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Monday July 8th I stood in front of the control room window. On the other side, behind the dusty sun smeared glass Calum Malcolm was once again ready to coach me through the first of the vocal sessions.
Calum had picked out the microphone we were going to use for the bulk of the sessions and I had been singing my way through “Perfume River” as we judged the sounds. The choice had been between the Neumann 47 ( Frank Sinatra’s favourite!) and the Neumann 49 microphones, both of which had been used at the Decca studios in the 1940’s. We’d used the 47 on “13th Star” to great effect but against the 49 it sounded very sibilant and wasn’t as warm. Calum has a fascinating collection of antique microphones he has built up over the years and collected from various sources and it’s a huge added bonus when he comes up to my studio to record. Having the opportunity to sing through these Rolls Royce of microphones that are soaked with recording history is a privilege and an honour. The Neumann 49 has a presence all of it’s own! There were only 12 ever made and Calum has two! The vocal sound he has managed to find suits the material and my voice perfectly. There is only a light compression on the vocal and when recording we don’t use any effects. It certainly keeps me on my toes as ever nuance is picked up. The Frequencies are sitting nicely in the tracks. They cut through but don’t overpower giving a classic 70’s rock sound. I must admit it’s inspiring!
Our working method is to “map” out the song first then aim for 3-5 takes trying out different approaches and subtle melody changes. These takes are then “comped. This means compiling all the best parts from various takes into one version. This is then the benchmark I have to hit next time I sing the song. By the end of this week we should have comps of all the songs on the album and then after a week off I come back to sing them all again and find even better versions. I’ll sing another 3-5 takes and then Calum comps those against and with the first comp. This should give us the definitive version of the lead vocal performance and the one we use in the final mixing. Sometimes we find the first comp has hit the mark and can’t be bettered. I’ve done songs this week where the first or second take has been absolutely on the button apart from a couple of tuning or phrasing errors but we try to spend time and repair them on the comps so in a couple of weeks I have the security of knowing that I have something that could be used which gives me the confidence to stretch just a little bit more to find the ultimate vocal performance.There’s a lot of head games that go into getting the optimum take.
On “Perfume River” we managed to find a great first comp and “The Great Unravelling” has a comp that in places will be hard to beat. Tuesday we went for “Feast of Consequences” and started work on “The High Wood”. We found a fine comp on FOC but High Wood we are still mapping with the new idea to try some spoken word sections as the lyric lends itself to a more dramatic performance whose dynamic could be heightened by using singing and spoken parts. Foss is agreed on trying this out after he arrived on Wednesday after his 2 days on jury duty ( for which he eventually wasn’t chosen) at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court. I did have the worry in the back of my mind that he would be picked out and end up in a trial lasting weeks leaving us with a midnight rambling keyboard player in order to get his parts finished!
I like the idea of the spoken word in “High Wood” and can see it lending a fantastic atmosphere to the opening track in the suite of songs.
After Foss had run up some keys on “High Wood” in the morning I was on singing duties yesterday and knocked off “Crucifix Corner” and “Thistle Alley”, managing fine comp versions on both songs.Both sound epic and a new phrase is employed in the control room! “Bigger than Bob!” is a tongue in cheek reference to Bob Ezrin, the Floyd/ Alice Cooper producer as Calum is building a huge soundscape within the material that in places reminds me of Bob Ezrin’s style. Calum spends the morning when he isn’t with Foss ( I never sing before 2pm!) or comping vocals and tidying up the recordings. A heavy workload.
One slightly embarrassing task is “de kitchening!”. There are some moments during Robin’s acoustic performances when he was out in the main room that distant conversations between non players from the kitchen are picked up on mikes. Despite best efforts to avoid “pollution” and keeping the washing machine, tumble-drier and dishwasher off duty, the gatherings round the caffetierre in what we thought were hushed silences turned out not to be so hushed :-/
Unbelievably the phones have been relatively silent and the handsets left lying around haven’t detonated during the sessions. I’ve been left pretty much undisturbed during the days I’ve been working after being first concerned that I would be constantly apologising for interruptions. Living in a quiet piece of the county on a farm has meant the French doors have been left open during takes and I’ve been able to sample something of the ridiculously fine weather at a slight distance. Most of my breaks from vocals are spent sticking plants in the ground, weeding and watering and generally tending the garden in one way or another. It’s quite a spiritual way of getting through the sessions and working on vocals from 2pm until around 7 each day I need to walk away from the mike stand every now and gain to clear my head and refocus.
This morning I had a visit to B and Q after dropping my daughter off in Edinburgh for a casting session. The beds in front off the studio are being well stocked with flowers and I’ve been seeding the containers with salad leaves and the raised beds with the veg crops I’ll be harvesting in the Autumn. The horticultural breaks also allowed me the distraction to find 3 missing lines from “Crucifix Corner” that I’d been jamming on the tour and that I’d completely forgotten about until the song came up on the singing schedule! Not as easy as you’d think!
