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    Impressions from recording the album that I was put on this planet to record:
    Geoff Achison's 'Chasing My Tail'

    Geoff at the gate

    Rob at the gate

    'But why does it take so long?'

    The up side of studio recording is, 1) The opportunity to capture beautiful sounds and, 2) The opportunity to get things right.The down side, is the time it sometimes takes, when it still just doesn't feel quite right, or not having enough time, due to deadlines, which eventually come, despite best intentions and feeling like we have to rush. But in the end it comes down to good pre-production, great players, and good advance session planning. And it really helps when everyone knows what they want and knows how to get in and do it with a minimum of fuss. For me it helped having worked with nearly everyone before and especially the years together with Geoff and the Souldiggers.

    What to do?

    I'd convinced Geoff to come to Harcourt in March 2001, to just muck around in the studio by himself and see what happens. We had a few ideas for songs to try out, that he'd been working up in his solo acoustic set, bit of a list, but he confided in me that he wasn't feeling very inspired at that point in time. We were sitting at the table just outside the studio and I said something like 'Well, what else have you got that you might like to try'. And thump on the table goes this bloody great thick ring folder full of pages of songs, quite a few he'd already recorded and lots of ideas and songs in various stages of completion. 'There's a few in here Rob', 'No kidding Geoff, more than a few I'd say, no wonder you're backed up'. I believe that creative endeavors have to be given a life and the more stuff you leave unfinished the harder it becomes to start new one's and with songs, when you finish an album, it's like,'I've put them to bed and now I can move on'.


    Geoff on bass in the Control Room

    Geoff on guitar (Rob's reflection)

    Anyway we got a slightly longer list together and started recording some basic guitar and vocal tracks. Then Geoff would put a bass line down, then electric and solo guitar tracks. We developed a working approach, which ended up being quite productive for ideas and demos. We also came up with a sound which was a combination of acoustic and Geoff's unique 'swell - wah' style of electric playing, creating a third sound from the two, which we ended up utilizing for a couple of the acoustic tracks on the album.

    Came out of those first sessions with about 5 or so songs including 'All The Way', 'Me And My Baby', and 'You And I', and the inspiration to do it again sometime.

    Those demos had Geoff playing everything and he said it was the first time he'd really ever had a chance to explore ideas like that, trying out parts and overdubbing everything himself.

    We went back for a couple of days mid August to see what else would transpire and used the same approach recording the guitar, vocal and bass, then seeing what else worked. Ended up with another seven songs, 12 demos in all, 5 of which found their way on to the album.

    Then it was back to gigs, Geoff OS for his annual Fur Peace Guitar Ranch weekend workshops and touring with the American Souldiggers, me to my usual regular live at St Andrews gig. The demo burns sat on the shelf but I listened to them quite regularly and enjoyed them a lot. I have to say that it's quite a nice situation to find oneself in, listening to material that has yet to see the light of day knowing that only a few people have copies. I was very tempted to send some to our local radio supporters but managed to refrain this time, not wanting to preempt anything, as at this stage there were no concrete plans to actually record an album. We both saw it as an exploratory exercise but anyone who knows Geoff will be aware that anything he does will be good, even if he sees it as just a demo. If, hypothetically, we'd released those demos, I know his fans would snap them up, but that wasn't the point.

    The call

    I think it was towards the end of 2001 when Geoff rang me to say he had decided to go ahead and record the album at Harcourt. He had decided to record some Souldiggers tracks with the Paul Williamson horns and some acoustic tracks with a different rhythm section, some with Adrian Keating string section, some with guests.

    I was chuffed that Geoff had faith in me and faith in Mick's Harcourt studio to record the album.

    We'd kicked goals with 'Mystery Train' and 'Live at St Andrews' but this would be a very different kettle of fish to solo acoustic and live gig recording. I have always extolled the benefits of recording in a country atmosphere such as Harcourt and the sound of the room and now it was time to put my money where my mouth was. Except it was Geoff's money and doing sessions is a lot of outgoing expense with the return a long way off from when you start. So I s'pose for me it was living up to the responsibility I'd put my hand up for.


