Archive for September, 2008

Re-release procedure

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

I now have a date set to go to EMI’s offices in London to go over possible photos and artwork, and review the sleeve credits for the first planned release, which is an album of my singles with an accompanying DVD containing all the videos. From EMI I will go to Abbey Road where I’ll supervise the mastering of this album. All I really need to do is to decide on the gaps between songs, and make sure the song volumes all balance up, and none are too tinny or too bassy sounding in relation to each other. For those of you who understand the nuances of remastering, I should say that I am opposed to lots of adaptive limiting, which has the effect of making a CD very loud, but at the expense of subtlety and dynamics.

On the same day I will go over the track listings for ‘The Golden Age Of Wireless’ and ‘The Flat Earth’. I’m glad to say EMI are very open to doing this with my input—in fact they have hired an independent consultant, whom I know from way back when he was still an employee there, to oversee the project, and have pretty much given him free rein to define how the re-releases look and sound—and he is very eager to take direction from me as to the specific choices. It’s been very helpful getting feedback from people on this blog, and it reinforces my view that the main aim of these re-releases should be to reproduce the albums they way they originally appeared, but to add in good rarities that have been hard for fans to get hold of over the years. It’s not however a reason to cram everything and the kitchen sink onto a disk, regardless of whether I feel it’s up to scratch musically. Nor do I care much for faddy formats that can only be enjoyed by a small minority of people, and which may well have been swallowed up within a few years.

There may be a different running order for the US version of the re-releases, where people are accustomed to a different version of several of the songs, as well as a whole other running order.

I’m pleased that I get to supervise this and make sure it’s done right. But as I’m writing this blog, I’m watching a bounce go down to disk of some guitar parts Kevin Armstrong played on a brand new song of mine, and it’s sounding fantastic. I have to confess there’s a thrill and a buzz about doing the new material that surpasses anything I can muster for rehashing old material! What’s done is done, but this is the future we’re talking about now.

On another note altogether, Kathleen and I felt it was high time we initiate our kids (17, 15, and nearly 13) into the delights of This Is Spinal Tap. Considering Graham, our youngest, is now a drummer in a hard rock band at school, it was inevitable. He was getting fed up of us quoting the Tap at the supper table, and wanted in on the joke. So I ordered a DVD off Amazon, the special edition one with an hour’s extra footage plus commentary by the band, and we made a bowl of popcorn, projected it on one of the big screens from my tour, and sat back to enjoy it. The kids have been quoting from it all day, and it’s hard to dodge the old cliches as I sit here blogging about my former glories while some cool guitars bounce down on my G5. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file? Let’s hope not.

Nice to meet you!

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Heh. I woke up early this morning so I could get on eSession and connect to its founder Gina who is in Tokyo doing demos of her software for a room full of recording and tech industry execs. She panned her webcam round the room so I could see the whole audience. In my best Japanese accent (which, as my daughters inform me, SUCKS) I said the only Japanese phrase I know: “Hajimemashite? Dozo yoroshiku.” They all laughed. Gina said “what does that mean?” There was a pause, then somebody said, “It means DolbySan speaks half Japanese.”

First two album re-releases

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

My old record label EMI have asked me for input on the running order for the proposed re-releases in 2009 of my first two albums.

Firstly, I’m glad they want to do this. It seems crazy that these are out of print and quite hard to find even in indie record shop bargain bins! And the re-releases will give us a chance to remaster the audio and generally give the songs a bit of French polishing. Not to mention bringing together the various alternative versions and B-sides in one place.

It’s important that this does not take away any of the limelight from the new music I’m working on. I suppose that’s always a risk, but overall I think it can raise the awareness that the old material has stood the test of time, BUT I’m doing new stuff. (And considering how good the new stuff is sounding, it’s a risk I’m willing to take!) The timing is hard to judge as EMI have not given me a firm date for the re-releases yet, nor do I have any clue if/when in 2009 I might release a new album. Or indeed whether EMI or any other corporate entity will be involved.

Here’s my proposed running order. I’m sure there will be some controversy, because people tend to think of the version they have as THE original version. The best solution I can think of is to include all versions in the sequence in which they first appeared. For example, there are two very different renditions of ‘Radio Silence.’ I originally recorded it with the same rock band as had played on many other GAOW tracks—Kevin Armstrong, Justin Hildreth, and Mark Heyward-Chaplin. But I had second thoughts about it after listening to the album in toto and decided it was too ‘rockist.’ About the same time the opportunity came up for me to work with Daniel Miller (Depeche Mode’s producer and supremo of Mute Records) plus Akiko Yano was in town! so I decided to take another crack at it. The result seemed to fit in with the GAOW ethos, and made for a nice little SW radio-driven sequence on side two. Today, I am fond of both versions, so they are included on this list. But it’s unavoidable that some folks will feel they’re in the wrong place. What can you do? put them in you iPod and make your own running order.

