by Dave Schools
Feb. 10, 1999 Keane Studio, Ltd. Athens, GA
Part 2: TRACKING
Last week we went into great detail concerning the process of "setup."
Harsh, wasn't it?
This time we go into the process of tracking or the actual recording of
sounds to tape. Now that all the instruments have been tuned, isolated,
and recording levels have been perfected it is time to begin recording.
For this project John Keane has replaced his 32 track Otari analog
recorder with a Sony 48 track digital machine and augmented his usual mass
of compressors, equalizers, and other devices with even more of the same.
As I mentioned earlier, John had really wanted to be a "hands on" producer
for this project and had therefore brought in the highly competent
Bradshaw Leigh to tweak the sounds and push the faders. John's
ultra-versatile assistant Rob Haddock was always on hand to do the dirty
work like changing tape reels or running microphones. This way John could
be free to really concentrate on the idea facet of production.
We were chomping at the bit to begin cutting some tracks so when the call
finally came we were more than happy to leave the TV room (despite an
exceptionally funny episode of Animaniacs) and get into the hot main
recording room. We were set up in a semi-circle with Todd in the corner,
me to his right, Mikey, JB, and Jojo completing the circle back around the
room to Todd's left. Sunny's antics could be witnessed through the plate
glass window between Mikey and myself. The first song is usually somewhat
of a warm-up to get levels tweaked even more not only in our headphone
mixes but also in the control room. Sometimes some real magic can happen
in those first few runs of a tune. For instance, "Hope In A Hopeless
World" from the last CD was really just a warm-up, but John was so taken
with its energy that it became the first "keeper" of that session and went
on to become the most successful single of our career to that point.
This time the first attempt was "All Time Low," and it's energy was
probably a little over the top. We played it three more times and got a
version that we were pretty happy with. Thus began the process of
tracking. Now at this point it is necessary for me to make a tough
decision: should I as a chronicler of this process allow you, the readers,
to know what songs we have recorded for this project? I'm pretty sure I
know what your answer to that question would be, but I must tell you that
I will not divulge the contents of this yet untitled project. Sorry, but I
like a good surprise as well as anyone. I will tell you that we cut 13
songs that you have heard before, 4 jams that will become songs during the
recording process, and three covers: two for fun and one to go on a
tribute album for a certain band we all know and either love or hate. But
that's as far as I can go. I will only refer to these tunes as just that:
So back to task at hand. Perhaps you have heard the old saw: "Hurry up and
wait." Let me tell you that no one is more familiar with the meaning of it
than musicians and their hard-working crew. There is always a hurry, a
rush, to get to where you are supposed to be at a precise time. Of course,
once you arrive you sit around twiddling your thumbs for an hour. This is
true of the live arena and no more so than in the studio. There is always
something to hold you up and delay the sound of John's voice coming
through the headphones saying; "It's rolling." Drums are the main concern
at this point in tracking and this is why: All other performances (vocals,
guitars, bass, and percussion) are pretty expendable meaning only that
they can be replaced (or overdubbed) later. What the producer is concerned
with is getting a good feeling drum track that Todd is happy with. But
just when you are ready to count off the intro for a take John or Rob will
burst through the door to tune up the tom tom head or adjust the overhead
microphones, or heaven help us, change the snare drum entirely. This last
option is one of the most feared for it entails waiting around for another
twenty minute while the new snare head is tuned to the proper pitch. This
is why there are so many photos of us just sitting around accompanying
these diary entries.
Thus, all the pressure lies upon Todd during this point. Drum tracks
usually consist of many different sounds. This includes the snare, kick,
hi hat, tom toms, and overhead microphones. The fact that the drummer is
indeed the foundation of all the rest of the sounds you hear prevents him
from having the luxury of overdubbing his part later. We all need Todd to
be the rock we know so that we can have him as a living metronome for our
parts during the overdubbing and fix-it part of the recording. And I will
say that Todd outdid himself this time. He can always be counted on to lay
down a solid, steady beat for all songs, always. But this time, by the end
of the first week, we had cut nearly twenty keeper tracks. He saved us
from succumbing to the restless tedium of "hurry up and wait" and allowed
us and John the luxury of having more time to concentrate on arrangements
and new musical ideas. Todd gets the gold star for the session indeed.
