Some Things about "Some Things..."
Considering the first lyrical line, But You Know I Love You seemed like a logical opener. I got this song from the 2002 live album by Alison Krauss and Union Station, and so my arrangement is based on theirs. But the song actually goes back to the late 1960’s, with arrangements recorded by both Kenny Rogers (with his band, The First Edition) and Dolly Parton. I learned this song more recently than almost any of the others on the album, but have enjoyed performing it quite a few times.
These Arms of Mine is the second oldest song on the album, but I didn’t become familiar with it until maybe seven or eight years ago. It was recommended to me by an employee of a venue that I used to frequent for open mike night (but where I never did play it). Otis Redding’s tune made for a natural segue into Stay Awhile, a lesser-known Journey song that dates to 1980 (they used to combine it with their hit song Lights). I think I’d played my version of it for some time before I went back to the original and realized that I wasn’t really playing all of the right chords. But it worked okay, so I kept it as it was. Sometimes – for me, at least – the word arrangement means that either the song was learned incorrectly or that it was simplified (or both); I arrange a lot! I also lowered the key a full fourth from where Perry sang it, but still couldn’t get the vocal close to what I’d have liked to do. That guy was amazing.
Wonderful World, by Sam Cooke, was released in 1959 and became a hit in 1960. I first noticed the song when it was featured in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness. I once co-performed it at a banquet for students of a school where I was a teacher, which made the lyrical content humorously ironic. My mother, who passed away during the recording of this album, enjoyed hearing me play this song.
The hard-rocking members of KISS are known more for “lust songs” than love songs, but Forever has become one of my favorites in this style. Co-written by the somewhat surprising team of Paul Stanley and Michael Bolton, the original version is an ideal example of what is known as a “power ballad,” and I think it has genuinely good lyrics. As with a number of songs here, I had to lower the key; those 70’s and 80’s rock guys could really get up there!
One Thing was released in a few different versions by Charlie Peacock, who has done a lot of work as a performer, writer, and producer in the genre commonly known as Contemporary Christian. My version mimics the one from his Front Row Acoustic Video, released in about 1990 (though I am not nearly the guitarist that Jimmy Abegg is). I enjoyed using my “new” lower-line Stratocaster for the simple double-tracked guitar solo. I don’t play electric that much; I suppose this one recording will serve to justify its fifty dollar price – in my mind, at least.
The soft rock band Orleans had a top ten hit in 1975 with Dance with Me, and I believe I recall liking it way back then. But it was pretty much lost to me until I heard the 2007 cover version by Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades, on their tribute album Influence. My arrangement owes as much to theirs as to the original. I enjoyed including some real percussion on this one (though the clave sound was played on keyboard). I think it’s a beautiful song, and despite what some religions may say, I also think it’s perfectly fine to dance sometimes.
Down on Love is not really a love song, but not everyone’s got a sweetheart, either. This might be my favorite track from Foreigner’s 1984 album Agent Provocateur, though it wasn’t a big hit. In my opinion, Lou Gramm falls into the same category of rare vocal greatness as Steve Perry, and I have no illusions that my version rivals his. I do think the song lends itself nicely to an acoustic guitar arrangement, though.
Several artists have covered When You Say Nothing at All, though as with track one I got it from AKUS. This song is a great example of how much can be done with three chords and some good arranging. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage (and a fair few dollars) out of this one, so I’ve got to hand it to the guys who wrote it. It seems to make people happy, and sometimes it makes them cry. I hope the crying has never been because of the way I sing it.
Dennis DeYoung, founder and former leader of the rock band Styx, released Goodnight My Love as a studio track on his 2004 live release (making it the newest song on my album). His original arrangement features a full band and it swings more, but I kind of like it with just the piano and vocal, too. DeYoung’s was yet another of the great voices of the late “classic rock” period, and I cannot sing like he can, but I hope this isn’t too bad… and I believe it’s even in its original key!
The piano part for Tomorrow may not be Chopin or Rachmaninoff, but for a pianist of my level it was a challenge to get this take on my Roland electric. I tried to cover the melody along with some decent accompanying movement, rather than just plunking out chords (which is sometimes fine with me!). I wanted to include at least one instrumental and this seemed like a good choice, but I still recommend listening to Joey Tempest’s near-operatic vocal on Europe’s original 1988 recording.
Acoustic guitar was the basis for most of the songs I recorded. Despite my recent purchase of a pretty nice mid-level Walden brand guitar, I stuck with my “package deal special” for this album: an Epiphone PR4e. I recorded it to two tracks simultaneously: one track was of the guitar miked directly with an MXL 991 condenser, and the other was of it plugged in to a Roland Cube 30XL amplifier (which was miked with an MXL 990 condenser; the two microphones came in a set for $69.00!). The Cube has a pretty decent-sounding acoustic simulator, and I used some of the on-board chorus and delay effects. When mixing down, I just tried to get a good balance of these two tracks, generally emphasizing the live guitar a little more (it picked up some of the amp’s sound anyway).
When I bought my used Casio WK500 keyboard a couple of years ago, I just wanted something affordable that had a tolerable piano sound (and more than 61 keys). Little did I know how useful it would become for recording bass lines and drum/percussion parts. These features, which once seemed like no more than toys to me, can actually come off pretty well once they’re mixed in with the other instruments. And even though the bass guitar, bass drum, snare, hi-hat, bongos, congas, clave, and some of the tambourine parts came courtesy of the Casio’s sampled sounds, the parts were played “live” and in time, rather than being programmed or sequenced.
