Session Files: Underground Railroad Score


I know, I know: as a recording engineer I practically live there. But once again I've been commissioned to go in the studio as artist, arranger, producer, and recording engineer to produce scores for a couple of TV pieces. I got the request at the end of last week with hints that delivery would be nearly a month later but I chose the pieces and started arranging them over the weekend to get a jump on things. It was a good thing, too: Monday I got a call and the whole production was moved up so my delivery was now THE END OF THE WEEK. We rushed it up and booked time in the studio starting with an eight-hour day.

The subject of the TV pieces in question is the Civil War-era Underground Railroad, so I was given a list of music from the movement and asked to arrange new versions of five "Negro Spirituals*" and to emphasize their ethnic roots. How I was to do it was up to me. The night before the first session I assembled my gear, delivered it to the studio, and loaded in. The next morning bright and early, I set up for the biggest number. Might as well take on the biggest challenge first, no? For the big cheese I arranged "Wade in the Water" for an R&B ensemble with the melodies being played on resonator and a lap steel. I set up my favorite guitar mic'ing rig in the control room, two cardioid condensers (AKG C-451Bs) in a vertical, near co-incident array:

I place it out far enough from the guitar that there's not a problem with proximity effect from the cardioid mics. Of course, to pull that off you need a reasonable-sounding room. This time I put the rig on a full-sized, rolling, extendable studio boom that can reach out to the middle of the console. Much better! I can sit right between the monitors and work, switching from headphones when the mics are on to monitors when they are off. Still, while doing my engineering at the console, that big mic boom still feels like the sword of Damocles hanging over my head.

The afternoon before the first session I also took a little time to create the drums tracks for the first song in order to give myself a headstart. You'd giggle if I told you how I did it, so I'll do just that: I set up the project in the DAW, turned on the metronome and adjusted the tempo to the project speed (98 BPM), connected up a mic in the control room, and performed the drum tracks by tapping out the individual drums and cymbals live, one at a time, on the elbow rail of the mixing console. I used a plug-in called "Drumagog" to replace the taps with first-rate drum sounds. Drumagog allows a lot of performance nuance so between the relative hardness of your taps and manipulating the program you can really put a great feel in the drum tracks. Using the tapping method allows me to add in all sorts of cool nuances including flams on snare and toms. Despite being a guitarist I appear to be a little type-A about my drum tracks.

So, the first morning of the sessions I started out with the Fender Jazz Bass. As I was tuning up I noticed that the intonation was off. Because this was my first recording session with the instrument I hadn't set the intonation, so out came the screw driver before the festivities could begin. There's always something on a project like this. Once I got it intonated I connected it up through the instrument input of an Avalon VT737 tube preamp with just a pinch of tube compression and no EQ. Then it was on to tracking the bass. I concentrated on pocket playing because the pocket was exactly what the R&B bassists were all about. Next I added Telecaster rhythm guitar, playing "Pop Staples" rhythm jabs, once again concentrating on the center of the pocket. To round out the rhythm section I added B-3 organ via a Roland Guitar Synth, modulating the rotary speaker between slow and fast to emphasize changes in the song and to increase and relax tension. When you do it right, organ puts the "gravy" on the R&B rhythm section.

And now to the fun stuff! I cleared the decks and set up the Gretsch G5717 lap steel with a Fender Deluxe Amp modeled on the Line6 PODHD 500X and some of my special sauce, to play the melody on the choruses. I gained up a little to create a smooth sound somewhere between rootsy lap steel and a David Gilmour sort of thing. Next I switched over to a stereo mic array and recorded moaning resonator slides onto the tonic chord, from the four-and-a-half beat to the first beat of every other measure. By the way, all the lead work was done with the guitars tuned to E minor. I set the song in A minor for a nice, growly midrange lead tone on both the lap steel and reso. Traditionally the verses of this song are set as "call and response" so I gave the reso the solo "call" and the lap steel the choral response. This was the first recording outing for my Gretsch Honey Dipper Reso as well and I was very pleased with the results. After tracking all the instruments I took a break to clean up everything, pull a few things into sync, and comp down any multiple takes into single tracks. Finally, using a long record preroll I initiated a punch-in and rushed into the recording room to add a little vocalized scatting on a Neumann TLM-170 Mic to the coda and fade section and the tracks were done.

After roughing in a mix, I called in my friend Pete the conga player to give a listen and help me make sure my ethnic sense was dialed in. Though I've got a pretty good handle on things, Pete plays gospel in church every week and has a real feel for groove and the tonal language of R&B and Gospel. We've developed a great relationship and he's a real resource for me. After he left I mixed the coda and fade section, increasing the reverb on the lead instruments so that they fade into the distance via the reverb as the song fades. It's a cool effect if you do it just right. Finally, I called in the TV producer for a listen, so with tracking, editing, advice, and mixing, the song was finished and approved in five hours.

