Pre-production Part One.
So we are officially in pre-production for Sankara’s debut full length (in glorious metrocolor) album. How do we know this? Well this week (week 4 of February 2012) saw the rhythm section pairing off and starting to disassemble the demos and rebuild their parts one rhythm at a time. (well not really…but Rhayn
and Vinden swear it feels that way!)
So how the hell do they achieve cohesion and focus whilst at the same time repetitively playing the same stuff over and over again with out getting bored?
The rehearsal is normally a five hour schedule with Vinden arriving first at the studio to set up, get comfortable and then warm up. Rhayn normally arrives an hour to two into this to set up. The warm up for our bass player is normally a jam of some sorts that Vinden has cooked up or one of Sankara’s early EP songs - something with balls like Exalted Star.
Once warm they will settle on the first of a batch of new songs, such as Chasing the Sun, and whirl through it a couple of times (with a backing track and click) to reacquaint themselves with the form, feel and structure of the piece. Then the hard work starts: there will be stops and starts now to find out what each is playing. For this song Rhayn had to learn Vinden’s bass drum pattern and sync it in with the harmony and guitar parts.
(To hear it you will have to wait for the Album though next installment we might tease with some video footage) They will run small sections over and over, starting slowly and then building up to speed (and yes..all with a click track) till its tight.
Then the backing track gets stuck on, they play through the full track a couple of times and then dive back into the next section that needs attention or that is queried by each other.
Cymbals, fills, bass lines and meter are discussed in an open forum where the merits of each idea presented is queried until it works. Each song normally takes about an hour to go through in this methodical way. It guarantees that their parts are so tight that risler paper cannot slide past.
That is how the rhythm method works for Sankara and it is all for a good cause; As when we go into the studio next month the ideas need to be cemented and in the groove as tracking is done to a click with a meticulous set of ears and producers listening to everything.
2011 has proved to be the beginning of Sankara as a band. We have had close encounters and sweated and trod some interesting boards together. We got out gigged, released our debut EP and through out the year written, jammed and put together 15 - 20 songs that are being readied to release as a full length album. Pre-production for the new album will begin in earnest in January 2012, however before all that we would like to point to the artists that have inspired us this year with their songs and music. Why? Well everybody likes lists; and these are albums that have in one way or another fired our inspiration and kicked our arses into gear to aspire for more.
So the Ten most inspiring album releases for 2011 are…
10. Animals As Leaders -Isolated Incidents
This album with its progressive pieces, odd time signatures and fast riffs proved a real eye opener for Vinden and right up Rhayn’s street. The drums, guitar and bass are united in virtuasic flurry of notes.
9. Whitesnake - Forevermore
The old rocks proved there was life in the beast. This album has some great tracks, most are just good old fashioned fun with rock. The song Forevermore is a great piece of sound architecture.
8. Adele - 21
How could you not like this? A warning to all boys or another creative product fuelled by a broken heart? Which ever it is this album is from the heart with some truly great songs and lyrics.
7. Opeth - Heritage
A turn up for the books and a departure from their usual fare. This album is one that just takes you on a journey and requires alot of plays to start to delve into its texture.
6. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn of Events
No Portnoy? How shall they go on! Well they did and it provided the air and space required to get the music flowing again, noticeably so. This harks back to their earlier works and has some really fine riffs along with the usual turns and odd times.
5. Chickenfoot - Chickenfoot III
Rock’s super group have come back with some great new songs and lyrics. An album that is structured and varied with a little bit for every one. This is another production that Jay tore apart and re-engineered for their sonics
4. Mr Big - What If
A great rocking album that just has alot of fun in each track. Nuff said..really!
3. Joe Bonamassa - Dust Bowl
A kick arse release that has some of the bluesman’s best songs and solos on it to date. Never boring and always touching…an inspiration to us all
2. Machine Head - Unto the Locust
Pedal to the metal, this album is awesome with ballads and kick arse lyrics done in true Machine Head Style. Darkness Within is a modern rock ballad with some inspiring lyrics.
