The opening riff of “Flores Negras” (“Black Flowers”) is its own reward. Ostensibly the chorus of the song, it hits hard and steady, it is the essence of “guitaristic” – musical impact that emanates from the singular qualities of the guitar itself. All musical instruments have callings: roles within a soundscape that maximize their aesthetic utility. The guitar is such an exciting instrument because it has such versatile range of applications. Each guitarist has their favorites.
For me personally, perfect guitaricisms include the clean mid-neck disco strumming of Nile Rodgers in Chic; the grooving and tangled overdriven electric rhythm & blues twin guitars in peak Stones (or just one in late career Ali Farka Toure); the sharp high energy and high octave riffage of African soukous; the deeply calm and urbane four-part harmonies on nylon strings rooted in the Brazilian bossa nova movement; the minimalist and primordial trance, drone, feedback and primitive rock-n-roll voicings of Velvets-era Lou Reed; and lastly, the melodic bass lines on acoustic nylon strings employed in the Afro-Andean styles found in the northern West Coast of South America: Peru, and in the case of “Flores Negras,” Ecuador. These are the sounds that open my guitar case each day.
Alfonso’s arrangement of “Flores Negras” is clear and direct and quite strong, forcefully using thick chords in the lower register and keeping a strict walking tempo. It’s a strut. If I’m playing an event, it’s a tune I usually hold back until late in the third set as a kind of a pick-me-up following something super mellow, or a palate cleanser if I just finished a suite of rockers. It has an interesting quality of feeling - a little faster or a little slower depending what surrounds it.
Because of the confidence it engenders, it became the song I would do first in the latter waves of recording cycles in making The Panamericanist. And it brings out some of the tougher memories in the making of the album.
I started the recording process in earnest in January 2014, converting the back guest bedroom of our apartment into a makeshift recording studio. Ideally, I would have preferred to record the album in an actual professional recording studio, but there was just no way I could imagine putting some poor engineer through several hundred takes of each track (let alone the cost). It was something I was just going to have to do at home at my own pace under my own judgment, for better or worse.
The first phase was just getting a handle on the performances of the songs themselves, all while casually experimenting with different microphone positions. Through a little bit of research and a little bit of counseling, I came to implement a three-microphone technique. I invested in an AEA R92 ribbon mic as the main source placed near my guitar, with a pair of Oktava MK-12s a distance behind to capture a stereo “room” effect. The final sound is mostly the AEA with the Oktavas mixed in lightly.
I am an extremely reluctant home engineer. Back in the day as my friends started playing withfour-track recorders in their bedrooms, making demos and learning a feel for equalization, I never got the bug. I’ve never been much of a gearhead, and I was always happy to entrust the “knob-twisting” to others, as there is seemingly no shortage of folks with that obsession, and heck, they need work, too. Frankly, I’d rather spend my time practicing my instrument. I know enough about sound engineering to know that there is A LOT to know – to capture the sound of an acoustic instrument and produce it in a way that it is going to sound good through both your car stereo and your iPhone earbuds is no small thing. There is knowing how to listen, then there is knowing how to use the tools, in this case, the ProTools.
All I could do was forge ahead and get things to the point where they sounded good to me. When I was ready with final recordings, I had contracted the Chicago engineer John Abbey (who had worked on the Los Guitarristas album) at Kingsize Soundlabs to optimize the sounds and master for reproduction. As I wanted a consistency to the album, every song would have to be recorded in the exact same manner, with tape on the floors marking my chair and mic stand positions. You’d be surprised how big an impact small adjustments to microphone placment can make.
Through January-February I might spend several days in a row focusing on one song, trashing each day’s recordings as I would inch closer to listenability. By March, I had my first rough version of the entire of album, so now I could listen to the tracks in context with each other to get to more subtle understandings of the interactions, tempos and feels between tracks, which was very important to me as I wanted the listener to experience the album as if it were all in the same universe. By this time I had settled into a sound I was getting used to and could live with, as well as a honed ritual for the recording process itself.
I would start each morning getting the studio set up (i.e., clearing out laundry), and my hands warmed up while I jammed the furnace to get the room toasty warm (also aided by a space heater in the depths of the polar vortex that winter). I would start playing whatever song I was working on that session until I was feeling good, then I would shut down the furnace, unplug the refrigerator in the kitchen the next room over (it was audible in the studio), and shut the bedroom door while monitoring the location of our two cats. I recorded into an Apple MacBook laptop which made a slight noise on its own, so right before hitting “record” I would cover it in towels to dampen the sound. I could then get about 12-15 minutes of playing before the computer fans would kick on and bleed through the towels into untenable room noise. No matter how good I was feeling or playing, I’d have to shut it down and put the computer to sleep and let it cool for 20 minutes. Play for 15, then break for 20, then another take, then another break, etc., typically 5 or 6 (or more) takes like that over 2-3 hours before I could feel the returns diminishing. On a good day I’d have a morning session on one song, then an afternoon session on another.