I’ve added selected ‘side’ projects, collaborations and so on. There may be a few omissions, including a lot of 12″ versions that I don’t feel add very much to the song itself. But I think everything here belongs here.

Anyway here’s my proposal. If you have suggestions or want to debate the pros and cons, feel free to post a comment here, or perhaps somebody could copy this list to the Forum.
The Golden Age Of Wireless (2-CD set):

CD1

3:50 Flying North
4:15 Commercial Breakup
3:45 Weightless
3:18 Europa and the Pirate Twins
4:20 Windpower
3:30 The Wreck of the Fairchild
5:12 Airwaves
4:32 Radio Silence (synth version)
5:45 Cloudburst At Shingle Street

CD2

3:42 She Blinded Me With Science
5:14 One Of Our Submarines
3:43 Radio Silence (guitar version)
3:52 Leipzig
3:42 Urges
4:04 Therapy/Growth (Europa B-side)
3:18 New Toy (Live Wireless)
3:52 The Jungle Line (Low Noise)
3:36 Urban Tribal (Low Noise)

The Flat Earth (one CD)

4:56 Dissidents
6:41 The Flat Earth
5:34 Screen Kiss
5:20 White City
5:00 Mulu The Rain Forest
5:40 I Scare Myself
4:14 Hyperactive!

Bonus tracks:

4:09 Puppet Theatre
5:24 Get Out Of My Mix (edit)
4:03 Field Work (london mix)
7:17 Dissidents (The Search for Truth Part 1)

eSession rocks

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

A very timely piece of software has become available for me to use on my album. It’s called Virtual Glass and it’s a plug-in you download from a web site/service called eSession.com.

The subscription-based eSession site handles all administrative aspects of auditioning, negotiating with, and recording with, a huge number of top professional musicians, all without leaving the comfort of your own home studio (or in my case, DIScomfort as it’s not finished yet!)

Virtual Glass is a plug-in for the high-end recording software we use such as ProTools, Logic and so on. On the surface it’s just an audiovisual chat client, similar to iChat, that lives in the recording environment. But it’s very nifty in that it enables me to do a recording session with, let’s say Kevin Armstrong, who lives in London which is several hours away from me. Kevin has his own studio and uses the same software as me. So we can connect, open the same song, and Kevin can overdub guitar parts. We can discuss them, agree on retakes and so on, while hearing each other in real time. His face and/or his studio appear in a video window on my screen, and we have a ‘talkback’ system. The experience is actually not very different from me being in the control room and Kevin out in a booth. I can hear a low-res version of his part, then once it’s done he just drops the new recording into a bin online, and I update it on my end in hi-res. The software can keep track of the time we spend and even issue an invoice based on a pre-agreed fee.

Then let’s say I really need someone to play a jaw’s harp. I do a search for that keyword in the eSession talent profiles, and find out that Tony Levin as well as being a killer bassist is an ace jaw’s harpist (?!) and right now he’s got a mid-tour day off and he’s sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, Tenessee. I approach him and fix the fee. We can work together using Virtual Glass in real time over ADSL, or he can just work on it in his own time and send me a few takes to peruse offline.

eSession was created by music industry professionals in conjunction with some hot software engineers. It’s a fabulous piece of kit, and a great tool in this era of home recording; though I bet they are facing the challenge all early adopters face, in that people may be slow to change their working methods, and they need eSession to catch on before they burn through all their investors’ millions! I’m going to try to help out by using the sofwtare extensively on my album, and helping them publicise it a bit. Later this week one of the founders Gina Fant-Saez will be in Japan doing public demos of the product, and I’m going to let her connect to me in the UK and we’ll work on an overdub for one of my new songs.

If you’re a musician you can register for a free account, though some of the features may be a bit limited unless you sign up for a paid subscription–but that is is very reasonable starting at under twenty bucks a month, considering that just the gas for one drive to someone else’s studio would cost you a lot more!

Fun fun fun

Friday, September 5th, 2008

I dragged myself into the kitchen some time in the middle of the afternoon and began to make myself some breakfast. “What time did you guys start yesterday?” asked my wife. “Around 3.” “What time did you finish?” “Oh, around 4.” She briefly looked surprised, as if to say, that was an extremely quick recording session! Then she did the math and realised we were at it for 13 hours straight.

When I was twenty-one I could pull off a 15 to 20 hour session and bound right back the next day. Nowadays 13 hours is quite draining. However, a lot depends on how much you get done, and the quality of it. In this case I’m very happy. We got four backing tracks down—three with bass, drums, guitar, guide piano and vocal; and one with just two guitars, Neill MacColl joining Kevin Armstrong on a couple of nylon string acoustics.

