With our current distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians are hit hard by not being able to perform publicly with each other. Performing together live online requires technologically not readily available today, so the next best thing is to resort to multi-track recording and adding video of yourself performing your parts. This interview with Chris Georgenes provides an exhaustive look at how he is approaching this process and getting great results creating remote collaborative music video productions!
When my friend and colleague Chris Georgenes posted a couple remote-recorded collaborative music videos on social media, I was not only impressed with the performances of the musicians he was performing with, but also the production quality of these home recordings that were obviously polished up a bit in post. I reached out to him to tell us more!
WARNING: I have stories! Lots of stories! Mostly long stories! Just ask my wife. Sorry for the epic length of these answers…
JF: I’ve known you for several years as an illustrator, animator and visual artist, and I thought that drumming was more of a hobby for you until recent years and see how into you are! What was it that got you to put that more to the forefront in your social posts, and has music become an even greater part of your everyday life now?
CG: I started drumming at age 9. I didn’t start art until attending an art school when I went to college almost 10 years after starting the drums. As long as I can remember I have always understood music. What I mean is, I could hear each individual instrument. I could isolate what each instrument was doing. Even more so with drums. I could hear what a drummer was playing in a song and visually understand using my imagination how and what they were playing. From the kick drum, snare, hi-hats, to the toms and cymbals. It made sense to me. I never thought it was a big deal because I assumed everyone was the same – until later in life. I was with a friend listening to a song and I mentioned how cool the bass line was. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
“Bass?” he asked.
“Yeah. You know, the bass. You hear that cool bass line right?” I responded.
“Ummm…not sure what you mean.” he said even more puzzled. It took me 5 minutes of explaining to him what the bass line is doing and he never really understood what exactly it was that I was referring to. That’s when I realized, there might be some people who don’t hear what I hear. With drumming, I could always map my way through a song. I listen, and memorize the parts. I feel everything in groups of 4. For example, 4 measures. It just feels right. 5 measures feels weird, but if you feel 4, then just play one more measure. I took a handful of lessons when I was 11 years old. Joe Lopez was my drum teacher. I was incredibly excited. I ate, drank, breathed and slept drums my entire childhood. So having a dedicated hour once per week to go to a music studio and sit down behind a real drum kit was a dream come true. At home I had a small beginner kit (kick, snare, tom and not even a hi-hat). I was limited. But at my drum lesson, there were 2 full drum kits setup. It was amazing.
Day one Mr Lopez told me verbatim “Your first few years of drumming are going to be shit.” I was impressed by what he said only because it was the first time in my life an adult spoke to me like I was another adult. I wasn’t a child in his eyes. An adult actually swore out loud to me and it wasn’t a big deal to either of us. It was cool. He went on to tell me I had to learn the rudiments of drumming if I wanted to have a chance at being any good. Once I learn the rudiments, I would have to practice them the rest of my life.
I think he was trying to scare me to see how serious I was. I was excited to learn. I was Uma Therman in Kill Bill who ascended the mountain to beg Master Pai Mei to train her to becoming a kung fu master no matter how much pain she would have to endure. Everything Mr Lopez showed me – the correct grip, single strokes, double strokes, flams, paradiddles, buzz rolls, etc. – I simply already knew how to do or simply repeated what he showed me. I remember how shocked he was. He questioned how I never had a lesson before. For the next few lessons everything he showed me I instinctively knew how to do or I learned on the spot after a few attempts. I assumed everyone had the same ability but judging by his reaction, it seemed that was not the case. The final lesson he wanted me to play a simple beat for 17 measures and stop. He told me to count, in my head each measure so I knew when to stop. He played first to show me on his drum set next to the one I was on. I listened. He didn’t count out loud. He played 17 measures and stopped. I never counted along with his playing. It was my turn. I started playing and I didn’t start counting. I don’t even know why. He didn’t know I wasn’t counting because it’s all in my head. I simply felt where he stopped, and played to the same amount of time and stopped. I looked at him, not sure if I stopped where he wanted me to. He nodded with approval and told me “You’re ready”.
