Monday, April 1, 2013

Music/Creative: A Recording Journey (2003-2010)

A Recording Journey

The Making of Neo Sybiance, Brick,

& Random Encounter (Self Titled)

A boy and His Electric Accordion
When I started playing the accordion 10 years ago I had no idea what multi-track recording was, what 'editing' entailed, or that effects weren't always something that proceeded a cause. I generally played and practiced by myself on a 43 pound electric accordion, recording in 60 second increments using the MS Record feature found on my laptop via usb PS2 headset. There was no mixing, no editing, no tweaking, just hardcore "play it perfect and don't forget to save as a Wav file when you're done." There was no way to cue in, there was no way to record in parts (to my knowledge). Things were just pretty Rough. So, when Random Encounter formed two years later, I still had no idea about Multi-track recording and made a demo EP with the guys in an afternoon we called "Neo Symbiance." To accomplish the task we used a single vocal microphone, the MS record feature (looping back-to-back 60 second fuses to allow for more lengthy tracks). As if to match some sort of theme I used MS Paint to draw the EP's cover. The idea for the EP was to give venues an idea of how awesome we were... But due to our limited recording knowledge it generally had the opposite effect, despite how good we might have sounded.

Random Encounter, October 2005
Fast forward 4 years...
The new band of the same name (and completely different membership) had long stopped giving out Pogo-sticks, pie-crusts, and Ramen Noodles at our concerts. Adam "One" (actually Adam the 8th in his family bloodline) had joined us and explained what a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) was and that almost all modern music is recorded one instrument at a time using a DAW... This was pretty revolutionary to me and answered the question I'd often wondered where bands like They Might Be Giants had found people to do their backup vocals that sounded so much like the lead singer (John or John respectively in the case of TMBG). In short, it was also explained that you could "cut in" or "cut out" of a recording, meaning if I played a part of the song correctly, I could record the rest of the song without having to start from the beginning. I didn't really understand much about how to DO any of those things, or what a BPM (beats per minute) was, but the idea that it's possible to make those things happen helped me find Accoustica Mixcraft (my DAW of choice because of its simplicity) and got us started on recording BRICK, what was to be Random Encounter's first album! 

Artistic Rendition of the band by Destiny Burch, 2007 
Random Encounter, September 2007

Brick was going to be 33 VG cover tracks, everything the band knew at the time (and a dozen things we didn't know), recorded using a $70 vocal microphone, edited together by me (no mixing or mastering) with the cover art being a photo of a brick wall with our logo spray painted on it. So Adam borrowed an extra microphone (one for the set, one for the kick drum) and we spent a full day laying down the album... Sadly, despite the tracks being played flawlessly, the recording quality of the tracks was laughable and we were ultimately unable to finish the album because the entire band (except Adam) quit or was forced to resign from the band in the coming weeks. Adam, being a stickler for quality, also realized that there was nothing we could do to make the drum tracks sound good... That we knew of... We later converted one of the tracks into an entry on the VGM4A's "Welcome To World 2" album, somehow professionally/painstakingly recreated a track for the upcoming Careless Juja Professor Layton Album, and re-recorded half of Brick for Self Titled. The other songs (like Metal Slug - Windy Day, FF Tactics - Sweegy Woods, or Perfect Dark - Credits Theme) will likely never see the light of day because the recording quality is not even remotely decent without more money/time to edit them than I can afford. Period.

Random Encounter, April 2008, Standing in Front of a Brick Wall

It wasn't until July 2009 that the new, new band of the same name (in which I was the bass player of as opposed to the accordionist most of the time which made us rather generic due to the birth of several more talented VG cover bands) finally agreed collectively to undertake the recording of a studio album, and booked some time at a real studio in Sarasota, FL (my hometown)! I hadn't really learned anything about recording since Brick and (at Adam's request) still hadn't mentioned Brick to anyone since it was recorded. Adam and I booked an entire weekend, two 8-hour days, to record drum tracks for a whopping 22 songs! As we drove through the shady industrial neighborhood, past a mysterious barbed wire fence covered in toys I remember feeling completely excited. Heck, I wasn't even going to do anything that weekend but I felt ready to lay down tracks for the entire album that day and couldn't stop talking (a sign of nervous excitement for me similar to how some people shake with excitement) to Adam, who is admittedly not one for extended non-purposeful conversations.

Random Encounter, July 2009

As we walked into the studio space three times the size of my apartment, the sound engineer greeted us and gave us a brief tour. Adam set up his drums while a session of the DAW "Cubase" loaded and the engineer set up 6 or 12 different microphones around the drum set. All I did the entire weekend was pay him the cash, sit back, watch, and take in everything that happened. I picked up on much of how the basic recording process worked, asked a few questions of the engineer here and there, and observed him do something called "edit" the tracks, which I'd never personally attempted, and "punch-ins" where you start recording a track from the section you screwed up in the previous recording. The engineer repeatedly complemented Adam on being a metronome perfect drummer (which I didn't really understand) and because of this precision Adam seamlessly recorded the entire album in 12 hours... That's about 2 songs an hour(!) and with the extra time I asked Adam to record a few "special" tracks I had in mind... Some inspiration for originals I'd intended to write, as well as a rendition of Katamari on The Rocks, and a Sonic medley I'd later use. The engineer was thoroughly impressed with Adam and that was probably the last time I'd see the guy smile.