1. Black Stone Cherry - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
This proved to the album that has effected us the most this year. Its probably one of the best produced albums on offer with a sonic palette that is 100% clear and audible. The songs are tight, well written and perfect in length. The riffs are catchy and their roots still visible. This is on constantly in Jay, Rhayn and Vinden’s cars.
This is to say thank you for all those who supported us and patiently waited while we got out shit together this year.
Thank you…from all of us in Sankara.
This song is our Christmas present to all who have stuck with us. It was sent out to all those lucky people on our mailing list first, so if you want exclusive access please join - here.
The song is a cover of Tori Amos’ Precious Things and has been close to Gareth (our virtuous singers) heart for a long time. It features a glimpse into the music we are cooking up for our upcoming Album (available some time around summer 2012). Here we are delving into our sonic landscaping brushes, layering guitars and rocking hard in the rhythm section. It has subtle use of dynamics and arrangement techniques which we are experimenting with to find the right over all tone for the upcoming album. We would love to hear any feedback from you guys, get hold of us on our Facebook page and get involved.
It is available to listen to free HERE or if you are feeling generous to buy from Itunes. It will be available for a limited time so get it while you can. If you are wondering why (who wouldn’t); its because we had to purchase licenses to release this song and so being poor musos could only afford a limited number. So its first come first service. The song has been made available to these rocking radio station who have supported us from the word go, so a big thank you to them:
Those of you on our mailing list have already had first listen and so far the feedback is positive. Have a great Christmas and see you in the new year when we get out gigging!
All the best
Title track off Sankara’s EP Enigma.
Performed live @ Buffalo Bar Cardiff at the launch on the 15th October 2011.
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This is for to listen to, share, enjoy and spread the love….
Click on the link below to listen to Enigma
Zen and the Art of Making the EP.
Nowadays a lot of song-writers and artists don’t differentiate between the separate parts that go into producing a record; they’re recording the music as they write it, fiddling about changing guitar and synth sounds as they’re attempting to mix (thanks to the joys of software amp simulation and virtual synths), and juggling issues with timing and tuning when they should be concentrating on the overall sonics of a track. I’m old-school. When I started walking into recording studios they had intimidating mixing desks with hundreds of knobs on them (as well as a couple usually sitting behind the desk!), racks of outboard gear with flashing lights and a multitrack tape recorder the size of a cooker squatting in a corner.
Before I start drooling into my chest and muttering that the “youth of today never had it so good!” there is a salient point to be made: fixing mistakes was a frustrating, time-consuming process that earned the bollock-dropper withering looks and pointed sarcasm. So you learned pretty quickly to get your act together. Parts were laid down in complete passes, usually (at least with the backing tracks) with everyone playing at the same time. Prior to the revolution in home-recording (with the ubiquitous computer replacing everything that you needed a large studio to do in pre-digital times), it cost money to record your songs to an acceptable standard so bands spent more time rehearsing them so they’d be note-perfect when tracking. You couldn’t re-arrange a song with a few mouse-clicks in order to make it punchier, so you worked harder getting the arrangements to flow; And you couldn’t move audio clips around until things were perfectly in time or auto-tune the singer to within an inch of his life either. So you got used to doing take after take until the part was played right.
As a grumpy old codger with luddite-bothering tendencies, I tend to treat digital audio recording software as a glorified tape recorder. I try to get our individual parts right when we’re tracking, not “fix it in the mix”. I also try wherever possible to get the sounds right at source, and make sonic decisions there-and-then rather than lumber myself with an over-abundance of options stored up to cause problems during the mix. The Sankara production process can be broken down into three discrete stages: 1, Ideas; 2, Tracking; 3, Mixing.
