The Amen House

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I have fond memories of writing and recording these songs. 

During the summer of 1999 I was transitioning from a college student to getting married and having my first real job. I had been working at a music shop and finishing up my undergrad. On weekends I was playing coffeehouses and bars. I could see that part of my world ending. I was ready to move on. 

During a trip to Texas to see my wife’s family a guitar fell into my lap. It was an older Gibson – either a J-50 or J-45. I still don’t know what the actual model is. This guitar had floated around their family and was in need of some repairs. I brought the guitar up to St. Louis with a promise of getting it back into playing order. 

I was able to make use of the guitar for about 3 months before returning it back to its rightful owners. During its stay with me I put it to work writing and recording several songs. Three of those songs made it here to this recording. The songs are Wooden Crosses, Conversations, and Kind of like words. All three songs provide me with vivid images of traveling between Fort Worth and St. Louis.

During one of our trips between the two cities we stopped off in Oklahoma City and paid our respects to the tragedy that happened there in 1995. I still look back at the events during that horrific period with sadness. I believe that bombing did more damage to the heart of the country than we realize. 

I recorded these songs on ADAT using a Mackie 1604 mixing board. I used 3 mics – 2 on the guitar and 1 on vocals. The mics were AKG 535s. The bass is from an Alesis QSR – patch 44 – “fretless bass”. I recorded everything in a spare bedroom of the apartment we were living in just off the highway. 

Flow chart for how I record a song

It is amazing how much a flow chart helped as a motivation for recording. The process of recording can be daunting. It is easy to get lost or confused in the creative process. By using this flow chart I can point to where I am in the process and focus on that particular step. It helps give me perspective. When I am stuck on a song, I look back and realize I have skipped a step. Typing the lyrics and rehearsing the song is something I often under-value. Running through the song a couple of times before committing it to a click track saves time later in the process. Why I forget that, baffles me. 

 

Flow Chart for Recording

  1. Choose Song
  2. Type out the lyrics
  3. Rehearse
  4. Revamp song / Correct the form / Add chords / Transpose
  5. Determine tempo
  6.  2 track vocal / guitar or piano with drum click
  7. Main Instrument recorded Guitar or Piano
  8. Scratch Vocal 
  9. 2nd Main Instrument
  10. Drums in NI / Logic / Soundtrack / Superior Drummer / Send it to Drummer
  11. Bass –Electric Bass / String / Synth
  12. Keys on Chorus
  13. Electric Guitars
  14. Harmony Voc on Chorus 
  15. Harmony Voc on Verses
  16. Extras – pull in outside musicians / add loops / consider horns / violin / banjo
  17. Quotes / Sound Clips – Intro / Outro
  18. Mix 
  19. Edit 
  20. Archive song title and copy of song 

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One thing I obsess about… Blackwing Pencils

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What, you’ve never heard of Blackwing Pencils? They are the absolutely perfect writing machine. I grew up in the 1970s. I attended a small Catholic school and nice pencils did not exist. Neither did nice pens now that I think about it. I went a good 40 years before I experienced a good pencil.

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I wandered in the dark for years not knowing the trusty number 2 I scraped along loose-leaf had better relatives. Sure, there are ok-ish pencils – Ticonderoga, mechanical pencils, art pencils. All are ok if you don’t know what you’re doing. I didn’t know about Ticonderoga until they showed up on my kid’s back to school list. They look nice. They are better than the sticks I chewed on during Ms. Moore’s fifth grade class. I would have been a better student if Ms. Moore required Ticonderoga’s. She didn’t and so I drifted along well into my forties before I had my mind blown by the greatest pencil on this planet, the Blackwing Pencil.

I don’t recall exactly how I came across Blackwings. I was likely looking for office supplies on Amazon. Amazon does a nice job recommending me things. Within a week I came across other references to Blackwings. The world was letting me know I was ready to be an adult and use a proper pencil. I went to my son’s music lesson and connected to the teacher’s music stand – a Blackwing. I looked up what pencil’s John Steinbeck used. Guess what – Blackwings. The connections went on and on. Those with taste were already in the know. I was late to the party.

