About six weeks ago I somewhat reluctantly put this ad up on Craigslist. It’s for a very cool guitar amp I’ve had around the lab for several years that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The amplifier is made by Swart Amps in North Carolina. They are a boutique company of two (Michael Swart and Kelly Holsten) creating high quality amps for tone discerning guitarists. The Space Tone Reverb is a 5-Watt, Class A, hand-wired, point-to-point creation with tube driven spring reverb. I won’t bother with what all that means because it’s likely not all that interesting to you unless you’re a guitarist/gear tech/nerd. I only mention this because it was through Craigslist where I first learned of Swart amplifiers and gained a real awareness of boutique amplifiers.
Though I’d never heard of them before, I came across an ad for another Swart amp that piqued my interest and lead me to their website, where I found the perfect amp for me for my current playing situation. On paper it seemed like a great amp to own – something not too loud, small’ish, fully tube with reverb. I was playing some quieter gigs regularly with my Fender Vibro Champ as my main amp (no slouch of an amp either) but liked the idea of the tube reverb and an amp built by someone I could communicate directly with, which I ultimately did after frying a tube and a capacitor (and diagnosed through emailed photos). There was only one dealer in Canada at the time – Boutique Tone in Montreal. They didn’t have any in stock but the owner agreed to sell me his personal amp. I can’t remember if he knew it or not at the time but upon looking at the inside of the amplifier I noticed the serial number was #001. The first one. I’m not normally one to care about things like that and I’m not sure how many of these amplifiers have been sold but that fact in and of itself has added some weight to the decision of keeping it around.
That’s definitely not the only reason though. It turns out that this model has gone through several modifications over the years and mine is somewhat unique. Kelly Holsten, who runs the website, customer service and tests the amps wrote to me, “the wood on the first 30-35 amps was accidentally made in Birch without us knowing it. We then moved to our usual pine cabs, which are a bit warmer and somewhat softer sounding. The GOOD thing about those birch cabs is they tended to sound more articulate and precise… The reverb and wiring was changed a bit later along with the addition of the hi/low gain switch. The reverb in those early amps would sometimes be crazy surf style.”
Kelly expressed interest in hearing what that original amp sounds like so I did up this little tune highlighting some of the amplifiers range of tones. Though there is a bit of percussion and a bass track, all of the other instruments are guitars going direct into the STR. The only exception is a fuzzed out Rickenbacker 12-string that achieves a distinctive tone with the addition of the Swart Atomic Boost treble booster pedal.
My ad for the amp includes a road case that I had built thinking I would tour with the amp regularly but ultimately it only went out on one theatre tour I did with Jill Barber several years ago. It also includes a leather cover and extra tubes. I recognize that it is a pretty specific subset of musicians interested in spending this kind of dough on a 5-watt amplifier which is likely why I’ve yet to receive a single inquiry about the amplifier. Oddly, I can’t remember ever not receiving not even one inquiry into a piece of gear I’ve posted to sell. Oh well. For now the amp lives happily with me. After making the audio/slideshow highlighting the amp I realized I’m not really in any hurry to let it go.
Since acquiring my #001 Swart I have owned two more of their amplifiers. My Atomic Space Tone is my main touring amp and has appeared on many recordings.
JR beginning acoustic guitar overdubs at The Rogue.
A couple weeks went by. During this time I’d been listening to our rough rehearsal recordings and imagining what I thought an album of these tunes could sound like. The wandering interaction of our instruments created swirling textures underneath Justin’s voice. I thought if we could expand on this approach we’d have an interesting and dreamy listening experience on our hands. From previous experience in recording sessions I’ve learned that I can have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I am not producing the recording. As a session musician I don’t really feel my input on the overall direction is appropriate unless it is asked for. Maybe to my detriment, I am not a pushy person when it comes to finding producing work. I generally don’t take on that type of work unless I like the music or feel that it is going to be a worthwhile challenge. But I was feeling strongly about this music so I decided to hook up with JR to share my thoughts on his cool idea for a record. At the end of our chat we were both excited to get recording with the group of musicians we had rehearsed with. We set up dates to get started at The Rogue studio with engineer/owner James Paul.
