Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Is Important?

I will be standing in front of the mics tonight, doing the same as I did last night.

After a decent spell of soul-searching and a heart-to-heart with friend, confidante and co-writer Ana, I've laid my timbale development on the sacrificial altar of Víspera. Playing the past evenings to the first cut-pass mixdowns has crystallised the realisation of how close the album is to finishing. And yet, with my vocals and congas being the first step of the critical path, the work could not proceed until I've done my part.

Ana understands how importantly the timbales feature potentially in the future of 4 de Diciembre; and she too, has made her fair share of sacrifices for the band. Over the snatched moment of her lunch, Ana expressed her preference, candidly and unburdened by expectation, for Vispera's progress to be at the fore.

I'd come nearly to the same conclusion; 'nearly' in that I was still looking for a way to have my cake and eat it. If I prioritised the recording of lead vocals, only a little effort would be needed to prepare for each song, and therefore the rate-limiting step would be the availability of Dave, my-partner-in-studio-crime, to work some magic with Cubase and press the record button. Practice times on timbales and congas (for the next recording step) could be arranged around these dates.

I sent Dave a speculative text and, bless him, he freed himself up yesterday and today in a busy run-up to Christmas. If things go well tonight, I'll have suitable final vocal takes to work on, to keep me from being a glassy-eyed, TV-swilling, Auld-Lang-Syne-singing lounge potato. In-between sessions on the drums, that is.

A timely reminder that in the midst of so much that can be done, determining what should be done can be resolved by digging deep and asking the question, "exactly what IS important?"

Loo Yeo

Friday, December 17, 2010

Doing The Hard Stuff

It feels as if everything that's happened over the past few years has culminated in preparing me for this one moment - taking on the challenge of being lead vocalist and timbalero at the same time.

If I were a believer in the Fates, I would say that it was their hands that had wrought it so, because all the key elements are in place:
  • The Festive lull - unlike most households, the Christmas and New Year period is a relaxed, introspective period after the frenetic activity of late-November to early-December;
  • The first cut pass of Víspera's songs have just been completed - the mixdowns provide the most context-accurate material to play to;
  • Playing of the timbale ride patterns is on the verge of being naturalised - a sustained effort has freed up enough cognitive overhead to process vocals as well, resulting in three (possibly four) way independence - vocals, clave, shell or bell pattern (pulse marked with a foot);
  • Compelling reasons for doing so - for the sake of the band, a timbalero adds more percussive weight to the ensemble, helps define the song's structure, and gives Whib our conguero someone closer to play off; for the sake of Víspera, I'll be having to lay down new and replacement timbale recordings.
The first stage of developmental independence is to be able to sing, play the rides and cue the transitions; with the target time being mid-January when band practice resumes. Having just done two evenings worth of solid practice, progress has been good using the cáscara, son clave in the context of one song, 'Hijos de Cam'. So much so, that 'Corazón Fugitivo' gets the cáscara and rumba clave treatment tonight.

Most of all, I'm curious and excited to find out what unexpected gifts this atypical-and-not-particularly-easy endeavour is going to do to my understanding of musicality and dancing.

Exciting times are happening right now!

Loo Yen

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Cut Pass

One of the first things a mixing engineer/arranger/producer does upon receiving and listening to audio from the recording engineer is a cut pass. In principle the idea is straight-forward: simply to cut out any material extraneous to the song. The actuality is anything but.

Deciding on what to leave out requires a firm sense of what constitutes the Essence of the song, as gleaned from the different voices of the people - the performers, the lyricists, the songwriters, and the producers - who've had a hand in its creation. For me, having assumed all four roles for Víspera, the cut pass has been at both times easy and difficult.

Its been easy because with the first lyrical melodies from the very start, a completed version of the song has lived in my mind. 'Completed' as I would have performed every part.

The challenge has been in loosening the Grip of Conviction sufficiently to listen, understand, appreciate, and weave a place for my peers' virutoso expressions; so that they augment the vision with their own understanding, making each work richer from the creativity of more than one. And so when it's come to the cut pass, a lot of the work has been emotional-intellectual: in reconciling what I understand the song to be as its songwriter-performer, with the ideas of my friends who've breathed it to greater life.

With my producer hat on, I'm conscious of not to riding rough-shod over 4 de Diciembre's individual musical interpretations - I have to be even more a builder, and a reluctant blocker. It's a team-working thing where:
  1. a blocker says 'no' to a suggestion; whereas
  2. a builder says, 'that's a good idea, here's how we can make it better.'
There are times where elements are left out because they butt heads with others or detract from the focus of the song.

At the editing desk, this translates into the fine-details of:
  • slicing audio files at zero-point crossings;
  • muting audio regions;
  • aligning elements where the attacks weren't appropriate; and
  • moving elements into new places.
The latter task, that of arrangement (and in some cases re-arrangement), has been the most rewarding; where the products of the first cut pass, rejigged and tidied up of all extraneous parts, have sounded more than a little inspiring.

It doesn't mean that there isn't a long way to go, because there is. But at least after tonight, when Thom's trumpet riff at the beginning of the second chorus plus a couple of stabs during Mike's trombone solo in 'Tributo al son' have been adjusted, I can mix-down all the drafts so that Jeremy, Ana and I can prepare for the next tranche of overdubs in the next year.

There'll be more about that in my end-of-year update but at least by the end of tonight, the first cut pass will have ended, signalling the resumption of the recording phase.

Loo Yeo