News From The Woods - March 28, 2009

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published March 28, 2009


"Recording for OMC"


I've had a lot of projects that have taken a long time to finish, but recently I wrapped up a project that took almost two years to complete. Back in the days of Paperkid, we might have taken several months to complete a project, and of course any Randy Keck project takes months to do because of the coordination involved in getting so many players to come in and overdub their parts. I believe the longest project I have been involved with to date was the "Whiplash Gumbo" album in 1990. However, this latest project, "If You Can't Beat 'Em" by OMC, has taken 22 months to complete, from the original composition to the final mix. This is the story of the making of that album.

It all started in July of 2007 when Mark Rex came into the studio and asked me for my opinion of a new song he was working on. He called it "Dinner at 8". At the time we were exploring the possibilities of getting into the music soundtrack business for movies and television, so it was an instrumental. He brought in a rough mix of what he had been working on and we played it on the studio monitors to see how it held up. It had a nice jazzy feel to it considering he had only recorded five tracks. He had a drum sequence sampled for the beat, a click track, a bass track, a keyboard part and a guitar track which had a rhythm and a lead part on it. It was very basic but I told him it had promise, so he went back home and worked on it for a few more days. When he returned he had replaced the original guitar track with two rhythm guitars and a lead guitar solo track. He had also added another piano track. The intro was still very long before the song took off and I recommended that we needed some additional things going on in the beginning. He agreed. He also brought along two more rough tracks to evaluate. I thought they were better than the first track and told him so. One of the two, which he called "Spanish #4", had some great classical guitar tracks. Mark is as good on nylon string guitar as he is with electric, but in the past we never spent much time with the "quieter" guitar style and concentrated on the more rock or electric sounds, but this tune really got my attention. I asked if he could bring in the original tracks so we could put them on the big studio computer, and he agreed to bring his gear over the next day.

Mark uses a Digitech guitar pedal which has a sampler and sequencer built in as well as microphone and line inputs and canall be connected to a computer with a USB cable. The pedal also came with an audio software program called "Guitar Tracks". In effect this software enables the player to record tracks while listening to a mix set up in the software. It is very basic but does the job nicely. Unfortunately, no two audio engines use the same type of programming, so if, for instance, you work on a song in Pro Tools or Nuendo, the project files (containing all the song data) will not load into another type of different recording software, like Sony's ACID, which is what I use here at the studio. However, I had a hunch that if I could find the original audio WAV files of the tracks I could perhaps load them up in ACID and they would match up if aligned to "0" - providing there were no punch ins. Mark wasn't comfortable enough with his software to do punch ins, so whenever he made a mistake he just deleted the track and started from the beginning of the song each time. It was a very difficult and time consuming way to work but he said at least it taught him how to play the song correctly. Besides, he was doing all his recording on his own. At the time he was living in an Airstream trailer parked next to his Mom's house across the lake in Gamaliel. He had turned the front of the trailer into a small personal studio, where he stayed up into the wee hours of the morning recording. Often he would spend entire days recording off by himself and I wouldn't see him until he'd show up one afternoon with a couple of new tracks for me to listen to.

I often gave him pointers about mixing and adding effects, but he avoids engineering chores and always says he prefers to just "be a musician". Mark is certainly no computer geek and would often show up at my house with his computer - begging me to "fix it". He prefers to write and record without worrying about mixing or "any of that other stuff". I felt in order to help him the best thing to do was for him to record just enough basic tracks in his studio to get the framework of the song, and we'd do all the rest of the overdubbing, sweetening, and mixing here at Cedar Crest. His guitar pedal had low impedance XLR mic inputs which did a very good job of delivering high quality sound into his laptop computer. He also owns an excellent Sennheiser MD441 microphone which is perfectly suited for his acoustic steel-stringed and nylon-stringed guitars. He had a bass guitar which he ran through a small tube mic preamp that did a wonderful job of getting a nice, round, and clean bass track. His little Casio keyboard was a real cheapo but somehow he found some righteous sounds in it. The organ, strings, and piano sounds were close enough to work very well. He recorded only enough tracks to give us the framework and then brought the laptop over to the studio.

