The story of how Walter Mitty met Conway Twitty
This has nothing to do with journalism, other than the fact it involves a story that was published in a newspaper.
I have this hobby: I write songs and make recordings. And finally I liked what I did enough to seek out some professional help, thinking maybe I could sell some songs. I went to Nashville, hired some pro session players, and suddenly my songs, originally recorded on a home digital recorder, sounded like actual songs.
I chronicled the experience, submitted it to the New York Times in November (after giving my old paper, the LAT, first dibs that it chose not to exercise), and, voila, yesterday the NYT published it and put a couple of songs on its Web site to illustrate the gulf between my demos and what the pros were able to do.
The top of the story:
WHEN WALTER MITTY MET CONWAY TWITTY
March 25, 2007
I’m standing inside a darkened eight-by-eight-foot recording booth in Nashville, staring into a microphone. A window looks into a small studio where the musicians I’ve hired are exchanging ideas in shorthand. I can hear them through my headphones (“Bob, come in one bar later on the vocal”), but I can’t see much. I feel vulnerable and excited. I wonder if this is what plastic surgery is like. After all, these specialists are nipping and tucking one of my most intimate parts: my song.
The song is “Finally Made ’Em Dance,” a ballad sung by a musician to his inspirational mother. I had never been able to record it satisfactorily on the $400 eight-track home digital recorder I bought last year. As an amateur songwriter I love my eight-track because it lets me perform all the parts: no arguments in this band. But I am a sub-amateur musician who knows, at best, nine guitar chords. I can create a song of potential beauty, but after years in denial I admitted I needed cosmetic song surgery to realize that beauty.
And so, at 58, I shifted some retirement money to the life’s-too-short side of the ledger and headed from Los Angeles to Nashville, carrying a CD of “Dance” and four other songs. I would make a demo that sounded professional, right down to my singing. I kept my expectations low; I’d be happy if one pro said, “Good song.”
If you are a NYT subscriber, you can get the story elecronically. Here’s the link, replete with old and Nashville versions of two songs.
If you’re not an NYT subscriber, you can find the same package through the International Herald Tribune. Here is the link to the IHT site.
If you’re so drawn to my prose that you simply have to keep going, the rest of the story follows.
Also: You can hear four of the Nashville recordings by clicking this link.
Okay, picking up the story where we left off: “. . .I kept my expectations low; I’d be happy if one pro said, ‘Good song.’”
My guru on this journey was Steve Tveit, general manager of Omnisound Studios, housed in a small, boxy, steel-blue-painted brick building on a plain street a few blocks from Music Row. Mr. Tveit is one of my favorite in-laws (he’s married to my wife’s niece) because he’s been able to make a living in the music business, even if it means driving a ’97 Dodge Neon without a CD player.
I had joked for years about recording in Nashville with my own band of earnest L.A. amateurs. But this time, perhaps because I sounded serious, he suggested: Just bring yourself. You can hire the same session men the record companies use.
Which was how I found myself sitting in a studio conference room at 9:15 on a Saturday morning with Chris Leuzinger, a touring and session guitarist who has played with country artists from Garth Brooks to Shania Twain to Tim McGraw to George Strait. Mr. Leuzinger, the hired bandleader, had received my CD via Mr. Tveit. On a legal pad he had ”charted” the five songs, using what’s called the Nashville number system, a time-saving trick that assigns a number to each chord in the do-re-mi musical scale, making it easier for musicians to change keys without rewriting the chart. We listened to my originals one by one.
Mr. Leuzinger, a friendly, soft-spoken man with short, gray-tinged hair, turned off the CD player and asked me to sing the bridge of ”Finally Made ‘Em Dance” while he strummed his acoustic guitar. He wanted to recommend a change: ”I held the end of the bridge at G instead of E minor because the next verse starts with E minor.”
I nodded knowingly, unable to remember the chord progression of my own song. ”You know,” Mr. Leuzinger said, ”if any of the changes we make, if anything feels wrong to you, just speak up. Nobody has an ego about it or anything.”
