Thursday, June 26, 2014

Creative: The Making of the Layton Album

Art by AdamOne (the 3rd) Cartwright
The creation of the album we've dubbed Professor Layton & the Bay Harbor Butcher was an adventure, a trial in the face of extreme adversity, and an experience of personal growth for those involved. Though extremely cliché, these words are nothing short of truth. It's hard for me to recall many of the specific details, they were extensive, but I’ll do my best to convey them here. Some time back in November, 2011, after Juja and I had recovered from making Pixel Glass, gone on tour, and got back to our regular lives, we starting entering into Dwelling of Duels again, making tracks for the sole purpose of entering into the contest and becoming better musicians in the process. We never did particularly well, but it was a lot of fun and over the next year or so Juja had the idea to make a Layton vs Dexter themed song for one of the site's regular "free month" contests. I forget exactly why but there were a lot of delays involved with arranging the song, and somewhere through the process, perhaps in early/mid 2012, we thought it would be cool to maybe make an album based on that song concept. Being a bit over-excited, I had the artwork made the next week by my friend Adam, while Juja and I put together a list of the songs we wanted to record. 

We originally intended it to be sort of a "best/worst of Dwelling of Duels entries, plus the Dexter vs Layton song", but the more time we put into arranging the Dexter song, the more months of DoD we entered (which took away from arranging the title track), and the more track ideas Juja and I had for recording and including on the album... We just sort of had a bunch of fun ideas of “oh, let’s do this”, which is how we normally operate, and worked towards recording those songs, quickly bringing an 8 track album to 17 tracks, to 20. It didn't help that Juja was also helping me record tracks for original songs I was working on as well. We were busy guys, just having fun putting together music, learning more about recording techniques with each passing month. At one point I got Juja a better interface so he wouldn't have to record with a 3 second delay, and got myself a really nice headset so I could get an accurate feel for the music we were mixing. I also learned how to program drums, making my first attempt on a Puzzle Theme, but eventually getting pretty alright at it. I also learned a lot about editing, pitch correction, and mixing/mastering while experimenting on this project over the years.

Picture of the 36 hour recording rig
Somewhere in early 2012 I got really depressed for 6 months and stopped working on music altogether (except for shows with RE). I can't remember why I got so depressed, I don't want to. It hit me hard and didn't let up for a very long time. When I finally got out of my depression an unfortunate loss hit Juja and he couldn't really be reached for a few months either. We both got out of our slumps briefly to put together a December entry for DoD then Juja and I stopped talking for another 3 months. It wasn't that we fought or anything, we were both just going through personal stuff and didn't really make any progress on the album. Juja didn't play guitar, I didn't play accordion beyond any band-related obligations I had... But with time we both were able to recover, probably thanks to a call from my good friend Helios, who was moving back to the US from South Korea after 6 years of being away. In addition to being the other founding member of Random Encounter, Helios is someone I genuinely consider family, though we're not related. Over the years he’s pushed me to be a better musician, helped me find a direction, musical outlet, and encouraged me to keep at it when no one else (except my dear mother) would. The thought of him being a mere 3 hour flight away really inspired me... And after talking with Helios on the phone for the first time in a year or more, he agreed to fly in for a weekend and record whatever I wanted on piano, the instrument he had gone to college to perfect the art of. I booked the flight and spent a few weeks arranging the music, mostly the stuff he and I had always wanted to record as Random Encounter but had never got to properly do before he moved away... As Helios was engaged at the time (they got married later), and Juja wanted to also be involved to some extent, we decided to stream the weekend-long recording session. Despite 5 really important piano keys breaking in the opening moments of the recording session the weekend was a success. We recorded for a total of 36 hours, averaged 20-40 viewers (even well into the early hours of the morning), and finishing a whopping 30 songs!!! Despite being utterly insane, the experience reinvigorated us (at least myself) to get back on the proverbial horse and finish the album we started almost two years prior.

There was another huge delay in starting our album, the acceptance of Careless Juja live to Nerdapalooza, which in itself was an immense undertaking, but I already had most of my parts of the album recorded, and it would be good practice for the dreaded Layton solo, so I didn't see it as such a bad thing. In short, Adam (the artist), Juja, Helios, and a half dozen other musicians played some of our songs in a live setting. It was awesome and it was about this time that we hired Brandon Strader (who wrote his own version of the making of the this album here), a really talented guy we knew from DoD and from his album called Random Encounter (which I'd discovered while looking up my band on google). He seemed fairly approachable, so we tried to get him to help us arrange, mix, and master our title track, which needed to sound amazing... But in working with the guy it was really clear to Juja and myself that he understood what we were about, that he's really talented, and that he was just as passionate about our music as we were. While we didn't intend to outsource mixing our entire album, he was a lot more talented than us, extremely friendly, and open to the idea. Now, instead of simply re-releasing DoD tracks on an album, we'd be properly mixing them, re-recording parts, editing others, and really making every track sound as good as possible. Strader finished arranging the Dexter theme while Juja and I worked on the logistics of the live show.