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I purchased my first box of Blackwings – the Palominos. The shafted is painted black. They are a softer lead. Dark. Mysterious. They write smoothly across the paper in ways that remind me of writing letters on the kitchen table with a stick of butter. The darkness of the pencil’s stroke is akin to the inside of a blackhole. NASA made a coating that absorbs light. It is made from Carbon Nanotubes. I’m wondering if the lead in the Palominos is somehow related.

My second box of Blackwings were the 604s. Their catchphrase is “Half the pressure, twice the speed”. It is written in gold stamp on the grey shaft. As a child I would have taken that phrase to heart and built my life around it. I would probably be president by now if I had a pencil with that written on it. Instead, I had a bus yellow twig with fossilized charcoal that didn’t like paper. The 604s hold a point longer and while dark, they are not NASA dark. They are great for longer writing assignments. The Palominos are good for shorter writing assignments. I say that now. Next week I may change my mind.

If you are motivated to have these great pencils, do yourself a favor and purchase the Blackwing Pencil Sharpener. It makes no sense to get these extraordinary tools if you don’t get the sharpener designed for them. I currently own three sharpeners. One is kept in my travel bag. I am never without my travel bag. Another sharpener is next to my bed. The third is kept in my studio on top of the piano. The sharpener makes the greatness even better. There is nothing quite like a point refined on a Blackwing. There is no written task you cannot overcome with a properly sharpened Blackwing.

There are 12 Blackwing pencils to a box. A box runs about 24.00. I speak about my Blackwings as often as I am permitted. I purchase a box about every month. I currently keep 6 in a box in my travel bag. I do not lend them out. I will let someone use one briefly, during which I am supervising their usage. I encourage respect for this well-made pencil. I’ve discovered there are two types of people in the world – those who appreciate Blackwings and those who don’t. I choose to not associate with the latter.

 

Recording drums and vocals

It’s been a busy week in the studio. I’ve finished mixing several songs. I’m still working on how to set things up so they are automatic. I keep balancing creative endeavors and the practical side of keeping things organized as well as how to roll things out. I think of artists on record labels or writers who have editors and publishers. I don’t have any of these. It’s me, myself, and I. And yet I do prefer things this way. I’m not sure I would like having to interact with someone or have to seek approval or opinions on the things I do. I see more and more artists leaving big systems because that handy internet connection pretty much does it all. There’s a great article called 1000 Fans. Well worth reading. It supports this idea. 

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Last night was productive. I re-mixed two songs from the archive. I’ve added some new mastering plugins and as a result older mixes are getting a bit of a facelift. When I mix or re-mix a song there are multiple listens in different environments. I will probably give it about 7-10 listens, tweaking as I go along. Sometimes it is an overall tweak – like setting up a master EQ. Other times it is about dialing in reverb or delay on the vocal, balancing out the drums, or making sure the bass isn’t taking up all the sonic landscape. Those are my three main struggles when it comes to mixing. The rest kind of takes care of itself. There might be a little panning going on or some fades but for the most part – the other instruments play nicely together. 

 

I think the hardest thing to record is a drum kit. Lots of moving parts. People who do it well, do it really well. I can tell if someone is really good at mixing and recording by listening to their drum mix. It will let me know whether they are up to snuff or not. Recording vocals is easier these days. It took me about fifteen years to finally find a mic that works for my voice. I spent a lot of time and money going through different mics. At one point I even thought of going to another studio, hiring an engineer, and going through a mic collection to see what worked for me. I figured the cost would pay for itself in the end. I ended up trying one more mic before going that route. Turns out – it was the right choice.

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The mic I rely on for all my vocals is a Shure SM-7B. It is a larger mic, housed in a black casing and looks like camera equipment. It has a longer cylinder covered in foam. That’s the part you sing into. It’s base is like a short stubby metal cigar. It has its own attachment for a mic stand unlike a handheld mic that makes use of a mic clip. It requires no special cable or pre-amp. Plug and go. 

