Beth Thornley is an artist on the rise. Her smart and hooky lyrics, inventive compositions, and pop productions have been compared to artists such as Sheryl Crow, Aimee Mann, and Beth Orton. Two of the tracks on her new CD, My Glass Eye (Stiff Hips Music, 2006), won awards even before it was released: “Done” was a Top 10 finalist in the USA Songwriting competition, and “Home by Now” was a semifinalist in the ISC songwriting contest (among 30,000 entries). The CD was produced and mixed by TV and film composer Rob Cairns.
Thornley and Cairns succeeded in making a pro recording that has a handcrafted feel. Their arrangements reflected a desire to keep the songs simple and powerful.
“We tried to refrain from adding unnecessary elements,” explains Cairns, “whether those elements were additional parts, effects, or even EQ. We didn't want too much of a polished sheen over everything, considering that the title track was about flaws. Most of the vocal tracks were scratch tracks, and even though we rerecorded superior versions, we often went with the rough performances because they were more honest.”
The recording process typically started with Thornley demo'ing a song in Steinberg Cubase. Next, the songs were built in Cairns's studio using a relatively old AMD-based PC running Cubase SX2 with an RME Hammerfall interface and a Universal Audio UAD-1 card. Other software included Propellerhead Reason and Native Instruments Kontakt. “My keyboard controller is a downright ancient Roland JX-8P synth,” laughs Cairns, “but I love the action of those old synths, especially for triggering drums and percussion.”
My Glass Eye
Outboard processing gear included a Lexicon PCM-90, a Universal Audio Teletronix LA2A, and a pair of Empirical Labs Distressors. The I/O of the computer audio and the outboard gear was patched through a Mackie D8B mixer.
Sampled strings were used on the CD, but for the solo string parts, live players were brought in. “I feel very comfortable working with orchestral samples,” says Cairns. “A huge chunk of my [scoring] business involves writing convincing all-MIDI orchestral tracks. I began my career at Prosonus working beside the founders-to-be of both Big Fish Audio and Ilio, so I understand their possibilities, but I almost never use samples for solo strings.”
Cairns used creative production twists on several of the tracks. The intro of the ballad “Beautiful Lie” showcases a piano processed through the Prosonic PiWarp plug-in and then through the GRM Tools Freeze plug-in. “PiWarp sort of inverts the natural overtones of a sound,” explains Cairns, “so as you play higher, the sound gets lower in pitch. Freeze lets you sample a piece of audio and freeze it in time. Then you can drag your mouse around and make it kind of slide forward and backward. Depending on how fast or slow you do it, you get a nice stuttering effect.”
“We set out to make an album that was stripped down a little raw — really homemade sounding,” Thornley says. “We wanted to keep it honest and simple.” Cairns adds, “I think our method of recording this album, with the programmed drums and so on, comes from my process of composing. I've done a lot of TV and film composing, from the Bachelor second season to lots of shows for VH-1, requiring the ability to quickly build finished-sounding tracks.”
Home base: Los Angeles, California
Sequencer of choice: Steinberg Cubase SX2
Noteworthy plug-in: GRM Tools Freeze
Web site: www.beththornley.com