The Lord of Limbo’s Adventures In Home Recording, pt 1 – Here It Comes Again

Back in the early 90s, I flunked out of art school. Too many hours, too little time, too little money, too long commutes, and the headiest bout of manic depression I’d experienced up to that point. It was okay; I was tired of art anyway (for the moment), and besides, I had a new goal: I was going to be a progressive rock musician.

There was a hitch, of course. I owned a very cheap practice keyboard*, and I had the use of my mother’s very-nice-sounding-but-hard-to-play Framus acoustic guitar, both of which I was teaching myself to play, with varying degrees of success. I had taken two years of keyboard classes in highschool, but most of my musical knowledge came from Much Music, Casey Kasem’s Top 40, Mel Bay’s Book of Guitar Chords, The Heavy Guitar Bible, a handful of issues of Guitar for the Practicing Musician, and whatever I could remember of my middle school music theory, taught by Miss Nelson (thanks!).

Oh yeah, and I had a secret weapon:

Oh wait, I forgot the little plastic plate thingy:

There. That’s better. Now, do you see those little silver rectangles with the little slitted grates cut into them at the top corners of the front face? Do you know what those are? They’re paired microphones. And you know what I used to do with those? I used to tape my siblings and our neighbours performing cheesy little pop song parodies and spoof movie trailers, and making audio comicbooks.

See, it took me over a decade to figure out that, far from being just a nifty tech toy, my cousin Mark’s ghetto blaster was actually a really sweet demo recording device. When I finally wrapped my brain around that little factoid, I kind of went nuts. So, thanks, Mark.

In the earliest stages, I just sat with a little nylon-strung acoustic guitar I’d somehow pilfered from (I think) Derrick’s mom, playing bad chord progressions and singing. It was a good enough start. The recordings weren’t actually all that bad, apart from the bit where I couldn’t play very well. The Hitachi had Dolby Noise Reduction, and unlike my four track (more on that later), the Dolby NR actually worked really well with those mics.

However, those mics weren’t very good at recording drums or amps. I had a lot of trouble balancing the sound to allow just enough of everything. I was starting to see that, though it was good for me solo, Etcetera was going to need better equipment.

GEAR! pt 1

So, Derrick Rose got a lead on some drumming lessons and a really cheap starter kit (IIRC, from a local drum hero named Dave King). Big Dave Bedard saved a few bob and bought himself a Yamaha BB200 bass and a cheap amp by, IIRC, Samick, which we eventually burned out, because it only ever got good tone cranked to 11. Dori Downie already owned her Kawai K1 FM synth, and would have nothing to do with my keyboard (lovingly referred to by one and all as The Cheeseball Board), and I kept banging away on a pair of acoustic guitars and singing without amplification of any kind. This did not last.

The first piece of musical gear I actually bought for myself wasn’t even an instrument I could play; it was a drum machine, which we bought second-hand, back before the days of eBay (I believe I just last year threw away the hand-written receipt the seller gave me). It looked like this:

At first, I tried just programming simple click tracks for Derrick to play along to (Derrick has always had slightly dodgy timing). Sadly, we couldn’t amplify the click track loud enough for Derrick to hear clearly over his drumming. I also tried programming some basic beats for him to follow, but Derrick is one of those guys who doesn’t learn too well by listening to electronic drum patterns, either. He’s more of a visual learner, and has to see what he’s doing to get it into his head. He also plays best to lyrics, believe it or not. If he knows how the lyrics to a song go, he remembers where the beats are supposed to go. Odd, but cool skill to have for high-pitched background vocal performances, for which Derrick was clearly born to deliver.

So in the end, I took the machine home with me and started twiddling and fiddling with it to create proper drum tracks to record demo versions with. I used to pump it through my sister’s little dual deck boom box** whose make and model number I’ve sadly forgotten . I had developed high hopes that these demos would be the key to Etcetera learning to play great prog rock songs. Of course, the first stumbling block was trying to learn how to program anything that wasn’t in 4/4. That came, with time. But in truth, I never did get Derrick to properly play anything I programmed with that machine. Still, I miss it dearly (see The Great Burglary of 1998).

I believe I scratch demo’d She, Show Me Something, Tonight, Lady Penelope, Zoe, More, the first stages of Songs From Heaven, and several other songs during this period (using mainly Gary’s guitars and my drum machine), most of which have never been heard outside of my immediate circle of friends and bandmates. I listen to them every once in a while, partly to remind myself I have a lot of stuff left to rerecord, but mainly to remind me that there were a lot of songs that had to be written to get me to the really good ones.

