DANVILLE — Standing before the microphone inside the comfortable recording studio, the singer realized one of the most enjoyable days of his life was nearing its end. And with a full day of work filtering through his headset, he knew it was his turn to close the deal.
It was time to cut the final track and record the vocals.
This scene, and the events leading up to it, were never intended to appear on these pages. But as this newspaper's music editor, I feel obligated to share them, particularly with those who have ever entertained the idea of making a record.
And that's because the guy standing in front of the microphone a few weeks ago was me. And the song being recorded was mine.
Some of you may be asking yourself how I ended up in this unusual situation. Well, because there are several very good recording studios in this region, and because there are so many bands and so many songwriters out there that might be apprehensive about taking on such a challenge, I'll be happy to explain. But first, a little background ...
Ever since I was about 14 years old, I've been a fan of record producers and have been interested in the art of audio production. I've always considered the act of taking a song, crafting the proper arrangement, recording it on multiple tracks and then mixing it into one finished number to be a fascinating process.
Even as a teen, I always knew who produced my favorite records. The producer can be and often is the master of the recording session. Imagine a song to be like a screenplay, and the producer is the film director. The screenplay can be good, but the director can help make it great. It's the same thing with music. The producer's talents, his musical visions and his interpretations of the work he's presented can often help make songs come alive.
If you're a regular reader, you probably already know that music is a big part of my life. I love writing about it — and although I do everything from interviewing local and nationally known musicians to reviewing albums and covering concerts — I also sometimes take things a little further.
Sometimes, I write songs.
I wrote the words to my first tune when I was 17, and I've continued to write songs periodically. Back in college, I even did some recording while playing bass in an original band. We'd record, produce and mix our own songs on a four-track, and it was then that I learned the typical order in which tracks are cut: drums first, then bass, then guitars and then vocals. This can vary, depending on the song's other instrumentation, but that's basically how rock 'n' roll is done.
Bret Alexander and Paul Smith — who own and operate Saturation Acres recording studio in Danville — do this as well as anyone I know. And, most important, they are also very gifted producers.
The two — known best for their work with The Badlees — conduct some remarkable sessions at Saturation Acres. It's a very cool, rustic sort of place with great equipment and an organic vibe. Some of the gear is vintage and old-school, but most of it is state-of-the-art. It's a great cohesive combination.
And, for me, it was great place to work on my music.
I first wrote the tune we recently recorded quite a while ago, and I had actually already demoed it up with my friend Jim at his home studio. I wrote the lyrics and came up the melody and arrangement, and Jim played acoustic guitar. The song — titled "The Most Honest Thing" — is just an old-fashioned ballad, but at the time I wrote it in 1999, it meant a lot to me. Sonically, however, I knew it could be improved. A bigger sound and some more dynamic instrumentation, I felt, might make the song move a little faster and give it a better feel.
It was then that my lifelong appreciation for skilled record producers kicked in and I decided to send my demo to Bret.
Bret is one of the most talented people I've ever met. He's a wonderful songwriter and an accomplished producer. And what some might not realize is that The Badlees' biggest-selling album, "River Songs" — which they produced themselves — was actually recorded at a small Harrisburg studio for a few thousand dollars. And, back in 1995, when the big-time record labels started attending the group's shows and began offering them national recording contracts, no one felt "River Songs" needed to be re-recorded.
The songs were strong, the album sounded great, and upon its national release, it sold nearly a quarter of a million copies nationwide, produced two national top-10 hits and took the band on a creative musical journey that lasted several years. Even today, The Badlees still plug in and play on occasion, and may even do another album someday.
Alexander sure wasn't a bad guy to evaluate my demo.
To my surprise, Bret thought the tune was pretty good and agreed to re-record it with me. We spoke on the phone a few nights before our session, talked about the song, and I warned him of my own musical and vocal limitations. He seemed unfazed and unconcerned.
"It'll be great," he said casually, and I have to admit I found his confidence that I'd be happy with end-results very reassuring.
"You can take a good picture of anybody," he added. "It just depends on how you shoot 'em."
Still, I couldn't help but think that I'd need lots of makeup, clever lighting and some tricky camera angles.
Bruce Springsteen, I am not.
Undaunted, I headed to Danville with Jim, who first helped me record the song. All we took was his acoustic guitar and a copy of the demo we'd cut at his house.
It would be one of the most interesting and memorable days of my life.
In the studio
My biggest concern about turning the song into a richer recording was the fact there were no drums on the demo. And drums, as I said earlier, almost always go first in the recording process. In my old band, when we recorded drum tracks, it was always fairly easy because we had worked out the songs during live rehearsals. This time, we had no drum beat for the studio drummer to re-play, and he'd never heard the song.
This, I thought, is going to take forever.
When Jim and I arrived at the studio, we were greeted by Bret and drummer Ron Simasek, who was already preparing for the session. I've also known Ron for many years from his work with The Badlees, and I always thought he was an excellent live drummer.
What I didn't know — and what I was about to find out — is that he's also an incredible session drummer.
After Ron was set up, we went into the studio's control room, where Jim and I tried to give him a feel for the song. Jim played the tune on the guitar and I sang it — once. We then played Ron the demo, once, and he immediately started charting the drum beat. Bret and Ron also said my voice sounded a lot like Ray Davies' of The Kinks, which made me feel, well ... pretty good. At least they didn't think I sounded like Jabba The Hutt.
