Each time The Bedlam Six and I go into the studio (or rather move into a house together and convert it into a studio) I write a daily journal of our progress on the band’s blog. Here is a day-by-day account of the recording of our upcoming LP “Youth” created in December and January 2013.
You can leap to a specific day by clicking one of the links below or simply scroll down and read the entries in chronological order.
Well we’re all together again. Setting up the studio, our new home for the next three weeks.
Here we are around the Christmas tree having one last relax before getting started.
It’s so good to be all together again. We’d purposefully left November and December free from gigs to give everyone a chance to unwind after a busy year of touring and festivals. With the exception of our recording session for the Debt Records Christmas compilation today is the first time we’ve all been in the same room for about two months.
We set up the gear relatively leisurely. There’s a lot of equipment here so we’d decided to devote the entire of this day to uncurling cables and setting up soundtraps. We’re being a lot more systematic than in previous sessions, it’s easy to lose one’s way with so many mics, inputs and intentions. There’s quite a spaghetti around the drum kit now, resembling a hunched metal octopus lashed to the floor like Gulliver in Lilliput.
The set up is a little different this time, the control centre is now separated from our live room in order to position the drums more centrally. We also have a secondary recording setup away from the main room and overdubs area, this will be mainly Cleg’s domain, he works well dreaming up complicated guitar arrangements on his own.
Once we’d got the bulk of the equipment unpacked and connected up we had a meal and some wine, our last night of proper relaxation before the house fills up with the sound of Bedlam.
Paul Cezanne once said:
“It’s so fine and yet so terrible to stand in front of a blank canvas”
Getting started is the most difficult part. The previous day we’d carefully assembled all the technological miscellania into as comprehensive a recording setup as we could manage. Now we had to simply begin.
There were two principle tasks for the day. Downstairs Tom and Dan would work on getting the best possible drum sound (involving tuning, mic placement and god knows what other mystical jiggery-pokery) while upstairs the rest of us worked through the newest songs on the provisional track list, coming up with arrangements that we’d be happy to one day call definitive.
When it comes to recording we’ve all always had rather a bad habit of giving new material preferential treatment over old. This album features a mixture of songs we’ve been touring for years and new compositions that have never been gigged at all. We’ve agreed that all the tracks need to be considered brand new (after all, listening to a record is a very different experience to attending a concert and one has to take this into account when rearranging live favourites): nothing is sacred, what works onstage may not work off it. Still, the complete unknown can be a lot more seductive than the return of an old friend so, admittedly, we mostly focused our attentions on the new ones.
Once the drums and microphones had agreed on a working relationship we all gathered in studio two for an acoustic run through, making sure everyone was on the same page before hooking ourselves into the belly of the machine downstairs.
By mid-afternoon we had installed ourselves in the live room. The live room is actually three rooms with connecting doors. The large room contains the drum kit in the centre (like a deformed tardis console), keyboard, bass and electric guitars (with their respective amps and cabs set up in different rooms to avoid bleed in the drum mics) with Biff’s trombone and cello station in the library room across the hallway and me (Louis) in a conservatory linked to the main room by a glass door.
We spent an hour or so setting individual monitor mixes in our headphones and checking everything was working properly. There were a few minor connectivity problems that we ironed out early on, there always is. It’s not worth rushing this stage of the process, shortcuts only lead to time wasted later on, it’s best to get all the boring stuff out of the way in one go while we’re all still warming up.
So we played and recorded solidly until evening, mostly to cement rhythms and changes, stopping when our joints felt like they may start to cement as well. These early recordings are just demos (though we never rule anything out – if we come out with a perfect take then it’d be senseless not to use it), it’s good to play ourselves into the mood without the pressure of heightened expectation; if nothing else it’s a way of getting all of our individual rhythms into a kind of living synchronisation for this whole recording period.
After dinner we listened to the recordings and made notes, discussing things like tempo changes, harmonies and general bits of business. We then retired severally to our various rooms between midnight and 2am after a few drinks.
A good day.
Forget what I said about demos and warm-ups. As I write this we have three song skeletons in the can and almost an entire tune done. By “skeleton” I mean a good rhythm take, over which we can later add lead parts and vocals. We tend to do as much live as we can – it’s the only way to achieve a credible chemistry (that’s why we make sure we can all see as well as hear each other) – but there’s no way of getting a good quality take of things like vocals and trombone/cello while drums are playing, there’s just too much bleed between microphones in the setup we have here. So what we have now is pretty much everything that has a direct input into the mixing desk – keyboards, bass and some electric guitar as well as drums. Once we’re done with the rhythm section we’ll move onto the more delicate stuff, probably towards the end of next week.
The big surprise was a song called Year Of The Bitch. It’s one of our oldest, indeed I wrote it in 2004 before the band even formed. We haven’t played it for years but I always wanted it to go on this album, albeit in a different arrangement to the live version. Up to this point we’d always treated it as a rock number but there’s an element of classic swing in there that I suspected might suit an LP more. We all had different ideas of how best to play the various run-downs and changes but couldn’t agree on a definitive structure beyond what had already been written. My main idea was that it should sound a bit drunk, like a man on a barstool broadcasting his life philosophy to anyone who’ll listen.
