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Preparing for our CD

July 1st, 2014
free_raisins, music

The Free Raisins just released our first studio CD. We had previously done a live CD, which required much less preparation: we played dances, recorded them, and then the rest of the work was in mixing and editing. This CD was different: recording in a studio we weren't constrained by the practicalities of playing for dancing, but we also wanted to use this extra flexibility well.

In mid November we got together for an afternoon with Andrew VanNorstrand, who had agreed to produce our CD, and talked some about what we wanted our CD to sound like. We decided we wanted to go for a sound that was pretty much "us live," with a few overdubs to let us do a couple things we'd always wanted to do but didn't have enough hands for. With this in mind, we started putting sets together. Each practice we'd take one of our favorite live sets and try to rework it into something more succinct that we would like to record. Going from ~9min to ~3min is a pretty big change, but people's attention spans are also shorter when they're not dancing, so we initially approached this as a matter of condensing ideas that we already played into a more compact arrangement.

By early March we had about a CD's worth of sets, of varying quality. Andrew came up for a "musician's weekend," a day and a half in the middle of a week, and we went over these early draft sets with him. About half survived, with improvement and new ideas, while the rest we scrapped and replaced with others, though we kept many of the ideas. [1] The sets we had coming out of this 'weekend' were most of the way to what we ended up recording, though they needed a lot more polish. To remember our ideas we made scratch recordings of what we wanted the sets to sound like, and we wrote up arrangement sheets. [2]

Over the next two and a half months we ran through these sets over and over. We would take an hour and play each set once through, one after another. We would do this at rehearsals before working on other things and when we had some downtime away on multi-day gigs. We knew that if we went over each one until it was perfect we wouldn't be able to get through all of them, so we wouldn't go back and fix anything. Sometimes we would talk about mistakes after, but mostly we would move on right away. Our goal was that when we sat down in the studio we would be able to just play each set the way we wanted it to go, with extra takes only for fixing random slips and hiccups.

We used these practices to get used to two major ways recording was going to be different from playing live. The first was that we couldn't talk. Amy and I, especially, talk to each other all the time to coordinate our playing, and it was hard to lose that. It helped that we had arrangements we'd prepared in advance and weren't trying to take the music in crazy new directions each time, and we could still look at each other, but it definitely took some getting used to. The other big way recording would be different was that we were going to be hearing each other in headphones. You'd think the difference between acoustic, monitors, and headphones would be minimal, but it actually takes some getting used to. At several of our practices we set ourselves up for close micing and headphones, each of us with a different headphone mix. The first few times we did this I was really sad about how much less lively and enthusiastic we sounded listening back to ourselves, but this mostly diminished with practice.

In late May, ten days before we would go into the studio, Andrew came up for another "weekend". We tweaked a few sets, made more detailed changes to one or two, made several run throughs of everything; mostly made sure we were completely ready. The main change we made this weekend was figuring out "Bus Stop," which had been hanging over us as an awkward unfinished set. This one had been hard to work on without Andrew, as with Amy on synth his guitar playing was pretty central for making the set feel coherent and grounded. By the end of the weekend we were happy with all our sets and ready to go record, and we had the arrangements down enough that we could play them without looking at the sheets to remember what came next.

We had decided back in September to record with Will at Electric Wilburland, on Andrew's recommendation. It's in Ithaca, which is kind of far, but it was worth the drive. Really an amazing place. Scheduling around work, we weren't able to book ourselves very much studio time. We had booked two full days and a morning and were planning to record ten sets with overdubs, which was really very ambitious. We got through four sets the first day (the four Noah plays drums on), five the next, and one the morning of the third, with overdubs as we went. Generally your first day is going to take a bit longer because you need to get set up, be happy with your sounds and mics, etc. We went a set at a time, first doing a scratch take and listening back, then doing 2-4 takes for real. This was enough to give some options for fixing things with cut-and-paste but not so many as to play ourselves lifeless. Before moving onto the next set we would decide which take was the keeper, and if there were basic edits we wanted to make to combine tracks Will did that then. Coming in as highly prepared as we were was essential for making this work, but Andrew says we were lucky and most bands he's seen prepare this much end up sounding overrehearsed. I think it worked out, but there was a lot of luck involved and I wouldn't recommend this recording schedule to another band.

After we left on the third day, and for most of the fourth day, Will and Andrew worked on the mixing. We were really lucky to be able to book Will for the mixing so close to the recording time, or getting the album ready in time for our tour wouldn't have been practical. Then there was lots of going back and forth over draft mixes, getting levels how we liked them. This ended up taking three drafts: one where we wanted lots of changes, a second one that was about right, and a third that we were ready to go into mastering with. Will handled the mastering, and twenty days after we finished recording we had the DDP2 files for the final mixes to send to manufacturing.

(CDs also require art. We had started working on the CD art with Max Hogue only a short while before going in to record, and we really should have started sooner. He was wonderful about working with our compressed schedule, but we really pushed him harder than we would have liked to. The main lag here was it took us quite a while to pick an artist we wanted to work with: we know so many talented people and couldn't decide, plus we also weren't really sure what we wanted it to look like.)

[1] Many of the new ideas we figured out for the CD we've now worked into our live playing. For example, the transition from Seanamac to Strawstack is a lot of fun to do live. On the CD we add an extra 16 bars in the middle of the tune to do that, but live we just switch into it on the B1.

