Zen of Recording

americana

I stepped outside, bare feet and bathrobe to retrieve the newspaper from the driveway this morning as I do most every day. The first spears of daylight were fading in like distant dissonant feedback, bringing with them a swell of vibrant, almost tintinnabulatic activity. The calls, challenges, and, at times, absolutely mesmerizing songs of the seemingly hundreds of different varieties of birds echoing through the rolling hills and catwalks of Rolando greeted me like longtime, ever-present friends.

I stopped for a moment. Head up, eyes closed and feet apart, motionless… enraptured within the folds of sound woven throughout this cacophonous sonic blanket of joy and industry. And then suddenly, it hits me:

One of my favorite musics to listen to is birds.

Straining even more intently for a moment, I try to pick through and discern the countless unique songs on simultaneous offer. Conversations, confrontations, courting songs, and proclamations, all rendered with such conviction, energy and life.

It makes me picture all the singer-songwriters I know, as if they were all singing at the same time, in the same place, each of their songs fighting for its very right to exist amidst the collective din of all the others and I think, “Yeah, that’s about right.”

In the never-ending process of procuring and pruning our individual catalogs of song, we frequently find ourselves at the head of our own PR department and are often called upon to choose from a decadent potpourri of narrow, often meaningless stylistic labels—a sort of “GPS” for fans, potential listeners, and other interested parties in an effort to guide them toward our particular brand of chili, if only for a taste.

This very publication, for example, is subtitled “Alternative country, Americana, roots, folk, blues, gospel, jazz, and bluegrass music news” and that makes total sense, considering the coverage devoted to these musical genres and the musicians who perform them, also profiled within its pages.

Although I feel that instead of the heading Americana, it should be simply referred to as…songs.

Seriously, there is a deeply diverse array of musical inspiration to choose from, even within a very short list of Americana artists:
The Jayhawks
Wilco
Mumford & Sons
John Hiatt
The Lumineers
Laura Veirs
Bonnie Raitt
Neil Young
The Civil Wars
The Avett Bros.

americanamusic.org (and also Wikipedia) defines it this way: Americana is an amalgam of American folk music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and other external influences. Americana, as defined by the Americana Music Association (AMA), is “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.

See what I mean?

It seems to be a genre where anything goes, as long as you keep it real.

This latest product I’ve been working with might present a potential quandary to those who cling steadfastly to idiomatic ideals and iron-clad traditionalism. Because this is not an acoustic instrument, per se. It’s a computer program that you play with an electronic keyboard via MIDI.

BUT, it sounds like a real acoustic instrument. Actually, Big Fish Audio’s (bigfishaudio.com) Americana Songwriter ($129.95) is a Kontakt “virtual instrument” and loop library that sounds like several of them: banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, pedal steel, slide guitar, electric guitar, bass, and drums. Additionally the drums are also provided in a multi-track format, providing total control over individual elements in the mix, as if you recorded them yourself! The formats provided cover just about anyone’s needs: Acid, Apple Loops, REX2, RMX, and 24-bit Wav. There are even DAW session files for opening them directly within your application (although woefully, the StudioOne format was not provided amongst the ProTools, Cubase and OMF versions).

All of these instruments are gathered into 20 different song construction kits, in a variety of keys and time signatures, to help jog your creative juices and get you laying down song ideas quickly with excellent and realistic sonic
fidelity.

For immediate satisfaction, one needs only to load the Americana Songwriter instrument onto a track in your favorite DAW environment and load the file labeled “Americana Songwriter Kit Demos.nki.” Now, simply hold down any of the 20 shaded keyboard keys indicated to hear an entire song arrangement play back. That’s right. You’re playing a badass, punchy, and great-sounding track, replete with amped bass, drums, guitars, and more… and you’re doing it with a single finger, Flock of Seagulls style.

How do you feel about that? I can tell you it felt a little weird to me at first. Mostly, I don’t want to write a song to a chord pattern I didn’t choose, but you can change the order of the chords and since all of these loops are in editable REX format, you can even go “under the hood” and modify the actual notes to what ever you’d like, allowing you to keep the feel and customize the notes played! If nothing else, Americana Songwriter’s drum loops can lay down a convincing and great-feeling drum performance for you to play different parts and progressions over and due to their handy naming convention (i.e., “02 Drums Chorus2,” “02 Drums Bridge,” you can shuffle the song sections as well.

I’ve been having a great time surreptitiously laying them into the arrangements for a client’s upcoming Americana release (a little dobro here, some tremolo guitar there, banjo on the bridge) and have been pretty excited by the results. They’re played and performed with uniform excellence throughout and when tastefully applied, the end result is nothing short of astonishing.

Great job, Big Fish Audio!

Sven-Erik Seaholm writes, performs, records, mixes, and masters songs. Catch him and his band at the Adams Avenue Unplugged Festival on the Blind Lady Ale House stage. Sunday, May 1 at 3pm.

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