I remember simply feeling 4 groups of 4 and then adding 1 more measure. It was instinctive. It was easy. It was probably like an actor memorizing a script for a play. Every song is like a story. It has a structure; An intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, end. Any variations of that were easy to remember. The music school said they wanted me to start playing with other musicians. But it was summer time and my family vacationed an hour away on Cape Cod and the lessons stopped. I was hoping to pick back up in the fall but I never went back. My parents wanted me to focus on school. I was never happy.
I spent my teenage years listening to Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Louie Bellson, John Bonham, Clyde Stubblefield, Steve Jordan and others. I had a record player and would play parts of Buddy Rich’s solos and pick the needle up and try to mimic what he did with my ear.
I was very shy. Never could play in front of anyone – even my family. I’d wait until everyone left the house and would only then run downstairs to play drums. Until one day when I was 17, a local theatrical show needed an emergency fill in due to an illness for one spot in the music revue. Someone told the director I played the drums and suddenly my biggest fear of playing in front of people became a reality. I remember how nervous I was. My hands were trembling leading up to the curtain call. I was asked to simply do a drum solo in front of 400 people. The moment came, I heard my name announced and I made my way to the drum set. The spotlight shined on me and I looked up and realized I couldn’t see the audience. I was blinded. I felt like I was back in my basement at home. I started playing. I did a 22 minute solo. They couldn’t stop me. That was when my biggest fear became my biggest love in life; performing live.
Drumming and music was always more than a hobby. It was life – plain and simple. All I ever wanted to be was a rock star. Music is by far a greater part of my life these past 10 years. I played in bands in high school, college and was in a pretty popular Boston rock band in the ’90s that headlined most major clubs through the city and in NYC for about 6 years. We played hundreds of shows and it really felt like we had that special sauce. The band broke up in the late ’90s and soon after that I was offered a job animating a pilot for Steven Spielberg’s new company, Dreamworks. That’s what launched me into the world of animation and Flash, Macromedia and now Adobe. That’s a whole other interview!
JF: What about your years working as an animator and artist has helped you with your production capabilities in these videos?
CG: My art background was HUGE and to be honest, I didn’t realize how valuable it would be back when I was getting my BFA. I took a lot of illustration and printmaking courses and studied color theory long before the internet, computers and mobile phones were anything but science fiction. Years after I graduated and I landed that job as an animator and video editor, I never owned a computer or even animated before! But it was my fine art training that allowed me the opportunity to thrive in the paperless animation space.
Learning how to use a computer to draw and animate was easy. Back then we had drawing tablets and used an Autodesk animation program called Animator Pro running on DOS. I was simply using what I learned in art school and applied it to a digital medium. I embraced it. My Animation Director was a guitarist. He knew I was a drummer and told me musicians usually make good video editors due to our sense of rhythm. One day he asked me to take a seat behind the Avid workstation and edit together a scene for a Dr. Katz (Comedy Central) episode. His advice proved true as he and everyone else on the team loved how I paced the scene. I began editing more along with animating and eventually, during the production of Home Movies (Cartoon Network) I was animating and video editing entire episodes.
As of today, being able to combine decades of music experience performing live, recording and simply developing my drumming style along with my animation and video skills has become the perfect storm of creativity for me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about how lucky I am to have had all of these opportunities to learn and express myself creatively throughout my life.
As I mentioned before, I fell into the animation world and that led to being a feature speaker for Macromedia and Flash Forward with Lynda Weinman. At one point after a session, one of the Macromedia peeps called me their “rock star”. It stopped me dead in my tracks because I always wanted to be a “rock star” but that was the first time I was called one but for a completely different reason. During those years I got married and had 3 amazing kids. I stopped gigging for a few years. But when the kids got older I started playing again because music was always THE passion for me. It’s been in my blood. I’ve picked up the bass, I’ve got a guitar I fiddle with and I have lots of riff ideas. Between gigs and now collabs, I’m starting to develop breakbeat loops for people to download and use and I’m working on original ideas – something I haven’t done since the 90s with my original band. I wrote a lot of music back then. Here’s a sample loop:
I have so many riff ideas I’ve lost track of them all. Many hit me at random times throughout the day and so I’ve started recording the basic ideas using an audio recorder or my smartphone just so I can remember them. Whenever I have time, I go through my list of recordings and pick one to sit down and develop further using real instruments. I have a bass and guitar and a midi keyboard, but I’m not going to pretend to say I’m proficient on any level with any of those instruments. I don’t know scales and I can’t read music. I just hear riffs, beats and melodies in my head. I record the basic ideas and then I try to develop them further. “Lemon Enema” (pardon the working title) will eventually be “finished” but for now, here’s how I usually develop my song ideas before bringing in real musicians…
And this piece was inspired by a cat playing piano:
So basically I’m combining my art, animation, video and now recording and mixing abilities to create whatever comes to mind.
