Monday, January 23, 2017

The Baptist Clown of Judginess.

Another splendid foray into the flatlands completed, and a reunion with FentonSteve and Sam - our recording Godparents - who it turns out aren't averse to occasionally explaining patiently to their families that they are going to be spending their Saturday spooling out cables, making coffee, rigging a Trace Elliot and attempting not to drop a microphone worth the equivalent of a small family car whilst a bunch of people they barely know emote meaningfully into the ether. We are recording once more, in a chapel in Waterbeach. Steve is so prepared that he has brought crates on which to put the amplifiers, and warns us not to place them upon the raised area in front of the pulpit, for that is where the baptismal font is secreted, which tends to make the bass boom a little. He also has Ginger Nuts. And some biscuits.

Sans Fiddly on this occasion (he has some pre-arranged wassailing to do) we have not only upgraded the main Soundfield microphone, but lessons absorbed from our last session mean that Sam has included a couple of close-mics in case we need to subsequently tweak the vocals and/or bass in the mix*. Multiple takes are run through and over - at one point an entirely different time signature is workshopped (and recorded for future reference) - and the feel is that of a group getting it together in the country, like in the olden days. Sam's production style is very hands-off - Joe Boydian by many accounts - and there's not a lot of listening back to takes going on until he suggests that we have a live one, whereupon two or three folk check into the improvised control room to confirm his gut feel (or not). Others make tea, eat cake, pootle on the piano or pop to the village shop, pausing on the way back only to admire the Mediaeval swordsmanship being played out on the green. There is an easy, relaxed air to proceedings, probably helped considerably by our new-found familiarity with the process, and that this time we don't have to worry about cars splooshing through the rain-swept streets outside bleeding into the mix. We do have to halt one take to let a plane fly over, and as we look upwards the full majesty of the plaster ceiling rose reveals itself. From a certain angle, it appears that we are being watched over by a particularly malevolent circus performer.

There is a song where we are arranged around a single mic singing a five-part harmony. In another I board the DADGAD bus with Mr. Wendell's booming Gibson acoustic** while he channels Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young on my electric guitar. It's not until I'm listening back to some rapid-turnaround rough mixes a day later that the full, flawless beauty of Helen's vocals shine out, Turny's intricate weaving banjo parts, Gibbon's sinuous bass lines (he's one of the people constantly listening to the playbacks - always looking to refine his part in service of the song).

"Blimey" I mail the group "I didn't realize we were that good".

Sam replies almost instantly.

"Just wait 'til I put the kazoo orchestra on..."

*Which we do. 
**You know - the one that all the Americana singer-songwriters have.  

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

"Let's make some quiet..."

A missive pings into the Neighbourhood inbox informing us that Sam-out-of-Cambridgeshire has some shiny new interfaces he wants to play with and, although still awaiting confirmation of a delivery of the world’s most expensive microphone, has a window of opportunity in which we are invited to showcase our wares. Regular subscribers will be know that we have form with Sam and his trusted accomplice Fenton Steve, and we have been mulling over the initial (‘rough’ seems too recherch√© a term to employ in this respect) mixes from last year’s session with a view to thinking about how to move onward and upwards.I’ve played the demos to a couple of people and had some not-so surprising feedback. That vocal could have been better, the tuning’s a bit out, a specific performance stiffens up towards the end – that sort of thing. I have found - maybe surprisingly - that I’m genuinely not bothered by either the criticisms (in their purest sense) or the revelation of the supposed shortcomings they confirm.

Because here’s a thing – we do speed up noticeably toward the end of one song; we had to choose between a bum note and a misplaced consonant on another; and everyone’s performance gets a wee bit tenuous towards the end of Love Minus Zero/No Limit because we’re all painfully aware that La Mulley pulled off a great acapella first verse about four minutes ago* and no-one wants to be the one to fuck up and make her have to do it again. And here’s another thing. That’s absolutely fine. Because that’s what we sound like. If we were maybe in a position to be able to charge money for people to keep these recordings  - and there aren’t that many groups around these days who are – perhaps we’d insist on being able to go back and, ahem, ‘fix’ a few things.

One correspondent suggested that we wouldn’t be able to send these songs out anywhere as we wouldn’t be able to explain the inherent technical issues away merely by explaining that they consisted of six people gathered around one microphone** and that’s not what they would be expecting. But, oh man - you can hear the room, I say. I know exactly what he means though. Then again, I also know of a promoter who would instantly bin any demo which came in with a picture of any band member holding a Cajon. One used to divide every jiffy bag he received into two piles and immediately dispose of one of them without opening a single envelope on the basis that he only wanted to book ‘lucky’ bands. It’s not exactly payola, but you had no chance of appearing at one particular festival unless you’d paid your subs to a certain focus interest group and another wouldn’t give you house space until you’d reciprocally booked their house band back. Given of all this, the phrase (and I quote) “…we do not normally pay a fee to musicians etc as we do get along of offers to play at our shows, as depending on the show, they use our shows as a platform to promote themselves due to the expected footfall our shows attract”*** (sic) comes as almost laughable relief.

I’m not saying it’s not a game worth playing, I’m just saying that I was never very good at it in the first place, and so given the opportunity to make a recording that transports me back into the room where I made it, rain on the windows and dogs in the street and all, I’ll take it. I mean, people should be envying us, you know. I envy us. Yeah. I do.

*There’s a great section in Bill Bruford’s autobiography about recording with his big jazz band Earthworks and wondering whether the slight fret slur made by the bass player early on is worth calling a halt to the whole take for.

**We are going to also close-mic everything on the next session just to make it a bit more flexible in terms of the tweakability, as it happens.
***We took that one.