So after playing round the structure a few times we decided to just get into the live room, bash through the song and record whatever came out, something we could listen back to afterwards armed with notepads and plot it out properly.
So that’s what we did. It lurched from verse to verse, instruments tiptoed in and out unsure of who was leading which bit, bum notes punctuating a shifting groove stumbling from one sticky metaphor to another.
It was exactly what we wanted. We tried recording it again out of a sense of formality (surely that first take couldn’t be the one) but we couldn’t recapture the spontaneity of our first attempt. So that’s the one going on the album.
There are some mistakes you just can’t fake.
We’re ahead of schedule. But I think we’ve let the fast progress go to our heads a bit and need to slow down a little. Tempers were a little short today, the result of three straight twelve hour sessions with too little sleep. Also none of us have been out of the house since we got here, it’s not healthy to breathe the same air for too long.
It was only the morning session that suffered though. We battled with a couple of songs, getting on each other’s nerves, mistaking suggestions for criticism, letting the tension get the better of us. But we know each other well enough now to see this kind of thing for what it is – human beings being human beings. Three European tours in a small van has taught us to notice the warning signs and we’re pretty good at not letting a bad vibe spread. So we took a break, ate some food and drank some tea. Tea is a pretty good cure for a lot of things.
These early days were only supposed to be a kind of soundcheck and arrangement period but we’ve always been fast workers once we get going and now we’ve become greedy to finish stuff. I think all of us are looking forward to the part of the process where we get to add the weird bits (kitchen percussion, toolbox, dog chorus etc), that’s always the most enjoyable part of making a record. I suspect we’re starting to view the rhythm section sessions as a barrier to this, like a stern aunt insisting we eat our broccoli when all we want to do is skip to the ice cream.
But what we’re doing now is the most important part of the whole project. If we don’t get this bit right the whole record will sound awful, without a good groove and solid foundation none of these songs will work. No amount of catchy riffs or clever lyrics can redeem a poor rhythm take. The lead lines of a song appeal to the mind but the beat hits you square in the guts.
After our little breather we pressed on with business. We’ve now covered quite a range of material, today we got good takes for the two prettiest numbers on the record as well as two of the loudest. I’m pretty sure they’re all keepers. We’ll listen back later to make sure.
Time is still on our side. But I’ve never trusted Time much. My relationship with Time has always been rather grudging and suspicious, like the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression.
Still, we press on…
So we draw a veil over 2012.
It’s hard to look back though, there is just so much ahead to be thinking about right now. We have good drum takes of all but three songs and pretty much all the rhythm parts done for half a dozen of them. And we’ve only nearly resorted to fisticuffs once.
I suspect I’m not going to write a retrospective for the last year. There have been good times and bad, people will remember what they want to remember. Right now everyone in the band just wants to think about what lies ahead. We are really enjoying this recording period, a lot of great stuff is happening, it’s so good to be working free from distraction. The occasional bout of cabin fever is worth the opportunity to make something we’re all ultimately really happy with.
In the past I’ve shown symptoms of that common illness among singer-songwriters and heaped up unreasonable expectations upon each new year. “This/Next year is going to be THE BIG ONE!” is a phrase one hears from so many bands. But we’ve been doing this a while now and have discovered success never appears in the shape one originally predicts (sometimes it even looks suspiciously like failure). Years ago we had the expectation of signing to a big label and doing it all the old fashioned way (applying our own stamp to the tried and tested cliches); the complete lack of interest from “the industry” seemed rather damning at the time. But we know better now. Taking things into our own hands was the best thing we ever did, indeed it’s the reason we’re in this house now, making the album the way we want to, in our own time, in our own way. Personally, I can’t imagine being in better spirits or better company.
Happy New Year.
When we’re not recording we still tend to be playing our instruments. They are the tools of both our work and our relaxation. Here’s a little video of us jamming out Long Black Veil while taking a break from making the album.
This is one of those songs that for years I thought was an old folk standard (by the most prolific duo in history: Mr Trad. and Mr Arr.) but it was actually written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin (and first recorded by Lefty Frizzell).
It is my ambition to write a song that one day gets swallowed up by the collective imagination, something that can live on independently of its creator, like Summertime or Georgia On My Mind. Long Black Veil is definitely one of those songs.
It also has a special significance for me. It was the first song Cleg and I ever played together. We met in Autumn 2006 at a pub gig we were both performing at in Manchester. He came back to mine for a few drinks and ended up staying a week. We became a folk duo and this was part of our set.
We haven’t performed this song for at least four years but, as soon as I started playing it Cleg remembered every harmony and chord. The others got the hang of it in a matter of seconds and this video is how it came out.
Right, back to work…
One of the great luxuries of recording like this is being able to try out ideas in a relaxed way. However big the budget there is always a “time is money” factor inherent in hiring a studio (“we’re paying for this place so hurry up!”); it tends to lead to an unhelpful “that will do” attitude. In my experience clock-watching can utterly and incurably poison a record. In our Bedlam House we are no richer in time but at least, for once, money is not too much of a limiting factor.