At first I was frustrated trying to pull off the correct tracks for each song. His software had an annoying habit of naming his tracks arbitrarily. It was rarely the same name, so just scanning through his "My Documents" file for the right six tracks out of hundreds was a lesson in futility. I finally hit upon the idea of opening up his audio software and going to the "properties" folder of each audio track in a given song. Then I inserted a flash drive into his USB port and created a folder with the name of the current song we would be working on. One by one I found the correct file name from the properties tab of each audio WAV file in his project file and copied that file into the correctly named song folder on the jump drive. Once I was finished with a song I took the jump drive and inserted it into a USB port on my computer and moved that file over into a corresponding folder in our master song files. It was a lot of work but the only way I could figure out how to make sure we had the correct and proper number of files in each song folder. Then I opened up ACID and took all the files from that folder and placed them into a timeline. Then, one at a time we listened to each track and gave the proper name to the instrument/track. So, instead of "SONG 002, Track 13, Rec (69)WAV" it would now be called "Guitar 2", or "Organ", or whatever instrument the track had recorded on it. Once that ACID project file was created, everything looked just like a standard slate sheet for recording. And the beautiful thing was, once all tracks were lined up at the zero point, each track was exactly the same length. Once we got the procedure down it became much easier to move tracks from his computer and software over to mine. And once we had all the tracks we needed I would then go into his "My Documents" folder and clean out all the tracks, giving him room for the next set of songs.

Although initially I only wanted to work on a song or two, but as he continued to bring in tracks I noticed a couple of things. First, his songs had a "sameness" about them that hinted at a common music genre; and second, each new set of tunes was being specifically written in a manner which left plenty of room for overdubs. Each time he brought in new tracks I got excited all over again with all this fresh new music. I began to hear much more in the arrangements than we could muster up by ourselves. As good as he is as a guitarist and bassist, his keyboard parts were simply blocked out and I heard much more going on in my mind than he or I could deliver. Originally I had planned on either replacing his drum sequences with my own real drums or augmenting his drum tracks with some real percussion played by myself in order to make the groove seem more real. While he worked on new tracks at home I spent a lot of time fine tuning the arrangements we already had and adding real drums, synth drums, MIDI drums, or drum samples. After that was done I started adding real percussion parts which greatly added to the overall groove of the songs.

It was in the spring of 2008 that Mark and I met a new friend, Ron Miller. Ron is a musician of our age that relocated here from Nashville. He has an impressive list of people that he has either worked with or recorded with, including Leon Russell, Kansas, Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Tammy Wynette, just to name a few. He wrote the hit song "Heart Of The Matter" for Joe Cocker and has several gold and platinum albums to his credit. His mom lived nearby and he moved here initially to be closer to her (much like Mark), and started doing a little playing around town to pick up some extra cash. We wound up doing some jamming with Ron and because our mindsets were similar we all got along great. Ron calls himself a guitar player (and he is one heck of a fine one) but when I heard him play keyboard I went nuts. His feel and experience was exceptional. He could feel where the song was going in real time and anticipated the arrangements. One day we invited him over to the studio and played him a couple of Mark's new instrumentals. He thought to bring his keyboard along and had it set up right next to the mixer in the control room. As I played through one track he started noodling around and Mark and I just looked at each other, astonished. Ron's intuition was right on and before the song even finished I stopped playing the track and patched in his keyboard to the recording mixer. On a hunch I hit RECORD and started the song over. He played it flawlessly to the end, and even managed to throw out a solo when we told him to "take it" during the playback. At the end of the song we just sat there. Ron didn't think it was anything special but Mark and I gushed all over him. We went to the next tune and got similar results. At the end of the second track Ron casually said "You know guys, if you played it through once and let me listen to it I'd probably play a better track." We all three busted out laughing and took a break to talk about this new partnership.

To this day I don't know if it was the music, the vibe, or Ron's incredible ability to know exactly what the song needs, but in that one single day Mark and I knew that Ron would be THE keyboardist for this project. As happy as we had been up to that point with the way the songs were shaping up, the addition of Ron's keyboards took all this music to a new level. As we continued adding keyboards to the songs, each one brought out something new in his style and delivery. As he become more relaxed he started making suggestions. We listened intently and always gave him the latitude to try something even if we didn't think it would work. Usually, it not only worked but would take the song to new emotional heights. I also noticed that his "first feel" on a song was his most creative. Even if he wasn't ready to record I would record the track anyway. That way, if he lost the feel when trying to "better" the arrangement, I could play back the original idea and we'd get him to work it out with that original feel. Whenever he asked what we were looking for, we eventually just said "Let the song tell you what to play, Ron." That became out motis operandi as the project outgrew our original concept.

