The Latest on "Rough and Polished Stones"

July 10-28: The Fog of Mixing 

Kevin Barry's guitar parts marked the end of the scheduled recording sessions.  A few decades back that would have meant the process was near its end, since "mixing" an album was mostly about making sure all the parts could be heard.  But now, when multiple versions by each performer can be easily kept and edited together later and there are almost unlimited ways to alter the sounds, there's still a lot to do.

Mixing this CD took place over two and a half weeks.  In some cases--"Desert Stars" and "Why Do We Ask Why?" are good examples--the process really was simple.  Everyone's parts were well played and the focus was on making everything sound.  Although even here there were minor repairs, like stealing a great note or phrase from an earlier "take" of the song to put it in the final version  (or electronically moving the bass player's down-beat where he rushed it...oops!).

In a few cases, the mixing process revealed issues requiring more work.  In "Love in the Middle Ages," for example, we noticed that the drums, electric guitar, and bass guitar, which sounded fine individually, did not work together well.  In the end, it turned out that all it took was a re-recording of the bass part to fit in better with the later-recorded drums and electric guitar.  The bass part in "Every Wrong Thing" was re-recorded for similar reasons.

In a couple of other cases, Eric and I felt like a song was missing the fullness or musical development we'd imagined it having.  At this point, Eric stepped into the breach, taking a number of quick trips into the recording to lay down harmonies ("Every Wrong Thing," "Talk is Just Talk") or mandolin ("Down to the Waterfall") to fill the gaps or add the drama that was needed. 

Perhaps the biggest testament to Eric's skill was that, in the end, every song sounded right--from the ones (like "Desert Stars") that sounded great from the moment they were played to those (like "Love in the Middle Ages" or "Every Wrong Thing") that I was worried would never come together.  All in all a very satisfying experience and nice way to end the recording process!

July 6 (afternoon session): Kevin Barry (electric guitar)  

On July 6 we convened at 4:00 pm at Wellspring with Kevin Barry, a legendary guitarist who has worked with a truly amazing group of national artists.  Kevin also happens to be one of the nicest people you could meet.  I can't thank Eric enough for recommending him.

We started on "Talk is Just Talk" and Kevin quickly found the right level of "country" to make the song work.  But before we started to do any takes, I asked Eric if he could extend the solo by duplicating an additional section from elsewhere in the song and adding it to the solo break.  In short order, Eric had done this and we had a solo that seemed more appropriate to the guitar talent we had available!

Kevin initially played his own Telecaster (through a vintage Fender amplifier of Eric's).  But after a few takes Kevin switched over to my circa 1964 Gretsch Tennessean (pictured), from which he coaxed a warm, glossy tone that we immediately recognized as exactly what the song needed.  He tried a few takes, each better than the last, until he had one he was satisfied with.

Kevin then suggested lap steel guitar for the track, which he performed in short order, recording several versions that added just the right amount of atmosphere and poignancy to make the song shine.  In the attached rough mix, you can hear one combination of Kevin's guitar and lap steel tracks (we still have to decide in final mixing which combination we like best, although all of them sound great). 

We then turned to "Love in the Middle Ages."  This song has a folk-rock sound and we considered a 12-string electric guitar for it, but ultimately Kevin wound up playing his own, newer Gretsch guitar, this time through a Vox amplifier (the kind used by The Beatles) in an attempt to get something like the Byrds/Beatles sound the song seemed to call for.  Kevin corded several different parts, with the idea that they could be layered together in the final mix.  The result was amazing and I can't wait for everyone to hear it.

Listening to the tracks after Kevin left, we realized that my acoustic guitar part on "Love in the Middle Ages"--recorded very early on, before there were any drums on the song, much less Kevin's guitar parts--didn't really fit in.  So as our last bit of work for this session, I re-recorded my guitar part so that it fit closely with the drums and Kevin's electric part.  All in all, a great session with the last of the amazing group of outside musicians Eric pulled in to help with the CD.