Not all of the percussion was keyboard-based, however; the “bundle rod, hand, and leg” part on But You Know I Love You, the egg shaker, hi-hat, tambourine, and splash cymbal (1 note!) on Dance with Me, and the tambourine on Wonderful World were played with real acoustic percussion instruments. I got the Paiste splash through an online ad just a few days before I recorded it. I’m a drummer who has never owned a splash cymbal until now, but I got this one "on record" right away!
Piano parts were played on a Roland ep-90, the first 88-key instrument I’ve personally owned (also an online used ad find). Goodnight My Love was recorded direct to my multi-tracker, with admittedly less-than-stellar results. But once I got a take (which took me awhile), I didn’t really want to re-do it. After that, I tried running the keyboard through a couple of amps and miking them, but it didn’t seem to improve the recorded results. Doing so would also have added more difficulty in avoiding ambient noises, which is enough of a problem when recording in a bottom-floor apartment anyway. So I recorded Tomorrow direct-to-recorder as well.
I couldn’t resist including one guitar solo on this project, for Peacock’s One Thing. I used the lower-line Fender Stratocaster I bought used a few months ago (from the same guy who sold me the Cube amp, through which it was played using the “Tweed” setting). After I got one take of the simple solo I came up with, I decided to use another of the recorder’s tracks to see if I could get a better one. They ended up being so much alike, and each one alone sounded so thin, that I thought I’d try doing what real pros sometimes do: double them. The fact that they’re just slightly out of phase served to give it a little bit of a delay effect, I think, and it was fun for me.
All of the vocals were recorded using the previously-mentioned MXL 990 condenser microphone.
Notes on the recording process:
All tracks were recorded on a Fostex MR16CD digital recorder that I bought though EBay some time ago. As is usually the case with me, I am behind the times technology-wise and do not have – or even know how to use – computer-based recording products. Perhaps it’s just as well, because using this unit makes it harder to do what some might call "cheating": there was no pitch correction, rhythmic adjusting, or other such gimmicks available for my use (if you listen with any attention to some of the singing, I probably don’t really need to tell you that!). As the process moved along, I realized the obvious advantage to noting the different variables that produced the best results: how close to stand to the microphone; where to set the trim (input) level; which – if any – equalization preset to use (the MR16 does not offer multi-band EQ); and so on. I did use the available reverb and mastering effects (and the on-board metronome on a few songs), and I took advantage of the other things that multi-tracking allows one to do: I “punched in” here and there in order to try to fix (or at least improve upon) problems, thereby avoiding having to go for another entire take. Some vocal parts in particular are a mixture of two or even three takes, recorded on different tracks. A studio recording allows you to do such things, and the recorder’s features were even more useful at times when there was no guarantee that the neighbors would stay quiet for four consecutive minutes. Having said all of that, everything you hear is me playing and singing, for better or (sometimes) worse.
Due to some frustrating difficulties I was having with my previous inefficient method of mixing down to an external CD recorder (through the Fostex’s headphone jack, no less), I was finally forced to learn how to use the “bouncing” and WAV file conversion functions on the multi-tracker. The technical issues which were tempting me to give up on the whole project and smash my electronics to pieces actually turned out to be a real blessing in disguise, because using these methods was not only more practical, but seemed to produce more consistent results.
The mixing process is not so easy. While the album's last two songs were recorded to just one or two tracks, all of the others used a minimum of four, and on four of the songs I used seven or eight tracks. To mix them down as best I could, I had to review the songs and get to know details about the various parts. Then, when bouncing all of them to two tracks that could be converted to a stereo WAV file, the different faders had to be attended to “on the fly” as needed: if a vocal part is finished, it’s best to turn that track all the way down in case a loud car had driven by or the upstairs neighbors had walked across the room at that time (or if I myself had unwittingly made some kind of unwelcome sound). There may have been a need for other adjustments, whether due to inconsistencies in recording levels or to the post-recording desire to make something louder or quieter. If I got those adjustments wrong, or forgot to raise or lower something at the right time (even after the last note was played), it was back to the beginning. Standing over the recorder and mixing a song is almost like playing another instrument.
I mixed songs a few times in an effort to get the best final result I could. In listening to the completed disc, there are still places where I’d have liked to have a little more guitar and/or a little less vocal, or some other thing. And the overall output level of the recording seems to be low (you may have to turn up your stereo). But all of the tracks should be close to the same output level, at least. One thing I may do in the future is invest in a pair of good quality studio monitors; all of my recent recording projects have been done using headphones that cost about ten to fifteen dollars, and it seems like the album sounds better when I listen back to it through headphones (compared to my stereo’s speakers). But I may be imagining that difference.
I hope to continue recording songs, and to get a little better every time. It’s a learning process, and on this project I think I got a little closer to knowing how to get the most out of my gear than I knew a year ago.
Speaking of gear (again), all of the equipment used for this album – instruments, microphones, the multi-track recorder, stands, cables… everything – was purchased over a period of a couple of years, and set me back approximately $1000. The majority of that was spent on the best value of used gear I could find, though some things were purchased new. It seems like most of the musical equipment that I own was employed on this project in some way or another during the month that I worked on it, even though in some cases it was just by way of experiments that didn’t end up on the final disc (for example, I tried out my electronic drum set for a couple of tracks, but wasn’t getting any results I liked). I’m glad that these items aren’t just gathering dust, which I must admit has happened in the past with some things I purchased with the professed intention of using. The original idea behind buying all of this stuff was to actually do something with it, and I think that through a combination of practicing, performing, and recording, I’ve managed to get at least as much out of everything over time as I put in – certainly in terms of my own musical enjoyment and growth, anyway. Forty-two years of age is pretty far along for a person to release his first physical product (I have made recordings prior to this album available in downloadable digital form), but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it’s been a rewarding process. I hope you like the end product.