When the band are learning the song as you go along, it makes things quite exciting. You get a rough sound for each instrument, which doesn’t need to be the final sound, just in the ballpark. You need a good headphone mix so everyone can hear themselves and each other. Plus sightlines that allow you to see each other, even though you’re in different spaces. I’d routined the songs with Matthew and Kevin, but drummer Liam Genockey was playing them for the first time. The first few run-throughs are usually stop-start affairs, working out feels for different sections, where to put fills and ‘punctuation’, and so on. I kind of mumble the vocals because I’m listening to everything else. Then there comes a point where it’s feeling ready to record. There’s a magical window where the ‘tape is rolling’ (an obselete term in this day of digital everything) and any take you play could turn out to be THE take.

On a couple of the songs I opted not to use a click track. When you do, it makes it easy to add sequenced keyboard parts later in a program like Logic. It also puts all takes at the same tempo and makes it very easy to overlay takes and intercut between them—so for example, if Take 2 was generally great but you messed up the first chorus, you can cut it in from Take 3 instead. However, the disadvantage of playing to a click is that everyone has one ear open for it and that can lead to a slightly stiff and restrained feel, less natural. Recording without one is living a bit dangerously. But with the latest technology and a bit of elbow grease, you can generally find a way to add a tempo track later, cut and paste between takes and so on.

You can’t go on recording take after take. The energy and freshness start to drop off, yielding diminishing returns. Plus, the more takes there are, the more sifting though I’ll inevitably have to do, given that I like to leave no stone unturned. There might be one drum fill in Take 12, or a bit of guitar in Take 8 that has just that little bit of an edge. I don’t like ending up with so many options. If I’ve got two takes that I’m very happy with, I prefer to stop there, knowing I can always move notes around, fix timings and tunings later. So you need to have the courage to say ‘ok let’s move on!’

The main thing I’m looking for with a ‘tracking date’ (several musicians all playing together) is that intangible magic that you can never achieve when you build songs up a bit at a time. For example, one of the new songs is over seven minutes long, and has 12 verses that tell a story about a prison break, almost like a folk lament. One approach to that would have been to create a long sequence in the computer, then look for different textures and sounds for each section, perhaps adding real instruments along the way. That’s the way I recorded ‘I Love You Goodbye.’ But on this one, I decided to keep it looser. We worked on the song for most of the second day, breaking it down into different verses and joining the dots. Then we finally took a crack at playing it straight through. The first take was so-so, we were glad to get through it to the end. We went into the control room, poured ourselves a glass of wine and gave it a listen. Everything was in place, but it was somehow lacking the narrative quality that was in the lyric. Back out there—second take–bingo! The song had taken on a shape and a life of its own.

I deliberately chose to play real piano and sing a rough guide on the backing track. This means that the piano tracks will have some vocal spill on them, and vice versa, rendering them both unusable—unless, of course, I happened to play and sing absolutely perfectly. But I know from history there’s a zero percent chance of that happening! I’m just not that adept in either department. What the rough vocal hopefully does do, though, is inspire the other musicians to play at their best, while defocusing them from their own part, so they become part of the accompaniment for the vocal, rather than an instrumentalist. It also sets me a yardstick for the phrasing and tone of the final vocal. My vocals evolve as I learn to sing my own song, and as the feel and character of the track develops. When I go in to do the final vocals I often find I’m listening back to the guide vocal to remind myself of how I sang that night when I had the whole band.

The song with Kevin and Neill was unusual for me. I’ve never used two guitarists simultaneously on a song before. It’s a very gentle poetic song (you may have read an early version of the lyrics here on my blog a few months ago!) but the middle section is such a complete and utter surprise, the first time you hear it you’ll think someone changed the radio channel on you.

We did a few small overdubs, to fix obvious mistakes or to add cymbals, fills, more ‘out there’ approaches and so on, so that I have options. The next stage for me is to work through the four songs, getting familiar with what’s there, and knit together the ultimate version of each. But of course, that’s just the beginning. I will still be miles away from anything finished. There will be synths and keyboards to add, in some cases other instruments altogether (eg harmonica, fiddle), then vocals, backing vocals, and days and days of final mixing. And this is just four songs remember—perhaps one third of the album.

Still, I feel like the album is truly underway, and now when I go to work each day it’s with a clear idea of what I’m going to be working on. And I am delighted with the songs, which have really come along. There’s no way they will be a repeat of anything I’ve done in the past. After all, a big chunk of my life has gone by since I last recorded new songs. I’m older, wiser. The old adage is that when an artist does his first album, he’s had twenty years of real life to sing about. He does his second, he’s got six months of touring, hotel rooms and press interviews to sing about! But as Matthew pointed out, I’m back to the twenty years of real life thing.

And music has moved on too. I don’t believe making cool sounds and grooves is very interesting any more, because we’ve had a couple of decades of that and there’s very little left to do. What I come back to is that first and foremost I’m a songwriter. I can actually write interesting lyrics and great melodies. And that’s a rare thing these in days of bleeps and blips. So that’s where I’m focusing my energy.

A good motto for me right now is this: ‘Only do what only you can do.’