Rhayn’s Comments on the “Enigma”
This was the first of a handful of songs that were played to me right at the beginning when I was asked to join Sankara. What struck me straight off the bat was the melody and the lyric content. My additions here were few as the structure had already been set. The original verse bass line was the rhythmic starting point, however once I got stuck in and started playing along to it I felt that having a chorus and a verse with the same chord progression was a bit much. I mean really, who wants to play root notes all night? So I altered the verse with some subtle polychords. The original rhythmic cell was extended and altered to fit in with Vinden’s drum patterns and my own sense of what I felt was right; no one complained so they have remained.
This was the first demo I brought to the table. Originally written on acoustic guitar the form and harmonic content have pretty much remained unaltered. Jay felt that a middle eight was needed and that the outro was extraneous – so they went. The key changes and odd time signatures (5/4 and 15/8 for those who care) are very much a part of my signature. I feel songs are meant to take you on a journey and that means rhythms and modulation, baby! The keys are relatively dark, lots of flats, to complement Gareth’s vocal range. Once we had recorded the demo, it was played and worked (and reworked) collectively, both in rehearsal and live, for ages before being recorded.
As They Lay My Body Down
This was the part of that first batch of Sankara songs I was played at my “interview”. It was also the song that stood out the most straight away. Its bitter sweet themes and strong imagery are captivating – even now I still listen along whilst playing. Again the form and harmony was decided so it was a case of adding a bass line that fit. It turned out that the groove was paramount to getting this right and took me a lot of repeated plays and reworking of my ideas to come up with a bass line that moved the song forward without being obtrusive. Subtle use of straight runs and legato ideas, whilst holding a strong rhythmic persuasion required a hell of a lot of constant listening and process.
This was on the first batch of songs given to me, and probably was the slimmest of original demos (a ballsy slide guitar intro – sadly binned, a verse and a chorus) and that was it! Even so the ideas were very catchy and strong and had a very particular seventies rock/blues slant. The slap bass line pretty much was formed within two or three play walk throughs. It was reworked again through rehearsals and on stage to the point it is today, a sleazy swamp blues feel.(However if I’m honest, I’m still messing with the it) The finger twisting runs were added one rehearsal where Jay though it would be funny to watch me try and pick them up straight away!
How to record an EP without spending any money (except on Jaffa Cakes!)
Most of us are familiar with the “Classic Albums” documentary series made by Isis Productions and distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment. When focusing on the production of a landmark album there’s a fair amount of footage of some Grammy-award winning producer, sometimes accompanied by one-or-more of the musicians (depending on whether they can remember which particular ego-fueled incident caused them to fall out with one another), enthroned behind a suitably gargantuan mixing desk. With fingers delicately poised on faders, said producer will lovingly bring up individual instruments hither-to concealed in the mix, all the while pontificating about how wonderful the recording experience was.
The general conception of recording revolves around the idea that you throw a bunch of well-rehearsed (sometimes well-lubricated) musicians into a cavernous acoustically-tuned room, give them some great-sounding instruments and amplification, position a bunch of good-quality microphones around them, press record and lean back (or forward over a mirror if it was the ‘80’s). Well, recording the Enigma EP was absolutely nothing like that!
A very clever man named John Storck codified the idea that you can bring a project to completion quickly, cheaply or well, but you’ll never succeed in attaining all three. It’s taken us a year to go from the first recording session (Vinden’s drums on the 19th of September, 2010) to the CD being sent off for production, so we’ve hardly been quick. I’m the wrong person to ask about the quality, as I always want to improve on things, but I can resoundingly state that it was cheap to make; in fact the recording cost nothing!
How did we manage this? Well, partly in the time-honoured method of blagging, borrowing or stealing and partly because recording technology has moved away from the analogue paradigm towards a computer-based setup. You still need to get the audio into the computer, but any reasonably modern “off-the-shelf” PC is more than capable of handling the processing once you’re in the digital domain. If you want to record an entire band at once (and actually have any control over balancing the level and tonalities of the individual instruments) then you still need a mixing desk connected to enough analogue to digital converters to get your 24 or more discrete tracks of bits & bytes laid onto the hard drive.
This is a problem. Audio interfaces that can handle that much throughput of data are expensive (at least any that are of good-enough quality for commercial use), so are the preamps necessary to take the (extremely quiet) signals from the mics and amplify them to line-level. And finally, the average living-room or garage is not sonically conducive to having a bunch of noisy oiks thrashing around at 100dB. We could have booked a recording studio at a few hundred quid a day, but this is our first release so there’s no money in the band kitty to spend a couple of thousand pounds poncing about pretending to be rock stars and annoying a recording engineer by spouting drivel like “can you give me a couple of dB more guitar in my cans, please?”
