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The band sessions for “The Lucky One” were killer–now for the overdubs

From Friday to yesterday I recorded the rhythm section, guitar, and some harmonica tracks for my upcoming rock record “The Lucky One.” At this point we have twelve such tracks in the bag, meaning that in the 27+ hours of recording starting Friday we’ve averaged 2 hours and 15 minutes per keeper take.

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We recorded these tracks the old fashioned way: four musicians playing the material together in real time in the same space, without headphones. It was challenging–with that kind of setup there’s enough bleed between tracks to make it difficult to, say, redo the harmonica solo without colliding with bleed from the previous solo take on the drum overheads–but oh so gratifying to hear and feel the drive you get from people playing together. As Mark Ronson, who produced “Uptown Funk” for Bruno Mars, said: a bunch of dudes playing the s— out of some material in a room will never go out of date.

Cutting Stone Castle--Richard working the wahwah

I’ve used the Digitech RP500 exclusively to record the tracks so far, and it’s working out very, very well. One of the songs on the CD is my composition “Double Lucky”, which started life as a blues but became a 24-bar double blues structure that includes C, F minor, G, Eb, and Ab chords. I took one of my RP500 amped blues patches and programmed in a pitch shifter that takes the pitch up a minor 3rd. With that I was able to play every one of those chords (except the G, which I played as an octave); I engaged the pitch shifter to take the C up to an Eb, and again to take the F up to an Ab. I used a low F harp for the rhythm tracks and a C Natural Minor for the solo, which let me stop worrying about hitting the Eb note right on the money on a standard F harp (and also took the solo into a register an octave higher than the Low F, eliminating any conflicts on that score). The RP tracked the chords perfectly; you’d never know that the Eb and Ab chords weren’t played on an instrument tuned to them.

Digitech RP500: If yer not usin' one of these, you ain't gettin' the sounds I'm gettin'

Digitech RP500: If yer not usin’ one of these, you ain’t gettin’ the sounds I’m gettin’

For a jam on the “Orphan Black” TV show theme, I used a Lee Oskar harp with a special tuning that I made by combining a C minor blow reed plate with a standard C harp draw plate. That produced a tuning that in second position basically produces a G7/9 chord on the draw and C minor on the blow, just right for “Orphan Black,” which consists entirely of two chords, G and Eb major. It’s one of the harps that I carry around in my case and use maybe once every ten years; but hey, better to have it when you need it than to leave it home and make do with something less perfect for the tune. I coupled that with an RP500 patch that includes a big distortion effect and an octave up pitch shift. Did someone say “psychedelic”?

We start the vocal and harmonica overdubs, in that order, for this project tonight. If we keep up the pace and quality we’ve achieved so far, this is gonna be one killer record. Stay tuned, and if you’re in the mood, check out this project on indiegogo.

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The IndieGoGO campaign for “The Lucky One” is underway…

And about time.

Recording sessions for this project begin in one week in Philadelphia, on September 16. So it’s not a day too soon to get the IndieGoGo campaign to fund this project going.

Next Friday we’ll set up in the studio, get some levels, and start playing through the repertoire. We’ll take some time for a jams or two just to get loose and feel each other out. We may record some keeper tracks–that would be nice–but the main goal is to get everything ready for performance and recording the next day.

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Saturday and Sunday we track the band plus lead harp as we play through the songs.

Monday and Tuesday nights we do overdubs. This is where vocals, lap steel, and additional harmonica layers come in.

And that’s the schedule.

If all goes well, we have great recordings in the can by Sep. 21. I think we will. I’ve done a lot of prep for this record, we have a bunch of good players, and we have a pretty good idea of what the thing should sound like. I want a rhythm section that’s deep and dark, with various harmonica sounds-2 to 3 per song–filling the low midrange and punching through in the upper mids. My go-to harp combination for this record includes an amped sound with a low octave double, a modulated sound like a vibrato or rotary speaker, and an amped blues or direct (clean) tone with or without delay, reverb, and/or distortion. That’s a weighty combination with a lot of movement in the sounds.

If this all sounds great to you, go check out the IndieGoGo campaign and reserve a digital download, a physical CD, or some other perk for a very reasonable contribution. Thanks!

Blog, The Lucky One

Acoustic Solos for “The Lucky One”–Whadaya Think?

As I work on the repertoire and arrangements for “The Lucky One,” my producer Ed Abbiatti and I are putting the songs into a meaningful order. For the last few days, I’ve been wondering whether that order includes solo acoustic harmonica pieces.

