Sex Dream: from start to (a) finish

I’ve always had little to no interest in recording, but as I’ve got older and gigs have got further and further apart I’ve started to realise that it makes little sense making music that nobody ever hears. Not that the world needs to hear me  – I’m a hacky songwriter existing in the margins of nowhere. But still: it’s good for the id to be able to point to something and say: “You know what? I created that.”

Hence, I’m embarking on learning how to record things at the wrong side of forty and with absolutely zero knowledge to go on other than things I’ve read about how the Beatles recorded things, which is useless as they existed in an era before electricity and had to coexist alongside woolly mammoths, where as I live in a Buck Rodgers-style futurescape where I can order pizza OVER THE PHONE.

Anyway, I’ve been dabbling with a Tascam DP004 for a few years and it’s become painfully apparent that it’s fine for making sketchy notes for more-or-less personal use, but pitiful when it comes to making anything with any polish.

So over Christmas I became the owner of an iPad from which games are banned and that is only there for me to record with.

I’m using Garageband, because that comes with it, costs nowt, and is simple enough for even a mildly brain-damaged (true story) man of early middle age to get to grips with.

So here is a song I wrote around April 2016 in raw, scratchy format, recorded live on my phone on the day it was written.

And here is the same song after a few hours’ work on Garageband. Honestly, whatever the merits of the song, and even knowing that I’m way behind the capability offered by the software, it kind of blows my tiny mind that something so polished-sounding can be put together by a complete numpty like me.

To record it, I broke the song down into sections. Main verse, the chunkier bridge, the chorus, the middle 8/instrumental passage and so on.

Then for each section I recorded a rough take through the iPad’s built-in mic of that section – working studiously to the built-in metronome so that recording overdubs would be fairly simple.

With the structure in place, I then set about recording three parts.

Acoustic guitar

I don’t think that acoustic guitars recorded through direct inputs into these devices sound nice at all. I’m sure there are ways of doing it, but I’ve no idea what they are – so I simply sat down and played the song along with the guide tracks I’d done earlier with my guitar next to the iPad. Probably there are all kinds of clicks and buzzes and background noises and rubbish in there, but hey – I’m not Pink Floyd!

Electric guitar

I ran my shitty old Epiphone Les Paul copy through my Orange Cube practice amp on the thin basis that it’s the only set up I have, and then directly into the iPad via the headphone socket – which also doubles up as a recording input. I probably went overboard on the overdrive. The part itself is just a doubling-up of the acoustic track except for the choruses, which were done separately.

Bass

For the bass I tried something different. Still plugged into the iPad, I ran the bass through an app called Amplitube, which emulates different guitar and bass amps. Again, I plead ignorance as to how it works specifically, so I can’t be any more precise than to say I clicked various dials and buttons until I had a nice boomy bass sound.

And hey presto! A solid backing track which – while probably quite primitive – is light years ahead to the thin, mistimed musical demos I’ve been accustomed to producing.

I then recorded vocals just through the iPad mic. This is the one area that is obviously ‘weak’ in terms of recording, so I’ve ordered a proper iPad-compatible mic adaptor so I can run vocals through my Shure SM58 and get a much better sound next time.

The Drums – and the genius of Garageband

Where most home recording falls in a clattering heap down an endless concrete stairwell is drums. Even real drums recorded in a real studio with real equipment are a bastard of a thing. That’s why you will find countless videos on YouTube of people trying to unpick the minutiae of what kit and mics John Bonham used forty years ago to get a certain drum sound.

But that’s just the sound. If you’re a guitarist or a singer, how do you even get drums if you don’t have a drummer? For the longest time, you’ve relied on drum machines designed primarily for dance/electronica, or the kind of terrible pre-installed rhythm tracks that come with your Casio keyboard (guilty as charge, m’lud).

The latest iteration of Garageband, however, comes with the anus-clenching-sounding “Virtual Drummers.” With weary heart and no hope,  I fired one of them up.

And fuck me. It sounded like an actual drum kit being played by an actual human. Moreover, I could flick between various different “drummers” – from a lass playing a lo-fi indie drum kit, to a dubstep DJ playing samples and cut-up loops.