As Ron was working on his drum chart, Bret came up with some suggestions for the song's arrangement. I knew the tune was a little too long, and one of the things I'd hoped to do during the session was cut it down. We kicked around a few ideas. Bret understood I wanted to keep some of the lyrics, but he also knew I was willing to let some go to make the song move a little faster.
"This is what I'd do," he said, as he showed me his re-worked version of the song on paper. "But ... I don't want you to compromise the song's integrity.
"I'm also a fan of words."
The final decision on the arrangement, we decided, would be mine.
After a few minutes of pondering, I omitted one verse, moved another up higher and decided I'd like the pre-chorus to be the most prominent part of the song. The verses and chorus would come in only twice, but the pre-chorus and its melody would come in three times, including directly after the guitar solo.
"A good compromise," said Bret.
Ron calmly scribbled the arrangement change on his chart, sat behind his drums and laid the whole thing down in just two takes.
A song that had no drums now had a steady, rhythmic and thoughtful back-beat. And it was done by a guy who only an hour prior had never heard the song before in his life. Later, when the track was being mixed, it seemed that even the cymbals crashed in at just the right moments.
These guys were even better than I thought.
Bass and guitars
Paul Smith, who would be playing bass on the track, hadn't arrived, so Bret decided to start laying down the guitars. He first cut an acoustic guitar track patterned after the chords Jim originally developed, and upon Paul's arrival, he laid down another clever piece using some distinct Nashville tuning. Then, much to my surprise, he strapped on an electric guitar and added a vibrant rhythm track — to my acoustic song — which sonically helped "lift" the pre-chorus.
This is what the song needed most. And this is where the role of the producer shined the brightest.
Because the song is a mid-tempo ballad, it also needed some bounce. Imagine the song being fed through an EKG, and it's showing a steady heartbeat. Bret, with the electric rhythmic track, gave the tune some kick. He got it moving, while still keeping it in time.
For the third pre-chorus — during which the song comes to its crescendo — Bret added another eclectic guitar track, giving it even more feel and thus helping create more of the mood I was seeking. And when it was time for the solo, he offered a beautiful, melodic piece that fit the song perfectly. This, like almost every other track he cut, took only a few minutes.
By now, "The Most Honest Thing," was taking a new form. The words and melody were the same as I'd written long ago, but it was becoming much more of a song.
With the guitars complete, we were ready to cut the bass track. Although Bret had already recorded a rough-bass line, Paul would be playing on the finished song, so I explained to him how I thought he could develop something funky for the pre-chorus. Before we got started, however, we decided to take a break. I headed a few miles down the road for lunch.
By the time I returned, the bass-line was done.
Paul, who had engineered several of the final guitar tracks, was also a quick study. He immediately had a great feel for the tune, and the bass was just what I'd hoped for.
"Excellent," said Bret.
Bret, who took notes throughout the session, seemed to say "excellent" every time a track was completed. This made me feel, well ... excellent.
Being familiar with the recording process, I knew what was next.
It was time for the vocals.
"It's your song," said Paul with a smile from behind the control board, obviously sensing my hesitancy and attempt at procrastination.
"Just go out there and sing it."
Interestingly, as soon as I saw Bret strap on that electric guitar to lay down the first rhythm track an hour or so earlier, I knew I wasn't going to be able to sing the song quite like I had on the demo. What was once a soft vocal-line sung over a strumming acoustic guitar was now a song with drums, bass, and five guitar tracks — three of which were electric.
I would have to step it up a little.
Fortunately, I had used my time in the car during my lunch break to warm up my voice. And Paul was right: It was my song. I knew it well. And I was ready to sing it.
In just two takes and a few editing "punches," the vocals were done.
Paul, who engineered my part of the session, decided to add some reverb and use a double-track, which helped give my voice a fuller sound. I returned to the control room once or twice, where we went over a few lines that we thought should be redone. That's the beauty of digital recording. If you play a bad note, lisp a word or stray a little off key, you simply go back and fix just that portion of the song. There's rarely a need to play the whole song over again, or sing it all again. You "punch in" the edit, clean up the track, and you're done.
My vocals took about 20 minutes.
They all come back
With the music complete, Paul began the final part of the recording process. It was time to mix the song, and through the control room monitors, all the tracks we'd cut throughout the day could be heard as one. Paul twirled the knobs and adjusted the volume of each track into perfect symmetry. And as he skillfully tweaked the mixing console, you could hear what sounded like a pretty cool tune.
As Jim and I looked at each other and smiled, a member from another band who had come in for an evening session nodded his head to the beat, looked at me, and said it sounded great.
One guy, however, wasn't smiling. Bret had an almost blank look on his face and I couldn't help but think that maybe he didn't like what he was hearing. But, as I should have known, he was simply still serving as the producer.
"I've got to add some organ," he said as he rose from his chair. "Trust me, I'll get it on one shot. If we don't do it, it will always bother me."
A textured Hammond-B3 track was added throughout the song. Musically, it fit beautifully. It is soft where it should be soft, and more prevalent where it should be more prevalent.
"The Most Honest Thing" was done. In just six hours, a rough demo had grown into a multitracked, multilayered number that was gentle and grand at the same time. It was exactly how I'd always imagined it to be, and then some. Some said it sounded a little like Jakob Dylan, which was fine with me. I've always liked The Wallflowers.
A few days later, as I popped the tune in the CD player and gave it a another whirl, I was reminded of something Paul had said during the session.
"Most artists," he said, "who come down to the studio to record just a song or two have such a great time they eventually start asking Bret and I about doing a whole album."
I'm already working on the songs.