Studio report: Tides From Nebula – Safehaven (guitars p. 1 of 2)


[First part of studio report – “Drums and bass” is available here]

6th of February (Saturday)

The beginning of a day in the studio starts from creation of the night. Or at least the evening. The guys switch on the lamps, the dimmed bulbs lit up, the room fills with a pleasantly mysterious mood.

Before the recording of guitars starts, all of us listen to the already recorded rhythm section, so drums and bass tracks with guitars and keyboards taken from the demo. We start with the album’s opening track “Safehaven”. The song starts slowly with a calm mood, then gradually progresses and develops up until the point in which all the sounds suspend and everything turns into silence. Then the drums unexpectedly, yet charmingly, slide out from the silence and move into the next chord. When these sounds came out of the speakers, Maciek and Adam’s faces lit up with smiles. “Yeah, this sounds good”.

We start talking about the songs and I notice that album titles are different than the ones band members use in the studio. For example “The Lifter” is called “Rondal”, while “Traversing”s working title is “Blond”. Why?

Przemek: “When we were making ‘Blond’, I mean “Traversing”, I started going out with my girlfriend at that time and she’s blond, so you know – it was quite romantic”.

Adam: “Purr” off “Aura” has a similar story behind it. It also comes from a connotation with a girl. She was close to me at that time and she had quite a dark name and nickname, with lots of r’s in it… The titles are usually created on the basis of loose thought associated with a given song. Stołek comes up with all of the working titles”.

Stołek: “I always have some idea about a working title on the first day of working on a new song, as we have to name the song to save an audio project on the computer. Usually it’s the first thought I have regarding a given motif or situation which took place at the time of the song’s creation”.

Przemek: “We try to use the official titles right from the start, but it’s tough. Basically with every album it gets to the point that we are used to the working titles so much that we think it will be impossible to start using the official ones. Fortunately, then we go on tour and that’s when the breakthrough usually happens and the working titles naturally disappear”.

How about the album’s title?

Adam: “At the beginning, it was planned to have no title. We wanted to leave it without a name or as self-titled, but that idea eventually collapsed and we took the title from the opening track”.

So we return to the names of the songs.

Adam: “Official titles are created when one of us shares an idea based on some connotation and then all of us discuss it. For example “The Fall of Leviathan” originally was baptized as “Bosun”, because all of us thought it has this marine vibe about it.

However, the forefather of this story registered the legendary sea monster otherwise.

Stołek: “To be honest with you this name came to me just because I was drinking Bosun brand beer when I thought of it”.
Boom. The mysterious magic just vanished.

We continue listening to the songs and talking in between them. I ask the guys if during the recording they feel any pressure, because the album will be mixed by the person responsible for the sound of some of their favorite albums.

Adam: “No, it was us who approached Forrester with the question of working together, because we feel he can can make this be the best sounding album in the current history of our band. We have to help him though, that is why we do everything for our songs to be recorded as well as possible, so that he could have good material to work with and many possibilities to modify or propose the sound. Besides we know exactly what sound we want to have, so together with the tracks we will send him a description to ever song pointing out what every part of the song should sound like”.

Przemek: “We felt pressure when working with Preisner”.

Adam: “Yes, his stature and our awareness of what we did not know back then was a burden. An e-mail we got from him just before the recording did not help either. A day before we entered the studio to work with him, he sent us a message saying: “All the best, boys. Tomorrow your real musical life starts”.

And here’s a small digression from my side, as I’m not sure that you actually know who Zbigniew Preisner is and what plans he had for TFN. Mr. Preisner is a music composer, mainly known for his collaboration with Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski. He wrote music for such acclaimed Kieślowski movies as “Short film about love”, “Short film about killing”, “Double life of Veronika”, and the “Three colors” trilogy. He won a Cesar [French equivalent of the Oscars] for his soundtrack to “Three Colors – Red” (1994). He was nominated for a Golden Globe for the “Three Colors – Blue” soundtrack (1993). Three times (1991, 1992 and 1993) he was acclaimed as „The Most Outstanding Composer of Film Music” by the Film Critics Association in Los Angeles. He created the orchestration for David Gilmour’s albums “On an Island” (2006) and “Rattle That Lock” (2015). Yes, THAT David Gilmour.