    Andy Swann and Dean Addison

    Geoff checking the tempo

    Dean Addison

    Sounds, Beds and Baby

    The first session - 23rd Jan 2002 was acoustic beds with Dean Addison on double bass and Andy Swann on drums. Geoff chose Andy and Dean after doing one or two acoustic gigs with them as a rhythm section and he said they just clicked and he really liked the way they explored his feels.

    And explore is what they did. I set them up in the playing room with Geoff D.I.'d for a guide guitar track and a guide vocal and they played the song thru until everything felt right and we'd do a take. End of session and we've got seven songs down.

    Both Andy and Dean commented on how nice the room sounded, for me it was good to hear, as these guys know what sounds good and I could breathe a little easier, but having recorded heaps in this room I was fairly confident it would be ok, still every new project is a new challenge.

    Next morning we go acoustic guitar overdubs. One thing I really like about the studio is having the opportunity to record the natural sound of the acoustic, which is why we overdub because with the mics there is too much spillover of drums and bass onto the guitar track if we recorded it live with the rhythm section.

    What we don't use, that is usually regarded as normal practice in the studio, is a click track and while these guys are more than capable of playing to one, I prefer to do without, because I like the natural ebb and flow of a song and a mechanical click quite often results in a mechanical feel and if by some chance the drummer sways off the click then he has to either catch up or slow down in an unnatural fashion. The down side is that some of these songs had what turned out to be rather large gaps after the stops and Geoff had to guess where the band came back in, which was a bit tricky for a while there, as the gaps were based on the feel when they were all playing together with eye contact, now at O'Dub time there's no rhythm section to look at for visual cues and it's just silence, took a few goes but we got there.

    The next week on Wed 30th Jan it's the Souldiggers time, it's also;

    Awaiting Jacob time

    He's overdue, I think he was due the weekend before, cause I remember Geoff telling me that it was good because he had that weekend off and I think I might have mentioned that about only 5% of baby's actually arrive on the due date.
    It's 11.00 am, another beautiful day in Harcourt, the band have arrived and we are setting up to record the Souldigger beds, usual pre gig banter, bit of joking back and forth about wouldn't it be funny if Geoff arrived and the call came and he had to go straight back to Melb.

    I remember the time of the first child for me, it's nearly 19 years ago, but I remember those feelings of anticipation, mingled with hope and fear and trying to outwardly be normal while inwardly it's, 'oohhh shit'!

    So Geoff arrives and he's a bit toey, but in good spirits, looking forward to the session, probably a welcome distraction from looking at the clock and having Michelle say to him 'If you ask me one more time if anything is happening yet you wont live to see it happen' I'm guessing …..

    So, of course, Geoff's phone goes off and we all look at each other like - 'Uh-oh, maybe we should'na joked about it,' and Geoff's on the phone going, ' Oh no, do you want me to come back? I can be back in two hours, have you rung anyone yet?' now we are really thinking 'Uh -oh'. Geoff gets off the phone and says 'It's ok, Michelle cut her finger quite deeply and there was blood gushing and she got a bad fright, but she's alright'. That's like bad news and good news but it's basically ok and we all breathe again and get on with what we're here for.



    Mal Logan

    Gerry Pantazis

    Roger McLachlin

    The Souldiggers, for those who don't know, is a collective, well that's what it's grown into over the years, an international collective these days. Here in Melbourne, the common thread in the band (aside from Geoff of course) is Mal Logan on keys. Mal figures prominently in Australian rock history having added his keyboard genius to many classic recordings. I reckon his Hammond intro on the classic Aus. hit, Healing Force - 'Golden Miles' is one of the best intro hooks of any song ever recorded.

    The rhythm section of choice is Roger McLachlin on bass (another icon in Aus rock history -Stars, LRB and many others over the years) and Gerry Pantazis on drums. They both feature on the Souldiggers tracks on this album and their playing is superb. When Roger and or Gerry are not available then Dean Matters and Rob Little are the players of choice, all excellent musicians in their own rights.

    The thing about Mal, Gerry and Rog is that they just work so well together and read each other and Geoff like telepathy. In the live context, Geoff can go just about anywhere and they will be right there with him. In the recording context, it makes for painless sessions because they bring so much experience and add so much creativity.

