Hello. I’ve been asked to tell you about the making of Idiot Pilot’s Strange We Should Meet Here CD. It’s a story that starts at home with free software, and ends with two 18-year-olds signing to Reprise/Warner Brothers. I mixed the CD very early in 2004, and formed a small label in Bellingham, Clickpop Records, to release it a couple months later. On May 17 of this year, it was re-released by Reprise, with new artwork — but the original mix and mastering were unchanged. Since then I have been touring the U.S. and UK with Idiot Pilot and the band has really begun to take off. But, let’s go back to the beginning.
I first met the band six years ago. A friend of mine brought them into Bayside Recording studio to try to finish their first EP. At the time, my studio partner Chip Westerfield and I had just finished moving into our new facility in downtown Bellingham. To make a long story short, the songwriting and the singing of these young men impressed me. I did some editing and mixed the record, and subsequently mixed their gig at a local outdoor festival as well. Not long after that, Michael Harris and Daniel Anderson were suddenly the only people in the band, along with a computer, and Idiot Pilot was born.
Both Michael and Daniel became regular fixtures around the studio and musically went through an experimental stage, refining their collaboration and sound. Daniel began using his laptop for some electronic experiments and played these for Michael — and this was the beginning of the signature Idiot Pilot sound. Over the next year (late 2002 through 2003), Daniel programmed countless compositions and Michael would pick out which ones to pursue and collaborate on. This was all done at home in Daniel’s basement. The software at this stage was a copy of Pro Tools Free for PC on Windows98 along with some early version of Fruity Loops. The hardware generally consisted of a small Casio keyboard, Daniel’s guitar, a few pedals, a real piano, a bass, and Michael’s voice. Daniel played or programmed all the instruments and Michael sang vocals and many layers of backing vocals. These tracks from the basement became the basis of Strange We Should Meet Here. It should be emphasized that at this point, the songs sounded very much like the final versions. Most of the final instruments were tracked, and the arrangements and rough mixes sounded great. Finally, Idiot Pilot announced that they were done, and ready to figure out the next step.
The next two steps were a series of production meetings At the meetings, the band and myself, along with Chip Westerfield and Dave Richards, listened to all the rough mixes that Daniel had made at home. Our goals were to decide which tracks were destined to be included on the album, and also to figure out what, if anything, needed to be done to them. At the first meeting, we listened to 22 songs and gave them each a letter grade. Fifteen of these songs got an “A”, and so we decided to concentrate on those for eventual release. In the long run, some even newer songs were added and a few of these “A” grade songs are now the cream of the crop of the unreleased B-sides. Many of the songs only needed changes in the mix, and we decided that I would attempt to remix the entire record in Pro Tools at the studio. However, we also decided that a number of the songs needed to be re-sung, and that the bigger epic rock songs needed some real drums to be layered onto the programmed drums to take the energy level up a notch.
Next it was time to transfer the material from Daniel’s computer to the Pro Tools HD system at Bayside Recording. Unfortunately, this is where we hit a major snag. Daniel brought me the files — but we didn’t have access to either a Windows98 PC or a Pro Tools LE system. Of course, Pro Tools is truly cross-platform software, but Pro Tools Free was not. It only ran on Win98 OR MacOS 9 — and in addition, these files weren’t cross compatible between those systems. It wasn’t in the budget, to buy a Win98 PC and an mBox just to do the transfer — and we couldn’t find anyone who had this combination of gear! Eventually I borrowed a Windows machine and an mBox and a Windows copy of Pro Tools LE from three different people and finally got the transfer to work. Once the files were opened in Pro Tools LE on the Windows machine, then I could resave them in a compatible format that would open on the Pro Tools HD systems on the Macs in the studio. The album almost didn’t happen just because we couldn’t cross the PC-Mac divide.
But by this time it was the Fall of 2003, and we entered the stage of additional tracking. Daniel and Chip got on the task of recording Michael’s additional vocals. These were usually sung through a Neumann M147 through an Avalon VT737 tube pre with some compression. I called on a local drummer, Aaron Ball, to try his hand at layering real drums on top of the programmed beats. This wasn’t easy, as it required him to rock very hard, but keep track of changing time signatures and music that he wasn’t intimately familiar with. Overall, the drum sessions went well. But since, we wanted to retain the feel of the drum programming, I did need to spend a lot of time editing the real drums to match both the timing and repetitive nature of the programmed beats. However, there were a few spots where it was appropriate to change the programmed beats to match the drums (some fills) — and so occasionally roles were reversed. The drum editing was a combination of using Beat Detective, and some good old-fashioned cut-paste-nudge. After this main phase of additional tracking was done — I made new rough mixes and we reanalyzed the songs. By now it was cut down to 18 songs including several new ones. Eventually four more would be cut.
At this point, unfortunately, the project got delayed again. During the remainder of the Fall of 2003, the studio was fairly busy and we needed to accept a bunch of extra work to bring in money. So, the Idiot Pilot final mixing sessions got delayed several times. Some work got done in October and November, but final mixing didn’t really get under way until the end of the year.
The album was “mixed in the box” using Pro Tools HD. The most important use of effects were creative use of reverb and some cool and unusual outboard effects pedals. The reverb I used the most was Audio Ease’s Altiverb. I love the way it can add to a sound and change the ambience without sounding like traditional verb at all, and the regular verb’s just sound right to me. This is largely true of any convolution reverb — but I’m very familiar with Altiverb’s presets and so far, I prefer them. The two pedals I used the most were the Moogerfooger MF-104, and a Schumann Electronics PLL. The Moog is generally my ‘secret weapon’ — I use it liberally on vocals and occasionally other instruments, I also use it with the band at live shows. The PLL is a crazy hand-made analog harmonizer that resynthesizes the input into a square wave and can add new harmonies from there. I used it on a few bass lines to create far deeper and intense Synth Bass sounds. The rest of the plug-ins were generally Waves and Bomb Factory.
The mixing took a fairly long time. First of all the verses and choruses had a very different sound from each other on most cuts. Also, despite starting with only eight tracks in the original sessions, many of the songs had grown to have a very large number of competing vocals and instrumental layers. Another challenge was that many songs had two different bass parts (electric bass and synth bass), as well as two entire drum layers (programmed drums and live drums). During mixing there was also yet another final level of additional tracking. At the last minute, we replaced a guitar solo in one song, with an improvised keyboard solo by Daniel (tracked using the Logic ES2 soft-synth on my laptop). Also at this point I added depth to several tracks by programming additional synth bass and strings parts that exactly doubled the original parts.
The mixing took about 26 half-day sessions. Just about all of the time, I was working on the mixes alone. But, I constantly made new mix CDs for the band and other co-producers and would get comment sheets back from everyone. Then another round of mix changes would happen to each song until everyone was pretty happy. A few songs went through only five or six such revisions, but some of them went through about 10. On Feb 8th, we decided that mixing was completed. We certainly would have liked to send away the mixes for a top-level mastering job, but since we still didn’t have a budget in place, I mastered it myself. One of the advantages of this is that, if something sounds funny during the mastering process, you can just open up the mix and make some changes and then import the improved version into the mastering session. I am the person at the studio who does the in-house mastering, but it’s not preferable to master something I have just finished mixing. But sometimes you just have to do what is needed. Amazingly enough, when the record was eventually re-released, the label did not require any remixing, and surprisingly, no re-mastering either. Which must mean I had done my job right.