And now it gets better. Zbigniew Preisner didn’t want to just produce the band’s second album “Earthshine”. He had plans to make one more album with the band. It was planned to be an album made with an orchestra, for which Preisner would write the whole music. The album was suppose to be promoted on tour, where TFN were to play the rock instrument parts. The shows were planned to take place with the accompaniment of an orchestra on the stages of European philharmonic halls. Furthermore, this album was to be made with vocals of none other than Lisa Gerrard, from Dead Can Dance. And all of that was the plan for a band which had been formed only a year and a half ago, had played little over 20 shows so far and had released their debut album just three months prior.

Eventually Lisa “had no time” and the whole plan ended up with Preisner producing the band’s album, but it’s good to know this background in order to realize why the guys could feel a certain warmth in their pants before the recording of their sophomore album.

tfn preisnerTFN during “that” session

photo: Preisner Studio

Let’s go back to the new songs though. The next one to listen to is “We Are The Mirror”. While listening to it, I share my impression that the bass line in the song is very “toolish”.

Stołek: “True and I was even using a Danny Carey signature snare drum when recording this song”.

Maciek: “We are considering to release it as a first single. We are also thinking about “The Lifter”, but the final decision will probably be made after we record and listen to all of the songs”.

We continue listening to the tracks, while Stołek starts soldering an unspecified object of an unspecified origin.

Adam shares interesting details about small corrections or ideas musicians often introduce to the songs in the studio, because in the studio everything sounds better and that often inspires new ideas. There are some traps too, tough.

Adam: “We fell into one during recording of “Eternal Movement”. Together with the producer we changed one motif, but after some time we felt that the original was much better, but it was already too late. Once it’s recorded it stays forever, so what can you do?”.

Listening to the songs comes to a finish and the guys start preparations for the first guitar recordings.

Przemek: “Start from the standard sounds boys, so that you could learn the microphones”.

Interesting, but it’s true. People learn objects. Instruments, amplifiers, microphones, telephones, cars, clothes. How they feel when touched, how they react when switched on, how they operate under a hand, a foot, or fingers.

Maciek is doing the preliminary alignment of rhythm section tracks. Przemek and Adam lay out cables and amplifiers. Stołek is still soldering something in silence.

The stage is once again taken over by details: clippers for cutting, strings for changing, amplifiers for replacing. Laying out one part of cables, bundling up the other, light (and dark) microphones, dark (and light) speakers, effects and their settings, preamps and their settings, microphones without setting wouldn’t be themselves either.

Gibsons come in, strings blast out. In all of the guitars present at the session the strings have been changed before the recording. Half way through the session it will be done one more time. Maciek and Adam are putting on the last sets, which will be used for the first tracks. We are listening to the Deftones’ latest single, quarreling about how much “White Pony” kicks/sucks the body part most suitable to your imagination and I’m recalling their gig in Berlin with A Perfect Circle and how the whole crowd was calling out Maynard to get on stage before they played “Passenger”.

Stołek stops soldering, but doesn’t stop being a ninja. He doesn’t talk much, but does a lot. Silently and without a word constantly moves between the upper and lower floor of the studio and all the time is screwing something in, moving something out, lifting something up. Maciek asked him something at one point and was instantly shot down with a dry “Don’t ask me any questions right now” reply. Out of curiosity I follow him down to the live room. With a trembling heart and a lump in my throat I dare to ask: What will happen now, sensei?

Stołek: “I’ll be looking for the sound and sonic space for the guitars. There used to be a garage here and the pit is still there in the floor, so I’ll open it and we’ll see how the sound reacts to it. It will also be a good chance to try out how the sound disperses in diffusers. We just finished making and installing them, so they haven’t been tested yet”.

Here we return to the previously announced issue of Nebula Studio’s construction process. The building was raised, actually it’s still being built by only two persons. I repeat, a two floor building with 150m2 space is being built by only two people: Maciek and Stołek. They are the owners and builders of the studio.

