The Singles Series: “Invisible” – Electric Guitar, Piano, Bongos, Conga & Triangle

Transparent recording process reveals all.

I’ve known John Fields a long time. It’s a friendship that veers between collaboration, BBQ, the camaraderie of our same-aged daughters, and our passion for the great music. With long-time relationships, comes funny stuff. Truth becomes unavoidable. Walls come down. And elephants in the room suddenly begin screaming.

He and I met at his studio last week and by my request he tried many passes at the bridge of “Invisible” on electric guitar. He played many variations–with me barking change orders at him. “Try using the EBow.” “More Thin Lizzy.” “Less wash!” “What would Jimmy Page do?” “More riffs, fewer chords.” On and on.

At one point he looked up to alert me, “You know, you have an odd way of giving music direction.”

Funkytown Studio, guitar, bass drums, velvet pants, plaid suit, long hair, Tamla drums

Working out an arrangement for the “She” album in Minneapolis, c.1996, (l-r) Ken Chastain, WW, John Fields

Had I been rude? “Like what do you mean?”

“Well basically, no one ever really tells me to do anything so specifically, except for maybe to do what I do naturally and what I do first.”

He wasn’t complaining. He was just saying: people come to him for… well… him! The insinuation is that, maybe I should do that too? He just realized what it was I was getting away with.

I mean, here I am in John’s swank studio, in which he’s recorded platinum albums with some of the most famous people in the business, and his old pal “Bill,” as I often get called, is telling HIM what to do. A privilege of friendship I suppose–or perhaps just insouciance trampling genius?

Don’t get me wrong. John’s a pliant collaborator, there’s no rub. It was just worth a chuckle. And of course, the only guitar kept (of the 6 takes) is: his first pass. When will I learn?

Because the bridge is harmonically complex, it’s best to just strum chords in big raking whole notes–which isn’t a particularly glorious thing to play. It’s nothing we imagine our guitar heros doing. But you know, sometimes I suppose that’s exactly what they did––disappeared. They just made a guitar sound like a guitar–and as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes that’s all a song needs. It’s only rock’n’roll. Or rather, it’s always rock’n’roll.

I still have a desire to play a lead guitar on the bridge, pumped through a Leslie rotating speaker. But this will likely complicate things–which is generally what I’m good at when it comes to collaborating–making it hurt.

Next, Ken Chastain, who played much of the percussion, drums and backing vocals on my “She” (1996) and “Turbosherbet” (1997) albums, joined the mix with his conga, bongo and triangle tracks. Working together again reminded me of this crazy photo shoot of the three of us from the “She” sessions at Funkytown studio, back when working together meant you had to be in the same studio at the same time. Imagine it kids!

In advance of Ken cutting the track, I sent him some guidelines.

“Overall, looking for exotic percussion ideas. Don’t be afraid to give me eventful, attention grabbing fills, and accents as well as basic grooves. Percussion need not hide. Make it conversational against the lead vocal. The song will be pretty sparsely arranged up until the bridge at 2:15–so let your parts be bold. You will hear that John’s done the same on the bass.”

His tracks arrived a few days later, and required not a single edit! That’s how Ken works, and it’s amazing!

So, a couple days ago, John & I auditioned the production mix and decided that the track is starting to feel done–despite there being very few instruments on the recording.

One other late thought: initially I wanted the recording to have a Crosby Stills & Nash quality, or as John suggested, America (the group). This would be best accomplished with harmonized lead vocals. The subject matter too, would thrive with at least one other voice added. Two voices singing about vanishing into the doldrums of love would add nicely to the lyrical gravity.

Kelly Jones, will you come in and join me on this track? Our vocal duet on Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You” on “Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock” was kinda awesome. I also want co-writer Cliff Hillis to add something, be it singing or other. He’ll be the icing on the cake. Talk to you guys soon!

Digital Performer, digital work station, Invisible, session

Note how the piano track at the bottom is not yet an audio data file (sine wave) like the others. It’s a set of data parameters that make up a MIDI file. MIDI triggers synthesizers and samplers to play prerecorded sounds at certain times and in specific ways.

Below are notes I sent to John regarding my edits of all our recent work on “Invisible.” The SoundCloud player features those solo tracks (stems), but begins with our current production mix. Please download the stems and use them in your own productions. The silences, obviously, are where that instrument rests.

My criticism of the production mix is that things already feel a bit crowded, mostly because my overly strident acoustic guitar is strumming too hard––which seems less necessary now that other more interesting points of interest have taken over the mix. Maybe it could be completely muted except during sections where it still embodies most of the groove? Definitely on the bridge, where it’s gumming up the groove works.

SCRAPPY DRUMS ::
From your initial drum take (the idea track you did by yourself) I chopped together a groove that propels the bridge nicely. I mix it with the tom-tom beat you played at our following session together. Not sure if that will work for you. The scrappy drum edit has crash cymbal cut-offs and other HH chop offs. Couldn’t quite get the simplified rhythm I wanted from the stereo stem you gave me. You may need to re-play it? Note that the fills going into the bridge, and the fills during the bridge are nice.

KENS PERCUSSION ::
Leave as is. No edits. His reverb mix channels will be fun to explore.

SLIDE ::
I made a few small edits in the acoustic slide guitar track. Again, I give this to you with my preferred processing (there’s a lot of everything, compression, delay, verb, warming, EQ. LMK if you need it dry. In the performance, there’s definitely some phrygian rub in the coda against the piano. Maybe this is fine. I don’t want this to be perfectly tidy music. But if something is insufferable to you. Let me know and I’ll fix. Don’t want you to grow more inner-ear hair from having to listen to all my bad notes.

CLEEN GTR ::
This is the electric I want to keep from the sesh at your place last week. You have the file. Please mute the last three final strums of the performance, when it gets quiet. I just want piano and acoustic gtr here.

PIANO ::
Took the best of your simple pass and the best of your cookin’ pass (in the bridge and the codas) and tweaked it much in midi. Actually quantized it with 3% randomness. Also, added more “She’s A Rainbow” compression and baked it into the stem. AGain, you need it dry, or just want the midi data, let me know. I found an identical 20s upright piano sample to yours.

LEAD VOCAL ::
Here’s a performance without processing. I’ve been having trouble rendering mono files as mono files. Hopefully this stereo file is usable?

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