My first CD sucked.
Ok, that might have been a little harsh. Since 2004, I've been constantly haunted by "Here Today". The songs are great, probably some of the best I've written (since they were the best of everything I'd done up to that point in my life). But the recording. Yikes. The performances and the production were laughable, and not even close to the standards of the other CDs that followed. That's why it's been "out of print" for awhile now.
Then, one day, I had a flash of brilliance. I still had the raw sessions laying around in my closet, trapped inside an external 9 GB SCSI drive that sounds like a 747 taking off, attached to a Roland VS-1680 recorder. I decided on the spot: I'm going to pull those raw recordings into my modern computer recording workstation and see if I can't make a listenable album out of them.
My self-imposed limits:
- Use only what was recorded back then. No new recordings.
- Keep the spirit of the arrangements intact.
- Use any tools I have to make the existing audio sound better.
The result is both stunningly improved and only subtly different. Take a listen for yourself, or pick up a copy of the newly-back-in-print CD or FLAC version from my store. :)
Overall, the biggest problem with the originals were the vocals. I didn't know anything about singing, I didn't have the ability to easily do comped parts, and I didn't take my time when I recorded these. I was so far off that Autotune wasn't going to cut it. It's a bandaid, where most of these songs needed surgery. So I tried out Melodyne, and discovered that it's simply magical. Transparent, yet incredibly effective. Listenable vocals: check.
From a mix standpoint, the original was incredibly heavy-handed with EQ. Side-by-side, the new mixes might sound downright dull next to the old ones, but the overhyped treble was so grating and fatiguing.
The original mixes were mastered too hot overall. It might just be the fact that I've become a more militant fighter against the loudness wars, but I brought these down to give them less clipping, more room to breathe and more dynamics. Side-by-side, some of the old mixes might even sound better, but only because the human ear thinks louder sounds better. Turn up the volume knob on the new ones and you'll hear the real difference.
- Incoherent - It was tough to work with this one. Without any electric guitar parts, I wasn't able to add the crunch I wanted. Adding some grunge to the vocals and plugged-in acoustic track helped. The vocals on the original were a disaster, so it took some massive surgery to get them into shape.
- Mona Lisa - I'd saved the raw electric guitar part so I was able to reprocess it. The original acoustic parts were too clicky and intrusive, so I mono-ized them, scooped out the EQ and de-essed them to kill the pick clicks. Some extra compression smoothed this out and popped it up. I should use the dumbek more often, it sounds cool.
- Dust - I actually had to pull out the frequencies around 1khz from my voice, instead of my usual boost. I sang really differently back then.
- Troublemaker - This is one of the ones I was most excited to get my paws on. I always liked the production on the original, but felt like it could really scream with what I know now. Tightening up the vocals helped immensely, especially the doubled ones. I was somewhat restricted what I could do, though, because a lot of stuff was already bounced. The drums were pre-mixed and the vocal telephone distortion effect was printed, as was the autowah bassline.
- House In My Head - The biggest headache was the fact this was recorded a full 50 cents flat (or sharp, since that's half-way between half steps). Once I adjusted everything to deal with that, this one was easy. I brought up the sound effects because they sound cool.
- Learn to Fly - I've never liked this arrangement much, but I was able to clean up the timing a little, which always bugged me.
- Nothing in the Dark - This was a pain in the ass. Like a lot of these songs, I sequenced the electronic parts in FruityLoops and printed them to tape on one stereo track (so I can't change them or adjust their relative properties). In this case, the drums, looped acoustic guitar groove and organ were all together. Worse - the organ was fairly flat compared to the other tracks. I buried it a bit, and adjusted the pitch of the bass guitar down about 20 cents since it was in its own world. I needed a tuner back then.
- Soft Orange Glow - The original was especially harsh-sounding, and this came out a lot smoother.
- Morning After - I found a hidden cool accordion part that I didn't use in the final version for some reason! It was a few takes of fumbled parts on top of the first chorus. It made more sense in the second, so I comped it in there.
- Home Improvement - The dumbek part in the original was tragically undermixed, and bringing it up really improves the groove. The "steakhouse" line was a last-minute addition that I later regretted, so I spliced in the original "100mph" line here. I stretched the rules a little on this one (while still staying in my parameters) by adding a harmony line to the second and third choruses. It's simply a Melodyne pitch-shifted version of what was already there, but it works well.
- Midnight Sun - This whole song was recorded about 20 cents flat. That's why the piano solo sounds like crap; I couldn't pitch-shift it back then. I do now, and now everything is happier.
- Wake Up - Another one where the dumbek was mixed too low originally and it really brings out the groove here. There was also a bizarre mystery on the original outtake tracks: the last line of the third verse with completely different lyrics that I don't remember at all, but that have been listed on my website since I added the song. And the lyrics are even better than what was released. Even better, it was recorded in three-part harmony! Score.
- Sleepy Thought - I almost didn't remix this one because I couldn't find it! It was saved under a different name. I didn't need to do much here. I used a multiband compressor on the guitar to kill the boomy low notes. I hid a couple of the electric guitar licks that didn't work.