Making an Album
Right here, on this page, we are going to be sharing all of our secrets behind our new album. Will background vocals be recorded in a washing machine, will we try putting an according down on a track and later decide it sounds terrible? Perhaps a flash of inspiration will strike and we’ll decide to change the sound to roller-rink pop electro album in an attempt to take contemporary radio by storm? Doubtful.. or maybe Jamie will say something hilarious and it can only be heard on take 5, and only available here? We don’t know.. It’s going to be a surprise to us as well.
Some things will sound great, some things won’t, some things will make us want to cry, in fear or joy. We’ve recorded two albums in the past and this one will be a completely different process. Both “Paper Town” and “Two” were recorded in a basement studio in New Haven, Connecticut, with us on all the gears and knobs, twisting things and plugging wires in backwards. This time we’ve stepped it up a notch, we’re using guys who know what they are doing.
The page is written with the most recent posts at the top, so if you want to read it from the beginning, start at the bottom. And so begins the adventure. We’re in this together….
She’s finally complete!
We can’t wait to share our baby with everyone. It’ll be available on iTunes by Thanksgiving, and the physical copies will be available at our shows during our Thanksgiving Weekend Grand Slam around Duluth and Minneapolis!!
More details about the album to come soon, right now we’re on the road somewhere in Massachusetts.
Six months later, half a year since our last update, and so much has happened. The band members flew around the globe, lived in different cities and different states, and we’ve arrived here: releasing the CD almost exactly one year after the first recording session began. The process took far longer than anticipated, and we’re proud of that. Our lives changed and grew, and so did our sound and our songs. We’ve reached 19 completely recorded tracks now, and will be whittling it down to 13 or 14 in the coming days. Here’s exactly what’s been and what is going on:
We now all live in Minneapolis, no more sending tracks across the country via Dropbox or whatever, now it’s only a 5 minute drive to Dane’s house for Jamie and Tony, who live under the same roof again. We’ve now recorded at least a few instruments in 7 separate locations (Sacred Heart, Sparta Sound, a Minneapolis apartment, two Boston apartments and two Cloquet, MN home basements.) The past week and half have been entirely dedicated to the completion of all recordings, with the three of us staying up until somewhere between 4 and 7 AM and starting again in the early afternoon. Squeeze our 6 gigs into the past 10 days and the schedule is more fully-realized as being grueling.
The mixing process began tonight, Dane put his McNally-trained ears to work and started a pre-mix via laptop and headphones on the way down to our Rochester show tonight. It all has to be finalized and realized within one week from today, and sent off to the duplication company. It must be done before we head on our first East Coast tour on Nov 1st, and the CD release parties are scheduled for Nov 23rd-26th.
We’re lucky to have several seriously amazing guest musicians recorded with us. Ben Cosgrove from Boston recorded organ on most of the songs, as well as keyboards and trumpet, Scott Hunt laid down some fiddle and dobro, and as previously mentioned Eric Roberston is on mandolin on a track. It’s a much larger sound than we’ve ever had before, it makes us feel like U2 or something, and it’s really pretty cool. The album art is also under way, to be complete in just a couple more days. We’re working on a title, probably “Demolition”, a word which can be taken many ways, and means something special to each of us core members.
This last step in the recording process has been enjoyable, despite the strain it’s put on our sleep schedules. We’ve converted several rooms into recording stations, with movers blankets and duvets in the corners to act as sound traps. A couple of the songs we wrote in the night, taught to the band in the morning and recorded in the afternoon, and a couple of them have been recorded for many months. It’s a huge variety of sound and vibe, and it’s the duty of mixing/mastering to sculpt them all into a complete and coherent whole.
It’s turned out to be one hell of a project. Much larger than we thought, and we’re extremely confident the final product is worth every minute of the lengthiness of the process.
Here are the songs we’re now finalizing and picking/choosing between:
A Line Storm Song
Burning Down the House
Don’t Walk Away
How To Prove
Do You Think It’s Possible To Move The Goat?
Return to Gold
Tied to Your Tracks
Till the Wheels Fall Off
Fine For Now
The balance between perfection and loose is something I’ve had a hard time managing for years. With the album taking shape, we are pushing into a direction that’s loose as a goose, exciting and a little rough. As I said before we aren’t allowing takes be done 100 times, we’re standing behind that, but Paul McCartney did one fresh version of “Oh! Darling” every day until he got it right, and therefore we’re allowing ourselves the same. A new song has been written, below is a basic track of what will become “This Time”:
We finally bought the mic we wanted since the beginning of recording – a Shure SM7b. Which has been used by everyone, everywhere, it seems. Especially cool because it was used by Justin Townes during the recording of “Midnight At The Movies.” We’ve been setting it up in the corner of the apt with thick blankets hung behind to act as sound traps, and we’re getting great results.
