Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics, and in terms of that it’s hard to beat the 12-bar blues. My guitar is dealing with some fret wear, so it’s been out of commission in terms of doing any recordings, so I’ve had the time to focus on my bass playing and this week even my blues harp got a dusting. So with those two available, the blues was the logical music format for me to record on.
The 12-bar blues
For the uninitiated, the 12-bar blues is a staple in music and is one of the foundations of blues. If you don’t know it, you’ve certainly heard it. It follows the below pattern:
Where I is the root, IV the major fourth, and V the major fifth. If the song is in the key of C, then I is your C chord, IV is your F chord and V is your G chord.
The bass line
I came up with a really simple bass line that suited the above 12-bar blues format, in a relatively short time of noodling. From there it was just a question of repeat the same riff in different keys so as to achieve the I IV and V chords the 12-bar blues uses. I changed it up for the walkdown back to the I chord, but overall, it’s the same thing.
I’m trying to build a habit of recording whenever an idea comes to me. Maybe it’s a simple riff or chord progression, but the idea is to get a few repeats of it in Reaper and expand on it when time allows – to a whole minute or two. But getting the first idea down is essential, and from there second ideas can come when I have more time to focus. Who knows? Maybe my initial idea will even become a secondary idea down the line…
So, I committed this bassline as rough take, and got myself ready to start the arduous process of writing drums (I have bad hand eye coordination when it comes to midi grids and the rhythm in my head). I also realised my riff was in G, while my blues harp is in the key of C – so if I was going to add a harp track on top, I needed to re-record it in C.
Tonewise, I played through the Orange Terror Stamp and Two Notes Cab M with little (compression from a Behringer CS-400 compressor/sustainer pedal, and the result was very workable. A professional-grade tone is not going to happen on such a budget instrument.
At this stage I knew exactly how the bass track would sound, but I wasn’t done with the bass yet.
Drums take endless time for me too, since I’m learning to express on a grid a rhythm I have in my head – often I get even the time signature wrong!
But what makes it harder is that rough track I work with is never in tempo – in the case the bassline that is meant to inform the percussion. Sure, I have a metronome when I’m recording, but if the accented beats on the metronome are off in terms of what I’m playing, it throws my playing off.
For the terms of this project, a simple drum loop using Manda Audio’s VST, PowerDrum Kit 2, a plugin that I thought works well and sounds convincing enough. Although there’s only seven notes per bar, it still took more time than I care to admit to realise simplicity was the ideal solution. Now that I look back on it, I think the drum track is pretty elegant – for the project. Once I had this element sorted I could go back and re-do the bass.
All part of the process which is:
- Record instrument so you know what it needs to sound like, but its tempo will be inconsistent,
- Write a drum track (takes a few hours)
- Re-record instrument in consistent tempo with drum backing
- Add third or fourth elements as required
Once my basic drum track is written up, all I need to worry about is incorrect number of repetitions when recording the final bass take!
To save time, I took the best take of the first repeat of the bassline (in all there are about five or six repeats) and looped it over the course of the pre-determined track length (I aimed for two and half minutes for this project). Thankfully, the bassline and the drums both lined up together really well!
The blues harp
With this element done and dusted so quickly, putting together a little recording session with a harmonica solo should really be all of an hour or two’s work. Not so!
The final hurdle was getting the blues harp solo – but besides needing a few takes to get the solo right, it had a unique challenge to overcome, since it was being recorded by microphone. For my bass and guitar work, I’ve designed my workflow to make microphones redundant and there’s a good reason why.
My workroom overlooks a very busy road. The sound of cars is unavoidable. Also nearly always unavoidable is the boiler (!) in the room too. These two elements are quite a bit louder than my headphones can drown out. In the case of microphones, the bleed is quite audible.
Initially, I wanted to add some overdrive over the harmonica via plugin, and while the outcome was good (with the signal being duplicated into two tracks, one for a clean signal on the right and a dirty one on the left, the overdriven track was amplifying the background noise to garish levels, so in the end I had to leave it as one centred track). The very analogue nature of the blues harp also gave me the opportunity to get to grips with Reaper’s ReaComp compression plugin, since no blow was of the same size it helped standardise volume over the course of the track.
With all elements done and dusted, the whole thing still sounded dead and uninteresting. Fortunately I had experimented with two drum tracks to get a stereo effect, and that helped.
So I had to repeat the process (deleting an existing drum track of only a few bars) and copy the mother drum track, and make the same changes that the first one had. Sometimes I wish I planned things better so that I don’t have to repeat things as I’m going along.
Basslines and harmonics were already recording into two tracks, so from there it was a question of giving different equalisation to the two bass tracks and then panning them (one has less low frequency than the other), and the harmonica second track would have had some grit to it panned to the right, but ultimately the didn’t make the final cut.
Syncing is important
One last thing to note, the audio interface records with a small fraction of a second lag – it’s not noticeable when playing through monitors, but when I paly everything back it always sounds sloppy. Every take requires syncing the audio track to see if I was keeping in time or not. I’m sure there’s a fix for that, but for now it’s something I must deal with and I wanted you all to know it.
Here’s the audio of the final project – I can only apologise for such a dull video. I wanted to have footage of me playing the various bits, but setting up cameras for each take is a huge schlep, so you’ll have to live with this. Maybe next time I’ll have the energy to get footage.