Monday, August 1, 2011

First off, Thanks...

I started work on this recording in August of 2009, although the last two songs were written and recorded ten years earlier.  I've had a lot of encouragement over the years to produce an instrumental guitar CD, and at last, here it is.  This first edition, with only a sleeve for packaging, lacks the room for thanks to all of you who helped out along the way.  My lovely wife, Julie, suggested publishing a blog with not only the thank yous, but some of the stories from the writing and recording process.  I hope you enjoy them.

So, thank you to Julie and Bella, Chris Lowry (microns!), Javi, Dr. Chris and Jeff C. (glad I ran into you at the wedding!). to Linda B for adding the pro touch and putting up with multiple revisions, to Cory and Grant Batson at Batson Guitars for the use of the No. 5 on open air #5 and cicada summer and for Cory’s guitar on hewlett. Lovely instruments, bros.   To Trace for recording, and more importantly for amazing chow and fellowship, to Mike Demus for essential tips and tricks in Logic and inspiration in general, to JD and Eric (your holiness), Rob Frazier and Rob Still (you’ve been robbed), Dave Garvey for CDs on the sly, Linda, David, Nathan, Christa, Karen and everyone at Cedarwood for a steady gig! and thanks to everyone who has supported and encouraged me throughout the years (this means you!)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Track 1: with hands raised to the sky

While the oldest song in this collection is 'Ivy,' which I wrote in 1999, the song 'with hands raised to the sky' really marked this album's beginning in August of 2009.  Musically, it's a gathering of ideas of minimalism, electronica and rock/jazz lead guitar, but for me it had its origins in instrumental worship music.

The Boss RC-20XL Looper

My wife Julie and I had been volunteering at the Nashville House of Prayer (NHOP) since it began in 2007, leading the music for a weekly two hour 'devotional' slot. We would play ambient background music during prayer and meditation times, and then go in and out of different songs that people could sing along to.   After a couple of sessions with Julie trying to play rhythm guitar (which wasn't much fun for either of us) I started bringing my Boss RC-20 Loop pedal.  It allowed me to record simple guitar parts on the fly, and then layer other parts on top of them.  A lot of times I would create a guitar 'track,' then play lead lines over top of it.  'With hands raised to the sky' is basically a more composed version of one of those NHOP selah moments.

A screenshot from Logic, the recording program I use.  You can see all the segmented 'loops.'
In the studio, instead of using the loop pedal, I would either play the 'looped' theme over and over again, or copy and paste the recording.  I also had the flexibility to have the 'track' change themes or modulate while soloing on top of them, something that wouldn't be possible live.

I did want to keep some of the spontaneity of a live performance, which I did in the way I recorded the lead lines.  In the olden days, before I had a workable digital recording studio in my spare bedroom, I would write out a song, work out the solo lines, practice it for months, and beg, borrow or buy studio time somewhere and squeeze as many songs as I possibly could into the time I could afford.

Having the luxury of my own recording space, I could take my time and record as I wrote, something I've never been able to do before.  I would basically take the songs a phrase or two at a time, writing a part, getting it under the fingers, and taking a few stabs at it until I had a take that I was happy with.  The result seems much more immediate, maybe a bit less polished, more improvised and raw.

The guitars on this (in order of appearance) are my Takemine CP 132-CS nylon string, and my Taylor 814 CE steel string.  The bass is mix of sample sounds available on Logic.  I'll do a post later on the studio and talk about mics and effects and other exciting tech geek stuff.

Here's a video I shot with my iPhone.  Thanks to Trace Scarborough for his amazing help editing and coming up with the opening sequence.  You rock, Trace!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Track 2: costa del alma

"Coast of the Soul."  This was the second collaborative work between Chris Lowry and myself, the first of being 'my kind of nerdy thing.'  I had come up with the basic guitar lines about a week before Chris came over to record, and just let him go for it.

Chris:  "What do you think about using prepared viola?"
Me:  "Sounds cool."

