I loved the sound we had, and yet I felt the arrangement was missing some kind of glue to link the rhythm section of drums, percussion, and bass with the steel and dobro.
Although I had planned for my guitar parts to be fairly simple, I experimented with them for a day or two, trying to make them "be the glue." But it became hard work, and I find that's always a sign that I'm looking in the wrong direction. (Hawaii, bless it, is a good place to remember things like this.)
I stepped away from the song for a few hours to let my mind wander around the subject of what was missing. And sure enough, the answer came to me during a hot shower, as answers often will: I heard a subtle shaker overdub accentuating offbeats in the choruses, and an electric piano throughout. A deep truth: don't beat yourself up trying to solve a shaker-piano problem with a guitar!
Back in Monterey, I picked up recording again. I found a shaker loop I liked that was bundled with Logic Studio 8, and edited it to fill in part of what I thought the choruses needed:
For piano, I emailed a favorite player in Nashville, Gene Rabbai, inviting him to join eSession and play on my song. You can invite anyone to be a member of eSession, and if they meet the qualifications, they can become eTalent. Gene qualifies in my book: he's played with Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and Vince Gill, among many others.
But Gene gave eSession a try and decided he'd prefer to work the way he's been working for some time, using email plus YouSendIt, a simplified FTP service. eSession's success will depend in part on decisions like that. Some users — Tom Roady, for example — have been rapid converts, finding that the value of eSession's bundle of services outweighs any difficulty in learning how to use them. Others, like Gene, may already have a system that works for them, and might be a harder sell.
So Gene and I used a hybrid of eSession, YouSendIt, and email. I gave him a sketch track of what I had in mind, telling him my main goal was to provide rhythmic support on some of the offbeats, which I thought would work with the shaker overdub to pull the groove together. He works fast: I sent him my stuff in the evening, and by morning I had a very strong track back. I made a few suggestions; the next morning I had another excellent take.
I comped the two piano tracks (meaning I chose my favorite parts and edited them into one master take) and then tried adding some of my sketch part for the choruses. I liked the effect: my non-piano-player's approach added an edge of strangeness to Gene's smooth expertise:
We were now pretty much there. I had hoped the song would give a sense of both spacious stillness and motion — a potential paradox, but a good one, I believed — and I felt that's just what we had. Now I could add my guitar parts.
The Final Mix
By this time Ryan and Gina had found me a mix engineer, New York-based Marc Urselli. Marc won two Grammys for the album American Made, World Played, by Les Paul with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, and other guests. I figured he was probably well set up to get guitar sounds, so I decided to give him parts that were for the most part recorded straight. Back home now, I plugged my Strat into an old Whirlwind direct box connected to a TC Electronic Gold Channel set up only for analog to digital conversion, and plugged the digital output into a Mac running Logic. Here's a sample of what I posted for Marc — as you'll hear later, he put his own stamp on the sound:
In one case I did print my own effects, using Logic's plug-ins and the volume knob on my Strat. I recorded this as an extra layer for the intro:
I kept the fret buzz at the end — another little rough edge of the kind that can add texture. I believe in looking out for accidents and mistakes that work like this; I think they can create little mysteries that draw the ear.
"Nowhere Motel" finds the singer stranded on a desert highway next to a ruined sign of an ark and a rainbow advertising rooms for the night.
Marc was pretty busy in New York attending the AES show, speaking at the CMJ conference, and working on a John Zorn album. But he fit me in over a period of a couple of weeks. He got very close to a final mix on his first pass.
We had a few back-and-forths involving small nudges here and there, and soon enough I had a mix that I just plain loved: every part focused and clear, and yet working with the others to create a cohesive whole. The soundstage was wide and deep, and there were subtle but effective additions, such as (to name just one) a tom hit in the third verse that he faded down, sent through an echo, and turned into a rhythmical bed.
You can hear the whole thing at TheDesertMothers.com. The sound is just what I was hoping for.
After the project wrapped up, I asked my eSession collaborators what they thought of the experience. Marc Urselli replied, "From the perspective of a mixing engineer, Spencer's 'Nowhere Motel' came together quite easily because the musicians involved were top-notch and the arrangements were beautiful. The interplay between guitars, pedal steel guitar, and dobro was just great and mixing tracks by awesome musicians always makes it twice as fun and much easier to get a great sound. I mixed through an analog console and used analog 'verbs for the most part, which helped the warm and shimmery mood of the song.
"This was the first time I used eSession but the process was very easy and intuitive. I had the pleasure of working with exceptional musicians I would hardly have worked with otherwise due to their location. Also the fact that all the audio files exchanged are printed from bar 1 makes it super-easy to share files regardless of platform and software.