So, stage 1, the Ideas Stage. First write your song. Do you like it? If not, keep working at it until you do! This may seem self-evident but you’d be surprised how many people jump in and start tracking without a firm arrangement in place. We tweaked, tweezed and finessed the parts of each song until we were confident that we had enough dynamic movement from section to section, and that the choruses were strong enough to provide a sufficient pay-off against the rest of the track. You don’t want to be second-guessing yourself while standing in a live room wearing headphones, watching people make fun of you behind the glass of the control room window. One of the most disheartening sounds heard over a talkback mic is uproarious laughter followed by “um…, could you try that again please?” Saying that, Gareth did adjust a few melody lines while he was tracking, but he’s a clever bugger and quite frankly his talent is sickening. (ed. note: plus he was prompted with “think of the ladies, think of the ladies!” by the bass player)
How do you get to the Albert Hall? Well, it depends where you’re coming from, but I haven’t yet encountered a substitute for practise, practise, practise! There isn’t, unfortunately, a “more talent” button available in commercially-released software. Maybe it’ll be in the next iteration, but until then, work your arse off. We practised these songs until we could play them individually from start to finish accompanied only by the delicate sound of a click-track.
Yes, folks it’s stage 2, Tracking. There is nothing glamorous about being stuck in a sealed double-walled room with a sweating drummer; so the fact that Vinden nailed the drum tracks in one or two takes was a blessing.
We’re firm believers in the “kitchen-sink” approach to tracking here in Sankara World. Throw everything at the song and see what sticks when you come to mix it. Bring me your multi-tracked guitars, twelve layers of backing vocals, string pads, Peruvian nose-flute overdubs, harmony glockenspiels etc. I embrace them all! Sometimes the most powerful control available to the mix engineer is the mute button, but what you don’t want is the conversation that begins with “do you think the chorus sounds a bit weak?”
And so we inexorably move to stage 3 in the production process: - The Mix.
I’d never considered the possibility that I’d be the one responsible for mixing this EP (ed note: This is all Jay MacDonalds musings.) until I was actually doing it! The intention was always to give the recordings to someone competent after we’d tracked all the parts. For months I’d loudly proclaimed that I wasn’t getting saddled with the job as a, I didn’t know enough about it, and b, a more objective pair of ears would give us a better result. Ultimately, however, it came down to the fact that the rest of the band trusted my demos enough to want to keep the final mix in-house.
Although we’ve all recorded albums before, there’s a huge difference between recording your parts and then sloping off down the pub, to being the other side of the glass! The learning curve involved in the production of the Enigma EP was steep enough to require a sherpa in places! I started trying to assimilate knowledge and techniques as quickly as I could (in fact I’m still learning new techniques on a practically daily basis: thank you Sound On Sound magazine!). I could go on for ages about frequency-slotting, spectral shadowing, the program-dependency of your compressor’s attack and release settings, and other sonic esoterica, but in reality it all boils down to one simple statement: you never complete a mix, you just pick the right point to abandon it. Could I do a better job if I revisited the recordings right now? You bet I could! But I’m not sure I’d want to.
There’s a lot to be said for the old adage that an album (or in our case our inaugural EP) is a snapshot in time:- it encapsulates what was happening in our personal and professional lives at that particular moment. And there’s a certain naivety about the production and mix of Enigma that we’ll never re-capture. Revel in your flaws. For it is the limitations that define the entity!
Vinden’s comments on Enigma.
If there is to be a cheesy music video, then this is to be the one that Gareth is shot doing or portraying something “Suggestive/Raunchy”. I am sure the interpretation of this song could be tailored to such a video shoot, especially with the words “Desire to feed this demon seed” contained within the song ……Mmmm, I wonder.
For me, this song is relaxed, it has a pleasing structure and flows beautifully with the melody/dynamics. There was no need for encouragement from the drums, I just filled the spaces and tried to compliment what was already a great song from Gareth and Jay.
This song was an excellent idea from the mind of a man raised by wolves…..allegedly. After Rhayn conceived this idea, he immediately ran naked to Jay’s house for the screening, disinfecting and polishing process………and to demo this track of course. There were many phone-calls that night, I was waiting in anticipation.
Finally, in that same evening, two excited musicians appeared at my door.(ed note: That was after 10 hours in the chair/s retracking, rerecording and re-realising the rough demo - long night!) They handed over the demo, I was grateful to say the least. We listened together and realised this song was going to be a gem…..
The demo was without lyrics, I did chuckle at the thought of Gareth trying to write the lyrics for it.
What is now on the EP is a solid song that is exciting to play, and initially was quite a challenge to forge from the outset. This song is definitely my favourite.
