Monday, July 25, 2011

High Fidelity

When I made my new album, I used just the one little microphone.   I drove out to West Auckland to pick it up from the guy who had listed it on Trademe as 'slightly foxed but basically sweet,' and it served me well for the whole project.  I put it in front of things and hit 'record,' and the results sounded like what the things sounded like in real life, give or take.  I liked it, because it seemed to work - and, I realise now, I liked it because I was an ignorant wet-behind-the-ears hick and I didn't know any better.

Last week we started recording Reb Fountain's new album in at York Street Studios, which is where the grown-ups from the big cities go to make their records. And now - now I know better, by God. Here at York St, they don't use just one mic. I showed up at the studio on Monday morning and I walked into the tracking room to see not one, but sixteen microphones.  And, reader: that was just on the drum kit.  I don't want to belabour the point, but to an ignorant wet-behind-the-ears hick, that's a lot of mics. I was reminded of the rostrum at one of those triumphant press conferences that presidents of the United States of America give when their trained seals (at least I think that's what they said) hunt down public enemies in foreign countries, shoot them full of holes, and throw their bodies in the sea.  It is very tempting to suppose that this is how things should be done going forward.

The view from the violin recording station. The microphone in the upper right corner of the picture costs more than my car.  Just for your reference, other things that cost more than my car include: off-brand laptop computers, some kinds of pedigree dog, and vomiting eight times in a taxi.

You might be thinking that recording with this many microphones would go to my head. I mean, I only had about three pointing at my violin, but that's still two more that I actually own. Don't worry though, that's not what went to my head.  The thing that nearly did go to my head, but didn't quite, was how when you record with that many microphones, you need to have a really massive mixing desk.  The desk needs lots of knobs and sliders and a whole mess of outboard gear in racks, hooked up to big computers with flat screens and preamps with glowing vacuum tubes, and all this needs to be set up in a control room in front of a majestic triple-glazed window.  You know where I'm going with this, of course.  Yes, I can confirm that the control room at York St is way more like the bridge of a spaceship than any room I have ever been in in my entire life, and that is a significant milestone for me - but still that isn't what went to my head.

Simon flying the Battlestar Milllennium Enterprise

 Klingons on the starboard bow, etc.

What did go to my head, and this is something I fear I may never recover from, was Morton the Assistant Engineer. Like I said, on my album I used one microphone.  I also didn't have an engineer; I was the engineer.  And that was fine, because I can just about cope all by myself with the range of sonic options provided by one microphone.  Because I didn't have even an engineer, though, there was no room for an Assistant Engineer, and so I was blind and ignorant to the awesome possiblities afforded by this role.  An Assistant Engineer is an invaluable addition to the creative process, and frankly I don't know what I ever did without Morton.  As well as performing tasks like pointing microphones at things and patching preamps into mixers like a champion, Morton will stand next to the drum kit wearing a big pair of industrial earmuffs, ready to hand the drummer a different set of sticks half-way through a take so the sound can come out just right for the benefit of the sixteen microphones. He will run the protools console while Simon the boss engineer paces around the control room with his head cocked to one side, listening out for the perfect take.  He fetches, he carries, he puts instruments in their cases - the right way up! - and as if this wasn't enough, he is constantly making coffee for everyone.

Dylan Storey and Morton getting just the right guitar sound.  Two things to note about this photo:  1) Yes, Dylan has set up two separate Vox AC30s, just because he can. 2) Morton's head is way closer than a human head should ever be to a Fender Delux, and the fact that his ears aren't bleeding is evidence of his special powers.

Yes indeed, and not just coffee, either - really good coffee.  As a rule I don't usually care much about the quality of my coffee as long as it kicks like an angry donkey, but sometimes in my life a coffee will stand out from the crowd and I will take notice.  This week, thanks to Morton's expertise, that has been happening consistently. At first I was a bit worried about coming across like the greedy underemployed waster I am, out to get whatever free stuff I can lay my hands on, so I used my manners and just asked for simple long blacks.  I was careful to wait until he offered, and to say 'no thank you' at least one time in three. Then about half-way through day two, I realised that there was really no reason to hold back here - Morton is used to bona fide rock stars, who generally have no manners and are not afraid to make unreasonable demands.  I started getting him to concoct outlandish drinks with six inches of frothy chocolate milk piled on top of two or three shots of espresso, with an extra short black on the side for luck, and after that it got silly.  It was around then that I realised that this was going to my head, and it was awesome.  I stopped sleeping and developed a painful reflux condition, but I was preternatually alert, bang on the beat, and totally nailing my takes. The others were in pretty much the same condition, and so far the album sounds like what might happen if Orpheus had a baby with Thor and it got kidnapped by carnies who raised it up to  be a pirate.  So something seems to be working, and I'm pretty sure it's Morton's coffee.

