One Of Us: The Recording Session

Day One:

It’s Sunday morning and we leave for Paul’s studio, about an hour’s drive from NYC. We have the studio booked for 2 days. Paul’s an engineer who has been around the NY scene awhile – he was the engineer at the famous Skyline studio for many years. We meet him at the studio and he shows us around. It’s a moderately sized set up on the first floor of a house, with a large room housing the piano and 3 iso-booths. The the mixing console and gear are set up upstairs accessible via a staircase. Paul communicates via talkback with the artists downstairs. I talk shop with him awhile, discuss the project and what we will be doing the first day, while Ramona goes warms up and checks out the piano. I’ve already corresponded with Paul earlier so he has most of what we need set up already. I give him my firewire hard disk that he will use to track the session on and then head downstairs to set up my amp and gear. I have my Acoustic Image amp that I brought to the session. The amp has a downfiring woofer and we take direct out from my FX as well as a mic feed from the amp. The engineer sets up the mic off axis from the amp speaker, standard micing for a normal amp, but not recommended for a downfiring woofer – a costly mistake I only learned later after the recording. Don’t ever record such amps this way since you don’t get enough low end or midrange!

Johannes, Ingrid and Adam arrive soon after and start setting up. Drums and bass take the two far iso-booths and I take the third. Trumpet shares the same room as the piano. There is going to be some mic bleed but we figured that having trumpet and piano in the same room was the best compromise we could make, since there isn’t a 4’th booth. We run through the usual checks to get levels and do a brief sound check before we get started. We all have sub mixes so we can dial in the right amount of each instrument in the cans.

By the time we start recording it is past noon. We have a lot of music to record over the next couple of days and Ramona and I are already concerned that we won’t be able to finish all the tracking in the time we have. We start with Who’s Your Mama. The first tune in any recording session is typically the hardest since you need to dig in, zone in and get over the record-button-itis. I write recording software for a living but I still hate that damn record button 🙂 We do two full takes. The second one sounds like it has more energy in it and has some great solos from Ingrid and Ramona. Ramona isn’t happy with it just yet, but we decide to move on and return to it fresh later.

The session goes on. Ramona makes a few spontaneous changes to the charts during the session as we grow into the music more. On Chinese Whispers Ingrid suggests that we try blowing through her solo in 7/4. We try it and it sounds great so we go for it. We have a few other happy accidents like that and some not so happy ones as well 🙂 Its a busy session with the only relaxation when we break for pizza. We end the day with about six tunes tracked – not too bad.

Its 6:30PM – Paul gives us a rough mix CD and Ramona and I head back to the hotel. We’re spent, but our day is not done. We need to review the takes and mark all the overdubs we have to finish this tomorrow. It takes a couple of hours to go through all the takes and check them out, making notes. If there is one thing we both hate, its listening back to a raw recording immediately after making it, since its very hard to be objective. Your mind plays tricks on you and small flaws get exaggerated making it sound worse than it is.  Sometimes it works the other way around but so far it hasn’t for me – I have patience though, still waiting 🙂 Anyway, the toll of the previous weeks is telling on Ramona and she is freaking out a bit, and I try to convince her that it’s all good. We grab some take out and get some shut eye – Another long day ahead.

Day Two:

We head out early to the studio. We’d made arrangements with Paul to get there an hour before the others to do a few overdubs. We finish that and start up with the rest of the music. We also revisit a couple of tunes from the previous day. By lunchtime I finish all the tunes I am playing on and move upstairs to the mixing room so I can be more of a “producer”. This feels good – next time I’m not going to play on Ramona’s projects. Just sit in the control room. It sounds better that way 🙂 The band records Eight Winds, Gaia and the trio performance of One Of Us. Eight Winds is perhaps my favourite song on the album. The music floats and Ingrid does a soaring solo over those lovely changes. One Of Us sounds great too from up there too. We are done with the core tunes!

Its 5:o0PM – Adam and Johannes leave but Ingrid stays back to do some overdubs for extra parts that Ramona wants. She also records a whole bunch of cool sounds and FX that we plan on using later while mixing.  Check out the start of Gaia for a couple that we ended up using. Paul makes a backup of the session files on my disk, we pack up and leave. We are both exhausted. We head to a friends place in NJ where we spend the night, before driving back home to Boston the next day. It’s been a long journey!

One Of Us: Production → [next]

One Of Us: Rehearsals

Its now close to April and the recording session is looming close. Mind you, through most of this time, I’ve only heard snippets of some of the new music, let alone played it, so I am beginning to panic. With my usual crazy schedule at Cakewalk, I realize I need to spend more time getting into the music. I begin learning some of the new charts. I take a week off before the session so we can soak in the music and prepare for the recording. More than anyone else, I think I need that – this is hard music to play!

