REM’s country rock song (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville has been one of my favorites ever since early 1992, when I was called upon to learn the guitar part for our newly-formed band, The Stickmen. That summer, I “doped out” the piano part in my parents’ living room, but The Stickmen had already moved on. I’m not a keyboardist, but I took piano lessons as a kid, and my guitar skills made it possible for me to deduce the chord fingerings, which was a great exercise because the song features like every minor chord inversion in the key of C (which is the easiest key for piano). So a lot of black keys, but attainable for a dabbler like me. It became my showcase piano bit, and whetted my appetite for honky-tonk piano. And somewhere along the way, Matt and I vowed one day to record an album of our favorite cover songs.
Anyway, for several years afterward I had a nagging itch to pay my dues on the instrument, but after moving out on my own, I lacked ready access to a decent keyboard. Finally, last year, I picked up a used Alesis DG-8 digital piano and parked it in my garage. As a natural consequence, Rockville aired at several jam sessions with Don and Matt individually.
So when May 2008 arrived and it was my turn again to “produce” a Black & Blue track, it was high time that I turned to this old chestnut. Actually, there was another title in contention, but I wanted to take another month to consider that particular arrangement.
For the Rockville basic track, I manned the control room while Matt played drums in the garage. Simultaneously with soundboard duties, I also did “scratch” guitar and vocals. The “soundboard”comprised Firepod (8-channel preamp and A/D converter) linked by firewire (IEEE-1394) to a Sony Vaio running Cubase.
The drums were recorded on three tracks:
- Matt’s old stage microphone inside the kick drum,
- My old Peavey stage mic hanging overhead,
- Vic’s Shure SM-57 close-miking the snare drum.
I’m not sure whether Matt used 5A sticks or hot rods. It seemed pretty loud, so probably the 5A’s.
I did my vocal through the phantom-powered Apex condenser microphone, and used the Highlander internal pickups for my Martin acoustic guitar: a miniature condenser boom microphone (visibile just inside the sound hole) and a bridge-mounted piezo-electric.
I didn’t take long to get a couple of solid takes, and then we surgically patched the drum flubs on the last take. The patching process was really easy. We’d listen until we heard a mistake, and then Matt would play along to the recording and I would drop him in for a few beats.
Then Matt took the controls while I did the piano part using the “octave piano” on the DG-8. This was recorded with lines out in stereo. Repeated “patching” was required, as I had not practiced at all, and I also had a touch of stage fright from the video camera (Matt was designated “cinematographer” for the session). On playback it dawned on me that I was misusing the sustain pedal. I felt my performance get stronger once I finally nailed the bridge, so I went back to redo the first two verses, much to Matt’s annoyance. I had also realized that the camera couldn’t hear a thing because the DG-8 speaker was turned off.
Next, I had Matt record a rhythm guitar part, which I think he was surprised about, but then he underestimates his playing. I used the Apex condenser as a close mike and the SM-57 for ambience, a setup which Don and I had experimented with successfully in the past. For some reason, it was sounding a bit bottomy and dead, and messing with the close microphone position wasn’t helping much. Matt shot me dirty looks, and after a while I shrugged and said good enough.
Matt had read that the Beatles’ 1994 recording of Free as a Bird had used complete duplicate performances panned hard left and right, and before the session Matt had expressed an interest in eventually using the technique with acoustic guitar. I was already familiar with the Beatles’ extensive use of double tracking, or “tracking” as they called it (they coined the usage of the word “flange” in the mid 1960’s to describe a labor-saving artificial version of the process).
My thought was to “track” Matt’s acoustic guitar, but it became clear there wouldn’t be time. It all worked out later, because when I hard-panned Matt’s guitar and my “scratch” guitar, the result was a very rich, satisfying guitar sound. The subtle differences in phrasing between our juxtaposed rhythm styles were very complementary in the mix. But then I already knew that, which is why I enjoy playing guitar with Matt. Not coincidentally, the song April, recorded four months previously, had a similar story, with Matt’s slightly swingier acoustic track elevating the result.
We finished the session with vocals, again recorded through the Apex phantom-powered condenser microphone. I thought my scratch vocal was actually pretty decent, and initially intended Matt to use it as a guide. Unlike acoustic rhythm guitars, I feel that vocal tracks should be synched up very tightly. However, one of Matt’s idiosyncrasies is his preference to sing unimpeded by such distractions, and I acceded to his request to mute out the “guide” vocal. Sure enough, the result was a significant difference in phrasing, especially in the chorus, on the last half of the word “Rockville.” I went with it, and fell back on the tried and true formula of Matt singing his bit, followed by me singing along to that. Maybe next time I’ll tighten down my producer hat and crack the whip. But probably not. Anyway it was a solid performance from Matt, except for the “waste another year” parts, which will be redone anyway.
Matt took over the mousepad while I layed down a harmony part, but it wandered all over the map, with high, low, and unison parts scattered haphazardly, and a few mistakes thrown in there as well. What a pain. Time for a rethink. To make things easier to mix, I thought it would be better to record a harmony part in each register, and then pick and choose later. So I did a “high” harmony part. Only problem was that I had never tried a high harmony for some parts of the song. After several run-throughs and numerous patches, we had a complete track with a few totally new harmony lines: some clever, some lame.
We were out of time, and Matt had to split. I was a bit uneasy with a few of the issues already mentioned, but as I played with the mix later that evening, I kept incrementally adding back more of the “scratch” tracks and in so doing became more and more pleased with the results. I’m not a big believer in “fix in it the mix,” but in this case it seems the mix levels are the key to the end result. The piano levels have to be prominent enough to counterbalance the guitars, but low enough to mask clumsy use of sustain. The vocal levels have to be just right to fill out the lead part without harshness or clutter. It kept getting better, and after a while, I couldn’t stop listening, which doesn’t often happen to me. We still need to add bass and electric guitars, but I can already tell that the end result is going to be a highlight of the Black and Blue 2008 set.