I recorded some guitar playing yesterday. It was the first recording since sometime in the Spring of 2021. Well, it wasn’t the first recording, strictly speaking, that happened earlier this week with an electric guitar and using a different interface, but it was the first recording of the Flamenco guitar, using the combination of interface and computer that I intend to work with from now on. It took quite a few hours to get the equipment to see each other. And earlier there were many hours updating and installing software – and finding out about the difference between cables that look the same but are not…
I was unhappy with how long it was taking but it was pointed out to me that I had been extremely unrealistic. After living there for 29 years, I sold my house and studio just a little over a year ago, bought a new place, moved my belongings, set up the new home, got further distracted by falling in love with Lisbon and also setting up an apartment there. Switched from a very familiar 2003 computer to a 2021 computer, new software, new equipment. What did I expect, for all of that to magically happen overnight? Yeah, mostly that.
What will happen next? I don’t have an ideal recording room. I will familiarize myself with the equipment I want to use, now that it is all working together, will make recordings even though they won’t happen in a nice room or will have perfect fidelity, but the point is to become familiar and comfortable, intimate, with the gear. Once that is accomplished I will look for a nice room to record in. Have gear, will travel. I will literally need only one outlet to power everything, so the room can be anywhere.
Slowing down sounds was going to happen sooner or later. I slowed down a couple of rain recordings and mixed them together and now I listen to this and enjoy it just as it is. Eventually a guitar idea will (probably, hopefully) crawl out of this primordial soup of slowed down rain sounds.
The other thing I noted is that there are definite pitches in most rain recordings. Can’t fight those pitches and will have to find harmonies that go with them.
First thought that this album could be a dumb idea but as usual will forge ahead. What’s the worst that can happen. :-)
In a song one sometimes stops the rhythm for beat, in order to emphasize a note or chord that becomes clear because of that pause in the rhythm. How would that sound with a rain rhyhtm? What if I, instead of muting the rain rhythm, make it sound as if one had raised one’s hands to cover the ears for a moment. What does it sound like when I cover my ears? Drop of volume, sure, but perhaps that needs to be combined with a EQ change? Not a drop to silence but a drop down to softness.
When do we shape ideas and when are we shaped by ideas? It has to be a continuous interaction and often the lines are so blurred as to be unrecognizable.
I have been working on rhythms for the “Rain Album”, which I think of as a combination of “slow” + “One Guitar”, but with upright bass added on some of the tracks. I listened to many different rain recordings and looked for patterns that could be used as the rhythm bed for a new song. So far I identified five rain rhythms that I worked with. The next step was to find a section that was steady enough, meaning that it didn’t speed up or slow down perceptibly, and to find other sounds, like water drops, that I could add to make some accents stronger.
What makes this difficult is that rain has to have an element of randomness in order to sound like rain. If rain was metronomical it wouldn’t sound like rain. Similarly, if I picked too short of a loop you would quickly hear that it is a loop. There is a fine balance that has to be found. Tricky, but fun.
I don’t know what the guitar parts will sound like and feel that I have to open myself to playing along with the rain rhythms to discover what works. In other words, new territory.
It is typical that I would attempt a project like this when most of my life has been in upheaval. That is not a qualitative statement, just a statement of fact. One should think the smart thing would have been to make an album of music that sounds familiar, that is easy, that is like a perfectly worn-in shoe, especially so soon after a huge move, and while having to figure out a new way to record music. I didn’t only give up a studio that was familiar after nearly thirty years of recording, I am also starting with a new recording platform. I switched from a 2003 computer to a 2021 laptop and moved from Pro Tools 6.9.1 to what is probably PT 15 – in 2018 they stopped counting at PT12 and moved to a date/time based nomenclature, the latest of which is version 22-7, meaning July of 2022. I am currently using the laptop screen and the laptop trackpad and find that the screen is too small – I was working with two screens before, and each of those was bigger than this screen – and that I miss using a mouse. I can obviously improve my game by buying an additional screen and a mouse, but the point I am trying to make is that the music seems to mirror what I am going through. Perhaps that’s what my music has always been like, a mirror of the current state of my heart and head. I always ignored the advice of record companies and managers and instead made albums that I wanted to hear.
What does it feel like? It feels like I am a scout who has been dropped into a new landscape and is trying to make sense of it. This is a new landscape literally and figuratively. I live in new locations and as I familiarize myself with the new landscapes I am also learning a new way to record music, to work with music. So, there’s scouting happening all around. Life feels a little bit like those rain rhythms. It’s not super stable or steady, the patterns keep changing, new sounds surprise, and sometimes delight, and I am not sure where it is all going. No wonder I am enjoying Laozi and the Tao Te Ching at the moment. Be like water.