Recording Self Titled
The following weekend the guitarists arrived to record their parts. Each one of them stuck around for single 8 hour day and recorded almost everything in their respective session. Ultimately, when it was discovered that one of the tracks was recorded by one of the guitarists in the wrong key (which we only realized the day after) we were forced to immediately scrap track 22: 'God Knows' and lost some of the work done to other tracks. Why the guitarists wouldn't just come back to re-record their tracks I didn't know at the time, but both flat out refused and suddenly expressed a strong disinterest in making the album. They wouldn't even discuss it with me and because we didn't have any upcoming shows, we didn't meet in person to talk about it. Still, 21 tracks seemed plenty enough, having personally put in ~$500 into the game (at the band's request), I figured that if I could just finish the album we'd have something to sell at shows and recoup the money.

Adam offered to help in lending a creative/critical ear, and created the album's artwork... I have no talent in creating visual art, and at the time had no understanding of effective cover composition, and though I had a few visual ideas at the time (basically to make this the "Brick" album) we ultimately settled on mixing pictures from our photo shoot with a cover he'd design. The end result was visually kind of like an amateur knock-off System of a Down album, largely because the printing company ran the print about 40% darker than we'd intended (partly our fault), making our text illegible.

Back to the recording part... So I spent the next month or two recording bass and accordion in 2 or 4 hour sessions (partly because I took my time but partly because I lacked the money for studio time), picking up more recording tips and tricks with each session. However, towards the end I discovered that even with my parts the album seemed dramatically incomplete. I sent the tracks to Adam he agreed. There didn't seem to be any immediate fix because the two guitarists already informed us of their complete disinterest in working on the album any more with the dismissive phase "you've got this," as if that suddenly made everything better... Which it didn't in case you were wondering.

My home for 6 months
So I looked at the audio engineer and started editing with him. The guy was a champ for sticking through the project with me. We added, we subtracted, we doubled, we went through almost every trick that he knew. I personally recorded guitar parts using a guitar someone randomly left in the studio one weekend using a giant Marshall amp (I think it was tuned but didn't know how to tune at the time, nor did the engineer) which actually wound up in the finished product in a couple of places. I also added glockenspiel, more accordion, more accordion after that, keyboard parts (in memory of the Helios, the band's founding member whom I still sorely missed), and a half dozen other small things that aren't worth mentioning that didn't work (like hammer dulcimer, banjo, and cheesy sampling). By the end of the project the engineer didn't like me a whole lot because of the sheer amount of extra work we had to do that could have been easily fixed if either guitarist would have shown up for an extra day.

A picture of Dinosaur Land, the place I wished I was at... when I was editing
It was now a full 6 months later in December by the time the album was done being recorded. We spent an extra month mixing and mastering and re-editing certain parts... Adam and I (pretty much the only people still talking about the CD I'd gone completely broke completing) finalized the album art and started to discuss the ESRB style "rating" of the album (and the "rating" of the band as a whole). We'd originally recorded some fun little explicit introduction tracks to each song, outlining in the harshest language possible how the listener's life was hollow and meaningless before they listened to our CD. It was hilarious, abusive, off the wall, but ultimately Adam and I agreed that we'd prefer to one day share this music with our families and friends under the age of 17. We were playing Video Game music after all, and with songs like Happy Joy from Ren and Stimpy so there was no sense in preventing younger people from enjoying the fruits of our labor. We also toned down the artwork on the album from "people being murdered by video game controllers and wires" to "guy non-aggressively plugged into the music kind of like in The Matrix." Random Encounter was suddenly an 'All Ages' band, which it had pretty much always been.

The Finished Album Art by Adam
By the end of the 7 month recording/mixing/mastering session I felt confident in my ability to record and edit music. I didn't know at the time how little I actually knew, but I understood the basics well enough and actually became a better sound editor than the engineer I was working with (two months prior to project completion he just flat out gave up and left me alone to edit for entire sessions). Completely snowblind from over-exposure to the music for half a year, I felt like i'd created a masterpiece, or fire on that island with Tom Hanks and Wilson. This album represented the last five years of my life and I was insanely proud of it. At the band's mutual decision I set off to license and order 1000 prints of the CD we dubbed "Random Encounter" (and later re-dubbed Self Titled by the next incarnation of the band). Sadly, because of my inability to license some of the tracks legally we cut 6 of the tracks: Big Blue, The Main Zelda Theme, Zelda: Labyrinth, Lost Woods, The Song of Storms, and What's Up People (the Deathnote theme), reducing it from 21 tracks to 15. I felt pretty upset about cutting those tracks but really wanted to do everything by the book.

When I left the studio I suddenly had facial hair and a broken nose
The physical copies of the album arrived in my hands at Megacon, March 19th 2010, literally an hour into the convention. By some form of miracle a UPS driver got out of his truck, ran through the OCCC, ninja'd past security, found my booth, and delivered the package. I gave the guy a very friendly tip and did everything in my power to share Random Encounter with the world that weekend... Sadly the world wasn't interested in a bunch of Final Fantasy 1 or 6 covers at the time. We sold nine the entire weekend and about a week later, a month after I put the licensing and print costs on my personal credit card, the entire membership of the band informed me of their decisions to quit the band, Adam included (so he could work on his personal music project). What I couldn't see at the time was how much I'd learned in the process of creating an album, and how in 6 months I'd spent significantly less than going to a sound engineering college for similar training/experience.

Below is a picture from Megacon 2010, representing my graduation from the school of hard knocks and the completion of my first album. It was a pretty victorious day and as much as I'll complain about the album spawning clones of itself, I couldn't be more proud of my accomplishment!

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