Happy Naw Ruz! While I’m looking forward to the year ahead, I’m a little sad that today’s post is Kelly’s final installment of her Producer’s Notes from Year of the Nightingale. It’s been a very special time sharing these songs and their stories with you. Thank you for reading, listening, supporting! Luke x
Year of the Nightingale Producer’s Notes Vol. 10
by Kelly Snook
Song: Dominion (release date 19 March, 2017)
Words: The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Part 1, No 14
Key: E major / C# minor
YouTube Link: https://youtu.be/pVCkc3n9DOA
The sun rose without fanfare this morning over the east coast of Tasmania, starting this New Year off with quiet confidence. I sat on the beach and reflected on Dominion, wondering how I could possibly fit everything there is to say about this song into a blog post. We have known for a long time that we wanted to end the album with this song – we can’t imagine what could come after it.
Nearly every moment of the recording of this song, which spanned eight years, was imbued with an indescribable sense of potency and magic. The original piano and vocals were recorded live at 3am in the atrium of the MIT Media Lab on the historic Bosendorfer piano, with mics placed several stories up inside the huge space to capture the reverb. Luke did several takes – each different and each at its own tempo, free from any kind of metronome or click track. This live-recording technique combined with subtle differences in mics, room noise, and other variables, meant that we knew from the outset that it would be very difficult and time consuming to try to edit different takes together. So I was listening extra carefully during the recording process. I remember so clearly the moment he played this take! All my hair stood on end and every synapse in my brain seemed to fire at once. I knew instantly that this was the one!
It wasn’t perfect – there were extraneous piano noises caused by the very MediaLab-esque machinery that had been added onto the piano – the first every MIDI-controllable piano. There were giant air compressors just behind a thin door there in the basement. There were people walking through the space. Nevertheless, this was the take that we had to use, and the one that all other instruments were recorded to.
The Atrium at the MIT Lab
A year or two later there was an epic snowstorm in Washington DC. People still refer to that storm as Snowmageddon. What it meant for us is the most blissful possible recording environment in my second story urban loft that usually suffered from inescapable city noise pollution, the worst of which was the McDonald’s trash trolley that rumbled down the alley under my windows every couple of hours. But not on this magical day! It was on this day (if memory serves me correctly) that we recorded, among other things, Jason Rafalak’s gorgeous detuned bowed bass and all of the experimental, fragile bridgework that was only possible in such silence.
Towards the end of last summer, Luke and I decided we needed more of a build in the middle of Dominion. We added 23 layers of trumpets for just one moment in the song! I captured a bit of this during a fit of present-moment-nostalgia, knowing this would be his last trumpet notes recorded in the barn.
23 Layers of Trumpets
The recording complete and mostly mixed, but a huge problem still plagued this song. There was so much noise in the original MIT piano, vocal, and reverb mics that we realized we wouldn’t be able to use it unless we were able to clean up the noise. However, there were 6 mics with variable phasing issues and multiple edit points that made any sort of automated noise reduction, such as what you’d normally use with audio editing software, impossible. I realized that cleaning up this audio was far beyond anything I’d ever attempted, and I had little confidence or hope. I sent Luke home one evening and kept at it, but each time, if i was able to remove the noise, too many other artifacts were introduced and the piano/vocal sounded terrible. Broken-hearted and panicked, I briefly had a go at re-recording Luke’s piano part note for note, because the vocal mic wasn’t as noisy as the piano. If I could just get a clean piano track, all would be well in my world. Several hours later, even though I’d played the notes exactly the same as Luke, the magic wasn’t there – something intangible that was absolutely impossible to recapture or recreate. When Luke came back the next morning, the problem still wasn’t solved. I remember there being many tears. We consulted about what to do – we even, in our desperation, considered starting from scratch, but it would have been impossible to time it with all the other instruments, and even more impossible to reach the perfection of that original take. We consulted about leaving it off the record.
But I couldn’t let it go. I HAD to fix it. I’d created the problem with my way-too-fancy experimental recording techniques, and I couldn’t bear the responsibility of killing it. Even though we were ridiculously pressed for time, I asked Luke to give me just a bit more time.
So then I summoned ALL of my rocket science powers – all of my prayers and hope. In the studio there were photos of two women, always looking over us: Martha Root and my grandmother, Wilma Lowell. Luke and I often called on them, with our own special nicknames for them, to assist us in moments of tests. Across the room was a famous photo of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá holding a young girl. I literally, out loud in the studio, begged them all for help, and then I leaned in to the science. Track by track, moment by moment, I manually lined up all of the phasing problems. I bypassed all the noise software settings, delved into the intricate details of the physics and tried several trillion different combinations of parameters. I don’t know how many hours it took, but the next morning when Luke came back, our tears were of joy and relief!
The irony of our utter fear and panic at the possible premature death of this song (“wherefore fearest thou thy perishing?”) wasn’t lost on us. But, science wins again! This song literally takes my breath away every time.
Thank-you again to all of you for following along in our process. I am forever grateful to have worked on it. I will miss these reflections! I can’t wait for the next record.
YouTube Link: https://youtu.be/pVCkc3n9DOA