Acro Camp Soundtrack Studio Session

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On Friday, Barry (“Bernie”) Sutton and Don (“Seawall”) Weaver and I went into The Soundscape Recording Studio in Royal Oak, Michigan to do some work on the soundtrack for the upcoming independent film, Acro Camp. (Check out

This is a continuation in part of the crowdsourcing of Acro Grass, the bluegrass-flavored basic theme that we’re using for the film. We walked in with two versions of the tune. The first is the same version that I put out there earlier this year for people to use as a backing track for contributions. It’s an acounstic riff in D at 116 bpm. The second is an electrified version, also in D at 106 bpm with the electric guitar mostly clean and with a 563 ms delay to sound a lot like The Edge (guitarist for U2). Lastly, I did a very basic riff in 3/4 that, if you don’t play a G# or other notes that would capture it into a specific key, lacks a tonal center and is both cool and annoying for the same reason.

I sent Don and Barry links to just the basic tracks in MP3 form the week before and let them listen to them prior to coming into the studio. Uncharacteristically, that was the extent of my actual musical performance. I didn’t play anything in the studio. The idea for the session was to capture Barry and Don’s performances.

I brought in my drum kit and Tim (the engineer) supplemented it with a nice Sabian cymbal (I want to say that it was a 16” or 18” V Crash from the Vault series – Very nice as a ride, crash, bell, or otherwise with a lot of different sounds depending on how you whack it) and his vintage floor tom.
Don brought in his keyboard kit, which consists of both a really nice fully-weighted keyboard with lots of internal voices and an external box with yet more voices. The piano sound modeling is excellent.

The session started with Don and Barry just jamming together to the acoustic version of Acro Grass. I synched up one camera run so that I can put the actual board mix together with the video and use it for an extra on the DVD. Mostly floating the camera around the room. I’ll just run it continuously and intersperse footage from the camp for the parts where I’m moving the studio camera around in between float and other shots.

Once Barry and Don did the initial jam, we went to actually recording. We did them one at a time with each of them playing ideas over the courts of one or two ten-minute takes. It took about four hours, including tech setup, to get everything down for three different basic themes.

Now the drill is for Tim to bounce everything down to individual WAV tracks and shoot them to me on a data DVD. Then I’ll take them all and listen to them to pull out the parts that I like to create a sort of library of Barry and Don’s best themes, bits, and pieces. I’ll them put those in where they seem best and come up maybe a half-dozen variants of each theme to drop into the film at appropriate times. I’ll probably also add in some guitar, mando, banjo, shuttle-pipe, and other stuff as the mood moves me.

And that’s to say nothing of the music that podcast fans have been contributing over the last few months for the original Acro Grass theme.

Bottom line, I have enough raw stuff captured now (video, audio, and music) for the entire film. All else is gravy and improvement. And it also means that I have a boatload of both audio and video editing to do if I want this thing to be released in the spring in time to do Acro Camp II, as I’ve tentatively planned.

The studio session was a complete gas. It was Barry’s first time in a studio environment. Don is an old hand at recording and has played on several album projects. Both of them really seemed to enjoy it. It was my first time in a studio session in which I didn’t actually play and just functioned as producer. Much as I like to play, it was a good experience for me just managing artists and getting good performances out of them. And Tim is quintessentially pro as always, bringing his musical sensibilities and technical expertise together to support a truly organic process.

Luck is the meeting of preparation with opportunity. Both converged in good measure at The Soundscape last night. I’m very lucky.

More Pictures from the Thunderbird Groove Studio Session

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More on the suburb rocking.

Here’s the acoustic setup. The same two RØDE mics, only set up on a single stand offset at about a 45-degree angle and about 18 inches from the sound hole. That’s an Applause acoustig guitar with a plastic round back. I got it in 1985. It’s a step down from the Ovation guitars of the time, but it really sounds good. It has a really bright sound and I use XL acoustic phosphor bronze strings on it to make it as bright as possible. The strings on it are at least a year old, but I haven’t played this guitar that much during that time, so I got a good sound out of it. Mostly repetitive stuff on the lowest three strings and letting the others ring a little as appropriate.

I was not ready to play for ten minutes straight and was hurting pretty bad for much of the takes. I got about seven minutes in on the first take before having to take a break. But I think we only had to do a couple of punch-ins. I liked what I heard in the control room. I’m sure there are miscues somewhere in that 10 minutes, but I’m optimistic about how it’s going to turn out.

Electric bass. This went pretty well. I think I flubbed a few things, but let’s face it: I’m a guitarist who owns a couple of basses. There’s a difference between that and an actual bassist.

Laying down the power chords on my trusty Carvin DC-127T. I got the money for this guitar by using my mileage checks from inspections of foreclosed real estate when I was a foreclosure property manager for a bank here in southeast Michigan. You could say that I traded apart of a 1989 Ford Tempo for it. Really nice studio guitar. Wish I had more time to practice with it.

The fluorescent lights in the control room caused a lot of hum in both the Washburn bass and the electric guitar. Thus the dark foreground. Tim shut out the lights in the control room and that took care of most or all of the problem. Kreuch took this through the window while standing behind Tim at the console. I don’t like using flash much for photography (although I’m not like the National Geographic guys who never seem to use it and always seem to have blurry shots whenever they’re in low-light situations). Thus, I didn’t show Kreuch how to use the flash. A good thing, too, because that would have goofed up this shot. Kreuch was rock-steady to get this shot, considering that the shutter speed must have been something like 1/4 sec.

Can’t wait to get the music finalized, write the commentary, and get down to recording and editing the episode proper. Stay tuned!

