Updated: Nov 28, 2018
It was an early autumn Sunday, and it started early. Mischa Hermann, who was doing the recording and setting up our big ex-tractor shed as a recording studio for the day, arrived some time around 7 in the morning, and it was all set up to record the guitar and vocal live together, as the first task.
The recording plan was as follows. We needed to have the instruments, including the guitar, voice, the 12 piece local choir and the 30 piece Creswick Brass Band (!) recorded during the day. How best to do this? Mischa and I had spoken about this many times by phone and came up with a plan.
When Sinatra recorded with big bands, one mike was used. Sinatra stood up in front of it, and the band was spaced out around the room, each instrument at a distance that allowed it to be heard, so the engineers did the ‘mix’ of the sound by putting the players in the right place in the room. Were we going to try to emulate that?
In the end, we decided not. It would depend on us all getting it right all at the same time, and we wouldn’t be able to adjust the mix of instruments and voices afterwards at all. Even if we used multiple mikes, the brass instruments are so loud that they would spill over into the vocal and guitar mikes and that would leave us unable to mix much.
So it was decided to record the guitar and my voice singing the song first, then to have the singers come in, put headphones on, record them, and then to have the brass band arrive after lunch and repeat that process.
This seemed to me to be a process that was quite likely to go wrong. Could I trust myself to play at a completely constant tempo? (No!) Could I play along with a click to make it completely constant? (Yes, but I don’t like doing it). So, I ended up singing along with a click track, and in an hour or so, we had a version that sounded OK, where my vocal was pretty constant, and where my singing was in tune and the dynamics were OK. We did maybe 4 takes, and chose the best.
The choir singers began to arrive and the room had to be set up again. More mikes, and spaced so we could get all the women together, all the men together, and then have separate tracks to mix later.
We had three or four run throughs to remind ourselves of what we were going to do, and I wrote the words on a huge piece of paper on the wall to remind the singers. And off we went. On the first take, nervousness meant that not all sang their hearts out, but after a few more goes at it, the volume and clarity of the singing had increased dramatically. We started to record and the end result was great. Again four or five takes, to give Mischa and me a number of tracks to choose from to get the best singing we had done on the day.
So then it was time for lunch, and we adjourned to the house to discuss tactics. The brass band began to arrive, and then I began to get a little anxious. We had practiced with them playing Mark Witham’s great arrangement, and it all worked. But…..and it was a big ‘but’…..were they going to be able to hear our backing track through the headphone when blowing trombones, trumpets and the rest? Would they be able to play consistently in time without a singer leading the way?
Katrina, their conductor, started by just wearing the headphones and conducting. This didn’t work, their playing was out with the track. We tried a couple of other things, with me getting increasing worried about how it was going to be. I kept thinking that the local Hepburn Shire Council Arts program had contributed a significant sum to the recording, and what were we going to say if we couldn’t turn out a final result? But that worry was unnecessary. Mischa had about 15 sets of headphones and we dispersed them around the band, so the lead player in each section had a pair. And that way, and with beady eyes on Katrina’s baton, their playing was soon exactly in time with my vocal. I could feel the stress flowing away from me!
Again we took four or five recordings : and then afternoon tea was a beautiful country event with the 30 brass players and the rest of us relieved that it seemed all would be well with the recording.
The brass band left and Mischa and Judy and I had a good listen through to what we had. On the spot Mischa began to mix things, choosing the best take. Then he packed up to go home, and we agreed he would continue the process of choosing the best takes and mixing it all. Judy and I left to go overseas and Mischa emailed me a few first goes at the mix. I would send back editing suggestions, he would make the changes and then email me again. Gradually over two more weeks, we had a finished article.
The day had started with us getting up around 6 to set things up, and it was well after 9 in the evening when we were able to collapse into a chair with a beer!