So, Rule 1: everybody overdubs. Yes, you at the back, I can see your hand up. I’m aware that there appears to be a paradox in operation. Let me explain…
We demo every song we write. This means that as the song is being constructed, it’s being recorded. I don’t mean the ‘stick a cassette deck in the rehearsal room’ kind of recording; I mean recording each instrument onto a separate track of our digital recording software, using programmed drum parts just to make it sound more like a finished recording, doubling guitar parts for a more layered approach, adding vocal harmonies. In essence it’s a dry run for when we record a song for commercial release. But thanks to the power of audio recording software we can move sections around or drop the middle-eight in after we’ve worked out the ending. Eagle-eyed readers may notice that I’m apparently contradicting myself (see Our Process Needs More Process), but I’m talking here about the way we write the material, not how we record it for public consumption. I’m not bothered about cutting and pasting the chorus for subsequent choruses – the purpose of a demo is to give the rest of the guys something accomplished to listen to. And here we get to the ‘everyone overdubs’ bit – the demo also provides us with guide tracks to play along to when recording.
Drums are the trickiest thing the home-recordist usually has to capture (unless they’ve decided they just have to have a marching pipe band on a track1!). The amount of ‘good’ microphones needed to record a drum kit can cost over a thousand pounds, plus there’s the problem of using a poor acoustic space to record in. Recording the drums in an average living room doesn’t sound great – nor does a garage with carpet stuck all over the walls and ceiling. Thankfully, a friend of Rhayn’s and Vinden’s teaches audio engineering and happened to have a reasonably sound-proofed live room we could use, a Toft 32 track mixing desk (lots of money), and a fully-featured Pro Tools HD rig (lots and lots of money). Viv Lock (for it was he) kindly agreed to record the drums and vocals for our EP, his commitments willing. I made ‘drum karaoke’ mixes for Vinden to play along to, complete with click tracks, and away he went. He got the drums for all four songs recorded in one session, we transferred the files onto an external hard drive to take away with us, and we were rolling.
How to record an EP without spending any money (except on Jaffa Cakes!)
The more noise you make, the more the sound waves bounce around in the space you’re recording in, reflecting off walls and being picked up by the microphones you’re attempting to capture the sound with. This isn’t really a problem if you stick a mic right up against the speaker in a guitar amplifier and turn the volume up to nausea-inducing levels, but gets awkward when dealing with the overhead or room mics on a drum kit, or recording the singer. The traditional way of dealing with this is to get an acoustician to spend lots of your money designing a sympathetic space to record in. This can cost a LOT of money. Some of the truly great studios would set you back millions if you recreated them today.
Our way of dealing with it was to remove as much interaction with the space we were recording in as possible. In practice this meant that all the guitar and bass parts were recorded by plugging our instruments into the audio interface and then simulating the interaction between speakers and microphones. I’ve got a very nice all-valve amplifier that has one of the best speaker-emulated outputs I’ve ever come across. Every single electric guitar part on the EP was recorded through my Blackstar HT-5 amp head straight into my audio interface. Rhayn DI’d his basses by connecting his Mark Bass Little Mark III amp up via its DI output, which I then tweaked while mixing by adding an amp & speaker modelling plugin.
Anything that sounds like an acoustic guitar, isn’t. Sorry. It’s a Line6 Variax - a guitar that digitally models other guitars, 26 in fact (plus a banjo and an electric sitar for good measure!). There are a number of models of 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars lurking inside it’s electronic innards that sound quite convincing. Pianos and other keyboard sounds were again recorded straight in courtesy of Gareth’s Roland digital stage piano and synth module. In fact if I could only convince Gareth to undergo minor surgery and have a USB socket grafted to his larynx, it would make my life a hell of a lot easier!
We started off recording Gareth in the same studio that Vinden tracked his drums in (thanks again, Viv!), but after getting Exalted Star and Full Flow in the bag, we ran into scheduling conflicts that would have held us up even further had we continued down that route.
The issue, you see, is that Gareth can’t help himself. If there’s any way he can crowbar three-part harmonies into an arrangement, he will. In places he stacked up whole choirs of his voice (particularly in the outro of Enigma). Now Gareth is both accurate and precise (a very rare combination) when it comes to laying down vocal parts, but it still takes time to do it. And while the rest of us can soldier on through fatigue, illness and the general malaise that is tracking parts at 10am, a singer IS his instrument. If they’ve got a cold, forget it. If they’re worn-out or stressed, they aren’t going to hit the notes with the same pizazz. And there is a limited window of opportunity to get a great vocal take. They can’t just keep churning it out, take after take, until everyone’s satisfied. I tend to work on the principal of keeping vocal sessions to a four-hour maximum. Any more than that and I find you only have to get them back in to repair stuff anyway. So we decided to try and find a way to track the vocals in the comfort of my house, too. By adopting a DIY approach we ensured that Gareth could track the vocals when HE felt like it and I would have more control over the engineering (at one point during the tracking of Exalted Star, Gareth ended up with his back against the live room wall, singing into a microphone 10 feet away!) I always record his vocals through a compressor to control the dynamic range and adjust the gain control depending on how loud he’ll sing a particular line.
It took a bit of effort – and some ingenious hoop-jumping – but we managed to get everything else recorded at home. I also learnt some valuable lessons in how not to record things, and ultimately we’ve gained enough experience to never need to use a ‘proper’ studio again.