Many of Nashville’s smaller studios increasingly record recreational or aspiring musicians like me. It’s an outgrowth of several trends. In the days when country music was dominant, and record labels were setting up offices in Nashville and spending heavily, studios had plenty of work. But when country sales began to fall a half-dozen years ago, and digital equipment let many people construct home studios, there was not enough record label work to go around. Studios had to cut their day rates and engineering fees to keep business.
Today, Mr. Tveit said, 20 to 25 percent of his business is ”custom.” There’s the surveyor from New Mexico who visits occasionally, the band from Iceland, the Iraq war veteran, the Scranton TV news anchor. Some use the same computer software as the studios to create and edit their music.
Others, like me, need the richness of collaboration that comes only when you throw a bunch of players in a room. I may be Time magazine’s person of the year because, like my computer-literate co-honorees, I control more of my life in the digital world than I ever imagined. But control doesn’t equal talent and human synergy, and in the making of music, talent and synergy transcend technology.
And so here we were in the studio. The other musicians trickled in for the three-hour 10 a.m. session: the veteran keyboardist Bob Patin, who uses a computerized rig that can replicate endless instruments; the electric guitarist Mike Durham; the bassist Dow Tomlin; and the drummer Wayne Killius. I was paying them each $181 for the session, the American Federation of Musicians’ scale. (As bandleader, Mr. Leuzinger received $332.) They set up their instruments while good-naturedly teasing one another, then funneled into a conference room to read Mr. Leuzinger’s charts and listen to the homemade version of my first song, an angst-filled rocker called ”I Breathe Your Name.”
There was little discussion once my version ended. The musicians simply headed around the corner into the studio. I closed the door to my booth and put on my headphones. As the musicians recorded, I was supposed to sing a ”scratch track,” one that would not be used but would let the band know when the singing would occur. The real singing — me with just the recorded instrumental tracks — was booked for three more hours at 2 p.m.
Relax, I told myself. Don’t throw your voice out. But as the musicians began playing, with Mr. Patin tagging an eerie two seconds of synthesizer to the top of the song, I became too excited — about the precision, about the snap, about the tightness, about the way the lyrics themselves were heightened by the quality of playing. How could I hold back? I sang hard. I would pay for this later.
The band got the song on the second take. Then began an overdubbing period negotiated with Mr. Tveit, who was engineering the session. Mr. Leuzinger wanted to layer another acoustic guitar. Mr. Durham wanted to add some electric guitar licks.
This was the drill: Listen to a cut on my CD, go into the studio and perform the song, and then make fixes with the engineer. I got used to the musicians joking around as they listened to my originals. They literally had heard all this before. They could suggest or infer the needed style, instrumentations and strategy with as little as a grunt.
”A lot of things we do,” Mr. Patin said later, ”happen without being discussed.”
The band slowed down my next one, ”I’m Handicapped,” a mile-a-minute song in which the singer claims he is entitled to special parking places because his heart is broken. I summoned my courage to ask over the microphone if we could speed it up a little, and the band complied on the next take. Mr. Durham overdubbed some loopy riffs.
As he did that, I explained my misgivings about tempo to Mr. Killius, the drummer. ”It’s not always a matter of speed,” he said. ”Sometimes you just play with more force” to make a song feel faster.
Now came ”Finally Made ‘Em Dance.” The first take was faster than my original, but didn’t have a groove. The musicians noodled. Mr. Durham started fooling around with what Mr. Tveit called a ”chunking” riff, what Mr. Durham described as an attempt to make a song about dancing danceable. It worked.
Mr. Patin was playing a piano fill that created a drama within the song that I’d never imagined. (He’d add an organ during overdubbing.) The song gave me the same kind of goose bumps as when I recorded it for the first time last spring. I could have left the studio right then and declared victory.
I looked at my watch. We had an hour left to get the last two songs.
