Week two: we start with rhythm

Someone who is following this blog sent me a message on Friday asking if I was almost done yet.  If it was just John and me on this recording, we probably would be, but because we like people to listen to the recordings more than once, we add other musicians to sweeten (and make more complex) the mix.  Sometimes this is called “ear candy”; remember I asked you to listen for 10 minutes over the weekend?  “Ear candy” is those little bits of birdsong, tree leaves rustling, or distant train whistles that make it interesting to be alive.  In the studio, we add those on purpose, so that when it’s late at night and you have the earphones on, you can hear cool bits you didn’t know were there.  I remember the first time I heard Graceland by Paul Simon on a really really good sound system.  I thought I knew the album well at that point, but I had never heard some of the stuff I was hearing then!

In a band or in a recording, every player has his or her own role to play.  The singer, of course, gets all the attention. Occasionally, the guy who plays the solo gets a bit of his own applause right afterwards, whether he’s the guitar player, the sax player or the pianist.  But what do they do the rest of the time?  And what does the rest of the band do?

Today was bass and drums day, and that means it’s all about rhythm.  Rhythm is what makes you tap your toes when you listen to music, want to dance, or throw your hip to the side when you’re walking to music. The drummer makes the rhythm.  What he chooses to play, with all those hittable things in front of him, will make or break a song.  If he hits things very hard with a hard drumstick, but the song is slow and all about softness and love, you won’t enjoy it very much.  A good drummer knows instinctively what to play. He’s listened to a lot of songs in his life, and he remembers the rhythms of them. He’ll pick one of them that he’s either heard or played before for each song. The producer (this time, Paul) will agree or disagree.  The producer knows what else is going on the track and wants to make sure the drummer doesn’t get in the way of that.  The producer has to hear what isn’t there yet! (Paul told me to say that!)

Our drummer today is an amazing musician, Al Cross.  Originally from Montreal, he’s been a staple of the recording scene here in Toronto for many years.  He loves to play with all kinds of musicians, and you’ll see him popping up on stages across the city and on recordings everywhere.  This is the third time we’ve worked together.  I love a drummer who listens to the words.  The good ones do, I think.  They know what the song is about, and that helps inform what he will play.  If he hears a little sarcasm or humour, he knows he can get away with lots more stuff than if it’s a serious love ballad.  Al has these great instincts, and he’s also worked often with Paul, so they have very little in the way of misunderstandings.  He’s a great guy too, very easy to work with.

Al Cross with brushes

The bass player we met on Friday: Russ Boswell. When he’s on a song by himself, he is a large part of the rhythm track as well as the bottom notes.  Those bottom notes are really important for harmony, for setting the key really strongly, and for setting the beat of the piece.  He also has to know how to approach each song.  One of the reasons we asked Russ to play with us is that he plays both electric bass, as well as acoustic (or standup) bass.  With these skills, he can fit into all the songs we asked him to play.  (You know I write in a quite wide range of styles!)

Russ Boswell on standup

These two musicians had all our attention today.  They breezed through seven songs in 5 hours, including setup.  It was great.  Now we know how these songs will sound on the record, for the most part.  You won’t hear their parts as loudly as we did today, of course – that’s going to be Paul’s magic in the mixing stage, next week – but now we can hang all the rest of the ear candy on top. 

Like the electric guitar. Paul is laying down extra guitar tracks on some of the songs on top of what I’ve done with my acoustic guitar.  Texture. He did two tracks on electric today, and all of a sudden what I’ve been hearing in my mind for as long as these songs have been there, is starting to sound like that out loud.  The guitar adds texture and rhythm to the mix, but it sits in a higher range for your ear to hear. 

Tomorrow morning we’ll have in the studio the lovely and talented cello player Wendy Solomon.  She’s going to be adding the cello parts to our two string trios that Paul arranged last week. She’s a very busy player, and we’re happy to have her back for her third quilting CD!  For more information about Wendy, check out the Bowfire website: http://www.bowfire.com/cast/17-wendy-solomon

The strings are all about texture, and what I’ve heard called “pads”. Their function is often to “pad” or smooth out the sound from all those percussive instruments (like drums, bass, guitar, piano, etc, etc).  You can hear them behind things, adding depth and emotion to songs.  If you cry at movies, I’ll bet you there are strings involved!  And the cello is the most wonderful of the strings.  Such a human sound to its voice, from low and growly to high and longing.

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll work with Steafan Hannigan (http://www.steafan.com/)  for the first time.  I’ve heard all about him from my friend Eileen McGann, but never had the chance to work with him before.  We have a Celtic ballad on this recording, and a fast jig, and we know he’s the expert in these matters.  He’s bringing his Uilleann pipes (an Irish version of bagpipes), penny whistle, and his kalimba for the song about Martha’s quilt for Queen Victoria!!! Thank goodness for multi-instrumentalists like Steafan – it saves us much time having separate people come in for each part.  I have never had pipes on any of my recordings – it’s about time!!!  The pipes will be a sort of pad, like the strings, but he’ll also be playing the melody lines on the jigs. I can’t wait to hear what he’ll do with “The Oak Leaf” ballad.  It’s a mysterious slow air, and I think pipes will add a real haunting quality to the mix. 

Rhythm. Texture. Emotion. These are the reasons we’re adding all these other instruments to this CD.  And there will be more to come.  That’s it for tonight – more tomorrow! 

Happy listening!  Today, try to hear the bass on your iPod or radio. It’s way down at the bottom. It’s usually doing a very simple line.  If you tap your toe to the music, likely the bass will be there, along with the drums, doing “dum dum DUM dum dum DUM” or something cool like that. If you still can’t hear it, turn the bass end of your tone button up to full.  THEN you’ll hear it!

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4 Responses to “Week two: we start with rhythm”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    These posts are fascinating, I am learning so much!

  2. Mary Says:

    Thank you for the wonderfully shared details! I feel like I ‘know’ music better now and will be able to listen to everything with more depth of knowledge. Makes me want listen to Graceland to see what I might pick up now. 🙂

  3. Pat Leask Says:

    Great fun reading about your “recording process” after I noticed mention of your blog by Daphne Greig. I already have 2 of your CD’s after hearing about your from my online scrabble friend “cbplayer” – or known to you as “Curly Boy Stubbs” – alias Paul Mills – say “hello” from me! Have had the pleasure of meeting him once in Ottawa while playing with Sarah Burnell’s band – hope someday I have the chance to hear you “live” , esp. as I’m also a quilter. Look forward to your upcoming CD – sure sounds interesting from your blog – and is sure to be good (esp. with CB working with you on it!!)

  4. singingquilter Says:

    Hi Pat! I will pass along your Scrabbly greetings tomorrow in the studio!

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