The past month and a half have been spent writing new material. We have four good songs complete that will be recorded and thrown into the ring to fight the other 11 or 12 for keeper slots on the album. Our songwriting has changed quite a bit since the first album, we have a much stronger grasp on judging song quality, or lack-thereof. For every good song we write, 6 or 7 get tossed. The keepers can’t be crafted on demand, they fall from the sky, and catching them just means being at the right place at the right time. Try as I might to work a song to death, until I feel it’s worthy of an album track, it almost always gets progressively worse. The song will either have the spark or not. It’s been an interesting game these past weeks, and we are starting to see the fruits of our labor.
We’ve been listening to Randy Newman, Justin Townes, Lucinda Williams, Harry Nilsson and The Avetts a lot lately – our songs will hopefully be a big melting pot of their poetry, truth, grit, beauty, and groove.
We’re looking forward to getting the songs recorded, audio clips are on their way!
Plopped down in a window booth of a Co-op in Minneapolis, sushi-fed, I’m contented enough to recall the past experiences of vocal recording, from our albums “Paper Town” and “Two”. We had a cement block basement room, pipes pumping and voices entering from common rooms and gymnasiums down the hall; it was, to us, a beautiful and stocked studio of high-end equipment, and it was all ours. Only ours, no engineer, no producer, no one to tell us how wrong our technique was.
“Hey, lets put this mattress up in this corner, hang the mic from the pipe, I think this cable goes here. I’ll sing over there, you hold that button…”
We locked ourselves in there, weekends at a time, literally 15 to 20 hours a day. Maybe leave for a sub or a banana, and then back in, from about 11 AM to 6 AM. Much of the vocals were done between midnight and 6 or 7 AM, after we had been in the studio long enough to live and breathe in sync with the music we had been listening to that day. By the time we finished our takes, sometimes 20 or so run-throughs later, we would crash, musically saturated and zombie-state, me sleeping on the couch or mattress in the studio, Jamie in his room across campus.
The following morning meant going through all the night’s delirium and finding the gems. No auto-tune was used, no doubling, no tricks (we never will). It was a beautiful process, and while we’re sad to see that old studio gone, we are both happier and optimistic with the new approach. Instead of wrapping this album up in just a few weekends, we’ll be working it and re-working it over the course of several months. The vocal takes are planned to be live and free, energetic and if not perfect, they will have a vibrancy of character. Just a couple run-throughs a day. The musicians we love the most don’t sound processed, we aren’t interested in the musical Velveeta Cheese; mistakes will be kept. Give us the real deal, the goat cheese, fresh from the goat with the dung on his heels.
Big weeks ahead!!
People have moved, new songs have been recorded. Winter is in full attack, a puppy was purchased. We’ve been busy for the past couple weeks keeping our hands and ears warm mixing the basic tracks (drums, guitars, banjo and organ). Our second session at Sacred Heart studios in Duluth produced 6 new song foundations which we are now preparing for vocals and auxiliary toys.
The new songs include two written by Jamie, two written by Tony and one instrumental (a first! HEYO!). That makes a total of 14 songs in the works, more to be written and recorded, which will be whittled down to the finest dozen or so. It will stand like a beacon on the highway of independently produced Minnesota-roots americana/bluegrass albums in 2011.
Now that we’ve completely recorded the basic tracks, a task which required freezing cold fingers, treacherous hillside parking, Dane power-spiking a metronome onto a concrete slab, re-recording the same 4 minutes of music endlessly (for the first time ever, we recorded live in the studio, the three of us at once), we are now on to the next step: long distance vocal recording. Jamie in Boston, Tony in Minneapolis (taking an internship at a booking agency to finish out college). Thank god for modern innovations such as Dropbox and Sendspace, we are doing vocals in separate studios and sending files 1,500 miles, via the electric and mysterious Internet Magic Speedway.
Here’s an example of a scratch vocal, being re-recorded in the coming days:
Burning… Scratch Vox
The good part about doing vocals this way is the amount of time we can dedicate. Instead of rushing, we can do a few takes, make a sandwich or take the dog to pee, come back and spit em again. We’ve spent enough time testing out all the different mic options to arrive on a few that will make our voices sound just like we want: sizzling like bacon oil, wide like the Mississippi, at times grizzled, other times sweet and round, like cotton candy. The next few weeks might be an easy river ride of first-takes, or a treacherous road of overdubs. We’ll be aiming to do each song just a couple times, but the vocal process has been merciless in the past.
Either way, the holiday season is behind us and we’ll be posting more often, check ya soon!
For the past few days we’ve been wrestling invisible electric monsters that have crept into our recording machines. We were picking up some sort of electrical waves, radio stations across the city, alien life trying to work their devious way into our album. When that wasn’t an issue there was some sort of high electric hum, which we found coming from our audio interface. Troubleshooting 101: mic chord? Buy a new one. Nope. Christmas lights sharing the outlet? Unplug em. The wizards that we are, it only took three days to get a clean signal to our computer. This is why we have decided to pay the studio engineers to press the red button for us, because there are hundreds of elements to this recording setup; one bulb blows out and they all turn off. So we set another date with Eric at Sacred Heart, but until then we are rigging our home system up with everything but tinfoil and paper clips — and for now, it’s working.
