Catherine Wheel (2016)

This album was the product of my participation in my third NaSoAlMo (National Solo Album Month) songwriting/recording challenge (in short: write/record at least 29 minutes of original music (with one cover-version allowed), entirely within the month of November).

This time around, I wanted to have a go at a mostly stripped-down, acoustic guitar-based project, with the two “model” albums on my mind being “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake, and “Roman Candle” by Elliott Smith. (I should stress that any resulting influence from these two sources was musical in nature, rather than any other considerations.) As it turned out, I did allow myself an overdub or three, and whilst most of the song recordings were founded on acoustic guitar (and all of them could have been), I also played electric, lap-steel and (on the title track) bass guitar, as well as MIDI guitar-triggered “mellotron” on the instrumental interlude “Westonbirt”.

The constrained period allowed for writing, recording and mixing these tracks, coupled with quite a bit of experimentation (mike placement, etc.) during the recording, meant that the listener will detect a certain amount of variation in sound between songs here. If I could change one aspect of what I did for this project, with the benefit of hindsight: had I the time, I would have re-recorded many of the acoustic guitar parts that I laid down earlier in the month, to take advantage of the “right” recording methods I found after a few weeks of tinkering. Perhaps a task for a future “Special Edition”…?

I recorded all these tracks on my iPhone 6S (and possibly one or two on my old 5s, before I upgraded partway through the month, but I can’t remember now!) and iPad Air 1 , via a Line6 Sonic Port VX recording interface, into the Multitrack DAW app at 24-bit, 44.1kHz quality. I didn’t make complete notes of which songs were recorded on which device (careless!), but my recollection is that about two-thirds (including “Laughing More”, “Waiting Room” and “Maybe Something”) were done on the iPhone, mainly as the 6S was something of a “new toy”, and I wanted to see how it would fare for “proper” recording duties. Pretty well, I think!

A note on the acoustic guitar recording. As I mentioned earlier, I experimented quite a bit through the course of the month, on the “best” positioning of the microphones to get the rich, “upfront” tone I was aiming for. Earlier-recorded tracks, I feel, didn’t quite “get there”; “Eggshells” and “Game Set and Match” have a more distant sound than I wanted, largely as the Sonic Port VX (the dual-mike device I was using) was positioned about 20cm from the guitar, just off-axis from the sound-hole. Later, I decided to throw away the “don’t close-mike the sound-hole” rule, and did just that, with the VX placed less than 10-15cm away… and this seemed to do the trick! “Maybe Something” and “Waiting Room” both feature this placement; I rolled off the boomier frequencies in the mix, and now I wish I’d recorded all the acoustic guitars that way…

Whilst on the microphone topic: all the tracks make use of a rather handy iOS app, MicSwap Pro, which can process audio to give it some of the characteristics of a selection of desirable mikes. As well as recording the direct output from the VX’s microphones, I also routed this through MicSwap Pro and recorded the output from the app, thus giving a third “virtual” mike. I did this with the guitars and vocals, retaining all the recorded tracks in case some future remixer wishes to take their pick of the most appropriate material. (My favourite “mike model” in MSP was probably the “Neumann U47” one, although the main vocal on “Joey” was processed through the “RCA 77” model, to give some extra “weight” on the low end.)

One more technical nugget… the “mellotron” on “Westonbirt” was played on the iOS app Super Manetron, via MIDI Guitar 2 (another iOS app; a polyphonic pitch-to-MIDI converter) triggered by my electric guitar. I thought it worked quite nicely on that track, although I decided not to add any other MIDI instruments to the album. Keep it guitars, it seemed to me…

If I think of any other items to add here, I may just do that 🙂