Ramona and I jam together and playing through the changes for the tunes. It’s kind of hard to visualize some of this music since there are so many things in the charts that we are not playing yet. She has the sound she wants in her head with all the instrumentation but all I have are cold Sibelius scores. 🙂

We finally leave for NYC on the 24th of April. We have two rehearsals booked with the entire band before the session. Minimal but that’s all we can get in with everyones schedules. The first rehearsal is in Adam’s living room at his Brooklyn apartment. Cool neighborhood 🙂 As we get out of the car, Ingrid arrives. Though we’ve spoken over the phone this is the first time we have met Adam and Ingrid in person. We hang out a few minutes and talk before we unpack and start. The first rehearsal is rough but fun – we basically run through the form for all 10 tunes. The musicians make annotations to their scores and Ramona makes edits where necessary. Some bugs from the Sibelius scores are exposed 🙂 Great to hear some that music played for the first time with all the instrumentation – a powerful experience!

We have some funny moments. While playing Resident Alien, I’m comping and I hear this really wierd pedal point against the chords I’m playing. Oh God – damn I’m lost in the form, I think, not surprising for me 🙂 So I stop and listen to the rest playing the head. Find my place again and start up once more – still wrong. Huh? Then I hear what’s wrong I think – the bass is playing different harmony. So I ask Johannes if he is on the right page of the song – he checks and says yes here’s what I have.. Doh, its not the same changes I have! Turns out Ramona printed out a Bb chart for Johannes – faithful musician that he is he played through it. Must have been thinking – Ramona writes some wierd shit but I’ll play it anyway! Hilarious 🙂 She hands him the right chart and we continue, albeit with a less dissonant sounding tune. It won’t sound the same anymore.

Those dudes learn fast – they aren’t where they’re at for nothing. I record the rehearsal and we take it back with us to check out later. We’re tired but spend the rest of evening making notes for the next rehearsal.

Next day, Saturday we’d booked a rehearsal place in downtown NYC for the second session. Turns out the space is run by an elderly couple right out of their apartment. They have all this vintage recording gear including a 2″ tape system and mixing console, right in their living room next to the dining table. The one big room in the apartment is the converted rehearsal space. The room is actually pretty cool – excellent acoustics and they have a baby grand piano, amps and drumset all set up with mic’s and monitors. Pretty slick for a couple in their 80’s to be running that, eh? Wild – thats NY for you 🙂

We run through all the tunes again. By now the others have the tunes in their head and are excited with the music. We blow some solos today. Ingrid sounds fantastic! Ramona makes some more tweaks to the charts. There are still rough spots but its looking much better today. Its a lot of music, but we’re flat out of time, so we are going to have to make it hang together in the session the next day. Feel the stress? 🙂

We head out with the band to grab some pizza, and driving to the Hampton Inn, that we’d booked for the duration of the recording.

One Of Us: The Recording Session →[next]

One Of Us: The Music

Musicians and studio bookings out of the way, the next big task loomed – this one for Ramona. By this time we were into Feb 2008 and Ramona had about five tunes close to complete. Now was the hard part – writing new music, putting all the charts into Sibelius and finishing up the arrangements, printing out parts for the musicians. We had only scheduled two days to rehearse all the music, so it was important for her to get the charts to the musicians earlier on.

Who’s Your Mama, Resident Alien, Garden Of The Gods and Rio Alegre were tunes that she’d written earlier and that we’d played in some form or the other at gigs, so we had some idea about what they would sound like. Eight Winds was the newest of the lot. Clearly we needed more music for this project. She locked herself into our studio and wrote the remaining music for the album. Did I mention she is prolific? 🙂

Chinese Whispers, Listening To Love, One Of Us, Gaia, Retrospeak. Song titles for most of these came later – we lived with amazingly creative titles for these like ballad 1, ballad 2, Untitled, Waltz all through way past the recording and mixing sessions 🙂 Sometimes it works to let songs name themselves themselves after the finished product.

Around the end of March, Ramona was done. She transferred her pencilled scores to Sibelius, part extracted and printed off the final scores and sent them to the musicians. I was impressed!

One Of Us: Rehearsals →[next]

One Of Us: The Studio

Having decided on the musicians the next hurdle was to figure out where we were going to record the project. I had already decided that I was going to mix this project in SONAR by this time, but I didn’t have the studio setup or know anyone who had the gear to record an acoustic jazz project with our requirements. So we would have to rent a commercial studio at least for the tracking.