JF: We’ve seen a lot of musical artists posting their own multi-track home recordings but they all have the same homemade look and feel to them. So how did you determine that this remote music video production could work so well?
CG: I honestly never thought it could work this well. I didn’t realize what kind of production value I could achieve until the 11th hour of mixing and editing Ooh Child. With the video near complete, playing it back there were moments I got chills listening to such great performances. It gave me so much energy. I was working 18 hour days without feeling tired. I’d wake up after 3 hours and had a hard time falling back asleep. The creative energy was surging through me. I’ve had that feeling before but it has been a while. I started to realize I may have helped create something really special. But only because of the massive talent that contributed. The editing choices I made were to honor each individual’s performance as much as possible. I wanted everyone to have their moment in the sun. It was a true collaboration by everyone. I’m still blown away but how everyone made the song their own with little direction from me.
From a production standpoint, I’m a perfectionist and I’ll work endlessly to make something sound or look the way I imagine it and to the best of my abilities. Even if it means trying something I’ve never done before. I love discovering new techniques. It keeps me engaged, excited, creative. The moment I get bored doing this, it’s time to move on. Going outside my comfort zone has always felt liberating and often frightening. It’s not unlike the 15 minutes before take the stage of every show. Those butterflies are a reminder that you are about to do something few people get to do. Most people never get to experience that feeling. What I use to fear, I have learned to embrace.
I never expected these videos to work so well given we are all remote and using various production techniques ranging from professional to pro-sumer level. It’s just a case of working with what you have and making the most of it. No rules.
About 8 years ago I started buying some microphones and an 8 channel interface because I wanted to learn to record drums. I never thought I’d be quarantined and tracking with remote people of massive talents as far away as Italy someday, but here we are. I learned a lot over the years the same way I learned about animation, using software and editing on an Avid; roll up my sleeves and figure it out. Most of my early recordings sound horrible. But the more I recorded, the more I learned, the better I got. About 2 years ago I finally invested in a real DAW, Presonus Studio One Pro at the advice of a local hip hop artist friend (Andre Todman). Having a real DAW to track and mix with made the biggest difference.
But getting a good acoustic drum sound is not easy. You have to start with the obvious; GOOD sounding drums. Being a student of drumming for over 40 years and also having worked as an auto mechanic for a year (yet another totally different interview), and being generally a very handy person, building drums has become a really fun hobby. I find it very fun to experiment with drum sounds and mastering tuning techniques.
From there it was a matter of microphone placement and trial and error with tune preamps and levels. Once recorded, it came time to really learn about mixing, plugins, techniques and beyond. I’ve always believed in having a punchy drum sound throughout the mix. Imagine Beat It or Super Freak with a soft drum sound way in the back of the mix. Those songs may not have been as popular. A strong backbeat can be everything. In many of my recent videos, you can feel the kick and snare throughout the entire song. I even bring the bass up higher in the mix because I want them to be heard. Most people are listening and watching these videos on digital devices with tiny speakers. The low end punch and bass are the first to disappear in many of these cases. I mix based on how I’ve always wanted to hear music; punchy, deep and open. Growing up I’ve always yearned to FEEL the music vibrate through me. There is nothing more satisfying to me than getting behind my fully mic’d kit at a show in a big club, stepping on the hi-hat and hitting the hats and kick at the same time. In that split-second moment you hear and feel the highest of highs and lowest of lows. You feel the kick vibrate through the room, the murmuring from the crowd stops for a moment and suddenly everything is right in the world. That’s how I mix. My drums are up, the bass is up, all other instruments surf on the wave of bass and beat we create. It just sounds so satisfying.
But a punchy drums sound only sounds good if you mix it right. I trust my ears. I listen to mixes on various devices from my beautiful studio monitors to my phone, laptop, Alexa to the car stereo. I like hearing it across as many devices as possible. Also, walk away. Take a break. Ears get tired. I’ll think I have a perfect mix, but then I’ll listen to it the next day with fresh ears and hear something obvious that needs to be changed or adjusted. It’s the same as looking at a painting or a design after taking a break. You see something you didn’t before and then make adjustments.