    Gerry sets up his drums and is warming up before I've finished setting up the mics for his kit and Rog goes direct to the desk via his lovely Trace Elliott pre amp, I get some levels balanced in the control room and they run through 'Chance', which is the first song up and the playing is so good I could've rolled tape and we'd have had the rhythm bed. But the aim is to have a band playing together so we wait 'til Mal and Geoff get set up. Mal is also straight into the desk and Geoff's amp is in the other room, so we can keep everything separate for later overdubs and fixups (very few of those needed). From the control room speakers the whole band is there kickin' and when you walk into the playing room all you hear is drums, really loud drums! The important thing is that they are playing as a band, so all the dynamic of the tune is still there on tape.

    Tim Kepert video'd the last band session in mid July. He spent a while filming in the playing room until someone asked if he was getting enough drums in the camera mics! So then he filmed from the control room for a while, then while Mal was doing his solos o'dubs, Tim came up with the idea to wrap a pair of headphones on the camera - hope it worked!


    Intense concentration!

    Gerry: "I wonder what would
    happen if I just….?"

    Awaiting Mick O'Connor

    'G'day Rob, it's Mick here, look I'm running a little bit late. I know we said 1.00 pm and it's now 2.00 pm but a friend dropped in for a visit last night and well, I just woke up and ah, do you mind if we make it 4.00 pm'. 'Righto Mick, catch you then'.

    So we sit around for a bit, have a coffee, run out of things to say - never! It's a nice day in the country and we didn't gripe too much.

    Come 4.30 Mick rolls up looking like death cause he didn't actually get to bed until dawn. So we lug the Leslie inside, set up the Hammond, Geoff gives him the charts, we run the song a couple of times for Mick to get the feel and me to catch the sounds, do a couple of takes, then the same for the next song and an hour or so later the 'Rev' has, yet again, weaved his magic and once more proven why I call him the best Hammond player in the world.

    I've always thought that the ultimate keyboard combination in a band would be Mick O'Connor on Hammond and Mal Logan on piano, now that would be well wicked.


    The Hammond!

    The 'Rev' Mick

    Awaiting the voice

    The voice has it's own personality. Sometimes you step up to record a vocal and it's 'Oh, it's that voice now, but we need the other one, the big powerful one you use at gigs'. So we send out the search party, which can be in the form of a cup of tea up at the house looking at the moon for a while, or warm water with honey, or a trip to the bottle shop for mood fuel, or try another song that needs a different approach. You can find yourself going through these complicated procedures, all in the name of the 'search for the voice'. It's because it's so foreign when you are used to performing in front of an appreciative crowd throwing the 3rd force back at you, the performance elevator lifting, lifting, lifting. To stand in front of double glass window, looking at this ugly middle aged bloke in charge of heavy machinery (I am an admiring fan, but there's only so much enthusiasm one can muster in form of wild adulation and applause when it's 1.30 am and we've been at it for 12 hours, plus there's only one of me, which is why Geoff turns the lights off and closes his eyes and pretends I'm not there.) To be able to visualize a crowd of admiring fans and turn on the performance that will be set in concrete for all to dissect is no easy task.


    Geoff and the voice!

    The Horns From Hell

    The Horns From Hell

    Black dots on lines

    I have to preface this bit by saying that I am a musician (currently lapsed, but hopefully the knowledge is stored in here somewhere). I have played piano, guitar, bass, drums and have written many songs, done the gig thing in the 70's, the home recording 4-track thing in the 80's, played in an acoustic duo in the early 90's etc, etc. I can also read music and was once a good sight-reader, piano-wise.

    A singer-songwriter toolkit usually consists of things like - mood, emotion, feel, story, observations, a combination of chords and different grooves etc. In my book, these are the basic tools of songwriting and the rest is what you do with it in terms of instrumentation and arrangement. In Geoff's case, when a song finally has a life of it's own, he will write a chord chart with bars and where the chords change relative to the lyric line, and that's enough.

    In the case of these sessions, we sent a cd burn of what had been recorded so far (the beds with guide vocal and guitar), or if it's before that stage, a recording from a gig or rehearsal (I think there was one in 2000) to Paul Williamson, for him to write the horn arrangements and Adrian K in Sydney to write the string arrangements.

    Geoff then books the session and this is where it gets interesting, because Geoff has played many gigs with both Paul and Adrian (separately) over the years and they know each other intimately (in a musical sense that is). Paul and Adrian arrive at their respective o'dub sessions with arrangements for their players in hand. And this is where the common ground diverges, because they work in bars and dots and we work in verses, bridges, middle 8's and signature riffs, (visual, verses aural cues).

