The best experience I have ever had recording an album was the first Atomic Opera album “For Madmen Only.” We spent months in preproduction going to our rehearsal room at 9am and working on songs until 5pm. The rehearsal room was a converted public storage space in a suspicious part of Houston. I actually had nightmares where I imagined the owners kept the raw meat of dead animals under the floor of the office; I’m just saying the place was not glamorous.
We wrote half the “For Madmen Only” songs in that concrete box, and we also reworked the arrangements of our older songs. By the time we went into Rivendell Studios to record the album we were well rehearsed and the songs were as tight as we could make them.
Sam Taylor was in charge of the whole project as producer. He hired the renown Steve Ames as head engineer, and the always charming Brian Garcia as second engineer (there was also an intern engineer named Ryan Birsinger.) We had rodies, guitar techs, drum techs, catering, graphic designers, photographers, film crews and the marketing engine of Warner Brothers at our disposal. It was making a record the way a record is made in dreams. I thank God for that experience and all those great people; it was twenty years ago today.
Recording the Living Creatures Project was not anything like that.
My experience in the fantasy recording project of “For Madmen Only” gave me the experience and education to keep making records after the record companies faded away and became dust on the shelves of my memories. With a lot of help from my friends I produced two more Atomic Opera albums, a solo album and recently the Living Creatures Project.
In a previous article I talked about the preproduction and sitting down with several songwriting friends to break the songs apart and rebuild them as tightly as possible. Getting the songs right is very important. It doesn’t matter how the rest of a recording project goes if you don’t start with great songs. The lyrics and melodies need to be strong, and they need to stand alone without any recording gimmicks or trickery.
I had really enjoyed working with Sam Taylor and Steve Ames, so I knew I wanted to approach the Living Creatures Project as a collaboration in production. I asked my good friend Alan Doss if he would be interested in Co-producing the project.
Alan was also involved with Sam Taylor’s Wilde Silas Musicworks as the drummer for both The Awful Truth and The Galactic Cowboys. He had recorded some projects in collaboration with Sam and Steve and had gone on to produce several more projects in smaller studios. I believed if Alan helped me with the project it would have a really good chance of being something special.
Alan agreed to work on the project with me. We talked about how I wanted it to sound like our favorite rock albums from the 70s. We got together and listened to some old music; geeking-out on his gigantic vinyl LP collection and vintage stereo system. We listened to various albums making note of production ideas and the specific sound direction we would be aiming for.
Then we turned our attention to the songs. I had narrowed them down to twenty I had written for worship at CrossPoint over the last ten years. We got together at my home studio and I played the songs for him on acoustic guitar. He listened and we talked about what worked, what still needed improvement, he made notes about where the melody could be cleaner, the lyrics could be more simple and musical, and where alternate chords or rhythm ideas might be needed. I listened to the ideas, used some of them and didn’t use others. He brought objectivity to songs I had been playing in church for years. You might think that would make it hard to accept input and allow change, but I don’t find that to be the case if I respect the person I’m working with. This is not the time to be insecure and defensive, and it is important that you keep an open mind. Alan was very helpful in the final tweaking of the songs.
We recorded the twenty songs at my home studio in simple scratch-track form. On past projects the scratch-tracks would be recordings of the whole band playing the songs together; which only works if you have a well rehearsed band and the space to record them. In this case I played acoustic guitar and sang the lead vocal while listening to a click. These tracks would be the foundation for all the other instruments and performances that will be layered o top, but these scratch-tracks will not actually be in the final mix of the song.
Nonetheless, the scratch-track needs to have as much of the energy, vibe and feel of the song as possible. It will be the guide and inspiration for all the layers of drums, bass, electric guitar, etc. that would be added later. Scratch-tracks are not the time to be self-critical or over analytical; it is the time to become as a child, making music with freedom and playing from your soul. It is very important to work with someone you trust and feel comfortable with if you are going to find this elusive place.
Once we had all twenty scratch-tracks recorded it was time to cut eight of them from the project.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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