Welcome to 2016!
The days are short and damp here in the Pacific Northwest, but there's some fresh music coming down the pike, and a project out now that I'd like to tell you more about. I've kicked off this year with a new EP of older music. It's a collaboration with musician/artist Austin Willis, and it was released on Jan 4th. It has the catalogue number OR-002 because it was finished many years before Death Under Rainbows (OR-003), which was released first. The records are catalogued based their completion (and thusly their place in my creative time line), and not based on their release date. (A very nerdy detail that probably only matters to me).
A major motivation in making this record was to explore analog recording techniques that fall outside the norm. I was inspired by the super-thorough and nerdy Recording the Beatles book by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew. It really got me thinking about how forward-looking artists, engineers, and producers had to work so hard to make new sounds. Sounds that we take for granted now didn't exist until someone dreamed them up, and in some cases, invented the equipment required to make them a reality. Copy/Paste didn't exist. Production techniques that take 5 seconds today were a laborious process of trial and error. I wondered where those constraints would lead me to creatively, and would I have a greater appreciation for the end result?
Regardless of how a record gets made, the most important ingredient is the talent involved.
When I got married, as a bonus to getting to share my life with the most wonderful woman I have ever known (hi, Azurae), I gained a wildly talented and creative brother-in-law. Austin is one of those people who is good at seemingly anything he decides to focus on. He's an artist, designer, and craftsman. It's his songwriting and voice that you hear on this EP. It was a joy to get to come along side of him in a collaborator/producer role and explore making music together.
Also, if you are going to work in this analog fashion, you need someone who actually knows how to do it. This is real Engineering with a capital "E." It's a whole set of chops beyond what I can do. My friend and long time collaborator Martin Woodlee did a wonderful job recording and mixing this project, let alone managing the multiple machines, convoluted signal paths, and tape editing required to make it happen.
So, the rules for this project were thus:
- All analog sounds. No digital gear allowed in the recording.
- Mix by hand. No automation allowed. Mixing would be a performance, in and of itself.
The goal, sonically, was to end up with music on vinyl that had never been digitized. When you drop the needle on Spirits Drifted, you are hearing analog sound.
To talk a little bit about how the record was recorded:
We used two Studer A827's with 16 track head stacks, as well as a heavily modded Studer 1/2" 2 track machine for various looping and vari-speeding duties. Microphones, preamps, and EQ's were a variety of vintages, but most notably, most of Austin's vocals were recorded on a beautiful Neumann m49 from the 60's, which was amplified by a Neve 1089 and compressed by a old LA-2A. Vintagey vintagey goodness.
The record was mixed on an Amek 9098. Any mix moves (changing volume, effects manipulations, fade outs) were done by hand. The fact that there were only 16 tracks to manage made it fairly easy, but several of the songs were still an all hands on deck group effort, or mixed in sections and then edited together.
A few facts about each song that make me happy:
Rain Ear Mountain
The rhythm track under the solo is a one bar loop. We had to print that bar to another piece of tape, make a loop out of it, record a few minutes of the loop to yet another piece of tape, and then splice that back into the master take to make a seamless shift in and out of the solo section.
The vocals during the first part of the song were recorded with the microphones that were set up to record the piano. One of the percussion sounds at the beginning is Austin slamming his hand on the piano lid.
This track ends like it does because the tape literally ran out while we were playing. A nice case of the medium defining the end result.
Other than the piano, this is a live performance. Austin and I played it sitting on the floor of the tracking room.
The loops in this song were created by taking a recording of some drums, cutting the tape into random pieces, and then reassembling it in a different order. We built the rest of the track on top of this consistently not-quite-in-time foundation.
As I mentioned before, when you listen to this music on vinyl, you'll hear sound that has never been digitized...something I became really inspired by when I got into buying old records. Less from a standpoint of the merits of analog vs. digital, and more from a fascination with the novelty of it. It's rare to hear any recorded music these days that isn't digital. Even most new vinyl is a pressing of music that's been recorded and mastered digitally...but...when I listen to an old Aretha Franklin record that I got from the used bin, there isn't a computer between her voice and my ears. In some ways it's like seeing an endangered animal in the wild, some kind of exotic bird, without a screen between it and my eyes.
Austin, being a visual artist and designer as well as a musician, provided the source imagery and vision for the packaging, and we worked with my long time collaborator Nate Manny of 51 Eggs to manifest something that felt as textured and nuanced as the music does. We spent a good deal of time figuring out what kind of paper stock and types of ink had the right feel under our fingers, and invested in subtle details like clear foil embossing to give the packaging depth. Ultimately, that's what the process of this entire project has been about...preserving and honoring the subtle details that might otherwise be cast aside.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about Spirits Drifted. To listen to and purchase please visit the Oceanographic Records Bandcamp page.