Anchor Blog Series (My notes on the tracks from our new record Anchor, one per day for 12 days)
Last April, as part of the tremendous Indiegogo campaign that funded ‘Anchor’, I wrote down my creative/technical notes for each track and shared them with our backers along with previews to the tracks. I wrote it all down while it was still fresh in my mind and many people suggested I make these writings available to everyone, after the release. So, I’m going to post one per day for the next 12 days. (Please forgive the number of emails from me during this time). Creative notes are towards the top and technical/production notes are towards the end.
General notes on Anchor:
With this record, I set out to make something more internal, darker, a bit slower and more enveloping with locked-in grooves and fewer moving parts. It was a conscious effort to take a step back and focus on the essentials as I developed a new set of studio techniques, especially drum recording, analog synth programming, and lyric writing. After our first record, I was craving more space in the music and deeper emotional resonance with the voice and lyrics. So for this record, I consciously tried to pull anything unnecessary out of the mix, so the lines could interact more clearly, stand on their own and leave space for each other. I worked on ‘Anchor’ from November through early April in my little studio cabin at our home in Vermont (as seen on the cover of the record). It’s a winter record, to be sure, and now that it’s getting colder I’m hoping you all will take some time to relax into it. I try to make records that are ‘growers’: a bit jarring or unexpected at first but make perfect ‘sense’ over time. It may take a few times through to figure out how it all fits together, but I promise, I’ve put all the same concentration and detail into this record as all of my others, albeit in a different sphere. I don’t intend to repeat myself much in the years I have left making music, there is simply too much ground to cover. So please enjoy this record for what it is and expect something completely different next time around. Expectation leads to disappointment, as they say.
1). Good Graces:
I’ve always been a huge fan of Gillian Welch. Her lyrics are incredible and timeless, and I know she’s spent countless hours poring over the songs of the ‘Old Weird America’ for inspiration. (If you’ve never heard her start with Time (The Revelator). Following her lead, I found a great collection of songs here: toneway.com/songs and I read through them all. I kept finding repeated images and a kind of surprising raw lustfulness in the words of these songs, the kind of thoughts you think when you meet someone you know you must HAVE, and wrote a new song based on the themes that struck me: (lyrics)
When I first saw my love,
She had her shoes in her hands,
Bare feet on the floor, ooh yes,
I’ve got to get inside her world.
I’ve got to get inside,
Get inside her,
I wish I was a cherry tree,
And every time she past she’d take a few of me,
Got to be inside her flower,
Old Man, you’re gonna lose your daughter.
I’ve got to get inside,
Get inside her,
Give me roses while I live,
I live if it’s me that you adore,
Useless are the flowers that you give,
When on earth we meet no more.
The last verse was taken pretty directly from the traditional song ‘Give Me the Roses’ and was clearly in a different voice. Last February, I made a special trip to Toronto to visit my dear friend Daniela Gesundheit (her real name!) and her excellent husband Dan Goldman, who are the band Snowblink. Daniela ended up singing on four songs on this record, and we recorded the final verse of this song on that trip, in their apartment in Chinatown.
The concept for the melody of the verses was to twist the scale as much as possible by ending each line on an odd note, and double the voice with subtle piano notes to reinforce the twists. It’s not major, it’s not minor, it’s not blues: it shifts between the three without commitment, allowing light and dark to shift unexpectedly in small moments. I sang it in my high quiet feminine voice, since it felt right to twist the gender of it as well (although my wife has complained that it’s not sexy enough). Oh well. Unfortunately, for her and my music career, being sexy has never really been on my radar. I treated the vocal with a great patch from a classic lexicon pcm81 (early digital unit) that has chorus on the left and delay on the right, which makes it wide and mysterious. Daniela’s voice went through the ‘Butler’ spring reverb (see below) to pull into the space of the ambient synth.
Because of the unexpected success of our fundraiser, I was able to raid ebay for some great old gear and improve the studio’s capabilities 1000%. Over the course of July-Oct, I assembled an incredible stereo effects chain (for surprisingly little money) consisting of:
- A vintage ‘Lexicon’ pcm81 reverb/multieffects unit (classic 80’s/early 90’s sound)
- A vintage stereo 12 spring reverb (‘R.K. Butler’ Real Tube) (classic 70’s sound)
- An ‘FF’ Electrix Filter-Factory, multimode analog filter with LFO sync
- A ‘Vermona’ Retroverb Lancet (a mono multimode filter attached to a spring reverb)
- An FMR ‘RNC’ (Really Nice Compressor) capable of analog side chaining
- A Kush Electra Stereo EQ rack unit, (a very unique way to boost transients)
- A ‘PE’ DSI Polyevolver hybrid synth (recently discontinued) with four note polyphony
This allowed me to work almost entirely ‘outboard’ (computer free) while tracking this record. This was a new experience for me, with a steep learning curve, but SO much more satisfying than being stuck ‘in the box’ doing endless computer work, trying to use lifeless DSP effects. In fact, I didn’t realize how much time I spent fighting my gear until I had the ‘real’ thing. Computers, it turns out, only emulate.