Most studios still track CD sessions at 16 or 24 bit and 44.1 KHz. One of the goals I had for this project was to future proof this recording and record in high definition audio format, so that we could consider releasing it in hi-def DTS format or even as a surround mix later. Another requirement was that we needed a place with an excellent piano as well as an engineer with experience recording acoustic jazz.

We also considered the logistics of rehearsals. All the other musicians lived in NYC – we’d have to have them come to Boston for the entire duration of the rehearsal and recording. Studios in Boston are relatively less expensive, but we concluded that it would be better overall for us to scedule the recording session in NY.

So I went about researching studios in NY. I had a few choices of my own and Johannes also gave me some leads. Most of the places I called either didn’t have a decent piano, charged close to $200/hr,  couldn’t/wouldn’t do 24/96, or had engineers who had no clue about recording, jazz. Hmmm… Boy studio rates in NYC sure are exorbitant for what you get! I was running out of options. Finally, I tracked down Paul Wickliffe who recorded several of Kenny Werner’s CD’s. He had a studio in NJ (Charlestown Road Studios) and had most of the requirements we wanted – 3 iso-booths and a Steinway. He also said he could do 24/96 – not before he tried to convince me that it was worthless though 🙂 Anyway I persisted and he agreed to “rewire” his ProTools HD setup to do 24/96. I would have loved to have tracked in SONAR to make my life easier later, but honestly as long as the audio was being recorded in hi-def with nice mics and through good converters I really didn’t care much.

We booked the final dates for April 27 & 28 2008. Phew, one more milestone done!

One Of Us: The Music →[next]

One Of Us: The Musicians

Perhaps the most important ingredient next to the music itself, are the musicians on the project. We play with some amazing musicians from time to time, but don’t have luxury of having a working band that is familiar with her music. Given the inevitable time constraints we needed to be able to rehearse and record this project in a very short period of time – two rehearsals and a two day recording session. A somewhat daunting task given some of the music she had written. (Ramona’s music is deceptive – and that’s putting it mildly!)

The first person Ramona contacted was Ingrid Jensen. Ingrid is one of my favourite trumpet players anywhere – she has this soaring sound and melodicism that blew us away when we first heard her many years ago in Montreal. We were thrilled when she replied saying she was excited to be part of this project.

Next was the rhythm section. We’d always wanted to play with great bass player and friend Johannes Weidenmueller, who was our first choice since we’d heard him play similar music before. When rehearsal time is a constraint, it’s always a good idea to have a bass player and drummer who have worked together, so we asked Johannes to recommend some drummers he thought would be a good fit on this project. He gave us a few names some of whom we knew and others we didn’t. I went about looking for their work on the web and Rhapsody, my favourite music research source. We were looking for someone who sounded great at swing, but could also play some ECM and Latin influenced music. I was very impressed with Adam Cruz, a drummer who had also played on Chick Corea’s Origin – Live At The Blue Note recording. He had this light yet driving sound that we liked a lot. We were very happy when both Johannes and Adam agreed to do this project.

Quintet - Ramona Borthwick, Adam Cruz, Ingrid Jensen, Noel Borthwick, Johannes Weidenmueller

Excited with the finalized lineup we moved on the next step. Where do we record?
One Of Us: The Studio →[next]

One Of Us: Conception

For many of us independent musicians who don’t have the luxury of funding via a record deal, a CD project can be a long, labor-intensive process that takes a lot of planning. It can be exhilarating exhausting and not so fun, all at once, so it’s something you have go into with your eyes wide open. The technology available to us all today might make some aspects of this process more accessible to the independent artist, but this can be deceptive. Statutory Warning: CD production can be injurious to health among other things. It takes a huge commitment and learning curve to follow through with all the aspects of producing a CD, so don’t do this at home unless you have some tolerance to pain :-).

Around the middle of 2007 Ramona and I started discussing her next project. We had been playing around a bit and she had already started writing a bunch of really cool tunes, some of which were sketches of things to be. Ramona is really prolific as a composer (unlike me – I can procrastinate over a song forever!) and some of the new writing sounded very through composed. She already had about 4 new tunes that we had played experimentally at a couple of gigs so we figured it was time to think about a new recording project. Nothing like putting a stake into the ground to force creativity out when its hiding 🙂

Growing up the 70’s, I always admired how records were made then, where albums were cohesive and told a story. Today too many jazz records end up being “blowing sessions” (sadly a lot of this has to do with budgets). While I enjoy listening to records with great solos, few of them bear repeated listening for me. Given the depth of Ramona’s new compositions, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity for us to do a project that was more cohesive and worthy of the term album

Sooo…  to start with we contacted the record label we’d worked with before – nice people and they liked the last project we did a lot. Sadly, with the economy the way it was back then things didn’t look very promising that this would work out in the time frame we wanted to do this. So we had two choices – defer the project until better times or take on the responsibility of producing it all ourselves. We chose the latter.

