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THE JOURNEY OF OUR 4TH ALBUM PART 1: RECORDING

January 3rd, 2017 | by Niko Van Steenhoven

As we inch ever closer to having a brand new album to share with you, I’d like to tell you about the bumpy journey we’ve been on to make it this far.

I’ll begin revealing more details about the new album in the coming months, but first I’d like to share the struggles, setbacks, and progress we’ve been through over the last few years to make this new album.

It’s going to a long one, so coffee is recommended. (Coffee is always recommended)

The Origin



I’m going to reveal something that often bothers me, and causes me a sense of frustration about this next album, and about myself.

You ready?

Do you know how long the album has been in the works?

Since the last week of 2011.

Yes. Seriously.

And the fact that it has been such a long time actually bothers me quite a bit. Or, I should say, it bothers me from time to time.

What’s more ironic about it, was my original plan.

You see, the original idea was to create this album efficiently and quickly, having it be the fastest album we’d finished, from conception to completion, in our entire history.

The idea was an exciting one to me, as it meant that the initial energy we felt in working on the record would likely still be there by the time it was done and ready to go. In some ways, perhaps that would be a similar process to the making of our second album Empyreal Progeny, which was released only two years after the first album.

But obviously, this never happened.

We all have desires for how things “should” go, and how life “should” be. But I’m sure you’ve realized this, things rarely conform to our personal conceptions of how we want them to go.

So what started as a desire to have a really fast turn around on our 4th album, ended up as years and years of setbacks and challenges.

So what actually happened?



Writing



I’m going to attempt to chronicle each phase of the album as it happened, and try to give you some insight into not only the timeline of events, but also the process.

As I mentioned above, the writing phase of this album began on the last week of 2011.

I was feeling particularly shitty about my life, and my future at that time. There were many times I had considering stopping music altogether, and focusing on other areas of life. It was a moody, depressing time for me, to say the least.

But then something changed.

For reasons I can’t recall anymore, I flipped my mindset about the situation.

I remembered that I was most excited and engaged when I was able to start a new project, with new challenges; being able to make new experiments and play with new ideas. And at that moment, I knew could definitely use some excitement and engagement.

So I decided, fairly suddenly, that I was going to start working on the 4th album.



Conception



The writing phase of each album is a very solitary affair for me.

I don’t like to “jam” with people or show people things aren’t quite ready yet. I guess I’m pretty particular about that kind of stuff.

I also notice that I tend to work within a preset idea or framework for what I want from each album. I feel it’s important to know what I want, so I know if I’m heading toward that goal or not.

I know thats contrary to how some of my creative friends work. Often times they work very spontaneously and organically, without a plan. And that seems to work for some of them. But it never worked well for me.

So, since I’m a person who likes to plan things WAY in advance (sometimes decades), I already knew what I wanted for the next album. There was a general stylistic direction I wanted to pursue, which I had thought of years ago, and simply tucked into the back of my mind for later use.

I also have realized that I like to do something different on every album, while still retaining some basic core similarities, like melodies, chords and instrumentation. If I don’t give myself a new challenge each time around, something to make me get out of my comfort zone, or think of music in a new way, I get bored. Knowing this about myself was key in building up the energy and motivation to start the songwriting process.



The Songwriting Process



As I mentioned above, having a specific direction I want to head in is crucial to writing the music for it (at least for me). For instance, if I had no specific idea of what I was trying to create, I could write any idea at all, and it could equally work perfectly, and not work whatsoever for the album. How would I know, because I’ve not set any parameters as to what the album is and isn’t.

For every album I’ve ever done, I start the writing process by going through my idea folder.

It’s a folder that all my in progress song ideas go into. Sometimes the ideas are more fleshed out concepts that have a verse section and a chorus, perhaps even intros and outros; but mostly they are just one section at a time. A verse, perhaps. Or just a chorus. Or just a cool drum groove idea. Or just an interesting chord pattern.

I fill up this folder gradually over time when I think of something that I want to save for later. I fire up Pro Tools, flesh out the idea as best I can so I can remember what I was hearing in my head, then save it and I usually don’t come back to it for months or years. This process has been essential for me, as I’ll forget any ideas I was humming within minutes. (I’ve lost more good ideas than I can count by simply thinking “oh, I’ll remember that”. Nope).

So, I comb through this idea folder and look for things that already might fit the direction I want to go in, or perhaps ideas that could be changed to fit the direction.

Once I’ve found some ideas I really like, I look for other ideas in the folder that might work well with it in the same song. For instance, the idea I like might make a good chorus part, and so I look for a verse-type section that would match the emotional feeling of that chorus.
If I find one that works, awesome! If not, I’ll write it out from scratch and start chunking in placeholder ideas for that song.

The song isn’t considered a demo until it has all the key elements like chord patterns, full arrangement from beginning to end, synth melodies and layers, guitar and bass ideas, drum grooves programmed, and vocal melodies with temporary lyrics (the real lyrics I only write at the very end).