My first full-length CDs, “The Act of Being Free in One Act” and “The Second Act of Free Being,” were all about solo harmonica. Those records created an entirely new genre for the harmonica–solo compositions and arrangements that are uniquely aimed at the harmonica’s sound and capabilities–in which they remain the highest achievements to date, notable contributions by such as Filip Jers aside. (Don’t believe it? Go scout the competition and come back when you’re ready.)

A harmonica: should I present it unadorned on "The Lucky One?"

A harmonica: should I present it unadorned on “The Lucky One?”

Those records were well-conceived and executed, but in commercial terms they ran into a significant problem: the genre was so unique that there’s really no infrastructure (of media and performance venues) to support it. Anyone who hears the stuff can tell that it’s the real deal, but there aren’t a lot of places to go hear it. So that work is under-exposed.

I’m approaching the new record, “The Lucky One,” from the perspective of harmonica first and foremost. As I’ve said on this blog, there’s going to be a lot of electronica involved in the sounds I put down on this record. But why stop there? If it’s all about harmonica, why not start and end the record with–a harmonica? Bring it all full circle, back to the man and the instrument–the foundation for everything else on the record.

Anyway, that’s what I’m wondering about. If you’ve got an opinion as to whether you’d like a couple of pieces of pure solo harmonica mixed in with my big electric sounds, let me know.

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RIP Toots Thielemans

I learned a few minutes ago that Toots Thielemans died at the age of 94.

Toots Thielemans at 90, blowing strong.

Toots Thielemans at 90, blowing strong.

It’s impossible to overstate how important Toots is and was to the development of modern harmonica styles. If you play chromatic harmonica, you had to decide whether you were going to follow Toots’ lead, or find your own path; he was impossible to ignore either way. His sound was his own–you knew it was him after hearing two notes of a recording. His rhythmic conception was shaped by John Coltrane, and his harmonic conception cleverly took into account the physical structure of the chromatic harmonica and the things that structure would and would not allow. He made beauty on every record he touched.

Thanks, Toots, for all the great music, for the generous spirit, and for choosing harmonica as your voice.

Blog, The Lucky One

One Month to Go to “The Lucky One,” and We’ll be Ready

The recording sessions for “The Lucky One” begin Sep. 16 in Philadelphia. I’m still writing lyrics and music for this project, and I’m feeling good about the repertoire. Producer Ed Abbiati and I conferred on the final song list a couple of days ago, and I’m putting together the demo packages for the players on the session, which I’ll deliver to them in the first week of September. I’m doing rewrites on the songs as necessary as we go along, and I like it–I feel like the stuff is getting better all the time.

I worked today on my song “Hurt and Far,” which Ed told me last week he wanted on the record. It’s a sad, slow song with beautiful chromatic harmonica. Have I mentioned that chromatic harp on a ballad is a sure thing for breaking someone’s heart? At Ed’s request I rewrote the chorus changes today and recorded a demo, and I think it’s better than it was before. But I’m still wondering if it’s just too sad. I dunno. It’s sad for sure. I already rewrote the lyric on my song “Make the Noise You Came to Make” to turn it around and make it positive; can I, should I, do it again? I’m thinking yes.

Anyway, those are the kinds of questions coming up on this record, and I’m happy to be dealing with them. I’ve never put my lyrics first on any recording, and it’s exciting to be doing it now. Stay tuned for more news about “The Lucky One.”

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An Outtake from “The Lucky One”: Waka Blues

The sessions for my upcoming record “The Lucky One” are taking place in Philadelphia in the third week of September, and preparations are feverishly underway. My producer, Ed Abbiatti, passed on this piece, a basic blues driven by an auto-wah harmonica part. If we’re not going to put it on the record, we might as well give you a glimpse into the kinds of sounds we’ll be putting down in September.

So here’s “Waka Blues.” The demo you hear in this clip consists on a programmed bass line, drums courtesy of EZDrummer, and me playing harmonica. It’s a pretty traditional harmonica line with the auto-wah (delivered via a Digitech RP500 running my patch set) adding plenty of juice. If I were to record this for “The Lucky One,” I’d add another couple of harmonica parts, and Mike “SloMo” Brenner would put in some lap steel magic. So you can imagine all those things when you listen to this, or just enjoy the big sound of the auto-wahed harp.

Dig.

“Waka Blues’ by Richard Hunter. Copyright 2016 R. Hunter/Turtle Hill productions, all rights reserved.

