Welcome to my personal little universe, located deep within the recording studio of Taped Rugs Productions. What you're about to dive into is an experiment in sharing some of my techniques, motivations, and quirks -- a peek at the essence of my artistry. I realize, of course, that many readers will quickly lose interest when trying to interpret my poor attempts at describing the unusual ways that I squeeze the life out of old and unfamiliar technologies, but, if after this post is online a while, I get a sense that there is some sort of genuine audience for what I write here today, much more will follow.
Last October I joined the ranks of those who have spent six decades on the planet. I decided it was time to carry out a plan that I have had in the back of my mind for many of those years -- creating an homage album to the Doors (yes, that's the Densmore, Krieger, Manzarek, Morrison group).
Back in 1967, the Doors first album was released, and the unique qualities of the seven-minute long hit: "Light My Fire" got burned solidly into my little eight-year-old brain. As the months passed into 1968, I began to regularly borrow my sister's "The Doors" album, playing each side over and over, day after day. My sister eventually purchased a copy of the record for me, because she did not want me to completely wear out her copy (although I think it was already too late by the time she gave it to me). This album was my first in-depth exploration of "contemporary" music, and it left an impression that has remained with me all my life. For my young impressionable self, the Doors came across as unique among the bands of the day, and as I grew older, I came to appreciate the musicianship of each member of the group, as well as the lyrical genius of Morrison.
In this post, I will describe the processes that led to the first piece I recorded for this Doors homage. I chose "Moonlight Drive" to kick off the action. I picked this piece, not because it was the first song that Morrison and Manzarek ever cooked up together, but because I have had a bootleg album (recorded at the Matrix in San Francisco in 1967) entitled "Moonlight Drive" in my possession since the middle 1970's, and the performances on that record have always particularly inspired me.
For those of you readers who are unfamiliar with my methods, you should know that I approach each recording I make, originals and covers, with the belief that it should have a life of its own - free to range within and without the boundaries of musical traditions and precedents. This means that all my cover songs, while containing elements of their antecedents, usually fly far afield of the originals.
Here's a list of some of the tools I used to create this piece:
"The Doors Complete": a songbook produced by Warner Brothers in 1983
"The Lost Writings Of Jim Morrison": a book of poems, Villard Books, NY, 1989
Computers: Windows XP, Windows 10
Software: Cool Edit Pro II, Audacity, Midisoft MIDI Scorewriter, Windows Media Player, Several Plug-In Audio Sound Effects
Ovation Celebrity Electro-Acoustic Guitar (1990's, big belly, model)
Korg R3 Vocoder/Synthesizer
Music Boxes: (a variety, all mounted together into a resonant metal cookie box, fashioned by yours truly)
Field Recording: "Dog Island Tide Coming In" (acquired from a personally recorded cassette that I picked up at a used book sale, hosted by a local church charity)
A selection of short, pre-recorded, percussion samples from a collection of sound effects called the "Janus Professional Sound Library" (1990's)
A generic MIDI recording of "Love Her Madly," acquired via the internet
A cheap, barebones, 4-channel, Radio Shack Mixer
Last December I started learning the chords for Moonlight Drive on my acoustic guitar. I kept the tempo of the original for the most part, but I wanted to add a little something, so I cooked up an intro of descending chords that I mated to a Morrison poem called "Underwaterfall." I used this same descending chord sequence at the end of the song for the final lyrics as well. It wasn't until early February that I actually got down to recording the acoustic guitar bit for the song, however, which meant that I had a long time to refine exactly how I would play it.
I suffer no illusion that my guitar talents are in any way comparable to those of Robbie Krieger. I decided to avoid using an electric guitar or a bottleneck slide (which are both prominently featured in the Doors' version of the song), and simply tried to make the most of what talents I possess with an original arrangement on my acoustic guitar. My Ovation was recorded through a direct line from the guitar to the computer -- no effects added. Whenever I am sculpting a song, I record several versions of every instrument I employ; then I spend lots of time picking out the best version -- or constructing a best version from small portions of various takes. After that, I clean up any hisses, clicks, extraneous noises, and save the refined result as a building block to later add to a multi-track mix. Thus I did do with the acoustic guitar.
