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The Sportswriter's Songbook

You and San Francisco (studio version)

September 2, 2010 1:14 PM

Full blown (not to say epic) production of this acoustic demo.

I liked the demo and thought about just doing it as a more polished acoustic version, but I had a bunch of ideas fizzing around in my head so I thought I'd just start recording and see where it led. I didn't expect it to end up quite so epic, but there you are.

In my head I'd always thought of this as a fairly laid-back Neil Young song, but I kept hearing parts that had to go in, like the tremolo strings and the shimmering guitar. I also fought really hard to keep it in common time but the acoustic guitar refused to be played in anything but 6/8 so that's where it ended up.

It's got a bit more space in it than a lot of my songs but it still ends up slammed at the end... no surprise there.

In the end I think it has a bit of a feel of The Blue Nile, which is all right by me.

Drums are still programmed... nowhere near good enough to hack this kind of thing yet, but it did have an effect on the patterns I wrote.

posted by unSane (12 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

full blown/overblown, it's a fun line to walk...
posted by unSane at 3:40 PM on September 2, 2010

Oh yes.....oh yes indeed. This is a real lighters in the air job. And very, very nicely done mate. Being picky, I think this is mixed a little too hot - it's all a bit "in yer face" (you're a Brit, you'll understand the phrase). And loud doesn't necessarily mean good. It just means loud. People can just...turn it up a bit if they want (the natural response to that is "...or turn it down"!) Just an opinion - feel free to disregard. Musically, I think the vocal is a little uncertain/tentative to begin with and intonation is just a wee bit iffy in places, and maybe another shot at it would be worth it for such a good track? Oh and, as an aside, I don't think this sounds anything like The Blue Nile (one of my favourites too btw). But it does remind me of some other band with that kind of slightly tentative, breathy vocal style - but I'm fucked if I can nail it right now. Waterboys?? Captain (This Is Hazelville was criminally underrated and they've split now - what a shame)???

I could put a guitar solo on the end of this that would blow your fucking head off........
posted by MajorDundee at 1:59 PM on September 3, 2010

Thanks, Major. I think you're right about all of that and there are a couple of other things that are bothering me in the mix now that I've had a chance to live with it a while (bass is a bit high and sloppy timing at the beginning).

I mixed using the limiter set a bit high, trying to bring up the levels of the acoustic verses a bit, but you're right, it's kind of overwhelming and it means the big ensemble chorus at the end doesn't seem that much of a lift from the other choruses, even though it's got another backing harmony and some strings.

The Blue Nile thing is just from the intro/prechorus part with the descending chords over the pedal bass note and the rhymic guitar underlaying it, with the strings on top.

I'd love to hear what you can do with a guitar at the end. Could I send you a file of the backing track and then you can do your worst?
posted by unSane at 2:53 PM on September 3, 2010

(I used to be a big fan of that era of the Waterboys... and stadium rock is a real guilty pleasure of mine).
posted by unSane at 3:03 PM on September 3, 2010

and stadium rock is a real guilty pleasure of mine. Big smile at that (I still love this kind of sound - that's my guilty and deeply uncool pleasure). I would be honoured to have a go at playing on this. Just hope I can deliver (ha!). Best thing is to send me a stereo WAV version of the backing track via YouSendIt or similar and we'll go from there. Drop a link to my hotmail address or the mail facility on here.
posted by MajorDundee at 3:52 PM on September 3, 2010

I'm really impressed with the production on the backup vocals. They sound incredibly smooth and like a warm fuzzy wall of sound. I'd love to achieve something similar. Can you write a few words about how you got these results?

Lovely song, well done! I'm off to listen to the demo.
posted by edlundart at 12:28 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you! My ideal for this kind of BV is the sound Matthew Sweet gets on Girlfriend and Altered Beast, so it's taken me a while to figure it out but I'm getting there.

Short version: close harmony, double everything and then give it all exactly the same sweetening.

Long version: The backing vocals are two-part harmonies on the first two choruses and three-part on the third chorus. Basically a third and a fifth above the melody, more or less, and the third part a bit more free. The secret to making them smooth is...

1. Each part is doubled-tracked, then panned hard left and hard right. So on the last track there are six tracks total of harmonies, singing three different parts.

2. All these tracks are ganged to a single stereo bus so that they can all get the same treatment. There the bass and low middle is EQd out of them so they are sitting above the lead vocal rather than on top of it. They are compressed pretty hard so that all the volume changes are evened out. I add a tiny bit of tight reverb and just a little bit of chorus.

The other thing that's important as far as I can tell if you want that velvety feeling is to keep the harmonies close (ie in the same octave) and use thirds/sixths. If you just sing fifths like a lot of people do, it sounds kind of hollow, and if you just sing thirds or sixths it sounds a bit thin, but if you do both it really starts to lift off.

You can use something like Vocalign to get them really tight if you want, but I never bother.
posted by unSane at 4:25 AM on September 4, 2010

(oh yeah, and another tip for the top when you are trying to record them is to record a single-note keyboard version of each harmony melody, and have it play the first note before the part comes in when you are tracking. This makes it much easier to hit the right first note if you are not used to singing in sixths, say. I'm not religious about keeping the interval exact... usually the harmony takes on a life of its own, but if you break them all out into separate keyboard parts once you have the basic idea it makes it much easier to see where they're working and where they aren't).
posted by unSane at 4:45 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just here to say YES, and to say thanks for the BV advice. That's something I've though alot about but never persued. This is great!
posted by snsranch at 6:41 PM on September 5, 2010

Thank you!

I forgot to say that the lead vocal is doubled on the choruses too, but both tracks panned center and the second track compressed really hard and mixed about 3db lower than the main vocal. This adds more thickness still and helps stops the massive BVs overpowering the main vocal.

Doing it this way, one problem is that the choruses, especially the last one, are massively louder than the verses (which at several points are only a very quiet acoustic guitar and very soft vocal) so you then have to tackle that either by automation to ride the levels, or compression, or a limiter, or all three. I overdid the limiting on this mix which as Major Dundee points out makes it overbearingly loud and monotone. However a compressor and a limiter (something like a Waves L2 or the Adaptive Limiter that comes with Logic) on the output does help even out all the levels.
posted by unSane at 7:03 PM on September 5, 2010

Hmmh...what? I was listening to it and thinking "yeah, it does sound big and well" and then the backing voices came in. Wow. Very impressive unSane. Great job.

Also, there's an "evolution" tag for the times when people post demos and then the finished version of the songs, perhaps you could add it to this one, so that it will show with the others.
posted by micayetoca at 12:50 PM on October 21, 2010

Thanks, m, tag added. This song is still evolving as it now has a geetar part by Maj. Dundee which I am *almost* ready to put a new vocal to...
posted by unSane at 6:17 PM on October 21, 2010

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