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Another day, another (country) session

I took some time off this week from working on the songs and arrangements for my upcoming record, “The Lucky One,” which is set for recording in the third week of September in Philadelphia, to record harmonica parts for Austin TX producer Bobby Flores. (Congratulations Bobby on winning the 2015 Ameripolitan Male Western Swing Award! That’s the style Bobby was playing when I met and jammed with his band years ago in Austin, and it sure was fun.)

Bobby contacted me late last week and sent a couple of mp3s. The music was very interesting: country with more than a touch of rock and roll, and some unusual chord changes for this genre. (When you’re going from F major changes on the verses to C major changes on the chorus to a solo in Bb major in the same song, it’s a little unusual for country.) Bobby told me he was going to send the changes, but he never got around to it. Oh well; that’s why we make the big bucks…

As per usual for this time of year, I’m out in Tetonia, Idaho, far from my home studio in Monroe CT. Not to worry. The laptop Jim Rosenberry built for me is portable and powerful, and it goes where I go. Add a Digitech RP–in this case my RP500, loaded with my patchset for Digitech RP–for an audio interface, plus an Audix Fireball V, and I have everything I need to make great harmonica tracks. The Fireball V is crucial, because it’s the only mic I know of that can produce beautiful acoustic harmonica tracks when it’s hand-held, which is REALLY important when you’re recording in totally crappy rooms like the one I use for recording in Idaho. (The place is essentially a long rectangle with no sound treatment, and it sounds like a cave. There is no way I’m going to let that room sound into a recording.)

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

Digitech RP500: pretty much all the recording rig I need

FX? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ FX

All those chord changes notwithstanding, country music demands pretty simple harmonica sounds. To put it another way, the first thing I think of in terms of harp sounds for the genre is never a patch with an octave down pitch shift followed by an envelope filter or a flanger. The first thing I did with the RP500 was dial up one of my Direct amp model patches. The Direct amp model basically takes whatever’s at the RP’s input, adds or subtracts gain to the signal, and sends it to the output. When coupled with the Audix Fireball V, the resulting sound is clean, clear, and full–a great harp sound to send to any producer. (Hey, if they decide they hate clean and they want to f— it up, they’ve got all the FX they need on their own computers.) I have no doubt that Bobby is going to add whatever ambience he wants to my sound, so before I recorded I used the RP500’s dedicated footswitches to turn off the reverb and delay, so the only effect running on the RP was the amp modeling.

I set up a new project in Cakewalk Sonar, my DAW, and loaded in the mp3s Bobby sent to me. Then I set up three harp tracks for each of the songs (we’ll call them “Texas” and “Tennessee,” which happen to be the first words in their respective titles) and started recording.

I did three takes on “Texas”, two with an acoustic sound and one with a patch based on a GA40 amp model for a little more grit. The GA40 patch had a LOT of gain dialed in, so I dropped the gain level on the patch down to a much more moderate 34 (as opposed to the original setting of close to 60, which is some pretty crunchy gain) to smooth it out a little. (I did mention that this is country music, right?) Of course, I took off all the FX except amp modeling before I recorded with this patch. For all the takes on “Texas” I used a Manji in C played in second position. I like Manjis for country music; they play fast and sweet, and they’re just the thing for those quick Country lines. The first harp I tried was a Seydel Session Steel in C, but I just couldn’t get the chords to sound sweet enough, so bye bye Session Steel, hello Manji.

Let the Producer Choose

My favorite of those tracks was the second acoustic take, which featured a rippin’ solo, but I sent Bobby separate rough mixes with the acoustic and amped-up takes, and one with both, because I liked the way the rhythm licks sounded when both tracks played together. I used the same Direct model setup to record two acoustic tracks for “Tennessee,” of which I sent Bobby the second. “Tennessee” is the song with all those chord changes, and I ended up using a Manji in F, played in first and second positions, for the verse and chorus, and a Manji in Bb, played in first position, for the solo section.

It took more time to record two takes for “Tennessee” than to record three for “Texas,” because all those chord changes on “Tennessee” demanded a lot of extra attention. But that’s part of the fun, innit? Taking a beast of a song and making it behave?

Get Paid and Wrap it Up

Bobby checked out the rough mixes and liked them. He paid me via Paypal, and I sent a RAR (compressed) archive file containing all the harp tracks, soloed, in the form of 24-bit 44.1 kHz WAV files–a nice high-resolution format that happens to be the RP500’s highest-quality recording mode.

