Today marks the start of the Kickstarter campaign for Hero’s Journey, a concept album by Beth Kinderman, based on Joseph Campbell’s famed “monomyth” theory from The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m producing it, which also means engineering and mixing. Beth and I have been musical partners for a decade now, and have produced several albums, but this is by far the largest thing either of us has ever done, the culmination of years of work.
As part of the Kickstarter, we released Departure, a six song EP of works in progress. It consists of the first five songs, covering the “Departure” phase of the monomyth, and “Master of Two Worlds”, the next to last song on the album, its musical and storytelling climax. So that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing with my life for the past few weeks.
I’ve been wanting to write some about the mixing and production process, so here it is, on a song-by-song basis for the contents of Departure.
The Call to Adventure
Are you afraid of death?
The first song on the album is the opening of the monomyth, when our hero is called upon to do something awesome and terrifying, something the hero cannot even comprehend. When we first started working this material live, the basic arrangement came out right away, and hasn’t really changed.
This song is particularly important because it sets the stage for the album itself, both conceptually and sonically. I have focused hard on getting a clean, beautiful mix that can be used as a reference for every other track on the album.
Refusal of the Call
All the butterflies who fell in love with their cocoon
This song contains my single favorite line of all the wonderful lyrics of all the dozens of songs I’ve heard from Beth over the years — “The forest floor is littered with the chrysalids turned carcasses of all the butterflies who fell in love with their cocoon”. It’s a profound sentiment.
Although the song itself is straightforward, I’ve struggled to get an arrangement and mix that suits the feeling in my mind. The feeling of her initial demo recording, and subsequent live performance, has escaped me so far. It’s getting there, though.
I could hear their singing, and I could see their fire
When we started recording, this song worried me, as I wasn’t sure how to approach it to get the right feel. The solution came from my fellow musicians. Justin’s drumming and Dennis’ groovy bass brought it to life. It’s now my favorite mix on Departure. Another thing that helped was getting my “magic” guitar sound together, thanks to the fantastic Soundtoys Crystallizer plugin. A simple arpeggio of harmonics blooms into a glistening shower of pitch-shifted, reversed echoes shimmering ever upward. I so love the sound, and it captures the feeling I wanted. It’s very important to me that sounds on the album be not just musical, but symbolic. “Supernatural Aid” is about the presence of magical teachers and guides, there to help the Hero launch into their journey. This sounds like magic. Funky, funky magic.
The Crossing of the First Threshold
I am held in sacred circles, within and above and below
Beth wrote this as a pagan “corner calling”, summoning the spirits of east, south, west, and north. This is a traditional type of hymn in a way, and I have heard many over the years, but this one is the best I’ve heard. We knew the arrangement in advance — a small choir, with a voice added for each verse, and hand percussion. But I didn’t expect it to be as emotionally moving as it turned out to be.
I’m very grateful we were able to work with our friends Kelly and Sarah from Candles Enough. (Beth and I recorded/produced their EP Fire on the Hill, one of my favorite albums I’ve done.) They are committed choir singers, and gave us exactly the right sound. Much of the raw sincerity of this track can be attributed to their talent.
This one will be an interesting challenge engineering-wise! The fourth voice, our bandmate Elizabeth, is missing. I recorded this live, using an XY stereo mic pair for a very natural sound. I’ll have to record Elizabeth with the same kind of XY pair and take care where she stands, to get it to blend smoothly. There’s a lot of interesting trickery in this kind of recording. There’s also musical trickery, as the harmony was created without Elizabeth’s input. She is classically trained (with a degree in music), and has the most sophisticated ear for harmony in the band. But if there is anyone I trust to thread this harmonic needle, it’s Elizabeth.
Belly of the Whale
Oooh, there is danger in the deep, in the dark
This where things get weird, and the music becomes unabashedly “progressive rock”. Strange chords and off kilter time signatures create the setting for a tale of loneliness and fear.
This recording has been built in layers, each one building off the last into a marvelous whole. The process started even before we recorded. When Beth originally wrote it, there was a 6/8 verse with a long descending chord sequence, and a brief chorus in 5/8 with some very disorienting chord changes. There was a verse section for a violin solo, and Elizabeth suggested we do the solo in 5/8 time, blending the chords of the verse with the rhythm of the chorus. The end result is a jagged, and kind of frightening section.
This was built in overdubs. First came Beth, laying down a base acoustic guitar/vocal track for the rest of us to follow. I then added an arpeggiated electric guitar over the verses that I had developed in live performance. After that, Elizabeth came to record her backing vocals and violin. Remember, sounds on the album are often representational. The violin represents the spirit of the Hero. So I asked her to play up the sense of fear and timidity that came through in the song. After a couple of takes, she gave us this performance, and we both knew immediately that was the take. She said right away we were done, and I shouldn’t delete it.
Speaking of representation, I wanted to capture the sound of the whale itself, since our Hero is in the belly of the whale. The right guitar synth patch and the right extended technique gave me exactly what I wanted… a creepy, hollow-sounding basso tone that slowly and sometimes unexpectedly moves. Another perfect part!
Once Justin and Dennis got the drums and bass in place, it was magical. The performances and arrangement capture my hopes for a sound perfectly. This song sounds like it means.
Master of Two Worlds
And so my own self will be mastered by no one but me
This song is the most complex and least finished work on Departure. It’s very much a work in progress, with many parts still left to record, and a lot of mixing puzzles to solve, to make sure everything speaks clearly in its own voice. As such, it is in a way most true to the spirit of Departure, a glimpse into the sausage factory. There’s a guitar part that will absolutely die. The drums are nowhere near as crisp as I want them. The arrangement itself needs a lot of work.
Buried in the mix, though, is a treat — the voice of the Goddess, courtesy of our friend Lizzie Crowe of Cheshire Moon. The Goddess really makes her entrance earlier on the album, on the track “Meeting with the Goddess”, but here we have her return to share the confidence and wholeness of our Hero. When we were doing pre-production and needed a Goddess, only one voice came to mind for both of us.
I’ve been wanting to talk about mixing for a bit, too. Although I’ve created a number of albums over the years and occasionally gotten lucky, I never felt I had a real method for mixing that didn’t involve a lot of guesswork. That’s changing with this record, and I’m mixing better than ever before.
The big change is in how I group things. I’m now organizing tracks into busses based on their position in the mix, in that sense of space and depth. There’s a “near” buss (for lead vocals and violin), a “far” buss (for guitars, backing vocals, and other background instruments), and separate bass and drum busses. All busses are treated with their own buss compressor (I use the Brainworx Townhouse compressor, but any SSL-style will do). The Near buss uses a slow attack and fast release, the Far buss uses a fast attack and slow release — both compressors barely touching the music, no more than 2db reduction on the loudest peaks. But it tends to glue the bits together, and the fast attack/slow release on the Far buss softens transients and smoothes out the sound. Each has a dedicated reverb — no more trying to put a separate reverb on each track! Drums get their own compression, and a shorter, brighter reverb. Now I’m hearing that sense of “space” that I hear on good professional mixes. This makes me happy.
If this is interesting to you (and I assume it is, if you’re still reading this), I hope you’ll support our Kickstarter! It’s a pretty amazing album, if I do say so myself.