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Monday, June 25, 2007

Kicking and Screaming into the Digital Age

Remember this post? Well, never mind. I am hopelessly in love with my iPod. It is the coolest invention on G-d’s Green Earth. In addition to storing all of my rock albums, in addition to allowing me to purchase and download virtually any song I can think of instantly, in addition to being a new repository for all of the Homestarrunner and Ask a Ninja video podcasts (and automatically downloading new episodes as they show up), and allowing me to finally listen to Jameel’s Purim Podcast (strong work, BTW), and in addition to the potential to use it as a high quality bootlegging device, it also allows me to gather up and listen to all the recordings I have done over the years.

And in my zeal to collect all of these lost gems, I realized there are a few that are still missing. One is the Gershon Veroba album on which I played bass (sadly, never released to CD). And the other is the Lo Alecha demo. Before you hastily click on that link, let me describe the background of that song, and what I went through in order to be able to place that link there (and hence, the title of this post).

I began recording music in 1985, and in those days, recording music meant renting time in a recording studio. If you didn't have much money, you went to a cheap 8-track place (meaning you could record and mix up to 8 different music tracks, a little more if you were creative), in someone’s basement. 8 tracks may not sound like much, but remember, Sgt. Pepper’s was recorded on a 4-track (I still find that hard to believe). After doing a few of those sessions, I eventually graduated to 24-track studios, where I worked on the Kabbalah album and a host of Lenny Solomon projects. These places were what the average person thinks of when he hears the words “Recording Studio.” Big sound-proofed rooms with a large glass window separating off a control room with a huge console, large speakers, and a comfy couch.

24-track studios were inordinately expensive, however, and after a while they were out of my league. When I decided to move to Wisconsin, I made the move to a home studio. Nowadays, when you want to start doing home recording, all you need is a new computer, some multi-tracking software, an I/O card to plug in your microphone or guitar or whatever so the computer can digitize it, and assorted mics, stands, cables, etc. And some ROOM to allow for musicians to perform. Some talent would be good too, but you’d be surprised how many recordings get made without that.

But back in the early ‘90s, this too was out of my range, so I had to settle for a cassette tape system (yes, the same cassette tapes you or your parents (gulp) have stored in the basement somewhere). My system allowed recording and mixing of six tracks simultaneously. Somewhere between Sgt. Pepper and Tohu Vavohu. Not a lot of tracks, but if you are creative, and you plan your sessions and arrangements well, you can do great things. Rock of Sages was recorded on this, for the most part, and most of my home recordings during the 90’s (and all of my quickie blog recordings). It’s actually a neat little system, but again, there’s not a whole lot of room for “grand arrangements.” Although what it lacks in track space it makes up for in portability, meaning it’s easy to sneak into the Med School auditorium in the middle of the night and record the 9-foot grand piano.

In the late 90’s, Rabbi T’s son approached me about recording The Rabbi as he sang some of his compositions accompanied by piano or guitar. I figured 6 tracks were plenty for this, and I recorded a bunch of songs. After they were done, The Rabbi Jr. said something like, “OK, now put in the drums and everything else.” It was hard to explain that, typically, for this type of multi-track recording, the drums and rhythm instruments were recorded first, then combined to two tracks, so that you have room for more vocal tracks. But it was basically too late, and we did what we could with the few tracks we had left. Incidentally, most people prefer this crude initial recording to the more produced second volume.

However, when it was time to record that second volume, I insisted on better equipment, and so I had them purchase a digital tape system with a professional mixing board. Computers were still not where I wanted them to be at that point, and hard drives were too small to record big arrangements, so we went with a Hi-8 based digital audiotape recorder that could record up to 8 tracks and had a slew of automation functions that made things like punching in (re-doing small segments of a track while leaving the rest intact) very easy. The mixing board, too, had a lot more dials and gizmos and with it a lot more versatility. And a LOT MORE COMPLEXITY. Basically, the fewer knobs you have, the fewer things you can screw up. That’s why my early recordings and the Beatle’s recordings were so great. As long as the performances were good, there was little the engineer could do to screw them up.

There were a lot of things that I could screw up with this system. It took me a long time to figure out just how to connect everything. How to get the monitors working. How to get the tape interfaced. How to get the reverb to mix in. Etc. But in those days I had more time, and apparently more brain cells, and I was able to figure it out. Which brings us to Lo Alecha.

After piecing the new studio together, I wanted to try it out. And the biggest issue for this recording was going to be drums. Live drums were the bane of my recording career. Drums need to be mic’d just right, and processed, and mixed, or they sound like crap. Up until this point, I had recorded drums in someone else’s professional studio, or used drum machines, which have all the mic’ing and processing and mixing done for you. But this, and future recordings were going to need live drums, and I had to figure out if I could make it work in two tracks, which was all I could spare. I could go into a long explanation of how you bounce 8 tracks worth of drum mics down to two, but I’ll spare you that for now.

