As I outlined in a trio of posts last week (here here and here), and one (here) a few weeks prior, Mark Scudder is a rarity: a talented, unashamedly conservative musician. His music is anything but jingoistic tea party fodder; his lyrics make you think and he refuses to limit himself to nothing but political talk. His observations on relationships and the human condition are alternately heartwarming and heart-wrenching. Scudder is a thinking person’s artist, and even those who disagree with him politically will find a great deal with which they can identify in his songs.
Musically, Scudder lets his songs naturally run their course without attempting to force them into the constraints of a three minute single. While you can hear influences by latter day Pink Floyd and other progressive rock touches, Scudder’s music is unpretentious and beautifully melodic. It is anthems without bombast; luxurious washes of acoustic and electric guitars that manage the rare feat of echoing cathedral tonality while remaining intimate. This is really, really good stuff.
Scudder’s terrific new album The Solution is The Problem, available as a download from iTunes, Amazon and as a download & CD from his website is a marvel of home recording expertise, boasting both superb sound and layered textures galore. I asked him to talk shop, and he was more than happy to oblige.
What guitar(s) do you have and use? What do you like/dislike about them? Is there a dream guitar, or are there dream guitars, for you?
My acoustic guitars are 2008 Ibanez PF5ECE’s. They retail for $300 but I got the second one for $180-something because my local Guitar Center had an overstock on them. I like the way they sound, and the pickup (Ibanez SST by Fishman) sounds good to me. I can’t afford Martins or Taylors, and actually there’s quite a history around here of music stores selling $2,500 Martins to middle-aged women who only play once a week in a church praise band… people who could get away with a $300 Ibanez easier than I could.
Two things primarily affect my choice of guitars: feel and price. If I could sell more than 19 copies of a record, price wouldn’t be an issue. Feel is crucial. I have two identical acoustic guitars and one feels slightly better than the other (which is to be expected of mass-manufactured instruments). Luckily, one also seems to sound better in the “Occupied” tuning (C-G-C-G-G-C) than the other, so it works out – the more comfortable one is my #1, in standard tuning and used for most things, the less-comfortable (but not uncomfortable) one sounds better in the lower tuning, so I use it for that.
My only electric guitar at this point is a Laguna LE322. I literally paid $200 for it new. I was looking for something in a sub-$500 range; I used to play an Ibanez RG470, but I hate Floyd Rose trems. I spent more time tuning the 470 than playing it. I was looking for a different trem system, and it was down to either a PRS or a Laguna, the latter having locking tuners and a Wilkinson trem. (I actually love Schecter guitars, but they have Floyds.) The sub-$500 PRSs didn’t feel good to me, but the Laguna felt great and actually sounded great. The Wilkinson trem takes a fair amount of abuse and it doesn’t come out of tune much. It’s got an HSS pickup configuration, 22 frets, and a coil tap. If I was good with wiring diagrams (and the extra complexity of a coil tap system) I would’ve already put a Seymour Duncan Dimebucker (I swear it’s around here somewhere) in the bridge position.
I also used a friend’s Fender Showmaster to double up guitar parts with a different sound. The Showmaster is a not-so-well-known Fender product, it’s a superstrat with no pickguard and upgraded features. This one had two Seymour Duncan humbuckers, factory installed, and sounded good, but had a bit too much of a metallic edge for me compared to the Laguna for this project. Still love the guitar and I borrow it frequently. My buddy found it at a pawn shop for $250.
I used two basses for the album. One was a borrowed Espanola acoustic bass. At the time I recorded bass, I literally had no money coming in (my wife and I were both hurting for work up here) and couldn’t even change the old, rusty strings that were on it because my friend who owns it doesn’t really even play it anymore. Thankfully, this gave it a warm, rounded sound with very little high-end that ended up working in a lot of places. I was especially going for a sort of upright bass sound on “I Will Love You If You Let Me,” for example, and it was perfect because the strings were so dead! I plugged it direct in and put two microphones on it, and all the mics picked up were these non-musical clicks and slap sounds when I’d hit a string. It actually gave it quite the upright bass sound! It’s all over the gentler moments on the album, mostly the DI signal. In songs like “You’d Never Tell Me,” it’s on all the quiet parts, and I played my electric for the big middle eight.
