This last week brought a music business class from Lyndon State College down to Pepperbox Studio, thanks to teacher Britt Moore who followed the bread crumb trail through some of Vermont's finest back roads with a few carloads of students to see exactly what a solar-powered, woman-powered studio is all about. I do enjoy listening as well as pontificating, so we started our tour sitting around the wood stove talking, and worked on some basic questions, such as why do we choose to approach music production this way - or that way?
By the end of the three hours, they had watched me set up and record a track - their song, prepared and performed by a sub-group of five students. I like the idea that I might be able to impart some encouragement for jumping in with whatever tools one has at the time, and making a go of it - risking failure, inviting learning, fun and creativity, possibly producing something worthy of sharing to a larger audience if all goes well. What's that phrase I like so much: "It's a crap-shoot"? Works for most of life.
After a couple short rehearsals this week, Robert Resnik and I took the stage Friday night with Nikki Matheson again (after several years off), with a reconstituted version of our old band "Lunatique". The venue was the Burlington City Arts Firehouse Gallery on Church Street in Burlington (VT); the occasion was the French cultural organization L'Alliance Francaise Annual Meeting and so most of it was in French - including Nikki's beautiful songs, several of which will be on her new album, soon to be released. I highly recommend everyone to look out for this disk - I will tell you that Nikki has one of the most gorgeous, emotive voices on the planet. Her former life singing with the French band Malicorne, and Fairport Convention, should tip off any connoisseur of world music as to the tasteful, musical brilliance of her sound.
So inevitably, we pulled an all-nighter last Sunday (a week ago), my last day in Montana, reaching the finish line with our work on "Raven". By nightfall I was in North Dakota, and after only three hours sleep the night before, I was ready to hit the mattress. Now I'm back in Vermont and our last few tweaks on the mixes are the day's agenda.
Friday night our band (Bow Thayer and Holy Plow) played a benefit concert in Barnard, VT for "Green Blooded: Vermont at a Crossroad", a documentary film project by filmmakers Teo Zagar and Christopher Piana which intends to: "... to capture the hearts and minds of Vermonters – natives and newcomers alike – as we envision the future of our beloved state in a floundering nation and an eroding global “order”. What are our options, where should we turn, and can we get there from here?" There was a delicious community supper and screening of their short trailer, followed by a Vermont-town-meeting-style question and answer that reinforced that sense of community we're still able to have in this rural state. I love these guys and what they're pulling together, on a shoe string, in what little time they have available between farming and teaching public school, helping us reflect on the great assets of our bio-region and what we can do to save it, using some good old (and new) Yankee ingenuity. As they say in their publicity blurb: "We believe that “Old Vermont” and “New Vermont” can come together to “take back” Vermont for all Vermonters."
Recording and mixing with Phil Aaberg at his studio, The Bin, in Chester, Montana. What an interesting place this is and the people are friendly in that small town kind of way. We actually took a lunch break yesterday and emerged into the sunlight like two moles coming out of the ground. The control room at the Bin is a somber blue that seems to carry the weight of storm clouds and help one focus; wooden book shelves filled with a library of music and other books climb the walls in close quarters. Phil's main keyboard sits directly in front of his computer monitor, with a couple others off the the side next to a tall rack of preamps and brains that hold a plethora of plug-ins. Mostly we're working in here, although occasionally Phil pulls back the heavy curtains to enter the grain bin, the space where his grand piano lives and is well endowed with beautiful, adoring microphones standing at the ready.
We are in mix and fix mode, pulling together all the final sounds that we want on the recording and figuring out what's missing or askew. This has gotten a little more involved than we anticipated, but the root of the issue is our discovery that our musical minds think rather alike. We both hear things readily at the same aesthetic level and have compulsions to perfect relatively to the same nth degree. This serves us well as a working team, but it also means that we'll take the time to fix small details and dive into minutia when necessary, and as I said: that takes time. It's both a curse and a blessing to know when you could do something better. And we're not afraid to go down what seems like a tangential path, based on a feeling or spirit of inventiveness. That's where a lot of last minute creativity kicks in and you don't want to miss out on that. But still, we are sorely aware of our time frame, and I have to be out of here in three days, to get back home for a gig next Friday. So keeping things moving along is also of the essence.
This has been a grand experiment also from the technical side, merging sessions created in Vermont on Pro Tools with sessions created here in Montana on Sonar. For the most part, we have been successful in transferring wav files from one to the other, and often have to in the middle of a mix when tracks are needed from my original sessions or if we need a quick reedit from older material according to some new direction we're taking. Since Phil works a lot in midi, his Sonar set-up is fine tuned and tweaked to meet his keyboards, which gives him all kinds of flexibility to call up just about any sound at anytime just the way he wants it. As a Pro Tools-based engineer, it's interesting to note the differences between the two programs. It seems to me that the editing and mixing functions of Pro Tools are more logical, visual and user friendly, which is something I'm missing slightly - but you can't always have your cake and eat it too. Over-all, I think we are enjoying the best of both worlds.
Phil's wife Patty Aaberg runs the Sweetgrass Music office, within walking distance down the street on the corner of Main Street and Rte 2, right here in Chester. It's housed in a historic old bank building, with high ceilings and a great view of the grain elevator and railroad track across the highway. I wonder how many unsuspecting east/west travelers on what they call "the Hi-Line" have unwittingly stumbled in here to find the prolific array of CDs for sale and display wall of framed disks, including grammy award winning Windham Hill and other recordings. I suppose if you happened to need a sandwich break and pulled the car into Chester, population 600, you might notice the Sweetgrass Music sign swinging there in the breeze, a stately logo with a buffalo on it, and the little handmade sign next to it on the window saying "Lemonade gift certificates available inside", written by eight year old Jake Aaberg. But just as likely you'd miss it, if you were prone to blinking or squinting into the bright, slanted Montana sunlight.
Our game plan will be to tackle something hard today and then move on to a song that has less to manage or add, trying to balance our workday so as not to discourage progress. The collaboration is truly magical for me, as I hope it is for Phil and I will never forget the warm, understated hospitality I've received here from people I hardly knew at the onset. Here's to another productive 12 hour session ( perhaps minus some of the technical problems that have so tried our patience), and to the continued joy of our ability to make music at this level.