So, I found a reasonable sounding drum track and set it to go. But the problem was now refined. While it was a decent part, it didn’t exactly fit the music. The song (if you’ve listened to it) is full of stops and starts, and little bits of rhythmical change. But, like a drum machine, the default position of the virtual drummer is just to whack out a pre-set rhythm. So, the song has – by design – pauses, but the drummer just went on playing, making sound like what it was: a recording with an unrelated drum track sat over the top. Worst still, I couldn’t just scream at them to shut the fuck up in this bit or play louder here.

And then I noticed a little button labelled “follow”. Clicking it revealed that I could force the drummer to follow the rhythm of any other of the tracks. With no small degree of curiosity, I told the drummer to follow the bass track… and was stunned to see that it actually did – placing accents that fell more or less exactly in step with the bass part and playing… well, like an actual rhythm section.

And because I’d recorded the song in sections, I was able to go through each section and choose different emphases: so the second verse has a much busier drum part, and there are a variety of different drum rolls and fills throughout to give the track both a little taste of unpredictability and a much closer feel to if it had been recorded by an actual live band.

Moreover, you can tell the virtual drummer to use more cymbals. Or fewer toms. To hit the drums harder here, or quieter there. To play simply or more complex- or a combination of any of these dimensions. And, finally, what degree of fills to use. Whack that all the way up and the drummer starts to bash out Keith Moon style rolls willy-nilly. Dial it back and you get Ringo Starr style conservatism. Suddenly, I had what sounded like an actual band playing my song!

So, while I’m not claiming to have discovered the wheel here, this revelation seems like a person Damascene-Conversion kind of moment to me. Suddenly, a bunch of songs I’ve been sitting on for year, mopily hoping someone would come along and sort out for me, are within my own capability to turn into listenable demos.

Which, dear reader (and I do mean singular, no one ever reads this fucking thing), means I can finally complete my 9 hour song cycle about the life of otters. I look forward to your continued custom.

Constable Road (an old new song)

As I entered my later teens, I was afflicted by a kind of melancholic nostalgia for the childhood I was leaving behind. It persisted well into my 20s and coloured a lot of my thoughts and my writing. Weirdly, now that I’m actually old enough to have something to be nostalgic for (hair, a waistline, friends) I don’t really feel that any more. Probably having kids and a raft of ongoing personal problems forces you to live more in the moment than when you don’t have any actual troubles to deal with.

Anyway, around the same time I had a spell of obsessing over Build by the Housemartins, which spoke powerfully to me about the way that when something like a new housing development happens, it destroys an unseen world that belongs to the children who play in it. And to complete the picture, my local village had been pegged for housing development and from around 1991 swathes of fields were carpeted with new build houses. Even now I still refer to this development as Toy Town or The New Estate. During the course of the development, many tiny local landmarks probably only known to us kids disappeared under concrete and brick, never to be seen again. The main thoroughfare through this development? Constable Road.

With that in mind, when I began to write songs myself the thought and influence was quite strong in my mind and bore creative fruit in this song (which I’ve sort of mentally got pegged as being written when I was 17). I’ve been playing it to myself and at open mic nights for quarter of century, which also give me some pause for thought!

At the same time, I’m getting to grips with using GarageBand instead of my trusty old Tascam DP-004 and it looks – as you’d expect – to be much quickerer and betterer for getting songs together in a way that sounds halfway professional. If I’m being honest I’m not sure the song warrants a “full band” treatment, as it’s really an intimate one-man-and-his-guitar kind of song, but I was enjoying playing around with overdubs so here it is in workshop form with unnecessary Phil Spectorisation: Constable Road.

Lyrics

I stood beneath these trees
Listening to the sound
Of laughter in the sun
Twisting time about our hands
We ran the world from here
From our little shady glade beneath the sky
Dreams that spiralled into life
We dallied with the tides
That ran amongst our minds
When summer was forever
Did I really walk home this way?
Where everything’s now grey
In a summer they destroyed the place
Of all our dreams
Dreams of children turned to dust
They never noticed us
As they planned their roads
And trampled underfoot
All the joy and trust
With Constance Road
Dreams of children turned to dust