For those who have heard Zeta Reticuli and wondered how its songs were recorded and arranged, here’s the fourth of a series of posts that will hopefully shed some light on these subjects. Many people have asked me these questions, so sharing this with the world seems quite right – our debut album would not exist without these crucial steps. Enjoy! here is part ONE, TWO and THREE in case you haven’t read them yet. Enjoy!
So having finally found our singer, we needed to get practicing! As things started progressing over the first few months of 2014, one thing was clear: we were on the verge of being ready to finally start recording our songs!! So in mid-March, we decided to meet at our usual place of business, Kisoya Sushi for a milestone discussion. Upon setting goals and making commitments, we decided to commence the recording process during the third week of March, 2014.
The first thing that needed to be recorded were the drum parts – which presented a few challenges. I envisioned BIG drums recorded in a BIG room with top notch microphones with a wicked, drum wizard engineer – doable being in Toronto, but at a high cost. The sound I was mulling over in my head was one that would have to be recorded at the best of the best by THE BEST. Also, many of the songs were still not 100% complete in terms of the arrangements, meaning that even MORE preparation would be needed to nail the drums as efficiently as possible. Being on a micro budget, I needed to figure out how to do this without compromising the sound (and our thin wallet). Having used samples in the past for demoing purposes AND having a Roland electronic drum kit at my disposable gave me a viable option: why not use high quality samples on the album?? After doing some testing and research, I had determined that Steven Slate drum samples would work best for the sound we needed to achieve. So I went ahead and fed my drums to an RME interface, ran it through the drum sampler software and went straight to work! In the end, we realized that recording the drums in a studio would have been absolutely impossible to get our final result: in the 7 months that it took us to record the album, about 40% of the parts we previously though we were keeping ended up being changed; in an hourly studio, at let’s say $65/hour, it would have required an immense major label-like budget. We were actually in the process of CREATING a sound, so our decision to use SSD was a sound one, probably one of the smartest and most efficient decisions we could have made given our crazy situation…hands down!
Now, I really have to admit: not recording the drums the traditional way really rubbed me the wrong way in the beginning. It took some time to convince myself that it was ok to proceed given my old school mentality for certain processes. In the end, it was actually more work to do it with samples than on my Yamaha acoustic kit. It was another huge learning experience full of trial and error that I have greatly benefited from. This experience taught me how to embrace technology, not resist it. Our next album will DEFINITELY be recorded the traditional way, not because the samples aren’t “cool” or traditional, but next time, we will be FULLY prepared; and preparation will be the key when recording another (and even better!) complex album like ZR. And since we now know our sound, it’ll make writing and arranging a whole lot easier and less time consuming ! 😉
As the drums were progressing, Alex and Josh came in whenever they could to record their parts. For Alex, using his Fractal Axe FX II and Music Man guitar, we’d plug into the RME interface and spend hours getting his parts just right. It’s hard to describe the patience and sheer determination Alex displayed during his sessions…it was amazing to witness! As for Josh, I had set up a vocal booth in a bedroom’s walk-in closet with a Neuman U 87 microphone (we eventually had to move to a bigger room though since it got WAY too muggy in there). He was quite the trooper given the fact that it got extremely hot in there and that it was ridiculously small. Having been in the band for such a short period of time and having never recorded vocals for an album in the past, his sessions were sometimes quite intense. He was always focused, prepared and full of energy – which made it an enjoyable process for both of us. One thing that blew me away was his ability to memorize all the lyrics – he NEVER had any cheat sheets to rely on during his sessions…having to memorize lines as an actor gave him the memory of a computer!
When things were about 75% complete, I had started adding the vocal harmonies and the many synth parts to the songs. To help accomplish the synths, I rented a Yamaha Motif XF6 keyboard as well as a Nord Electro 3 and started to go through their many sound libraries and customization possibilities. The process of finding the right sounds and then recording the parts took a little over 2 months (which unfortunately bled into the mixing phase), which in the end, turned out pretty damn good! Next was the bass. Ohhhhhh….da bass. What to do!? We had put in a TON of effort to find a bass player that could join us in our venture, but failed to do so after over 1.5 years of searching (what phenomenal bass player wants to join a start up band anyways?? lol). Even the paid session players we found couldn’t do it to our standards – the bass playing is very reminiscent of Geddy Lee/Billy Sheehan bass parts in some sections…our music was to be colored with bass licks that would scare most bass players away – and we couldn’t possible afford Lee nor Sheehan ;-). So we were faced with yet another dilemna. After going through many scenarios, Alex and I decided to go in the same direction as the drums: high quality samples. But they needed to be exceptional in every way…hence using the simply amazing Trillian Bass Module. Using this MIDI/Steam driven technology and countless hours and HOURS of work along with my ear for bass parts (my dad is a bass player – I’ve been hearing bass vibes since the fetal days lol), I managed to get them all sounding tight n’ stellar within a month (minus all the re-writing). In certain songs, many of the bass parts follow the guitar note for note, so I had to be very meticulous and consult Alex as much as possible to accomplish certain sections. But again, in the end, we were amazed at the results this technology yielded for us. One very important task for me was to make sure all the parts were playable on a five string bass, so that took some thinking and tinkering. All I can say is that our future bass player will have his work cut out for him lol
Next was the mixing. This was by far the MOST challenging for me. I go through some of it in THIS older post. In a nutshell, it was a massive learning curve with many challenges presenting themselves as things progressed. With an infinite amount of patience from within and from my family (bless their amazing hearts), I managed to get the mixing done in about 4 months.
It was meant to last less than a month, but having never mixed an entire album before, I obviously had NO idea how much learning and trial and error would be involved to finally get a mix just right given my limited knowledge and gear. In the end, I was at least 90% ok with the results. All the mixing was done with third party plugins (or VSTs) and absolutely NO traditional solid state outboard gear. I used DAW software called Reaper for both the recording and mixing. Mixing can be a virtually ENDLESS process – you’re never quite satisfied. Even to this day, there are still things I hear in all 9 ZR songs that make me shake my head, but there’s always a point where you need to say: OK, I’m DONE…stop touching the damn buttons and wrap it up already!! ;-p
So there…that’s how it all went down (well, as much as I can remember anyways). YEARS of work, patience and dedication = 9 songs that will be available to enjoy until the Earth is eventually consumed by our Sun lol. This is a prime example of how one can record a decent sounding album on a small budget, but it’s not for people who don’t have the extra time, TONS of patience, a willingness to learn a massive amount of stuff, a sense of humor and a genuine love for composition. It was indeed a huge undertaking, and has already set the pace for this band’s promising future. Thinking about doing this all over again is unfathomable, but with your support and our dedication to the art, our next album will no doubt be created in a more traditional way by the pros in a professional recording facility. The thought of JUST playing my drums – that means NO engineering, NO mixing, NO bass, and NO brain busting tasks and constant self-educating for the next album sounds like a pretty wickedly amaze-bawlz sweet deal to me! ;- )
Thanks for reading and for the amazing support! Hopefully we’ll catch you at one of our shows!