My electric bass is a ’93 Ibanez Soundgear series SR506. It’s a six-string with active pickups and I can get a lot of different sounds out of it. It was owned by a bassist friend of mine (who paid full price for it), and I acquired it in 2002, I think, when he upgraded and I built a computer for him. We traded. it’s one of my favorite instruments. The newer Soundgears do feel better – I had a friend in South Carolina with a newer five-string that was one of the nicest, smoothest basses I’ve ever played – but this thing is like an old pair of sneakers now, an old friend. I played it with and without a pick – “Free” is very obviously picked, for instance, and “Moving to Silence.” Most everything else is fingered.
Dream guitars – I have heard of some high-end Taylors that have condenser microphones mounted in the sound hole. That’s awesome and would certainly help with the ever-changing setup of home studios. As much as I hate Floyd Roses, I would kind of like to own one of the Alex Lifeson signature Les Pauls with the Floyd Rose trem. Schecter makes great guitars at a good price point. Other than that, I have never really had the money to think critically about what my dream upgrade would be. I’d have to play everything I considered and only take home the ones that felt right.
What did you use equipment-wise — amps, effects — for the electric guitar parts on the album? What sounds were you aiming for?
Every electric guitar sound on this album is software modeling. I was never good at miking things, and I can’t play out up here enough to justify owning nice amps. Most of the electric guitar sounds are Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 4. Most of the are based on a model of Eddie Van Halen’s “brown sound” amp, which was a Marshall Plexi connected to a variac to make it sag a bit. I started using this sound as a “quiet distortion” lead when I play Christmas shows with my pianist friend Elizabeth Crew, and fooling around with it one day, I realized it scaled, and sounded great loud with more gain. The setup I used for Solution had a model of the old green Ibanez Tube Screamer distortion pedal in front of it.
I like distortion sounds to sound like your speakers are the amp speakers. So there’s a lot of close-mic, not a lot of room mic sound on my guitar sounds. I double or triple them up. A lot of the big places on the record are three rhythm guitar tracks: Two mono, panned hard left and hard right, and one with a chorus (slow and wide) up the middle. All the same preset, but just panned differently and with the chorus switched on or off. The natural little differences in the performances make the panned tracks sound super-wide – one of those “more than the sum of its parts” tricks. I’m a delay fetishist. Any lead or arpeggio usually has delay on it. I love it. One of those things I got from Alex Lifeson, who as the sole guitarist in Rush had to sometimes sound like three or four at once. Actually I got my love of chorus from him too.
To me, there’s few things prettier than screaming guitar feedback, fed into delay and then reverb, so that it’s off in the distance, mixed into a track and playing tones that support the chord structure in some way. I grew up on a hill overlooking a town in a valley. When a car or truck would go screaming over a piece of the highway down there that makes that high pitched whining sound, it would reverberate through the valley and would become very soft and musical. I think that’s where I get that.
I need both atmospheric sounds and huge sounds for the stuff that I do. For quieter sounds I prefer a single-coil sound with chorus, delay and reverb, and the big sounds have to be absolutely huge, in-your-face. I like the dual-rectifier Mesa type sounds, but in the past I’ve had trouble controlling them, making them sound right. So I went to this Marshall Plexi sound for this record and I’m glad I did, it was very controllable and very big.
Did you record the album at home or in a studio? What kind of equipment did you use? Any special techniques to get certain sounds?
