Shakysnakes, the recording project of Vancouver’s Ian Johnston, sent along a handful of addictive folk/pop home recordings last month that have found themselves in constant rotation around here. The wistful, heavily-reverbed “You, You, You” is a perfect soundtrack for these early spring days – sunlight and cool breezes through open windows and not a snowflake in sight. Below Johnston discusses the art of self-recording:
Reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is removed. Also, nothing hides a mistake or imperfection like a liberal smattering of reverb and until recently I was scared of it.
I’ve been recording pop songs in my various bedrooms since I was a teenager. I grew up listening to rock bands like Nirvana and I was always trying to mimic the sound of a full band with what I had; mainly a guitar and a computer. I always tried to simulate a real drum kit with these plugins – gigabytes of multi-sampled drum hits, recorded in fancy studios with fancy equipment. For some reason, I was always trying to achieve a sound like the one I heard on the radio or on these massively produced albums. I guess it was the only sound I knew. I was trying to carve space for each instrument and then coerce all the elements to gel into a big, fat mix. I was never finished – never happy with the mix or the song as a whole. I eventually learned I was trying to be too clean; too sterile. Why not leave things a little loose, a little vague, a little dirty? ‘You, you, you’ marks my transformation into accepting that – and embracing it.
No one has ever asked me to talk about how I made a song. That someone might be interested is amazing and totally blowing my mind. I’ve always been a fan of songs that leave their meanings for interpretation – keeping things a bit vague – so I’m not gonna get into the words and their meanings too much. I’ll just say that this is a song about the summer, written in the middle of winter, during an opportune afternoon where I was able to open up all my windows and see my breath and some good old-fashioned sunshine at the same time.
I have a tendency to record little melodies and one-liners to my phone when they hit me, in the hopes of using them later in my studio, and I had this little hummed line that I had recorded at work. You hear it in the first few seconds of the track, right after the siren. I put two heavy layers of reverb on this loop and it became something else – much more musical than it was. I recorded a second hummed phrase and panned them equal parts left and right and I suddenly had this vibe. I made a point of not labouring over any one part for too long – just adjust things until they sound nice and a little dreamy, and then move on.
As soon as I stepped away from trying to program drums that sounded like they were played by a real drummer on a real drum kit, things just seemed to get easier. I wasn’t trying to fake anything, and I was starting to feel free. The drums were first in line to receive a liberal smattering of reverb, followed by the guitars, which were recorded quickly, on the first-take, with my hollow body DeArmond, straight into Ableton Live, my sequencer of choice. Next came the bass guitar, which I wanted to have a bit of growl. I don’t have a bass amp, or any distortion pedals, so I used the Amp and Cabinet simulators in Ableton to mess up the signal a bit.
Next, the vocals. I wanted their melodies to have a sunny sound to go with the major key of the song, and I again opted to try to use some reverbs to change the feeling and make things a little less immediate on the sonic stage. For the “chorus”, I brought back the heavily effected hummed loop from the intro and tried to sing complimentary notes to it.
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, or perhaps it’s obvious, but I didn’t work all that hard on any one aspect of this track. It was all recorded and mixed in just a couple hours – something which I never do. The process has inspired me and made me more creative than I’ve been in years. As I write this I have twelve more tracks in various stages of completion and I’m so excited about them. I feel like I’ve finally stumbled upon the sound that’s been jangling around in my head and I’ve been set free, musically, to record these sounds without any silly ambitions about sounding like a song on the radio. Reverb is my new BFF and it’s complicated.
MP3 :: You, You, You
(Self-released. Download more here)
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