He had some paper napkins in his viola case (my guess is that he'd been dying to use them somehow) and proceeded to stuff some under the viola strings to get the buzzy plucked sound at the beginning of the piece.

From there we moved on to a more traditional pizzicato section for the viola, then the bow came out.  The song then moves to a strummed (rasgueado) movement, very upbeat and percussive.  It obviously needed some drums or perc in the track.

Chris:  "How about if I play the viola drum?"
Me:  "If you don't mind smacking it around."

So we recorded Chris smacking his viola.  I keyed in a sample of a deep African drum and we had a rhythm track.  Then came the lead sections.  I wanted to keep this sounding fresh and improvisational, so we went back and forth, writing and recording our sections.  I had to re-record my leads later that night, partly because I'm OCD, and partly because of cicada noise bleeding into my tracks.  We actually had to redo a couple of the viola lines as well, because of the world's loudest insects, which led to the inspiration of another song on this CD...

With the guitar and viola finished, it really needed a bass line.  I had keyed in bass lines to the other songs, but this one really needed something actually played, something special.  I had just the guy in mind:  Jeff E. Cox.

I've known Jeff and his wife Julie for years, and thought he'd bring the perfect touch to the song.  He had recently recorded with one of my heros, Earl Klugh, the nylon guitar playing Jazz legend, so I was even more excited to get him to play bass on a couple of tracks.

I had an old email for Jeff, so I hadn't heard back from him for a few days after trying to get hold of him.  I had just finished playing for a wedding at the Carnton Plantation in Franklin when I heard someone call out my name from the bandstand.  Unbelievably, it was Jeff!  It really is a small Nashville.

I sent him the tracks and he laid down the bass lines at home and sent them back to me via the internet.  I plugged them in, mixed it together, and, voila!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Track 3: open air #5

I started this song with the incredible Javier Santiago, drummer for the Annie Moses Band.  We spent a day laying down all his percussion for the album, and this song was just an idea at the time.  Javi played the very versatile Cajon (the Box) along with a high hat.  The Cajon has a bass sound like a kick drum or djembe, and a snare sound on the front, plus a variety of tones on the front, top and sides.  The player sits on top of it while playing.  I laid down a scratch guitar part, and we did a few different versions of the drum part, so I could have some options later when I finished the song.  Jeff Cox finished off the track with a killer bass line.

The #5 in this song title comes from the Batson No. 5 that I used to record.  I've been friends with Grant and Cory, the brothers behind Batson Guitars, for awhile now, and they asked me, along with some other Nashville guitarists, to take their new model out for a spin.

I'm a big fan of Batson Guitars.  They have a unique construction that really enhances their tone and sustain.  Because the sound hole is located on the top side, the front face of the guitar is able to resonate more efficiently.  The No. 5 is a somewhat stripped down model, more for the working musician than the collector, with simpler fret markers and binding, a no-frills work-horse kind of guitar.  It still plays and sounds amazing, though.  I was excited to get to play with it.  I kinda felt like I was test-driving a superbike through the Colorado San Juan Skyway, banking turns, dropping down hills, twisting through the mountain curves.

I recorded the rhythm tracks at Scarborough Fare, Trace Scarborough's home studio, then finished the leads at my place.  I ended up playing from the highest fret down to drop D, tuned to DADGAD.  The No. 5 did not let me down.

"This thing sustains so long, it's a problem," I told Trace after holding out an end note for what seemed like two minutes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Track 4: from distant shores/cover art

Again featuring Javier on percussion (cajon and shaker), this song is in 7/8 which gives it a different feel.  I used the Takemine classical for most of it, with some background overdubs on the Taylor.  The bass is programmed in Logic using a sample from an upright bass.  I wrote the backing guitar line first (while visiting my friend Jeremy, sitting on his couch), then added the melody later at my home studio.

I actually wrote the melody out using the (piano) keyboard in Logic, then printed out the notation and read that on guitar.  That helped keep me from falling into some of the melodic ruts that composing on the fretboard can cause for me, and also helped me to navigate the time signature a bit better.

