As the Springfield bags were unpacked and I sat in the home studio I had an optimism about the forthcoming mix sessions. We seemed better prepared; all the tracking seemed to have gone well. There was still a lot of recording work to do but I’d be able to edit the drums and bass.
I looked at the small screen of the Korg D3200. It’s a horrible tiny basic green lcd display that is your eyes for the whole project; a bit like a Nintendo Gameboy. A flicker of envy passed through me as I yearned for the bigger monitors of a typical DAW setup. Maybe I should go on Tipping Point and win some cash.
Editing is horrible on the Korg so discipline is needed at the tracking stage to make sure you are not wading through silence trying to reach the recordings. The drums generally edited well and sounded pretty good. The bass had a few problems with tone so some EQ cutting was required. It turned out to be quite drastic and reminds me that I need to sharpen up on my micing techniques.
My concerns about Stu’s distorted guitars were justified. There was a good tone in there but it was laden with low mid eq. This was the biggest mistake I made, I wrestled with this frequency and tried to shoehorn it into the full sound. There was a creeping dread that I’d have to ask Stu do redo the entire distorted guitars.
Mastering is a topic in itself. To say Weird Decibels 2 is mastered would be stretching the term. It does have light compression, some subtle stereo track EQ changes and some limiting but it was also done by the same guy that mixed and recorded it, (me). I can understand why people say that you do get too close to the sound.
When Derek texted to say that he felt the album sounded poor on his headphones I had a small fit. I knew he was right but wished it had been spotted sooner. The summer months had been a rain filled wash out but I had still spent them in a small room hearing the same songs many times over.
My mood dipped, I didn’t notice it at the time, others did but I did not see a problem. I soldiered on with the record trying to find out what was causing the album to sound muddy.
When I cut into Stu’s guitars it did the trick; his tone was still there but the rest of the album had opened up. Of course it knocked the mix out so that had to be done again. Then it had to be re-mastered all while I heard my son and my wife downstairs playing and possibly wondering when I’d join them.
Now I was getting snappy; frustrated that my normal life was getting in the way of the album (even though I had spent half a year on it). I missed the deadline, we wanted the album out for our 20th anniversary gig at North Star. I shouted at the guys that night; moaning at them for trivial things.
My wife had asked me to take a step back from it; I reluctantly agreed to take a couple of weeks off but that turned into three.
The Cracks Begin to Show
Things got worse; I awoke on the 11th of November 2015 and read some messages; I had been trying to get the practise room keys to record some vocals. I tried to get in touch with the band to get the keys but nothing happened and I couldn’t record the vocals. It was a small irritance but it infuriated me. I just wanted to get the album finished.
I quit the messages, cut myself off and walked to work convinced that I had quit the band.A sense of mourning had crept over me as I listened to Spotify while walking through the Quarry park. It was a weird feeling.
The guys laughed it off; Stu visited that same night and we sat over a coffee like nothing had changed; the dude was there and I was impressed with that. So we mastered the album. A few weeks later it would be done.
At 33 minutes Weird Decibels 2 is our most compact and focused album. It has its flaws; sometimes I think we are better live and there is no shame in that as many bands are the same.
It’s a quiet album by today’s standards; so sometimes it suffers in the ‘loudness wars’ but I think it sounds fairly good overall. This full album was recorded for around £500.
I should bite the bullet and let someone else record our stuff; think of all the spare time I would suddenly have.
The problem I have is that I love challenge of getting that sound; when an acoustic guitar sound crisp or the drums, as in Weird Decibels 2, sound like they are recorded in a grand room. Then the test of putting it all together.
Maybe I’ll leave the mastering to a pro….but how did the pros learn?
You can read about the Springfield session here parts one, two and three . Looking back I’d happily go back there again with more knowledge and perhaps record only the drums and bass along with basic rhythm guitar parts. Time was never on our side and this was often when the mistakes were made.
The recording desk.
Released in the UK in 2006 the Korg D3200 was and still is a classic multi-tracker. By chance there was a music auction where my wife Kirsty works, I put a cheeky bid in for it and it was mine.
