Usurp This

My old buddy and college roomate Matt Legrow asked for some production/engineering/recording notes on the Dutch Holly Pull tracks. The reason I chose to write about this tune first

  Usurp This

is because in the production of it there is alot about the recording of the other tunes (by comparison) and because it represents the most recent processes that we have used to produce tracks. I will say that the recording of Pull represents the process of learning to engineer/record/mix/master songs for me personally and that Usurp This  happens on the more recent end of that learning curve.

The first thing you hear on Usurp This is Jesco White talking about a gas-huffing-induced hallucination he had involving a serpent head on a (naked) girl’s body. What’s so brilliant about this quote is that, despite the disturbing nature of this horrific image, in the same breath, Jesco’s saying “she looked to me to be about 19, maybe 20 years old.” So, snake-head nothwithstanding, he’s actually checking her out!  Jesco is the Devil in himself, and that’s what this tune is about: who’s bad? Jen writes pretty funny stuff sometimes, and this one is a light-hearted romp into the heart of darkness itself, poking a little fun at the (self-proclaimed) Evil Among Us like Anton Levay (“you dance like Charro”).

Chris Ozuna drummer for Dutch Holly
Chris Ozuna

We recorded drums first. For most of the other tunes on Pull (Paradise, Wingding, Bill, Averge Girl and Hey), Chris had a kit set up at our house in the basement and I had (badly) miked it up and recorded them to a 16-track hard disk recorder. This was before I knew anything about what I was doing, so there’s alot of bleed in those drums and they required alot of post-production to get them sounding right. We didn’t include Usurp This and Supermodels in the initial set of tunes because we had recorded earlier versions of these tunes when we lived in Phoenix and were playing out as The Lovlies with my brother Fen Ikner on drums and Kevin Pate on bass.  You can still hear these versions on GarageBand.com (I mixed them in CuBase, on a beige “power-mac” not sure that I even mastered them at all). But at our live gigs, Usurp This and Supermodels slayed, so we decided we probably ought to include them on the album. So, one day during the time I was mixing/mastering the other tunes on Pull, I went over to the Body Bag (Chris lived in a basement of a house with a rehearsal room that was lined in black plastic and so it was  dubbed “the Body Bag”)

Dutch Holly Rehearses at the Body Bag
The Body Bag

 where Chris had his good kit properly miked up and we recorded Supermodels and Usurp This with me playing scratch guitar in the headphones and singing as best I could. As I recall, we recorded these to a click which was an el-cheapo Dr. Beat drum machine. We cranked the tempo up as fast as Chris could stand (on both tunes) and were off to the races.   I burned the drum tracks to CD and took them home. I imported them into ProTools and got a rough mix together with the scratch guitar and vocal track (shudder) that I had recorded at the Body Bag.  

A few days (weeks?) later, Stefan came over to our place and laid bass tracks on Usurp This and Supermodels. 

Stefan Cochran bassist for Dutch Holly
Stefan Cochran

He used  a 5-string Ibanez through a DBX tube preamp, direct to my 16-track hard disk recorder. Of course, these were burned to CD and imported into ProTools as well. He also recorded an outro-guitar solo on Usurp This which didn’t wind up on the final version (Sorry, Stefan). Stefan is a hell of a guitarist, a shredder, really, and it was alot of rapid-fire face-melting notes, but the more I listened  to it, the more I wanted something a little more melodic ala Billy Corgan on Gish. So, after I recorded the rhythm guitar with my Fender Mustang through a Korg ToneWorks AX3000G (direct to hard-disk of course), I set about recording the outro guitar solo.  Now, I’m nowhere near as accomplished a shredder as Stefan, so it took me about a dozen takes but I finally got the take I wanted, and that’s the one you’ll hear on the tune. I then added some final keyboard touches (a sitar and a weird little sine-wave lead synth part during the verse) with the Korg Triton.

With the instrumentals all recorded, I worked up a rough karakoe mix in ProTools for recording vocals. I dumped it to CD and loaded it on the hard-disk. A note about all the hard-disk to ProTools transfers: I didn’t track directly in ProTools because the computer I had was pretty slow and always quit in the middle of takes, my theory is that the playback engine was demanding too many CPU resources to simultaneously record and play back. I never had this problem with mixing, only recording and playback at the same time. Thus, tracking to the hard-disk then transferring the WAV files to the computer (via CD) was the best way to track.

The vocal setup was straightforward, a large-diphragm condenser mic isolated in our walk-in closet (hard wood floor, and clothes hanging on three sides, sounds just like an iso booth!) through the DBX tube preamp. We have a setup where I can be in the room just off our bedroom (we call it the Vision room) and I have a headphone amp and mic cables set up in there along with the Digi002, computer, hard-disk recorder some other out-board effects, and a comfy chair. I run the headphone extension and mic cables under the carpet to the closet and I have a talk-back mic set up at the desk.

Of course, we are parents, so the real trick to recording vocals is finding some time when Max isn’t going to be demanding our undivided attention. This would be nap time. Max naps in the early afternoon on our bed, so while he was asleep on our bed, Jen was in the closet, and I was in the Vision room whispering into the talk-back mic. Luckily, Jen could record this tune in her sleep, so it didn’t require many takes. We even had time to come up with the little harmony part on the outro where she sings “back” after “I want It!” We got it done in one nap time.

In post, I really didn’t like the way the tune started out with just the guitar (that’s how we do it live), it seemed kind of empty. So I started playing with the first couple of measures of the drum track I had mixed down for instrumental recordings. I brought it into BIAS Peak, and tweaked it out with some VST effects (PSP Nitro), and looped it (glad we recorded it to a click). Initially, I had this fading up under the guitar, but it still seemed kind of lacking somehow. The Jesco sample was the final touch, of course. It comes from the cult-classic documentary, The Dancin’ Outlaw which if you have not seen, you simply must. I have a great series of photos on my Facebook page of when Jen and I actually went to Boone County, WV (where I’m from) and hung out with Jesco for the day.  

Mixed it in ProToools, not much to tell there. I will say that Fen taught me how to run the drums through a stereo bus and insert compression on the bus to get a fatter sound. Thanks for that, Fen.  

Mastered using BIAS Peak and Apple AU Multiband Compressor. This is well before I knew what I was doing with mastering, so at some point, I’d like to go back a re-master using a maximizer/limiter and some EQ, as I think this mix came out a little bottom-heavy.

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