James Paul in front of the studio for a bass break.
In the studio five of us laid down the bed tracks. Justin sang in a quietly in a corner to avoid track bleed while myself and Robbie Grunwald (keys), Sly Juhas (drums), Steve Zsirai (bass) laid down the track foundations. I prefer not to play in the bed tracks when I am also the producer but I felt it would help inform the direction of the production of the song. Over a few days at the Rogue we explored ideas from rehearsal and threw new ideas into the pot until we felt like we were onto something. Most of what is heard on the album is the live band though the vocals and acoustic guitars were re-recorded. The colourful line of additional vocalists were recorded up in my home studio The Hepbourne Lab. Also recorded up there were a few additional guitars and Christine Bougie’s lap steel. Joshua Van Tassel’s additions were recorded in his Verge Music Lab.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the album process was mixing. With several musicians and singers on each track there was a lot of musical information. There were great performances all over the place but the arrangements needed careful sculpting to reach the potential I’d envisioned. Basically the practice involved muting instruments to find the right combinations of sounds for any particular moment in the tune. Sometimes all of it is just on and it’s loud and crazy like at the end of Courage. I find it really interesting pulling things out and pushing something that seemed like a subtle colour to the forefront of the mix. It can change the perception of a tune so much. Mixing is another chance to discover the music.
We finished up the mixing in November and I started feeling a bit nervous as other than JR, the musicians and singers and myself, no one had really heard any of this recording. It’s always near the end of a project I start both celebrating it and anxiously wondering if I really messed it up. Plus we were dealing with the music of The Tragically Hip here. What were their fans going to think? From the start I figured this recording might piss off some people, possibly including members of the band. But Justin and myself kept focused throughout the making of the record on creating something we’d enjoy listening to if no one else. In the end I’d have to say this was among the most interesting projects I’ve been lucky enough to produce. Justin boldly steps onto a new stage with this music and owns it.
- Posted By: email@example.com
- April 21st, 2014
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Almost exactly one year ago Justin Rutledge assembled a group of musicians for a mysterious project. I was one of those musicians. We were invited to a Dropbox folder containing dozens of songs by The Tragically Hip then were to meet at a downtown rehearsal space for some casual playing – not to rehearse for a show or a record specifically but out of Justin’s curiosity. Others that were invited out were Sly Juhas, Brian Kobayakawa, Robbie Grunwald, Christine Bougie and Joshua Van Tassel.
Ultimately Justin wanted to record these songs, apparently an idea that had haunted him for years. But first he wanted to see how things might transpire. I didn’t have much of an opinion at first. Or maybe more accurately, I was of two opinions. On one hand it seemed that an album of covers, especially of a somewhat polarizing Canadian iconic rock band might alienate Justin’s fans while also unsettling some die-hard “Hip heads”. And the material and Justin’s style might not ultimately work together. On the other hand, it was a unique idea and Gord Downie’s lyrics set against a wider sonic palate of a backdrop could be a really interesting challenge.
We had two days in the rehearsal space to play the tunes. The studiousness of us side-musicians was instantly evident. Justin obviously knew the songs inside out and was leading from pure instinct while the rest of us had made our own collection of charts to follow. Our idiosyncratic maps may have been accurate to a fault. Harmonically there was not much going on with the music as our first run-throughs were more or less mellow versions of the original recordings. Many of the songs didn’t really have chord changes and were more often based off simple riffs. Quickly we realized that the vocals and lyrics are what lead the music. We would have been better served to print lyric sheets with notes pertaining to the music within than to be counting bars and beats. Some players were getting bored with static parts and chords that never seemed to change and there were discussions and attempts at reharmonizing, changing the feel, subtracting sections, creating new musical parts, removing lyrics, etc. There was an unspoken dissatisfaction amongst the group of musicians, none of which were all that familiar with the Hip’s music to begin with. But through all of this shared musical frustration there was a beauty I latched onto immediately.