Careless, Helios, Juja, and Ben (my nephew) at Walmart…
Shortly before the Nerdapalooza show
After the Nerdapalooza show, thanks to a mix of Strader's enthusiasm and the good vibes we got from playing the show, Juja and I immediately got to recording. I had just picked up a new recording technique called "recording with dynamics", which made my accordion sound significantly better than any previous method of recording, so though it was really unenjoyable to do, I felt it was right to go back and literally re-record many of the songs I'd spent the last 2 years recording... Including the dreaded Professor Layton solo that literally look me 3 months of daily practice to perfect, and 6 hours to record the perfect take. Sort of like the salmon commercials boasting that they "endure the worst to bring you the best", during the making of this album I broke two accordions (reeds popped out, mics broke), my home completely flooded with 2+ inches of water, twice, my water-pump system & AC broke the same day during the start of my big 4 day "heat-wave recording session" (no AC and no water to the building for 4 solid days of recording), the piano broke 4 additional keys when I started to record the touch-ups to Helios' parts, the computer with all the recordings for the entire album died, the backup hard drive with all the recordings was physically dropped (by me, carelessly down a flight of stairs) and destroyed immediately after the file transfer, there were technical failures at just about every recording session, everyone involved caught some pretty intense sicknesses, and Strader's car was shot with real gunfire after two of his neighbors got into a scuffle and decided to kill one another... I'm sure there are worse horror stories out there for album creations but I just wanted to illustrate the literal blood, mucus, sweat, and tears rendered into the tracks of this album.

Careless Juja
Around Nerdapalooza we hosted a Kickstarter, got lots of help from 8bitX and Nerdapalooza advertising it, and reached our goal in the final hours. I really can't emphasize that without the help of our Kickstarter backers we really couldn't have afforded to put the album together... While putting together a track listing a few weeks later, as we looked at a 35+ track album, we deduced that the average Compact Disc can only hold 70 minutes of music, and that we'd promised to deliver all of the 35 songs. It didn’t take Professor Layton to tell us that we needed to change what we had a problem on our hands… I firmly believed that a two disc Layton album would be a bad idea because I felt the Dexter vs Layton theme wasn't dynamic enough (we didn't have enough music from Layton and didn't want to add more songs as we were already behind schedule) for an epic 2 CD's of music. We also didn't think that people would want two back-to-back discs of our music and didn't have any new ideas for additional album art that fit the theme. Still, we wanted to make sure that all our backers got everything we promised, so in the end I came up with a pretty interesting idea for another album concept, which we could work on after Juja, Strader, and I finished the Layton album.

Interior Album Art
After the recording phase was complete in April (it took a lot of time to coordinate our efforts with the various guest drummers/artists), Juja and I were fairly burnt out (I also juggle Random Encounter, a half-dozen musical collaborations, and Juja works on other music projects too), so we took a breather of sorts while Strader worked his magic... Well, that’s actually sort of a lie... I was working with my good friend Peter Pepper to write the script for the "other album" while Juja and myself were arranging/recording songs for it. In early June, we got a message from Strader saying he was almost done and we spent the entire weekend of June 14th in back and forth conversations in a three way chat, listening to tracks, finalizing, and tweaking the entire album. It was at this point that we decided to throw in the Punch Out song, because it sounded good and Juja had jokingly posted the song to the Careless Juja facebook page as “something that has nothing to do with the Layton album.” This is also where Strader went from “really awesome mixing guy” to “really insanely awesome mixing guy” in my books.

Victory picture from the Airport Terminal I slept in
During that weekend I realized that I’d forgotten to record the intro jingle to our intro track and recorded it using the musical typing feature (literally using my computer's keyboard) while on a flight from Atlanta to Boston. I got a bunch of looks from other people on the plane... Also, at the last possible minute of the final day, Juja informed Strader and I that the intro piano bit in the Layton song was completely wrong... He had apparently transcribed it wrong years ago and had forgotten to fix it. Luckily Strader is a super chill guy and literally 6 hours before the final mixed/mastered tracks were to be submitted to the CD printing company, I recorded the updated version of the piano tracks, he mixed them in, and they made it into the final cut.

I write all of this before the album has been released, little over a week before our album premiere/release/listening party on [update: posted 1 day before the release], before anyone besides the three of us has really heard any of the tracks, and I'm unsure how our album is going to be received… I do know that I'm proud of our new album, that we probably couldn't have made it any better. My personal goal of creating & releasing these songs to the world has been a success, so I am without regret, though admittedly it would be cool if people beyond us enjoy this too. Juja and Strader are of a similar mindset, and we sincerely hope you enjoy our latest creation: Professor Layton & the Bay Harbor Butcher.

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