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James R. Stout

History 101

            I started a new recording project about 6 weeks ago. It’s a massive undertaking. Why? Because when I’m done it will amount to about 40 new recordings of songs that I have written over the years. That amount of songs could easily be the equivalent of 4 albums. Why so many? Because I want to. I hope that’s a good enough reason! Most of the songs are songs that I have never had a chance to record or any existing recordings are demos or were recorded on inferior equipment decades ago and have needed to be recorded properly for a long time. The songs span a period of time from 1972 through the present. Why is it going to take me so long to record all of them? Well, first off hand I do have other things to do. As some of you may know, I am single and live alone on my small ranch. Simply put, that means that if something needs doing, then I’m the one who has to do it. Secondly, while I am like many men in that I don’t multi-task well, I do have a creative mind with the ability to have more than one project going on at the same time. Most notably for now is that I am also in the research stage for what will be either a collection of short stories linked together with the same main characters or it may turn into a couple of books. Thirdly, as my then 91-year-old father once told me, “You’re not a spring chicken anymore, son!” To be clear, if I were 25 years younger than I am, then I would have much more energy, and would no doubt get things done quicker. Alas, I am NOT 25 years younger now and that as they say, is that. Finally, and this is perhaps the main reason for the length of time that it will take me to complete these new recordings, is the fact that I am doing it all myself. All instruments and vocals will be done by me. That means I have to record individual tracks for each part (some of the songs will have as many as 32 tracks), do the mixing, and I have the equipment now to do professional mastering of the finished mixed songs. Look at it this way: If I had three other musicians working with me on a song, I would likely record the basic rhythm tracks all at once. The drums, bass, and rhythm instruments such as guitar and piano would all be recorded in a matter of a couple of hours. It would then require me to overdub additional instruments and vocals. But I don’t have three other musicians on 24/7 call which is what it would take. So, what would take only a couple of hours to accomplish may take me 2 or 3 days (providing there are no major interruptions). Generally, I have to start with a basic drum track. I play some percussion instruments myself such as a cajon, bongos, congas, tambourine, shakers, and assorted other such instruments, but I don’t have a drum set. I do have a snare drum, but it is better at collecting dust than anything else. What I have to do is make a scratch recording of the song on my guitar or piano. Then I experiment with drum set samples to get the correct tempo and style that works best. I do that using a variety of drum machines, pads, and loops. It’s darned time consuming is what it is. Once the basic drum track is done, I then record the main rhythm instrument which is usually either an acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, or electric piano. Then I start stacking the parts. A basic bass track is recorded but may be re-recorded after the other parts are added. Why? Because if I record a cool bass track that just sounds great, then it’s liable to end up interfering with the vocals or another necessary part. So, after 45 years of recording I have learned to do the final bass track late in the process. It allows me to craft a bass part that stands out but doesn’t get in the way. Am I boring you? I hope not. There is a point to all this if you hang on.

            Okay, now more to the point of this blog entry. A week ago, I started recording a song that I wrote when I was 18-years-old. I had long ago buried it thinking it was just not mature enough for usage. But when I sat down and started going through songs to choose which one would be next, I came upon the original handwritten lyrics and chord sheet that I wrote in November of 1973. I started to play the song and things got interesting. Before long I had raised the key a couple of steps to fit my voice of today (I’m unusual in that I actually sing higher now than I did then – go figure). I also changed up the rhythm of the song by speeding it up and giving it a bit of syncopation that it had lacked. I kept the melody with the one exception of one line that just seemed to need to be changed and I suddenly realized that the song had a lot of potential. Well, before I knew it, I had a basic rhythm track worked out. So, I’ve been recording on it now for a week and it’s coming along quite nicely. I like it. But here’s the deal. I got the drums and percussion recorded as well as the bass, acoustic rhythm guitar, an opening electric guitar solo, a flute solo, electric piano (a sort of muscle shoals Fender Rhodes feel to it), a four-piece string quartet part on the chorus, a violin solo in the background on the chorus and violin ensemble that matches the acoustic rhythm guitar part, and a processed grand piano part on the chorus. I have also got the lead vocal recorded. Then I hit a wall. I like the lead vocal, but I kept thinking it needed some harmony. But every harmony part that I came up with just stunk the place up. What to do?

            So, I was just about to fade off to sleep last night and I was thinking of the problem. That’s when I remembered something. Somewhere in a box in the walk-in closet of the studio there was probably an ancient cassette tape with the only other recording of the song that has ever been made. We’re talking about a cassette that would be at least 41 or so years old. But I thought perhaps that recording could shed some light on the harmony part that I am missing. I vaguely remembered that the song had a good harmony part to it, but I just wasn’t remembering it. Therefore, I went to sleep with a mission on my mind for this morning: Find that tape.

            I got up this morning, bleary-eyed as usual, and after breakfast I went into the studio and opened the door to that closet. The closet that is wall-to-wall packed with boxes of old tapes, equipment, instrument cases, mic stands, the aforementioned snare drum, my baby high chair – wait – is that right? Yea, my mother kept it and now I have it. It’s 63-years-old, made of wood, and painted yellow. I must have been the cutest baby boy sitting in that thing! I digress. The point is the closet is packed. I began my search. Two hours later I found the tape. Ahhh. Yes, I still have a cassette player to listen to it on. In fact, I have three of those buggers. I put it in the one that is currently hooked up to my stereo system and after fast-forwarding and doing some searching, I found the ancient recording. What it lacks in quality was all worth the end result. The harmony part was there for me to hear and yes, by golly, it is a good harmony part. What I realized was that I had been trying to come up with an intricate harmony part above the lead vocal. But that’s not what I did 42 years ago on that recording. It’s a very tight harmony below the lead vocal. I listened to it several times and it all came back to me. It felt natural as can be. So, I went into the studio, que’d up the new recording, and sang the harmony under the lead vocal. Voila! By George, I think I’ve got it! Now, I’m waiting for the washer and dryer to finish so that I can go back into the studio and record that harmony vocal. I should have this one all finished by this Saturday. I still have to record a lead instrument part, then do the mixing and mastering.

            So, what have I learned? A few things. First, sometimes the simple way is the best way. Second, persevere until you get it the way you want it. Third, just because you have all the new up to date equipment it doesn’t mean that the old ways were bad. That old recording is pretty bad on the whole, but it has the perfect harmony vocal part saved for this project 40 plus years later. That’s really the most important thing I’ve learned. Yes, I have improved the song with some changes and obviously the recording itself will be far better than that old one, but there was a vital part on that old recording that is needed and if I hadn’t saved the recording for all these years, then I might not ever have come up with the harmony part again. We can all learn a lot about life if we keep history true and saved as it was. It’s not a good feeling to go back and look at our mistakes but knowing the mistakes should prevent us from making the same mistakes again. On the flip side of that coin, knowing the good things that were done in history can light our paths into the ever dark and unknown future.

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