 

What finally sold me on the SM-7 was an interview in a magazine with Quincy Jones. The article was about the inner workings and recording of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller. He stated he used a SM-7 with Michael on Thriller. Of all the mics in the world, at that budget level, Quincy chose a Shure SM-7. That baffled me. I’d heard similar rumors of other artists using lower end microphones. Some have stated Bono from U2 uses a Shure SM-58 for all his vocals in the studio. I’m still not sure that is 100% true but I’ll keep digging for verification. Yeah, a SM-7. I figured if it worked for Michael, I’d at least give it a shot. 

The SM-7 was designed as a broadcast mic. You can see them in a lot of pics of studios and radio shows.The world has really just two mics for broadcasting – yes I am exaggerating but it is probably more true than not. The mics used for broadcasting are either a SM-7 or an Electro-voice RE20. They are likely similar sounding mics. I’ve yet to get my hands on a RE20 to do an actual comparison. The RE20 looks like the underside part of the barrel of the M16 Rifle. It looks like it’s something you could really grip onto. Oddly enough I don’t think you’re supposed to grip this mic. Like the SM-7, it has its own mic stand attachment built into the bottom of the mic. “Look Ma, no hands!” 

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Given that SM-7, vocal recording has gotten much easier for me. The right tool does make a world of difference. And the right tool isn’t always the most expensive. The SM-7 was $300.00. I was looking at mics in the $1000.00 range at the time. It’s easy to let that price tag guide your decision. “It costs more, therefore it should be better.” I think that is why the interview with Quincey was so powerful to me. Michael could have used any mic he wanted. They picked a $300.00 mic to make a $750,000.00 album. 

 

And then there is the bass. I’m still on that journey. I’ll have more on that later. Recording bass has a number of factors, the least of which is what amp you use. I think that is the last part I think of when recording bass. My current bass is a G&L SB-1. I think it is from the late 70s. I’ve had this bass for about 20 years. I found it in a pawn shop. I have a thing for G&L guitars from the 1970s. No, really… I could tell you stories. I’ll leave that for now. 

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Go create something. 

 

“You are more powerful than you realize” – Seth Godin

 

My Top 5 Distractions in the Studio


img_8627I spend a lot of time in the studio working on things. There are multiple projects going and depending on the week I feel like I make a huge step forward or I’m not making any progress. Those are the polarities I work within. I thought it would be fun to list my Top 5 Distractions when I work in the studio. 

These are in no particular order…

  1. My cat, Oliver… Holy cow, Oliver is a handful. He is an overweight, solid black cat. He’s lived with us for about a year and a half. My studio is in our basement which happens to be Oliver’s territory as well. I would like to point out I was there first. He simply does not care. Oliver likes to eat. All. The. Time. When he is hungry he wanders around the studio knocking things over, pawing at picture frames on the walls to get them to fall, and walks across my keyboard. I recently got a squirt bottle to squirt him with but being in a studio it is not the best option. I have to be relatively cautious so as to not get my gear wet. He breaks up a workflow like no other. img_5025
  2. Social Media. I don’t go on social media constantly but I go enough to realize it is a time suck. I love funny cat videos. I can lose a whole 30 minutes on a trail of cat videos. I don’t know why that sucks me in. img_8699-1
  3. Fixing some gear or computer issue. It seems each time I turn my computer on there is a software update that needs to be installed. Sometimes that can take up to 25-45 minutes. Throw in a restart to the computer and it is like waiting at a doctor’s office. Nothing to do but look at the walls and check your social media for cat videos. Changing strings on guitars takes time. I kind of freak when I hear a hum or other unfamiliar noise coming from gear. I automatically think something has been broken and I am thrown completely off task. Forget recording anything. I have to fix this now. Yeah. That throws me off quite a bit. More often than not, I’ll turn the amp or gear off. Leave it for the night. The next morning it is perfectly fine and running as it always did. img_6800
  4. Households. There is nothing more frustrating than being in workflow and your family needs you for something. It could be dinner, homework, something happened with the dog, someone can’t find something, etc. It happens all the time. I have switched up my studio time to be later in the evening in the hope there will be less distractions. img_8774
  5. Rehearsing for band practice. I play with a group of friends from high school. My attempt is to have us play at least once a month. What I work on in the studio is vastly different than what the band plays. The week before we play I pretty much abandon any studio efforts and work on songs for the band. I enjoy the band but balancing time for practice is nuts. img_8714-1