We got so excited about Ron's musical additions that I started bragging about it in email to our friend Jerry Bone, who was our bassist in Spilt Milk. Eventually Jerry got sick of hearing us go on and on and finally asked if I could send him an MP3 file of one of the tunes. I happily complied. Jerry is one of the very best bassist I have ever had the honor and privilege to play with, but I am always reluctant to lean on him whenever doing some recording….. Mainly because he is just too good to ask to come record when we have no budget. Also, he lives an hour away and works a hard day job along with his other musical commitments. We felt very fortunate to enlist Jerry into Spilt Milk and knew we had to make good money in order to get his guarantee to play the date. We never felt bad about it -he is a professional and a contract player and it's just business. We understood that, and that's why we were reluctant to even bring up this new "freebie" project to Jerry. However, he requested the MP3 so I wasted little time sending it to him. A few days later I got email from Jerry. In it he said this new music was different from "the usual" and he really liked it. He asked if we had anything else and so I sent along a couple of other track we were working on. The following week I got email from Jerry again and this time he said he was getting a little break in his schedule and was thinking about making the trip over to the studio and would bring along his bass. I was ecstatic and called Mark right away with the news. Now we felt like perhaps we might have something special here, since Jerry had also taken an interest in it. We continued to work. Mark kept bringing in new songs and Ron kept adding keyboards faster than I could keep up with everything AND put drums/percussion on it.

A few weeks later, during the summer months of 2008 Jerry came over on a Sunday and brought three basses with him. One was his wonderful fretless MusicMan (which we were counting on). He also brought along a 5-string and a brand new aquisition, some kind of odd hollow body he picked up at a flea market somewhere. We couldn't believe the sound he got out of it! It sort of growled. He also brought along a SansAmp box and a couple of bass pedals. We sat spellbound as Jerry proceeded to play some of the most fantastic and original bass lines we had ever heard. In many cases we figured we knew what he would play but he'd always come up with something new which would project the song into a new place. At one point we got to a track which we had no idea what to do with, and Jerry pulled out a brass slide, inserted a preamp into the signal chain, and played such a fantastic slide bass on his fretless that it became the melody and lead line for the song from that moment on. At the end of the session he was pooped and we were so emotionally drained from the experience that we agreed to come back another day and do some more songs. I wound up sending MP3 files to Jerry via email so he could work on ideas at home. The next time he came we were just blown away. Jerry is one of those rare individuals that has the ability to instinctively know what the song needs. We never had to tell him anything. Besides, we all felt so inferior we were afraid to try and tell him anything! He truly amazed us. And the best part was that as he continued to add bass parts he became more and more involved with the project and his emails reflected how much fun he was having. By this time I really felt we had something special going on. All throughout these sessions I kept doing updates on mixes, adding something here, deleting something there, and even making drastic changes to each arrangement until they each had a life of their own.

As we wrapped up the bass overdubs we had another visitor to the studio. Gary Gazaway, who lives in Pocahontas, decided to drop in and visit. Gary, who's stage name is "El Buho", is an internationally known jazz trumpet player who has played with some of the best players in the world (Bob Marley, Delbert McClinton, The Commitments, Derek Trucks, Victor Wooten, Walfredo Reyes Jr., Ornette Coleman). He is a world traveler who just happens to call Arkansas home. I had done a couple of small projects for Gary, and he dropped in on his way back home from Fayetteville one day. While there, Mark and I played a track called "Spanish #4" for him. The song really needed a classy trumpet part, and Gary clearly recognized that fact in the first twelve bars. He said 'Do you have a melody for this?" to which we replied "No, do you?" He said he could create one in half a minute and went back out to his car to retrieve his horn (he always carries it with him). Thirty minutes later we had the part and the song sounded as if it were written just for Gary. He seemed pretty proud of it himself. We told him that whatever happened to our project he was completely free to use the song as a vehicle for his own career if he liked. He asked what else we had and so I cued up a recent track we called "Satin Groove". Before the track even got to the chorus part he was digging around in his trumpet bag, pulled out a mute, and headed for the den where the mic was set up. Mark and I just looked at each other and smiled. He laid down the perfect muted trumpet part in two takes. Once again, the music bed sounded as if it were recorded specifically for his trumpet. It was uncanny. As a matter of fact, all the tracks were sounding like a band had been assembled in a studio and recorded it all live in one take. It is irrefutable truth that with good players, a decent idea can blossom out into one of those songs that stays in your head hours after you're heard it. With the addition of Ron, Jerry and Gary on top of Marks original compositions and guitar work, all the tracks had an identifiable signature sound.