Next time I make an album, I don't think I'll try to break into this flash studios for the grown-ups from the big city scene. I'll probably just stick with my ratty-tatty old hillbilly microphone and my temperamental laptop. Once you get the taste, though, there's no going back - I'll definitely be calling up York Street to see if I can borrow Morton the Assistant Engineer and his magical coffee machine.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Slow Burn Winter Tour Part 4: Misty Mountain Hop

The first time I played at Vinnies Cafe in Raglan was early in the summer of last year, and I knew straight away that I'd found the right place.  It wasn't that complicated - as I walked in the door the guy behind the bar put 'Immigrant Song' on the stereo and after that it was all Led Zep, all night long.  In hindsight, this is an issue I probably should have covered with Billy Earl and Betty Grey when I asked them whether they wanted to be my tour buddies this New Zealand winter.  I didn't  say it up front, but the main reason that I wanted to make this tour happen was not to promote my new album, or to promote their new album, or to play in any new exciting parts of the country and meet new people, or even to hang out and crack wise.  What I didn't tell them was the main reason I booked these shows was so that I could drive on winding roads through snowy mountains in a van, preferably in mist, and definitely listening to Led Zeppelin.

Mountains, misty.

For some people, the Lewis Pass is just a good way to get from Nelson to Oamaru, if that's what you need to do on a given day.  For me, it's a sweet place to listen 'Misty Mountain Hop,' and I think the reasons for this will be obvious to the astute reader. For some people, the car deck of the ferry is quite a boring place to be while you wait for the boat to finish docking in Picton.  For me, it's a chance to put on 'Black Dog,' turn it up, and rock out a little with the truck drivers.  I think I have mentioned elsewhere that as far as I'm aware, the main reason we have the Homer Tunnel at all is so people can drive through it in vans full of amplifiers, listening to 'Kashmir' quite loud. Anyway, when we started talking about doing this tour together, it's possible that I may not have made all this clear to the Teacaddies.

'Is there anything other than Led Zeppelin on that ipod?'  This was only about ten minutes, or a song and a half, into the Lewis Pass.
'I might just pretend you didn't say that.'
'Please don't make me do something to you that I will regret in years to come.  I don't think we need any more Led Zeppelin right now.'
'But... the mountains!  The kick drum sound! Come on!'
'The mountains were there before Led Zeppelin and they will still be there once you have turned it off.  Also, where the hell has Oamaru got to? We've been driving for ages.'
'Because of the Led Zeppelin thing I'm not going to tell you how much further it is, except to say that it's still miles away.  I already said I was sorry for booking consecutive shows in Nelson and Oamaru, so stop your whining.'
'Near Nelson.'
'Greater Nelson, yeah. People still came out though.'

Privately and secretly I was as surprised as anybody that we'd played to a full house forty minutes out of Nelson on a Wednesday night, but I was trying to maintain that it was all down to my awesome tour manager skills in some unfathomable way.  I wasn't having much luck with this, since I'd spent the previous week attempting to manage expectations by carefully explaining that the Nelson show was probably going to be a bit shit, and I'd only booked it for the food and a place to sleep.  Now that it had actually turned out to be a decent show, I was trying to spin the situation to make it look like good judgment rather than dumb luck.  This is a trick that political PR people learn at university, and when they graduate they sell it to their clients to use on voters.  I learnt it second-hand when I was working as a political studies tutor, and I used to make my students discuss it earnestly and write essays about it.  It's quite a popular trick, but unfortunately I don't think it works on actual humans.

'You were as surprised as anybody.  And it's still a pig of a drive to Oamaru.'
'Yeah, alright, I was quite surprised. But you know what would make the drive way faster? If we were listening to 'No Quarter' right now.  I bet it would totally synch up with the road.'
'Trust me, it wouldn't.'
'Wouldn't be way faster, or wouldn't synch up with the road?'
'Christ, neither. And I don't even really want to know what you mean by 'synch up with the road.'  Is that some hippie Wizard of Oz thing?'
'You're thinking of Pink Floyd. Which I also have some of and we could definitely listen to instead if you want?'
'Yeah, or I could drive over this massive cliff and kill us all in a fireball.'
'So you'd pretty much prefer to listed to Led Zeppelin then?  That's cool with me.'
'I don't get it, it's like you won but you didn't win at the same time. Just for the love of God let's not have any more Led Zep for the next ages. Please.'

 Taking time out to find devil horns is important.

It's surprising how often variations of this scenario play out in my life.  It's good to know that I'm not alone though. Someone similar must have got to the barman at Vinnie's, because when we walked in a week or so later to set up for the Raglan show, with me hoping just quietly in my head that he was going to drop maybe 'Ramble On' or at least 'Celebration Day' as we came in the door, the guy was playing reggae.  To his credit, and because it was in Raglan, it wasn't the piss-weak dinner-party kind of reggae that they've been piping out of Wellington for the past few years, but it sure wasn't the Zep.  I like to think I might have not been the only person there who was a little bit disappointed.