As for the video, I never know what I’m going to get. Working remotely means putting trust in others to get a decent video angle and then working with what they send you. I get all kinds of video files from 4k to 720, portrait and landscape orientations, etc. I simply wait to see what everyone sends me, then figure how to work with what I have.
NOTE: For the in-depth recording, editing and mixing processes that Chris uses, check out this Facebook Live session that he recorded and get a 1-1/2 hour Master Class here: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10156851763610836&id=627445835
For the Ooh Child (Inspirational Music) video, I had 17 performers not including the 8 dancers during the credits. 32 tracks to mix. Videos were sent of all sizes and duration. Nothing started at “0:00:00” audio or video-wise. I simply start the video edits after the mix is locked and an exported WAV file is rendered. I start a Premiere Pro project, Import the WAV and all the videos and simply start syncing everything up to my mix. Usually this means visually aligning the waveforms of each video to my mix’s waveform. As for the actual video editing techniques used, I go with my gut. I always, always, always edit to the person watching for the first time. It’s very easy for artists to work on something and forget what it looks like to the person initially watching it. For What’s Going On, I did a lot more color grading just to give it some kind of a “look”. I wanted to remove that harsh phone video edge. I had phone video mostly so it helped to reduce the contrast of each clip overall and reduce the strength of blacks and play with Lumetri effects until it just looked “right”.
For Mercy Mercy Me, I thought about this more. I know after 2+ months of quarantine, we’ve all scrolled social media posts and seen what has become ubiquitous thumbnail grids of musicians in boxes like the Brady Bunch opening or a Partridge Family tour bus. I wanted mine to look different with fast scrollers in mind. Being a Marvin Gaye cover and knowing he sang about racism often, I wanted it to be about color. Mercy we know is about the climate but it still works lyrically to tip my hat to him in terms of recognizing what he sang about and experienced most over his career. I thought about having each musician in their little boxes but as monotone jelly bean colors. Then just as Serena sings her hauntingly beautiful chorus, we all gradually change to the same color. Coming out of that chorus/bridge section, we gradually change back to individual colors again as she starts to sing the 3rd verse. I did a test, sent it to Mik to get his reaction. He loved it. I put my trust not only in my own instincts, but in others as well. Mik is a designer also and he’s always had the right sensibilities. It’s easy to work with him.
How did I know it would work so well? I didn’t. You can’t know until you put it out there and see if people react to it. With Ooh Child, it was kind of a grand slam out of the gate – like a rookie at his/her first at-bat on opening day. I got lucky but not because of what I did but because of the amazing talent of those who surrounded me. I just provided the foundation for the nice house to be built upon. You see a beautiful home, you stop and admire it. But nobody really ever points and says “Dude check out that amazing foundation!” But the house couldn’t have been built without it. That’s my job. I pour the concrete. Everyone else is the wood and paint.
JF: What kind of gear/setups are you and the other musicians in your videos typically recording with at home?
CG: I have a 2012 MacBook Pro that is living out its golden years with one single purpose: track drums. It’s set up just to my left behind the drums. It’s connected to a Tascam 16×8 channel interface. There’s also an ART Pro MPA II preamp that I have an overhead microphone going through. The drum mics are a mix of Shure 57s, Shure PGA56 tom mic, and I use a AKG D112 (bass drum) for the floor tom. The kick has either an Audix D6 or the Shure Beta 52. I also use a Yamaha Sub-kick (10″ inverse polarity speaker). Hi-hat mic is a P170 and there’s a couple of AKG 440s on standby. Nothing earth-shattering. I’d love some Earthworks mics or similar someday but I’m good right now. For the video capture, I’m using GoPros, as are some of the other musicians I collaborate with – or they’re just using their Smartphones to capture the video (and audio in some cases). After I track drums, I move the project over to a Windows desktop machine running Presonus Studio One Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro. That system has an external sound interface connected to a pair of Yamaha HS8 studio monitors.
JF: What is your writing/rehearsing/recording process and who lays down the first track?
