The Making of “We Are the East”

So…I went rather quiet for the past month. (Had to find a new day job, couldn’t be helped. Happily, it didn’t take long, but it required some focus.) Now it’s time to get ready for Pennsic, and as Jessa and I race to do that, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on Sing for the East in a little more depth.

My Laurel, Mistress Zsof, has invited me to do more in-depth blogs about what I am learning as I continue to explore bardic. I realize that the sorts of entries she is talking about are usually more A&S focused (meaning, on period and period-inspired works, like “I asked of thee a boon”). At the moment, though, my most recent project was an album, and my entry on that collection was an original kingdom anthem. I learned a great deal putting the track for “We Are the East” together, and applied a number of lessons I learned about music recording and production from my solo album Hidden Gold.

Knowing my role as co-producer on Sing for the East would be primarily organizational and big-picture (assembling the creative team, coordinating, setting and managing milestones, promotion), I had the freedom to put my creative focus into recording and producing one song for a full year. That was, as I’d hoped, plenty of time to do something really ambitious with it, and get the music production to a standard beyond what I’d been able to achieve with my first effort. It would also give me enough time to get some different sounds into the track by working with new artists (or availing myself of different talents from artists I’d worked with before).

The first new artist I realized I wanted for the recording of “We Are the East” came out of nowhere, the day I was set to debut the piece at K&Q Bardic Champions. Duchess (then Queen) Caoilfhionn opened the day with a surprise, by singing her own original song, “You Carry My Heart into War (from a queen to her army)”. I was just floored–like far too many people, I had no idea she sang. But her voice was warm, clear, and vibrantly beautiful. She sang with feeling, with presence, and more polish than I think even she realized. I was captivated. (The song itself was a wonderful piece of writing, and I’m hoping at some future date to produce it for her.) By the end of the day, when “We Are the East” had won the favor of my Queen, my King, and the assembled populace, I knew the piece needed to be recorded as a duet, and I was going to have to ask her to sing it with me. Certainly, I wanted to shine a light on her too-seldom-heard talent…but strictly from my own perspective, her voice would be an incredible boon to the song.

The second new artist was Neil Fein. Neil is a friend from high school, who served as mastering engineer for Hidden Gold. He learned one of my songs on guitar, and performed it with me at a friend’s open mic, and I was intrigued by his playing style. He is good at playing loosely but lyrically, and as I planned out what I wanted the recording to sound like, I found myself thinking of the instrumental version of “Storybook Love” from the film of The Princess Bride (below is a very good cover of the song):

img_2213I did my first recording session with Neil, and asked him to improvise on classical guitar, hoping to capture this sort of ripples-in-a-stream sweetness to run through the track. He nailed it, which helped set the tone for the song. This became our lodestone for the rest of the tracks. (I also used a light acoustic line he recorded for the first half of the first verse.)

Ultimately, I realized I was going to want a full-length instrumental introduction, which I hadn’t really done before (I’m always nervous that a long intro risks losing the listener’s interest, and my songs often run long by modern pop standards). I would need precision on the melody for the intro, as well as the reprise that would close out the song.

Sing for the East - Kunakiv2-04

I also found myself contemplating the cover I had commissioned from Katrusha Skomorokh, in which I wanted to be portrayed playing my lute. Yes, I had started playing lute pieces at events (starting with K&Q), but I had never had the guts to play an instrument on one of my own recordings. If I was going to appear on the cover playing an instrument, shouldn’t I actually play one on the album? I mean, I had a year to work out the melody, and I knew how to record takes and composite them together into a clean track. So my third “new artist” became me, on classical guitar, for the opening and closing of the song. (Full disclosure, though: the last note that twists in the intro is Neil. I don’t have that level of technique.)

To my delight, Caoilfhionn was excited to accept my invitation to sing the song with me. I worked out a full contralto harmony part for her, with the assistance of my good friend Isolde de Lengadoc, who recorded scratch vocals for Caoilfhionn to listen to. (Isolde performed the same service later for “I asked of thee a boon”; she’s an invaluable partner that way. I also have to give her credit for introducing the tiny counterpoint during the final reprise of the chorus–“We are all / we’re family, for we are the East”. Totally her idea, and it works really nicely.) Caoilfhionn learned the part well enough to perform it with me at my concert last Pennsic, but she was eager to do a definitive recording and lay down the part note-for-note.

img_2394Recording Caoilfhionn’s vocals (and my own) challenged me to apply lessons I had learned from Hidden Gold. A rookie mistake I made frequently during those recording sessions was over-miking, thinking that the bigger the waveform I had to work with, the more detailed and higher-quality the sound would be. I’m not talking about “clipping”, where the vocals are so loud that they get scratchy and unusable because the recording doesn’t have capacity to capture them. That’s pretty easy to avoid with proper level-setting. But I had had a tendency to mike my vocals (and sometimes my instruments) too close up, which resulted in sounds that were sometimes too rich, too bright, or a little distorted. For vocals, it also meant a lot of hissing sibilants that I find unpleasant to listen to. These problems can be covered over a bit in post-production, but you will always get better results starting from the best quality in your base recording. Working with Caoilfhionn, I was mindful to set the microphone at the right distance, and we worked over a couple of sessions on how to find the right balance of precision and emotional expression. By the end, I was confident that her vocals in particular were going to sound fantastic, and that our voices blended really well as a duet.