Generally speaking, I do a LOT of sketch work, and I wait patiently for good ideas to find each other before I try to make them work together in a composition. When working on the tracks, I feel like there is an obvious ‘next step’ in the compositional process, which is almost always the ‘wrong step’, and I abhor that tendency to do what ‘makes sense’. The counterbalance to this inhibition is that I want the music to feel right, and have a strong inner logic, especially on repeated listens. I don’t care if the music is a bit disorienting on the first listen, as long as listening naturally goes deeper with every play. I think this tendency probably limits the size of the audience quite a lot, but the QUALITY of the audience is greatly improved (as you all illustrate, perfectly). It takes a long time to make these tracks, and the stories of making them become complicated, so forgive my long windedness.
Long before the lyrics began taking shape, the track started with an improvisation I did on the PE through the outboard stereo effects chain. (Here it is for download: it’s kind of glitchy and boring but maybe you can remix it: https://soundcloud.com/zammuto/pe-cr-improv-cc/s-XNT72). This improvisation was completely erased from the final version of the track, but served as the skeleton around which the drums were performed. Sean Dixon came up in August and improvised the drums over the synth loop while I tweaked effects in real time as he played. Just three microphones, kick plus 2 overheads, the kick going through the vermona and the overheads going through the lexicon/FF. Playing with the synth loop is how he came up with the idea to leave the kick off the one. So great! I love Sean, both as a player and as a human being. Being a drummer/ninja vigilante, means Sean knows all about the ‘one’ and when to avoid it.
I improvised the bass-line on the PE a couple weeks later while listening through Sean’s session, along with the hook from the Slim Phatty (a Moog mono synth I’ve had for a few years (zebra butt) recorded through the Vermona. I also started humming the melody of the chorus at this point, but unfortunately the words that popped into my head were ‘you’ve got to dig inside your cold feces’, which I knew had to change, so I left the track behind for a bit. Eventually, ‘Cold Feces’ became ‘Good Graces’ and then I was back on track.
A few weeks later I was doing a series of very ambient improvisations in the pentatonic scale (always useful and easily transplanted) with a simple PE patch I created using two analog triangle waves tuned a fifth apart through the FF into a fully wet ‘R.K Butler’ spring reverb. You’ll all be familiar with spring reverbs from surf era guitar. Many modern guitar amps still have a genuine spring reverb, recognizable by their sproinginess when faced with bright transients (percussive sounds). In a spring reverb, the echo sound is made by physically passing the sound through a metal spring and recording what comes out the other side. It’s a wonderful, dense and idiosyncratic sound that can really transport a person in time and space, without any of the trappings of ‘reality’ (i.e. the cool familiarity of sounds bouncing off objects in real spaces). The R.K Butler is a stereo spring reverb, with six springs on each side, fed by vacuum tubes (which can be beautifully overdriven) and followed by a simple fixed three band eq. When I went back to listen to these sessions it occurred to me they might work with the song. Indeed, they did, sort of, except the scale differed by one note, which actually provided a subtle key change that sparked the idea for the vocal melody.
The watery voices at the beginning of this track came from sending Diane Rehm’s Friday News Round-up (one of my favorite shows) through the FF with an LFO on a strongly resonant band filter, creating a sort of Charley Brown wah-wah adult sound. This is how I imagine NPR sounds to my three sons. Then, by further pushing them back in space using the Lexicon ‘Medium Hall’ algorithm, (a beautifully realistic digital reverb that lexicon invented in the eighties), I got them to ‘dissolve’ into the background synth.
As an aside, I’ve started mastering within the timeline of the tracks. I use Sony’s (formerly Sonic Foundry’s) Acid as my primary DAW (all of The Books and Zammuto records were made with it), and for this record I put Izotope Ozone on the master bus, so I could really play with how the track saturates against the ceiling of digital space. I’ve done a lot of mastering for other people over the last few years, and for my own work I got very tired of trying to imagine how the master would sound, since it leads to too much guess work. This way I can fold mastering into the compositional process. It smoothed out the process since I didn’t have to bounce new versions every time I wanted to change the master.
Thanks for reading. Tomorrow: Track 2: Great Equator. And please remember there are three ways you can help keep this crazy thing alive:
1). Pick up something from our online store where you’ll find:(zammuto/thebooks/soundsculpture)
2). Come to a show: (here are two great reviews from our recent west coast run: Portland, LA)
3). Most importantly! SPREAD THE WORD. We need to grow a bit more to survive. Share this email, tweet, facebook, whatever. If all of you turned just one person on to our music, we’d be golden, totally independent and in the black.
Tour Dates: Starting Oct 26 we’ll be Touring through New York - Philly - DC - Durham - Atlanta - Asheville - Nashville - Louisville - Cincinnati - Columbus - Buffalo - Boston - North Adams, MA (a special home town finale). We hope to see you out there.