CG: The first step is deciding on the song of course. Sometimes I suggest one, sometimes it’s Serena or Mik. Once decided, it starts with me. I find the song online and capture it using OBS (records all system sounds). If it’s a more recent song, the BPM is usually set. But songs like Ooh Child and Mercy, those were recorded in the ’60s and ’70s when the band would smoke a couple of blunts and hit the big red record button and hope for the best. When that happens, I bring the song into my DAW and listen to it and find the average BPM. I then set the project to that BPM and manually split, cut and move stuff on the 1 of every measure and make timing adjustments when needed until; the entire song is basically close enough to the BPM I set it at.I then setup a project on in the DAW (Presonus Studio One ) on the 2012 MBP behind the kit with the original song (edited to the BPM) and with a click track. I then copy the song 3 times. I go back to zero, put on the headphones and hit record. Don’t forget to position a charged GoPro and formatted SD Card and hit record before all that (learned that the hard way).
I play/track the drums to 3 performances. I then copy all the files onto a hard drive and move it across the room to my Windows 10 64 bit workstation that runs Studio One Pro and Premiere Pro. I bring in all my drum tracks, pick the best take, delete the others and start mixing.
One more production note…more like a tip: sometimes, learning a song can take longer than expected if it has a lot of parts. In my DAW, I’ll have the reference track of the original recording (if it’s a cover) or if it’s an original song someone has asked me to track drums to, they’ll send me their rough (sans drums) with a click track. One thing I’ll do as a means to help me while tracking is I’ll create a new track, turn on my microphone, arm that track for recording and talk/record into the mic verbal notes as to what is about to happen next. For example, if there’s a break coming up that stops on the “1”, I’ll tell myself that verbally and then count into the break so I’ll know when to stop. Other verbal cues can be “The bridge in 1…2…3…4…” Then when it comes time to track your actual performance, you have yourself to give you cues. As for everyone else, it ranges from professional recording studios to just a 2-channel interface and Audacity (free) to simply propping up a smartphone and hitting record. In the case of the latter, I simply separate the audio track from the video and begin to EQ it and use other various plugins to help turn the sound into something better sounding.
FUN FACT: During Mercy Mercy Me, Serena told me she didn’t have access to her microphone and that she was singing straight into her smartphone. She wasn’t getting good results using the factory recording app due to the distortion. I researched it and found an app that seemed to have some compression built in and told her to find a stocking and stretch it across her mouth between her and the phone. What you hear on Mercy is her voice recorded straight into her Android smartphone! I didn’t even need to EQ her! In fact I never have. Her voice is so pure and naturally EQ’d, I just plopped it into the mix, doubled it, panned it, a little reverb and done! Singers like Lydia and Sheena (Ooh Child) have decent microphones and an interface which is always better. But I’ll work with anything as long as the performance is good. I actually don’t mind it if something sounds a little raw. with Underdog, Serena’s voice distorts a couple of times because again, she sang into her phone. She was worried about it but I told her I liked it. It feels more real.
This video being just Serena and myself, I wanted to do something different. I always try to keep an open mind when I approach a project and I felt like just sitting behind a conventional drum set would be expected and boring. The song is powerful as is Serena’s voice. Kick, snare and h-hats just seemed too thin – 99/100 drummers would sit behind their kit and grind out a beat. This song needed to be more of a creative performance than just a conventional drum beat. I needed to tear apart my studio and dump all of my percussion gear into a pile on the floor and pretend to be a kid again playing with Legos.
I setup a Rhode NT1-A that goes through my tube pre-amp and recorded everything from cymbal washes with mallets to African shakers to a Djembe. For the main beat I took a 26″ Ludwig bass drum, placed it flat on the floor and used an AKG D112 and a mallet while the snare drum of choice was a Ludwig hammered Black Beauty with a Shure SM57. I played them while on my knees. I tracked everything separately knowing I’d have more options visually when it came time to edit the video together.
I thought a lot about how to keep the video editing simple in an effort to not distract the audience from what is truly the star of this song; Serena. I didn’t want to get in the way or steal the spotlight for a second. So I thought if Serena was in color but I was gray scale, that might work. I also decided it would be better if she had more screen time because who am I kidding, nobody wants to watch a middle aged man on the floor of his studio hitting things.
Underdog came together very quickly because it was just the 2 of us and it’s one of my favorite projects based on its simplicity, the song’s message and Serena’s performance. It was my job to compliment her.