    So for example, when we are having a listen back and the trombonist, (David) holds up Paul's beautifully printed out sheet music for the song and points to a particular bar and says, 'I'm not sure of my playing in this bar, what do you think?' Geoff and I both go, 'Where exactly in the song is that bar? Is that after the intro or the first verse?' To which he replies, 'No it's in the 28th bar'. We go, 'Which is where?' He points to the beautifully printed out music and goes, 'There!' we go, 'But where in the song is it?' Ah, communication skills - you get the idea.

    So I'm sitting at what the tech heads would call 'Out of date anachronistic retro analogue tape machine' which I love, by the way, sounds so warm. But there are things like, you have to actually rewind the tape and there's not a mouse in sight (the fox on the fence line took care of that). I use the studio as an excuse to get away from my computer, not spend another 14 hrs a day with it, I'd go totally fucking stir crazy. I get the snide comments from those used to the current particular technology like ' You could just cut and paste this bit' or 'You know you get unlimited undo's these days'. 'What, so you mean we could just keep undoing until we could start again from scratch?, gee, now that would be handy!'

    In our analogue world it's still largely a mechanical linear process, so you know that the horns and in fact every note on the album was actually played, not ctrl+c then ctrl+v for repeating phrases.

    I digress, but it is relevant, because when the string section tell me to go back to bar 54 I have to have in my mind already that it's the phrase after the 3rd verse or wherever and while the horn section is telling me what, I'm still trying to find out where. And I realize that these players are looking through the window at what is fast becoming a lost art. I am an 'Out of date anachronistic retro analogue head' and proud of it I might say.

    My reasoning is this - despite the so-called inconvenience (and I must say, it's my experience that everything sold to us as a time saving device ultimately seems to suck up twice as much time, but that's another rave) this album will sound different because it's not done the 'accepted' way and will stand out like a mountain ash in a field of chaff, because it's sounds real, no artificial flavours or colouring used in this recording matey. Also having a good room, country environment and the quality of musos you dream all your life about working with helps.

    And that's why I say this is the album I was put on the planet to record.


    The tools of the trade


    These days the part I call recording the beds is called tracking. The term probably comes from filling up multi tracks with signal. It seems somehow a clinical and slightly demeaning word for what is to me the heart and soul of multitrack recording.

    Tracking/beds is everything, especially in a band situation. To capture the essence of the instruments, the groove of the song and the sound of the band are paramount. If we get it right in recording it makes the mixing process so much easier. If it's all sounding good and together as we build the tracks then hopefully it can only get better as we go on.

    We recorded the horns and strings as sections after the basic band tracks were laid down. I.e. the trumpet, sax and trombone all play together - cello, viola and violin together and then add any solo bits on top. If one player makes a mistake, all have to do the bit again, but it also means that we capture the sounds of the instruments interacting together, creating extra tonal characteristics that wouldn't be there if each player played separately.

    With the acoustic band we had Andy on drums, Dean on double bass and Geoff on acoustic guitar playing together in the same room for the beds. Even though we re-recorded the guitar and vocals later, the essence of the trio is in the room, Bass interacting with drums and various other sound waves in the room. A lot of sound engineers isolate everything and while it's important to be aware of how much spill there is, I look for that indefinable something extra that tells us that the basic band is a group playing together. This is probably because I'm used to recording so many live gigs and when you solo some microphones on stage you can hear the whole band in one mic. It's that sort of thing, though, that defines the soundwaves in the space surrounding the band.

    Fleeting image No.1
    It's time to put on the last guitar solo of the last track recorded - Geoff hits a note bends down in front of his amp, beautiful perfect feedback, right, roll tape, track plays, Geoff plays the lead up, bends down in front of amp and zzzsht - nothing, several tries later and still no feedback note and we realise that it's the lead up phrase still ringing in the amp that's interfering with the note, so after readjusting the playing technique and several tries later, Geoff, determined to get it right, nails it and we continue on to the rest of the solo.

    Geoff reckons the quote of that week was me saying, 'It's the long songs that take the longest'.

