Since we don’t perform, we’ve always known to get our music out there, recording was the only hope.
We’ve also known we’d need to do it ourselves and at home, if anyone else is around we get uptight, play it safe, our music loses its magic.
But recording remained just a dream until we said goodbye to sweet Varanasi, moved back to the States.
Fast running out of funds, elegantly camped out in a tiny rotting trailer, we were fighting for self-respect, struggling to build a new life.
Only our bodies had returned to the modern world, our souls were still more comfortable with charcoal and candles than electrons. We knew nothing about recording. We didn’t know the difference between a condenser and a dynamic microphone, didn’t know what a “sound card” was, had never used a mixer, had never even seen a sound file let alone tried to edit one.
Totally confused, with fingers crossed, watching every penny, in 2001 we bought our first kit of entry level 2-channel digital gear.
Like much of what we’ve done it was a “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” kind of operation. But we were careful and with this limited equipment successfully made two CDs.
In line with our general preference for figuring out things ourselves, we didn’t first enroll in a recording course or read how-to-record books, instead we took our time, let the process speak to us, and tried very very hard.
Our First Two CDs
- Huhnandhuhn (2001)
We started work on Huhnandhuhn far from sure we had enough music in us for a full CD.
At first nothing we got down sounded good enough. We weren’t surprised, we knew we were on a mythic quest, knew catching a unicorn would be difficult, knew we didn’t know what we were doing.
So we soldiered on and after 3 months began recording music good enough to play for sympathetic supportive friends.
Now when we listen to huhnandhuhn (a name chosen to emphasize neither of us comes first) we’re both impressed and embarrassed. The songs still sound Ok, the Shoki duet with which it starts is musically neat, the whole CD is saturated with innocent sincerity. But we were just learning to play Dotara, and in general the sound quality is terrible.
- Sweet Heresy (2005)
Creating our next CD was not as traumatic.
Less terrified by the whole recording process, though our kit was the same, we used it better and the sound quality is closer to acceptable than on Huhnandhuhn.
More importantly having added Bass Bowus and two more keyboard kalimbas to our ensemble, our music had grown. We’d put away our Indian guitar and drum, for the first time were recording with only our own instruments.
It also helped we’d learned to avoid playing stuff that sounded fine live, but not so good recorded.
Deep chilled, it was a very respectable second try.
Our Recording Shrine
In 2009 our Japanese to English translation career showed signs of crashing, reading the tea leaves we upgraded our recording setup. If we were again going to be broke, at least it would be with more adequate equipment.
Thanks to this our third CD was recorded with an updated kit set up in our “recording shrine”.
In the cubby holes at the bottom are microphones and their cables, the three units in the middle compartment are M-audio dual mic preamps, the silver thing in the top is an Echo Audiofire 8-channel digitalizer, the hanging headphones are Koss PortaPros.
After our old Pentium 3 system croaked, to continue working as translators we’d already bought an XP quad-core machine powerful enough to multitrack. To save money we used our old microphones. Software we didn’t need to buy since Tracktion 2, a program we liked more the longer we used it, came bundled with the Echo.
Altogether the upgrade came to only about $1,200.
Not bad for a system that allowed us to overdub songs, add extra instrumental tracks, put two separately recorded mics on each of our instruments. A system that let us capture and control the magic ring of our non-engineered instruments, do a much better job cleaning up our sound.
With this lovely equipment we made our third and most recent CD.
- Work In Progress (2011)
Soon after we started the CD we were hit by a deluge of translation work and the remaining recording sessions had to be squeezed in between jobs. We had neither peace of mind nor time to practice.
But right from the beginning the music we got down was technically and artistically light years ahead of our earlier stuff. Not only did we have a second quartertone kalimba, the detour through translation had been fruitful. It made us tougher, sharpened our focus, upped our standards, tightened our communication, gave us the computer chops needed to get the most out of our new equipment. It put us in position to record with much less than professional equipment a CD as clean, rich, and balanced as the very best studio produced albums.