We have moved into the overdubs room. We’re not completely done with drums and live takes but we’ve decided to work up a few of the more completed numbers for the sake of, well… fun. It’s good to have a change of scenery, even if it’s aural rather than geographic.
So we’ve been listening back to the songs we’re happiest with, armed with pens and an assortment of spirits and mixers. We’ve been jotting down ideas throughout this recording period but now we’re finally trying some of them out. Today we mostly focused on vocals. It’s always good to have a credible working lead take in place fairly early on, for the sake of song character and to work out what harmonies will sit best (sometimes my delivery veers towards the Rex Harrison and no amount of vocal ingenuity will help a harmony work with that!).
Biff also made an interesting suggestion once the evening began to wane: “Have a few more drinks, then have a few more, then try laying down your vocals for Year Of The Bitch.”
You may remember a few days ago I mentioned how that song had a rather drunk quality to it. Well this seemed as good a time as any to see how far we could push that.
So I stood swaying in front of the mic, gesticulating with my glass, meandering through the song. It was an interesting experiment. It definitely worked with the song but there were too unforeseen problems:
- I kept forgetting the lyrics
- Try as I might, it is simply impossible to synchronise one’s hiccuping to a backing track.
Still, it’s nice when learning lessons can be fun.
Can’t say the same for the next morning though.
Drums, drums, drums, drums, drums.
All day the drums.
Drums with barely a pause.
A fog of noise.
Day eight in the Bedlam house was like sitting inside a headache. It was as though the drum kit was exacting its revenge upon us for neglecting it the day before. Oh god, those drums…
We’d saved the trickiest numbers to last and it took all of Tom’s might (and all of our patience) to beat these songs into submission. To describe this seemingly endless session further would be to simply write the words BOOM BANG CRASH over and over and over again.
But it’s over now. We have finally finished this chapter of the recording process. The drum tracks (and indeed most of the rhythm section) are now DONE. I felt as though a ticker tape parade should’ve started. In the end, however, all I could manage was to collapse into an armchair and focus all my energies on peeling back the layers of tinnitus to enjoy the relative quiet.
Tom has worked so hard this last week. Drummers are so often the butt of jokes and ours is no exception (indeed we tease him rather mercilessly at times) but I doff my cap to him today. The boy done good.
Our studio house looks a little different now. We’re done with the live set up and have turned our attentions to the lead sections. The baffles originally set up around the drum kit are now cocooning the guitar amps. We barely see Cleg anymore, he’s locked away in his special lair, perfecting solos and guitar harmonies (guitarmonies?).
We’re all rearranging a lot of the stuff we do live into something more suitable to the private listener (as opposed to drunk festival crowds). Some of the changes are a little unexpected: one of Cleg’s new lead lines evokes the opening strains of Smetana’s Ma Vlast – that’s something I never thought I’d say about one of our songs!
As much as we’re all happy with the progress, there’s something a little melancholy about this part of the process. Up until now we’ve all been playing together almost constantly, one person’s mistake is everyone’s mistake. Every step thus far has been taken together; now we’re all in different rooms working to our own schedules.
It almost feels like the end of Fellowship Of The Ring, the adventurers go their separate ways to confront the common task from different angles…
At 6pm we packed down the drum kit and various amps etc to go play a show. We booked this gig to take care of general food and living costs while we’re here (and petrol for a return trip to Manchester). We were also treating it as an opportunity to try out some of the arrangements we’d been working on over the last week and a half.
We had mixed feelings about doing it though. Plus a possible agoraphobia born from too much time spent working on the album. We’re all in recording mode now and didn’t want to break focus. I was also a little worried about whether I could still kick and leap with all the newly acquired baggage round my middle (a legacy of Christmas excess and too much sitting around).
It was good to get out of the house though. Any remaining cobwebs that hadn’t been blown away by the drum recording were certainly more than adequately obliterated by our twenty song set. The new numbers went down well and we all had a good time letting what’s left of our hair down, enjoying a few pints and catching up with old friends.
And it’s good to know we’ve still got it.
This was one of those days where songs start to arrange themselves. One particularly satisfying surprise was a new tune called You’re On Your Own Now. When I wrote it I was very conscious that it would probably come to be filed in the “guilty pleasures” category rather than “high art” – being, as it is, essentially folk rock. Early run-throughs with the band very much took this line, Cleg was on mandolin and Biff on the cello, giving it a sort of Oysterband feel ending on a heavy instrumental gallop, almost Lindsey Buckingham / Fleetwood Mac Big Love territory.
Well now it’s become a spaghetti western. Don’t ask me how. That’s where the song wanted to go and so that’s where it has gone, we just followed it there. It’s even got the sound of an old Mexican church bell in the background (Dan and I pitch-shifted our dinner gong – well one has to amuse oneself somehow). Admittedly the only thing that makes this bell sound Mexican is that I was imaging the farm village in The Magnificent Seven as I struck it. Sometimes the only special effect you need is imagination.