So there you go: another session conducted over the Internet, with the participants separated by a thousand miles or so, collaborating on their own schedules. Of course it would be absolutely tops to be in the room with the producer when the tracks are cut, so we can get double the brain and emotional power working on the song in real time. But I’m still knocked out by the fact that I can collaborate with musicians all over the world, no matter where they, or I, happen to be. How cool is that? And if you take all that for granted, lemme tell you, you weren’t recording in the 1980s, when a basic recording setup with overdubbing capability cost thousands of dollars, and sending a track to a producer the second you finished it was a wishful and seemingly impossible fantasy. (It takes time to box a tape and take it to the post office, and more time for that tape to make its way halfway across the country.) How delightful to live in an era when those fantasies come true.

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Harp players may not all use music theory, but they ought to respect it

A post to Harp-L last week, and some of the responses to that post, reminded me that many harmonica players don’t know much about music theory, and some of those players have attitudes towards theory that are not helping them to grow as musicians. So herewith a few comments on why we should all stop sneering at theory.

The circle of 5ths: Know it.  Love it.  Use it.

The circle of 5ths: Know it. Love it. Use it.

It’s my observation that people who took the time to learn enough theory to understand and play whatever music they want to play are glad that they did. People who didn’t take the time are generally either embarrassed about it, or perversely proud of it. The solution to the embarrassment is to put in a little time to learn some theory; chords and the scales that go with them are a good place to start. The solution to the perverse pride is to get over it as quickly as possible. It never hurts to know something more about music today than you did the day before, and it never helps to know less.

Depending on what kind of music you play or compose, and the skills of the musicians you play with, a broader or narrower knowledge of theory is necessary. Jazz and classical musicians know theory well; they have to, because the music demands it. (You can’t improvise effectively over chords changing twice per bar at 200 beats per minute if you don’t know your scales.) Most folk styles don’t require a lot of theory, but even then it helps to know some. In his college days, my brother was in a blues jam session with a bass player who didn’t know the names of the notes he was playing. (My brother specifically asked this guy to change a certain note from an F to an F#, at which point the guy said “Man, I’m not into theory.”) Trying to teach a part to that guy was like trying to teach a dog to sing. If you’re the player in that situation, you’re struggling to do something that everyone else in the room thinks is easy; if you’re in a recording session, you’re painfully aware that everyone else in the room is waiting for you to get your act together, and you’re costing the producer tens or hundreds of dollars for every minute you take to make that happen. wouldn’t you rather know a little theory?

Theory is an infrastructure, not a prison

Brian Wilson was mentioned in a previous Harp-L post as an example of a guy who broke all the rules, which is true, but make no mistake: Wilson knew what the rules were, and he knew why and how he had to break them to get what he wanted. He was a schooled musician. Who do you think wrote out the parts for the dozens of players on the “Pet Sounds” sessions? Wilson’s mom? Or do you think that Wilson sang all the parts to all the players, one by one, and they magically heard and remembered every part accurately on the first try?

This example points to the real value of theory: a common understanding of theory, like a common understanding of anything else, helps people communicate about what they’re doing more quickly and accurately. Theory exists so we can get to the point–which is the music–more quickly with less confusion. Theory isn’t a prison, it’s an infrastructure. The more variety in your music, the more you need to rely on that infrastructure.

When it comes to learning a skill, a little bit of work every day equals a lot of skill over a longer period of time. For people who have ambitions to play lots of different kinds of music, it’s worth putting in that little bit every day. You can start by listening to some of your favorite records and breaking them down. What’s the bass doing? What’s the guitar doing? What’s the name of that chord the guitarist is playing, and how do the notes in that chord move to the next?

Theory deserves respect and gratitude

Whether you choose to put in that effort or not, it’s silly to imply that theory doesn’t matter, i.e. that serious musicians can safely ignore it. Of course the music comes first. Theory is always derived from what has been done. That doesn’t make it any less valuable. Lots of people worked hard to develop the theory behind the music so ignorant sots like you and me would have an easier time learning to do what someone else already did. Their labors deserve respect and gratitude even if the music you play doesn’t require every last bit of the knowledge they created and shared for the benefit of posterity–i.e. you and me.

As musicians we are all part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Theory describes the structures that support that tradition. It’s a good thing, and the only thing it costs is your time and attention, which admittedly are scarce and precious. So take what you need, and please don’t disparage the knowledge, even if you don’t need a lot of it to operate effectively in the styles you choose to play.

Blog, The Lucky One

The Kickstarter Campaign for “The Lucky One” is over…

… and we didn’t make target, alas. Thanks to everyone who offered to contribute; we appreciate it deeply. The project is moving forward, come Hell or high water, and we’ll be back with a new campaign soon (and with a record this year, whether the campaign succeeds or not!).

Thanks to our contributors!  We'll be back...

Thanks to our contributors! We’ll be back…

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