Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Forest: Cuba

Here is Cuba.


It's one of the few guitar+bass tracks on the album where the timing wasn't a complete mess (except at the beginning and during a couple of the breaks). It's also one of the few tracks where listening to the backing vox doesn't cause me physical pain.

I think Thom was planning to do the solo on guitar, but I had been noodling around with some Latin stuff on bass and we thought it might fit. The main bass on Cuba was my old Yamaha TRB-5p, but I played this solo was on my Steinberger XL-2A. I had the Steinberger strung up tenor (A-D-G-C) in those days because I was trying to learn Monkey Businessman off of Michael Manring's Thonk album, which had been released in 1994. Between the high tuning, the EMG pickups and the SansAmp, that bass cut through the mix like a buzzsaw. When I later replaced the TRB-5p with the TRB-JP, I was able to do both bass parts live on the same bass.

Thom played the mando himself on the track.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Forest: She Makes Me

The only gospel song in Thom's catalog:

She Makes Me

Ok, it's not really gospel. It's just a simple, pretty song. But the chord progression (I-III-IV-I) screams gospel to me, and I wasn't able to resist pulling out a bag of gospel clichés in the piano and organ parts.

This is one of the few songs on the album where the feel isn't too rushed. Somehow we were able to relax on this one. But the lead vocal needs to be dragged a little. Nowadays, you'd just nudge the vocal track by 50 ms or so. I did this to the lead vocal on Life is a Circle off of Twice the Usual. It completely relaxes the vocal part. But in 1995, recording to analog tape, you did the best you could and lived with it.

The piano (E-mu PROFormance again) and organs (Roland JV-1080) were tracked separately (they're different parts). But when we played this song live, I would just layer the E-mu with the XP-50 and it came out pretty close to the same thing. I still like the organ sound for the solo, but dislike the main background organ sound in the verses.

And I still really like the gospel organ solo (starting at 2:58). It's just one B3 cliché after another. In particular I'm digging the four descending "blue" figures starting at 3:34.

On the down side, there's too much compression again on the acoustic guitar. I wonder why we thought we needed it. And the doppler effect of the Leslie simulation on the B3 organ just makes it seem out of tune. (A Leslie is a speaker that spins around inside a cabinet. It adds tremolo because the speaker is alternately louder (facing you) and quieter (facing away). It also adds vibrato because the speaker is sometimes moving towards you and sometimes away from you, causing a rise and fall in pitch like an approaching/retreating ambulance siren). In hindsight, I probably should have just turned off the Leslie simulation. (For the record, this is also why the organ at the end of Even After All This Time from Twice the Usual sounds out of tune).

The timing gets sloppy at the end, too.

But overall, a pretty cool song.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Forest: Could Have Been

Here's where things start to get a little scruffy.

Could Have Been

I really like the lyrics for this song. At first blush, they're positive: the verses are full of pleasant imagery and the chorus has explicitly positive phrases. But the "it could have been" raises doubt, making the ultimate message ambiguous.

Marty Jones suggested the crashing surf sound during the chorus. He happened to have just that sound in some sample library and triggered it directly from a button the front panel of the rack-mount sampler. I think I ruined this song for Thom some time later when I suggested it sounded more like a toilet flushing and he wasn't able subsequently to shake that impression. It didn't help that I also used to make toilet flushing sounds when playing this live.

Thom played the electric on this. He had some flavor of Fender Stratocaster and I think a Fender Twin Reverb amp. The lead part is ok, but I don't like the sound... again it's thicker, more phlegmy than it needs to be. But I love the sound of the rhythm electric (the part is in the chorus, hidden under the surf sound, and is mixed pretty low).

Technically, the recording is a mess. The acoustic sounds like it was recorded with a cheap mic (which I'm sure it wasn't) in the bathroom (which I know it wasn't). The timing of the bass part is terrible. The backing vox are cringetastic. And the tuning is just way off, all around. It's shocking how bad the tuning is on the whole album, really. I think I'll do a whole post on tuning and intonation (and all the work that went into it on Twice the Usual).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nice Day for a Walk: A Video Test

This post kind of stretches the boundaries of "a blog about my music projects", but what the heck. Let the blog police come after me.

If you've read my posts with videos, you know that I've been frustrated with the process and the quality. So I've been experimenting and I think I'm getting closer to finding the equipment, software and skills to produce better video.