We had a guest join us today. Sam Moffitt is a superb trumpet player, semi-finalist for Young Musician Of The Year and about to start a masters at the Royal Academy of Music. Gifted swine. He’s been working away with Biff on some wonderful brass arrangements.
During the day we also got the last of my rhythm guitar parts down, some of Biff’s cello and three more of Cleg’s lead lines. In the evening we turned our attention to kitchen percussion – sampling the boinging sounds of woks and water, along with the usual bottles, pans and utensils hit with cutlery. We discovered (much to Dan’s dismay) that one of the best sounds on Earth is that of a metal tray striking a bass player’s unsuspecting skull at high speed.
Ah, the unmistakable, unfakeable sound of cartoon violence…
Up until now these blogs have focused on our general progress and doubled as an emotional compass of sorts. I thought it may be time to get a little more technical though. But this really isn’t my area of expertise… as far as I’m concerned I just sing into a magic box and the fairies do the rest. So I asked Dan (the Debt Records technical director, Bedlam bassist, co-founder of WR Audio and our engineer for this recording project) a few questions that may be on some readers’ minds…
What are the challenges of recording in a house rather than a custom made recording studio?
Noise is obviously an issue, us annoying neighbours with drums etc and noise from outside getting into our mics. Acoustics is the other issue, normal sized rooms in houses with plastered walls tend to have a boxy almost twangy sound to them. This can be combatted using acoustic baffles and its astonishing how affective a humble duvet hung behind the microphone can be.
What do you take into account when investigating each space?
I basically just go around clapping. If you know what you’re listening for you can gauge the sound of the room from a couple of claps. Any metallic twang is generally bad, we chose the library for most of our work and to act as the main control room because all the books (plus almost no flat surfaces) make it a very neutral dry room. The hallway is good too as that has an interesting big bright reverb.
We spent a lot of time getting the drums right. What are the actual differences between the various shapes and sizes of microphone clamped onto the kit?
There are three basic types of microphone:
Each has its own character and every mic within those three general categories sounds different to each other – condensers are sensitive and detailed; ribbons are warm with a rolled off top end; dynamics can deal with high sound pressure levels and have become synonymous with certain sounds. Bass, Snare and Tom Drums suit dynamics (generally speaking), condensers are better for cymbals and an overall drum kit sound. We didn’t use any ribbons but they can work well as overheads.
In the past we’ve struggled with recording vocals in a way we were happy with. Surely it’s not that difficult? What’s the problem and have we solved it this time?
Louis has quite an aggressive voice. In technical speak when he sings louder the frequencies around 3-5khz become very pronounced. A lot of mics that already have a natural presence peak at this frequency, so when these two factors are combined it results in a very strident sound. The mic he now uses for our live shows has very small presence peak compared to most live mics. In the studio we have ended up using two mics at the same time to get the detail and warmth we need. We also tend to lean on dynamic eq to dip those frequencies but only when they’re loud enough to set off the processor.
What are the common mistakes people make in sizing up the “professionalism” of one recording setup compared to another?
People seem to have a fascination with what microphone pre-amps studios use. I get asked a lot whether I have this pre-amp or another. In truth (and this has been proved in a number of blind tests) modern pre-amps are almost impossible to tell apart. The room you record and mix in is the key – great studios have great rooms, quality instruments, a selection of good mics and (probably most importantly) top engineers who know what they’re doing. These days even the most basic recording setups are capable of better results than on most records from the 60s and 70s so it really is down to the person operating it. Oh, and the musicians of course, they make a difference!
Why do people still favour expensive studios rather than just finding a decent room and investing in some good mics (or getting someone like you to help them for a fraction of the price?)
They’re playing at being rock stars essentially, plus a presumption that fancy studio equals great result. Of course, in reality, the principal limiting factors are time, effort and ability, not what studio you use.
Would the recording setup in the bedlam studio house suit all bands or are there some genres that need a different treatment? Would you recommend this process to others planning to record an album?
I would always recommend a process which has musicians living and working together. The process of one musician recording their part, then another, then another without them ever being in the same room tends to suck all the life out of a recording. As for the specific set up I think it would suit any band playing instruments from any genre. Electronic and dance music tend to have different tech requirements though.
Are there any problems you expected before we started? Did they manifest themselves as predicted and if so how were they overcome? Any nasty surprises?
I tend to over-plan everything. I hate not having detailed technical specs of bands before a gig and, in the same vein, I will plan a recording session down to every eventuality so generally speaking most surprises end up being good ones. It helps that we know this set up backwards and we always check all the wires etc work properly before we leave for the session, this saves on tracking down faults when you get on location.
All that’s left is for everyone to stay friends for the duration of the recording process!
I’m going a little stir crazy now. We’re at the stage where the record is teasing me. I suspect I’m not the only one. It sounds so close to being finished but experience has taught us not to get complacent. There’s a lot left to do and I can’t help worrying about time running out. My general disposition in life is already characterised by a sort of premature “old man in a hurry” syndrome, the sensation of feeling thwarted by Time is a regular one.
