Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Child Is This ?

I've never been a big fan of Christmas. Ask anyone who knows me and they'll say I'm a scrooge, and I suppose they are right. Part of this is most likely due to the sad fact that December 25th is also my birthday. For the most part, this was a huge rip-off when I was younger. Did I get twice the gifts at Christmas time as people often suggested? No, I was lucky if people even remembered my birthday. And the whole Santa Claus thing has always totally ticked me off...people basically lying to their kids and trying to get them to really believe this whole pagan fantasy thing, whilst side-lining the REAL reason for Christmas: Christ.

But that's not the whole story. Some of my most stressful and sad memories were formed during the holidays. Seems like a lot of people die around this time of year, and we also tend do a lot of "reflecting" as the year-end draws close, making us miss people who died during the year, or even years before.

And then there is the shopping, and the traffic, and the crappy weather that sets in this time of year in Nashville (cold, gray, wet and hardly ever white). And worst of all, there are the "Social Events" and all the STRESS that they bring with them. Yep, I must admit, I pretty much hate it. "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch".

But then, musically, I do have this little soft spot for it. There's the "Carol Candlelight" services that are always beautiful and awe inspiring. There's the radio playing John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" and ELP's "I Believe in Father Christmas". I even like the Carpenters' "Merry Christmas Darling" (shhhh, don't tell). And although I despise the horrendous "Christmas elevator music" you hear while shopping, there have been many good Christmas albums I have listened to over the years. Just last year I discovered what has to be the most unique one ever, an album called "Chris Squire's Swiss Choir" which blends an adult choir from Switzerland with Yes bassist Chris Squire's arranging a vocal skill, along with some other great progressive rock players. Great stuff.

Of course the real reason for Christmas is important and vital. I believe that choosing to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important decision a person can ever make.

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we should also celebrate the Reason for his coming, and how much his life and sacrifice means to mankind. It is everything. He is the way, the truth, and the light, and yes for a time he was also a precious, helpless baby.

What child is this?
Emmanuel. God is with us. The word become flesh.

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments

What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap, is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear for sinners here,
The silent Word is pleasing.

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant king to own Him,
The King of kings, salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise the song on high,
The Virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Friday, December 18, 2009

It isn't ALL about computer music here at Hybernation Studio!

Just so you know, I do have a few vintage instruments (and otherwise non-computerized things) here at Hybernation Studio.

Pictured above is a 1956 Hammond M3 organ, recently acquired from my good friend and musician extraordinaire Dan Tracey. On the bench is the Ovation acoustic/electric guitar I bought just before my son was born 6 years ago.

And left over from my days on the road, above is my 1980 model Rhodes 88 Suitcase. After carrying this beast all over the country for three years, I just couldn't bear to part with it (not for a fraction of the purchase price anyway). Honestly though, nothing else sounds like a real Rhodes (or Hammond for that matter). Though I seldom use these two vintage keyboards in recordings, it's still nice to have them around to provide that "vintage vibe" to my recording space.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009's been 29 years

In December of 1980, I had just dropped out of college as a music major to join a traveling top-40 band. We spent the holidays learning five sets of music prior to beginning what would be my first tour, and the beginning of my 3-year stint as a "Professional Lounge Musician".

We had to learn a wide variety of music for the types of clubs we would be playing, not just the current "top 40" and "dance" music, but also a "dinner set" (the early set) which needed to contain mostly laid back stuff and ballads. I suggested we learn "Imagine" by John Lennon, and everyone agreed it would be a good we did. I sang it. In my mind, this was to be one of the high-points in the evening gigs. This was not to be...for a while.

About 3 weeks before the end of our 8 week rehearsal period, I walked into rehearsal to a bunch of very sad people. I was not into "news" so I hadn't a clue what had transpired the evening before, on December 8th, 1980. John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his home in New York City. An, a living legend was gone. I was devastated, and we all agreed to can rehearsal for that evening. I cried...a lot. I got very drunk. Then I cried some more. For days it seemed. I tried to watch some of the "tributes" and such that were on TV, but I couldn't. Every time "Imagine" came on the radio, for weeks to come in fact, I cried.