GEAR! pt 2

Alright, so we had a basement band, three people who thought they could sing, one who could play her instrument relatively well, two who thought they could write songs, and we had a low-budget drum machine. OH! And we had Dori’s reel-to-reel. I’m pretty sure it was only a simple one- or two-track with no EQ whatsoever. We were a little short on good quality recording mics too, so we kind of stuck with using my Hitachi for the first while, but at home, Dori and I (we kind of became a ‘we’ for a little while) started working on song ideas, which she recorded directly from her keyboard into her reel-to-reel. I forget the model of recorder she had, but this was her main keyboard:

It was a rather lovely semi-weighted touch-sensitive FM synth that had some pretty nice sound patches programmed into it when Dori bought it. However, countless hours were also spent–by both of us–tweaking some of those sounds for specific songs***.

In fact, I even sat down with it some time later (1997, IIRC) and programmed one piano sound to perfectly emulate the sound of my Yamaha keyboard’s piano sound, which I always thought sounded much more genuine. It definitely sounded great coming out of her keyboard in stereo, but she never got to hear that, because she was long out of the band by then, and Derrick had bought her keyboard from her some time afterwards. I do miss that keyboard, too (see The Great Burglary of 1998).

It was this keyboard (and Dori’s reel-to-reel) that was used to record the original instrumental tracks called Classic Etcetera and Jazze! One, (which later became Better Every Time). These were both intended to become full-blown ‘synth prog’ (as Dori insisted on calling them, because she wasn’t keen on playing true Prog Rock, thinking more along the lines of Saga and Asia and hard rock band Europe for sound cues) epics, once the band came to grips with the numbers and I wrote some lyrics. Sadly, before that day ever came, Dori and I fell apart, and she eventually left the band to pursue other interests.

During the break-up, I DID ‘compose’ and record some rough ideas, which became what I referred to as The Dreamer’s Symphony, using a crunchy little orchestral pad patch the previous owner had programmed into the Kawai. I’d love to play the piece for you, but it hasn’t been digitized from cassette yet, and frankly, it was cool, but needed a fair bit of work. Some day…

GEAR! pt 3

Now, the thing about Etcetera was, we were going to be a progressive rock-influenced band with lots of vocal harmonies and such. We tried rehearsing such things while playing our instruments, but frankly, it took years before we harmonized well while playing instruments. We learned how to do both after we got our first multi-track

Considering we couldn’t actually properly play any of our songs from beginning to end without false starts and flubbed outros until around the summer of 1997, it’s fair to say we were perhaps overreaching. But I did end up spending money from my last decent income tax return of the 90s on my first four-track recorder. It looked pretty much like this:

The top knobs you see are all Mic Gain. The knobs directly underneath are Pan. Can you see what’s missing? If you said ‘EQ’, you are 100% correct.

So, four tracks with a bit of ‘bounce’ functionality, plus RCA inputs and outputs, as well as a handful of 1/4″ jack inputs in the front and back. It worked pretty well, but generated a crapload of hiss, particularly (and obviously, for those who know such equipment) during bouncing and mixdown. Still, it was the best I could practically afford at the time****.

There was a little bit of multitrack envy by the time I got back from my enforced sabbatical in late 1995, as the boys had been exposed to our ‘friend’ David Kalmuk’s digital 8-track TASCAM by that point, and they lusted mightily. Understandable. When I first saw it that winter, I coveted his shiny recorder, too. One thing they ultimately decided they didn’t covet, though, was his leadership, which may have been a big part of the reason why they hired me back. Dave sweetly told me I was ‘the voice of Etcetera’. That and I had written and recorded the first scratch demo for Here It Comes Again (drums and vocals with perhaps a bit of guitar, if I recall correctly), which they had heard and decided they loved.

THE SAGA OF ‘HERE IT COMES AGAIN’

My memories of recording that song are a bit of a jumble now, which bothers me, because it was a really important time for me; I’m not sure which apartment or in which season it was completed. My memory is of finishing it in the summer in my apartment during one of the break-ups with Kim, but I know some of it started before I met Kim, and some of it during our second winter together in her second apartment. It took a while for me to complete the song, to say the least, and I had a lot on my mind keeping me from getting through it all in one go. What I’m sure of is that I wrote it in the winter of 1995, shortly before I met Kim Wong (my then-girlfriend), while I was working (for the second time) briefly (also for the second time) at Toys R Us for the Christmas season. I wrote the lyrics in the breakroom while thinking about this great bassline I’d had rumbling through my head since I got on the bus to work that day. I had been mainlining the Beatles and John Lennon for months.