But we’ve been here a long while now, working constantly, in each other’s pockets, not getting enough fresh air. Plus all the late nights and early starts mean that we tend to find that our bodies insist on finishing work before our minds have completely switched off.
And I admit there’s a petulant bent to my constitution that is itching to take charge right now. I have very little to do at the moment, I’ve laid down all my lead vocals and guitar parts, I’m getting seriously restless. Usually I have no trouble hopping between tasks (we do that all day every day in the general running of the label) and I’m currently trying to get on with other jobs like booking the next Bedlam tour and writing press stuff for the label’s upcoming releases. But recording is such an intense and emotional process, one in which the brain whirs round on a constant spin cycle while the body stagnates. It isn’t the most ideal balance.
Admittedly this is all down to the individual. My problem is that I’m the songwriter so I’m pretty dreadful at distancing myself from the work; everything on this album is very personal, even the most ridiculous songs – it all comes from something real. I think this overly protective attitude is as common among composers as it is unhealthy. But as a man of logic it frustrates me to be so wholly under the perverted influence of this jealous attachment. It brings out the Mr Hyde in me. Every meal the band eats, every cup of tea enjoyed, every cigarette break taken, every sleep succumbed to is time that could be spent doing something “more useful” like adding harmonies or mixing tracks or arranging strings. I am in the thrall of unreason, devoted to a pretence of achievement that manifests itself in activity rather than actual progress – impatience made flesh in a world that has slowed to a crawl.
What is happening in reality is this: Dan tirelessly mans the control room from 9am to midnight while the rest of us take our turn recording whatever has yet to be crossed off the list. The loud stuff happens in the day and the subtleties in the evening; every hour brings us closer to the best thing we’ve ever made together. I just need to keep Hyde on his leash.
Today was a little different. Cleg and Biff worked away on the remainder of their overdubs with little change in volume or intensity, the walls of the house beginning to sag from the constant sonic bombardment. But Tom and I had a mission, one that took us into the outside world.
As you may have gathered, our studio is not a typical one. It is a house and, with all the advantages of comfort and edwardian aesthetics, there comes the disadvantages of background noise bleed. This hasn’t been a big problem for us. We had the beep of one reversing lorry outside a few days ago but we weren’t recording anything at the time so it didn’t matter. The occasional bird tweet isn’t enough to make any kind of significant dent and, in truth, I rather like such natural invasions anyway.
It was one such chirrupy contribution that made us think: rather than them coming to the record, why not take the record to them? So Tom and I went on a jaunt down to the seafront armed with a Tascam portable stereo recorder with the intention of capturing some squawky voxpops.
Someone must’ve told the bird union that we were intending to get some free samples to put on our album. I’ve never known the place to be so empty. We encountered barely a feather. We got a bit of miscellaneous bird chatter but it was the scream of seagulls we particularly wanted and they were nowhere to be found. It was a mistake not to have brought chips. They love chips. Just goes to show, one mustn’t be too frugal when making a record. We’re going to try the port on Friday, followed by the dump. Seeking out the detritus of human industry is our best bet in our hunt for winged scavengers.
Still, we recorded the sound of the sea under the pier, a selection of laps and gurgles as well as the general low heave of an ebbing tide. We also captured one of my favourite sounds – the crunch of feet on pebbles. I used to take regular long walks along this stretch of coastline when I was a boy, that sound is as familiar to me as the pace of my own reasoning.
All records, no matter how fantastical, are in some way autobiographical. This one just got a little more so.
Today we were very much at home to Mr Bang and Mr Crash as Biff’s (even taller) brother Paddy joined us to help Tom lay down some extra percussion parts. The two faced each other across a fearsome array of drums (an evil marriage of both their kits), beaters clutched like viking pace-setters looming over a trembling galley of rowers. Needless to say they made an unholy racket.
Meanwhile the rest of us have been polishing off other bits and pieces – arranging string parts, working out additional vocal harmonies etc. It has been hugely satisfying to get out the red pen and cross so much off our to-do list. For a long time we seemed to spend all our free hours adding new ideas, but now we are striking them out with a near fanatical zeal.
At the end of the evening we listened through the tracks and tried out different orders, I think we’ve narrowed it down to two finalists.
We are now very close…
I thought it might be interesting to get Biff Roxby’s take on this recording project as his brass parts have become something of a signature sound in our tunes. Yesterday I asked him some questions…
Often described as a “one man trombone army” you are one of the most remarked about elements of the Bedlam Six live show. How does your performance and technique differ in the studio compared to onstage?
With the Bedlam Six, my live performance isn’t just about playing. There’s a lot of physicality involved and I try to balance this with my playing so that the quality doesn’t suffer. Jumping around and, ahem, ‘rocking out’ doesn’t mix too well with playing a brass instrument so I keep the movement to a minimum when playing solos or tricky lines. In the studio I can be much more considered in my approach and can throw in more subtlety and intricacy. Playing live you only get one chance at the part, and I often simplify to make it work. I also tend to play louder live, generally because monitoring is a problem on a loud stage such as ours, but sometimes because I’m full of adrenalin (and beer).
