Recording acoustic guitar with Nelson Pavlosky

Choosing a guitar

Nelson in profile

Unfortunately, choosing which guitar to record with wasn’t as easy as I hoped. All of our acoustic guitars developed problems during the record sessions, but fortunately they were different problems so we could choose which guitar to use based on which problem would affect the album the least. Now I understand why professional musicians own so many instruments: redundancy! Sure, having a selection of guitars with different properties allows you to produce a wider range of sounds, and having multiple guitars lets you quickly switch tunings while playing live, but I think the most important reason to have a lot of instruments is so you can switch when one instrument breaks down or starts sounding funny.

Kermit the guitar I am in love with my green Takamine acoustic-electric, named “Kermit”, and I would generally want to use it in any situation. However, recently Kermit has started going out of tune if I play high on the fretboard, and unfortunately many of our songs require me to do that. I didn’t have a chance to get Kermit’s problems checked out at the guitar store before recording started, so I had to use other guitars that were more in tune.

We used Brian’s black Martin acoustic-electric for a couple tracks, most notably “Running Scared”, but for some reason the low E string was sounding much louder and rattle-y than the other strings, which sounded strange. Much of “Running Scared” doesn’t use the low E string and we thought the guitar sounded fine with the parts that do, but this problem mostly eliminated the Martin from the album.

We ultimately used Brian’s Ovation acoustic-electric for most of the tracks, even though something was very wrong with the line out. I thought the line out would be important, but it turned out it wasn’t, we were able to record great-sounding acoustic guitars without it.

Recording acoustic-electric guitars without line-out

Nelson strums

For our EP we had two tracks for each acoustic/electric guitar: a microphone in front of the sound hole, and directly plugging it into the guitar’s line out, and that delivered a decent sound. By having multiple tracks for the acoustic guitars, we can mix them together and better control the sound. For example, if the line out has more bass, and the mike over the sound hole has more treble, you can turn up the volume on the line out if you want a more bassy sound. For this album we were hoping to have three tracks for the acoustic/electrics, by adding a third track from a microphone over the fretboard. However, since the line out on the Ovation was oddly quiet and full of static, we didn’t end up using that track, so we just had two tracks, the fretboard mike and the sound hole mike. I think this gave us a deep, rich, and very acoustic sound… the line out would have made the acoustic guitars sound a bit more electric, and I’m not sure I miss it.

Surviving without heat

The Sopranos watch over the heaterWe could not use the central air in the building while recording anything with microphones, because the fans made noise. It was the middle of winter in New Jersey, it was pretty darn cold outside and, without heat, inside. This problem affected recording the drums, acoustic guitars, and vocals. This may have been less of a problem for Santoro because drumming is a very physically intense activity, but playing guitar really was only exercising one or maybe two arms, there was no way I would break a sweat recording guitar. I compensated by wearing lots of layers, sometimes even wearing my winter coat indoors, and bringing a thermos of hot tea and a thermos of hot rice with me to the studio. It would have been hopeless without space heaters such as the one pictured to the left, and the little faux fireplace in the drum room, which we used to warm our fingers and maintain manual dexterity. It was still pretty miserable, but that’s the cost of the pursuing your musical dreams. If I ever get to build my own studio, I will do my best to make sure it has silent heating and cooling, so that we can keep the studio at a comfortable temperature no matter what we are recording.

My Interview

Brian: Um, this is the end of acoustic day… being our primary acoustic guitarist and our primary interviewer, would you like to ask yourself some questions?
Nelson: [laughter] Well, Nelson, how do you feel about being done with acoustic guitar? Well, me, I feel pretty frickin’ good. I’m sad that Kermit didn’t make it onto this album because I never got him tuned up at the shop, so Kermit is unfortunately absent. But I did enjoy the Ovation and the Martin guitars, they were good.
Brian: Did you enjoy freezing your ass off in that room over there?
Nelson: I did not enjoy freezing my ass off! Funny you should ask. But I had some hot tea and stuff, and I’m all good. I wore my orange hoodie over my headphones, so I was nice and cozy. It’s an accomplishment! I am happy.
Brian: One of your standard questions has been your favorite and least favorite songs to record.
Nelson: I think that Flight III / Flight I came out really good, I’m really proud of that. I am not proud of how I couldn’t play the finger-picking to “Out of Time” despite having practiced it for like years on end. But Brian hit it so it’s all good. And you know, I’ll practice it more and someday we’ll play it live, so… I am satisfied.
Brian: Alright, to be continued.
Nelson: Thank me for the interview 😉

Recording bass with Andrew Angelin

Choosing a bass player for “Stay Awake” was easy. Andrew Angelin is the most talented bass guitarist I know, and I am honored to play with him under any circumstances. He also joined us in the studio the last time we attempted to record this album, which meant that he was very familiar with our songs, and he had had plenty of time to polish and improve his basslines. I think it shows, in cuts like this slap bass riff from “Flight III”:

Technical skill

Andrew does some very technically interesting things with his bass, and I learn something from him whenever I watch him play. I once saw Andrew slide a harmonic, which I didn’t even think was possible. (He had a hard time replicating it consistently, but maybe I can convince him to pull that trick out on a future album.) I think that Andrew’s bass adds a lot of depth to our songs, and that it makes our songs interesting to listen to over and over because you hear something new every time.

