Home recording, click tracks, drums and machines.
It’s been a frustrating weekend here at Lewisham Heights, the spare room recording studio which functions as the irl home of Elvers.
When we moved into this garden flat in a leafy suburb of South East London in early 2013 I was overwhelmed at the luxury of having space in which to write, rehearse and record. I still am really and mustn't let occasional bumps in the road to sonic fulfillment derail that fundamental happiness. Nevertheless, frustration is what I'm feeling right now. The thing is that I'm not happy with what I'm producing at the moment and I think the problem is my approach to drums.
Around the same time we moved in here I had set up Elvers as an ostensibly solo project. I scraped together enough funds to buy an ageing second hand mac, installed Logic and set about teaching myself to use it with a view to recording the dozen or so songs I'd written with this project in mind for the last couple of years.
I've been a backseat-driver in all sorts of studio situations over the years and flattered myself that I knew the fundamentals enough to get going. I've been home recording on a succession of tape then digital recorders since my early teens and as a reader of the likes of Tape-Op not to mention a lifetime’s worth of books and articles and hundreds of impassioned late night discussions about the merits of this or that record’s production, I reasoned I just needed to learn the software. Given the new musically conducive surroundings and infinite possibilities of DAW recording I'd be off into the professional sonisphere within a week or two right?
Well, it wasn't quite that easy. The initial learning curve was pretty smooth and I was up and running more or less to programme. But despite my confident assertions, what I hadn’t accounted for were the softer production skills I'd need to develop in order to record and mix these newly complex recordings.
I'm quite capable of sitting in a professional studio and confidently instructing an engineer to make the vocal “a touch drier” or the bass “more punchy” etc. You are too. That’s all it takes. The problem is that is knowing how to make these vague instructions magically happen wasn't immediately clear. In fact I'm starting to think in fact that I might even have had just exactly the wrong amount of knowledge about signal path and gain structure etc. to have lulled me into a false sense of security. I was conceited in thinking that my hands-off experience had equipped me with the tools I'd need once I rolled up my sleeves. A little knowledge was dangerous. (copyright: The Jackass Review 2014)
Although I'd been recording at home for years, my “demos” as they had always been apologetically known, had been limited to eight tracks, a three band eq and one reverb. Suddenly being faced with the literally endless possibilities of DAW recording and mixing was somewhat overwhelming. Just how many guitar tracks is too many? Which frequency is it I need to cut to get that unpleasant boxiness out of the bass? Why shouldn't I double the lead vocal. Treble it? Maybe all the vocals? And just how do you make these frustratingly wayward eq graphs do what you want anyway? The decisions were seemingly endless. Avoiding being sucked into the infinite possibility and adding for adding’s sake was (and remains) a pitfall.
Mundane mix decisions were almost crippling too. Just how much of which type of compression and reverb do I need to add to the vocal to make it sit right in the mix? Do I use two compressors? A limiter? Which one? Do I automate the volume to smooth out this percussion track or compress the hell out of it or do I re-record it? I’d read the books and the magazine articles and knew what I should be doing but “should” isn't universal, recording isn't an exact science and in my 2am on a Tuesday “Mix27(more bass).wav” confusion I'd try anything. I’d go round version after version for weeks on end driving myself (and quite possibly the neighbors) crazy.
I was however determined not to fall foul of the home recordist’s malaise of eternal tinkering. The constant excuse-making and delaying completion of a song until that next bit of kit or software arrives that’s going to make everything better. I wanted to pay homage to the Tape-Op philosophy of “Work creatively with what you’ve got” and most importantly of all: “Finish things”.
So I did finish a couple of things and I've had some limited success already. With plenty of help and advice and eventually (I must admit) a professional mix by a friend, one of my genuine all homegrown, spare room recordings, The Last Great Auk, is currently doing the rounds on a TV ad for Visit England:
I’m quite proud of this modest achievement and smile every time I stumble across it on TV or online. Okay damn you, I cheer and whoop and tell everyone within earshot about it. But I am proud of it for a variety of reasons, not least that the guitar is my un-glamorous Martin copy and the entire song was recorded with a ten year old Rode NT1/A through a £100 Mackie audio interface. All in all, I'm really happy with both the result and that it ended up on such a benign and cheerful campaign.
Back in real life, I also finished a handful of other recordings with varying degrees of success. Some of them are in free time, just played to an original guitar and vocal guide track but most of them start life with either a click track or a programmed drum loop. I mention this because I think that it’s drums that are causing my current disquiet.
As a naive and somewhat arrogant young musician I was vehemently opposed to the use of click tracks and rigid drum samples in the kind of rock/pop/country music I was making at the time. It was a, I suppose laudable, commitment to the human element in music that drove this misguided puritanism. I'd cite the Stones’ loose Charlie Watts swing or Ringo’s exuberant battery as evidence of the irreplaceable nature of the human heart and groove in great rock music. As I got a little bit more experienced and hopefully smarter I started to realise that rigid rules such as this can in fact be more restrictive to creativity than the rigid grid of a drum machine.
Working with Tacticians was an eye opener for me in that regard. I was in awe of their musicality and production sensibilities when I met them. I was in love with their songs. On joining the band I was intrigued to find out how many of their charmingly homemade, organic sounding little gems of tunes were driven by a sample or a loop with live instruments recorded over them.