Lo Alecha is a old campfire song and I've always loved it. It's melodic, easy to play, easy to sing, and easy to harmonize with. There are lots of great versions of it out there, but I've always been partial to Veroba's synth-heavy version from his first album, not coincidentally a home-recorded album and also out of print. It's about stepping up to do what you can do, but not stressing over things that you can't do. That actually fits very well with my personal philosophy.

But I chose it primarily because I figured it'd be easy to record. I laid down a drum machine track and some guitar and bass, and then I brought in Mike Bates to redo the drums with a live kit. I forget now if we used two or four mics for this take. I think it was four, and I later "bounced" down to two. Then I redid the bass (plucking, not picking, which is unusual for me, and if you're a good listener, I bet you can tell the difference), and an acoustic guitar track, and sang two vocals. Then I played with the mix-down functions and mixed those tracks down to a cassette deck.

I never finished the recording. We went on to do other projects. We did The Rabbi's second album (ironically, without live drums), and after that I focused on recording a bunch of new MSB songs. I always figured some day we'd add some other instruments, maybe an electric guitar, but I never got around to it.

As the band's focus shifted more and more to live performing, I stopped using the 8-track monster. It was much easier to pull out the old 6-track for a quick demo, and being portable, it was easier to move it to one of the computers and mix-down directly. The old DAT deck that I used to mix down the more professional recordings was a loaner, and I no longer had access to it. So the 8-track has sat, literally collecting dust, in my basement these last few years.

When I went back to retrieve and mix-down Lo Alecha, I had a little challenge. Firstly, I had to figure out where on the hours and hours of tapes it was located. Fortunately, I was pretty meticulous in my documentation in those days, and I had the tape position marked in a notebook. Then I had to relearn all the dials and connections and sliders and gizmos to make it work. Remember that picture up there? There are a LOT of them!

I couldn't figure out why I wasn't getting any reverb (or echo) in the song. That was such a source of frustration that I had to pull out the original manuals for the mixer and pore through them once again. Until I finally figured out that the reverb module was unplugged. Oops.

Then, I had to decide what to mix it down to. See, the song, at this stage, exists only in the electronic bowels of the mixing board. The individual tracks reside on the multi-track tape, raw, unprocessed and without effects. They have to be amplified by the mixing board, and then I can adjust the EQ (treble, bass) of each track, and make it louder or quieter in relation to the others, and assign it a position in the stereo field (which is a lot of fun). Then I can process it with reverb or other effects. And then...I can just listen to it in the studio. Because as soon as I reset everything, all that work is gone. Unless I then take an output from the mixing board and run it into a new tape recorder, or a computer, and have it rerecorded as a two-track (left and right) stereo song.

So I didn't have the DAT deck, and that left me with either an old cassette deck, or I could disassemble one of my computers and shlep it into the Dungeon where the studio was, or I could surreptitiously borrow Fudge's laptop and use that. (Another option would be to use the ipod, but I'd need a special add-on for that).

Being that I'm basically a lazy person, I grabbed the laptop and brought it downstairs. I hooked the tape out jacks from the mixer into a headphone stereo adapter and plugged into the laptop. Much to my dismay, she didn't have a stereo line-in jack, just a monophonic microphone jack. That meant two things. One, the stereo effects with the panning from left to right (most noticeable in the drums) would be squashed down into one single track in the middle of the field, or that only one of the stereo channels would get picked up and moved to the middle. Two, the level of the signal coming into the computer would be too loud, because mic inputs inherently amplify the signal for recording (and line-ins don't).

Seemingly having both hands now tied tightly behind my back, I pressed on and began to adjust the levels to get a decent monophonic mix. That's when the reverb went berserk. I don't exactly know how this happened, but a feedback loop seemed to get induced in the unit, and it began to beat louder and louder with each second, until it seemed certain that it could end only in Global Annihilation. I finally unplugged it.

So there I was, listening to my final, dry, monophonic mix, and wondering if other JM artists had to deal with this kind of thing. And in the end, y'know...it didn't sound too bad!

So without further ado, submitted for your MP3 playing enjoyment:

Lo Alecha


Anonymous said...

loved it!!! that song brings back the flavor of a great time in my life....and now my kids listen to a really nice acapello version on the Lev Tahor 3 CD...

Ezzie said...

Nice... Are you going to redo it the way you'd wanted to? It'd be interesting to compare!

Baruch D. said...

it needs more Cowbell!!

Rafi G said...

great song!!

treppenwitz said...

Which GV album? I just had my vinyl copy of 'Man to Man' converted to digital so if you want me to email you MP3s I can.

PsychoToddler said...

anonymous: It's amazing how songs can do that for you.

ezzie: You mean like, in stereo with reverb? That seems like a lot of work ;)

Baruch D.: You asked for it!

rafi: thanks!

Trep: I was talking about Sasson Vesimcha. I hope Gershon can get me some mp3s from that (I've been in touch). But I'd love copies of Man to Man if it's ok with him (I did buy the cassette many eons ago). The Lo Alecha on that one is just gorgeous.

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