I have worked for Cakewalk for over 10 years, writing audio production software. While I’ve done various smaller scale projects over the years, I have always wanted to do a full blown CD production from start to finish in SONAR, which has some amazing tools for mixing and production. So this project was going to be a trial by fire for me in more than one regard! Its can be a good thing to eat your own dog food once in a while 🙂

We had a lot to think about, but the next big thing would be to decide on one of the most important ingredients – the musicians on this project.

One Of Us: The Musicians →[next]

Windows 7 For Music Production

Here are some links to various articles on Windows 7 that I have contributed to.

Cakewalk Windows 7 Resources
Our official Windows 7 resources page

Obsessive Windows 7 Under-the-Hood Guide for Music; Can You Finally Dump XP? 
This is an interview I did for Peter Kirn from Create Digital Music

How Windows 7 Will Affect Your Music Production
Similar material to the Create Digital Music interview

Windows 7 Improvements to Help Audio Recording
CNET blogger Matt Rosoff, posted his thoughts on how Windows 7 will make the art of audio production on PC easier. Quotes my blog post.

 Windows 7: Should You Upgrade Your Music PC?
Music Radar’s Ben Rogerson takes a look at Windows 7 to determine whether or not it’s a sound investment for people using their PCs primarily for music creation. Also some quotes from my Win7 posts.

The most out of Windows 7 and optimizing Windows for music
Another article from Peter Kirn from Create Digital Music that I contributed to

India performances

Upcoming gigs with the Ramona Borthwick Quartet with Noel Borthwick (g), Karl Peters (b), Adrian D’Souza (dr).

Saturday, Nov 15, 2008 @ 8:30PM
The Bombay Gymkhana
MG Road, Fort.  Mumbai 400001. India

Thursday, Nov 20, 2008 @ 8:00PM
Shisha Jazz Café
ABC Farms, Koregaon Park,  Pune 411001. India

Thursday, Nov 27, 2008 @ 7:30PM
Gordon House Hotel
Sahar, Mumbai 400059. India


My guitars: 

  • D’Angelico Excel EX-DC: a great semihollow guitar and my most recent acquisition
  • D’Angelico NYL-2: a lovely archtop – also bought recently. I replaced the stock pickup with a Kent Armstrong floating humbucker and really love the sound. It can sound delicate or more modern if you want it too. I’m glad I got one before D’Angelico stopped manufacturing these.
  • 1982 Gibson ES-335TD.
  • Godin LGX-SA – my primary solid body guitar these days. Its a really versatile axe.
  • Paul Reed Smith PRS CE-22: A classic solid body from PRS.
  • Ibanez GB-10 – my oldest axe, bought this one in 1982! I don’t use it a lot these days but it still has sentimental value to me 😉
  • Taylor 810CE: This is actually a custom guitar I ordered -a cross between the 810 and 910 series with an Englemann spruce top and the electronics outboard (the fishman pocket blender). Its a great instrument but I sadly don’t use it as much as I should. Haven’t quite figured how to get around feedback problems with an acoustic guitar live.
  • Baby Taylor: The little travel guitar that I take along with me occasionally when I travel. 

Here’s a pic of my D’Angelico NYL-2 and Excel EX-DC:

A nice pair

More pix coming soon…

CD Release Concert

Wednesday, May 17, 2006 @ 9PM
Ryles Jazz Club |
Inman Square, 212 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

‘A New Leaf’ CD Release Concert, with Ramona Borthwick (p), Phil Grenadier (tpt), Noel Borthwick (g), Rick DiMuzio (sax), Fernando Huergo (b), Esperanza Spalding (b), Francisco Mela (dr)

Ramona Borthwick Quintet

Saturday, January 21, 2006 @ 6 PM
JazzFest: Benefit Concert
Hoyt Auditorium, Tabor Academy|
Front Street, Marion, MA 02738

Ramona Borthwick Quintet with Noel Borthwick (g), Dan Abreu (sax), Fernando Huergo (b), Nick Falk (dr).

All proceeds to benefit hurricane victims through: New Orleans Teach For America Disaster Relief Fund, New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, Touro Infirmary Foundation, New Orleans Public Library Foundation