No problem there. First, we did a Little Richard-inspired ”I Got an E-Mail From a Female,” in which Mr. Patin rocked out on a studio acoustic piano. We finished with another ballad, about a man who dreams that he has insomnia. Somebody threw out the name of a Bob Seger song, and the arrangement that emerged — acoustic guitar underneath an electric lead that mimics the lyrics — thrilled me. The musicians had discovered something new in each song.
We had 10 minutes left. I shook hands with Mr. Leuzinger and thanked him. ”Good songs,” he said, and I chose not to interrogate him.
Now it was time for me to sing, for keeps.
I Grabbed a quick hamburger outside and headed into another small booth, armed with my lyric sheets. Through the big horizontal window was a console that hid Eric Tonkin, who was going to engineer the vocal tracks.
The magic I’d felt seemed to be seeping away. I was nightmarishly off-key and singing from my throat rather than my diaphragm. I was getting about 80 percent of each note, only to hear the rest of it turn sour. Mr. Tonkin was encouraging. He needed me to sing three or four versions of each song so he could cut and paste the best moments into a finished computer vocal track.
I felt I was letting down the band, to say nothing of my surgically enhanced songs. The musicians had left me this elegant instrumental palette and I couldn’t reciprocate. I was tired. I was mispronouncing words.
I couldn’t get the timing right on a line in ”Finally Made ‘Em Dance” that anticipates a delayed drum stroke. I couldn’t scream an authentic Little Richard scream in my e-mail song. I couldn’t effectively double-track my voice on ”I Dream I Have Insomnia.”
”Happens to everybody,” Mr. Tonkin said cheerfully. ”We’ll fix it.” Fix it in the mix: the same cliché I good-naturedly used as a newspaper editor when a reporter turned in a rancid effort.
I tried sitting on a stool instead of standing. That helped a little. But I’d been singing without a break for an hour and a half, and I was beat. Tomorrow Mr. Tveit and I would return and watch Mr. Tonkin mix me to heaven.
I walked into the studio Sunday afternoon and headed for the mixing room, where Mr. Tonkin had been sitting at the console for hours, using editing and tuning software to work on the music and vocal tracks. The first thing I heard was a snatch of music from ”I Got an E-Mail From a Female”: perfect. Then I heard my voice straining — and failing — to utter a clear, Little Richard-like ”Whoooooooooo!”
Mr. Tonkin told me not to worry, went to another of my vocal tracks where I had come closer to getting the shout right, and moved three copies of it onto the master vocal. He moved a phrase in ”Finally Made ‘Em Dance” about a beat beyond where I’d sung it so it was finally in sync with the music. He and Mr. Tveit snipped most of my double-tracked vocal on ”Insomnia” so that the second voice was heard far less frequently. I watched Mr. Tonkin make fix after fix on song after song, and each time the vocal improved, although the change was sometimes too subtle for me to articulate why.
We took a CD of my five rebuilt songs to Mr. Tveit’s home, where we played it for his wife and daughter and my wife. All I heard were the vocal flaws. The homemade demo I brought to Nashville contained better singing than playing; the one I heard now was the opposite. Or maybe this too is what plastic surgery is like: You look in the mirror and say, ”That’s not me.” The next day maybe you accept what you see — or, in this case, hear.
As I flew back to Los Angeles the next day, I played the new arrangements 20 times on the plane. I began to hate my vocals less and less. They began to feel like part of the songs.
My wife and I caught a cab home. I put the luggage inside, took my CD out of the portable player, grabbed my car keys, walked outside and started driving around the neighborhood. This was the only laboratory I trusted: the car stereo.
On went the CD. Up went the volume. Down went the expectations. Out of the speakers came songs so brilliantly reconstructed that they seemed like somebody else’s compositions. Again and again I played them, until I could no longer distinguish between what the session cats did and what I did. They were just songs. ”Good songs,” I said to no one in particular, and headed for home.