Next up, I recorded a number of lead vocals and backing vocals. These days I never record overdubs directly onto a mix with other material. Instead, I first make a draft backing track to sing along with (or play an instrument along with), and I listen to that backing with Windows Media Player while I record new "raw" material through Cool Edit Pro or Audacity software. In this way, the recording software only records the new material, not a blend of the new material mated to the draft backing track. This technique allows me to produce a recording containing as many takes as I want. On this, I can play around with variant approaches to singing the same lyrics, run my voice through a variety of effects -- all sorts of experiments can be recorded on this one long track. Then later, pieces from this track can be edited out and saved as more building blocks to incorporate into a multi-track mix.
I often record my vocals with two microphones. One mic goes directly into the mixer. The other goes first through some sort of sound modifier before it goes to the mixer. In the case of Moonlight Drive, I used my Korg R3 as a modifier, altering various parameters, particularly echoes and pitches.
Next I recorded my conglomerate of music boxes (see photo above). I attached a contact microphone to the metal cookie container that houses the music boxes and plugged it into my Korg R3. The R3 is equipped with many sound effects, and I experimented with several of these as I wound and rewound the boxes and hand cranked the hand cranks -- freely experimenting for about 30 minutes.
Next I began sculpting the actual multi track mix, which I created on Cool Edit Pro II. You can get a little idea of how much work went into this from the screen shot above. In the multi-track sculpting process that I use, any arrangement is possible, as long as the building blocks all contain unique material that is unmated to other building blocks. I generally do a lot of arranging and rearranging until my artistic senses are satisfied.
I first matched the vocal edits with the guitar parts. I then created and added an additional lead vocal track that was slightly harmonically enhanced, to give my voice a bit of an edge. The backing vocals required a good deal of trial and error to figure out where to locate them within the mix.
I wanted the ocean tide at both ends of the song. I edited out bits from the cassette that were loud enough to be noticeable, and which contained no human chit chat nor other extraneous noises. I also strategically placed some ocean tide in the middle of the song. Similarly, I inserted edits of the music box recording toward the beginning and end of the song, as well as between a couple of the verses.
The Janus sampled percussion bits came next. I painstakingly spliced and diced several of these in various ways to fit like puzzle pieces into the multitrack mix. These are the tiniest slices that you can see in the screen shot above. I intentionally applied them sparingly to make them jump out a bit within the mix.
For the last verse, I wanted to get that "full powered-up engine" feeling. My voice inflections supply some of that energy, but I wanted to somehow incorporate the power of Densmore's drumming to boost the "vibe" in this part of the song. This led me to locating a MIDI recording of the Doors' "Love Her Madly" online, downloading it, extracting the drum track with my MIDI scorewriting program, then altering the drum tempo and arrangement to fit my Moonlight Drive.
Each of the processes described above was quite time consuming, as you might imagine. Keep in mind that each of the bits in the multi track has to be placed and arranged to match all the other elements that are heard along with it. I also must balance the volume and stereo panning of each bit to blend it properly into the mix with all the other sounds in the song. The mix that I am sharing here today was completed after about a month, starting from the time that the acoustic guitar was recorded. I have retained six different mixes, just in case tomorrow I decide that this version isn't the best one.
Ok, well, I think I'll wrap up here. I easily could get more detailed in my revelations regarding my Moonlight Drive, but I'm guessing at this point that I've already lost several readers to my long-winded verbiage, and I don't want to lose everybody else here. Again, if I discover that I've got an audience for this sort of revelation, I will be back to discuss how I recorded some of the other pieces for this ongoing Doors homage. Thanks so much for your attention.