That’s the trick; getting great performances from ordinary people. It’s one thing when famous musicians collaborate remotely but it’s another when it’s everyday people doing something truly amazing that wins in the end.
JF: How are you all handling the large file sharing and what’s your workflow in managing it?
CG: I set up a shared Google Drive folder. Anyone we ask to contribute who says yes, we get their email and I send them an invite. It’s all uploaded to one place. I can create text mix MP3s to upload as well as rough MP4s to share. In fact, I send my mixed drums to Mik with the original song on a track but low in the mix with a click count in. He uses that as reference as he tracks his bass. He then uploads his isolated bass WAV file stem to the shared drive. I download and plop it into my mix which is THE master mix. I then mix that down and upload an MP3 or WAV for the next person – guitar or keys, etc. We keep ping-ponging this way until I can give the vocalist(s) what is essentially a karaoke version of the song we’re doing. Then they sing/record and upload their audio and video.
Once I have all audio, I spend time doing the final mix and mastering. Once that’s locked, I export the final mix and bring that into Premiere Pro and start the video editing.
JF: What do you use to edit everything with and how much of what we see/hear is über-polished vs the live recorded originals?
CG: I’ve already answered the first part of your question and as far as what you see/hear, that’s almost always THE live recordings. I’m literally recording video as I’m tracking drums. Mik is the same. What you see is literally what you hear. Almost everyone is the same. Ooh Child was all recorded live performances. Only in some isolated cases will someone record without video and then do a lip-sync MTV style video.
For example, Kaedon Gray sang lead on What’s Going On. He doesn’t have an interface or a computer. I assumed he did. When he sent me his vocal track, while the singing was great, the sound was too much of the room he was in. It didn’t fit in to the mix at all. I asked him if he could re-record in a small closet or something to get a dryer sound. He said he didn’t have a closet – just a big open apartment. Since I approach every problem knowing there’s always a solution, I told him to take his bed cover or thick blankets and pillows and build a fort with chairs like a little kid, get under with the microphone and sing. So he did. His take 2 sounded great and it’s what you hear in the video:
Someone asked me to find out what microphone Kaedon used. I asked and Kaedon told me he didn’t have one. He sang into his iPad. I can’t tell you how much I love that! It proves you don’t always need expensive gear to make something sound good. But since a video of a grown man under a bed spread is not very inspiring, he decided to do the video separately and basically lip sync to his own performance after I mixed it in and sent him a new MP3.
Serena did the same thing on a couple of videos – most notably for Mercy Mercy Me. She tracked inside on her phone, then after I mixed the final song, she wanted to go outside to do the video. She lives on an island in Italy and it was raining for a solid week. That gave me time to finish the mix and send it to her and the next sunny day she shot her video with the beautiful surroundings you see in the video. In some cases, especially during the scat parts she sang, her lips didn’t sync up. But I always find a way to hide that using Posterize Time or cutting and altering the speed of the footage for a few frames here and there. Basically massage it so it looks even more convincing. Morph Dissolve is pretty amazing if used sparingly.
Here’s a short tutorial on how I created the 2D animation overlay for Kaedon’s video panel in the What’s Going On video:
JF: We’re all going to be forced to evolve the craft this way for awhile, so do you have any other production tips or suggestions that might help folks get started with minimal frustration?
CG: Don’t overthink it. Don’t shoot for a high production value. Just prop up your phone in selfie mode and play, sing or do what you are good at doing. Talent will always shine through mediocre equipment. But the biggest thing I see is everyone telling me how they could never figure any of this out. If I thought that way, none of this would every have happened. In fact I’d never have a career in animation with animated TV shows and several published books on my resume. A self-defeatist attitude is the death call of creativity. People are too afraid of making mistakes. The only way to learn is to fail. If you are afraid of failing, you’ll never learn.
Here’s a recent example: Mercy Mercy Me, the original 1971 recording has a very iconic sound that coincides with the snare drum hits on the 2 & 4. It sounds like a tennis ball being struck with a lot of reverb. It provides an atmospheric ambiance to the vibe. When I tracked and mixed the drums, I kept thinking about adding this sound to be as authentic as possible. So I googled a bit to find out if I could find a sample of it but then I realized, why not try and recreate it? If I fail, fine. But if I don’t fail, then maybe I’ll learn something along the way. And I did.