In reality it is a fairly basic machine that’s delivered reasonable results. We recorded the album on the desk highest sample rate of 48kHz and 24 bits. Higher quality that a CD but it falls short of what you can achieve on a typical DAW running Pro Tools etc. (digital audio workstation).
The beauty of the Korg was how cheap it was and the number of mic inputs, 12, for simultaneous recording. This allowed us to have 10 mics on the drums and a couple on the bass.
Rightly or wrongly the Korg was used for recording, mixing and mastering. This album as not recorded with Pro Tools etc.
Substantial planning went into preparation for the album, its predecessor had taken nearly a year to mix and master. We were determined not to make the same mistakes, to a certain extent we didn’t, we just made new ones.
From the early mixes I could hear that the drums sounded great in the big room. I had the option for a direct sound or allow some room spill to add a bit of air to the album. The bass came out fairly well, with a mixture of cabin and DI. To this day I’m not sure how effective it was but I found a good sound quickly.
Happy with the drums and bass I had a listen to Stu’s guitar and here was where I realised that I had made a big mistake.
I remember the afternoon that I turned to Greg and asked if the Stu’s guitars sounded too bassy. As he tapped the A and B buttons on the Saturn controller trying to break Derek’s numerous Athlete King records he didn’t seem to think so but to be fair he had been playing the bass all day. I had tired ears as well but something wasn’t sitting right. Against my instincts I decided to keep the mic in place (it was probably too close to the grill) and recorded his guitars.
Back in the studio I wrestled with this frequency for weeks; the mixes were starting to build though. Then came in the indecisiveness.
The vocals recorded at the lodge were a mixed bag. Some sounded really good while others sounded weak. For months we would take the desk down to the practice room and re-record them. Then one afternoon while listening to the ever present influence; Nevermind I heard Kurt’s doubled vocals and decided that would be the key. Eventually double vocals would play a big part in WdB2
Overdubs were next. A few parts of acoustic guitar were added. Sitting back over the whole project there were a few songs that, to my horror, started to sound poor compared to others. Quoted didn’t feel right at all.
I removed the ‘Springfield’ vocals and my guitars and completely re-recorded them in the home studio much to the delight of my neighbours. I had nothing to lose with Quoted so I free styled some distorted guitars in the style of Nirvana; then I added a voice changer to the vocals and recorded the newly written lyrics. Mixing this song was fun, a few automation tricks were used to enhance the middle of the song to build up to the crescendo
Greg had made a mistake just before the end, I couldn’t cut and paste a clean part so I left it out. The part without the bass sounded brilliant (no offence Greg!), it added so much to the build when the bass comes back in.
The Morningday Effect
It’s hard to explain exactly what happened halfway through the recording of this album.Springfield was weeks behind us, the drums and bass were in place. The guitars were touch and go, the vocals were hot and cold.
I was getting fed up with the shouty vocals. Morningday had done reasonably well and for some reason I tried to merge the two music paths which in reality should have remained separate.
The albums balance began to veer towards quiet vocals peppered with acoustic guitar. Medicine was the biggest casualty of this.
I was unhappy with the my original distorted guitar, it swamped the verses and sounded awful so I recorded an acoustic guitar and some guitar vocals and sat with that for a while. On it’s own it sounded OK but within the album it didn’t sit. Weird Decibels 2 was becoming unfocused.
I remember walking out of Camelon Tesco with a couple of bottles of red heading towards Stu and Lisa’s for a wine night, I had my headphones on. The album just didn’t sound good at all.
This was a real low point. The money spent on the cottage, the hours spent recording, re-recording and mixing seemed to be in vain. Every time I saw the guys they’d ask how it was going, it was hard for me to admit that WdB2 wasn’t working. But it’s amazing what just a few changes can make…
I ditched nearly all the changes I had made. The Medicine acoustics were scrapped and replaced with chunky Soundgarden like distortion that was like the original riff but more control. I added double tracked vocals at a higher octave and screamed my lungs out for the ending.
Feeling choruses, the vocals were shortened and more punchy. Sorted
I took the decision to drop Smash the Glass entirely (it is now a B side to Kill it Kill it), the band supported me on this…just.
Curtain hits the cast, end vocals doubled up to epicicity (new word)
Suddenly the album, albeit short, was now leaner and far more focused.