The following days I would work on different tunes, giving my ears a couple days of separation before listening back to a session. I would rack up 50 to 90 minutes (or more) of me playing a particular song over and over again. In most cases, it would not be until the 3rd take that things would start to gel, and from there it was a process of editing together the best performances of sections of a song that sounded best together. As I would fidget in my chair, how I sounded one minute might not mesh with the next minute. Typically what worked together would have come from within two consecutive takes, a 45 minute block of real time. The editing process itself for each track might be 4-6 hours.
By late April I had 4-5 tracks that I liked enough to maybe call done, and I sent them over to John for review. He knew the tracks from me might come at any time, and as he was in the middle of other projects, I understood that it would be a couple weeks before he could get back to me. In the meantime I was feeling good enough about what I was doing that I went ahead and kept recording, ultimately getting all 12 tracks done (at that point I thought there might be still a 13th, so I didn’t think it completely done), and then I even launched the initial pre-order campaign, imagining a June release.
I finally heard back from John in mid-May, the first line of his email included (paraphrasing) “…as you continue, you might want to move the Oktava mics back some…”, and that was all I need to read.
Through more back and forth with John, I learned that there is a well-grounded practice to the mic technique I was attempting to employ – that the stereo room mics should be a 3-to-1 distance from the main mic (e.g., if the main mic is 9 inches from the source, the room mics should be 27 inches from the source), whereas mine was more of a 1-1 ratio. I had also positioned myself in front of a wall thinking it would help block room noise, when really it was just a close surface the sound was bouncing off of - making the recordings relatively noisy and claustrophobic.I had adapted myself to it, so it didn’t seem poor at the time. After receiving John’s email, without hesitation, I manically emptied the bedroom studio and flipped it around so I was now facing out into the center of the room, with the mics in their new spacing ratio. The difference was astounding: better sounding guitar, quieter room, more depth of field. I could play with greater dynamics, and edit with greater precision.
After 4 months, I could now start recording. The album I thought I finished was moved into the traschcan.
Well, I couldn’t start just yet…I had to put new strings on the guitar. For this project I had begun using La Bella brand classical guitar strings, as they have a model made just for recording. Beyond sounding amazing in their own right, they are designed to minimize the noise that fingers make sliding up and down the neck. When I put on a new set I have to play on them intensely for a couple days as they settle in, then I have about an 8-10 day window of heavy playing before they start sounding dead and feeling too loose. Another constant variable in this process.
When I think of all this, I think of “Flores Negras” because it was the tune I turned to to kick off the final wave of recordings. It wasn’t the first “keeper”, as I felt that in the first set of takes on it the strings were still a bit too new and bright, and that I was too anxious to get it done. So I came back to it in mid-June.
One of the reasons I was hoping to finish recording the album during the winter, is because that is when the world outside of my apartment building is quiet and muffled. Spring would mean contending with the sounds of property maintenance: leaf blowers, lawn mowers, a table saw in our inner courtyard. I already had to deal with random meows and door scratches from our cats, not to mention my own sneezes and sighs, but that is something I could at least somewhat control.
As it happens, I have very strong specific memories of the final recording of “Flores Negras”. It was a Saturday afternoon, a rarity. I think my wife had an afternoon planned with her friends, so I had the apartment to myself that day (otherwise I would record during the week while she was at her job). Once I got going, I can remember feeling very good on the third take, finding a tone in the chords that had eluded me prior. There’s a little triplet figure that ends the melody of each section, very much in the pasillo style, and many of my previous takes of “Flores” were trashed just because I wasn’t happy with these moments. On this day, on that third take, I was hitting them consistently, and so I could relax my mind and start playing from an emotion instead from a sense of worry.
Just as I was getting into the flow, it started: BANG BANG BANG, a hammer sound -the building super was fixing something, BANG BANG BANG, I would play through it, keeping this great feeling and great sound, knowing I could edit out the bangs if I just got in enough consistent repetitions, BANG BANG BANG, it’s not stopping!!! GODDAMMIT!!!! Break time, he’s got to get this done in the next 20 minutes. I cooled the machine and moved to the front of the apartment to chill. All seemed quiet, so I started up again, hoping to get back the magic, BANG BANG BANG, oh no here it comes again, BANG BANG BANG. And I’m done.
Listening back, I can report to you that my best performances were peppered through with hammer bullets, but I had enough of that third take to edit together a performance that I could still get behind. It’s maddening to think I could put so much time and effort into this, and then accept something I know is not as good as what was maybe possible, but it also had to get done.
My ethos for the album was to honor the arrangements of Alfonso Chacon as greatly as I could. In the manner that I did it, it would have been impossible to expect I could merely capture complete and perfect simple live performances, too much was out of my control. So I accepted the role of editing as a beautifying part of the process.
The good news is that by doing this the way that I did, the next time I think I could go and record efficiently in an actual professional studio. I hope to get that chance.