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  1. Talk is Just Talk rough mix

June 29 (evening session): Decisions, decisions (and a great guitar take)  

With the deadline for the CD drawing closer--Trespass Music, who is distributing it, needs a first set of CDs by August 1--it was time to start figuring out what was left to do. On the drive over, I made the decision to stop work on "Star Light."  I like this song a lot and we had already recorded guitar, bass, and drum tracks.  But it's got a complicated structure and was clearly going to take more work than the other songs.  So it was put on the shelf for the next CD.

The next issue was to see if I would be able to cover the three electric guitar parts we had planned.  After a few runs through "Talk is Just Talk," it was clear this wasn't one I could do.  The song has a country feel--a style I don't know well--and lots of space for a guitar to fill.  Eric proposed asking Kevin Barry--a professional touring guitarist who has played with, among others, Paula Cole and Peter Wolf--if he could come in and so we left a message for Kevin and moved on.

I had better luck with "Every Wrong Thing," a song which found its groove after Mike Connors added his great Caribbean drum part.  For this song, I played Eric's vintage Guild Starfire electric, which has a full, round tone and fit the sound of the song perfectly.  In a few takes, I had a part we both liked--check out the rough mix below.

We toyed briefly with the remaining electric guitar song--"Love in the Middle Ages"--but quickly decided that this was also one better left for Kevin.  So after making a quick rough mix of "Every Wrong Thing" we called it a day.

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  1. Every Wrong Thing Rough Mix

June 26 (afternoon session): Emma Kromm is in the house! 

On June 26, my oldest daughter (and first family musical collaborator), Emma, joined me in the studio.  Emma was only home for a few days between returning from a semester abroad and heading south to Durham, NC for a summer internship, but was kind enough to come down to the studio and add her beautiful soprano harmonies to the project.

In short order, Emma recorded parts on four tracks.  On three--"Arms Wide Open," "Friday Morning," and "Water Wheel"--she added her part to the lower harmony Grace had recorded a week earlier.  Emma also added a part to "When We Remember When."  

While "Arms Wide Open" was up, producer Eric Kilburn, who has a great tenor voice, took his first turn behind the mike, recording a great part fitting between my melody line and Grace's part in order to create a kind of gospel chorus effect for the song.  A short but very productive session. Thank you Emma!

June 22 (full day): Mike Connors (drums) and Joe Barbato (keys)  

With almost all of my parts recorded, it was time to bring in two more of the impressive players Eric Kilburn had enlisted to help fill in the missing pieces. 

First up was Mike Connors, an amazing drummer with an incredible resume of working with national and international artists.  I had never had the pleasure of working with Mike, and this was the first time I wasn't going to be there for the recording session (I had to work that morning), but I trusted that Eric and Mike would figure out what to do.  And they certainly did! 

Listening to the rough mixes as I drove to the studio I was amazed by how Mike adapted effortlessly to the range of material we had invited him to play on--from the pop-rock "Love in the Middle Ages," to the country "Talk is Just Talk," and the old-school jazz of "Why Do We Ask Why?"  And on the one song I had any questions about (I had neglected to tell Eric about the building dynamics I had in mind for the gospel "Arms Wide Open"), Mike was willing to come back and do again the same day, so we had it right before our next guest musician came to join in.  Thanks, Mike, for your amazing work! 

Just as we were wrapping up, keyboardist Joe Barbato arrived.  Joe is another legendary local musician and one who I had the pleasure of having on my last CD, where he played piano ("Springtime") and accordion ("Flower Song of Summer," "Come Back Every Summer").  I knew I wanted to have him back if I could get him and was happy when he turned out to be available to spend an afternoon adding parts to the rough tracks. 

We started off with "Arms Wide Open" (with Mike's new drum part) and, after just a few trial runs, Joe recorded a powerfully stirring part on the B3 organ that truly brought the song to life.  Joe then switched to piano, adding a graceful, radiant part to the folk-pop "Friday Morning," a rough mix of which is attached below.  Joe then played an understated folk piano part on "Water Wheel" and last, but certainly not least, Joe brought out the accordion for a tour-de-force of tasteful old-world jazz on "Why Do We Ask Why?"