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The Writing Timeline



I told you that I was really excited about the idea of making this album the fastest we’d ever done, right?

Well, I gave myself a writing experiment to match that goal, and also, just to see if I could do it.

The experiment was that I would flesh out one demo song idea a day, on each of my days off from work (at the time it was either 3 or 4 days a week, I don’t recall. The joys of working part time). That was an exciting idea for me, and gave the process a strong feeling of urgency and momentum. I wasn’t just writing “when I felt like it”, as was my previous inclination (yes, very “artist-y”, I know), I had a deadline and accountability built in.

And so I worked within these parameters. Though I was skeptical if I could write decent songs using such stringent confines. I mean hey, they may turn out to be awful.

But to my surprise and relief, the structured process of a tight timeline actually proved empowering. I found myself more focused, and more productive as I fought the clock each day building one song from beginning to end.

By the end of each week I had 3 or 4 songs ready to show to the rest of the band, and started getting initial impression and feedback.

I continued this process for about a month and a half, writing a bunch of ideas that we could then narrow down to the very best ones.

At this point, I really believed that this goal of having the album be the fastest we’d ever done, from concept to completion, could be a reality. I felt good, motivated, inspired, and was already itching to start recording this bitch!



Recording



When recording a full rock or metal band, generally the first thing to get tracked (or recorded) are the drums. It makes sense as all the other instruments then have the rhythmic and mathematical structure to follow when they record their parts.

However, our recording situation had changed.

I no longer had a place to record a real drum kit, as I now lived in a small apartment, instead of the house with a basement I had previously. This created some new logistical problems to solve of how to get this album recorded.

Though I was confused on exactly how we’d track the drums, I did know that we could track guitars. Having a fully-arranged early demo means that I already had programmed drums to follow, so we didn’t need to wait for live drums to be tracked.

So I called up John and scheduled our first session.

I was pretty pumped.



Guitars



Guitar recording began officially in early March of 2012.

There is a pretty traditional structure that we follow when tracking guitar parts, which usually goes:

  1. rhythm guitars
  2. clean guitars
  3. leads
  4. solos

The point of this is to get down the core parts first (which in our case is usually distorted rhythm guitars), and then we come back through each song and lay down the extra layers, like guitar lead lines, any clean or acoustic guitar parts, and lastly guitar solos.

On this album however, just by the nature of the musical direction, we had a lot more clean guitar parts.

This presented a new challenge for John, and John is always up for new challenges. He has predominantly focused on metal and rock playing styles, so this time he had the opportunity to learn new picking and playing styles from different genres. Some of the clean guitar stuff was straight up funky, which was extremely fun to work on and record. (At least for me, John had to do all the work).

Generally our process starts with looping a section of a song over and over. I’ll give him the key, the chords, and then a general idea of what I’m looking for. Sometimes it’s a very specific idea, sometimes it’s vague. But what’s wonderful about working with John, is that almost every time, he takes the basic idea I have, plays with it, and turns it around into something that’s way better that how it started. This ability of his to improve things drastically is what I’ve come to rely on over the years, keeping me looking forward to the guitar writing/recording process, and excited about what he’ll come up with.

The guitar recording lasted several months. Due to our schedules, we were only able to work once or occasionally twice a week. This tends to be par for the course for all of us at this point in our lives. Everyone is just busy with a million life things.

STUPID LIFE!!!

Guitars were mostly recorded and edited by end of that summer, but I ended up having him come back in to try a few new ideas on a few songs at the end of the year. This happens from time to time, as hearing the final guitars against the music can sometimes make me think of better, or more fitting ideas for that song. But I try not to have to do that too much.

Overall this was a fairly smooth process, and getting real guitars on the demo songs was invigorating, as I could begin to hear these songs becoming real.



2012-04-23 16_26_12


2012-04-30 15:50:20


Bass



Bass recording began about a week after the guitar recording started. Normally, I’d wait until all of the guitars were tracked and edited, so we had finished riffs to work to. But in this case, since Bryan had complimentary days off to John, we were able to work almost in tandem.

The way this would work was John would record guitars for one song, I’d edit them together the next day, and Bryan would come in a day or two after that and lay down the bass guitar. Almost like a seesaw, or ratcheting process.

Bryan was lucky to have a job that allowed him to stop by in the afternoon throughout the week so that we could lay down bass tracks.

There was a lot of opportunity for playing with more interesting bass lines on these songs. Bryan and I focused on creating more movement in the lines (where applicable of course), as well as more groovy riffs.

I have to say that some of my favorite bass riffs we’ve ever done are on this album.

The process took several months and we finally tracked our last song in late September.

Things were still going according to my accelerated album plan, which kept my spirits and mood up. It was really nice to feel focused and engaged in a new project again. Working with John and Bryan was only adding to my enthusiasm for the project, and in a way, life itself.


2012-06-12 12:39:50


2012-06-06 13:00:34

Drums



I was feeling the momentum of scheduling both guitar and bass near simultaneously, and was enjoying the feeling of progress and movement that came with it.

