Making The Record, Part 1: Tracking

It’s taken us more than two years of work to get our new studio album done. This is the first of a series of posts on the making of the record.

By 2010, Xenat-Ra had been gigging and rehearsing for 3 years, and we decided it was really time to document what we do. We’d made several attempts to record live shows, and had mixed results, there was some very good material captured, but we weren’t totally satisfied.

We put the best of the live material together into a CD we called, in a fit extreme obviousness, Live. We made the CD very cheaply, just to get something out and hopefully sell enough copies¬† to fund producing the studio record. We did a few shows in the spring of 2010 billed as “FUNdraisers”, where we dedicated all of our income from the door and all CD sales to the benefit our recording fund. We were able to raise enough to track the CD, and have a solid foundation for manufacturing the record, thanks to the support of our fans!

I had recently re-connected with my old friend Otto Gygax, and had recorded a few projects at Studio GXM, the very nice studio he built on his property outside of Philomath, OR. Otto offered us use of his studio for a very reasonable rate, especially considering the quality of gear available and how nice his main room sounded. Plus, Otto’s DAW of choice was Logic, which I use at my home studio, so transferring the tracks to my studio to mix would be a breeze. We booked 5 days in early October, 2010, to record the basic tracks for the record.

Hanging out in front of Studio GXM

We knew going in that we wanted to cut the tracks as live as possible. The music we do depends on the interplay of the musicians in real time, so doing the what seems to have become the typical recording process for bands these days, laying down each instrument separately and tweaking until perfectly executed, was not going to work for us. We put all the instruments in the main room, knowing that there would be bleed into the mics, but we felt that the live vibe would be worth the compromise. We did put the guitar amp in the hall outside the main room, and my keys were all recorded direct

We put Metzger into the control room, in order to isolate his tracks as much as possible. He laid down all of his vocals live with the band, but we wanted enough separation that we could redo his tracks later if we needed. As it turned out, we didn’t. I’m personally in awe of Ben’s performance on the disc, I do not know of any other hip-hop related record that has been done with completely live vocals tracking along with the band. In the end, we did a couple of edits on his tracks, but nothing major, by and large what you hear in the final mixes is Ben rapping live with the band. Given the scope and density of his material, that is an amazing feat.

I normally don’t like to engineer recording sessions when I am playing as well. I feel that the engineering and performer sides of my brain are pretty separate, and if I try to do both at once, I do neither as well as I could. I know bands are supposed to be all about DIY in this day and age, but, seriously, this is one of the best arguments for a band to go to a pro studio to make a record as opposed to buying a stack of gear at Guitar Center and doing it yourself. Nonetheless, we really didn’t have the budget on this project. We were fortunate to have Dan Rockwell, a good friend of ours, available to help with engineering the tracks, Dan was invaluable to the process. Plus, he took most of the photos you see here. Otto had the studio set up so that a 2nd keyboard/monitor setup could be used to control Logic from within the main room, which also made it easier for me to control the session while playing. Regardless, I still made one huge recording error in the tracking session, one I regret pretty deeply. I’m not ready to reveal what the error was, but, maybe after the record is out for a while, I’ll be more comfortable with telling you all what it was.

JD at the kit

First day was mostly spent with JD and I at the studio, setting up mics and getting the drum sound happening. JD is a great drummer, and he really knows how to tune his kit, so getting a great tone was relatively quick. I used an MXL Kube mic and a homemade subkick on his kick drum. The subkick is a simple but very cool concept, a speaker, in this case an 8″ woofer, wired in reverse and used as a microphone. Because of the size of the cone and relatively slow action of the magnetic coil, the subkick really focuses in on the low frequencies of the kick and adds a great, natural “oomph” to the sound when blended with the close mic. Snare was mic’d with an SM57, an old standby that always works. Toms were mic’d with Audix D4’s, great sounding little dynamic mics that are very easy to position, this session was the first time I had used the D4’s and I was really impressed. Overheads were a pair of AKG C3000b’s, great versatile workhorse mics that I have owned and used for years. I placed a CAD Trion about 4 feet in front of the kit for ambient/room sounds. JD’s turntables, sampler and drum machine were all mixed through his DJ mixer and DI’d into the board.

I patched all my keys in, recording everything direct. Matt recorded through his EV stage mic and pedalboard, plus my Royer-mod MXL tube mic for a clean sound. Mark’s Marshall cabinet got an SM57 and a Shinbox ribbon, which is my go-to setup for electric guitar lately.¬† Metzger got a Shure SM-7 on his voice, and he used a 2nd mic, his Sennheiser, through his effects chain. Everything got patched through Otto’s Soundcraft Spirit Digital 328 mixing board, a really versatile and great sounding digital mixer. We used all 24 channels, and I used the Spirit’s preamps for everything except Metzger’s main mic, which got my Amek/Neve 9098. The Spirit pre’s are really good, and they have enough gain even for ribbon mics, I had no hesitation about running everything through the board.

Soundcraft Spirit Digital 328

The next 4 days were spent laying down tracks. We usually did 2-3 takes of each tune, as soon as we felt we had a good take on the computer, we moved on, figuring that if we needed to fix anything, we’d have enough material in the alternate takes to draw on for edits. “555” was the exception, it took us a number of takes to get it down, but, hey, it’s a difficult tune, with alternating bars of 5/4 and 5/8, and bars of 5/16 thrown in for emphasis.

I have to take a moment to give huge thanks to both Sarah Shook Monroe and Paul Huppert for bringing us meals during the session. And also, Otto for letting us take over his house as well as his studio.

“Swalo Meh Hole” has an afrobeat flavor, so we invited Otto and Joel Hirsch out to the studio to play percussion. Otto played Shekere, which provided the essential pulse for the tune, and Joel played congas. They drove the performance, Otto, Joel and JD locked into an unstoppable groove for the 3rd take, and we knew we had it when we finished playing. We invited Joel back the next day to track some more percussion with the band, and eventually invited him to join the band!

We did two free improv pieces, because our shows will always have a few moments that go off the page, and we wanted to document that energy as well. One of the pieces, eventually titled “I Burn With My Books” made it onto the final record, and there’s a story behind it making it onto the record that I’ll perhaps tell in another post.

All in all, we tracked 14 tunes, plus the 2 improvs. At the end of the session, we were exhausted, but we knew we had something cool. We tranferred everything to a portable hard drive, and I took the tracks home for the next phase: overdubbing, editing and mixing. Stay tuned for more on that…
Next: Overdubs and Mixing

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