Archive for April 21st, 2008

Soul Singer in a session band

If I didn’t already do what I already do, then I think I’d be a helicopter pilot. Or maybe I’d just be a helicopter passenger. Not that that’s a career, though I tried my best in NZ to make it so. The pilot bit would be a bit more exciting. I worked out most of the basics from watching Dean and Brent past the ventilator in the back of H-FZ. It seems something akin to patting your head and rubbing your stomach, with each limb moving in a different way, often at the same time. Maybe drumming a 5/8 rhythm would be similar.

And if both the witch doctor, and the helicopter pilot thing don’t work out then I might have a bash at making music, or at least making a joyful noise. I have dabbled in recording songs since I was about 16 and just learning what an open tuning was. These were mostly of the introspective, melancholic, depressing genre about some girl that didn’t love me who usually didn’t exist. Good to see things have changed at least…

Back in the good old days I remember recording first with two tape decks (don’t pretend you don’t remember tapes, you’re not a member of the iPod generation, just a wannabe…), recording one track then playing it back and recording over the top of that onto another tape with the accompanying hiss and warbled magnetic noises that come with dodgy tape decks.

My next big advance came with minidisc (whatever happened to minidiscs eh?) were I could use the same technique but with better results – by which I mean less hiss, my singing remained as bad as ever.

My studio (my bedroom above the garage in the old house) was transformed by the closure of the pirate radio station Country Star FM. This was perhaps the only fun thing that my dad got to do in his job as head of the RA (Radiocommunications Agency, not the paramilitary organisation) in Northern Ireland. Dodgy pirate radio stations would set themselves up with transmitters in hardened paramilitary housing estates in the knowledge that to be closed down you’d have to mobilise half of the British armed forces.

Anyhow Country Star FM kindly provided me with a squashed (yet entirely functional) SM58 and a greasy, malfunctioning sound desk. This brought to you such great Turf Brother hits as “where’s the milk” (recorded with the mic duct taped to a chair in the middle of the room and everyone in a circle round it) and “I’m the tractor driver (twisted tractor driver…)”. This was a new high point as one might imagine.

Shortly after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and then Alan Sugar made his pre-apprentice career selling crappy amstrads and ruining Spurs and all of a sudden we’d entered the digital age. I first tried Cubase on my first laptop and found it cumbersome and hard to work out, and that was just the box it came in. I hate PCs, in a good old fashioned righteous anger kind of way.

And then there was Garageband, my first love. The king is dead long live the king. For the first time I could record lots of stuff simply easily and just like the Spice Girls (though maybe that’s unfair to the Spice Girls) there was enough digital gadgetry to make poorly written and woefully sang songs sound half-way professional

It also introduced me to MIDI, and software instruments, where the computer could make all the noises for you, but you had to draw all the notes onto a kind of scale thingy, which was wonderfully nerdy and time consuming and gave me great opportunities to disappear up my own ass and make no contact with the human races for weekends at a time. I eventually supplemented this with a 2 octave keyboard that I used to play the drums with and even dabble in pinyano on occasion.

But then I found myself unemployed for 6 months and had an offer of helping record/produce an EP for a good friend, and all of a sudden I was spending 8-10 hours a day in front of the computer (and ultimately upgrading to a MacBook Pro and Logic…) “mixing and scratching” as Simon calls it. This involves practically limitless numbers of effects, EQ, compressors, limiters and automation of tens of different tracks. It involved slicing up drum tracks to find just the right kick drum and making loops from drum rolls. It involved my finest Bloc Party impersonations, the occasional nod to Springsteen, Hayes, Bellamy, Wilson, Buckland, Evans, Greenwood, Woods and the ultimate of music maxims – less is more.

Not that I actually knew what I was doing, but just enough to make it look like I did. It’s easier when it’s someone else’s songs. Most importantly the fact that they’re much better than anything I could ever write but also cause you end up with not quite so much invested in them. I’ve recorded about 10 songs of my own and there’s only really two or so that I like (someone told me the only one Paul Simon still likes is Graceland, talk about overachieving…). You put too much into them and then get all fragile about them. It’s much easier when they’re someone else’s.

I listen to the songs now and keep thinking there’s something I could change. Raise the level of that guitar there, a bit less hi-end on that cymbal, but there comes a point you need to stop changing things or you’ll be there forever, endlessly lost in a mess of frequencies, track automation and snare drums that keep peaking no matter what you do…

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t so it for a living (despite the Godrich fantasy…), if only for a fact it took me over three months to do 5 songs relatively simply. I also run short of ideas pretty quick. There’s only so much you can do with double tracking the acoustics and harmonising the guitar riffs.

Anyhow, shameless (and overly long and technical) plug over with, you can have a (not so) sneaky listen




April 2008
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