The thing about Here It Comes Again was, it had started life DIY-style, using three ghetto blasters (the Hitachi as mater recorder, my sister’s little black boom box for beats, and my large portable stereo to play back the bassline I’d prerecorded), the drum machine, my mother’s acoustic guitar, and a borrowed bass. Again, I’m not sure whose bass it was, but it stands to reason that it was Big Dave’s second bass, the BB300 (of which he was gifted by our dear friend Maxine Nangle, after the electronics in his BB200 went kaput), though we’d not spoken much in 1995. In fact, although the song was written around the bassline in my head, I’m just about certain I didn’t actually get to record it properly until I was back in the band, living with Kim again (long story), and owned the Fostex, some time between early- and mid-1996. At any rate, I performed and recorded all of the tracks myself–with very little real separation–mostly in my near-empty old apartment, two floors above the one I live in now.

I say mostly, because there was also a portion of the track which was definitely recorded in the back room of Kim’s dingy little apartment on Cannon and Kensington, (which had to be completely gutted after she eventually moved out, which happened during one of our multiple break-ups; told you it was a long story). Those were crazy days, I tell you. I’m pretty sure it was late in 1995 or very early 1996; I know it was winter. I can’t remember if it was the bassline, guide or backing vocals, or the scratch rhythm guitar (on the nylon) that I recorded in that room. I have distinct memories of rerecording the drumline, which was finalized, at that time. I have distinct memories of the neighbours upstairs complaining about the noise (late night recordings were the only way for me to work in that apartment, owing to Kim’s little boy, Billy Wong-Raymond, being rambunctious and absolutely desperate for my attention during his every waking hour; I was, for all intents and purposes, his ‘Dad’ during that period, and he sorely needed one). And I remember that the room, which had originally been the bedroom where we slept with infant Billy during our first few months of reunion, was by winter abandoned and used as storage for boxes and plastic bags full of clothes, because there was a huge crack through the wall at the baseboard level, which all the heat was rushing out of. I was drinking lots of hot tea and cocoa and wearing one of my many cardigans during those recording sessions.

I also have memories of having recorded the final guitar track and vocals (such as they were) back in my apartment, on a perfectly blue-skied early-summer’s day, with the curtains pulled back and the windows wide open, the apartment cool and full of fresh air and neighbourhood sounds. It was a lovely day, which is probably why the track sounds like so much fun (for a solo demo). I’m pretty sure that was the summer of `96, during our second break-up (The second of three, kids! Collect ’em all!). If you’d seen that overstuffed, leaky room I’d started the ‘final’ 4-track recording in, you would understand why I can’t believe I could have finished the song in Kim’s old place. I started work on five or six different songs (including two of Derrick’s: You Send Me Spinning and Waiting) in that wreck of an apartment during that period, but none of them got finished there, as they all sounded miserable and tired (The next year’s working conditions were to be markedly different). Just moving back to my own apartment must have been a great relief for me, at any rate. I even completed demoing the ‘B-side’, One Up On You, around that time.

The sound quality of that track is sadly lacking, but it has a certain degree of energy and excitement that’s a bit contagious. You can hear it here: HERE IT COMES AGAIN (1996)

CONCLUSION

The irony is, Etcetera never played Here It Comes Again. It wasn’t the first time I’d managed to write something that was a little too advanced for the band to learn to play as a unit, but it was definitely the last time I wrote a full pop song for the band that wasn’t based on stuff they’d actually played at least once. After that, I became the muthafluckin’ MASTER of cassette-to-cassette tape editing. But I’ll save that for my next story.

Lee.

* the Yamaha PSR-7 had a couple of rather nice traditional keyboard sounds (great grand piano!), but I think I enjoyed it more for the Dual Voice feature, where I could press two sound buttons down at once and get a really wierd third. Still can’t see all of the sound titles clearly, but at least I know which model it was now. LOOK:

** which I had liberated from my sister at some point, as she had by that time received one of those all-plastic mini stereos that were so popular in the late 80s and early 90s. Sadly, my Google-fu has failed me here; no piccies this time. Maybe next year.

*** Sadly, most of those instrumental tracks are either lost to us, or live on dusty cassette tapes which I’ve failed to digitize yet. There are quite a few ideas I’d like to revisit some day, based on the experiments I did using her keyboard, both before and after she left the band.

**** though I was sorely tempted to blow the wad and get whatever Tascam Portastudio 4-track was on sale that year (1995), which was a bit pricier, but had analog EQ. Sadly, money was tight and I had other things to purchase as well, that day. Regrets… I’ve had a few…

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.

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