All in all, this was an amazing day for me, as I listened to what these two great artists could add to my humble recording

June 14 (afternoon session): Grace Kromm is in the house!  

One of my favorite things about my last CD, "Time Won't Let Us Stay," was that my daughters Emma and Grace appeared on a number of tracks, adding their lovely harmonies (and in Emma's case a verse of "Bluegrass Sunday") to the project.  Both have headed off to college since then, so finding time when we can all sing together is a lot harder than it used to be.  But I still wanted to have them be a part of the new CD. 

So today I brought Grace down to the studio to record her parts on a few songs before she heads back to college to be a research assistant for a chemistry professor.  We had a great time and recorded harmony parts for four songs, "Water Wheel," "Arms Wide Open," "Friday Morning," and "Down to the Waterfall."  Each of the songs required a slightly different approach, which Grace handled with ease.  Below is a rough mix of the recording of "Arms Wide Open," a song that started as a quiet folk song but has evolved into a powerful gospel-influenced number (thanks for this are due to local musician Florie Namir, who first suggested doing the song this way).  I think it sounds great and can't wait to see how it sounds once Emma adds her voice to the mix!

After Grace left, I turned to some songs I still needed to record vocals on.  It was a good singing day and I was able to get finished vocals on two of the more up tempo numbers, "Love in the Middle Ages" and "Every Wrong Thing," as well as record a new, stronger vocal for "Why Do We Ask Why?" which I had originally done a couple of weeks back.  After a few vocal "repairs" (re-recording individual lines of some songs I'd recorded earlier but wasn't entirely happy with), we did some planning for next week, when drummer Mike Connors and the great jazz pianist/accordion player Joe "Sonny" Barbato will be adding their parts.  All in all a very fun and productive day.  Thanks Grace (and Eric)!

June 13 (afternoon session): Billy Novick brings his woodwind magic  

With most, although not all, of my parts done, we're ready to start bringing in the rest of the guests who will be helping out with the CD.  First up, the amazing jazz woodwind player Billy Novick, well known by many for his years of collaboration with Guy Van Duser. 

I had known from the start that I wanted clarinet on "Rough and Polished Stones" and recorder or something similar on the outdoorsy "Down to the Waterfall," so when Eric suggested Billy might be available to do it (and be in my budget), I was thrilled.  We tackled "Down to the Waterfall" first, beginning with a few tracks of recorder and then a few more with a wooden penny whistle.  Both sounded lovely (although the heat and humidity of the day made it tough to keep the penny whistle, in particular, from going out of tune during the song), although in different ways.  The lower-pitched recorder had a soft coolness that seemed to fit the meaning of the words perfectly.  But the penny whistle, playing in a much higher register, added a brightness--a sort of sunlight-through-the-trees feeling--and also expanded the range of the song, floating above the vocal and guitar parts.  At the moment, I would say Eric are leaning towards the penny whistle, but that may yet change.  Once we've figured out best takes, I may run one of each by you for comment!

"Rough and Polished Stones" came next and went much faster.  The clarinet didn't have the same intonation problems and Billy very quickly figured out exactly what the song needed.  Each of the three or four takes got progressively better and, by the end, we had a take that struck Eric and me both as basically perfect.  A rough mix of this fantastic take is below.  All in all, a great couple of hours in the studio with a wonderful musician (and true gentleman).  A great start to this phase of the recording process!

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  1. Rough and Polished Stones rough mix

June 7 (afternoon session): A little bit of this, a little bit of that 

After a bunch of easy and efficient studio days, it was probably only fair that one would go a little less as expected.  I planned to get to the studio by 2:30 pm (coming into work at 5:30 in the morning to make sure I got everything done), but a series of traffic jams made it almost an hour later by the time I arrived at Wellspring.  We then started with some tries on the vocal of the uptempo title track "Love in the Middle Ages," but this was one of those off days (a bad pollen day, for one thing) and it took quite a few tries to get close to what we wanted.  After that, Eric and I spent a while working on the instrumental arrangement of "Star Light," which starts with a high part we ultimately decided should be played on a mandola (played by me) with mandolin accompaniment (played by Eric).  Rather than recording that, though, we decided to try to wrap up my bass playing, ultimately recording parts for two song.  First, I recorded a simple, unobtrusive part for the violin-and-voice showcase "Desert Stars."  We then turned to "I Don't Know" and, after trying a few different things, I put together a fretless bass part featuring long sliding notes that I was very happy with.  In the end, good progress was made, although it means I still have a few voice parts left to do.