Several weeks later we got yet another visit. This time it was a mutual friend of Ron's and mine, Tom Roady. Tom, who calls Nashville home, is a first-call percussionist, performing and recording with the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, Books & Dunn, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, James Taylor, Ricky Skaggs, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many more. Tom has played on many hits. He is the "go to" guy when a REAL pro is needed for percussion. Via email, he had heard that Ron and I were "involved in something" and so he brought one of his toys along with him. It was the latest percussion gizmo from Roland, the HandSonic, which emulates hundreds of various standard and ethnic percussion instruments, and is played by hand. With the little pad resting on a stand between his legs, Tom proceeded to completely astound us with his chops and feel. I merely muted all of my own percussion and let him have a go at the tunes. He did them all in an afternoon. Later, after he left, I started the lengthy job of balancing the percussion between his tracks and mine. More often than not I just threw mine away. I've always felt confident in my abilities but next to Tom I felt like a rank amateur. After a couple of weeks massaging the mixes, the entire production was just about fleshed out. There were just a few small holes that needed filled, and I had an idea what we needed.

I sat down with Mark one day and we talked about the project. He agreed that we had very little left to do and figured he'd have to write some guitar solos and maybe offer a couple of spots to Ron. However, I had an alternate idea. In previous months I had a pal stop by who fell in love with the songs and begged to play some sax on them. I'd known him for years. He was a pretty decent sax player for these here parts, and I had done some recording with him twenty years ago. I allocated a day for him to come over. He asked for copies of three songs in particular before the session and I gave him a CD of them to listen to. He showed up at the appointed day and brought out his sax. We were alone as Mark had a tennis tournament to attend. We spent several hours and he laid down some nice tracks. When I played them back for Mark later, he hedged. He said it was "okay" but not up to par with the other players, and I agreed with him. However, I did like the idea of the sax parts in places and couldn't get them out of my mind. Now, months later, as we sat and discussed what to do in the holes, I was struck by lightning! I knew in an instant who we needed, but I refrained from telling Mark about it until I knew we could do it. Also, Mark is very critical - especially when it comes to his compositions - and he'd already shot down the previous sax parts for not being JUST the right parts. So I waited until the next day and called David Renko, the sax player for The Cate Brothers, in Fayetteville. I've known Dave since he was a teenager playing sax in his parent's band. He was a child prodigy, and they had to go before a judge and get permission for the then under-aged David to play in bars with his parents. In a very short time he blossomed out into a virtuoso sax player and was eventually tapped to play sax in The Cates Brothers. The band did some recording at my studio in 1990, and I ran into him at several gigs. It didn't take me long to run him down and I told him we had a jazz instrumental album we'd been working on that could sure use his touch. He said his wife was just about due to have their baby but he might be able to squeeze in one day. I asked if he wanted me to send him some MP3 files but he said we didn't have time, so plans were made for him to make the trek over from Fayetteville.