I think steadiness and predictability is only an illusion anyway. It’s a nice illusion and we all crave it, but it’s a fragile thing. If it does not rain a farm will have no crops. We can be hit by a bus while running across a street or, if you are in America, can be shot by some unhappy dude with an AR-15 who decides to go on a rampage.
In other words, I am trying to embrace the flux I am in and learn to enjoy it. The next album will very much be a record of this. Rain rhythms that are somewhat steady, but full of little surprises, and guitar music that somehow fits into that painting. I can feel hints of this music, which is like seeing a shadow turn a corner, like smelling the perfume of a person who has already left the room, or like a dish that contains a flavor that seems familiar but can’t quite be identified.
It’s a hell of a journey I say with a smile. Glad to have you along.
I have written about my guitar sound before. Here is a post from 2010 and here is a post from 2019. This will be a more comprehensive post with more photos.
The microphone’s position has not changed in over twenty years. Tape marks where the chair needs to be, should it be accidentally moved.
The microphone is a Neumann M-149, which I have used since 1999 – following the loss of the previous Neumann. As you can see I tend to stick with something I like. I don’t feel the need to experiment and am rather loyal to things that work. I own only two Flamenco guitars, which is very unusual, and have only used one of those two for the last five years. I generally prefer depth over variety. I would rather be very intimately familiar with one guitar than be vaguely familiar with a hundred.
One photo shows the back of the M-149 which shows that the bass roll-off is set to 40Hz. There is also a photo that shows the mic pattern setting on the front of the microphone.
From the microphone the analog signal travels to a Martech MSS-10 microphone pre-amp. Sadly Martinsound no longer makes the MSS-10, but luckily I have two in case something happens to one of them. In 1999 we rated a number of mic pre-amps and I wrote about that test here. The MSS-10 is by far the nicest mic pre-amp for the flamenco guitar that I have ever heard. When we listened to it the three of us – Jon, engineer Gary, and I – immediately preferred it over all others tested. From the MSS-10 the analog signal travels to the Digidesign 192 HD Interface that converts the analog signal to a digital one. I use the DigiDesign Reverb One plugin on the guitar, preferring a dark, but longer reverb. I put an EQ on the reverb, removing much of the lower frequencies of the reverb as they muddy the waters in my opinion. The guitar EQ is a GML (George Massenburg Labs) software plugin. I use it to dip out a frequency of my guitar that sounds boxy and to add a very small amount of presence.
That’s it. The analog equipment – microphone and mic pre-amp – is expensive, but the digital side is not. I just looked up the Reverb One plugin and it retails for $300. The GML software EQ is no longer available.
When considering a guitar sound one should not forget the guitar itself, the type of strings, the player’s way of holding the guitar – some players choke their guitar by holding it too tight – and, of course, the nail treatment and how the strings are struck. There are so many variables that it is good to go step by step.
Today, Saturday, I added four screenshots to the viewer. The first screenshot shows the EQ setting for my Blanca guitar when playing a melody. The second shows the EQ setting for my Negra when playing rhythm. I start with two EQ settings for each guitar:
There is a setting for playing rhythm – anything that’s not the main melody. This setting only removes a low frequency that every guitar has when one places the microphone relatively close. This becomes a problem when playing multiple rhythm guitars because that low-end builds up. A second setting, for the melody, removes a little less of the lower frequencey and adds a little bit of a high frequency. I look for a sweet spot where I can add a little bit of treble that sounds smooth and silky. Over time I collect more EQ settings for each guitar because the guitar can subtly change according to string wear or humidity.
The next screenshot shows one of the EQs for reverb that filters out much of the sound below 150 hertz. The last screenshot shows the One Reverb setting I prefer for all of my guitars. It is called “Dark Concert Hall” and I have used it for two decades.
Here is the last minute of the version of “The Sea Between” I recorded for “Bare Wood 2”.
The guitar melody that starts after the chorus ends came from an improvisation. I liked the vibe of the improv but the strings had been on the guitar for too long and one of them was clearly out of tune. I tried to get used to it, hoping that the mood of the playing might outweigh the handful of notes that were out of tune, telling myself that most listeners might not hear what I was hearing, but I could not. This week I learned the phrases and re-played the melody. It was interesting to learn the notes and spaces of an improv and turning them into a prescribed melody. I rarely if ever do that, often preferring a slightly strange sound, as from a piece of nail-glue that is coming loose for example, to trying to recreate the vibe.
It turned out alright though and I am happy with the feeling of it. I added an octave below for the start of the melody and like how that grabs the attention.