studio diary - 2

21 Dec 2005 01:08 by Doug

Sunday December 5th was my second day tracking with The Hyphens at Appleman. We got there shortly after noon. I did all my bass overdubs (unless we find something later that really needs fixing) and John got well into his (he finished up his parts the following Monday).

Two things really stood out for me about the second day.

The first was the subtlety with which Chris approached hands-on production. We were definitely looking for an objective perspective and open to changing arrangements. Sunday morning was the first time Chris suggested a major alteration, and I think the way he did it makes a beautiful case study.

The song was “Baby Got a Place to Go.” I’d been playing a walking quarter note bass line throughout the verse. Originally, the beginning of each verse was supposed to be played piano with an abrupt dynamic change to forte in the second half. The walking part was designed to to provide some counterpoint to the vocal line/guitar chords, and to be played quietly more than propulsively.

We did a take or two of my original arrangement, and Chris said something along the lines of “that’s a really cool part, but I wonder if it’s too much, too soon.” He wanted me to simplify the first verse, emphasizing the pulse of the drums on the one and three without moving from the root, then switch back to the walking part in the second verse.

I think I actually recorded a whole take that way, but as soon as I went back to the walking part I knew I’d done a terrible thing — the tune just sagged. Over the next hour I evolved a new part that incorporated Chris’s rhythmic suggestions with a smidgeon of my original melody idea. I was so sold on the new part that I insisted on playing it at a gig the following night, even though our drummer had never heard it.

I think I’m generally pretty good at thinking about what’s best for a song rather than what’s best for my personal satisfaction as an instrumentalist. But I’m certainly not perfect. I think if Chris had led by saying “that bass line is totally wrong for that song,” I might have bristled and gotten defensive. It might’ve taken me longer to realize he was right. Instead, he opened with “it might be too much for the intro.” I was happy to compromise on the beginning of the tune if I got to play my cool part later on. I think he was counting on the fact that I — or if not me, Dave or John — would have the judgment to realize what the song needed throughout if I were forced to play it “right” at the beginning. Genius.

Digression: This is a variation on the crucial strategy of “How to Work for Darth Vader and Not Get Strangled,” one of the chapters from Everything I Need to Know about Middle Management I Learned from Star Wars, a book I will never write. There’s exactly one officer in the original trilogy who survives giving Vader bad news, and this is how he does it:

Officer: The battle station plans are not aboard this ship, and no transmissions were made. An escape pod was jettisoned during the fighting, but no life forms were aboard.
Vader Hooooosh. Whooooosh. She must have hidden the plans in the pod. Send a detachment down to retreive them, Commander. There will be no one to stop us this time.
Officer: Yessir!

See what he does? He gives his superior exactly the information — no more and no less — his superior needs to draw the conclusion he’s already drawn. Vader gets to have the little ego boost of figuring out the solution, and the officer gets to live another day. This is a great way to handle certain obnoxious bosses (especially those who either were or like to imagine themselves as a Major Hardass). And, apparently, it’s a great way to tell me that my bass parts suck.

p.s.: The officer’s use of the passive voice is also brilliant.

Roland Space Echo

The second stand-out of the day was the Roland Space Echo. We had created a minor problem for ourselves by distorting pretty much everything on “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” That meant the trusty Tube Screamer didn’t really make John’s lead parts jump out of the mix. We needed a sound that was more drastically different. I would have suggested my XXL pedal — a very twisted little effects box — but I don’t have a Space Echo at my disposal. It’s got to be one of the most demented artifacts produced by humankind. The sounds it makes are uncanny, unearthly, and often beautifully hideous (and vice/versa). It’s also tempermental and hard to predict, which puts it squarely in what Tape Op’s Larry Crane calls the “moneymaker” category. Once you hear what it does, you just want to spend hours exploring all the sounds you can make with it. To Chris’s credit, he reigned us in a little and didn’t let us get too whacky with it. Someday I want to be left alone with one of those things.

(If you squint, you can see that the needle on the left of the Space Echo is in the red. As it should be.)

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