So naturally what do you do when you like something?

Do more of it! That’s right.

A few months into the guitar and bass tracking sessions, Eric and I began working on drum recording as well.

Drum recording on this album could be an entire essay unto itself. The reason being, that we had to figure out a new way (at least for us) of recording, since neither of us had a place to adequately record a full drum kit.

Being that Eric and I are both interested in technology and new ways of using technology to our creative advantage, we decided we would test of the idea of tracking all the drum electronically, recording only midi notes.

The reasons for this experimentation were severalfold.

  1. Money. If we were to record a real drum kit again, we’d need money to go to a studio, or rent a place that we could do it ourselves, and neither of us were in a place financially at that time to do that.
  2. Time. We both wanted to keep the momentum of progress going, so being able to start as soon as possible was important to us.
  3. Flexibility. Probably the most important one on the list. Recording the drums as a midi performance instead of audio tracks gave us that ability to change the sound of the drums later on, and shape them to our hearts content. Something that would be a lot more of a pain working exclusively with audio.
  4. Resources. Eric already had a small electronic kit that worked well, and we also already had some decent software to at least get the tracking process started.

We began our first experimental drum tracking session with electronic drums at the very end of June, 2012. Everything was recorded in the tiny, cramped basement apartment Eric was renting at the time.

The process was a mix of very promising (when things would work correctly) and also very frustrating (when they would often not work correctly). Much of the problem stemmed from simply trying to get the high hat pedal to register changes in foot pressure correctly, so we could raise and lower it on certain songs. Lots of fucking around with needlessly confusing settings finally gave us something slightly workable, and we realized we’d have to fix the rest in post. (Isn’t that what everyone says?)

Eric and I had a really enjoyable time developing the right drum grooves and the right feel for each song. We started finding that each song required its own unique “fill style”. Some styles of drum fills just didn’t makes sense for certain songs, while they would work perfectly for others. It was something new that we hadn’t really thought of before. We had lengthy discussions during the process, analyzing why particular fills worked for something, and why others didn’t, in the context of the song.

Learning to understand this concept was really fascinating for both of us.

The highlight of the recording process was one session where Eric was trying to work out how to play a slightly tricky kick drum pattern. He worked on it over and over, for almost an hour, getting continuously more and more angry. Finally he exploded in anger at not being able to play it exactly the way he wanted to, and instantly smashed a nearby lamp out of rage.

Good times.

We pushed through and by the beginning of September we had tracked all the songs.

We used the rest of 2012 to work on editing the bass, guitar and drums takes for all the songs.

I thought it would be good practice for Eric to get to see how “fun” drum editing could be, so I assigned him the task of compiling all the best takes (a processes called ‘comping’) and editing them together.

I’m sure I complained constantly while editing his drum takes for Moira’s Lake, so I was enjoying the idea of passing on the “love”. I got frequent texts and phone calls from him over the next few months about how frustrating the comping and editing process is. I just nodded and smiled.


2012-06-24 16:36:04


2012-08-19 11:03:46


Vocals



In the new year of 2013, I started the process of recording the vocals.

While Eric was working on comping and editing drums, I had been toiling away on finishing the lyrics. As I briefly mentioned above in the writing section, I don’t usually write lyrics until much later in the process. The most important thing to me is the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic aspects of the music. And though I still place importance on lyrical expression, for me, it always comes last.

Eric, in his continual quest to learn more about engineering, recording and producing, had gotten a hold of a pretty nice tube microphone and preamp, which I happily stole (borrowed) for my vocal recording sessions.

This is actually a big deal, because I’d been using the same vocal mic on every album that I got back in 2001. Yeah… probably should… upgrade that.

I set up some sound baffles in front and behind me, and began the slow, take by take process of recording vocals.

A humorous note about this phase:

I had recorded about 6 or 7 full songs, complete with double tracking, and multi layers of harmony parts, when I suddenly discovered I had been using the microphone backwards! “Oh that’s it sounded so weird!” I was quite disappointed in my stupidity to not catch that, and felt, rightfully so, like a fucking moron.

After a moment or two of feeling like the biggest idiot there ever was (ever), I sighed, and went back through all the previous songs, take by take again, and re-recorded my vocal parts. This time with the mic facing the correct way. (Dumbass).

The rest of the recording, thankfully, went much more smoothly. And by March of 2013 all the vocal parts had been tracked.

Though things had been moving at a very steady pace during recording, they wouldn’t stay that way. There was something in the back of my mind, and I knew I had a really big decision to make; a decision would drastically alter the course of album.



2013-02-27 14:37:44


2013-03-03 15:48:24

Part 2



In part 2, I’ll talk about the the next phases of the album, going from changing engineers, the preproduction process, distractions that took us away from working on it, and the struggles and setbacks we had along the way.

Part 2: The Journey of Our 4th Album Part 2: Preproduction



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