This entire album was recorded in my home studio. The most expensive microphone I own is a Shure SM57. I think a long time ago I just accepted that I was going to have to prove myself first, before I had the money to buy into a good sound. The cost of living is very low up here. So for instance, you only have to make $30,000/year up here to survive, whereas in New York City or Chicago you have to make $150,000/year to survive. But guitars, microphones, and studio gear is the same price everywhere, partly because of the internet. So while the cost of living is higher in some places, it’s still sometimes easier for someone in a big city to drop $700 on a microphone where I might only be able to drop $100.
So I’ve tried all the time I’ve been making music to be aware of how I could make it sound “better” as cheaply as possible. A lot of long lonely nights playing back a part over and over again and making minuscule EQ adjustments. There are a lot of great plugins these days with great EQ and sound-shaping tools, and I’ll use them if they help. Because there is a certain expectation that a certain type or genre of music sound a certain way. And I personally can enjoy the sound or production of something as much or more than the song itself! A piece of music knocks it out of the park for me if it has both great production and an enjoyable or rewarding song behind it (see my comments re: Devin Townsend). And things just sound “right” if they sound a certain way. Snares have to snap, cymbals have to splash, distortion guitars need to be close-miked, bass has to have low end and bite, etc. So there is a sonic template that works and part of the suspension of disbelief is getting as close as you can to that template, and only deviate if it sounds awesome to do so.
One album that breaks that rule, that I should mention in case somebody thinks I’m just making place-and-bake cookies, is Dream Theater’s first album When Dream And Day Unite. It was recorded for $600 in a basement studio and it is very muddy. But it has something most metal albums don’t have, or didn’t have at that time – it was warm. And it was thick. We got to a point for awhile there with metal where the entire midrange was just scooped out like it didn’t matter. And that affects low-mids too, the warmth. When Dream And Day Unite is one of the best badly-recorded records I’ve ever heard, because it is so thick, so warm, that it almost has an ambiance to it, its own environment.
The whole album was recorded into a PreSonus Firepod, which is a 10-in/10-out Firewire audio interface, and recorded in Logic Pro on an entry-level early 2011 MacBook Pro (Core i7 2.0 GHz, 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB 7200 rpm hard drive). Acoustic guitars were miked with an Shure SM57 at the sound hole, a Marshall Electronics MXL991 pencil condenser at the 12th fret, and a pair of Marshall MXL990 large-diaphragm condensers in an XY stereo pattern about three feet up and two feet back from the guitar. The pickup was also recorded. I took those five inputs and mixed them into a stereo two-mix for each guitar and used Logic’s Direction Mixer plugin to rotate the sound field so that I could get two or sometimes three acoustic guitar parts in the two-channel space. I think the 57 and 991 were panned maybe 30% left and right, and the 990s were panned hard left and right because they’re already in a stereo configuration in the room. I set the mics up against the bookcase you can see in the background of most of the session videos and live streams, and faced the bookcase while recording the acoustics. I figured it was the biggest thing I had at my disposal that I could make into a rough, uneven surface (with books and what-not) to minimize reflections.
Drums, piano, orchestra, synths were all software sampler-based and performed with MIDI-like note data from inside Logic. A lot of these sequences were meticulously poured over, on and off for months. It’s easy to lay down a basic drum beat, for instance, by pointing and clicking on a piano roll, but it takes a lot of work to make them sound human. I used to play drums and I think that helps. If I had any option in the world I’d buy one of those $8,000 Roland V-Session kits, which can output MIDI, and drive my drum samplers with my live performance. But I have to sell a few more than 19 copies of Solution before that happens .