I decided to start with recording a bongo strike here in-studio as a starting off point. But then I realized I already had recorded the Djembe track for the Underdog video with Serena the week prior. So I opened that WAV file up in Studio One and snipped one of the sound bytes of my striking the Djembe. This was my starting point not unlike when you need an effect in After Effects and you start with a “solid” layer in your composition as the first step in creating an effect. Or not unlike a sculptor who starts off with a ball of clay.
I then started “playing” with the Djembe sound by listening to it and the original recording. It was clear the original sound was pitched higher. So I transposed my sound until it was close to the original. But it was also too bright. The original effect has more of a muted quality. So I EQ’d my sound by increasing the mid range and decreasing the highs and lows. BOOM! I got it to sound nearly identical to the original recording. All that was left was to duplicate the sound and manually align it to my snare hits and then send the track to an FX channel with a lot of reverb. What I thought was going to take hours and possibly fail at, took me about 20 minutes. In fact I’m being asked to create a video tutorial because people want to know how I did it – as if it was some kind of ancient witchcraft.
The lesson here is, just start trying. Make mistakes if that’s what’s necessary to get to a successful place. Did I do it “right”? Who cares?! The rule is, there are no rules. No right or wrong way. It’s the end result that matters, not how you got there.
Another tip: If you have an idea of any kind. Try it. Just try it. At the end of Mercy Mercy Me, the original vocal recording Serena sang it just once. And then the song kind of trails off for 4 bars. Upon playing it back I felt it needed more of her chorus. But it doesn’t make sense to ask her to record it more when I already have it. So I duplicated her part and added it a couple of more times near the end and then again at the very very end just before we cut to black. It’s very dissonant and dark. I kept it. When it came time to do the video editing, I simply duplicated her video singing that part. Even the very end I had her video just once on screen but as I was watching it, I simply had the idea to duplicate her clip, flip it horizontally to see how it would look. I could always delete it. So that very ending I created by duplicating her parts a few more times and creating that lasting visual and aural haunting moment. It’s like putting the cherry on top of the banana split. This was just a dark cherry.
JF: What’s next for your vision? What type of productions/songs do you want to tackle moving forward?
CG: I have about 6 other collabs in production and while answering these questions; Serena sent me an idea for another song she’d like to do, so that’s 7. Some started over 2 months ago and took a long time due to other musicians who, as I’ve learned, have various levels of motivation. Some songs come easier than others depending on the number of people involved. The Underdog video took Serena and I a couple of days because it was just the 2 of us. Ooh Child took 6 weeks but 3 of those weeks we were waiting on another singer who eventually was unable to do it. We asked Lydia Harrell and within 24 hours she sent us 4 vocal tracks, lead, 2 harmonies and an ad-lib track with 4 supporting videos.
Moving forward I’m always tracking and recording videos – some of which involve me showcasing new percussion products that are made by independent drum companies that I endorse. In light of this pandemic not going away soon and all of our gigs cancelled for the summer at least, I’m hoping to continue to create more with what has developed into a pool of amazing musicians. I have Mik to thank for wrangling many of them. What’s funny is, Mik and I have met in person before once or twice but have never played a gig together. We have always talked about it but he and I are in different bands and always gigging in the many various venues all over New England. But it took a forced quarantine to finally play “together”.
I’ll just add what Serena told me after we did Underdog which really summed it up perfectly. She lives on the island of Sardinia in Italy. We’ve never met. I found her on Instagram singing Killing Me Softly last year and was struck by her amazing voice. It was just a smartphone video and she was playing piano along with her singing. I’m a huge fan of that song and had the urge to put a drum track over it. The right thing to do was ask first. So I sent her a DM. Now I’m just some random American guy she’s never heard of before. I thought, she could say yes, no, or never respond. Either way, life will go on. About a week later I got a reply with an affirmative yes. So I ripped her video, did my thing and produced this:
That’s what really started this collab ball rolling. After we did our 4th video Underdog I sent her the final video and her response was “Distance is now only a word.” Working with Serena and others was impossible just a short time ago. I’m lucky to have such talented musicians in my life.
NOTE: Chris will be posting his new collaborations in the near future and I will be adding them below here as they get published, so be sure to check back often to see the new videos!