What you do is very physically demanding. Is there a danger of doing yourself damage and jeopardising future performances? Do you take precautions (as it were)?
Is there any sort of studio regime or discipline you subscribe to?
I’ve split my lip a few times playing live with Bedlam, which can take a good two or three days to heal properly. Not ideal if you’re on tour or in a session the day after.
To strengthen the lip, a lot of warming up and practice is required which I’m quite strict with myself about, though not as much as I should be (you can always do more).
My other major problem is playing too hard or too physically and therefore pulling muscles in my abdomen, which feels rather like a hernia. Again, the only way to combat this is by exercising and practicing. Breathing exercises help a lot with that.
I have some minor nerve damage in my lower lip, but luckily it doesn’t affect my playing too much, as long as I keep up a good training regime. I also try and avoid any numbing injections at the dentist, as in some cases these can cause muscle problems in the lips. Fillings without anesthetic are not fun, but i really like playing trombone.
There is a danger that if I don’t take care of myself there will come a time where my lips won’t heal correctly anymore and I won’t be able to play properly, or worse, at all.
In an earlier blog we talked a bit about the complexities of recording certain kinds of vocals. What are the key factors to keep in mind when micing up brass?
Over the last few years Dan and I have tried at least thirty different ways of capturing trombone in the studio, using condensers, ribbons and dynamics in a variety of positions. Condensers tend to have too quick a response for close micing, and can often pick up too much of the mechanical noises of the Bass Trombone (it has two valves which make a bit of a clank when I’m really going for it).
The Reslo ribbon mic we’ve tried before sounds lovely and warm (but at the expense of any detail in the high end).
More recently Dan and I started a mobile recording business (wraudio.co.uk) and invested in several really awesome large diaphragm dynamic mics – all of which are widely used as brass/horn mics (among many other things).
Another important consideration is the angle at which you play into the close mic, and we’ve tried several different approaches. I’m generally presenting the Trombone’s bell about a foot from the close mic, often less so angling off-axis to the diaphragm can really change the tone. On axis, mics pick up more of the high end, and the further off axis you go, the more of a roll-off you get of those higher frequencies. My standard position during this session is between 20 and 45 degrees of axis, though we had some great results at 90 degrees to the diaphragm.
After testing all of our options for the close and room mic at various separations and angles, we eventually settled on two setups for the current recording session:
Bass Trombone – Sennheiser MD421 as a close mic for the direct sound, and a Neumann KM184 about 3 feet away to capture more of the character of the room.
Tenor Trombone – Beyerdynamic M-81 for close, and the same Neumann for the room.
The 421 captures all the warmth of my Bass ‘bone and does a bang up job of getting all the crisp attack in there as well. I also like it because it looks like a space gun (see picture).
The M-81 proved better for Tenor – the 421 crispness was a little too shrill for the more prominent attack of a tenor ‘bone. This mic looks more like a small electric razor.
The Neumann is just a beautiful microphone and works superbly to capture that more roomy sound without losing any of the detail in the tone of the instrument. The Neumann looks like a pack of polos, but doesn’t taste nearly as minty.
We tried several other microphones for the direct sound – including a Shure SM7B and a electroVoice RE-320. Both are great mics for live Trombone. In the case of the RE-320 it makes monitoring my sound infinitely easier due to its natural presence towards the higher end of the frequency spectrum.
The eventual choices were made purely through preference. In another session we’ll almost definitely try something else.
You also play cello on the record. I imagine that’s a whole other world of acoustic difficulties. Or is it simply a case of shoving a mic in the F hole (if you’ll pardon my vulgarity)?
Haha, you stay away form my F-hole! But really, separation is important to get a good studio cello sound. Solo celli are often recorded in large, ambient spaces and in those situations you’d rarely find a mic closer than 8 feet form the performer. Sometimes, they can be upwards of 40 feet away. However, my cello parts are mostly for texture in Bedlam recordings with a few little moments poking through the mix. So really all we need is to capture a good tone and make sure I play it well.
Dan and I have tried a couple of techniques – a matched pair of Neumann KM184’s in an X-Y configuration was the first port of call. We ended up placing the pair about 4 – 5 feet away at about 2 feet off the ground. This produced a lovely sound, but with a little too much of the room for what we wanted. We simplified a bit and went with a single KM184 at the same height, about 2 feet away. This struck the balance we were after and even surprised me by capturing less of the scratchy, upper partials that so often plagues celli recorded close up.
I think we’ll still try some more methods, probably in a more acoustically dead space to allow for further separation.
You’ve worked with all sorts of bands, from Liz Green to Elbow. How have you found this recording process compared to others you’ve worked on?
Everyone records differently. It’s a very personal process that has to be right for the artist or group in question. In the Bedlam studio, there is a lot of room for experimentation as we’re doing everything ourselves and have had a solid 3 weeks to record this album.
Recording for other people is usually a case of working to a much shorter deadline. Usually I’ll be trying to achieve an idea they have already and getting a performance they’re happy with. In our current Bedlam session, I’ve been able to record something 2 weeks ago and come back to it with different ideas – not so in other sessions, once it’s done it’s done.
