News From The Woods - August 1,2005

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published August 1, 2005


"The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!"


So one day I'm sitting at my desk daydreaming, wondering what my next job will be, when the phone rings. A lady by the name of Iryna Waller is on the other end, speaking in a very thick Russian accent. She tells me that she had recently run into Mark Rex (my guitar player) at Wal Mart and during a point in their conversation she tells Mark that her daughter had recently moved to the US and was trying to break into the music business, but that they were having a hard time finding the right place to get started. On an impulse Mark told her that "his buddy Bob" had a recording studio and that perhaps she should give me a call to talk about it. I set up an appointment for the next day for a meeting.

Two gorgeous women show up at my studio door the next day. I didn't know which one was the mother and which one was the daughter at first, until Iryna spoke up and introduced me to her daughter Jane. I invited them in to sit down and the story began to unfold. It seems that Mark had once taught Iryna tennis lessons at the local Racquet Club during the previous year. During the ensuing lessons they became friends and Mark mentioned that he played guitar in a local rock and roll band. After the lessons stopped he forgot all about her until the day he ran into her at Wal Mart. Mark had made a good impression on her as a decent and straight ahead kind of guy and so she trusted him enough to follow up on his mention of me and the studio.

Back to the story: Several years ago, back in the Ukraine, Iryna had met and married an American who just happened to live in Arkansas. After coming back to the states with her husband and settling in to the Ozark lifestyle for a year or so she called her daughter, still living back in Russia, and told her that she should come over here and look for a way to fulfill her career. Yevgeninya Subotina (Jane) took her mom's advise and did just that. At the time she was studying law at a university in Kharkov, Ukraine. However, she really wanted to be a singer and songwriter, like her mother and her grandparents before her. Her grandmother was a professional singer in Russia. Her grandfather, a professional drummer. Her mother sang on a television variety show in Russia and even acted in a movie, so it seems she was following in the family tradition.

At 20 years old she was now in a foreign country and was trying very hard to keep up with the language and cultural differences. Over the course of a year she had written several songs all on her own, with no formal training or musical experience to draw from. She does not play an instrument but instead relies on her vocal ability and writes lyrics to a melody that she keeps solely in her head. Needless to say this is an extremely difficult way to write music. Add to that the language barrier and Jane was extremely frustrated by the time I met her. The two women took a drive to Branson earlier in the year and met up with a young woman who told them that she could compose the music for Jane's songs. It sounded promising at first, and the woman's father entered the deal and also offered his services as a vocal coach for Jane. I won't go into the gory details here, suffice to say that six months later they had spent a considerable amount of money on the project when I happened upon the scene.

As I listened intently on their description of the events, Jane produced a CD from her purse and handed it to me, explaining that this was the culmination of the Branson woman's work to date. I placed the CD in the computer and listened to the three songs on the disk. I couldn't believe my ears. All three songs were at the same stage of development. It was the girl singing along with a drum machine. That's it. No bass, no guitars, no keyboards. Just the melody line following the drum pattern. I sat there listening, not saying anything. I frankly didn't know what to say because I knew they had spent over a thousand dollars on this project and this was what they had to show for it. No wonder they were frustrated! The girl had obviously used her money to buy a computer with some kind of music software but she apparently had not yet figured out how to make it all work. I almost felt sorry for her. But I felt even more sorry for these two women who had, in good faith, taken the word of a stranger for gospel and had given her the money up front because she said she could do it. And maybe she thought that she could, but it was taking her too long to deliver the goods and the girls were getting restless.

I decided not to mince words but to be brutally frank with them. After all, that's what they were consulting me for…. Honesty. Although their English was a whole lot better than my Russian, the language problems made it difficult for me to make myself clear to them. In the first place I didn't want them to get the idea I was just dissing this other person just because I wanted their business. Secondly, I knew what I was trying to convey to them was not really what they wanted to hear, but they NEEDED to hear the truth. And the truth was that their money had been misspent. The very first thing I had to clear up was what kind of agreement they had with her. As it turns out they had verbally agreed to share publishing rights with her for her first three compositions. She had also vaguely mentioned that she was about to go into a professional recording studio in Branson to "finish out the songs" and she would expect the Russian women to foot the bill. This was going from bad to worse in a hurry. To make matters worse, they had repeatedly attempted to contact her recently but she would not return their calls. At several times over the course of a month her cell phone number had been disconnected as well, so communication was exceedingly difficult. In the end, they assured me that they had not signed ANY agreements with the girl, but whenever she did manage to make contact with them she kept saying she was writing up some contracts that she needed them to sign before she could continue.