What’s more, I found that the relentlessly driving push of a perfectly in-time drum loop can add a real sense of drive and urgency to an otherwise relatively loosely performed live track.
After all, there’s only one Charlie Watts and for every band that swings there’s ten million bands (including, I suspected, all the ones I'd been in) that just drag or rush, neither of which sound good. Basing your groove on a subtle mechanical pulse was a smart and surefire way of avoiding that pitfall. It just worked.
So I got hold of an old Roland drum machine and almost all of my acoustic home recordings from thereon in featured a puttering 808 kick and snare pattern.
So it’s fair to say that I have no ideological issues with acoustic, folk, alt-country, lo-fi, (or whatever you want to call it) influenced material being based on an electronic beat and Elvers is no exception.
For some of my recent recordings as Elvers I created my own loops using a mixture of samples, real drums and whatever I can lay my hands on. The rhythm track on this recording of Crashed and Burned involves a kick sample, a live tambourine and snare drum (snares off) played with my hands and a cheese grater played with a wooden spoon and a metal knife as well as a cutlery rack being hit with a chopstick.
I’m pretty happy with the feel of both Crashed and Burned and The Last Great Auk, which is based on a programmed four on the floor kick and hi-hat pattern with additional programmed drums added at the mix stage. But lately I seem to have hit a bit of a wall recording rhythms for Elvers.
It’s possibly a coincidence but I've recently spent some money on the well reviewed Toontracks EZDrummer 2 software and two (also not cheap) expansion packs which I was hoping would make all of my make-do-and-mend rhythmic tinkering redundant. But instead of being unleashed into pro-drum heaven as I had hoped, I seem to be floundering more than ever, incapable of getting down a basic track that I’m happy with.
I think part of the issue is having been seduced by the EZDrummer expansion packs, one of which is the “Twisted Kit” recorded by Michael Blair (famed Tom Wait’s percussionist) playing the iconic Rain Dogs trash drum kit. As a huge Tom Waits fan, if not obsessive, the idea that I could have that guy playing those noirish urban jungle rhythms on that kit on my recordings was pretty powerful.
But I've spent days playing with it now and have failed to find a single groove in that, or any other library, that works with the songs I’m trying to record. They're just too either muso-slick or, in the case of Mister Rain Dogs, too singular or busy to shoehorn into my rhythmically simple celtic flavoured folk-pop nonsense. I've ended up today going back to programming my own simple loops again but even so, something just isn't err… clicking for me this time.
For example, the song I'm working on at the moment has two tempo changes and one time signature change. I've not gone prog, it just starts as a free-time slow woozy waltz, picks up a little bit on the first chorus as the band comes in then changes up a gear or three into a swingy 4/4 jazz stomp for the rest of the tune. I've programmed all of these tempo and signature changes. I've tried starting with a loop. I've tried playing it in free time then tempo matching. I've dragged all sorts of patterns into the guide track recorded to the click and none of them sound right.
You could argue that it’s just poor timing from my guide track (there’s a bit of this at play here I've no doubt) but I'm starting to wonder if this track just needs the ebb and flow of a live band performance. With or without a drummer. I think it needs the human element to be able to breathe and I'm just not sure that building it up from a programmed or looped drum track is going to work this time. No matter how much I automate the changes.
If I'm right then it’s both interesting and slightly frustrating. Part of setting up Elvers as a solo endeavour in this room with this computer was that I'd be completely self-sufficient in terms of producing recordings. It was also that there would be no more excuses for “demo” quality recordings. I’d have the time to work on things until I was ready to release them. No longer could I cite lack of money, equipment or a rushed budget studio session as the reason for yet again being unhappy with the final product. I am far beyond done with that scenario.
That Elvers has developed into a solid four piece (and occasionally more) live band is a a great thing. I really couldn't be happier with the way the band is playing at the moment. We've worked really hard at it and although we've struggled at times (as we're all ridiculously busy with our disparate 30-something London lives) we seem to have got to the point where we're familiar enough with each other and the material that we're able to play about and have fun with dynamics and structure when we make music together. It’s this living, breathing sense of performance that I think I'm missing with the programmed beats on these particular tracks.
All of which makes me wonder (copyright Carrie Bradshaw: 2004). Is it time to head out to a studio again? It’s something I've done with many bands, dozens of times and with varying degrees of success. The hit-rate has been pretty low to be honest. So if we do decide to go for it I'm going to have to think hard about where we go, how we approach it and what we want to get out of it. I’d have to make sure we went somewhere good and put the time in to make sure we were ready.
Ideally I'd like to spend a day doing pre-production then a day tracking perhaps three or four basic tracks either with or without vocals (isolation levels allowing). I’d then be able to work on overdubs and vocals at my leisure back at Lewisham Heights. Yep, I think I’ve talken myself into it.
Which brings me to the conclusion and explanation as to what this rambling train of thought blog is about.
Part of the purpose of this new blog is as a home on the web for Elvers away from social media. The other equally important function is for me to work through stuff like this which might otherwise cause me to grind to halt as I figure it out subconsciously over the course of months. By working it though and putting into the context of a blog post, I'm hoping that I'll be able to unburden myself of the internal debate and arrive at answers that keep me moving forward creatively. By drawing a line in the sand publicly (although I'm sure no-one will read this, much less to the end) I feel as if I've made a commitment. So yeah. Decision made. Now I just need to find a studio.