When playing for other people, it’s also over quite quickly – the longest I’ve spent playing in a studio (other than the Bedlam one) is three days for Liz Green’s debut album. But most sessions I’ve been a part of have been half a day or less.
When engineering, I’m there from start to finish, which has been anything from a day to 2 weeks. I’ve nicked a lot of ideas from studios I’ve played or engineered in but that’s the best way to learn, through experience (and thievery).
Any problems or surprises you’ve encountered? What advice would you give to someone embarking on this kind of project?
Dan is so thorough in planning and logistics so there haven’t been any nasty surprises, just pleasant ones.
Advice? Being in your own custom house-studio is amazing. Experiment and have fun with it. Do it, do it now!
Any other thoughts?
Describing the day’s activity sounds a bit like the deductions in a game of Cluedo: Fran in the study with the organ… Biff in the library with the trombone… Tom in the hallway with the cowbell. Thankfully no one has murdered anyone yet.
We got a lot done. It’s been fantastic. We were joined by two guest players, Phyllida Maude-Roxby (aka Mamma Roxby) on viola/violin and Joe Moffitt on clarinet. They’ve both been working some serious magic on the songs. Long-time followers of the band will recognise Phyllida from the gorgeous string parts she contributed to our song “Living In The Aftermath” (on the Memoir Noir EP released in March last year). Her work on this record is no less exceptional, indeed we are all rather blown away.
Fran has also been busy. He was up long after everyone else in the band called it a day. Some of the stuff he’s been playing on this album is absolutely inspired, even by his standards. The man is an alchemist of the Nord keyboard.
I almost wish there was some catastrophe to report just to make this blog a little less gushing but we’re all in excellent spirits and the songs are already sounding pretty complete. If the house caved in and we were all squashed into the floor the record that would survive us could well be considered finished…
(assuming the computer hard drive could be salvaged from the debris)
A busy day of (ahem…) touching up parts. Fran recorded the last of his organ, piano and accordion bits; Cleg some banjo and a few lead replacements for earlier electric guitar takes. I also replaced one acoustic guitar part with a classical guitar as the steel strings in the original were creaking a little too much for the character of the song.
Mostly, however, today was harmony day.
Over the years our voices have steadily become more aligned (if that’s an appropriate word to use in this context), gradually easing into an almost symbiotic relationship whereby they work better together than overlaid. That’s partly to do with a period in which some of us performed as a close harmony busking group, but mostly to do with just being in the same band for a long time, getting to know each other’s particular ranges and what we’re all generally capable of.
When we started recording together (the first demo was late 2006 I think) we would take it in turns to dub our parts onto the main track. The harmonies were technically sound but rather robotic in character. When we made Found Drowned a year later we were doing a mixture of individual takes and posse chants and then by the time Get Religion was recorded in late 2010 we had almost entirely eschewed the separate take process in favour of microphones set up in a circle with the backing singers (Tom, Fran, Biff and Cleg) recording harmonies simultaneously. It’s rare that everyone will achieve a perfect performance on the same try but, frankly, I think perfection is overrated. The feel of a group take is vastly superior to that of several technically flawless overdubs.
Over two years later we’re still doing the mics in a circle thing (so that there’s a degree of control over levels in the mixing process) but for this record the majority of backing vocals are simply us all standing in a line singing, our voices being picked up by two Neumann mics in the centre of the room. It gives a very natural, unpompous choral quality to the sound with a hint of those old swing records where the horn section would occasionally yell a line or two from the back row.
I’ve always been dreadful at harmonies. I found this out when I was seventeen and teamed up to sing Simon & Garfunkel songs in pubs with my best mate (we both looked old for our age so never got asked any difficult questions). I guess that the necessity for me to sing lead on everything (for no other reason than that I’d always mess up the harmony if I sang the secondary part) maybe paved the way for me becoming a frontman. That has always been the secret to every bit of progress in my life, being surrounded by people far more talented!
But after years of touring and recording with The Bedlam Six I find myself able to finally join in with the harmony section. Something clicked during the last few days, we’ve just been naturally finding our notes instantly and nailing the parts on the first or second take. What took days in the Memoir Noir sessions has taken us mere hours this time round. I think these choral parts might be the most satisfying thing we’ve achieved during this whole project, so dependent as they are on being a group undertaking rather than a personal one.
It is apt that vocal harmonies play such a large part in this new record, representing as they do a sense of collaboration, only ever as good as the worst performance and always greater than the sum of the parts.
Much like this band.
And so came the time for my final vocals.
I generally lay down lead vocals three times throughout the recording process. One live track when we’re all playing together at the start (this tends to be quite a “safe” delivery, more concerned with timing and not surprising the drummer too much with any eccentricities – these early takes are, after all, primarily to get the rhythm section as close to perfect as possible); then I sing a more spirited version to add some character so that subsequent overdubs get more of a sense of energy from the song (these will sound more like the way I perform live and I frequently run and jump around the room – often these turn out to be the ones used in the final mix as they’re pretty spontaneous and sometimes I’ll do something I can’t recreate while behaving sensibly). The third take is at the end of the whole recording period when all the other instruments are in and I have an opportunity to let the other performers influence/infect my final delivery.
