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This Christmas (after Donny Hathaway)


Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” is one of my favorite Christmas songs. It’s one of the rare holiday tunes where the singer just has to belt out the chorus. Plus, the arrangement is genius.

I sort of dumbed that arrangement here, layering a few guitars and hopefully maximizing the crescendo of the chorus.




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I’m not gonna promote this, and I’m gonna keep this pretty low-key, but I’ve decided to finish the Big Damn Album. I haven’t set a deadline yet (I’ve got other recording projects this summer), but it’s going to be done before I die. It’s a 16-song, 75-minute monster of pretty solid pop songs, and I think people might enjoy it.

So here’s where I’ll write about it.

I went to my work studio over the weekend and got the files off the Glyph drives. One drive failed– in a huge disaster– a few years ago. That failure wiped out my friend’s project that I was producing. I’m still upset about it. I copied the files to my external hard drive (after a battle with NTFS), and made redundant backups on the various drives to boot.

Now that I’ve got them here, I can see I didn’t do a great job. 11 of the 16 tracks are all there, but the other 5 are missing big pieces. I’m gonna have to go through those old Glyphs again to find random bass tracks and guitars from like late 2006. Should be fun.

Once I have that done, I’ll have to create new working mixes. My Mac Mini just cannot run the 24-part string orchestra on top of 8 guitars on top of 2 sets of 8-track drums. That’s ridiculous. Then vocals.

But first, I gotta figure out where these other files are. I’m pretty hopeful they weren’t lost along with the other project. Fingers crossed.

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I’ve had a few setbacks in the project, but I’m making progress nonetheless.

For starters, I’ve encountered some weird pain in my knuckles that is making barre chords impossible to play. I’ve been giving myself rest from guitar hoping it’d go away, but that doesn’t seem to be working. I managed to finish the acoustic guitar part that was required, but I’m worried I won’t be able to play any overdubs or lead parts as needed.

That’s okay. Working around limitations forces creativity.

Next: percussion. I won’t be fitting a drum kit into my studio (read: bedroom), so I’m making do. I tracked shakers and tambourines in a multi-hour marathon recording session that left my palms bruised. I synthesized kick drum using MIDI (and then did what I could to affect it so it didn’t sound so sterile and present). Again, that’s not ideal, but I’ve managed to mitigate a lot of the negative side effects.

On the other hand, I did sink three hours into moving beats around to invent some kind of mechanical generative “pocket” that kind of resembles my actual human groove. Getting machines to act like humans isn’t a good use of either its or my energy.

I think the only other major percussion task is snare drum. I’ll need to acquire one since I can’t locate my own– as well as some brushes and bundle sticks. There’s a little spoiler for what genre I’m working in.

And after that: vocals! It’s not a real record to me until it’s got the character of final vocals. I’ll be spending a lot more time on vocals and vocal mixing this time around compared to the Party Records. I’ve never really been a ride-the-fader guy, but I really want to give that a try on SPF. There’s a lot of variation in voice across the record, and it seems like adjustments to reverberant space are justified when my singing voice changes from precious to booming.

Once all that’s done (by this weekend, I hope), I’ll be moving to adding more instruments and layers. I fully intend to record a bunch of stuff that won’t appear on the final record– lots of darling killing will be occurring here.

And then mixing and mastering (nominally) in time for my self-imposed deadline.

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I’m working on a project for the next bunch of weeks. I won’t discuss the details of the project here, but I’m gonna discuss the process.

Yesterday was day one of production work. I’ve already written 10 songs, though none of them I consider to be 100% complete. This project, which I’ll call SPF here, is completely solo, so I figure I can make edits to the songs as I record them without the transactional pain of coordinating it with collaborators.

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Be Mine (after Robyn)


Robyn is one of my favorite musicians. Her songs are usually elegant but also bracingly fun. The song structures she (and producer Klas Åhlund) choose are usually simple enough to allow for pretty cool arrangements, which is sort of what I was going for here. “Be Mine” is a brilliant, basic four-chord pop song that she recorded as a kind of bittersweet, triumphant paean. It’s a fantastic record (even separate from the already great song), and I didn’t wanna try to duplicate it.

Aside from the rhythm section, that is. I re-recorded Robyn’s TR-808 drums on a synth rock drum set and tasked Erin with plucking those punchy bass notes (direct input), which she did tremendously well on a song that depends on its groove for its propulsion. For the cellos and violins that comprise most of the chords in the song, I arpeggiated two hard-panned guitars– sort of a perversion of the string quartet and a better match for all the glottal compression in my voice.

The vocals were challenge. Robyn’s range isn’t too high for my tenor, but it’s definitely too high for my tenor to not sound like garbage. I had to hold back a lot on the verses and yodel into a head voice to nail the chorus (singing all those Gene Autry songs in my car has paid off). I doubled vocals on everything after the B section, a trick that has been trouble for me in the past (pitchy and inconsistent), but it works this time in masking weak spots in my voice. I did not lay down the B section’s harmonies because i) they were too close for me to figure out, and ii) I didn’t introduce a whole bunch of layers all at once. Plus, I got to goof around with some Daryl Hall ad libs at the end (Erin figured that out on her first listen).

I wrestled with compression a lot. I used (and abused) the emulated 1176 for a while until a friend pointed out that the mix was coming out a bit EDM-y. I backed off on that one and shared the burden with a great plugin called Maxim on the bass and drums, resulting in a much less wobbly final track. That really saved Erin’s spoken word section the middle, which had sounded unwieldy in early mixes.

The kazoo, by the way, is all Erin. It cracks me up everytime.

That’s it. Hope you enjoy it. And listen to Robyn. She’s the best.

Bass and back-up vocals by Erin Surrock

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Hold on Hope (after Guided by Voices)


Tough week. Thought I’d kick off my new recording project with something simple and therapeutic. This is an old song by Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices. I’ve been playing it since college and it sounded good on Erin’s guitar, Sadie, so I decided to lay it down.

I’m still lacking some gear in the studio so I’m making do without a proper wind screen. And my piano skills are excruciating, but I’m getting better.

Here’s to the first of many and the end of a very bad week for everyone.