Days in the life of a songwriter (Amphibic) 34

Okay, I am moving closer to releasing a song that is mainly intended for Norway, but which I hope, a lot more people will appreciate. Since it’s not long to the release date, I might as well tell you guys a bit about how the sounds in the song got to be where they are. The song is called, ‘Half The Universe (Is Missing)’ and I wrote it as a reaction to the tragedy in Norway on 22.07.11, when a lot of (mainly young) people lost their lives because of one deranged individual. The main idea being, that if you lose someone, no one can fathom your pain, but half your world has gone missing.

Once I had the song and the main structure, I started recording it into my Mac. I used mainly guitars plus a couple of virtual instruments, like a piano. I also used a bass guitar, I keep in my wardrobe and a reed organ that I’m quite fond of. I actually have a couple of these reed organs, basically they work like horizontal accordions, where the air is getting moved by a fan instead of someone squashing the hell out of the thing. I sent the song to Jari Salminen in Finland and asked him to record a marching drum part. If I remember correctly, the marching drum was Joakim Persson’s idea (Swedish bass player). Jari recorded the part and sent it back to me via dropbox. Then, I came up with some nice string parts which I programmed, using samples. Last autumn, I booked Tinnitus Recording studio in Bergen, Norway, so my friends Christine, Ingerlise and Jannicke from Bergen band Ephemera, could weave their magic with some backing vocals. This they did and Bjarte Hoff Ludvigsen, the man who recorded them, sent me the files the next day. In late spring this year I thought we should try and replace the string samples with real strings. So, Antonia Pagulatos came and did the violins and the viola parts, and Celine Barry played the cello part, in my room here. I recorded the cello with my self-made Royer tube mic and a Beyerdynamic M201. I wasn’t quite sure whether we could pull it off, but it worked well. So, I added some more harmony vocals to the main lead vocals and also fitted what Ephemera had done to the mixture. The song also sports an old East German made Glockenspiel which I  found on Ebay for about 6 Pound Sterling once.

I now had the task of mixing this beast of about 60 odd tracks, down to a stereo master. It’s okay if you practise this dark art every day, but if you don’t – it’s quite a tall order. Over the past year I managed to read a few books on the topic as mentioned here, earlier, so I just got into it. Once I got it to where I couldn’t take it much further, (we are talking weeks later!!!) I spoke to a chap called ‘Mike Senior’, who is the author of numerous articles about mixing, writes for Sound on Sound magazine, mixes, aaaand offers mix critiques!!! Well, I used his services, sent him my half baked mix and waited for judgement day. His critique arrived pretty quickly and was quite an in depth sound engineering course. He pointed out where the mix’s tonality was off, where I could use delays and reverbs and so forth. A good 4 pages of tips and guidance on the topic. Well, I spent the following weeks implementing his suggestions and ended up with something pretty close to a commercially mixed oeuvre. So why stop there? I didn’t. I almost forgot one thing, though. The intro. Well, so far, the song had always started with guitar, but my mate Josh von Staudach suggested I come up with something special that would make it possible for the song to be recognised from the word go. So i ‘stole’ some notes from the string outro and created an intro with them which is preceded by a tiny melody consisting of 4 backward guitar notes. Confused? You can hear for yourself soon. George Martin, here we come.

Through a stroke of luck I went to Metropolis Studios in Chiswick last year, where I met Miles Showell. Miles is a mastering engineer and can point to a long list of quality records he has mastered. By the time I contacted him for this song he had re-located to Abbey Road studios in St John’s Wood, London. Well, I sent him the files, they do have an online service and he did his thing. I was then sent the ‘Miles Showell – Abbey Road’ mastered version on my Mac a few days later, proud as Punch!! Now I am working on getting everything together for its release and maybe creating a record label at the same time … watch this space … It will be released under just my name, Neal Hoffmann (plus a little help from his friends).

Pointers for the mix also came from Hakon Sveinsson, Iver Sandøy and Josh von Staudach, thanks!

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Days in the life of a songwriter 32

Where was I? Let’s talk about something I started recently. The kitchen sessions. I did dip my toes a little bit last year, when I recorded myself playing a song (Can You Take Me Home) on an acoustic guitar in a friend’s living room. But the idea is, to turn this into a regular feature, using a little video camera that records the vid plus the audio in decent quality in our kitchen about once every two weeks. The camera is a Zoom Q3 and the only other accessory you need is a tripod. Almost any tripod will do. The first one I did, was a song that talks about Peter Gabriel. It’s called St Peter and it’s up on the old Youtube if you click the link. The guitar is an Alhambra classical guitar which I borrowed from a friend, it’s a lovely guitar but my own classical is making its way here as we speak. Probably crossing France at the moment.

I shall keep it fairly brief today, as I need to get back into mixing my Norwegian project, more about that later. I managed to read a few books on mixing in the past year and if you would like to up your skills in that department I recommend you read these 3. Especially in the order given as each one gets more involved and technical than the one before. The first one I read was The Producer’s Manual by Paul White who is also the editor of Sound on Sound magazine, pretty straightforward with good advice and tips on how to record stuff as well. Then, go on to Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, Mike Senior, who does write articles for Sound On Sound, has a wealth of experience when it comes to mixing, and basically gives you failsafe recipes on how to do it, in a hands on manner. Lastly, there is a book, which, if read first will only confuse you, but if read after the aforementioned ones, will give you a wealth of information about why you actually do things the way you do them and what else you could do and how you could do it in a different way. It’s called Mixing, Concepts, Practices and Tools, by Roey Izhaki, who teaches at SAE amongst other bodies. I’m not making any money from this, just thought I’d tell you which books worked for me. If you know how to monetise this, tell me.

So, about to wrap up for the day, but a friend has asked me to write a few lines about a friend of theirs and their up coming release. The band is called ‘Woodman Stone’ and the new offering from them will be officially released on Monday 25th of March. I believe they hail from Leicester as that’s where they recorded “Someone Else’s Dreams Will Fill Our Home” (but not sure). Their songs spring forth from their dreams and they came up with a bit of a myth concerning their origins, apparently they came into this world in a post apocalyptic post 3rd world war type of scenario, there must be some time warping going on that I’m not entirely aware of. Tom Robinson of 6 music wasn’t put off by this conundrum, but I guess he skipped the reading bit and went straight for the music. Good man. The music is quite a mix of pop styles with an electric indie folk feel. Especially the vocals give it a folk twist for me, as the vocals seem less produced than the instruments. So yes, good songwriting skills well recorded, see whether it’s your cuppa. I’ll add an itunes link here next week.