Of course, and as expected, the show went swimmingly.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Slow Burn Winter Tour pt 3: Running a little bit late on the road

You should take it as a good sign that it's going to be a good show when you're running a little bit late on the road - partly because you maybe slept in, partly because you stopped to look at the view too many times - and when you give the venue a call to sort of apologise and let them know what's going on, muttering some desperate excuse tailored to seem plausible without making you sound completely useless, instead of yelling at you to hurry up, time is money, the hosts say 'mate, relax.  You need to stop at Ohau Point and look at the baby seals, you will not be sorry.'

Betty Grey and Billy Earl, stopping to look at the view

This was on Sunday, and we were on our way to the Wairau Valley, running a little bit late on the road.  We were a little bit late because this was in the South Island, and on the South Island leg of the Slow Burn Winter Tour, I was the Sort Of Tour Manager.  Unfortunately, it turned out that I was the sort of tour manager who would prefer to get a half-hour more sleep in the morning and another cup of coffee on the way rather than hassle everybody to leave on time, and after the least rock'n'roll car crash back in Wellington, I was not the sort of tour manager who was inclined to encourage people to make up for lost time on the road by driving like maniacs.  Especially when we could stop to look at awesome things like the view or baby seals instead.

Sometimes, though, it probably does pay to adopt a less lackadaisical management style.  The mood in the van was tense as we rolled into Blenheim, around ten minutes before we were supposed to be walking on-stage.  I muttered "Ah, yeah, it shouldn't be more than about ten-fifteen minutes or so now."
"Ten to fifteen? How is that possible? Blenheim's not that big, surely?  This is Blenheim, right?"
"Yeah, it is. But the show's more sort of near Blenheim. Um. I think I said."
"They did say we should stop to look at the baby seals.  That's a good sign in my books."
"Really, I'm pretty sure it'll be sweet.  I don't think actually that we're going to get eaten probably."
"You need to stop talking about how we might get eaten at this show."
"Yeah, OK. Sorry."

Everyone was too nice to yell at me about it, but I was acutely aware that our ETA would leave us with approximately negative five minutes to lug all the gear out of the van and into the venue, set up the PA, run a sound check, set up the merch table, pull on our gig shoes, and start the show.  Eight shows into the tour we were getting pretty slick at executing this sequence of tasks, but undeniably it was still taking longer, on average, than negative five minutes.  There is also a school of thought that says you should try to sit down for at least ten minutes or so between driving for five hours and playing a two-hour show, but somehow that hardly ever seems to happen.  It certainly looked like it wasn't going to happen that day, and I was starting to wonder whether I had really needed to insist on the second and third cups of coffee in Lyttelton that morning.  It was difficult to see how it would be anybody's fault but mine if this show turned out to be pretty miserable.

There's something about the afternoon of a show that brings out the pessimist in most musicians I have known, and I include myself in that count.  People will say of musicians (and performers generally) that you're only as good as your last show - you've probably heard that. When you're strapped in the back of a van though, running a little bit late on the road, on your way to only god or the tour manager knows where, and you know that when you do get there you're going to have to bugger about setting up the PA while the audience files in to watch you tripping over cables and squealing feedback in the monitors - or, what is worse, possibly they aren't filing in at all because somebody (me, in this case) has booked the show not even in Blenheim but near Blenheim, and on a Sunday afternoon at that - well, then it's not about the last show.  The last show is forgotten, blurred into all the others, and your self-worth is now bound up wholly in the next show.  It's the next show that's important, and it could all go horribly wrong.

That's why it's important for tour managers to project an air of confidence, and to have spreadsheets and ready answers.  It's also why I'm not a very good tour manager.  When a musician says 'so where is it we're going tonight?' they want to hear the tour manager say 'somewhere where there is delicious food and really good on-stage monitors, where they will tell you that you are awesome at playing your instrument, and after that you can sleep in a nice warm bed or stay up drinking the appetising local beer, it's up to you.'  Unfortunately that isn't me, though. When I am pretending to be a tour manager and people ask me that question, I say: 'I don't really know.  I think it's in a shed or something, and we will probably be eaten by hillbillies, if anybody turns up at all.  We should probably figure out a) who's going to sleep in the van with the gear, and b) who we will let them eat.  I hope everyone brought a sleeping bag and a gun.'  I probably don't need to explain that this tends to erode morale.

It was really just my good luck, then, that I had been told to book that day's show at Las Fronteras.  There aren't that many other places where they'll tell you to stop and look at the baby seals when you're running late for no good reason, and there's not many audiences who are that good-humoured about turning up at the same time as the performers and watching them frantically scrambling around setting everything up.  There's not that many places where the hosts will diligently call around all the neighbours ahead of time to tell them there's a show on that weekend, so that when the band does turn up, late and smelling like seals, they find a warm room in a beautiful valley filled to the doors with what looks like everybody who lives in a fifty-k radius, as well as a pack of friendly dogs, all with smiling faces and not looking like they want to eat anybody at all.  As a tour manager with a fairly half-assed approach to timekeeping and poor attention to detail, I really had no right to expect anything good from that show and I knew it. That day, though,  my luck was good, the hosts were amazing, and the show went off like a double happy in a gas-tank.  That was the final gig of the South Island leg, and it was one time I think we were all happy to be only as good as our last show.