The clip below is one such experiment. I shot it with a borrowed Canon HV-20 mounted on my own home-brew, totally ghetto steadi-cam. It was a very windy day, so there's plenty of camera movement, but not nearly as much as if I had shot hand-held.

I captured the video to hard-drive on my studio desktop computer because it's the only computer I have with a firewire card and a fast enough disk to handle the realtime HD transfer. Unfortunately, the only software I have on that machine that can capture HD is an old free version of Pinnacle. Strangely, Pinnacle can capture the HD stream and save it to an HD mpeg file, but then doesn't recognize the file format and can't edit it. The only software I have that can edit the HD file is Movie Maker HD on my Vista Ultimate machine (which doesn't have a firewire card). But my expectations of doing video on computer have been so reduced that I'm actually quite happy with this rigamarole of a process!

You'll have to go to vimeo to view the clip in HD because vimeo (understandably) doesn't allow embedding of HD. If you watch the video here in the blog, it will play in standard definition.

Nice Day for a Walk from Ken Barker on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Forest: Why

This is another one of my favorite songs, and one of Thom's saddest songs for me. Obviously, there's a lot of competition for that title. But Why is sad in a different way. It doesn't have the angry hurt of some of the others. The calm, detached acceptance in this one is what makes it go deeper.


If I remember correctly, Thom had a basic chord outline and asked me to write a piano part. Unlike others that ended up keyboard-only, Thom planned that this one would be from the git-go. In fact he may have come up with the original structure on piano. But my memory is a little fuzzy on that.

The take is ok... but it's still obviously done under the stress of pay-by-the-hour professional studio time. It's just not relaxed and there is some sloppy timing. The piano take for Down By Your Fire is better in this regard, but I had been playing Fire for years, whereas my Why part was only a week or so old when we recorded it. Once again, the piano is the E-mu PROFormance/1+, and it's not bad, even out there by itself.

I think three things give the piano part its particular character:
  • the use of sixths and ninths all over the place
  • splitting four-note chords into two consecutive two-note chords (first and third note in one, second and fourth in the other); this adds rhythm and opens up what would otherwise be more dense voicing
  • horizontal and vertical "shifting" of the split chords; vertically there is shifting among different inversions of the chords up and down the keyboard; the solo is really just different shifts of figures already played in the chorus; horizontally, the split chords shift to different beats in subsequent bars and also shift off the beat occasionally
We recorded the piano first and then added the vox, so Thom had to get the timing just right to anticipate the re-entry of the piano after the big pauses at 1:02-1:04 and 2:33-2:35. I think Marty and I made him redo those entries like 20 times each. And the temperature in that vocal booth just kept rising and rising. Haha. Good times.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Forest: I Know Me

There's lots I like about this song, and plenty I don't like about the recording. But the former definitely trumps the latter for me.

I Know Me

The song also has a special significance for me. When we recorded this in August, 1995, Johanne and I had been dating for about four months. But our pre-dating "courtship" took place over winter 94-95. We were Ph.D. students together at the University of Ottawa, with the Rideau Canal just outside our office. Most days, after work we'd lace up and go for a skate down the canal in the dark, getting to know each other, falling in love. The line:
And where ice on Rideau Canal lights
Glistens in skating lovers' laughin' eyes
can still make me mist up a little.

Thom's voice kind of cracks on the word "free" at 3:31; I remember lobbying to re-record the line, but we left it in. I don't remember why we did, but to this day it's my favorite moment of any recording of Thom's vocal. It's raw emotion in a song that's already emotional for me and I honestly still get a chill when I hear it.
Where the snow flies free,
Where the cold cuts the skin...
It's the only cold weather imagery that makes me miss the Canadian winter.

As for the technical side...

There's way too much compression on the acoustic guitar; this sparse arrangement didn't really need much.

I think I came up with the string parts in the studio. We decided the track needed something extra. Marty found violin and cello patches on the Roland JV-1080 and I noodled for a bit and then recorded them. They're simple and they build verse-by-verse until dropping out to let Thom finish alone. I like the counter-melody they add.

We also re-recorded this in a more radio-friendly arrangement a few years ago when Thom was still in Austin. I should try to find the newer version.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Forest: Down By Your Fire

Down By Your Fire was the last song on Forest. But I'm blogging it first because I think I think it's the best track on the album.

Down By Your Fire

This is a great song. A great, great song. Thom used to play it with guitar only. And we played a guitar + piano version on the Regent Street album (1991). Listening back to the Regent Street version, I notice that some of the Forest piano part was already in place. Over time I started adding more of Thom's guitar part on piano and eventually he stopped playing guitar on the song altogether.

