The surreal life during covid 19

This has been a very surreal five months, during covid 19. Like all musicians I had to cancel all live gigs for myself and for music events I host with Music for The Head and Heart. With the lockdown, the whole world was suddently on pause and we have and continue to be in uncharted territory. I’ve driven 45 miles in 5 months, so am totally doing my bit for the carbon footprint as I also cancelled 8 overseas trips for my non musical work.

Music creation and recording

To my great surprise this has been an amazing period for writing and recording new material. Just as lockdown appeared I grabbed a number of new items for my home studio that have been used to great effect. I’ve already blogged on the Acme DI and the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic and I’ve also been using Fulltone trem units and my Henriksen Buds for recording via the excellent UAD Arrow unit. I’m actually working on two totally different music projects at the same time with two different producers.

For the first time everything is on electric guitar, which is a first. Usually I’ll put down some sketch ideas, then work them up into a demo before starting to adlib and figure lyrics. I’ve been using my weekly meetings with Agi to do live takes of vocal tracks and I now have 14 tracks mixed and “in the vault” for one of the albums, and there will be very different versions of these tracks for a second album.

Gathering like musical minds

One of the few benefits of covid 19 is that there are many artists sitting at home neding work. I suspect that live work won’t appear until 2022 and in the meantime streaming will only increase, but that’s a very different experience. Social media has been great for locating session musicians to add to a core group that are generally my ‘go too folks” for any projects. I’m lucky to be working with two brilliant producers who have never been so busy. Its clear to me that that the role of any producer is essential in creating the very best music. Often music may be mixed but not actually mastered

Tracks “in the vault”

These tracks are already mixed and in the vault, with four more tracks in the pipeline

All is fine till the world goes pop 4.19
Gather round 6.57
Nothing here sounds good 3.21
All Kinds of Crazy 5.24
Your chosen one is coming 4.12
Please take this time 4.24
321 Lockdown 3.41
Hold that thought 3.30
Sticks and stones 3.40
The world is burning 3.39
That gals as cool as fuck 3.25
All about her lies 3.29
Maybe 5.04
Come on down 3.51

Special thanks to everyone who has helped with creating these tracks to date

Into the electric zone

After many years of playing mostly acoustic music I now find myself immersed in writing a whole bunch of material on electric guitar. I have amassed a great collection over the years so there’s a lot of choice but I’m defaulting to my Warmoth hardtail strat and Ransom telecaster both equipped with terrific Tom Holmes paf pickups.

An even greater surprise to me is that I am recording totally by DI instead of by miking up amps. I’m using the excellent Acme Motown DI unit and a Zen Drive 2 pedal into the Arrow UAD interface. I’m using a Tom Holmes bridge pickup on all tracks and these of course sound great. I’m also exclusively using the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic for all vocals.

After recording three albums of acoustic instruments, its a real surprise to be in a new sonic territory of overdriven guitar sounds. The Zen Drive 2 has been a game changer and I am about to receive a rare Black Magic Zen Drive unit, so I have a back up. The combination of the Zen Drive and the Acme is extraordinary and wonderfully simple to use.

Keeping in simple

There’s a good reason why many classic pop and rock songs are written to a formula, verse, chorus. middle eight. I’m rediscovering the joys of working simply with strong melody lines and sharp lyrics. Of course I’ve always been a fan of these two ingredients but usually I have a full band of up to another five members to work with. Now I’m doing everything myself so I’m working faster in my home studio and during the covid 19 lockdown I have more time than usual.

Many of the new songs start with a riff and develop from there. I learned some great songwriting tips from my good friend Tim Booth from James and am putting his advice to good use. This approach is certainly working and I already have a bunch of new material in the vault.

Working on 2 simultaneous projects

I’m working on two simultaneous projects during the lockdown. One of the projects is not directly linked to “Nick Cody” and is totally different to anything else I have done before. The second project is working with stripped back electric tracks with additional input from some of my trusted musical colleagues who always deliver in spades.

Conclusion

The covid pandamic has sparked a great deal of creativity and everything is geared around electric guitar. Last night I played a uke live on zoom for the first time and it was strange after three solid months of distorted electric guitar. I of course love both styles of instrument, but I am having a blast with this electric work.

Its all about guitar today

Today is all about putting down guitar tracks for my first ever cover version. After recording 44 tracks to date, this is new territory. I’m also loving working with the Acme DI box, the Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic and the Arrow UAD unit.

I have blogged a lot about the Acme which was used extensively on Motown albums and it has a very distinctive 60s sound to my ears. I keep thinking about the third Velvet Underground album in terms of sound and that’s in my view no bad thing. This is a total departure from all my acoustic guitar and ukulele work and requires some very different thinking.

I’ve also found myself using the same guitar a Warmoth custom hardtail strat with a graphite Moses neck and a Tom Holmes bridge pickup which is giving a great great sound. I’m using Reaper DAW to put down the central tracks and tomorrow I’ll be hooking up with Agi and adding vocals before connecting with Carl Rosamond in the afternoon to explore mixing.

These as we know are very strange times globally and these recording sessions are totally different to my normal way of working. To start with I’m playing all the parts and doing all the vocals. We are also working really quickly on material and there is something to be said for such concise time effective ways of working.

One big lesson has been in investing in really excellent studio gear and not cutting any corners. This ia all the more important as there’s a run on studio gear in these times as more and more people are looking to beef up their home recording setups.

Welcome to Reverb Hell …

I have noticed a new trend in recent times of what to my ears sounds like excessive reverb in recordings. I have mentioned this before, but it seems to have reached a new level both metaphorically and literally. The use of reverb can be great in mastering a track, BUT many artists sound like they are singing from the bottom of a well.

I commented about this to a performer who suggested that some artists use reverb to make some limitations in vocal delivery and/or don’t have enough awareness to reign it in a bit. With acoustic instruments and the ukulele its very easy to lose the dynamics of the instruments in a wash of reverb. Similarly, there seems to be a trend especially among female artists for producers to bathe the vocals in reverb and then describe the result as “ethereal” To my ears it really doesn’t sound good at all, but of course some folks love this kind of sonic manipulation.

Twenty years ago, many aspiring artists would have access to reverb through hardware and Alessis Midiverbs were common tools, especially for guitarists. The higher end Lexicon reverbs used in most studios would not be affordable to most individuals. Production in sound has also changed over time, so some 1980s production which sounded great at the time can now sound dated. Trevor Horn’s ZTT label had a very specific sound that would be very out of step these days.
Most aspiring musicians can now easily have access to great mastering and mixing tools, BUT often the DIY efforts sound horrible. In the same way a decade ago, many artists mastered tracks for maximum volume, these days we appear to have an unfortunate outbreak of maximum reverb. I’m not surprised that this happens with hobbyist performers, but it also seems to be the case with some professional studio engineers. I’m not talking about a preference for the overall sound but instead mixes that are literally saturated in reverb.

These days companies like UAD provide terrific options for musicians and often “less is more” when such tools are used. With some careful attention to detail it’s possible to create really fantastic mixes that in days gone by would not be possible. Of course, many people are listening to music on platforms that don’t really reveal the true sonic potential in the mix. Neil Young is one such artist who has railed against really compressed music formats and platforms. Personally, I applaud any initiative to create the best possible sound regardless of how it’s being consumed. My hope is that the era of reverb hell will be short-lived, but then it’s of course just my opinion.  Many artists would benefit from taking more care about their music production regardless of whether they do the mastering and mixes themselves or employing someone to do it for them