I told Mark that I had set up the session, and Mark looked at me with a raised eyebrow. Before he could say anything I said "Mark, just trust me. This guy will have the same feel as all the others. He will be perfect for the part." He said okay but if he didn't like it we'd have to throw it out. I agreed. Dave showed up one Saturday with an Alto and a Bari sax and I introduced him to Mark. We sat down almost immediately and cued up the song that needed sax the most. He blew through it in thirty minutes. From the first eight bars Mark had a smile on his face. As we continued to cue up tracks with little holes here and there, David would ask "What do you want here?" and our standard reply by now was "Play what the tracks tells you to play". And he did. After a couple of hours, David's mood went from "ho-hum business" to "hey- this is fun!" When we were done he sat down and said,"I wish I'd have had you send those tracks to me. I could have prepared better parts on some of those". But we were very happy with what he did and I felt getting his spontaneous energy was more important that "a perfect part". On one track called "Fitty" he took the entire piece and made it his own. It reminds me so much of the classic sax parts from the Saturday Night Live orchestra. It screams, it wails, and it rocks! We were going to throw out that song until Dave rescued it.

All throughout the production of this project, we kept throwing out names for the band. Since we figured we'd never play live it wasn't that important, but any project of collected songs needs a name and the performers on the music need some kind of a name as well. One song that Mark composed, called "If You Can't Beat 'Em", became a sort of staple of the project. Whenever we picked out our favorite tracks, most of us gravitated toward that cut. So we decided to name the album after the track. Naming the band was more difficult. It always is. From the beginning I liked "Ozark Music Coalition" but Mark was opposed to including the word "Ozark" in the title because he was afraid the project would be unfairly branded a "redneck product" or at the least we might be confused as a country band. I saw his point but felt that since all the major players were residents of Arkansas it was indeed a coalition of Arkansas musicians. Besides, I am proud to say I am an Arkansan, despite years and years of being branded a hick from the sticks. And any nod towards Arkansas musicians and composers would be a much needed reference to the fact hat there is a lot more kinds of music made in Arkansas besides country. If we don't help ourselves we will surely retain that erroneous stigma for at least another generation. In the end I asked "What if we just call it 'OMC' and leave it at that?" As long as I promised not to include any reference to Arkansas or the Ozarks, Mark agreed to the compromise. And so OMC it is!

By the end of 2008 Mark and I had spent so much time on this project that we didn't feel we could be objective anymore, so we finished up the mixes and let it lay there on the hard drive for almost two months before coming back to it with fresh ears. When we put it on the monitors and played it that first time Ron, Mark and I just sat there grinning from ear to ear. I figured if, after ALL this time, we can still feel that way about it, well….. it must be pretty good. So I tweaked it just a little each day as Mark and I found subtle little changes to make, and after another month or so we figured it was time to stop for fear we might beat it to death. After almost two years we had an album of instrumental music that filled many requirements. It could easily be pop jazz, mood music, elevator music, chill jazz, or even movie soundtrack music. Whatever it is, literally everyone who has heard it is surprised to hear this kind of music coming from our little studio in the woods. Most of my friends know I lean somewhere between blues and rock, and so a jazz instrumental album just wasn't what they were expecting. It wasn't really what I was expecting either, but over a period of months I grew closer and closer to this project and now I class it as one of the best projects I've ever had a hand in. I am extremely proud to have been a part of it, and I feel my mixes stand up with the best of them. Several of my old pals still working in radio broadcasting feel the same way after hearing the project.

So now what do we do?

Well, there's the rub.

Perhaps the jazz music industry is not as jaded and crooked as the pop music industry. Time will tell, as I attempt to solicit our project to as many jazz labels as I can. I've sent out a few feelers trying to check the pulse of those I have sent demo's to. I've also posted a couple of edited versions of the songs (several of them clock in over 5 minutes) on the Internet to see what kind of feedback I get. It's still too early to tell. In the meantime we are making the CD available online. If you would like to purchase a CD click on the link below.

But……….no matter WHAT happens (or doesn't happen) with this project, all of us who were a part of it know in our minds it has been something special. Although Mark came up with the original compositions, by the time we were through with it we all felt as if the songs were telling US how they wanted to sound. The music was recorded just for the sake of "being". The songs feel so right because it wasn't a group of players who contrived to make something. It was more that the players were directed what to play by the music itself. It told us what to play and where to play it. Several songs have in excess of 30 tracks of instruments and yet they were easy to mix because nothing got in the way of anything else.

In other words, and to quote a famous song of the 70's: "If it feels good, do it!"

If you'd like to listen, here are three edited tracks in Realaudio format:

Dinner At 8
If You Can't Beat 'Em
Spanish #4

ORDER THIS CD ONLINE HERE

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