Since age 8 in 1969, I had been a huge Beatles fan. My first two LP's were "Let It Be" and "The Beatles Again" (the US-only LP that was a collection of singles, including included "Hey Jude", "Paperback Writer", and "Lady Madonna"). I had always said that Paul was my favorite Beatle...his first solo album was the 3rd LP I acquired. But I loved plenty of John's songs as well, and I always held out hope that they would re-form in the 80's, and conquer the world all over again. I was actually quite SURE that this would happen. When John "retired" in NYC I got a little worried, but then those rumors of "what almost happened" on Saturday Night Live kept the flame alive.

With John's passing, part of me died. No chance of a Beatles reunion now, for one thing. For another, I carried around this visceral fear and loathing for this type of evil that I never really admitted, before now, could exist in the world. How could ANYONE be so evil as to deprive the world of someone like John Lennon? It was just unimaginable.

Even five years later, I recall seeing TV shows marking the December 8th date and crying. My sadness was not for myself, or for John, or Julian, Sean or Yoko. My sadness was for a world so pathetic that something like this could happen. For a world that would never again know the magical synergy that was The Beatles. I'm sure I sound like I'm being overly dramatic here, but as I write this, the feelings are as fresh and real as they were 29 years ago.

So flash back to the spring of 1981. After three months on the road with "Members Only", a show band fronted by singer Amy Runion, the band started asking me, "hey can we go ahead and play Imagine now". I said I would try. The first few nights were hard, but I made it through, then it got easier. We didn't waste this song on the "dinner set", which was often played for 3 people, 2 of them waitresses. We actually saved it for a "slow dance" number in the rocking-out last set, and it was amazing to see the dance floor FLOOD with people during the first few chords of the song.

People LOVED it. Almost every night, I had someone come up to me after the last set was over and tell me how much they enjoyed us playing "Imagine". Some said "I've never heard a band play that song in a club". Some people begged us to play it one more time before we went home. During the summer of 1980 when we spent 12 weeks at the same resort, we began to get requests for "Imagine" from the regulars, and would sometimes end up playing it 3 times in one evening!

All for this little three minute song with about 6 chords in it. This simple little ode to world peace, written by a man who may have actually been capable of furthering that concept, had he not been so rudely interrupted.

"Members Only" was Randy Runion, Dow Tomlin, Amy Runion, me and Dan Searles

I first recorded "Imagine" almost four years ago, but I was never happy with the mix. Listening back to that original mix which you can hear here, I can't believe how bad it sounds to me now. So, I decided recently to completely remix it. I think the new mix is light-years better than what I produced originally.

All the MIDI parts (just 5) were recorded with new virtual instruments. The biggest difference there is that the modern "pad synth" sound was replaced with a more retro sounding "Mellotron Strings" sound, produced by IK Multimedia's SampleTron.

The Hammond is a different sound altogether, a sound called "Preston!" from Native Instruments B4II, obviously named after Billy Preston, a man often referred to as "The Fifth Beatle". The bass guitar sample is a vastly superior sound to what I had back then, a 3GB sample of a Fender Precision from Native Instruments called the Scarbee Pre-Bass. The drums are the EZDrummer engine playing the "Nashville" expansion, while the drum part itself is me playing drums on the keyboard, as recorded back then. In fact, ALL of the actual MIDI notes are exactly what I played back then with no editing. For the Piano, I used the same sample as before (a 7GB sample of an upright piano from SampleTekk called "Vertical Pop"). And the vocals are the same tracks as before. They were recorded using an AKG C3000B microphone through an older DBX tube pre-amp.

So, I imported all of this into Pro Tools 8 M-Powered (which I should probably admit is fast becoming my DAW of choice, over both Cubase 5 and Sonar 8) and started completely over on the mix. First re-working the MIDI instruments used, then completely re-thinking the vocal effects and the effects on the instruments. I used a LOT less reverb on everything, in fact the piano, bass and organ are completely dry, and there is some intentionally fake-sounding reverb on the Tron (to give that Moody Blues strings effect)....I was going for a real "live-in-the-room-with-you" band sound.

For the vocals, I used a rather complex (for me) effect chain of EQ + compressor + De-Esser + Reverb.

I left every bit of the "slop" in the timing on the MIDI parts and didn't fix a thing. I was tempted on a couple of parts where the bass and kick are not completely tight, and especially tempted to just completely quantize the drum part, but I resisted the urge. I wanted this to sound me in the studio laying down this classic track with very little editing or other studio trickery. And it is.

I hope you enjoy my latest rendition of John Lennon's timeless classic, "Imagine".

here is a direct link to the mp3 for non-shockwave environments