I’m sure some people will think it’s cheating, but I used Match EQ in a few places. This is a neat technology that can calculate amplitude over a frequency range from a source sound and figure out how to make a target sound have that same EQ curve. And this isn’t like a 10-band equalizer on a stereo from the ’80s; this is, like 8,000 bands, as much as the computer can split up the spectrum. I don’t know if it’s 100% ethical to say “this song of mine reminds me of such-and-such a song from such-and-such a band,” and analyze that song and apply the EQ to mine, but it’s a compromise I have to make because there are so many people out there who, if it doesn’t sound like it was recorded at The Hit Factory and mastered by Bob Ludwig, forget it. I think I only did this for two songs; in some cases I used Match EQ to get me to a mix of a previous version of one of my own songs to get me in the ballpark for the new version. Very powerful tool, but it’s not a rubber stamp – it doesn’t work as often as it works. And you have to pick the right source material.
I also used it when I had to pull a word or two from a vocal track I recorded a few years ago. There are moments that are accidentally perfect, due to emotion and entropy and luck. I found when I tried to recreate those moments it sounded like I was doing an impression of myself doing it right. So, to be able to tell the Match EQ plugin, “make this recording from 2007 sound like the vocal I recorded today,” was absolutely awesome. Manually matching two vocals like that is a one-way ticket to a mental hospital.
I think as conservatives we are, ironically, at odds with the philosophy of business sometimes. Most albums are recorded by a team of people who all have different specialties. In that case, in a way, it does “take a village,” or to use a more recent example, “somebody else” helped “make that happen.” I didn’t have those people available to me. So, the occasional (or more than occasional) technical shortcut, I don’t think, should detract from the final product. I had to do the work of a team of specialists with much better equipment than I can afford, to break into a market that won’t give me a chance unless everything is beyond perfect. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be able to satisfy every last purist when it comes to this stuff.
I explain it like this: I have this idea in my head. It’s a completed arrangement, it’s huge and heavy and heavenly. I can either work at Taco Bell for 42 years (in this economy, that’s all that’s left) until I’ve saved enough money to have a team at a “studio” do it for me, or I can try to get it into tangible form by any means necessary. It helps my sanity to do the latter, but there will always be people who think I didn’t do it the right way and/or cheated. But I think almost like a foley guy – I need to make something that sounds like X. Okay, let’s go. As long as I’m not stealing intellectual properly, the ends justify the means. The final product is what matters to me.
So I guess my ultimate tech tip is, go for it. You have no idea how many of the big guys do this stuff. If they didn’t, the technology wouldn’t exist for the rest of us.
Sonically, what are you most proud of on the new album?
The thing I’m absolutely most proud of is that all the acoustic guitar tracks sound like they were all recorded at the same time and in the same location! DIY recording in a home studio, especially while you’re writing, is a catch-as-catch-can sort of thing. Songs that are still being structured or thought out might miss out on a recording session and have to be done later. That has led to years of demos (some of which you can hear on the Deluxe Edition of Solution) that have vastly different-sounding recordings of vocals and acoustic guitars. When I started working on Solution, I made it a point to sit down and record all the acoustic guitars first, because that was the thing that had the most microphones involved and had the most potential to change between setups if I didn’t force myself to do nothing but record all the acoustic guitars at once and be done with it.
After that I’m proud of the overall sound of the album. I tried to play it on every pair of speakers I could find, play it in every car I could get into, on every pair of headphones I could find. If you mix on just one set of speakers – I don’t care if they’re $5,000 studio monitors – you are going to unconsciously mix to those specific speakers. You’re going to optimize the mix in ways you’re not even aware of for those speakers. When you get it in the car, or on the earbuds, it’ll sound wrong. One of the toughest things I have had to learn was to be patient enough to test out the mixes every last place you can. I even drove to my parents’ house a few times and played it in their car, just to have another data point. My iTunes is cluttered with album names like “The Solution is the Problem (Beta 5).” I think I got to Beta 9 before I had the version you hear when you buy the album.
Finally, I’m glad these 11 songs have a home. I’m glad they’re done. I’m glad I got as close as I did to making tangible versions of the complex arrangements I was hearing in my head. I’m glad that when someone asks me my least favorite question in the whole wide world – “What kind of music do you play?” – I can just plop my iPhone down and hit “play.” That has been a long time coming.