record “One and Three” (thank God for timestamps). It was my first song, one that I hadn’t put online for audio consumption before, and I was itching to get to it.

“Hey, uh, we can’t get the volume to not clip (meaning it’s too loud).”

“Did you turn the volume down? I had to put it up higher to record vocals”

“Yeah. It’s all the way down.”

This prompted us to temporarily shut down for what we thought was the first technical issue. After doing some troubleshooting, I realized what the issue was…we left the Cloudlifter plugged in. The guitar amp, which was already turn up to get a nice, warm tube-driven sound was being boosted by 25 dB of gain. That’s a lot. No wonder it kept clipping.

It was right then that I wondered how well using the Cloudlifter to boost the volume of a mic’d guitar amp would work. If my theory was correct, it would allow me to record guitar at “bedroom level” which meant that I wouldn’t need to borrow someone else’s house to record, and that would allow me to record music whenever I wanted instead of planning vacation around it. Gone would be the deadlines of pushing and rushing to get things done.

Spoilers: My theory was correct. I ended up redoing every one of the guitar parts I recorded for LFNT using this method and every track for Skylines and the Horizon is recorded using this method. Is it ideal? Nah…the tubes never get cooking, but it sounds good to my ears.

In a lot of ways, I’m too much of a perfectionist who can’t play perfectly and I’d often rely on the Lairds to tell me that a take was good because I’d hear SOMETHING I did wrong. Sometimes, the mistake was jarring enough to stand out, but in the mix, a number of mistakes get covered up and hidden by the other tracks. Being left to my own devices is part of what caused such a long delay in actually getting something released. Having their outside voices tell me to leave something be, while not always something I heeded, was comforting to have.

After “One and Three” the rest of my songs went as expected. When I checked the create date of the folders, it appears that we started two of my songs on August 8th and wrapped up the final one on the 10th. I’ve played the rhythm guitar so many times on those songs and I don’t recall having too many issues with those parts, but the 2nd guitar parts, solos, and bass parts would take multiple takes.

For this entry, I went back and resurrected the versions of “Spin“, “ALTG“, “One and Three“, and “So Far“, did a very quick and dirty mixdown.

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in listening back to these songs is that I did the second guitar and solos in the same take/track, with the exception of “So Far”. I’ve since moved to recording solos as separate tracks and centering them. Here’s some quick commentary

“Spin”

The old bassline is still intact here, but I ended up rewriting it in 2018. The 2017 version is the first time that added a 2nd guitar line to the pre-chorus. For years, I played different things there but dropped it because it conflicted with the vocals. After playing along and listening to the 2011 versions so much, I found it a little jarring that the 2nd guitar line is only present during the chorus. I’ve also rewritten the chorus and dropped the vocal part that I used to sing there, so the 2nd guitar worked its way back in.

When I listen to the 2011 version, which has served as the outro on two different podcasts I’ve been a part of, and compare it to this, there’s a roughness to the song that took this particular version in a direction that feels like two steps back and far less polished. I was quite unhappy with it, especially since it’s a song that I’ve been playing for a LONG time. Maybe the pressure of time and overconfidence played a part in the way it turned out. I need to keep that in mind since “Spin” is the final song I have left to record.

ALTG

The Albatross. As I mentioned in the previous entry, we mic’d the guitar cab with a Shure SM7b and a Sterling Audio ST55. Now, I know the ST55 is a solid guitar mic because I used it for the 2011 Watauga sessions and really liked the tones I got back then, but there’s something about the way it melded with the SM7B that made the guitar sound “hollow” to me. Everything was in phase (at least when I checked last), but it just lacked something.

In this version, I played the old second guitar line during the bridge (before the harmonizing guitars) and I can’t quite tell you why I moved away from that. There’s a laugh somewhere in there that I didn’t edit out and I end the song with “cherry lime-aids are delicious” which comes from an old version from back in 2008. I was in the middle of recording when my wife came home with cherry lime-aids from Sonic. Before I was diagnosed with diabetes, cherry lime-aids had become my soda of choice. She came and put it down on my desk as the final chord rang out and said “Cherry lime-aids are DELICIOUS”. She’s always been fond of that so I always find a way to include it now.

I digress. Once again, “ALTG” proved to frustrate me with the way it turned out and that, coupled with my dissatisfaction with “Spin” prompted me to start rerecording parts using my Cloudlifter CL-1 recording method in early 2018.

One and Three

Like “So Far”, I recorded the rhythm guitar you hear with the idea that I’d go back and record an acoustic guitar at a later date and played a rather sparse part. The second guitar, meanwhile, is just driving away. I’d just recently written the guitar part I played during the verses and wasn’t quite as accomplished at playing it. If you listen to this version vs. what I’ve recorded for the 2018, you’ll notice that I tamed the 2nd guitar a bit. It’s even overpowering a compressed and beefed up bass part.

I missed notes during the three solos, but most of it was still new. Generally speaking, bands practice songs for months before going into a studio to record. Everyone writes their own parts and is responsible for recording those parts. When you do everything yourself, you have to write, practice, and record all of the parts yourself. If you go in slightly unprepared, like I did in both 2011 and 2017, you’ll run into flubbed parts, something will get rushed, and/or you’ll change something to better fit the song and the process starts over.

I’d like to think that I’ve greatly improved on the solos in “One and Three” and, in fact, the I’m actually quite happy with the first solo section I recorded for the version currently up on my Soundcloud. It’s amazing what actually practicing a part before you record it will do

So Far

Once again, the space that’s left for the acoustic guitar that was never recorded is deafening. The rhythm guitar sounds pretty weak without it, but it wasn’t intended to carry the song. The old second guitar line lives on here, but has since been replaced with something that I like quite a bit more. I did something vocally during the bridge that I REALLY like but I haven’t been able to recreate when I sing along in the car. I hope to be able to do so.

 

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