The 'dot' image from the front of the CD jacket is something I came up with.  I wanted to convey the idea of capturing beauty in a pseudo-pixilated, pointillistic way.  Several of the songs are quantized and looped, using digital manipulation and editing, so I wanted an image that would be obviously computer aided.  The image behind the dots is that of a sunset over Exeter, England, that I took during a mission trip in 2005.

I had Linda Bourdeaux, an award winning graphic designer who happens to be a friend of mine, help me with the layout and design.  You can check out her portfolio at The Design Desk.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Track 5: mountain of the sky god

I use several unusual time signatures on this CD, but this one is the most complex.  It starts off in 19/8.  My mom said that I was just making that up, and she's right.  It's three sets of 5 and a 4, five further split into a two and a three, so you can count it: "one-two one-two-three, one-two one-two-three, one-two one-two-three, one-two-three-four."  Anyway, I wasn't trying to be difficult, I promise.  That's just the way the pattern of notes came to me.

The bell sound is a sample of a celesta (the c has a 'ch' sound, like 'cello') which I got off of Logic, the recording software I use, as is the bass sound.  I used the xylophone samples at first, but knew they would sound better played by an actual percussionist.  I happen to know Dr. Christopher Norton, a percussionist for the Nashville Symphony and professor of classical percussion at Belmont University, and he agreed to record the little xylo part for me.

"It's in 19/8," I said.

"No problem," he said.

And he was right.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Track 6: solas

I wrote this song earlier this year, while my wife and daughter were visiting her family and I had to stay home alone and work.  The title hints at the word 'solace' in English, although it really means 'alone' in Spanish.  It's the only solo classical guitar song on the album, so a fitting title, and the themes of melancholy, loneliness, and peace with oneself all play a part in this composition.

It's a fairly challenging piece to play, and while I had recorded a version of it shortly after composing it, I re-recorded it just before finishing everything up on the project.  The version I had was done by editing several passes and coming up with a master composite take, and I wanted it to be done in a single take.  I also wanted to explore the dynamics of the guitar a bit more, softening up parts, letting others breathe a bit more, while still attacking the forceful sections with intensity.

I set up a video camera while I was recording, and so ended up with the video to go with it.  Unlike the 'hands raised to the sky' video, which was me 'finger-syncing' to the recording, this is the actual recording you hear on the CD.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Track 7: the flamingo

This was a fun bossa nova that I came up with one day.  I actually did all the writing and recording in one day (except for a cajon overdub with Javier).  I love it when songs come together like that.  I have been teaching electric guitar to some pretty exceptional young guitarists, and many of them are into 'shred' guitar. As a result, I've been learning these ridiculous guitar solos, and so I kind of reached into that bag of tricks a few times on this song.

Okay, a bit of gear talk on this post.  Pretty much every guitar part on this CD (except Ivy, Caleb's song, and rhythm guitar on Open Air #5) was recorded with a Shure KSM 27 microphone into a Mackie 1202 VLZ PRO mini mixer (for the mic pre-amps), then into an M-Audio 1814 Firewire Audio interface, ending up in Logic Pro 8.  I got the  KSM 27 from a guy on Craigslist.  I felt kind of weird buying a mic off of Craigslist, and sure enough (no pun intended) it started shorting out after about a month.  I sent it off to Shure, inc after talking to their support folks, and they sent me a brand new one!  I love Shure.  Forever.

So I have a pretty low budget recording setup, as far as that kind of thing goes, but I love the sounds I get out of it.  I'm continually amazed at how powerful computer audio is now.  It wasn't that long ago when it could not deliver these kind of results, at least not in my price range.

I'm pretty happy with the bass track on this cut.  I did it using Logic's upright bass samples, and played them on a midi keyboard.  I'm sure it would have sounded better with a great player like Jeff, but it was a whole lot more free for me to do it.

