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December 2005

MP3: "Borders of Reality"
December 5 2005 11:24 AM ET (Permalink) (Comment)

Since it's taking me so long to get "new" stuff finished, here's something sorta new.

I wrote this song back in September of 1995 and really liked it. I took a shot at recording it in the summer of 1996, but just wasn't happy with how the recording turned out. (Ah, the limitations of using a four-track, especially when you're brand new at using one.)

After a while, I kinda left the song behind (aided by the fact that it was really hard to play) in favor of other songs. But, a couple of years ago, I pulled out the old four-track tape and got into it again. Ever since then, it's been in the back of my mind.

Earlier this year, I decided to experiment a little. I pulled the drum and guitar tracks from the four-track recording and used them as the base for a new recording. Where I didn't have the ability to add extra parts in 1996, I now had the freedom to add pretty much anything. I started screwing around with harmonies and lead guitar lines, and was really surprised by how well it turned out (and how different it sounded from the original).

I laughed at myself when I finished it: nine years separates the left (old) and right (new) guitar tracks. And despite the fact that the left track has a hint of distortion on it (the right channel is acoustic), they sound remarkably similar. Somehow, I figured I'd have played it differently.

Download: Chris Blackburn - "Borders of Reality"

Little Victories
December 15 2005 11:12 PM ET (Permalink) (Comment)

I'm not sure this is worth blogging about, but I was so psyched, I figured why not.

When I got my new computer this spring, one of the first things I thought about was taking my existing four-track recordings and copying them to disc where I could then play with the mixes in Cubase. The motherboard I bought came with a (decent) sound card, but I went ahead and picked up a better one for recording sake. I wondered if there might be way to use the two line-in's to copy all four tracks at once, but the methods I tried didn't work.

My last ditch effort was to copy two tracks at a time, playing the tape through the four-track deck twice. Only, it turned out that the tape player had a slight speed variance that meant that the two pairs of tracks didn't match up when I put them together on my computer. So I gave up, and figured I'd re-record everything at some point.

Yesterday, I had a eureka moment. As a goof, I tried it, and it worked. I'm still recording two tracks at a time, it just happens that I'm using two recording programs simultaneously. The only flaw is that I'm having to match them up after they're recorded, but my initial efforts turned out nicely.

I'd thought about entirely ditching the four-track recordings of the stuff that I've recorded in the last couple of years, only because of the tape hiss and the occasional tape warble that I don't have to deal with now that I'm recording digitally. But that would have meant ditching a couple of takes that I really liked. Even still, those "older" songs hit lower priority, only because I'd kinda lost my enthusiasm for them.

What was weird was hearing some of them again on my computer and actually getting to toy with the mixes. There are eight songs that I recorded onto four-track over the last two years, one of them being the Christmas song from 2003 (which is the only one that was mixed with vocals added). The Christmas song was actually number six. The last was a cover of Sunny Day Real Estate's "In Circles" that I loved, but didn't have the nerve to mix and add vocals (knowing what a pain it was going to be on my old computer).

So, now, here I am with a bunch of recordings available to me again. In fact, I did something blisteringly stupid in my curiosity, which was to pull the four-track recording of "Turn Away / Fade" to see how it would sound with a more careful mix than the one I did in 2001 (which is the one on Once Every Never). The new mix sounds way better (to me). Why was it blisteringly stupid? Because it makes me actually consider re-recording the vocals (like several people suggested I do back when I released the disc). One more dumb distraction from completing stuff.

Now, I'm trying to decide what to finish first. I think I may quickly throw out the vocals for that SDRE cover, only because I still love how the music turned out.

Of course, this means I now have something like twenty semi-completed songs on my computer. Yeesh.

MP3: "Turn Away / Fade" Remix
December 17 2005 12:39 AM ET (Permalink) (Comment)

Download: Chris Blackburn - "Turn Away / Fade" (Remix)

I think if I had to encapsulate my songwriting "career" in one sentence, I'd say that it's been a series of recordings that I wasn't happy with.

In fact, I think the October Demos are probably the first time I've been really confident about a finished product.

I knew going in that Once Every Never wasn't going to be perfect. I didn't have the right equipment to really do it perfectly, but figured it was best to just go ahead and give it a try anyway. I liked the songs a lot, and hoped that would be enough.

