Thursday, July 05, 2007

What I did on my summer vacation

So summer is here and the time is right to finish the next IJG record (in production for over a year now). I know I've been dropping all sorts of ludicrous hints as to its concept, character, title, and so on. Here is the latest update:

Shortly after I moved to Portland last September, my friend and longtime recording partner Michael Kramer (responsible for the recording, editing, and mixing of three of our four "official" albums -- Hardcore, City of Angles, and Industrial Jazz a Go Go!) seemed to sense the impracticality of my 6-month plan to commute to LA every few weeks in order to complete the new record (at that point each tune in the current show was on hard drive in some form, but there was a lot of overdubbing -- not to mention editing, mixing, and mastering -- left to be done). Realist that he is, Kramer talked me into getting set up with my own home recording rig. This turned out to be easier than I expected, and after laying out a few hundred bucks I had converted my basement office into a humble-but-functional studio, with the requisite ProTools software, a set of decent monitors, and a few spare hard drives.

And so Ugly Rug Records was reborn.

Backstory: though I have never been a studio obsessive by temperament (among other things, I've always been just a little leery of the way technology can interfere in the creative process), I did catch the home recording bug for the first time back in the late nineties, initially as an expedient to help with a number of film scoring projects I had picked up at the time. "Ugly Rug Records" (named for a brown-orange shag carpet that lined one of the many apartments Daphne and I shared when living in LA) started with a very basic four-track-and-DAT-machine setup -- and in some ways I still miss its simplicity, as well as the kinesthetic rush it inevitably provided (actual knobs and buttons and tapeheads and faders, oh boy!). This was the main contraption used in the creation of the only Jay's Booming Hat album (a lo-fi-ish mess called Gruel -- you can, if you must, hear excerpts (including the original versions of "The Job Song" and "Big Ass Truck") here, though I will probably unleash the entire thing upon the Internet Archive someday).

When I finally did take the full-on digital plunge, it was by way of Steinberg's Cubase program. I got a number of good demos out of that fucker, and concocted a few of the more "experimental" tracks on the first few IJG albums (e.g., "Los Feelies," "Fantasy on Eine," etc.) using it. But once I recognized that Cubase was not going to be the industry standard, and once I started down the time-intensive road of expanding my compositional ambitions from the quintet to bigger configurations, I lost interest in cultivating whatever modest engineering skills I had developed.

So for the last three IJG albums I have mostly contented myself with shaping each recording "from afar," so to speak -- that is, I never got in and actually did any of the engineering moves myself. I have been very lucky to be working with Kramer throughout most of this period -- because we've been recording together for awhile now, and because we have a basic musical simpatico, we developed a shorthand (and sometimes a telepathy) for the recording / editing / mixing process. This shorthand has been immensely valuable, because there are certain things, when dealing with the creation of a musical recording, that are just very difficult (and tedious) to have to explain to another person. And when you're paying for studio time by the hour, you sure as hell don't want to have to rely on a spell-it-all-out-in-detail mode of communication. You want someone at the helm who just gets it.

Of course, even with a good producer/engineer relationship, there are edits or mixing moves that (given a basic familiarity with the technology) are easier for a producer to do him or herself. And hence the brilliance of Kramer's suggestion that I just bite the fucking bullet and get my own rig. I'll admit that, initially, I was a little put off by the learning curve -- I thought it would take forever to get up to speed on a whole new system. But lo and behold: it turns out that several years of watching someone else use ProTools can actually help you learn how to use ProTools! And so much of this has proved to be more intuitive than I anticipated.

Not so intuitive that I feel ready to finish the project entirely solo, of course. I'm having a lot of fun geeking out, but I know my limits, and I'll still be leaving the final mix in Kramer's hands. With any luck, that will be happening in LA sometime in August (at which time I also hope to have a reading session for some of the new IJG charts). But between now and then (so goes the plan), I'll be holed up in my basement here in Portland, madly editing, assembling in-the-ballpark rough mixes, taking care of the few remaining overdubs, and coming up with the "eureka" album sequence and whatever transition pieces are necessary.

It's gonna be a long, hot summer (did I also mention I'm writing a whole new set of material and trying to plan out the band's touring itinerary for the next year or so?)

* * * * *

So what will the new album be like?

First, I should clarify by saying that I'm actually working on a pair of albums -- it's just high time to get all this material (fifteen or sixteen tunes, I think) finished and out into the world, already. (For a brief moment I actually considered releasing a single double album, but who buys those anymore? No, these will be two separate releases, but meant to be understand as a set.)

Before May, there were basically two main sessions I was working from. The first was meticulously tracked (old school rock style) at Kramer's Wolftone Studios. That was a process that began more than a year ago, and as of today is still not completed (there is at least one instrument left to track on most of the tunes). The second was more of a live session done at CalArts with a skeleton crew version of the group, just before I moved to Portland (this session was engineered by the very talented Owen Vallis). The CalArts session too is in need of some overdubbing. In any case, I had been poking at these sessions half-heartedly throughout 07, not exactly sure how they would end up. But I had been assuming the album(s) would be a purely studio effort, with all the clarity and precision that that implies.

Then came the European trip. In the weeks before we left, I did some research and discovered that (for a somewhat pricey fee) I could get our Bimhuis show recorded. I had been wanting to get a good multitrack live recording of the group for some time, and I gambled on the possibility that the excitement of the trip, plus the fact that we had a critical mass of very experienced IJG-ers (and some amazing subs), plus the possibility of a truly receptive audience would all conspire to produce a good performance. You can read the post on that show to get the details on how things actually went, but in short, the group played a mostly fantastic set, much of which, it turns out, is album-worthy. Of course, "IJG live at the Bimhuis!" would have to be a very different release than "IJG Multitracked in the Studio!," the album I had initially been imagining.

So I found myself faced with a bit of a conundrum, now that there were two extant versions of almost all of the tunes. Do I 1. make the studio album, which has the benefit of clarity and precision, or 2. make the live album, which has the benefit of that elusive and magical "live vibe" that jazz fans so crave?

The answer should have been obvious from the start, given my aesthetic interests (and the circumstances of my life in general): hybrid vigor, baby! Stay tuned for the specifics...

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