Zen of Recording

Making the Album: Monarchs

by Sven-Erik SeaholmJune 2012

Many of you may already know that in addition to my studio exploits as a record producer, I am also a performing singer/songwriter. Alongside my partner Brooke Mackintosh, we’ve been writing and performing together for the last three years as an acoustic duo called Seaholm Mackintosh. Because many of you may be considering recording a new release (or would like to) sometime in the future, I thought sharing our own experiences while recording our debut album might hold some nuggets of wisdom…

Starts and Strategies
After selling our respective solo discs at our shows and getting repeated requests for a CD (or even a demo) featuring the newer material and vocal harmonies, Brooke and I knew we needed to make that happen.
But when? In the real world, Rent comes before Art. We not only had to wait for an opening in our schedules, we had to be able to afford being off from work that long! In the end, we probably only spent a total of six weeks in the studio , but it took nearly a year of capitalizing on whatever down days and cancelled sessions we could, in order to complete it.

Because we needed to be so flexible with our timetable, I felt strongly that we would need to set some rules and guidelines down, to act as a sort of “virtual producer” and help keep us on track. This was not a popular idea with Brooke, who revels in musical spontaneity, but we eventually hammered out a simple framework:
1.    When we perform, our voices and guitars take center stage and so they should on our album.
2.    The songs we chose had to have been “proven” the strongest in front of several audiences.
3.    Only acoustic guitars and organic textures could be used in the arrangements.
4.    All sounds and instruments could only be played by us, no guests.

Life then added another:
5. Oh…and we are also pregnant!

That last one meant that there would come a period of time where breathing wouldn’t be the most comfortable thing for Brooke, nor would finding free time once the baby arrived. Suddenly, deadlines loomed… but still we had to wait.

In the meantime, we tried some experiments with setting up our PA in the studio, with high quality studio condenser mics, alongside the PA’s dynamic ones on “Reach Down” and “The Elevator Song.” We decided we loved our original impromptu demo of “What Does Your Heart Say” and added some resonator bells and other vocal overdubs to that.

Several months into the pregnancy, we caught a break:  A recording project was postponed and a very musically supportive  friend stepped forward with a generous financial gift. We got started immediately and within 19 days, we had another 7 songs completed with finished guitar, lead and harmony vocal tracks. That gave us 10 songs total. We mixed those down and burnt them to CDs and just lived with them for a couple of months…

Salt, Pepper, and Ashes
After adding another song, “Monarchs” to the list, the overdubbing stage was the first crossroads we came to. It’s a common question, really: “How can we capture our live energy on the recordings, without it just coming out sounding like a demo?” So many factors influence the live experience: the venue, the crowd, the vibe, the acoustics, even the humidity can affect the way one’s music is received and appreciated. Obviously, many of these are virtually impossible to recreate. The challenge lies in being able to displace those elements by introducing other sounds and textures that will satisfy listeners in a different, but no less effective way, over repeated listens. Our ultimate goal was to identify the emotional thread of each performance and subtly “color in” around it, without distracting from it.

On “What I’ve Done,” I plugged my acoustic guitar into several FX pedals (phaser, envelope filter, delay, etc.) and recorded several takes using an ebow to create an air siren-like choir that imparts a sort of aching quality whenever they bend. On Brooke’s “Words” I used a watery chorused delay effect to highlight the deep, dreamy feel of her lyrics and “Loralie, 1883” took on a dusty Americana wheeze with the addition of harmoniums and a distantly miked synth organ.

The rest of the songs received similar treatments, with an emphasis on texture. Brushes, Mellotron, washboard, piano…Patting our dog Max’s side imparted a lovely “Ringo” thump, Brooke’s angelic oohs and ahhs were a go-to frosting and the Banjuke we got from Owen Burke kept us in fresh places sonically speaking. I even miked Brooke’s harmonies on “Sweet King” with two cans and some string, then ran it back through a leslie rotating speaker!

On almost every song, we would reach a point where we had added one texture too many, so we’d strip that last layer back off again and burn more discs for another round of listening..

The Depths and the Bottom
It was shortly after this time that I began to form some serious doubts regarding this project. Our new son, Miles, was with us now, so time was scarcer than ever. The album was growing on us, but so was our list of concerns. I just wasn’t happy with it. I had played some very minimal bass on a couple of the songs and while I liked their texture, there was no groove, really. In fact, I had been trying to be as invisible as possible. I revisited “Monarchs,” If I Were A Bird,” and “Tied Up to the Tracks” and got them to swing a bit more, but I still wasn’t feeling the punch we can throw at you at times in performance.

I went to a Daniel Lanois show and this artist I dig, Rocco DeLuca, opened with just himself on slide dobro accompanied by a guy playing a single tom-tom drum with mallets. It was revelatory! The next day I pulled this ratty old plywood tom out of the rafters and found a tuning key. After tuning it for about an hour, I got a pretty cool tone out of it and immediately added it to half of the songs on the record.

Mastering and the Art of Pulling the Trigger
After addressing some long-standing issues with a couple other songs, we had 11 edited, mixed, and ready for mastering, but no clear order. Brooke’s opinion was that my song “All Kingdoms Come” needed to be on the record. I was already mixing one artist’s record, starting another’s, and now I’m going to try to track, mix, and master simultaneously?” Yes,” was all she said.

The following Saturday I set up the mics, stood in the room, and played and sang three live takes before the family came back from the zoo. The third one closes the album.

Due in part to the “commando-style” recording approach and our catch-as-catch-can recording schedule, there was definitely some EQ and overall balance disparity between the tracks, so mastering was challenging, but the ability to freely move back and forth between the mixing and mastering stages, honing in on every issue, and instantly assessing the results is what I love about that process. I have a hard time justifying paying someone else thousands of dollars to do that for me.

So, we did it all ourselves. At home. By hand. We did the artwork and promo materials too, although a big shout out goes to photographers Pearl Preis (www.short2000.com) and John Hancock (www.johnhancockphotos.com) for their beautiful images of Seaholm Mackintosh. In the end, we made a record that we feel truly represents us and our collective musicality. We hope you find some inspiration in our story.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is currently working on his next solo record, The Sexy, and will record another album with “supergroup” side-project Allied Gardens later this summer. And he will Never. Sleep. Again.

Seaholm Mackintosh CD Release Event: June 2nd at Swedenborg Hall, 7:30 p.m. $10 admission includes a complimentary copy of the CD. Monarchs is reviewed in this months issue.

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