While the tracking is going on there is always time for sitting around and
listening to previously recorded tracks in the back room, discussing new
arrangement ideas, or doing interviews. Sometimes our friends drop by to
check up on us or just to have a little fun. Kevn Kinny brought us a
bottle of wine, Vic Chesnutt rolled up to hang out, and Randall Bramblett
brought Roger Glover by to say howdy. Who the hell is Roger Glover you may
ask? Well, my friends, he was the bass player for Deep Purple during the
incredible "Smoke On The Water" period of that band. He is also one of my
big influences. Just listen to the bass line on the live version of "Space
Truckin'" from the Made In Japan album. I was really glad to meet him and
in my rush of excitement in meeting him never even thought it was odd that
he would be in Athens. Randall explained that Roger had heard his latest
CD and been so taken with it that he called him up out of the blue to come
to Athens and work on some songs with him.
Other friends come to the studio to cut guest tracks on the album. In the
past we have had the Memphis Horns, David Blackmon, Vic Chesnutt, Daniel
Hutchins and Eric Carter of Bloodkin, and a host of others in to augment
our sounds. This project is no different, as we have had Colin Butler from
Big Ass Truck in to whip out some turntable magic, The Dirty Dozen Horns,
and even a gospel choir.
One thing that often happens during tracking is a certain amount of
rearranging of the parts of a song. For instance a verse or chorus may be
removed or added as the case warrants or a bridge may be added to create a
change in the tempo or feel of a song. Case in point: by the time we
settled on the final arrangement of "Wondering" we had gone through over
forty takes in three different studios. For the most part we run into two
situations when arranging songs. One is the case where we have been
playing a song live for so long that we are, in a sense "married" to it's
arrangement. It can be difficult to change something that we are so
accustomed to and we usually wind up abandoning any ideas along those
lines. The other instance is when we are actually composing a new song in
the studio. In this case it's easy to work out new ideas because, in
addition to the song being fresh, there is a shared feeling of excitement.
I know I speak for all six of us when I say one of the most rewarding
things that can happen during tracking is when John Keane actually gets
excited by a new song. It's almost as if you see a cartoon light bulb
flashing and hovering above his head. This is when things can really start
happening. For instance, when Mikey recorded the demo for "Raise The
Roof." you could see the wheels turning in John's head and the glimmer in
his eyes doubling in intensity.
We ourselves could never have conceived the alien four part harmonies or
the synthesizer pad that John added to that song. This is a great example
of hands-on producing the ability to add something truly unique to the
recorded version of a song. Let me just say that this rare occurrence has
happened several times already with this session. There is a feeling of
excitement going on here like I have never felt before.
Once all the drum takes have been captured on tape, we rejoice because it
is the time when the studio fun begins. We also rejoice because we realize
that we have recorded way too many songs to fit on one CD. It may be a
difficult decision to set half of these songs aside for another project,
but it beats the hell out of not having enough material at all. Todd
basically goes on call and I get the distinct honor of having my bass
parts put under the microscope for hyper-scrutiny by John. This can be a
real ego-buster as you hear your sloppy technique or off-color notes come
flying out of the studio monitors as John halts the tape and says with a
grin, "I guess we should fix that whole section." But this is the wonder
of modern recording technology: these little problems can be fixed.
In some cases it is necessary to re-record the entire track, sometimes the
wrong note can be "punched in." Punching in is a technique where the
recording engineer pops the machine into record mode while you play the
correct note or notes (hopefully). He can get the machine in and out of
record mode without corrupting any right notes you played in the original
take. John has a fast punch finger (sometimes it's just one note to be
fixed and leaving the machine in record mode for a split second too long
can ruin the original part) but no one can pull off the quick punch faster
than Johnny Sandlin. I like to compare punching in to a gunslinger and the
quick draw and Johnny to the fastest gun in the east.
