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12 January 2012

EGBDF - The Album - Easy To Smile

Continuing the series of posts on the background of the songs on my little album project, EGBDF, this evening hits "Easy To Smile". I believe this is my favorite song on the record, possibly my favorite song I've written. Since it's my favorite, this post is longer than the previous ones.

Easy To Smile
I had a Thursday (?) off from Robbins Music Center and didn't have a session at the studio that evening, so naturally I went to the studio first thing in the morning (probably around 10:00 AM. That was early in those days.). I decided I'd write a song and record it that day, so I went over a few ideas in my head on the 30-ish minute drive out to Harmony Studio in New Market, AL.

I don't remember if I had any lyric ideas by the time I arrived, but I did have a general concept of the song in mind, so I sat down at the Yamaha baby grand and played over the chord changes I'd thought of. It wasn't something I wanted to trash, so I went ahead and put a couple of mics on the piano, estimated where to set the input gain on the mics, armed the tracks on the recorder, hit record, and ran into the main room and played. It took two or three times to get an acceptable level, and once that was done I stopped the recorder and finished writing the chord changes.

From there I programmed the drums and started to think of a melody and a theme for the lyrics. Once the drums were done I recorded them, then went out to the piano to record the main part. I had to drag the Alesis BRC ("Big Remote Control") out into the main room since I was there alone, and did a few takes from start to finish before getting one I didn't dislike.

I had a very good idea of the lyrics by that time, so writing them was not too hard. I knew I wanted to make the song a little cerebral-sounding, hence the line, "And people wondered how the man without a dime garnered his perpetual smile." The word "garnered" actually isn't the best choice, but I needed a two-syllable word for "got" or "kept" or "had," and "garnered" seemed to do the trick.

Here's another song about "Johnny," just like "The Answer Song". But this is a different Johnny. This guy was poor all his life and by the time we hear the song, he's passed. I don't mean that morbidly, but I really thought it made the song work better.

There's the general background. Moving on to the physical stuff...

Instruments used:
I can't remember what electric guitar I used, but I believe it was the same cheap Stinger pseudo-Les Paul copy I used on "Roadside Park", but I'm not sure. Fairly sure I ran through the cheap Stinger mini-stack. Since the guitar parts aren't prominent in this song it wasn't as critical to me that they have an incredible tone. (That's good, because they don't.)

I used the Peavey Fury bass with new La Bella strings on it. I was very happy with the bass sound in the end.

The piano was a Yamaha baby grand. It was slightly out of tune, but given the choice between that and a Korg T-3 in the control room, the Yamaha won handily.

Recording gear:
The terribly popular (in the day) Mackie 8-bus 24-channel board took the inputs and fed them to two Alesis ADAT recorders. This was the basic signal path.

I think I used two Shure SM81's on the piano.

The vocal mic was an Audio Technica AT4033, one of the first almost-affordable vocal mics for the project studio community. I think they retailed for $699 back then. Still love the way that mic sounds. I remember saving up for one for a few months. I finally was able to buy it. I was elated. A week later there was a bill Callie and I couldn't pay; probably the utility bill. I had to sell the mic. Mercifully, it sold almost immediately. I hadn't even gotten to record anything with it. (The one I used on this song belonged to Harmony Studio.)

I used the Symetrix 525 compressor on almost everything except the piano and electric guitars. I may have even run the entire mix through it when mixing down.

I believe there was an Alesis Quadraverb in the rack, along with a Yahama SPX-90II (the original SPX-90 was better -- had an analog input you could overdrive and get some great snare reverb). There was also a Lexicon PCM41 in the rack. I loved the PCM42, but the 41 was an acceptable substitute. I ran the vocals through it with a modulating 23-or-so millisecond delay to get a bit of a chorus/double effect on the lead vocal. Hopefully I didn't over-use it.

General production notes:

I wanted this song to be a little more sparse, a little less-produced instrumentally than usual, so I wound up playing only piano, bass, electric guitar, and programming drums. Of course, there were tons of background vocals.

This song differed from others in that I actually did background vocals rather than straight-up harmonies on the chorus. The decision to keep the "Aah" so loud on the chorus was really arbitrary. I thought about mixing them lower but decided against it in the end.

I was thinking "Beatles" when I did the radio-sounding voice. No idea if it sounded like any Beatles material but I liked it. The song originally ended with a resolution, "I'm sure he would have wished the same for you," with that same radio sound and a piano outtro, but it sounded very contrived and cliche, so I clipped that part off.

My favorite part on the whole album is probably around 2:02 in the song, where there's a very wide-open drum fill/pause, and the bass hits with the floor tom. Very simple, and I actually played the part pretty tightly. That's the kind of thing I like; not busy, technically-incredible parts (which I'm really not capable of playing, anyhow).

Next song will be "Searcher's Goal", which started out to be a completely different song.

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