June 1 (full day): Time to sing  

With all the guitar parts and most of the bass parts done, I devoted my third full studio day to recording vocals.  I'm sure I'm not alone in finding vocal recording the most nerve-wracking part of the process.  Capturing a good performance--one that is not only technically solid (in tune, in time) but fits the mood and tells the story of the song--is such an important part of what makes a recording succeed with listeners.  But there are so many things that can go wrong, whether it's an unexpected cold, too little sleep or too much stress, not quite enough practice on a song that has changed tempo or key from the way you're used to, etc. 

Given all that, I faced the microphone at the start of the day with some trepidation.  Thankfully, my voice felt good from the start.  And, just as importantly, we tackled the songs in a good order, beginning with two songs I know well and that fit comfortably in the my range ("Desert Stars" and "Friday Morning").  From there, we moved on to "I Don't Know," another song in a good range, although one where phrasing is particularly important.  All three went quickly, with relatively limited necessity to go back and fix lines that hadn't gone quite right.

At this point, we gave my voice a break and spent a little time recording a new guitar track for "When We Remember When."  During the recording of Jordan's violin part the night before, Eric and I had both realized the original part lacked the energy and bounce we wanted the song to have.  After a few attempts, we got a part that had the feeling we wanted and were ready to go back to vocals.

By this time, I was definitely warmed up, so we tackled the vocal for "When We Remember When," which is considerably higher than the songs we had done earlier.  This one took a while--in addition to some high notes, the song has spaces and turns in the melody that are musically interesting, but can be hard to make sound natural.  And I was also singing against a new guitar part, which somewhat changed the mood that I was trying to match.  In the end, I think it turned out very well, but by the time we were done, my voice was beginning to feel the strain.

Hoping to take advantage of what had generally been a very good day for singing, we tried a couple of spot fixes on songs we had recorded during prior sessions, including a new bridge for "Down to the Waterfall," but enough roughness had crept into my voice that it didn't really match what we had done before.  So we closed out the day with work on two songs--the old-school country "Talk is Just Talk" and gospel "Arms Wide Open" in which a little raggedness/roughness fit right in.  "Talk is Just Talk" would have been easy but for one long, long phrase in which it is hard to find the opportunity to get enough breath to finish strong. 

I finally got it right, though, and we then made two runs through "Arms Wide Open."  This song started out as a soft folk number, but after Florie Namir sent me her take on the song--a dramatic, slowed-down version with a gospel feel--Eric and I went in that direction.  Below is a link to the first take to give you an idea where the song is headed.  After that, Eric burned all the songs we'd worked on to disk so I could listen to them at home.  All in all, it was an extremely productive and enjoyable day in the studio!

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  1. Arms Wide Open (rough)

May 31 (evening session): Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki plays fiddle  

On May 30, Eric called to say that the wonderful local celtic fiddle player, Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki would be in the studio the next evening and available to play on a few tracks after he finished working with another local group, Folkapotamus.  Although he'd already been in the studio a couple of hours by the time I got there, Jordan spent two more hours with me working up and playing lovely parts on three songs, "Desert Stars," "When We Remember When," and "Water Wheel," adding a beautiful touch to each.  A bit of his magic can be heard on the rough mix of "Desert Stars," below.

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  1. Desert Stars rough mix

Summary

Work is underway to record Rough and Polished Stones, my follow up to 2014's successful  Time Won't Let Us Stay.  I'm once again working with the great Eric Kilburn of Wellspring Sound to bring my songs to life.  Keep checking back here for news and notes from the process!