[2] These were our final arrangement sheets:

Fleur de Mandragore
Andrew on guitar and shaker, plus kick drum
Intro: A ... C# ... D ... E ...
  (very spaced out, airy, Audrey improvises in the gaps, no foot tapping)
1. medium-slow, speeding up (start strumming at B2)
2. full on
3. jeff and andrew simple, audrey comes in improvising on the B, no piano
4. amy & audrey harmonies, building in the B (No V)
5. fully up w/drums, break into the B plus extra beat (follow audrey)
    long ending

play with organs?
1. Jeff - Trip to Moscow
2. Jeff & (Amy Overlap Desde Cunaq on overdub)
3. Audrey - Desde Cunaq, Jeff, Andrew & Amy rhythm
   (Amy overlap on overdub)
4. Imaginamy starts, Audrey second (Trading)
5. Imaginamy & Audrey Overlap, jeff out B1, B2
6. All Overlap - Jeff! (Amy on overdub.)
    Ending: Audrey long note.

subtle djembe?
Intro C#m - (B) A - Jeff and Amy x8?
x1 Audrey - Larcom
x2 Stronger
"Cool riff" Andrew enters
   (Jeff starts first G#, then Audrey starts high E, then Amy starts B)
   E B A x3 -> E D C x1
   Amy melody, Andrew chords (Amy solo As, Audrey in B1, Jeff in B2)
"Cool riff" Audrey low
x2 Audrey melody, building
x3 Syncopation w/ Audrey melody - end on B1 ending (E Bm7 Am7 subst)
End with "cool riff"

Bus Stop (ideas: A, B, C, and especially D)
with drums (noah?) and andrew on guitar

1 A amy psuedo melody
  B andrew and audrey (E E E E E E DEGEDE) enter
2  trompetgnome enters, call and response

(record in two chunks)

1. amy switches to "synth bass 3" and straight ahead four on the floor
    A1 4 beats synth bass
          4 beats add drums downbeat
          4 beats add drums upbeat
          4 beats guitar
     A2 video game melody comes in on top
     B1 build
     B2 build more: chords run up (ABCD, BC#DE)
2 A: AAGF with pauses; full melody
  B: back to initial groove (rocking bass)
3 A: AAGF and full melody
  B: A-A-G-A-A-G-G
end: AAGF

Seanamac/Devil Strawstack/Road to Erogie

1. Seanamac
   A normal. no jeff?
   B swingy thingy with Jeff and Amy no melody Audrey (G F Eb D / G F Eb)
2. Audrey melody with "thingy" underneath it:
   (maybe trading melody and thingy?)

Transition - Jeff starts Reel time 8 bars Amy comes in 8 bars
with stuff (G A Bb D - / " / C Bb A Bb A F) then Melody comes in

1. high energy (strong breaks on beats 4 and 12 (A1))
2. Drone G with sharp bring down, build over A2 and B
    Break to go into erogie
1. high energy (A part: A and D,
                B part: F#m - (E) D - (E) F#m , then D E)
2. +drums, even higher energy
Short ending.

The Hawk and the Jay - Andrew on guitar
1. Amy solo melody
Pause into second time
2. Audrey melody, andrew comes in
Break (Am D/A, Am D Am D Am D) (trumpet A C D)
  Audrey maybe does solo something
3. Amy melody (walk down on A2) with Andrew on guitar
   (audrey come in a little bit early low notes)
     B: Audrey melody, trumpet b2-3: E, D, EDCA, E, D, G
     B3: Amy on harmony over melody
Ending: Repeat last measure over E (4 measures), then over A (4 measures)

Reign of Love/Wren

1. Jeff on melody with Audrey on high notes. (4 A's). Amy comes in A3.
   Audrey and Amy on melody (yah dee yah dee dah)
   On Bs we do the stop thingy.
2. Audrey melody. Jeff and Amy do the D to E chord thing on the As.
   Add the A chord on the B part. intense.
3. High energy - everyone
4. Jeff plays melody over open A drone (Audrey long notes) 8 bars (2x)
   then add Amy in 4ths for 8 bars
1. Amy and Jeff drone just on A. Audrey Low melody.
   Bs: F ---- until last G
2. A: Groovy, low melody, no Audrey.  Imaginamy accordion melody.
   B: bring down further w/ chords: F C G (Dm Em)
      Build at VERY end of Bs
3. high energy (Amy plinky G's on A1, Jeff & Amy plinky A2)
   and then abrupt fade out ending - not resolving.
   (Audrey hold last note)

Flannel Dreams/Releveur Andrew, Jeff, Imaginamy piano on second tune

1. piano melody
2. piano stays melody, audrey long notes, end holding D chord

intro start with B parts on accordion, long chords with pauses
mandolin starts Em chord strum,
1. psuedotune, audrey harmony on Bs
2. psudeotune audrey and amy trading on A, Amy full tune on B (way happy!!1!)
3. Audrey melody on As (3rds on B and Amy on melody), medium G ending

The Engagement
1. Audrey (no resolve)
2. Jeff
3. Secret Agent transy D9, Gm9, Dmaj6, Gm9 x2 (A D tremolo mando) one breath
4. Audrey
**Turn around on a Gm**

Thomas Shrug
Intro: Build in one component at a time: Amy solo on alternate
         melody (just A1: C G Em D), A2 Audrey on alternate.
1. Audrey melody, Jeff and Amy normal chords (A: C, B: regular chords)
2. Audrey melody, Jeff and Amy rocking chords 4evr (A: C G Em D;
                                                    B: G C Em D)
3. Amy shiny & high,
   Audrey long notes,
   Jeff open chords (B1 drony thingy)
4. Back up: Audrey melody whole time, Jeff & Amy, rhythm
   (A: 8s of C, D, C, D;
    B: G C Em D not syncopated)
Ending: Audrey up octave on A melody, 2x trading 8s on C and D
Vocals (AH): Audrey E D G F#; Jeff C B D; Amy G B A (piano bass
   A B C D over vocals at end only a couple times in the middle) x6?

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