    Fleeting image No 2
    Back at demo stage and Geoff is doing bass lines and it had been a full day. So he's sitting in the control room playing the bass onto the song, I'm sitting beside him at the mixing desk with my eyes closed doing the jazz gig nod and I realized when the song had finished that I had actually really nodded off. I slowly opened my eyes to see Geoff with this expectant look on his face and I said, 'That was pretty good, I think, but we better have a listen'. I have no idea if he realized I was asleep.

    Fleeting image No 3
    It's a Saturday morning and I would be usually sleeping off the night before's gig, or should I say trying to, and then spending the rest of the day feeling like it's not fair that I couldn't get just that one extra hour of sleep. Then, by about 10.00 that night, at the next gig, I finally feel awake, only to go through the whole process again on Sunday. Anyway this particular Sat. I'm still at Harcourt, after having finished a marathon strings recording session with Adrian Keating the day before.

    I'm waiting for Ray Flegg. Geoff had gone home the night before, as baby Jacob's arrival was well and truly into time on and it's no easy thing, being 2 1/2 hrs away from home when the call could come at any minute. As it turned out, Jacob arrived into the world 3 days later on the Monday.

    Ray plays great electric slide in the Duanne Allman type fashion and is a good mate of Geoff's and he was there to put his stamp on, 'Find Yourself A Fool', and 'Let This Happen' (the big number with horns and Ray's fangin' slide guitar solo in the tail out). So Ray sets up his Fender Twin amp and extension speaker box and starts his warm up. If any one happened to still be asleep within a 10 km radius they wouldn't be by this time, the whole valley was full of the sounds of rays electric slide. I ended up with 4 mics in different positions and this was one of those times where I just knew there would be no way I could capture the volume intensity on tape, because it was just so physical. It ended up sounding good, sitting in with the band mix but by itself, well, you just had to be there.


    Ray Flegg doin' his thang

    George Butrumlis

    Fleeting image No 4
    George Butrumlis came for a short visit to put his beautiful accordion sounds on one of the acoustic tracks 'You And I' and I remember sitting in the control room with Geoff while George is working through the tune and Geoff goes 'George, that's amazing, it's exactly what I heard in my head with this song'. And it was amazing, how the addition of one instrument transformed the whole sound of the song esp. since we already had string quartet on there.

    Fleeting image No 5
    Geoff had a cosmic experience at 2.30am, sitting on Mick's front deck with a cup of tea, looking at the stars, when all of a sudden the trees became fields of energy pulses and lines heading up to Mount Alexander. We'd just finished a 14 hr session but, 'Scouts honour, your honour, no drugs were involved!' 6.30am the same morning, I'm up taking photos of the full moon, setting in the west just above the hill line, which is rimmed with mauve pink from the sun rise just about to pop over in the east.

    Ah - full moon, that might explain a few things.


    Full moon setting - Harcourt 6am
    Fleeting image No.6
    It's the first session for the horns, Paul and the lads have arrived and are warming up, it's time to start rolling tape. We quickly get into a working groove and I start recording their parts. About a third of the way thru the song, Geoff and I are looking at each other going, 'Jeez that guitar part sounded a lot better when we did it, did I really play that? And the keys sound different somehow'. So I have a look at the tape box and it says 'Chance, Take 1', then, 'Chance, Take 2 - best'. I check the tape and as Murphy's law would dictate, we are recording onto take 1. 'Aahh, sorry guys, um, Paul, do you mind going back to the start of the song?' Paul says 'No worries Rob, we are just getting warmed up anyway'. Very magnanimous of Paul, I thought. Cause it's times like these that a sense of humour is imperative. It's amazing the number of times a muso will say, 'Do it again, I made a mistake', yet if the engineer makes one mistake in a whole session the muso can get very pissed off. Never the case with Geoff's sessions but. Perhaps if I had've done something really serious, like wipe a song, it would be different. I did that once, years ago, but that's another story.