In the meantime I reluctantly agreed to give it a shot in composing some music to accompany her lyrics, but I told them I could not guarantee satisfactory results. The reason was simple. Although I DO play guitar and some keyboards, I am primarily a drummer and percussionist. I simply did not feel completely qualified to compose an entire arrangement around a single vocal melody line. I just didn't feel that confident. Furthermore, Mark had just left for New Mexico to play some gigs with former band mates of his and to make some extra income, so I didn't have him to fall back on. Also, I hated to drive the women's bills up and adding even more variables to the equation. On the other hand two of the three tunes I heard could be composed within a sequencing program, such as Sony's ACID. I agreed to give it a try. To me, it seemed to take forever, first in finding the correct key, then following her melody line whenever the key would change into a bridge for instance. Or perhaps a chorus line would come in and I'd have to search to find what key it just modulated to. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted to do, but the girls were so very patient through the entire process. In the end, they seemed very satisfied with the results. The hardest part was finding the dominant keys and then applying the arrangement to guitar and bass. Using loops is easy when you use the original loop and edit it just a little, but for these two songs the parts had to be just so, which meant I had to do extensive editing to the loops so that they would fit her melody arrangements more properly. Adding the percussion parts was infinitely easier by comparison. Despite these difficulties the two tracks shaped up over time and eventually Jane was able to do her vocals over the mix. I must admit I had reservations, but upon playback I had to admit the tracks sounded pretty good. I was actually rather proud of my achievements and felt a lot more confident about using the digital method of recording. It still took a lot longer than to use a rhythm section in the analog domain. The women informed me that they were imminently satisfied with my involvement and wanted to continue with more songs, so I was determined to get Mark back here because I knew we could deliver a better product in less time with the two of us working together composing. Even though we would be paying him studio musician fees, the overall project time would still be less than if I were working alone. Once I got the go ahead from Jane and Iryna, I called Mark up and filled him in. He was still in the rehearsal stage with the band out there and they had no bookings as yet, and so he agreed to return home for a couple of weeks to work on the project with me. Boy, was I relieved!

In the days following my initial conversation with Iryna and Jane, I kept after them to make contact with the girl in Branson and inform her that they no longer needed her involvement. Finally, after almost two weeks from our first meeting, they got a call from her. They showed up at my door, Iryna was in tears and Jane was madder than a wounded Russian bear. It took me a couple of minutes to calm them both down enough so that I could begin to understand what had happened. The girl in Branson (apparently smelling a rat) told them that she had already gone into the studio and had "finished the songs" and they were perfect and "ready for broadcast". Furthermore, she had racked up over ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY HOURS of recording time and also owed performance money to a guitarist for his participation. I should not go into actual figures here but I will tell you that it added up to some REAL money! They didn't know what to do. I asked them if they had any kind of written agreement about going into a studio up there and ultimately being responsible for the costs. They assured me that they did not give her express permission - verbally or written - to just go into a studio and start racking up expenses for recording. I felt this had gone far enough and these two women were being preyed upon. Just because they had a hard time understanding English does NOT make them stupid! Simply put, they did not know their legal rights in all this and I was sure they were being taken advantage of.

Over that weekend the two traveled up to Branson for a meeting with the studio personnel responsible for the session work. The studio had agreed to allow the two to listen to their own songs for confirmation but they would not be allowed to take any recordings with them until they had paid their bill. The girl and her father were conspicuously absent at this meeting. The engineer played the three songs one at a time. But the Russians had an ace up their sleeve. Unknown to me, they had taken a micro-cassette recorder and had hidden it in Jane's purse during the playback. When they returned here they let me hear it. I was astonished! These "finished masters" did not have a bass guitar. They did have some sparse guitar here and there but I did not hear any other instruments. Someone had put some background vocals of poor quality in the mix, and that was about it. The original lead vocals (from the very first reference CD) were still there, along with the original drum machine parts. They had not even put real drums on any of the three songs. And this was ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY HOURS of studio time?? I don't think so! I was mad now.