Today I managed to find a great comp on “The Gathering” got a good start on “Blind to the Beautiful” at the end of today’s session. We called it early today as there is a slight downside to working in the country on a scorching summer’s day! My nasal membranes/ adenoids started to swell as the pollen count went through the roof! Back in the Dark Ages that used to be a “self inflicted wound” caused by a rather different type of “pollen”. My producer couldn’t resist a wind up! 🙂
Nowadays the irritant is naturally occurring but still managed to curtail the session as it was affecting pronunciation and breathing and became more noticeable as the afternoon wore on.There was no point in hammering on so we called an early night. This leaves me with “Other Side of Me”, “All Loved Up” and “The Leaving”, another look at ” High Wood” with the new approach using the narrative vocal and a final series of takes for the first comp on “Blind”. By Saturday night when we take a weeks break I will have comp vocals of the entire album to listen to and evaluate before we return to aim for the principal performances over the 2 weeks that remain of the recording sessions.
Liz Antwi is coming up from London in the first week we’re back to add backing vocals to about 4 of the songs. It’s going to be great working with her again after so long. The last time she was up here was for the “Raingods with Zippos” rehearsals after singing on the album. She has a fantastic voice that will add another classy texture to the songs and bring in yet another dynamic. Most of you will remember her previous contributions on that album and the following tour and of course her stand out duet with me on “Incomplete”, a song we wrote together at the Château Marouatte , remains magical. Liz had come down to the Islington Academy on the UK tour to catch up with us all and after the show she commented on how great the new material sounded and offered to lend her voice to the mix. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse 🙂 One bizarre set of communications occurred this week as I was trying to contact her to nail the dates when she could come up to Scotland. It turned out she was in Marrakesh and about to head into the Sahara desert for some camel trekking and an overnight stay. Somehow we managed to pull it all together over the distance but it still took some frantic messaging as I couldn’t book her flight as I didn’t know the name on her passport. She must have had signal in the oasis as I eventually got the message and Elisabeth Troy Antwi was confirmed to attend the session in 2 weeks! It’s going to be fun! 🙂
Calum reckons Liz’s contribution will take an afternoon and her session will be after the violinist/fiddle player Aiden O Rourke lends his talent to a sweet melody line in the middle section of “Blind to the Beautiful”. There’s a lot of double tracking and harmonising being discussed to lend even more weight to sections of the vocals and Foss has volunteered to get on board with the choir as well ! 🙂
Doubling and harmonising my vocals are my least favourite part of recording but the dramatic effects are well worth it judging by the sound of just playing around with guide vocals just now!
These are long days for me (and Calum) just now but the sessions are relaxed, smiley and superb and working here in a classic Summer just adds to the glorious experience.
It is full on just now. Just yesterday I was juggling various dramas while continually changing hats! John the gardener was in need of direction on the garlic that needed lifting (or not) and the next seedings to go out. John Reid was on the phone about the new neck/head tubes on the Fishheadsclub website and trying to reengage the Twitter feeds to the various electronic media. Nick my office computer advisor had to sort out some problems with the back up systems, laptop cleaning and the new PC we need in the office to replace the steam driven machine we have at present. Publishing issues had to be sorted out and I am still waiting on decisions from tour personnel for the Autumn trail. The office desperately needs a revamp and reorganising as the recent glut of orders has indicated that the present system is not up to task and I need to have a rethink about how we go about the business side and get things running more smoothly and more efficiently. Tara has been helping out with getting the backlog cleared with Elspeth and Gregor and we are soon going to be on top of it all again. With a new system in place the office will hopefully not have that feeling of being overwhelmed which as we all know doesn’t make for a pleasant working environment. In all that there is the album in all it’s guises. Dave Barras completed the interviews with myself, Foss and Calum and he will have rough edits in the next week or so for me to look at. He is really pleased with what he has so far and has some great footage from the UK tour to add to the “making of” DVD. Add to that various business and operational demands and a blizzard of paperwork and searching for a backing vocalist in the Sahara desert and you get a slight idea of the makeup of a day here!
Tara has been staying here for a couple of days and it’s been wonderful having my daughter around. She’s cooked a couple of happening meals and excelled the other night when she made up a garlic aioli dip that we had with the first ever globe artichoke I have ever had from my garden. Every other year I have missed them and they have gone straight to flower. She is a fine cook and after a long day’s working with the voice it’s great to just sit and chill together over a meal and then out to the garden for a chilled savvy and a smoke in the sunset! Sometimes I forget how wonderful this place is and how lucky I am to be living here. Being with my daughter just boosts the feel good factor that I have learned to never take for granted these days.
The other night I had a magical moment when I was here on my own in the last light of dusk. As I sat watching TV with the French doors open to the garden, a hedgehog, most probably the one I saw and moved into the safety of the undergrowth the other night, moved in front of the open door, turned to face me, sat up slightly on his rear legs and sniffed the entrance before trundling away. I had a huge smile on my face! 🙂
It’s very inspiring just now and the workload is a pleasure to bear. There is a sense of magic about this project and no one more than me is looking forward to sitting down and listening to the final mixes on August 14th. That will be a very great night indeed! 🙂
For now I have the demands of the garden to attend to and an hour of wandering around the luxurious vegetable patch at the end of a hose dousing parched plants. After that it’s grilled chicken, new potatoes and salad and waiting on Tara coming back from her casting session. Tomorrow is another day and another 2 songs to lend a vocal to. Tonight has a chilled bottle of Savvy Blanc awaiting a weary gardener and a more weary singer before I go in search of big zeds in a big bed. This is a fine time!