We bought a new mic for vocals. It sounded boxy and squeezed, so we traded it back and wound up with an awesome breathy ADK S7. Contented, we are going to record the guitar and banjo for two ballads tomorrow, hopefully some vocals too.
We watched a documentary tonight called Man On Wire. One of us cried. It was one of the most inspiring films we can recall, about a man obsessed with tightrope walking and, in 1974, pursued his insane dream of tightropeing between the World Trade Centers, right in the face of death. Obsession, dedication, enthusiasm. Beautiful movie. Left me wanting to tattoo “Saint Anyway” on my chest. This is our little dream. Watching the level of dedication that humans are capable of when they’re enthused and energized is amazing. It made us think more about this specific project: how can we do that with an album? Write two songs every day for a month? Record them all each a dozen times and keep the very best take? Climb to the top of a tower and do magic tricks to promote ourselves? We love this band, so maybe we we will.
Last night we were in a studio in Boston from midnight to 6 A.M. recording parts for two tracks, “Tied To Your Tracks” and “Meadowlark”.
We were lucky enough to have a friend of ours from The Boston Boys, Eric Robertson, playing mandolin on “Tied To Your Tracks”. He was in and out in record time and graced the track with beautiful playing. Every inch of me wants to share the completed song immediately, in the words of Ron Burgendy, “I just want shout it from on top of a mountain”, but we’re keeping it down for now.
Here’s half the track:
“Tied To The Tracks” cut
Here’s a video from the control room, he was in the recording room practicing:
Eric recording (video)
We also laid down the basic tracks, and later vocals, for “Meadowlark”, which went like this:
What we’ve done so far on the album, yet unnamed, is one complete song (Return To Gold) at Sparta Studios with Rich Mattson, and basic tracks (banjo, guitar, bass, kick drum) for 4 songs at Sacred Heart studios in Duluth with Eric Swanson.
Both studios had some sweet mics (if you could care less about RE-20’s and Rode NT2A’s, skip this part). At Sacred Heart the guitar and banjo were recorded with an SM81, the bass went straight in DI, and the kick drum… Don’t recall, but there was a mic outside the drum and inside, which we figured was legit enough. No vocals were recorded, we plan to do those in a separate space, since we are ridiculous perfectionists about vocal takes. We plan to buy a nice mic, probably a Shure SM7 or KSM32SI and record the vocals in our own space, on our own time, with some wine and candles, just how we like it.
Sacred Heart has a sound that is instantly recognizable, it’s bright and defined, blue and electric. Trampled By Turtles recorded “Songs From A Ghost Town” there, as did Charlie Parr for his album “1922″”. There are vintage Gibsons hanging in the control room. We love the sound. The basic tracks we got from this studio, in about 3 hours, are more than we could have hoped for. At one point, while listening to the tracks in the control room, on a brown suede couch, I broke the high E string on one of the studio’s ancient guitars, a Gibson J-45, I apologized and wrapped the string into a neat curl an put it back in it’s place. Eric didn’t freak out and we’re still allowed back. In the end we are very happy with the results we got. So here are two tracks from Sacred Heart:
Burning Down The House (take eight)
How To Prove (second to last take)
We recorded 6-8 different takes of each song, until we felt we got it right. We ended up keeping two separate versions of “How To Prove You Love Someone”, the very last take we recorded we declared the “stupidly fast” version. We felt we nailed it on the take prior, so we decided to go for a wilder one. We almost certainly won’t keep it, this is what it sounds like:
How To Prove (final take – fast)
All of this happened Fri Nov 26th. Today we started recording scratch vocal tracks. They’ll be done tomorrow, in time for us to get two fantastic Berklee instrumentalists into our studio (aka a bedroom in our apt). We’ll be recording a fiddle and a mandolin Saturday and Sunday on the five songs with completed basic tracks:
Return To Gold
A Line Storm Song
Burning Down The House
Tied To Your Tracks (Last Love)
How To Prove You Love Someone
“Return To Gold” was the only song we recording in Sparta Sound Studios with Rich Mattson, which happened on a Fri in Aug. This was our first time in such a professional studio with a producer other than ourselves. Thankfully Rich is a great guy and made us feel comfortable early on. He has a nice cat and dog that wander around the studio and make you feel like your sitting in your living room.
Rich’s studio in Sparta has an entirely different sound, woody, brown and thick. Eventually “Return To Gold”, which is now complete, will pop up on this page, but for now it’s sitting safe and sound in our hard drive, waiting patiently to be heard. Included on the track is our lovely organ, which we bought from a dude 45 min West of Boston for $50 and recorded it here in our Boston apartment. Solid deal.. It will surely be recorded elsewhere on the album, assuming it continues to run.
© Saint Anyway