In the Studio Recording Thunderbird Groove

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I’m rockin’ the suburbs
I’ll take the checks and face the facts
Some producer with computers
Fixes all my sh*tty tracks.

- Ben Folds
Rockin’ the Suburbs

Yeah, I’m a Ben Folds wannabe in many ways. And last night’s activities put a little finer point on it.

I spent four hours at The Soundscape Studio in Royal Oak last night recording the incidental music for the Thunderbirds summary episode. Definitely in the suburbs. It’s on Rochester Road near 13 Mile Road in the norther Detroit burbs about 20 minutes south of my house.

This is the first time I’ve ever recorded in someone else’s studio and it was a real treat. I took in my drum kit, two basses, an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, and lots of other stuff.

The objective was to come out with backing music that I could use for the Thunderbirds summary episode, in which I’ll give a fully-produced account of the ride. I needed a driving and repetitive theme to back some of the commentary and drive some of the moments.

I started with a guide track that consisted of a basic drum beat at 62 bpm along with my voice counting off groups of measures and also cuing the transitions. I had the guide track going throughout the session so that I could synchronize everything and figure out when I needed to change stuff.

The piece is 10 minutes long. Most of it is pretty much the same repetitive figure in E, but I changed up the drum cadence (snare and high-hat only, straight cadence, and a triplet cadence on the kick drum) and the guitar figures on occasion to create maybe five or six different flavors in the piece. There’s also a chorus (if you can call it that) that uses power chords on electric guitar. That appears twice – Once about five minutes in and again about eight minutes in. That way, I have two climax points that I can use in the episode. The first will probably be the big pull on takeoff and the second one will probably finish out the episode.

Also, I used the Ashbory bass (pictured above) for the fretless, more acoustic sound in the first five minutes and then switched over to a Washburn electric bass beginning with the first chorus.

It’s not going to air as a full ten-minute piece. Rather, I’ll pick the appropriate parts when I get to the editing and dump in maybe 30 seconds here and a couple of minutes there. It didn’t really need to be 10 minutes long. I could have recorded a whole bunch of two-minute variations. But I didn’t want to have to record a whole munch of separate guide tracks and it also lent a cohesive frame of reference to record everything as a single stream.

Parts might suck or not. The most appropriate will go into the episode. Others won’t. I might or might not post the whole thing as an MP3 download just for giggles.

That’s Stuart Logan, one of my partners in the law firm, and Jim Kreucher, my best friend. Stuart is a student of may musical styles, but is especially a maven of 1970s punk. I met Kreuch in 1983 during our junior year of high school. When we build a recording studio in Hillsdale, Michigan (yeah, we built a recording studio in Hillsdale, Michigan – long story), I did a couple of albums of my own in there and Kreuch spent countless hours at the console engineering the stuff. He’s also a good rock vocalist, though he insists that he’s not.

Stuart and Kreuch joined me to schlep stuff in from the car and to generally hang out in the studio.

Tim Smith engineered the session and is doing the mix back at the studio as I write this. He plays drums for Zug Izland and most recently appeared live at the Juggalo Gathering on the main stage with Ice-T, Three Six Mafia, and 2 Live Crew in Cave in Rock, Illinois. He’s a genuine, skilled, and down-to-earth guy who thankfully didn’t laugh at my bringing in way too many instruments, obviously having too much else on my plate to have fully prepared the music, and having to stop and punch in a lot.

Having recorded myself for years and years, it’s really nice to be in a facility with the right equipment and have an engineer who understands how to mic everything. All I had to do was tell him what we were recording next and prepare to play the instrument. Tim immediately miced it out and had me ready to go. If there are any deficiencies in the recording, it’ll be with the performer, not the engineering.

By the way, I’ll have Tim’s mix to use in thinking about how to incorporate the piece into the episode, but I’m also sending the session to Scott Cannizzaro to see what he can (or wants to) do with it. Scott is the studio wizard who worked up the Airspeed theme music a few months ago and did simply amazing things with it. You probably heard the discussion on the episode featuring Scott.

Goofing around on mando. I brought a few other instruments in case we ended up having extra time. We ended up finishing recording with maybe 35 minutes to go, but decided not to try to do another piece. Frankly, I could have done all of the recording at home to an acceptable level (to me anyway), but I really wanted to use acoustic drums for this piece and the only real answer was to get into a studio with someone who had the right equipment and expertise. I can do any of the other fussy bits at home. They won’t be the quality that Tim achieved in terms of engineering, but it was time to knock it off for the evening.

Nice shot of the drum setup. Microphones everywhere. A good old Shure SM57 on the snare, RØDE mics for the ambient overhead stuff, and others to which I didn’t pay attention. I’m pretty pleased with what I heard in the control room when listening back.

I picked up a Pearl Joey Jorison Signature snare drum late last year. It’s all-metal and just cracks every time you hit it. I let the thing ring because I like that sound. I have at least one friend who sticks a maxi-pad or two on his kit to cut the ring, but I think that the metallic ring gives the snare a more business-like, slightly industrial sound. I could beat that snare all day. More 8K hearing loss anyone?

Anyway, the piece is recorded and I should have a preliminary mix this weekend. Scott will get a FedEx with the session DVD sometime next week, and I’ll get to writing. The session was a lot of fun. I could have played better. I just didn’t rehearse enough. But it’s going to be great for the intended purpose. And, after all, it’ll have the benefit of me mixing it into the episode, Tim’s engineering stylings, and possibly Scott’s mad skills in post. Producers with computers fixing all my sh*tty tracks

Contact information for Tim Smith and the studio:

The Soundscape Recording Studio
3323 Rochester Rd. (across from the McDonald’s)
Royal Oak, MI, 48073