The instrumental part is much more relaxed than other tracks on the album, and has better time and feel. It's probably because I'd had the part under my hands for years by the time we recorded it (in contrast with the song Why, where the piano part was written just prior to recording it).

The keyboard sound is my E-mu PROFormance/1+ layered with my Roland D-50. The PROFormance piano sound can't really compete with modern, multi-layer, disk-streamed, non-looped, gigabyte sampled grands. But it actually holds up ok in this context, even out there all on its own. I guess the one part of the sound that bugs me is the ridiculous sustain. But in 1995, this was a really good piano-in-a-box (and it was already five years old at the time).

It seems I have some deficiency that renders me incapable of finishing a song on a straight major chord. I have to play the ninth. Chris Chénier's wife Nathalie once asked him after one of our shows: "Why does Ken always play that funny note at the end of every song?"

I miss playing this song with Thom.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Forest: The Recording

We recorded the album at the old Sound of One Hand studio in Ottawa (when it was still in The Market, before they moved to that business park off Innes Rd. and ultimately changed their name to the considerably less inspired Liverpool Court Studios, after their street address). Marty Jones was the engineer.

Despite what I said in an earlier post, I think this was before Sound of One Hand got their Neve console. I'm pretty sure that's not the Neve in the photo. But we did record to two-inch, 24-track tape. You can see the tape machine in the photo below, along with various testaments to Marty's shark obsession.

What other equipment did we use? I'm pretty sure Thom used his blue Yamaha acoustic. I don't remember what vocal mic we used, but it was a large diaphragm condenser. For keyboards I used my Yamaha KX-88 controlling my Roland D-50, the studio's E-mu Pro/Formance (piano module) and the studio's Roland JV-1080. We also used the studio's sampler, though I can't remember exactly what it was... probably an Akai S-series or Roland S-series. I'm thinking maybe a Roland S-550.

For bass I used my old Yamaha TRB-5p direct through an original Sans Amp DI. What a great little box. The original Sans Amp didn't have the knobs on the outside (like its successor, the Bass Driver DI), so you had to unscrew the back and dial in your settings with those tiny little plastic screws. That meant that you'd usually come up with a sound you liked and leave it that way. The sound Marty liked (the sound everybody liked back in '95 when they discovered the Sans Amp) was with the "Drive" cranked. So that's the sound on Forest. It's probably got too much dirt/wool/Ampeg for my current tastes, but it's sure full of character. And I'll be darned if it doesn't sound like we mic'd up a big ole tube amp through a huge cab. I also used my Steinberger XL-2A for the solo on Cuba.

Ok. Enough mumbo-jumbo. Let's get to the music!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Forest: The Album

Listening back to The Forest for the Trees after all this time, two things stand out for me. First, the songs have held up; the songwriting is really the highlight of the album by far. Second, many of the recorded tracks are a mess. The timing is sloptacular and everything is out of tune. Thom, if you're reading this, I mean no offense. My bass parts and bvox are the worst of all.

But in spite of the warts, I still really enjoy listening to many of these tracks.

So I'll probably only blog the less egregious tracks. Or maybe I'll leave the rough ones until a later date when nostalgia defeats shame. Either way, lets jump right in.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Forest For The Trees

The Forest For The Trees was the third Thom Barker album, and it was our first CD. Marty Jones was the engineer at Sound of One Hand studios in Ottawa, where we recorded it between August 1 and September 14, 1995. I forget how many sessions there were, but I remember there were some longish gaps during the recording and between the recording and mixing while Thom scared up the money to pay for it all. I'm guessing there were at least a dozen sessions. It's probably been close to ten years since I actually listened to Forest, but I remember being pretty impressed by the sound quality at the time. Marty was a good engineer, and Sound of One Hand had recently bought a great Neve console. Also, we were recording to 2-inch tape. So, as you'd imagine, the raw sound was kind of like butter melting on hot asphalt in the summer sun (poetic, no?).

Well, I listened to the album yesterday and two things struck me:
  1. In comparison, the quality of Twice the Usual is much better than I've been giving it credit for
  2. In spite of some truly cringe-worthy moments, there is some Gold! on Forest
Listening to the album also brought back a flood of memories from the sessions, inspiring me to do a little Forest-blogging. Thom has given his permission for me to bare the skinny and post the audio. Are you guys in?

Update (2/07/2009): Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure Sound of One Hand didn't yet have that Neve console.