A few blogs ago Dan the Bedlam bassist/engineer mentioned that I have a difficult voice to record. I suspect this may be a euphemism for “Louis is a lousy singer” (but I don’t mind, people have said a lot worse – “broken bagpipes” being my personal favourite). There is a great freedom attached to not being a good singer; it is certainly not something I lament. Indeed, when I write something pretty I’d much rather someone else sang it than me (Bridie Jackson is about to release a version of one of my songs and hearing her sing it has made me happier than I can adequately convey).
Having said all that, none of the songs start out as growly rants. I can’t imagine writing like that. This regular coarsening of delivery is something that happens in the heart not the head – and on the stage not the page. I think all my songs probably start out wanting to be sung by Roy Orbison rather than Captain Beefheart. My private singing voice is quite a soft one, like my speaking voice, it is English rather than American and it favours high notes rather than low ones. And on stage it is completely the opposite. And there doesn’t seem to be a thing I can do about it.
When I was a stage actor I was taught to project my voice to the back of the room. I can still do that. But when I have a microphone in front of me (whether on stage or in the studio) there is a fierce impulse to just project my voice the couple of inches needed to be picked up by that mysterious quivering diaphragm lurking behind the pop shield. The drawback of this being that one’s voice can often take on an unattractive nasal quality (like Liam Gallagher) or throatiness (like, er, me). Far from becoming more accustomed to the microphone after thirteen years of gigging, I seem to get more and more aware of it, troubled by it even, like a mad dog nose to nose with its angry reflection. I find microphones to be something of a distraction. They are, after all, very unnatural things. Sometimes I get too carried away and bite into them (I have a chip in my front tooth from one such moment at a show in Dumfries). None of this stuff could ever be classed as “good mic technique.”
So for this last session Dan and I spent a lot of time working out the best positioning for each song. There are a couple of tracks I need to really lean into (for those I’ve been performing in a sort of Dean Martin one-foot-on-chair posture), for others I need to jump about a lot. I also confessed to Dan that I sing the songs completely differently at home so he suggested recreating that positioning (and to hell with received wisdom about proper singing posture). So I sat with guitar on lap, hunched over slightly, singing the soft stuff like that, in my natural (sort of) tenor. That’s how the album opens. I’m not playing the guitar at all during these takes, just using it as a comfort prop, a kind of teddy bear substitute if you will. Ridiculous isn’t it?
Still, I’m not quite at the point where I require live doves to fly around me as I record.
Actually, that’s not a bad idea…
My friend Clutch Daisy recently said to me “dismantling the recording gear is way more depressing than taking down the Christmas decorations.”
He’s right. This place has not just been a place of work for the last eighteen days, but also our home. Our entire world even. Dan has barely left the house the whole time, only to pick up some milk and tea bags. In fact, he’s barely left the mixing desk!
Feelings are mixed as they always are on such occasions. Part of me wants to keep on working, lay down more songs or begin the mixing process. Part of me will be glad to get stuck into something else (and there’s plenty of tasks waiting for us back in Manchester – not least of all a huge show at The Dancehouse Theatre in less than two weeks which will require a lot of preparation – it’s my thirtieth birthday so we’re pulling out all the stops).
It will be good (and healthy) to leave this project alone for a bit, allow it to percolate free from our tinkering. We all need a break from these songs, not because we’re sick of them (the opposite in fact), but if we interfere anymore with what we’ve already laid down we’ll end up smothering the tracks to death. If we overproduce what we’ve done here we’ll simply undo all our good work – after all, the entire point of moving into a house together was to make an album that sounds natural, unfussy and honest. We’ve done that. I think it’s strong enough to withstand the tastes and opinions of strangers. And ultimately, that’s all any of us can ever hope to achieve.
There was only one thing I regretted about our time here. On three separate attempts we utterly failed to record the sound of seagulls. We tried the port, the beach, the town, the arcade, the roads and the park. Every time we whipped out the Tascam the birds fell silent or were drowned out by a passing car (or boat or human or machine). But then, as we were loading up the van there came a noise from out of nowhere, a desperate crying, an airborne sob, a wail of utter despondency, such loss, such desire thwarted. Then another, then another, the gulls circled over our heads as we stood frozen in the garden, rooted to the spot, momentarily laying down the various pieces of recording equipment and roles of cables and mic cases. I launched myself to the door and skidded into the kitchen where the Tascam was sitting on the table, swung about on my heels and bolted back outside, waving the device above my head like some ancient talisman, my jacket held aloft in the other to shield the microphones from the wind.
We got it. That piercing, aching, dissonant despondent cry that sounds like nothing else and yet sounds so much like the word Help. I love that noise. It’s the ugliest, shrillest natural sound I can stand. And it soundtracks so much of my childhood, fitting so well with the working title of this album: Youth.