It usually takes me a few days to fix my bass flubs. But other than fixing
my mistakes this is also my chance to try out other sounds or ideas. I may
decide to try out a different bass like my fretless or the electric stand
up which no one has ever seen me play before but will hear (thanks to Jane
McNall at Modulus). On the Everyday CD I played harmony bass parts in the
song "Diner" during the "hanging in the light" section. One was the
"regular" bass line and the other was a fifth harmony performed on the
fretless. This is what is great about the studio versus live: you can pull
off physically impossible feats and take your part in any direction you
please, and if it doesn't fit then you can do something different.
Coming in the next installment:
Everybody gets put under John Keane's microscope.
The terror of recording background vocals.
Preparing for "mixdown."
Some comments from the rest of the boys and John Keane.
by Dave Schools
Feb. 3, 1999 Keane Recording, Ltd. Athens, GA.
It's hard to believe that just over three weeks ago I stood offstage at
the Fox Theater with the rest of the boys watching in amazement as 5,000
Panic fans got their last dance licks in to the tune of Prince's "1999."
You would have thought that after four nights and nine sets of dancing fun
they would be tired --- certainly too tired to pogo to pre-recorded music
with the house lights full blast. Maybe they knew that there wouldn't be
another show for quite some time. Maybe they knew the reason was that it
was time for the band to disappear into that secret garden of sound, the
studio (insert spooky music here).
Nearly three years ago, while we were recording Bombs & Butterflies, Ben
Tanen came up with the idea of me keeping some kind of journal documenting
the goings on of the session. This would be parceled out to the Spreadnet
so those members would have something to chew on instead of the usual
between-tour flame-inducing comparison threads. It was a great idea, but
alas, one that fell by the wayside. Three years later it is still a good
idea and perhaps now the time is right for said journal to see the light
of day. Or maybe I just felt so guilty about sicking that interviewer from
The Wall Street Journal on Ben that he was able to convince me to actually
follow through with only the slightest amount of friendly pressure.
I had considered going into great detail concerning all of the parts of
the CD making process, but even plotting those segments out in rough form
proved to be so confusing to me that I have scrapped that idea in favor of
a more "user friendly" form. In other words, I'm going to take the
"onstage" approach to this piece: I'm going to let it flow. So just jump
in and hang on!
There are a few basic differences between performing live and recording in
a studio setting (other than the obvious) that you should be aware of. The
foremost of these is the fact that in a live setting what happens simply
happens and becomes history once it has been played. There is no going
back to replace a wrong note or an awful harmony. A studio recording is
different in that all wrongs may be reversed. The studio project is, in
reality, a snapshot or a permanent record of one period in a band's
development and therefore great pains are taken to ensure that the quality
of this snapshot is something that all involved can live with --- forever.
In other words, history can be changed in the studio.
The other main difference is the presence of a producer in the studio
setting. While there are many decision-makers onstage during the show
(six, to be exact) there is only one decision-maker in the studio and in
this case (as well as so many in the past) that person is our mentor, John
A little background on John Keane: a native of Athens and father of thre
e, John has been the head honcho on all of our records except the
self-titled one we refer to as Mom's Kitchen and Everyday (both of which
were produced by the groove-oriented ears of Johnny Sandlin). When we
recorded Space Wrangler way back somewhere in the late 80s, John was
sharing his house with the studio, a roommate (Tim White, the guy who
played organ on "Travelin' Light" and "Chilly Water"), and the
ever-present studio cat --- an orange Tabby appropriately named Fader. If
you parked your car in front of the house next door, the mean old lady who
lived there would come out screaming and threatening to have the car towed
if it wasn't moved immediately.
Many years and albums later, the analog 16-track tape machine has been
replaced by a Sony 48-track digital machine (and accompanying Macintosh
computer armed with high-tech editing tools). Tim's old room now houses
amplifiers for the purpose of isolation. Fader ran off and was replaced by
Zack, a fluffy little beast with a propinquity for meowing in pitch with
Mike's guitar solos. And the mean old woman next door has moved on to
greener pastures thereby making room for the rest of the Keane family. We
like to call that side of the street the Keane Compound. The point is, we
feel right at home sitting on that front porch watching the folks in the
fancy house across the street play tennis on their clay court. Loco's Deli
knows the place by heart. In fact, you could give any driver a band
member' s sandwich order and chances are he will already know who it is
for. It is this sense of familiarity that keeps us coming back. Sure, we
could go somewhere fancy like Paisley Park or Bearsville to record our
albums, but we have everything we need right here in Athens, not to
mention our families and loved ones.
