Layin’ tracks for the Tokyo Tramps

I met musician and recording engineer Sean Baillie while gigging with Lindi last year. Sean was called in to help play some backup country-twang guitar for Lindi’s more Lucinda Williams-ish numbers and he was fascinated by the accordion. He added me to his roster of session musicians, telling me that while he had a Rolodex with at least two people for every other kind of instrument — even the bassoon and harp — I was the only accordionist he knew. About a month later, he called me in to record some accordion tracks for Lindi’s single, Good Sunday Morning.

Sean contacted me about two weeks ago to do some session work for him, and then confirmed our session last Friday (during the horrible, horrible poetry). I showed up at Electric Machine Studios early Wednesday evening, and my housemate Paul tagged along to see what a recording session was like.

Electric Machine Studios is in a part of Toronto called Downsview, a wide-open space in the northwestern part of town that used to be a large Canadian Armed Forces base. It’s possible that you’ve seen it even if you’re not from Toronto — it was the site of World Youth Day last summer. The studios are in an area made up mostly of light industry and sports facilities — there’s nothing but small manufacturers, a pricey gym and a big junior league hockey arena, along with some convenience stores and fast food places. It’s a piece of Toronto that’s trying really, really hard to be Camden, New Jersey.

The studio itself is small, but comfortable. Just past the front door is the “chill-out space” with a comfortable couch, a TV set (with PlayStation), fridge, bar and plenty of musician’s magazines. To the left is the business office with a couple of desks and a wall lined with album covers.

Straight past the chill-out space is the control room dominated by a console with a large digital mixing board hooked up to both a PC and a Mac, racks crammed with effects, DAT and CD players and various amplifiers and a number of near-field monitors (read “nice stereo speakers” to those not familiar with recording gear). The control also has a confy couch and some of the most comfortable office chairs I’ve ever sat in (I have to ask Sean where he got them). The west wall of the control room is dominated by a large glass window that looks into the recording room.

A set of thick double doors joins a hallway padded with acoustic foam leading to the recording room. The hallway also acts as a storage area for aluminum cases that contain Sean’s incredibly expensive and incredibly sensitive microphones — each one costs about as much as an Apple Powerbook. You’re not going to find these babies at your local Radio Shack. The recording room itself is large enough for a band to set up, but in most cases, a band doesn’t record “live off the floor”, but one instrument player at a time, after which each individual track is merged into what becomes the final recording.

Sean greeted us and introduced us to Doug, who was producing the album. I took a seat, cracked open a cold Diet Coke and listened to Doug as he told me about the band and what he was looking for.

“The Tokyo Tramps are an all-Japanese roots rock band. It’s headed up by my friend Sotoru.”

“By ‘Japanese roots rock’,” I asked, “do you mean that they’re Japanese and do nack-to-basics rock, or that they do Japanese-flavoured rock?”

“They’re Japanese and do, well…Sean, could you play the first track?”

Sean made some motions with the mouse on the console and the studio was filled with a doleful country-tonk ah-jes-lost-mah-best-girl number. A really good one, at that. I raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” said Doug, noticing the expression on my face. “They get a surprised reacting when they play in the States, especially in the deep south. The last thing some “Bluesiana” bar crowd expects to see is four Japanese onstage, and then they get a bigger shock when they hear them sing and play.”

Doug pulled out a chord chart written on musical staff paper with the Berklee School of Music logo printed on the lower-right hand corner fo the page. I saw one sharp on the treble clef. Key of G, I thought. I can jam in that key even when completely sloshed. It was mostly major chords, with an E minor to for bourbon-fuelled regret and some 7th for whiskey-smooth transitions. I listened to the song three or four times, moving my finger along the chord chart as the song played. This was partially for my benefit, and partially for Paul, who was making plans to start taking some music theory classes this weekend. Once I was comfortable that I’d figured out the “shape” of the song and what I was going to do, I told them that I was ready to strap on some headphones and start playing.

“But first,” I said, “which reeds did you want me to use?”

I wanked Doug and Sean through the different accordion reed settings. They settled on the “bassoon” reeds, which are the lowest and bassiest on my “club and studio” accordion, the Crucianelli. For this song, I would be playing mostly “pads” — long, drawn-out chords that would fill the acoustic space.

I emptied my pockets (“I’d best get rid of any jingly stuff,” I said) and then Sean set me up in the dead centre of the recording room and pointed a single condenser microphone towards the grille on the piano-keyboard side of the accordion. I set up the music stand at a comfortable reading height and placed the chord chart on it. I put the headphones on and played a few notes just to get an idea of how I’d sound in the recording.

Sean went back to the controls and then through my headphones said “Shall we do a run?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I’m pretty comfortable with the number. Let’s rock.”

“There’s an eight-count at the start, with a ba-dum-ba-dum fill on the last two beats…”

“…and I start on the C chord after, right?”

“That’s right,” said Doug, reaching over so that he could be heard on the microphone.

The first take went pretty easily, but then Sean left the controls and walked into the recording room.

“Hey, man, you got anything loose on the accordion? We’re picking up some kind of scraping or squeaking noise.”

“Lemme see,” I said, giving the squeezebox a once-over. Usually, the culprit is a loose bellows strap, but I’d buttoned them down properly. I pressed the air button with my thumb and squeezed the bellows shut, when Sean said “That’s it, that’s the sound!”

It was the creaking of the strap on the button side of the accordion. This is a long leather strap, under which my left hand goes, and the left hand moves the bellows.

“Not much I can do about that,” I told Sean. “No left hand, no air. No air, no sound.”

“Hmm,” said Sean, who thought about it for a moment. “Well, it’s a natural sound of the instrument. Besides, that noise will get lost in the mix anyways. Still, let me go with a more open mike setup.”

He put away the single microphone and took two jet-black cylindrical mikes — they looked more like nunchakus than microphones — and set them up to my right and left. “We’ll go for a stereo recording, which should capture the way sound ‘blooms’ in the room.”

I did two more takes, followed by some “punch-ins” — that’s where you record only a certain part of a song, to correct for minor mistakes.

The second song was a more upbeat number, the kind you expect to hear being played by a band at the kind of bar where you have to protect the stage with chicken wire.

“This is one where you can loose and be way more freeform,” said Doug. “We really haven’t done much arranging on this one, and we’d like you to try and accordion solo.”

They want me to do an accordion solo? Rock!

Their album is due out this spring. I’ll ask if I can at least post excerpts of the song.

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