As They Lay My Body Down.
For me, this is another cracker of a song, except I’d rather be playing a violin for this one.
This song doesn’t need any encouragement from the drums, maybe this song can touch people somewhat deeper than the other songs on the EP.
This is not a song for the hairy-assed bikers!
I first heard the demo of Full Flow from Jay and Gareth whilst we were having a meeting prior to my joining of Sankara. It was this song that convinced me to join in the fun, especially after hearing Gareth’s “Robert Plant” impression. I’d not heard Gareth sing like this before, this was very exciting and encouraging to hear.
Whilst listening to the demo, I knew this song needed accenting to punctuate Gareth’s “The Plant” vocals in parts, and it needed a solid driving force to exhibit the songs full potential throughout.
You can hear these ingredients bubbling away throughout the song. Plus, this is the last song on the EP. What a way to finish, I saw the drum outro as quite cheeky.
Gareth’s Comments on Enigma
Enigma was the first song written by Sankara. It started as a germ of an idea that was little more than the opening piano riff. I thought it would be a challenge to try and make the song melodically interesting, while keeping the chord sequences in the verse, bridge and chorus exactly the same. If you listen closely, the only difference between them is the arrangement. The song progressed by passing it to Jay who added some heavy guitars, but decided to restrain himself and cut them right back in the verses in order to create some dynamics.
The song is about right thinking people who persist in courses of action that to the outside world seem to be complete madness, and trying to understand the reasons for it.
Rhayn brought a rough demo of what would become Exalted Star to the rest of the band, and I could immediately hear a decent melody over the top. It’s probably the song that underwent the most changes as we recorded and rehearsed it. The main bulk of the song remains the same, but we struggled with writing a satisfying intro until Jay came up with the guitar part that appears on the EP. I doubled the line with a phased synth part to beef it up a little. An outro complete with lyrics and a new melody were added to the song, but ultimately excised in the interests of brevity. No prog-rock odysseys here!
Rhayn presented the song with no lyrics and under a different title. I wanted to experiment again with the song writing process and have always found lyrics difficult to write. Given that I had a melody and wanted to complete the song as soon as possible, I opted to write “stream of consciousness”. I had the title and just let ideas and words flow from my brain onto the page with little regard for whether they made sense to any specific concept. It’s only after I finished the lyrics that I sat down to analyse what they mean, and I was surprised to find that they were reasonably coherent! It’s a song about making the most of opportunities (whether seemingly good or bad) and trying not to get stuck in a rut. This seems to be a common thread for song writers who come out of the insular communities of the Welsh Valleys!
As They Lay My Body Down
As They Lay My Body Down was the most complete song brought to the writing sessions. I wrote it almost in its entirety in about an hour while noodling on an acoustic guitar. The structure has changed very little during the production of the EP, though my initial arrangement was full of bluster! Jay wisely had the idea of completely stripping it down. As a result, there are no crunching guitars and a fairly gentle solo at the end, which I wanted to resemble the guitar solo at the end of ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush. I couldn’t tell you why, it just felt right!
It’s a song about loss and regret. About the ways in which your life (or you as a person) is only partially shaped by your action. How the action or in this case, inaction of others is an equally potent influence. And ultimately about how you make your peace with that. It’s not meant as an angry song, just a little melancholy. It’s also a brief moment of self-reflection on the fact that some people (especially Scorpios like me!) can be slippery bastards. We never like to admit that anything is our fault.
Full Flow started life as a guitar riff buried in amongst a slew of other ideas that Jay passed to me to see if I could do anything with. I responded to that one in particular as I thought it had a bit of a Led Zeppelin vibe and I fancied unleashing my inner Robert Plant. Of course, the idea of a Robert Plat vocal filtered through my sensibility and vocal chords means that the final recording sounds nothing like Robert Plant, but it’s a nice exercise for the pipes anyway.
As a nice mirror of the fact that the melody gives me a chance to be a little more ‘free’ than people might have heard me before, the lyrics are a short diatribe about letting people push their boundaries and how denying these opportunities can lead to resentment. They were jointly written by me and Jay.