Bass chordsSometimes Andrew plays chords on his bass, which is something I think most bass players never consider doing. You’ll be able to hear this during one of his bass solos at the end of “Where is Bobby McGee?” and at the beginning of “Crossing the Bar” for example, and I think it’s a really nice effect during quiet parts of a song. It’s an effect that may be hard to hear over a full band, so it is only useful in some cases, but it is a technique I rarely hear in rock music and I’m glad to be able to bring it to our listeners. I also don’t usually hear harmonics on bass guitars very often, outside of the records of Jaco Pastorius and other virtuoso bass players, but you’ll be able hear those after the bridge on “Break Free” and once again in the outro to “Where is Bobby McGee?”. The trick to using any technically difficult technique on an instrument is to only use it when appropriate of course, otherwise it becomes a gimmick or just showing off, which some people accuse bands like Dream Theater of doing. Like a spice, you just want to add enough to taste, and I think Andrew has done a good job of moderating his technical chops and only bringing them out for punctuation. (Is that a mixed metaphor?)

Choosing the bass

Andrew jamming on Brian's bass

Andrew decided not to use his own electric bass in the studio this time around… last time he recorded with it he heard some rattling that he thought was undesirable. When Andrew tried out Brian’s bass during rehearsal, he liked it a lot and so that’s what we went with.

When Brian bought his bass in the music store, he didn’t have any reason to expect it to sound particularly good, it’s just an inexpensive Specter bass. However, everyone who hears that bass agrees that it sounds particularly good, and when he brought it in for servicing once, the store guy offered to buy the bass off of Brian. This bass just hit a sweet spot for some reason. It’s somewhat comforting to know that in this world of assembly lines and mass manufacturing that some of the mass produced items come out special, despite all attempts at standardization.

We considered using Andrew’s upright bass for “Contained”, but Andrew decided that track’s jazz-rock sound worked better with an electric bass. He also doubted that he could pull off the ridiculously fast bass fill at the end of the bridge with an upright 🙂 We do try to avoid making our musicians’ lives harder than necessary.

Song charts

Andrew with his song charts

This may come as no surprise, but one important thing we accomplished during rehearsal for this album was creating/finalizing song charts for everyone to work from. I felt bad about not creating song charts for our musicians ahead of time before rehearsal, but at least with the musicians writing song charts for themselves at rehearsal the song charts were personalized for each of them. I think next time we would try to write out song charts ahead of time, however, so that we could spend more time playing music at rehearsal and less time writing down the basic chords and song structure. It’s quicker to add embellishments/edits to a basic song chart than to write one from scratch.

The aftermath

After each musician recorded their tracks, we interviewed them about their experiences in the studio. For Andrew’s interview, see the video below:

Nelson: Andrew, you just recorded all your bass for this album, how does it feel to be done?
Brian: All your bass are belong to us now!
Where's the bass at?Andrew: Ha ha ha, um, I feel great man, you know, I’m surprised it all got done on time in one day. That never happens. Brian’s bass was definitely the right tool to use, I’m glad he brought it. I had a blast! I’m surprised that we still have like 40 minutes.
Nelson: What was your favorite song that you did today?
Andrew: I could say “Last Warning” because there is a very funky bass solo… I dunno, that’s a tough one. I mean, I really enjoyed doing Flight II, because I think that bass line really, you know, it does a lot for me, I don’t know why, it’s a groove thing. Maybe “Break Free”, because that one goes way back, you know, that one goes back to early high school.
Nelson: Nostalgia, right?
Andrew: Exactly, yeah.
Andrew: My least favorite song might have been… well, “The Grinder’s Tale” had a tricky bass line, because it just involves a really strange finger stretch, getting those octaves and whatnot. “Vulture” [now “My Private Asylum”], I don’t know why, I feel like I’ve played it before, and I couldn’t come up with any good ideas for it.
Nelson: Not enough new stuff this time around?
Andrew: Yeah, I couldn’t figure out how to make it more interesting for myself. I feel like I just did the meat and potatoes.
Andrew: You know, we’re ahead of time. Santoro was a great choice for the drums, Portrait was the best choice, I’m glad we’re here and not with Mr. Nuzzo’s place.
Nelson: Ha ha ha
Andrew: The scratch tracks really really helped, so I think you guys should be pretty set. Let’s make this thing a killer album.