On behalf of Jane and Iryna a legal letter was composed in which it was explained in detail that the terms of their original verbal agreement had been exceeded and abused. It was meant to be a polite "it's not working out" letter. Not too nasty but obviously direct enough to let them all know we're not going to take this anymore. The letter did not directly threaten legal action (that would have been in the follow up). To be fair about it I advised the girls to just let the Branson folks keep all the masters on those three songs. That way it did not obligate them to have to pay for something they didn't even want, and Jane STILL owned the copyright on those so they could not be stolen. I had taken the initiative early on and advised them to copyright those first three songs at our very first meeting so they would have their songs protected.

I guess the Branson crew got the hint after that because we have not heard a single reply from them. Of course I had to advise the girls that their investment money was gone. Period. End of story. Jane really wanted to somehow reclaim her expenses on the project but I advised her against it as it would have surely led to legal action, which would have been very costly for both parties. I told them their money would be better spent in the further promotion of the music we were now working on. Mark had arrived and he and I were going full tilt in composing enough songs for Jane's album. It was hard for Jane to let go but I convinced her she would be throwing good money after bad. We had told the Branson girl to just keep money she had invested in her computer as a means of paying her back for what little unsatisfactory involvement she had taken time on. As for the 120 hours of time and what was supposedly owed to the guitarist and vocalist, we pointed out that there was no signed agreement directing this action to be taken on behalf of the Russians. This entire scam (I don't know what else to call it) caused no end of mixed emotions on mother and daughter. It was real rough going there for a while. Some of the delay in closure was caused by the girls, who did not want to appear to be the "bad guys" in what could have become a very nasty law suit. Still, I believe they WERE being taken advantage of and I felt it was my responsibility to assist them in righting the wrongs. All of this oddly enough resulted in my earning their respect for taking up their cause when they didn't know how to properly react to the situation. Now they tell everyone they won't do anything or sign anything "until Bob sees it first" [insert thick Russian accent here]. I'm certainly no legal eagle but I guess all these years of doing legal work for attorneys has rubbed off on me.

The road was clear now for us to continue working full force on the project. By the time we were well into track #5, the atmosphere had relaxed to the point of starting a new song in the following manner: Jane and Iryna arrive at the studio before noon. We all sit around in the control room while Jane sings her latest melody and Mark searches on an acoustic guitar for the proper key. Next, Mark tries several variations on the theme until something clicks and we all agree on the direction. Then, the girls leave Mark and I alone in the studio to flesh out the arrangement. For the rest of the day the two of us slave over a hot tape deck, first playing the drums and a support instrument, usually the bass or perhaps a guitar. Next comes other supporting rhythm instruments, multiple guitar parts, dubbed keyboard parts, and synth lines or strings or perhaps an organ, all usually played by Mark. Finally, I take over and add the final percussion sweetening. Instead of just adding parts for the sake of eating up tracks, we chose instead to spend more time than usual on developing the right personality for the track. Sometimes it meant taking what seemed at the time to be an inordinate amount of time previewing sounds and different effects with synth or guitar patches until we found something that "spoke to us". We might work three hours on a single concept, only to eventually throw it out when we found just the right little riff with just the right amp or reverb setting.