img_2412Now I needed to bring in my veteran instrumentalists to fill out the song. Dave Lambert provided the terrific rhythm guitar that I’d come to count on, as well as a nice harmony for my classical guitar on the intro and ending. Arden added strings and percussion, supplying the warmth and heartbeat at which he excels. He also agreed with my idea of adding a full vocal chorus, and suggested that it should just be for the final reprise of the chorus, and then drop out for the last line so Caoilfhionn’s and my harmony could hold the ending. Spot on advice.

As I pulled things together, I kept in mind a piece of advice I got early on from my friend Albreda Aylese. She has been an enthusiastic supporter of my music, and so I had given her an early listen of the first mixdown I had done, of just my guiding vocals and Neil’s guitar (including tracks I replaced later with Dave’s work). Albreda was enthralled with the emotional resonance of the recording, and entreated me to keep the simplicity of the arrangement in front of me throughout the process. She noted my penchant for going big (and, for some, a bit over-the-top) in my performances and some of my recordings, and urged me to resist overwhelming “We Are the East” with overkill. I knew she was right, and while I maintained the objective of a polished, professional-sounding song, I did my best to balance that with authenticity and heart, so that the song would never get so clinically overproduced as to become sterile.

img_2614I still needed voices for the final chorus. I wanted a lot of them, I wanted them to all be East Kingdom folks, and I knew that other songs on Sing for the East also needed them. So I put on my producer’s hat, and coordinated a choral day with some of the other project bards (Arden, Sabine, Linette, Judith, and Dorigen), as well as some other performers I was friends with (Martyn di Hallowell, Jayme Hume, and Cedar the Barefoot). Dorigen was particularly important to me, as she had asked the Theriots to record “Welcome Home”, and thus her vocals weren’t going to be on the album otherwise. We had a fantastically fun day recording vocals for this song as well as for Sabine’s and Judith’s.

img_2608Separately, I was able to get some other Eastern voices for the choral part, including my wife Jessa and my son Spencer. Remotely, I managed to get Aneleda and the fantastic soprano Leonora di Ferrara to contribute vocals. And as I had hoped, Caolfhionn brought her daughter Courtney Rose, one of my favorite and earliest fans, to record vocals for the chorus as well. (“Holy cow! This is the real deal, Mom!”) All told, there fifteen voices on that final chorus, across a range of three octaves, with a few harmonies, and getting them into the right blend and balance without making them sound like a generic studio chorus was a favorite memory from the experience.

Finally I was in post-production, and looking to tackle the mix demons I felt I had not fully conquered on my previous effort. The first one was sibilants. As careful as I was in recording, I’m still using a consumer-grade condenser microphone, and they tend to get jammed up in the upper range, especially with hissing s sounds. I applied de-ess filters surgically, but without mercy, particularly on the final chorus, where the rasp of 15 voices hitting those sibilants together could be punishing if I didn’t manage it. When necessary, I used fades to get them under control. And I’m thrilled to say that I can listen to this recording on any speaker, or even a mobile device at top volume, and never get distracted by hissing or by percussion clipping or clicking.

However, when I listened to the song next to the Theriots’ “Welcome Home”, I realized I needed to boost things a lot more to fill out the sound. Arden and I made a conscious choice, for cost and time management, not to do a formal master on the collection. We felt we could get the levels of all the songs close enough in line that it wouldn’t be necessary (and I judge that we pulled that off, though there are one or two places we could have improved if we’d had a few more days to work). Also, mastering amateur mixes sometimes risks re-introducing audio artifacts that had been carefully mixed out (like, say, sibilants). But that meant “We Are the East” had to be full and rich enough to hold up against Ken Theriot’s mixing ability. I went through my Logic Pro project and discovered tools, such as auto-gain on the compression filters, which I had not been using, but which could boost a given input track quickly and easily. After a few hours of tweaking, the song was holding up nicely alongside the other track, but still (to my mind) maintained the restraint and simplicity that kept the emotional heart in the piece. Albreda agreed, after suggesting a little balance adjustment so that my melody line would always be clear against Caoilfhionn’s harmonies. And Ken and Lisa Theriot were kind enough to give a listen as well, and let me know that it worked. 

The result is, for me, the best and most satisfying recording I have produced to date. (I’m really pleased that I haven’t grown tired of listening to it, which I’m learning is an occupational hazard of producing music.) But I knew what was at stake with this song, and my kingdom deserved no less from me. Thank you to everyone who brought this piece to life.

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