After a quick lunch I dived into the second tune, "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees." I set this one in a kind of Bohemian folk setting that features a basic strummed acoustic guitar rhythm part on a Taylor acoustic and a bass line to fill out the arrangement. I played the melody leads with a brass slide on the reso in standard tuning. To add interest and develop complexity I composed and played a little harmony for the last verse. The song sounded a little plain so I cobbled up a simple, rustic drum kit underneath. For some reason I discovered that I was playing a little ahead of the beat on this song, and it added energy. I was able to assemble this one in about three hours.

After all the hoopla I found myself exhausted from exchanging all the hats (composer, arranger, producer, engineer, and artist) so I headed home after a reasonable, nine-hour day.


I started a new piece on the second morning, "Follow the Drinking Gourd." This song is held to be a fascinating piece of code communication, giving a roadmap, timeline, and navigational aids for slaves escaping from Mississippi to Ohio. The timeline suggested an early Spring departure so that at the end of the journey the Ohio river would be frozen over and could be walked across to freedom. Oh, and by the way, the "drinking gourd' is the common period name for the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor. At the end of its handle, Polaris, the North Star, marks the North. I set this tune as a bit of a rustic blues shuffle in E with a sparse, rustic drum kit pounding out a quick walking beat. I built up the rhythm section with the bass and an acoustic guitar, both in the pocket but also whacking the back beat and repeating the basic groove. There is a strong III-IV chord change (G-A) in the chorus on the word "Follow." I reinforced that gesture with a bottleneck chord slide on the reso tuned to E. Over this I recorded the melody on the Gibson ES-335, gained up to sound properly greasy and bluesy. I played the verses with the pickup selector in the middle and then switched to the bridge pickup for the refrains, adding more overtones. The song's overall effect is somewhere between roots blues and that "lil' ole band from Tejas" - just the right amount of grind. My friends who have served as focus group "screening audiences" have considered this the most infectious piece of the bunch.

After mixing and a quick break for lunch, I plunged into a last minute addition, a "danger cue" to be used while the danger to the participants was discussed. White participants often lost everything and were imprisoned. Black participants were often executed. This cue needed to be plenty scary and eerie. I started with a drone generated on the Roland guitar synth and looped it for two and a half minutes. Next I generated a bunch of eerie sounds with the synth, pick scratches and scrapes on the acoustic, and slides and sound effects on the lap steel. Then I set up several channels with a long percussion reverb to accept the sound effects and began composing the a-tempo cue in stages of collections of sound effects to create periods of intensity and release so that the piece can be applied in sections via fade-ins and fade-outs. The reverb makes things really weird and wonderful, and judicious fades make things appear and blend as needed.

So, all that was left was a sad cue, probably a solo reso melody, then final mixes and exports for broadcast and download on the web. Hopefully I could knock that out the next day.


The first thing I did on the third morning was listen to all the pieces with a fresh ear and make tweaks to the mxes to refine them. Next, I tackled the sadder song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The producer needed a spare, sad song to go under discussion of those who were most hurt by those opposed to the movement so I arranger Swing Low for a simple acoustic rhythm and reso melody with a pile of reverb. I first approached the song with the structure, "solo reso chorus followed by acoustic and reso verses and choruses, finished off with a solo reso chorus." I put up a slow click track and proceeded to play the reso leads for the structure and then added the acoustic rhythm guitar. Unfortunately I discovered that at a very slow tempo, every tiny little bit of metric inconsitency introduced by slide technique seems to glare back at you. I thought perhaps the acoustic rhythm guitar would smooth it out but no-go. Additionally, without the fixed-pitch acoustic guitar in your ears, you don't play as on-pitch as you need to. What was supposed to be the simplest song was kicking my butt. There are a bunch of artificial ways to take care of pitch and rhythm from editing to rhythm corrector plugs but reso is an odd beast and doesn't do well with them. I gave up, erased the first try in its entirety, and started again going the opposite direction: I played the rhythm track first, concentrating on the pocket and groove, and then laid down the reso lead last. Voile! Much better rhythm and pitch and the song came together easily.

From there it was on to final focus grouping, mixes, and exporting the three different formats necessary for the product: WAV file mixes with only modest compression to make it easier to blend them into TV product in conformance with the CALM Act loudness strictures, mastered versions for export to CD to audition at home, and MP3 versions at 128k designed to be downloaded from the website and derived from the CD master files.

I've exported mp3 clips:

"Wade in the Water"

"Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees"

My favorite, "Follow the Drinking Gourd"

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

"The Danger Cue"

Remember that these are score pieces, designed to go under dialog. The pieces have aired and all were happy with the results!!!

* I did some research and best I can tell, the term "Negro Spirituals" is still used to describe the genre so no offense is intended, and my intent was well-researched. If you've heard a new term for it pass it on to me.