The first day of any session anywhere is a nasty little process known as
"setup." This is just like bringing the gear into a live venue and
soundchecking it except that this brand of setup is painstakingly slow. It
has to be slow because everything has to be perfect. Placement of
microphones must be tested and re-tested because the sounds going to tape
must be true and sonically pure. Many producers will record instruments
separately or in different rooms in order to eliminate what is known as
"bleed." Bleed is what occurs when the sound from one instrument runs into
the microphones for a different instrument. For instance you will often
notice drummers surrounded by Plexiglas on TV. This is done to prevent all
the noisy loud guitars from bleeding into the drum microphones and turning
the engineer's job into a living hell. We like to torment John by setting
up in the same room so we can feel like we really are playing together.
This togetherness is ideal for us but it makes microphone placement all
the more crucial and thus extends setup into the realm of complete and
utter boredom for those of us simply wanting to get in there and roll the
tape and jam.
But the cooler heads of our engineer and producer (augmented by assistant
Rob) prevail and we calm down and remember that isolation is so important
due to the nature of the recording process. You will recall that above I
had said one of the main differences between studio work and live
performance is the ability to fix mistakes. This ability stems from the
fact that each instrument (right down to each individual drum head and
guitar amp) has it's own microphone which is connected to a recording
console which, in turn, is connected to the recording machine. Just like
your DAT machine at home has two "tracks": left and right, our Sony
machine has 48 tracks, one for each microphone and instrument. It is the
fact that each instrument has it's own track in the tape machine that
allows mistakes to be fixed without corrupting another instrument's sound.
This is why the need for isolation is so important. It is what allows me
to maintain pick throwing distance from Todd during a live take while my
bass speaker and accompanying microphone are located in a closet somewhere
else in the house. That way, my sloppy bass lines are not bleeding into
Todd's pristine kick and snare microphones. Thus, when it is my turn to
fix my screwed up bass playing I can do so without recording over a
flawless drum performance. I can only do this by having a tape machine
that records to a separate track dedicated solely to my bass signal. In
other words I can play along with Todd's earlier drum performance while
replacing my original bass performance with an untainted one. Conversely,
with the bass amp and microphone located in another room there is no
evidence of Todd's drumming on my allocated track on the tape machine. The
same holds true for all the guitars, keyboards, and percussion as well.
Confused yet? Well don't worry, it becomes easier to understand, I
After setup the chore of "getting sounds" begins. This is when Todd
willsit at his drum kit and will be asked by John or the engineer to
continually pound the snare drum until a kick ass sound is acquired along
with a good recording level. (Note* The engineer is the guy who tweaks the
recording levels and deals with microphone selection and placement. It is
his job to capture the purest tones on tape. Engineers are usually experts
in the field of electronics and sound reproduction. Most producers are
engineers while not all engineers are capable of being producers. John
Keane is an excellent engineer and you will see that this is the first
album where John actually had someone engineer the recording for him.
According to John, he really "wanted to be able to produce" this CD.
Therefore the engineer for this project was a nice man named Bradshaw
Leigh.) This process getting sounds can be rough on drummers, as their
particular skill is such a physical one. Banging on the snare drum for an
hour might not seem like anything more tiring than performing live for the
same amount of time, but believe me, it's much worse! After Todd has been
through the ringer it is Sunny's turn. Due to the large number and
sensitivity of the microphones on his percussion rig he gets his own room.
But he cannot escape the torture of the checking of the microphones.
Everyone gets their turn in the meat grinder although this time some of
us, myself included, are lucky enough to have good old Wayne check our
guitars for us. Only a day and a half into the session and it was nearly
time to play a song as a group! Tracking was about to begin.
Coming in the next installment:
"Why is the pressure on Todd?"
"What do you mean, 'Are we married to this arrangement?'"
"Do we HAVE to do it again?"
"Okay, who ordered four dozen spicy wings from Loco's?"
and . . .
"What is the bassist for Deep Purple doing in town with Randall