The name, 'The Flamingo,' came from my (then) five year old daughter Bella.  Not sure why, but it seemed to fit.  Here's a little video I put to it, with a pre-Javier version of the rhythm track.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Track 8: my kind of nerdy thing

So, first off:  the title.  Chris Lowry and I got together one night with no agenda, just play, write, record, have a beer, and while we were recording the song, he was talking about some music gear he was geeking out over.  He said "It was just my kind of nerdy thing."  And I said, "That's the title of this song.  For real."

I came up with the main rhythm theme, and the little bell melody, and Chris wrote the viola themes.  At some point I decided to reverse the guitar and viola backing tracks, so we recorded them forward, reversed them, learned how to play them backwards, recorded them backwards, then reversed them so they would play the melodies forward, even though they were being played backward.  Awesome.  Nerdy.

The whole intro is backwards, made from various parts of the song after the fact.  I added some panning tremolo effects to increase the nerd quotient.  The bell sounds are the celesta samples off of Logic.  The percussion is a combo of exotic drum samples I played in Logic and some later overdubs by Sn. Santiago.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Track 9: cicada summer

A few facts about cicadas:

They are the world's loudest insect.

The males make all the noise.  The girls are quiet.  Hmmm.

In Nashville, a superswarm of them come out every 13 years.

They are harmless.

Some people eat them.

They are not blind, despite rumors to the contrary.

My daughter loves them.

She and I took my laptop out to the back of my house, hooked up the Shure KSM 27 mic to it, and recorded the overwhelming buzzing.  Then I captured a few until I found a squawker, and recorded a solo cicada part.  You can hear that kick in at about 8 seconds.

I used the Batson No. 5 for the rhythm, and that and my Takemine Nylon for the overdubs.  For the viola, I said to Chris, "The idea of the song is to go inside the song of the cicada.  It's like we are entering their mindset, hearing their song.  As it fades in, we start to translate their melodies, understand what they are singing and hearing.  They are singing 'Life!  Life is here!  Sing of life!  Sing of summer!  Sing now, for soon we die.'"

Friday, July 22, 2011

Track 10: hewlett

This is my one cover song on the CD, written by Turlough O'Carolan, a blind, Irish harpist born in 1670.  Hewlett was likely named for someone known by the composer, perhaps a groom at a wedding he played for.  O'Carolan, also known as Carolan, was a contemporary of Bach, and he is thought to be the last great Irish harpist-composer, considered by many to be Ireland's national composer.

This tune was introduced to me by Rebecca Baumbach, a Celtic fiddle player I've worked with over the last several years.  I'm amazed by this melody.  It sounds like it could have been written in the 1970's, not the 1670's.  O'Carolan was undoubtably a musical genius.

This was recorded with my Takemine Nylon and Corey Batson's personal guitar.  He loaned it to me for a St. Patrick's Day gig I played this year, and I recorded it then.  How appropriate!

The name 'Hewlett' kind of intrigued me, since it reminds me of Hewlett-Packard.  I made a little musical quote at the end of the song.  See if you can guess what it is.  :)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Track 11: ivy

I wrote this over a decade ago, in 1998.  It was one of the first DADGAD songs I composed.  I wanted to combine a Celtic sounding melody with a more classical/Spanish sounding interlude in the middle.  The result struck me as somehow darkly organic, and the name 'Ivy' came to mind.

I recorded this with Rob Frazier, who I attend church with at Belmont Church.  I laid down the Takemine Nylon track first, then overdubbed a track of Breedlove steel-string on top of that.  Both tracks are playing exactly the same thing.  I think we did the nylon in one take, then the steel in two, because of some bleed from the click.  This was the old days, when I went into a recording session actually knowing what I was going to play and having it meticulously rehearsed.

I've had the honor of playing this at quite a few weddings, usually for the recessional or bridesmaids' processional, but a few times for the bride's entrance as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Track 12: caleb's song

I wrote this song in 1999.  I came up with the main themes and was playing around with them, when I realized I needed to get my good friend Caleb Phillips a gift for a 'bachelor blessing' party we were giving him.  I was torn between keeping working on the song and going to a store for a gift, when I realized the song was the gift.  Caleb and I had played together as a guitar duo, although he wasn't as serious as I was about music.  He had decided to pursue computer programming instead, so we had disbanded the duo a few months prior.