When I put together the first "complete" copy in early 2002, I realized it wasn't right. It really wasn't right. And there was honestly no way I could fix it. So I filed it away. But the longer I tried to set it aside, the worse I felt about having three-plus years worth of work that no one would hear. So I tried to fix it, came up with something that I thought was pretty decent, and put it out.

The main reason I never really pushed the thing was because I still felt like it wasn't right. I wanted it to be something that I could pass to friends and acquaintances and say, "Here, this is what I do in my free time." But the more I listened to it, the more I heard the flaws. I stuck a copy in my car for the heck of it, and, every now and again, someone riding with me would see it and say, "Hey, what's this? Let's listen to it!" We'd put it in, we'd get through "Turn Away / Fade" (which, honestly, sounded like shit in my car), and I'd come up with some lame excuse like, "Yeah, it's kinda lo-fi," and meekly eject the disc.

Admittedly, it's been the same for other demos of mine, too. The 1998 demo I (sorta) finished went immediately into the box. The mix was just horrible, and, at the time, I had no way to do a second mix. The 2001 acoustic demo I finished just didn't work to me. Into the box. In both cases, I tested them on my go-to folks, and it was obvious that they weren't up to snuff.

Last night, after I wrote that entry, I kept playing the new mix of "Turn Away / Fade", and was just kind of amazed by it. On a lark, I pulled out the CD-R that had the vocal and lead guitar files on it, and dropped them into the mix.

Here was one of the main problems with how I recorded OEN: adding vocals was excruciatingly difficult. I'd record a vocal and mix-paste it into the music mix, then undo it and repaste it if it wasn't in the right place or wasn't loud enough. Lather, rinse, repeat, over and over again. That made me reluctant to record the vocals piece-by-piece, as you'd normally do in a studio, since it would add days to the work. So most of the vocal tracks are one-takes, start to finish, mistakes be damned. ("Paving Wisconsin" is actually a hodge-podge of three separately completed mixes. I picked the vocal segments that I liked the best and edited them together.)

One major flaw with the early 2002 version of OEN was that the vocals clearly weren't loud enough. So I tried to bump them up, but they still didn't stand out. And I still think that led to the biggest complaint I got about OEN: that it sounded like I was missing notes all over the place. It's true - I missed notes. But I think a lot of it had to do with how buried they were in the mix. Honestly, loudness wasn't really the issue: mainly, I just didn't have any way to process them as would normally be done in a real studio.

That the biggest complaint was vocals was kind of ironic. Throughout most of my childhood, all the way through my short stint with the Little Dipper, my vocals were always the one thing I could be confident about, that people would compliment me on. After my first show with the Dipper, Reuben got several emails noting: "Where'd you find this guy? He's got a heck of a voice." So here's my first record, and the vocals are weak. And that was extra frustrating, as it reminded me of the bands we played with while on tour. So many of them would have great music and really terrible singers. It made me see OEN as just another one of "those" bands.

Anyway, while tinkering with the remix, I realized that I'd saved several unused vocal takes. So, instead of re-recording the vocals from scratch, I used the original vocals, then pulled pieces of the unused takes to fix phrases here and there that I didn't like. After listening to it some more, I then opted to record a backing vocal bit that I had considered originally but decided not to record.

And I love it. I mean, you can actually hear the vocals. It still doesn't sound 100% "professional", but it doesn't sound as horribly cheap as it did.

I still don't know if this is one of my better songs. It's certainly one of my favorite guitar lines, and definitely my favorite drum part and performance.

Will I remix all of OEN? I haven't decided. It's certainly not a high priority. And I'm stuck in some regards, as I know I did a boatload of editing on certain songs. In particular, the mix of "Low / High" was almost entirely a hack editing job (and included the use of a device that I no longer have), and the ending of "Second Wave Lullaby" will be short of impossible to recreate to sound similar.

But I'm still in that mindset that I would really like to have OEN be something I'm proud of, something that I can pull out for just anybody and say, "This is what I do in my free time," and have them nod and say, "Wow!"

You know, instead of being that disc in my CD pack that I hope nobody notices is there.


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