Then there was the Dancer…
The dancer changed a few times, clean guitars were replaced with finger picked acoustic, subtle backing vocals were added. Stu’s acoustic pedal recording didn’t fit so I sample it, delayed it, reversed it and made it sound like rain to fit with the lyrics. It worked. Stu then dubbed acoustic over the verses.
The ending vocals were doubled. The Dancer went from filler to single.
Mixing was still in full flow, mastering was near. I felt happy to announce a deadline date. Something I hadn’t done before. It was mistake and cost us nearly six months and I almost walked away…
We started creating Weird Decibels 2 in March 2013 you can read about the first session here. We got many things right when creating our new album but one of the few mistakes we made was the title, Weird Decibels 2. The name put an expectation on us to write an album every bit as good as its predecessor. So when the pen hit paper and the guitars were strummed we were unaware that we were writing the same album all over again.
The three songs from this session were Left/Right ( a father son politically themed song), Rain Parade and Feet First my description at the time?
‘They are quite dynamic, influences so far point to The Pixies, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. We’re not going quietly!’
Despite our early enthusiastic approach none of these songs would ever be recorded.
In April 2013 we had another update (read here) and at this point I start to voice concerns about our new songs, in particular Feet First which I thought was ‘too commercial’. A creeping doubt was emerging that we were not writing particularly strong songs, sure we enjoyed them but they didn’t have the ‘look around the room and grin’ feel that we have when we stumbled upon a great idea.
‘The Stalker Song’ made an appearance here, written about a young man who falls for a woman he sees on the bus. This song would be quickly apprehended and sent down the lost ideas vault.
Here is a wee description I noted at the time.
‘So here we have a guy who gets the same bus every day and at the next stop is a girl who gets her bus everyday. He falls in love with her, he feels like he has known her all his life. He’s a loner doing the same thing day in day out. She simply fills her commute with the usual check on her smartphone. One day he follows her home. I’m not sure where to go from here, my character isn’t a violent guy, just lonely but he has really strong feelings for this girl he doesn’t know’
Jemma Burt and Craig Elder were approached to appear on the album but for various reasons this wouldn’t happen. I guess this was a mixture of time and the desire for the four of us the be the nucleus of our 20th anniversary album.
Derek added his insight to the writing of the album you can read that here. He also shares his concerns about the changes that needed to be made but there is no hiding his delight at starting a new album
As the summer of 2013 moved in and the sun hung in the sky (highly unlikely) we wrote more songs.
Another song, inspired by Alice In Chains, called ‘Miss Asphyxia’ had been floating around for weeks and is first listed during this practise.
‘Small Hands’ would appear in June, by July I was really excited by it. I has asked the guys if they had received my email of a new idea in a 3 / 4 timing, Stu was the only one who listened to it. I carried on regardless and played a hyper riff that I had named ‘Kill it! Kill it! A few minutes later it was our latest song. I described it as my new hope for Weird Decibels 2, we all looked around the room and grinned.
By September 2013 writing was becoming stagnant, however Stu had a new riff that we were attempting to put some music to. At this point it remained untitled. We also agreed on no deadline for the album, perhaps aware we were nowhere near to recording it.
As the masks and costumes of Halloween were don October was the month we made a big decision. We ditched nearly all the songs from the first 6 months and we agreed that the practice room was no longer a place of creativity. it was a dark moment as we sat in silence on the old couches, cold creeping back into the year.
We had decided to keep just Miss Asphyxia and Kill It! Kill it!. Now that we were back to just two songs I had doubts another album would ever happen. So we sat and looked at each other and said. ‘Lets book a wee lodge, take some guitars, a shit load of beer and see what happens’.
Oakley Writing Sessions
Just 20 minutes from our home town is a beautiful little cluster of cottages nestled within the grounds of a stately home. This grand building stands in Oakley a small settlement just outside Dunfermline. So with heavy hearts we headed to Fife.
The lodge was wonderful; with an open plan living room and a fridge nearby it allowed the band to sit in ample space facing each other with our guitars ready to see what tunes we could write. (Blog)
Derek had brought the keyboard as he was keen to try something other than the drums. He had suggested we head up to the lodge without any ideas, basically a blank page.