We weren't trying to create some new style of music, and we completely shunned the "current trend" copycat approach. Rather, we were just trying to create a soundscape that her voice and lyrics would fit with. It wasn't like any kind of conscious effort to reinvent the wheel or anything. Initially, I originally heard lots of stacked keyboards and big percussion behind her, but Jane really likes the sound of electric guitars (she is a fan of Bon Jovi), so I allowed the guitar to take the spotlight most of the time. However, our rhythm tracks had mostly straight-forward rock and roll drumming but without all the tom fills and thrashing around. I call it "meat and potato" drums. Lots of back beat with dominant kick & snare. The mixes could be very dense at times due to the multiple guitar tracks. After a bit of frustration I got the idea to dump many of the electric guitar/amp combinations, which we replaced with either electric guitars plugged direct into the console, or by using a guitar rack processor direct to tape for our "special sounding" rhythm guitar treatments. Another idea was to use acoustic guitars miked with a RODE "Classic", reminiscent of the old Neumann U49 tube mic sound. Occasionally I asked Mark to replace some of the guitar with a nylon-stringed classical guitar part. These "cleaned up" guitar tracks still had the original arrangement happening, but they also gave the overall mixes a more refined and polished approach to the arrangement instead of just "up against the wall" crunch guitars. It was the PERFECT vehicle for Jane's clear and concise vocals, and you could more easily understand her lyrics. Her Russian accent now became an integral part of the sound we were striving for. Each song began to take on a life of its own when it came time to mix.

Somewhere along the way Jane got to hear some of Mark's own compositions. She took a liking to several of them and asked for his permission to record some of them. These songs took less time because there was already an arrangement to start with. We could do one of Jane's originals from scratch in under two days, but it usually took only a single 4-hour session to create a track of Mark's. In the end, the album consisted of twelve songs. Four were Mark's compositions, two were solely hers, and six were collaberations. Eight songs were recorded purely in the analog domain on 24 track. Two were a combination of analog and digital, and two were composed entirely in the computer. And, instead of spending 120 hours on three unfinished songs, Jane got 12 finished songs in under 80 total hours of production. Now THAT's "bang for the buck" !

The studio is at a crossroads. I am about to make the move to recording multitrack with the computer, so all the gear is patched back and forth between the computer workstations and the analog console and 24 track recorder. Right now it's sort of a complicated mess but we made the most of both formats during the production of the project. As I am about to sell my old trusty Soundcraft console and downsize the audio studio to a Mackie ONYX 1640 Analog-to-digital via Firewire mixer, this project may actually be the very last session we do here at Cedar Crest Studio where we use the "old style" professional recording console. It may actually be the last time I can just "grab a knob" or slider and "make the magic" happen in real time for a client. It is truly the end of an era for me. I have gone from placing all the players around a single microphone and recording the results to a single channel monaural reel to reel tape recorder, to taking multiple microphone inputs and discreetly recording them to a computer, all in the space of 45 years. I will miss the good old days of splicing tape with a razor blade and telling everyone in the session that if one person blows it that everyone will have to do it all over again. But I have to admit it is very hard to beat the UNDO button and never losing "the magic" of that once-in-a-lifetime mix because the computer never forgets it.

Jane's album, titled "My Way", will be released by the time you read this column. She has chosen the name Janya Sable for her stage persona. We have decided to release it on my own HYPE Record label. However, we are aiming our sights higher than my own limited resources can accommodate, and we hope to get the attention of a major label or a high profile personal manager who can get her in a position to be seen and heard by some major players in the industry. As much as I like her ("our") music I know how jaded this industry can be so I am playing my cards close to the vest. Just having something new and refreshing in music does not automatically guarantee stardom these days. It is an image-driven business. I must admit that I have never before been a part of a project where the front person is a single, 23-year old, beautiful and sexy girl with a Russian accent. I figure that's gotta' count for SOMETHING! I have also produced three videos for prospective managers, agents, and labels to consider. I do not call them "music videos", even though they are set to three songs off her album. I prefer to call them "screen tests", because it shows first hand just how much the camera likes her and how well she relates to it. She knows how to work the camera and there is absolutely NO "bad side" to this young lady. She OWNS the screen while she is center stage. With all that going for her, I am tempted to say that the music is almost secondary. But I know it takes ALL these parts together to create the right package and image which can reach many demographic levels of the record-buying public. Still, she is way ahead of anything else I have ever been a part of.

Jane wants this really badly. Her mom is 100% behind her and knows a lot about the business through her own career experiences. I think she deserves a shot at it and if she does get that chance I feel she will be a prolific songwriter who will only improve with age and experience. As her producer and music publisher I am prepared to spend whatever time necessary to assist her to achieve her musical dreams and to continue to move her songs and style in a forward direction. Only time will tell………..

FOR A WINDOWS MEDIA CLIP OF THE SESSION, CLICK HERE.


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