Each one of us brought in our individual style. We hadn’t been instructed to sound like The Tragically Hip or even necessarily like Justin Rutledge. JR’s simple mandate to us was to make the music “mellow, musical, manly”. The beauty resulted from the fact that we each had our own way of interpreting this. We weren’t necessarily trying to work with each other or trying to find where we belonged in the musical soup we were dishing up. Instead we just did our own thing and it provided a chaotically organized but dreamily pleasant sound collage. At times, it could get a bit much but as I sat in my chair playing my guitar between Bougie and JR I could single out different players parts in my head and imagine how an approach for a song could be built upon what they might have been playing, or be emotionally drawn in from the intertwining of two musician’s repeating lines. To some it may have seemed that what we were doing was lacking focus but for me that’s where the wonder and potential was.
- Posted By: firstname.lastname@example.org
- March 14th, 2014
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In summer of 2013 Royal Wood and I set out to make another record together. Though we’ve worked together on several of his past recordings as co-producers (We Were Born To Glory, The Waiting, Covers Sessions EP, The Lost and Found EP), this time he handed me the keys and split, literally. While I worked on the production of 10 new Royal songs, Royal simultaneously was recording many songs in Los Angeles with producer Bill Lefler. He wanted to do something different; he wanted to be surprised. So for the first time Royal took his hands off the console and let us try to surprise him. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy thing to do having always had a major hand (sometimes the only hand) in the artistic outcome of his recordings. However, regardless of the producer he is the songwriter/singer/artist and played many instruments on all of these tracks. No matter what Bill or I would do it would ultimately still sound like Royal.
Over the years I have learned that Royal has a very clear idea when he is writing what he envisions his music ultimately sounding like. During the past several recordings it has been my role to both interpret and assist in bringing his vision to life as well as to add another sonic dimension, or simply ideas from an alternate perspective, whether they be about instrumentation, arrangement, tempo/key, approach etc. This is generally how the artist/producer relationship is understood in the studio. That doesn’t mean conflicts won’t ever arise however. If we were to always be on exactly the same page at all times there would be no point in having an additional producer around. But we have to be sensitive to hear each other out, recognize each other’s strengths and know when it’s important to stick to our guns. If anything Royal and my main fault might be that we can be too sensitive to each other.
The songs being recorded in L.A. were to be for an album and the ten songs I was working on in Toronto for an alternate album. We weren’t really concerning ourselves with the how/why/where/when of the release of these tunes but I felt when I heard Royal’s demos that these songs needed to be recorded immediately as they had a potency I worried might fade if they sat for too long. As for the approach of their presentation, I didn’t want to hear the music that was being recorded in L.A. and I believe Bill felt the same way. We wouldn’t want to be influenced by each other’s work as these were to be two separate projects.
Royal and I spent a few days together at The Rogue in Toronto and Catherine North in Hamilton getting his guitars, piano, vocals down to serve as the bed tracks for me to work with before he departed for L.A. So while Royal worked in the studio on the west coast, playing the majority of the instruments himself, I jumped from studio to studio recording horns, strings, percussion and background vocals while adding my own instrumentation in my home studio. After everything was recorded I mixed the tunes and sent them as they were near to completion to Royal for his thoughts. I have to admit, it was both exciting and nerve-racking to put my love and attention into these beautifully heart-breaking songs and then present them to him upon for critique. What if he hated it? He’d had no idea what treatment I was going to give to them and it was quite possible I could have gone in a direction he didn’t like. Fortunately the surprise was also pleasant.
The majority of these songs are sitting patiently for an audiences ears to be released sometime in the hopefully-not-to-distant future. But four of them are presented on Royal’s brand new record “The Burning Bright” (released March 18). City Lights, I Wish You Well, It’s Only Love and I’m Afraid which were recorded in Toronto receive an alternate mix from producer/mixer Tim Abraham (who also mixed the L.A. songs) in order to present the album with some cohesion. I’m happy these songs are presented here amongst some of Royal’s finest songs and recordings to date.
Here is a video of a performance of It’s Only Love we did with the band at the CBC studios recently. You can watch the rest of the performances here.