Still getting down enough good music for the CD took 18 months, a struggle recorded on our Work In Progress blog. With almost shameful honesty we wrote about our new equipment, our daily life, and in the entries connected to our songs about the painful discovery we were no longer on the same wavelength as our old friends.
It was a chaotic confusing period of our life, but what emerged from it was a jewel of a CD.
clean, quiet, deeply peaceful,
elegant, magical, polished,
Carving Down Our Files
Sculptors sometimes speak of releasing their statues from uncut blocks of marble. Well that’s very much what we did when we sensed beautiful music hiding in one of our raw files, we carved away until the finished piece had been liberated.
For our first two CDs the necessary cuts had to be in totally silent spaces between the notes. Our new multitrack system gave us more freedom, if we made one in the middle of some residual ring we could remove the inevitable “pop” with a microfade.
We began carving by deleting everything awkwardly played, obviously ugly or so full of noise it wasn’t worth salvaging. Then we went through each file again, offing sections that had made the first cut but still weren’t good enough.
Steadily raising the bar, ruthlessly deleting better and better stuff, many times we methodically listened through the music, continuing until the finished piece came into focus, let us know it was done.
This makes the process sound easier than it was, the reality was more complicated.
For example when several instruments were playing and the problem was only with one of them, we could simply delete the two tracks for that instrument and let the others do the work. However if the problem went deeper, if what we were playing was so bad the whole section had to go, merely deleting all the tracks for that section was not enough. To avoid a period of silence, we also had to move together the clips before and after the deletion.
But when the music before and after was too different, often there was still an embarrassing discontinuity.
Then we had to find other positions for the end and beginning of the deleted clip, had to experiment until the music flowed across our edit as though it weren’t there. If we had to regretfully delete sounds we would have liked to keep, what to do.
The final step was to create a beginning and ending for each piece. If cutting alone didn’t do it, as a last resort we’d move around a few clips.
By then most of what we recorded had been chucked. For Work In Progress, from an hour of rough recorded sound, we were happy to end up with 5 to 10 minutes of finished music.
What we record is equally unplanned. We never follow a score or explore a melody. We don’t improvise in some preselected key. We put out our instruments and mics, fire up our electronics, and start. Listening very carefully, noticing cool patterns, welcoming weird sounds, getting lost, getting chilled, not getting too excited for too long, are all more important for creating our music than thinking.
We’re not trying to play something we already have in mind. When we’re on, the music itself shows us what it wants to be. When we’re not, it’s hopeless.
Nor do we ever use sampled or synthesized sound. The limitations of our physical instruments are an essential ingredient in our secret sauce. What they can and can not do creates the very particular universe of possible sounds from which our music grows. That no other artist is in a position to use any of these sounds, is one of many reasons our music is so different.
Cleaning Up Our Files
We put together our updated kit with an eye towards overdubbing, but quickly discovered it also let us deal with noises we’d previously had to accept. Since these problems tended to be in only one or two of our simultaneously recorded tracks, we could attack them aggressively while sound in other tracks hid the signs of our edit.
Still cleaning up the music of Work in Progress was beastly work.
Once we’d gotten its nine cuts to where they were finished enough to post on our blog, for months we managed to fool ourselves into thinking we were almost done.
We were wrong. Getting rid of the remaining hiss, hiss we hadn’t even heard while initially editing our files, turned out to be the biggest most mind numbing part of the entire process.
Hoping for a quick and easy fix we tried de-essers, gate filters, equalizers… but they did violence to the sound, tamed it, made it lame, stripped it of its guts, its power to stop running thoughts, to do magic.
In the end we went through the music note by note, painfully and individually removing hiss from each and every quiet interval.
Adding this to dealing with playing noises, balance problems, and distorted sounds, to clean up Work In progress we had to glue ourselves to our computer for at least 800 miserable nasty sweaty hours.
Still doing it ourselves was the only option, even a cheap studio would have charged $100,000 for that much work, an impossible sum, well over three times as much as we’ve ever spent in a year for our total keep.