Stołek: “Originally it was a garage, in which you could park a truck, so it’s a large building that fits well for adaptation as a music studio. We started from raising the roof in the part over the control rook up to 3.8m. That was just one of a few jobs not done by ourselves. Then, on a separate foundation, we made a new building inside the original one. To do that we used 40 tons of concrete and 25 tons of bricks and also lots of construction wool and wood for the finishing of the interiors. Now we just have to finish the control room. That will be based on a wooden construction, so it should go faster and easier. Typical construction jobs, such as bricklaying, concrete flooring, insulation of the building or plasterboard structures I learned from videos on YouTube or by reading articles on construction-related websites. For all the issues directly related with the sound and acoustics of a studio, you have to counsel some technical books”.

Creating diffusers from a book and constructing a concrete floor from YouTube. Boom.

live roomNebula Studio – live room

dyfuzoryWent through the roof and nailed it – diffusers

The settings and guitars are not ready yet. The space is being organized accompanied by conversations about tours, music, music press in Poland. I noticed that we’ve been in the studio since 12:00, now it’s 16:58 and the amount of recorded sound is zero. It doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Quite the contrary. All this time has been filled with actions, decisions, opinion exchanges, some intense ones, sometimes turning into altercations, but they usually quickly fade out. The tensions occur most often when everyone is hungry, so we go for dinner.

After returning, we dive into the depth of studying the works of Royer, Sennheiser and Josephson. No, these are not the names of authors of philosophy of transcendental acoustics, but microphone brand names. Different settings are being tried out, because all of them affect the sound. You have to know, how mics react in order to know what and how to set to get a given sound. The communication system between the control room and the live room keeps spitting out orders and commands. “Mic 10 cm away from the amp. Move it a bit up, now to the left”. 18:28. Still zero sounds recorded.

In between the talks the small, invisible bits of a band’s existence come into the light. Adam recalls that this time around they didn’t record the songs in different tempos and everything for the album is being recorded as if it was on the demo. On earlier albums they often tested how a song sounds in different tempo and it often changed the whole song.

Adam: “I remember that we slowed down “Cemetery Of Frozen Ships” and “Apricot”, while “Sleepmonster” was recorded much faster than the original track on demo”.

However, some actions in the studio can’t be sped up. Maciek and Stołek are still looking for the proper sound. The arduous task of setting the position of the microphone, looking for its right place by the amp, checking the effects of the shifts and changes. It’s already 18:50 and I already know that nothing will be recorded today. Adam is silently playing on the guitar, Przemek, tired, fell asleep. Suspension of actions and waiting, after some time those two wear you out the most. You check your FB, scroll through Instagram, respond to an sms, but how much of this can you do? The slowly slide into a sleepy quagmire is suddenly interrupted by Maciek’s excited voice: “This is it! Now Sennheiser is really kicking this shit!”. Eureka and hooray, who shall be the main star of the celebration parade? It’s obvious – sensei. Stołek moved the microphone away from the amp, which greatly improved the sound, but also generated the need to shift the phase on the preamps. And all of this are just the settings for the first song to be recorded. For the other songs, where there are different sounds, melodies and phrases, the fun will start all over again. Maciek is happy though: “We’re on a good path”. Sleeping Przemek’s head slouches back. I feel as if we were sitting in a motionless bus filled with monotonous engine sound. The road is longer, than it seemed. Searching for sound lasts another 3 hours. Only around 23:00 the settings are finally done and first guitar tracks recorded. First day of guitar recordings finishes at 1:00 in the morning.

7th of February (Sunday)

Morning. Low level of freshness, but action willingness level high. I’m going to the studio feeling as if in the “Groundhog Day” movie. I was here just yesterday. Wait wait, was it yesterday or actually today? The same route, the same Ernie waiting by the gate, the same smell of raw concrete when entering the corridor of the yet unfinished studio.

“Hi guys, how are you? So what are we doing today?”

Before they reply to me, I can almost hear an answer from this one cartoon: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world”.

The world is safe for now, but beware, because the boys are up for it.

