Zen of Recording

The War of Will, a Final Chapter

The dining room table. It’s where I left off in our story and, somewhat fittingly, where this last chapter begins and ends.

As a writer of songs (and in recent years technical musings and product reviews), I have always felt most comfortable doing so at the kitchen table. I’m not quite sure where this phenomenon found its start, although I can vividly recall doing my fourth-grade homework seated at one as my mom busily prepared dinner for myself, my brother, and three sisters. Maybe all of those wonderful smells and activity on our behalf made me feel loved and secure. Perhaps my creative self returns there and figuratively curls up into a fetal position. Or opens up like a hungry hand receiving one of those pre-meal morsels.

Whatever the reason, I can distinctly remember all of the kitchens I’ve inhabited since and, while this one has no table within it, I am usually writing while seated nearest its very entrance, so there must be something to it.

This table is no modest breakfast nook. It is six-to-eight feet in length and has considerable weight, due to its beautiful cherry wood construction and walnut inlays. It has grandeur.

Lest I come off as some furniture-obsessed pervert who spends his days parked outside of Ethan Allen in dark glasses in an overcoat, rest assured there’s a metaphor on its way…

When I returned to San Diego from Utah, I had determined that I would continue to move forward in my career as a performer, producer and, yes, writer of (and about) music. Some of the seemingly monolithically large obstacles to this path were financial in nature. Others had more to do with fears, like commercial indifference, a constantly redefined set of industry parameters and, above all, uncertainty. The “war of will” title refers to not just the struggle to overcome these and other challenges that lie ahead of me, but also to flourish, collaterally broken ankles and hard drives be damned!

The key to this survival: reinvention. Just as my tables have turned from small and cozy to open and opulent, so too has my approach to recording. When there was no way to record here during construction, I found other studios to work in and found that I quite liked doing so. The things I had most feared losing—comfort and familiarity in my surroundings and the ability to work on projects as my schedule and inspirations allowed—never went away.

Instead, new avenues of creation opened up as soon as I relaxed my hold on my expectations. New strategies yielded new adventures by placing me in unexpected places, simultaneously stimulating my mind and stirring my muses.

Case in point: Joshua Taylor’s new album, About Time.

As described previously, it was started mid-way through the recording of 22 Kings’ latest, Bringing Me to Life, but with the same finish date, as both acts would be touring together.

Josh described to me his wish to make a band recording, but he didn’t actually have a band, per se. He had performed a couple of gigs with some of the players before and they recommended the others, but there would definitely be some “winging it” even with all of the great charts Josh provided. This was the project’s initial challenge. The next one lay in scheduling.

We had SDRL studio lined up for three days, but the musicians for these recordings (Josh Weinstein on keys, Shane Fitzgibbon on drums, and Kory McAfee on bass) would only be available for one of the sessions and not on the first day. That meant that we would have to record Josh’s parts first and subsequently add the others afterward, which is decidedly not my choice when recording bands, although I have done it. In fact, I was currently doing exactly that with 22 Kings!

The approach is personally quite familiar, because it’s how many of my own albums have been made. You start with the artist performing the song at the center and build outward from there. Click tracks help, as does a really strong performance.

Joshua Taylor showed up on that first day, put on his headphones, tuned up his 2004 Taylor 410ce acoustic guitar (which was captured by a Neumann TLM 103 condenser mic), stepped up to the Rode Classic tube microphone and sang these songs like he’d been waiting his whole life to do so. When I later commented on that, he simply explained, “Man, I’ve been waiting my whole life to make this record.”

Within a couple of hours, all of the vocal and acoustic guitar tracks were done. First or second takes. Wonderful performances filled with truth, passion, and a genuine, unmistakable wealth of talent.

On the second day the band arrived and I set them up in the main room, in a circular formation that faced the vocal booth in the corner. This would maximize the visual and verbal communication that would be crucial to the success of this session. The drummer showed up and I offered him the option of using the house drums which were already miked and ready (Earthworks TC30k overheads, Shure Beta 52 on the kick, Audix i5 dynamic on the snare, Sennheiser 421 dynamics on the toms, and an AEA R84 ribbon mic) or his own. We agreed that we liked the sound of the ones in place, so I set about taking the Nord Stage keyboard’s left and right outputs into two Groove Tube D.I. boxes. The bass player arrived and I offered a couple of amp head choices (Randall, SWR) but ultimately he chose his own Gallen-Kruger, which I took a direct XLR output from. After handing out the song charts, Josh went into the booth, where I placed both him and his Fender Stratocaster, which he had plugged into a Mesa Boogie Lonestar 212 amplifier at the 100 watt setting. With Josh standing practically right on top of his amp, this setup wasn’t optimal for “keeper” tracks, but we did use it for a couple solos and a few vocal passages.

Everything was captured raw, without additional EQ or processing, except for some light compression on the bass and vocals. The rest of it was up to mic placement and the position of players in the room. This proved problematic at only one point, when I walked into the room after we’d tracked three songs and realized that the bassist had been plugged into his cabinet, which was leaking into all of the drum and room mics! Luckily, largely because I had kept the settings consistent and paid attention to the overall sound of the band it all worked out, with very minimal differences between these and the other songs. Whew!

It is a truly magical experience when players of this highest caliber collaborate in the moment, creating an organic feel and sculpting their parts into a beautiful, cohesive whole. Talent and preparedness played huge roles to be sure but, ultimately, the musicians’ keen ears and artistic sensibilities elevated these already strong songs to extraordinary heights.

The next day, once again Josh and I were the only ones present for the tracking of his solos, which I recorded with the TLM 103 up close to his amp and the ribbon mic capturing the rooms’ ambience. Subsequent overdubs of Ron King’s trumpet, Ed Croft’s sax, and Sandi King’s lovely backing vocals were all done here at the home studio, which had now finally moved from the dining room into its new space, dubbed Alamo North.

So here I sit once again, at the dining room table. Recounting these details while letting the wonderful sound of this music cascade and saturate my satisfied soul. Think I’ll go check what’s in the refrigerator…

Sven-Erik Seaholm is open for business: www.kaspro.com

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  • September 2016

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