At least our suffering was worth it, made our music clean the way it had to be to take people to a more peaceful open world.
We used to think of mastering as a magic technically tricky process which somehow makes music more finished, more ready to be released.
But after an award winning engineer prepared for us a master of Work In Progress that trashed the fadeout of every cut, messed up the balance, eviscerated the sound, and introduced all sorts of pops, we realized mastering was another thing we’d need to do for ourselves.
To our relief this turned out easy, almost mechanical, and quick.
In fact we soon realized that with our careful editing we’d already done most everything a mastering house claims to do. Our fadeouts were impeccable, the noises were gone, the cuts were close enough to equally loud. While by dealing individually with distorting peaks, we boosted the volume of the entire CD more than our professional had claimed to be possible.
As for the final step of converting our wave to audio files and then burning them onto a CD, with just a few clicks a tiny free program did that.
All of which has convinced us mastering is no big deal, that musicians who’ve recorded and edited their own stuff can do a far better job preparing their work for publication than any mastering house. That by doing it themselves they’ll end up with a CD which sounds the way they want it to, not one which fits the preconceptions of some over worked studio engineer.
Putting together Work In Progress we fell in love with the amplified sound of our instruments, started dreaming of playing amplified even when not recording. But that never happened.
Though opening a Tracktion template file was indeed easier than fiddling with the sliders of our old mixer, dealing with 4 mics was still way too much trouble.
Taking them out, putting them in just the right places, uncoiling and coiling their cables, got in the way of playing music, took the fun out of it, made it too official, too much like work.
Months slipped by without touching our precious instruments, intoxicated by our rich recorded sound, amplified had become the only way we wanted to play.
This was right when Work In Progress was failing to take off.
It was grim, we lost the will to play music.
In 2017 we tried one more time, for 4 frustrating months forced ourselves to put out our instruments, fire up our gear, but everything sounded lame, not nearly so good as what we’d gotten down for Work In Progress.
Deeply disappointed we told ourselves life must go on even if our music had died.
One afternoon in 2020, desperate for our music I hauled Dotara into the living room and started playing. Immediately Mitsuko pulled a pillow over to Boxus Quartus, began to stroke its keys.
Facing away from each other, a full 8 feet apart, our unamplified sound was so soft we had to listen like we never had before.
Lost in our own worlds, me staring at a big wooden Ganesh in one corner, Mitsuko at a Shiva print leaning against a bookcase on another wall.
Altogether an improbable way to play music, it shouldn’t have worked but it did.
Two years now this new music has been growing, ever braver, more magical, more radically different.
Still it’s going to be a while before we’re in a position to record it.
First we’d need to figure out a much less invasive style of recording. Four mics, that’s just too much.
A single top of the line condenser mic 3 feet from each instrument would be easier to ignore. Connected to a sufficiently high quality preamp, there’d be no hiss. With no dynamic mics doubling as pickups, there’d be no distorted out of control ring.
Once we’d recorded and carved down a file, removed all the playing noises, we’d be done.
And hopefully the sound would be deeply different from what we got down for Work In Progress. Closer to what we hear when we’re actually playing unamplified only louder, loud enough to fill a room, to work for people brainwashed to believe if it’s soft it’s not serious music.
With luck Dotara and Boxus Quartus might even sound more like what they are, tiny instruments crafted with simple hand tools from plywood, Indian high carbon steel and gut.
But we can’t be sure about any of this until we actually own such a hypothetical super system, and that’s years off.
Not only is it way beyond what we can now afford, here in our decaying city it’d never be quiet enough for it to work.
Trains, sirens, heavy traffic, shouts, trucks parked with engines running, construction on 2 sides, 50 feet from a busy commercial corner, we live in a sea of noise.
Still we can dream.
Meanwhile most of the time we manage to be strangely confident Work In Progress will in the end win over the gatekeepers, that some day we’ll be living in a new much quieter house and have the funds to buy that super system.
Until then we’re thrilled to again be playing our precious instruments.
Once more as in India, no mics, no headphones.
Silly little children, alone together, wandering in a magic world.