Maciek: “So do we check this Josephon as an SM? Because if so, then we would have to move it closer to the Royer. Let’s try it out. Not for it to be better or worse, but just different. “

Déjà vu. Running up and down again. Adjusting the settings of mics and amps, getting in to listen to the samples, getting out to shift the winders. The door of the control room keeps opening and closing. Finally everybody gathers in the room, sits on the sofa, Maciek takes over the computer, Adam takes the guitar in his hand and starts recording the first part of the song called “Safehaven”. He starts his recording from a delicate, ephemeral phrase. Adam closes his eyes, the room fills up with softness.

Listening. Discovery. The musicians play either “before” or “behind”. They are either before the rhythm or behind it. In this part the balance is good, but one sound is missing. Or slightly messed up, as it’s present in the part, but played with different dynamics.

Adam: “We’ll leave it on purpose. Even if it’s audible, it means that this music was played by people, not robots. When we were recording “Earthshine”, Preisner allowed even bigger sound shifts to be left on the album for the same reason”.

We’re listening to this part and I’m thinking to myself am I sitting in the music studio with people or in a rock cave with bats, because I heard this small difference in sound only after they pointed it out. I had similar thoughts when listening to their talks, particularly between Maciek and Stołek about settings, combinations, phases, voltages and amperages. It’s quite fascinating how you soak up knowledge while doing something for a long time and how your perception within a given field sharpens in comparison with people who are on the outskirts of a given subject.

We go back to the cave, I mean studio, and record another part. This time it’s the same fragment on different guitar and effect. When listening to the recorded track, it turns out that there is some noise in the background. It seems that something is resonating in the live room. It might be a guitar case or maybe drum head left there, but the effect is interesting, so it is decided that it stays as it is. The recording and cleanliness are being controlled by computers, monitors and software, but it’s nice to see that the final decision still belongs to the representatives of primates vel homo sapiens and the organic environment is still very much under protection.

Another recorded part is the same fragment of the song, but played in a different place of it. The part is still very delicate, but the fragment of the song is quite energetic, which makes Adam subconsciously play everything a bit stronger and that has to be corrected. And for the last take, the same part is played in the same place of the song, but played on the first guitar. Important – this recorded part lasts only 15 seconds, but its recording lasted about an hour. If you don’t do the direct recording, i.e. record all instruments as they are playing the song live, then recording in a studio nowadays looks like chopping of chives. Finely, short, in small fragments until all the soup ingredients come together and generate a delicious smell. Besides on this album TFN are putting in a really impressive amount of sounds, layers and arrangements, so that is why all of it lasts that long. Yet the same reason will make this album sound very rich.

Since the recording of the guitars started, Przemek sat behind the second computer in the control room and started watching over all the tracks from the demo and made sure they are also recorded on the album. Tracks in the demo are marked with different colors and each time a track is recorded, the same part in the demo is marked with grey, meaning this one is already on the album. The demo is not only a musical sketch of the album. It’s also a thought-out, expanded and consciously arranged musical construction built for the actual album recordings in order to achieve the best possible effect at the mixing stage. This album’s demo took two years to be made. That’s 24 months of demoing of “Safehaven”. Good heavens.

w trzech

At one point the studio suddenly fills with guests. The recordings are joined by Kara, who is doing photos of the band while at work and Wiktor, the owner of a Mesa Boogie amplifier the band rented for the session. Adam was recording a part at the time Wiktor entered the room and he, also a guitarist, spontaneously grabbed the first guitar by his hand and started looking for and copying the sounds being played by Adam. Hoping for sideman vacancy, maybe? It was fun, cool and energetic.

We move onto another part of the song and here comes the surprise of a…voice. The voice is of Bela Komoszyńska, singer of the Polish band Sorry Boys, who was invited by the band to do a guest feature on one of the songs. Well, what can I say about it, or actually about her. In the part she appears, the reality simply suspends and the listener totally dissolves. Charming.

Change of axe. Gibson Custom – no. Fender – nah. Gibson SG – yep, will do. Another guitar and another part of the song. Still the same song they started the day with. Remember the chives? Chopchopchopchop. Just last small bit. Recorded. Change over. Maciek to the guitar, Adam to the computer.

Maciek: “This guitar needs to be thinner, because here on the bottom it sounds like it’s frying”.

But before we reduce the heat under the pan we have to adjust the Mesa. This is a task for its expert and owner Wiktor, because for the guys in the band it’s the first close contact with, as Maciek put it, “the most complicated amp I have ever seen”.