    Fleeting image No 7
    Mixing madness - It's about 11.00pm on the night of mixing the strings songs with Adrian Keating. I'd started setting up for this session about 12 hrs before and we were still deep in, when all of a sudden Geoff says, " Who wrote all these tragic ballads? If I have to listen to this one more time I'm gonna go nuts'. I was feeling the same way, there's only so many times you can listen to something before it becomes meaningless. So Geoff and I adjourn to the house for a cuppa tea and leave Adrian to his fiddling (with the delay unit), he was looking for a timed delay for the last violin phrase of the song and we were looking for anything other than having to listen to it again. That's the down side of practicality, we had to do those songs at the one session because Adrian was only there for one day and his expertise re string sounds was invaluable. So the upshot was, after all this, we realized there were just a couple too many sad songs and we needed some more up tunes, hence another band with horns session was booked and 2 more band tracks added to the album and 2 ballads to sit on the shelf for future use.


    Tom on cello

    Deb on viola

    Adrian K on violin

    Geoff doing his thang - PRS

    Geoff doing his thing - Gibson J45
    Towards the end, in fact, the last day, all we had left to do was electric guitar solos and o'dubs on 2 songs, then mix 3 songs. I stupidly said that we should be finished by tea time to which Geoff said 'Now you've gone and done it' and of course we finished at midnight! Because it takes as long as it takes and as Geoff often quotes my favourite saying 'There's always one more thing!' I started saying that at the end of gigs, when all is packed up and I would notice just one more lead lying on the floor behind the guitar amp, or like the time we were running late setting up for a St Andrews gig. Things were a bit rushed, and the band fires up, everything is sounding good, Geoff steps up to the mic starts singing and nothing comes out, I look over and there's the lead neatly rolled at the bottom of the mic stand. You can guess the colour of my face as I sheepishly ran over to plug it in while the band went through another 12 bars of intro.

    The hands that fiddle the knobs and the 1978 teac graphics (secret weapon)

    The Studio Headspin

    What happens during the making of an album to spin your head from ecstatic to not sure? Is it all the playbacks during recording? Then all the playbacks during mixing? Then all the playbacks during mastering? Then all the playbacks checking the test burns? - Probably! It usually takes 6 mths to a year to get enough distance to listen more objectively again, get away from sounds and technical stuff and back to the songs. There's always stuff for me like, 'Why didn't I put that guitar track more to the left cause it's sitting on top of the piano in the right?' Funny, the stuff you hear after it's all done, probably because at the time the head is split in 10 different directions.

    So different from live, where that song is already gone and the next one is happening already.

    When it came to mixing and we'd mixed most of the album and had one more session of band recording and mixing to go, Geoff and I were sitting at the bar of The Kelvin Club in town, before a solo gig one night and he turned to me and said 'You know, maybe we should have a producer, because we are just a couple of blokes sitting in front of the desk having a go'.

    A good example of the self-doubt that starts to creep in when you are nearly finished and the build up is approaching.

    This was all after we'd given a few close people copies of a quick unmastered burn I did on my home computer and Geoff had played various tracks to different friends, to try and get objective opinions. What we realized later, was that we shouldn't tell people it's not finished, because, all of a sudden, everyone is a lounge room producer, suggesting all sorts of things, which ultimately wears you down to the point where you start doubting what you've done. I came to the conclusion that maybe it would have been best to just not do any burns at all before it's mastered.


    The Gibson J45 and finished master tapes

    The view from Harcourt Valley Recorders
    So there you have it, the snapshots of making an album and now we hope that everyone likes it. The agonizing over three notes, the questions over production sounds, the emotional highs and lows, all represented on an album full of great songs and exceptional performances by one and all.

    A poem by me

    I'm sitting in the silence of a Harcourt winters rain
    Well, it seems like silence to me, after Melbourne streets refrain
    With the rubbish trucks each Thursday, from the crack of sparrows fart,
    To the after school peak rush, when everyone goes past
    And when I work the late shift, it doesn't seem like night
    Cause I'm wide awake at bedtime, sawing logs in morning light.
    But here I am, in Harcourt.
    And the only sound, besides the clock, is silent winter rain.



    Sarah's geraniums


    'Mystery Train' CD cover

    Mick's leadlight

    'Chasing my Tail' CD cover

    View to Mt Alexander

    Harcourt sunset

    Geoff recording 'Mystery Train',
    Mick Ahearne in rocking chair

    all photos by rob harwood except 'rob at gate', 'the strings', 'the eq's', 'guitar and master tapes' and 'rob at desk' by Geoff Achison

    Copyright Harwood Archives 2002


  • Robbie Harwood
  • © 2002  Tara Hall Productions
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