We’ve all experienced some pretty surreal, head-shaking moments in recent months, and the audio industry as a whole has had its fair share of trauma. But for some of us at least, the dire economic circumstances we’re in have generated some unexpected opportunities that none of us saw coming. So it has been with a song I’m currently producing – a homegrown classic in the making!
The song is called ‘We Sing’ an epic rock ballad by Kutcha Edwards that will be the first single off his forthcoming album, ‘Circling Time’ which I’m currently producing here at The Mill. It’s already shaping up as a beautiful record, in no small part because Kutcha has one of the most amazing voices in the country… but I digress.
To explain how the global pandemic has, in some twisted way, benefited the production of ‘We Sing’ let me backtrack a bit.
The Red Light
About four months ago now (pre virus – which feels like a lifetime ago!) I started organising a backing vocal choir session for ‘We Sing’. It was still early in the song’s production back then; I’m not sure exactly when it was now, to be honest.
All I remember is that on the very day I rang Brian Nankervis to book a session at the ABC Southbank Studios, as luck would have it, the place shut down to all but skeleton staff! ‘Perfect,’ I thought. ‘Now what am I gonna do?’
The next five weeks were a blur of home-schooling a six-year-old, wrestling a dodgy NBN system, keeping Kutcha’s album afloat and making ends meet. Somewhere in amongst all that drama I made the decision to keep the choir idea afloat, musing that maybe it could still work if everyone sang his or her parts from home.
Sonically, this plan wouldn’t be ideal of course – gone would be the sound of a big acoustic space for starters – and I would have to make it crystal clear to everyone individually, rather than as a group, what it was I wanted each of them to sing. Otherwise this whole escapade was going to be a slow moving train wreck.
Organising somewhere between 50 and 70 individuals to record two performances each (there are two harmony parts) was going to take some doing: countless emails, phone calls, as well as technical and musical guidance. To add to that complexity – given that I had originally planned to film the ABC Southbank session in all its glory – I wanted each singer to capture video footage (where possible) of his or her vocal performances.
This would be the video equivalent of a consolation prize, given the circumstances; the homespun visual equivalent of the original idea – which we intend to use in the song’s film clip.
The Green Light
As you might appreciate, for a while there I was reluctant to hit ‘go’ on this crazy idea, but once it became clear that a human choir wasn’t going to convene physically anywhere on planet Earth for the next couple of years, I finally put my ‘Plan B – Remote Choir’ concept into action.
Myself and Dean Roberts quickly threw down a fairly simple sketch of a mildly anthemic, two-part harmony backing vocal idea, and that night I made two confidential guide mixes: each one containing a single harmony, so as not to confuse the musicians – most of whom would be receiving this correspondence out of the clear blue sky.
I uploaded these to my Dropbox and embedded links to the two mix files inside the email each singer would receive. Next, I opened an Excel spreadsheet (which isn’t very Rock ‘n’ Roll, I’ll admit) and typed in the names of some of the people I, or Kutcha, thought might be happy to add their voice to the song, via whatever equipment they had at hand.
It was a long list, including some ‘hopefuls’ but I figured if ever there were a time where people might want to add their voice to something a little different, this would be it. I fired off the email and sat back to see what the response might be, hoping like hell that what I had written was clear, and to the point.
What I got back was a deluge! I’ve never had so many emails from so many people about one song in my life. It’s been quite touching to see so much positivity come back from the wider musical community.
Most respondents have recorded at home, a small handful have recorded their performances here at The Mill, while others have displayed an almost superhuman commitment to the song, in some cases travelling hundreds of kilometres from remote aboriginal communities to record in towns like Katherine and Broome.
A couple of weeks later and I now have about 70 backing vocalists aligned and edited in the song’s Pro Tools multitrack session (including Paul Kelly, Archie Roach, Emma Donovan, Darren Middleton, David Bridie, Lisa Miller, and Rebecca Barnard – to name a tiny few); a much bigger choir than I could ever have hoped to convene in the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC!
Almost everyone involved is singing both parts, and by the back end of the song there are about 120 voices, give or take! Needless to say, the results are spine tingling!
Today I’m about to add some horns, yet another backing vocal, and a lead guitar part. Hopefully, by this weekend I’ll be onto the mix! Before I start that though – the moment I finish writing this article, in fact – I have to setup to record none other than Judith Durham from her home in Melbourne!
This minor detail has been quite the sub-plot of this hilarious, twisted saga. Judith – who I’m sure wouldn’t mind me saying – finds computers a little challenging, and unfortunately is in no position to take visitors right now, whether they be recording engineers, the Prime Minister or the Queen.
She can’t really work the internet or her phone that well either, so this arvo, with her listening to the song in headphones via a CD I sent her in the post last week, Judith is going to sing her part down the landline! I’ll be in the studio recording it straight into Pro Tools via a Neumann U47 – I find the 47 the best mic for recording the dulcet, high-fidelity tones of a telephone handset…
Truly bonkers this is… nearly as bonkers as the experience I had last week of explaining to Judith the backing vocal idea over the telephone, as I simultaneously picked out the notes for her on the piano. It was old school… very old school.
By the weekend I suspect the mix window inside Pro Tools (including Judith’s part, the horns and the new lead guitar) will total about 180-odd channels of audio (not including auxiliary returns)… most of these being backing vocals of course, so it’s less complicated than that number implies.
But it’s going to take quite a bit of organising nonetheless, a fair hunk of computer power and a clear head for what takes priority at any given point in the song.
Everything is sounding pretty sweet in the production already actually, and I’ve done a LOT of work on the two separate backing vocal parts as the performances trickled in: editing each one where necessary and even adding quick EQ setups, compression and de-essing per person as I instinctively saw fit.
Having to make those decisions all over again a second time would have added a solid day to the mix, and been a pretty tedious task if faced in one hit. This way the task has been broken up over a couple of weeks.
There’s one other thing happening here tonight, from 5pm, just to add to the mayhem – the film clip for ‘We Sing’ is being shot here on the property! A local film director is setting up a tiny film crew on the hill in the far paddock (which I can see from my mix position out the window!) with me acting as driver (driving my neighbour’s Honda side-by-side ATV across the muddy paddocks).
There will be a catering tent, meaning: a tent where people can get a Teddy Bear biscuit and a cup of tea whilst sheltering from the weather, and I might even take some chairs out there for people to sit on. No expense will be spared!
One thing’s for sure, this whole process is nothing if not Homegrown…
Andy Stewart owns and operates The Mill on Victoria’s Bass Coast. He’s a highly credentialed producer/engineer who’s seen it all in studios for over three decades. He’s happy to respond to any pleas for recording or mixing help… contact him at: email@example.com
CX Magazine – August 2020
LIGHTING | AUDIO | VIDEO | STAGING | INTEGRATION
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