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Always record everything, even your first try

Producer Rick Johnson summarizes the recording of Melanie Johnson's new CD, Soul of a Spy, available from CD Baby


When Melanie began her second album "Soul of a Spy", I had been out of the studio business, and even out of music, for a number of years. In the 80s and 90s, we had a studio based around an Otari deck and a TAC Scorpion board, and I was accustomed to reels of tape going 'round, and dozens of outboard processing boxes and synths. This album was to be put together "in the box" using a Mac, Digital Performer software, and plug-in effects and virtual instruments. To me, the process was like science fiction at times, and often I thought of those Star Trek episodes where the 20th century person wakes up in the 23rd, and is astounded at the technology.

Pointless: I wasn't involved in this track; Melanie sent a demo to her friends in Nashville and they did all the instrumental tracks, also in Digital Performer, and used a program called "Fetch" to send them to her. She did the vocals at home, using an AKG C414 mike, and "fetched" those tracks back to them. The final mix was done in DP in Texas (thanks to Jack, Craig, and Joe!)

It Was: The drums are EZDrummer entered with a DrumKat trigger pad and a lot of tweaking. Bass and piano are from Kontakt, and some of the guitar sounds are from a Kontakt library, Lyrical Distortion. Other guitars are Mel's Fender '57 re-issue Stratocaster, through Amplitube. The middle section used a sample from M-tron, pitch-and-time shifted to fit the key of the song, and even a whooshing Emulator II sound, heavily effected. Mel likes to compile her vocals from many takes, but the high, almost screaming part at the end was a first take; she couldn't do it as well on any later attempts. Moral: always record everything, even your first try.

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Smokescreen: This one was left over from some sessions for her previous album "Time Lapse". I didn't really have anything to do with it… I like the mix, and drum sound. Minimal overdubs, and nice piano work using a VI, but I don't know which one.

All in My Head: The drums and bass were recorded in Nuendo at a local studio, and the OMF files imported to DP. Guitar overdubs were Amplitube and Pod. There's a fair amount of M-tron on this as well.

Twice Upon a Time: The acoustic guitar was recorded to a click, and various Kontakt sounds overdubbed. There's a reverbed-out Amplitube track. The orchestral sounds were EWQLSO instruments, if memory serves.

Soul of a Spy: The bass and Drums were recorded in a different studio in DP. The EastWest cellos figure prominently in this one. Acoustic and electric guitars overdubbed. The organ was a midi track played by the drummer, Dave, and replaced with a new NI B4 sound later. Solo guitars were by our friend Jim using a Pod.

Dance to a Band: The fiddler did a number of tracks that Melanie comped to make the finished part.

Summer Side: This one started as a DX7 harpsichord sound to a click track. This was my first attempt with EZDrummer and DrumKat, and bass, piano, horns, and strings were Kontakt.

Time It Takes to Cry: This cut is the most under-rated on the album, I think: a little polished pop gem. I like the leslie'd guitar. The bass and drums are live, and there are plenty of Kontakt sounds and a faux organ sound that's really Arturia Minimoog V. All the guitars are Amplitube again.

Turn Down Day: Melanie did this one, with just her Strat, a Garageband loop, and a Plugsound Free synth sound. A nice new take on a great old song.

Surf Cool: This is an unlisted bonus instrumental written as the theme for a local NPR station program. The drums are EZDrummer, the bass is J-bass, and the organ sounds are old DX7 sounds through the FM7 VI. Mel played the guitar with her trusty Strat and Amplitube.

All in all, it was a great way to get re-acquainted with recording technology, 21st-century style, though the learning curve was steep at times. Hope you can give it a listen!

---Rick Johnson

You can buy this CD from

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006