A curio. Wiktor brought to the studio his guitar, a Music Man brand. This model is owned only by three people in the world: Wiktor, John Petrucci from Dream Theater and some American guy. There is a rumor that his name is Donald and he wears a wig. This American guy, not Petrucci. Mesa almost like Messi, special in action and indescribable. “This is a triode and here’s a pentode. Presence section lower, R1 channel on the left, how much do you want of the top and how much of the bottom, where is the gnarl and what gives the blow”.

Another part of guitar is recorded by Maciek and yet a dozen of seconds takes about an hour to be recorded. Not because there are that many overdubs or badly played sounds, but because there are so many trials and searches for the appropriate dynamics, a perfect sound, a proper distance between the notes, a balanced space between the pauses. This piece goes with such resistance that Maciek gets hot and takes off his jumper. Adam asks for a break. Maciek doesn’t want to give up now and wants to give it one more try. This time it seemed that everything went through perfectly, but when we listen to it, it seems that something is out of the beat. Upon checking it turned out that there is a latency of 21 milliseconds. That is why it seemed that Przemek’s bass was playing out of the rhythm. 17:00. The latency will be corrected after lunch. 21 milliseconds!

After the break, the recording of the song continues. Bela’s voice is spreading the magic and now Maciek and his “phaser” guitar effect join in. This part has a very cosmic vibe. That triggers a specific (and infectious) sense of humor of this band. “Sounds like the Soviet cosmos. Early Gagarin. No, late Laika. Music for the Soyuz rocket blast-off. Do you remember these Soviet orange astronaut suits?”

cccpWot, maładiec!

I said it before, but let me repeat it. Recording is not only about copying of what had been practiced before, but also an openness to what wasn’t in the plans at all. During one of the takes an idea of spreading the phrase apart comes up. All of the band members get involved in a discussion about the new concept. From thought to thought a motif is being born. Basically the idea is to leave the voice a bit longer than it is now, because if done so, it nicely interacts with what comes after it. Tracks are being moved, pauses being lengthened, things put in new places. Play. Stop. Silence.

Maciek: “I haven’t heard anything like that before. Beautiful”.

Then the last bit of sound-searched piece is recorded and from tomorrow mainly riffs are planned to be entered in the computer. Out of curiosity, I’m asking how many tracks this song currently has: 76. For your reference let me just remind you that at the origin of sound recording, one track meant one full part of one instrument played/recorded in one song. “I will be back” said the Terminator once, but these times won’t. Computers allow recording of one piece of a song and placing it in any track in any place of it and then joining all these small puzzles into one sonic being, which mixed sounds as continuously flowing song. Visually it looks like this:


Details and small bits are key when recording. You can make dozen of takes of a given part, check if it sounds good, if it’s all in tune and to the rhythm and when all seems perfectly in place, all of a sudden it turns out that the second to last sound doesn’t have enough substance. Then you have to do one more take. Overdubs have to be ideal, but you also have to remember that not every instrument in the song plays the same notes, that often the given motif is under another track, instrument or sound and sometimes if the note is hit imperfectly, it won’t be heard in the final venison of the song. But yes, generally, recording is a battle. A battle about every second, note, every even smallest bit of the song. Let’s not forget about the constant unpredictability. For example, one part played by Maciek at the end of the song recorded ideally, but then it turned out that the last bit of Adam’s part preceding Maciek’s piece needs to be corrected, so that it could be more coherent with the newly recorded part. The recording takes a lot of time, is tiring, tedious and sometimes frustrating, requires a hundredth change of cables, five hundredth setting of the effect, a thousandth guitar tuning. And because of that it’s impressive to see how, despite the fatigue, the guys are trying out every single idea, they don’t let go of any of the motifs, they don’t allow themselves to take any shortcuts.

The day finishes on a funny note with a situational Polish joke I spent a week translating and still didn’t manage to grasp the humor in the word play contained in it. So I gave up. But you shouldn’t. After all you can always give the Polish version of this report a try. Here’s something to motivate you to take the first step:

meme why_people_learn_polish1


TFN studio report: Guitars – part 2 available here

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