In 'Caleb's Song' I tried to write a guitar 'duo' that could be played on one guitar.  On the recording, the first section of the song repeats with an overdubbed part on top of it.  I can use a 'loop pedal' to accomplish this live, although most of the time I just combine the ideas in a single part.  I finished the song that day and played it for him that evening at his blessing party.  It proved to be a better gift than anything I could have picked up at a store, and I've played it at hundreds of weddings since then.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Finishing up...

So, right around July 7th, I had finished my end of the project.  I had written, arranged, recorded and mixed everything.  I had re-mixed everything, and re-recorded several parts.  I had fine-toothed-combed everything.  I might as well make it just as good as I can stand to make it.  So I did.

Then I took it to have it mastered.

I've heard it said that having a separate person master a recording is a time honored, industry revered practice.  In a nutshell, four ears are better than two.

The problem is that mastering is expensive.  $75 to $200 per hour expensive.  I didn't want to spend $1500 on mastering this project if I'm only going to be able to sell 200-300 copies.  I decided to test my social media market at this point.

I offered up pre-sale CDs and advertised on Facebook.  For awhile.  For annoyingly awhile.  I got about eight sales.  That's about $80.  I decided to master on the cheap.

I had contacted Mayfield Mastering, a Nashville mastering studio boasting clients like Dave Matthews, Britney Spears, Cece Winans, Gypsy Hombres, Laura Story, Point of Grace and Willie Nelson.  They were willing to do a one song demo, just to show what they could do.

I met with John Mayfield on July 7th.  I had sent over 'costa del alma' for them to take a listen to.  John sat down to talk to me about the song, and about their process.  He was very impressed with the recording, and was somewhat incredulous when I told him the equipment I'd used to record it (Mackie 1202 VLZ-PRO mic preamps, M-Audio D/A converters, Shure KSM 27 mic).  "Yes, it's kind of ghetto," I said, "but I've figured out how to make it work."

Studio A of Mayfield Mastering
Many studios feature $7000-9000 microphones, $2500 preamps, $3000 D/A converters.  My whole signal chain setup is $1648.  That includes the computer.  Ghetto.

John invited me into Studio A to work on the song.  It's kind of like audio heaven.  We listened to it, and discussed possible 'references,' pro-recordings that have a similar sound.  We listened to some Bela Fleck, some Earl Klugh (for the bass, i.e. Jeff Cox) and John suggested Sarah Jarosz.  I hadn't heard of her before, but now I know her.  She's a bluegrass wunderkind, an amazing musician/singer/songwriter, and a friend of Chris Thile from Nickel Creek (who I happened to meet when I was a coffee roaster, and actually roasted coffee for his wedding.  Weird.  It's a small Nashville.)  Her CD 'Follow Me Down' is an impressive work of art.  We used that quite a bit for reference.

Unfortunately, I could only afford to do the one song with Mayfield Mastering, for $150.  Fortunately, I'm friends with some pretty amazing people, among them, Rob Still.  Rob invited me over to his studio to master the rest of the project.  Using the track mastered by John, we were able to match levels with the rest of the songs, and come up with a professional sounding final product.  And I was able to bless Rob a bit on his passion and calling, as a music minister to Eastern Europe.

So at that point I had a master CD and a basic design idea.  My good friend Linda Bourdeaux, graphic designer extraordinaire, was able to turn my idea into a sharp, focused end product. After pricing digipak short runs, I realized I wouldn't be able to afford to go that route.  As much as I hated to do it, I had to go with just about the cheapest option out there, cardboard jackets.  Oh, well, the CDs sound just as good.  My wife suggested that I create this blog for extended credits and virtual liner notes.  Thanks, Julie!

I've always loved reading liner notes, and if you're still with me at this point, you do too.  I hope you've enjoyed the stories and insights.  I'd love to hear from you, too,  Just comment and I'll see what you have to say.  Hope to hear from you soon!

Rob Higginbotham