Well I tried to do that! However I had a couple of ideas floating around my head; I wanted us to hit the ground running and build on any momentum.
We arrived the Friday night and I set up the desk and loosely placed a few mics around the room and set up the Blumlien microphone technique to capture the room sound.
With the headphones places I could hear that we had a nice sound so we grabbed a beer and launched ourselves into writing; well I say launch. We had a beer or two and talked about television and monty python quotes.
Friday 31st January 2014
Little Thoughts Lost which we wrote with some keys over the top. the song on the recording hasn’t change much. I Hear the City was also born on that crisp night, slightly faster in tempo back then other than this it hasn’t changed too much. Derek had suggested ending on a G but Stu said this was too happy!
By now we were for more positive about writing our new album and after a few Tsingtao’s we had another go at City this time more in line with the album tempo and it turned out pretty well.
Towards the night we engaged in some more joyful band banter then wrote another song called Hit me. A depressing little number that did not really make it past Oakley.
After a round of applause for Stu’s beard and a word from his sponsor we scooped a few more beers.
Saturday the 1st of Feb 2014
Four cracking cooked breakfasts wolfed down and coffee slurped we were ready to get the writing caps on again. Kevin Byrne was on his way, camera and mandolin in hand we chapped on the door and was welcomed into the warmth of the lodge as the fire crackled in the middle of the room.
Quoted Not Voted arose from the fumes of alcohol on Saturday afternoon, this is the weaker version which lacks any significant verse vocals this was the 4th song we had written,
Digital takeover, one of those nice riffs we could never finish was attempted on this day. Curtain hits the cast offered a little humour as I tried to play the intro riff (which we’d later drop) several times much the amusement of my fellow musicians.
Oakley: I Hear The City, Digital Takeover, Little Thoughts Lost, Curtain Hits the Cast, Quoted Not Voted, Hit Me.
Heights Session Saturday 22nd November 2014
Heights: Smash the Glass, Almost Beautiful, Car Crash, Once More With Feeling, Away Home.
A few months of practice passed and we polished off the work from Oakley. We had a desire to go back to another lodge, possible the same locale but time, money and real life would get in the way.
Undeterred we decided that a Saturday up at my place with the studio set-up would be a suitable option.
That morning we attended the funeral of our friend Chris Mason; a huge influence on the band. Afterwards there was a sombre mood to the writing. We turned the LED lights blue in respect of the colour of lights Chris had on his Christmas tree which he never took down!
Later, while Stu was watching his beloved Alloa getting thumped by the mighty Bairns (Falkirk FC), we set up and cracked open our first beers.
Again I had a couple of ideas floating around my head. Both The Dancer and Almost Beautiful were sketched by the time Stu arrived. Now that we were all together the songs would be finished. The Dancer sounds intense during these sessions and we lost this feeling for a while; luckily we got it back for the final album version.
Away Home was a long song, it didn’t make the final cut. Its another brooding song with a slightly different structure to the fast punchy pace of Weird Decibels 2.Perhaps this would’ve survived during a different time in our writing career.
Car Crash was another nice sounding song. Sadly it didn’t stick, it had a Americana feel which I guess we are not ready for. The version recorded has a nice mouth organ piece over the top of the guitars.
Deeper into the night Stu and Greg launched into a jam, it was a heavy riff and I struggled to get a melody for it, I sang in a different style and sounded alien on the take. Indeed it would be many months before I cracked it. That song would become Once More With Feeling.
The Shore on My Soul and It’s Who You Know, final writing. January 2015.
As usual I fretted about the lack of songs for the album and I played the guitar for days recording every single idea I had. I brought two ideas down to the room. One song took an age to write another happened instantly.
What started off as Shore on My Soul would eventually end up being Medicine. It developed over a number of months; the ending just grew into a jam and remains one of the best endings we have carved out of our sonic landscape.
It’s Who You Know had the grins from the start. We built this song on a wee into riff and i was amazed that we could still write songs like this quickly. I really felt that this was the last song we would write for the Weird Decibels 2 sessions. We were happy with what we had; a couple of years hard work, a few false starts but now finally we had an album to record.