What a great feeling it is to turn someone on to new music and find they appreciate it as much as you do. I love hearing about new music or new artists from friends and acquaintances and very often, have become as much a fan as the person making the recommendation. Sometimes the new music or artist comes to me via my work, such as when folks contact me about mastering an album project on which they’ve been working.
So it was in the summer of 2008 that I received an inquiry about mastering a self-recorded album from an artist based in New York City. In what had become a standard practice with prospective mastering clients, I asked the sender my usual question about how important overall level was to him. (I had long ago decided to only accept mastering jobs when loudness was not among the client’s goals.) When he told me he was interested in musical dynamics, I asked to hear some samples of his music. When I listened to the music, I wanted more of it and after more exchanges with the artist, a mastering session was scheduled.
What I found during the mastering was that I was getting increasingly addicted to his music. The melodies were long and complex, the arrangements, some cinematic in scope, were full of colors and always going somewhere other than where I might have expected. The lyrics and themes had a literacy that is not as common in rock or popular music as it might be. This was no background music. It asked something of the listener, as much music I’ve come to love does. And it rewarded the listener’s efforts. Long before I’d completed mastering the album, entitled No Photographs, I asked the artist, Jason Vitelli, if he had any interest in doing a project with me for Soundkeeper Recordings. Happily, the idea appealed to Jason and we agreed to pursue it at some point after the release of his debut.
When the time came to start on our new project, the first order of business was to find the right musicians. Jason played almost all the instruments on No Photographs but since my approach is to record entire performances in a single take, he needed to assemble a band for the new project. Thus began a long process for Jason of seeking out players and background vocalists, setting up auditions and trying out the best candidates. Sometimes the initial audition showed promise but further examination revealed the wrong chemistry and meant more searching was necessary. The band members needed to be good of course but they also needed to be tuned in to Jason’s music—they had to become his band. In addition, they needed to be able, as an ensemble, to perform the music in real time and balance against each other without the assistance of the usual studio techniques, where everyone is isolated with headphones and the balance is achieved by the engineer instead of by the players. It took close to two years from the time Jason and I first spoke about it until there was an ensemble that knew Jason’s music and was ready to record. Where his debut was a solo effort, this project would involve joining with other musicians in the creative endeavor. This flowing together with others gave us the name for the new album: Confluence.
A prolific songwriter, Jason brought a lot of music to the project. His songs impressed me but so too did his feel for selecting the right instrumental colors to express them. The arrangements varied from solo songs with Jason at the piano, to duets, a trio (with cello and French horn) and full ensemble pieces. The ensemble pieces varied in instrumentation as well. Some included guitar, piano, electric bass, drums, cello, French horn and celeste while others were a straight electric quartet with two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. The challenges came one after the other. In the largest of the ensemble pieces, the delicate sound of the celeste (a real, acoustic instrument, not an electronic keyboard simulation) needed to balance against the louder instruments in the ensemble. As engineer, my job was to capture the balance of all the instruments, in addition to two vocal parts (Jason’s lead vocals and a background vocalist) all with a single pair of microphones. There would be no opportunity to “fix” the balances after the fact. This was taking “recording without a net” to the extreme. We were in uncharted territory and I loved it.
One of the other challenges this project brought was one I’d looked forward to for many years. Some of Jason’s new songs featured a pair of electric guitars, electric bass and drums playing some hard-edged electric rock. I very much looked forward to capturing the in-your-chest feeling one always gets in the presence of a real live rock band but which I’ve never heard on any record before. This album was going to include what I believe are the world’s first purist recordings of all-out electric rock!
I mentioned in the previous entry in this blog that it is not unusual for the first recording in a new room or with a new ensemble to become a test run, though it can also produce some great takes which make the final cut of the album. The room component of this project was easy. I chose to use the same auditorium in which I’d recorded the previous Soundkeeper Recordings release as the acoustics there are sublime. As in the previous instance, use of the auditorium was granted to us in exchange for a concert, which Jason and some fellow musicians performed for the residents of the facility housing the auditorium. The tougher part was that though we scheduled the solo performances for different recording sessions than those with the ensemble, the wide variety of ensemble arrangements meant rearranging the stage for almost every song. This also meant getting the right sound balances anew for each song. In effect, I was going to record several different ensembles, with each song being a unique experience.
There was one more production and engineering challenge to consider before we got to the recording sessions. For some songs, Jason stood with his guitar front and center on the stage but for others, he was located away from the center. For example, for the songs on which he played piano, his vocals came from that location, which was on the left side of the stage. Similarly, on the solo piano pieces, from the point of view of the audience (i.e., the microphone array), he sat toward the left side of the stage as the grand piano, with its lid open, filled the center. How, I wondered, would the listener take hearing the vocals from the left when every other recording of popular music in my experience always had the vocalist centered?
From the liner notes of the finished album: “It has become de rigueur for lead vocals in a recording, particularly with popular music, to be placed in the center of the stereo soundstage. The origins of this dictate may be more technical than artistic. (It is easier to cut a lacquer for vinyl record production when the strongest sounds are equal in both stereo channels.)”
“Since one of our goals recording Confluence was to present the music as it would be heard by a listener present at the performances, we decided the performance alone would determine where Jason would be heard on the soundstage”
“Confluence was recorded with a stereo microphone array, direct to two channels. The lead vocals, as well as all the other sounds on the record, are heard from their actual positions on the performance stage.”
The Confluence page on the Soundkeeper Recordings Web site contains more information about the album, including samples from all the tracks, lyrics, quotes from reviews of the album, photos from the recording sessions and a link to an interview with Jason Vitelli.
Certainly the most challenging project I’ve ever been involved with as a producer or engineer, I believe this album is a tour de force for Jason Vitelli. Thank you Jason, for giving me the opportunity to record your music. To this day, I am astonished a major label did not steal you away from Soundkeeper and scoop you up into an exclusive deal before we could complete the album. Now there are two albums of your music that I can joyfully share with other music lovers seeking something new, original, intelligent, heartfelt and altogether amazing.