Week 18: Maria de las Nieves – “Canto Di Caino”

UPDATE: Maria has a Kickstarter project going to create a whole album based around Cain. Help her out if you’re inspired!

Maria Isabel Ruff-Berganza gathered together her band of self-described “wanderers” to record the first in a series of songs she has written about Cain.

Audio MP3

Canto Di Caino
By Maria de las Nieves

Maria Isabel Ruff-Berganza – Vocals, Lyrics
George Murphy – Bass
Micah Scott – Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar
Daniel Ruff Smith – Djembe, Percussion
Ross Charmoli – Congas
Charlie McCarron – Violin, Electric Guitar

Canto di Caino, Canto de moribundo
I sing of Cain, walks the whole mundo,
Wanderlust aching, corazon breaking,
He looks free but won’t see what he is forsaking

His brother, Abelito, lies in the dust
For work of Cain’s hands made a jealous thrust
And we have passed on to another age now
But all of Cain’s children still wondering…

How do we till the soil, how will we be free?
Who will deliver the fruit from our tree?
Sordo with anger
Bitter with pain
Pinchada con pride and human disdain

We march in production, we dance in our flight
We wake to the light for a self-imposed night
Walk and we don’t know which way we will turn
How best to distract from how we still yearn

How do we till the soil, how will we be free?
And who will deliver the fruit from the tree
Sordo with anger, amarga con pain
Swollen with pride, do we toil in vain?

How will I by solita become what I should
My spine, a serpent that soon strays from good
My hands, two birds, that disown their own kin
My belly bare soil depraved from within
I bend down like spider and reach everywhere
Electric, world shrinking web of despair

How can I till the soil, how be freed?
Which Cain can deliver the fruit from my tree?
So swollen with anger, so swollen with pain
Pinchada with pride, labor of the vain

Canto di Caino, Canto de moribundo
I sing of Cain, walks the whole mundo,
Wanderlust aching, Corazon breaking,
He looks free but won’t see what he is forsaking

Behind the Song

I edited together a little behind the scenes for this one. Maria explains her interest in Cain and why the song’s title is Italian, while the rest is Spanish and English.

It was a treat producing this song. The musical base of the song originated with Micah and George, and Maria came up with the vocal melody and rhythm. So the first step was recording Micah on mandolin and George on electric bass, to get a solid rhythm track. Although I usually have people play to a metronome, this song seemed like it needed to be free from a click. And luckily these guys were spot on with their rhythms.

Once we got the rhythm track down, we recorded Maria’s lovely vocals. Each take had super expressive and interesting parts, so I ended up using the best pieces of each take. We were both on the same page when we heard something that stood out above the rest.

Micah Scott, master of the mandolin

The next step was letting Micah go nuts and record a bunch of mandolin and guitar parts. I would have kept him recording all day, since his solos were getting more and more interesting, but he stopped and said that’s probably enough for one day. And I did have more than enough to work with at that point. I think the guitar/mandolin double solo at the 2:10 mark is a testament to what this guy can do.

Next up was the percussion section. McNally Smith student Ross Charmoli came over with a pair of congas. I ended up placing one mic over each conga to get the crisp hand hits, and one mic underneath each conga to get a bassy tone.

Maria had an ace in the hole with her cousin, Daniel Ruff Smith, who came over with his djembe to lay down the base percussion track. He also recorded shaker and cowbell (muted, because it was too ring-y). I felt like it needed one more counter-rhythm, and I thought wooden claves would sound perfect. But since we only had one wooden stick with the cowbell, we had to improvise. We tried hitting it against all sorts of wooden surfaces, but it just sounded dead. Finally my roommate Jeff handed us a Mag-Lite flashlight, which worked surprisingly well as our second clave.

I’m excited to hear Maria’s other songs for her Cain project, especially since “Canto Di Caino” is the very first song she wrote for it. I’ll spread the word when Maria de las Nieves has some more recordings to share with the world.

Week 17: Brandon Dvorak – “Kingdom”

Once again, Brandon Dvorak and Jake Anderson joined me in the studio. This time, we recorded a song by Brandon, which goes from mellow to rocking in no time flat. Fun one to produce!

Audio MP3

by Brandon Dvorak

But who could tell?
Memories haven’t served us well
And who could know
Exactly where we are to go?
From here
Skies are clear
And from here
Skies are clear

This kingdom’s falling down and I’m okay, I’m okay
Our king is crawling out of his cave, of his cave
Our home is burning down, we can’t escape
I’m not afraid
I’m not afraid

Brandon Dvorak – Vocals, Guitar, Bass
Jake Anderson – Drums
Charlie McCarron – Synths

Behind the Scenes

I recorded a quick interview with the guys to document this moment in history.

When Brandon played his song for me on just guitar, it struck me as instantly different than anything I’ve produced yet. Even though the song is really only three or four repeating chords on guitar, I didn’t get sick of them. It was very mesmerizing, thanks in part to his unique vocal lines.

So from a production standpoint, I wanted to get this ethereal sound across. I recorded some synth parts to give it a kind of creepy psychological feel at the beginning. For you Ableton Live junkies, my secret ingredient is a special Max for Live plugin called “Squirrel Parade” that you can tweak to create strange animal-like sounds. I was messing with it once before and made a pretty convincing synthesized songbird call. But for “Kingdom” I just tried crafting some spacey humming.

This is one synth I customized for the song. Yes, I am a nerd if you hadn't noticed.

Another trick I used was to distort the guitar in a way that sounds like controlled feedback. I used an effect that pinpoints a certain pitch and cranks it up, as if you were holding an electric guitar next to a really loud amp. The cool thing is, you can change that pitch over time, so you can almost create a melody out of the guitar feedback. Kind of like auto-tuning a guitar. I created two feedback tracks and panned them left and right. Have a listen to this feedback by itself:

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And in context:

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Here's the feedback effect I used on the guitar. The green line above is the pitch being distorted, which varies wildly during the choruses.

It was great to work with these guys again. If you missed Jake Anderson’s song from Week 14, check it out. You can also hear more music from Brandon and Jake in their band, With A Gun For A Face.

Jake Anderson, back on drums.


Week 10: Alpenglow – “Mountain Man”

Brian Laidlaw and Ashley Hanson wowed me with their debut concert as Alpenglow a couple months ago. So I was excited to get this talented acoustic duo over to record “Mountain Man”. We even have a music video this week, courtesy of Jeffrey Schwinghammer.

Audio MP3

Mountain Man
By Alpenglow

Right click here to download the mp3.

It isn’t safe for a sailor boy to live far from the ocean
His lungs will start to dry out if he doesn’t get his quotient
He’s in his happiest state
When his fingers are calloused
And he’s ferrying freight
To provide his own ballast


Give him something old to love, give him something new to covet
If he’s seen it before, then I know he’s likely to love it

When it’s worse to live inland than to die on a reef,
When he’s not beside the ocean, he’s beside himself with grief

It isn’t safe for a mountain man to live far from the highland
Whatever voice of god he used to hear will soon fall silent
But when his spirit is battened
To the top of a glacier
He’ll never be flattened
By the force of erasure


Give him something old to love, give him something new to covet
If he’s seen it before, then I know he’s likely to love it

Now walking through the flatlands is a flatline postmortem
When he’s not beside the ocean he’s beside himself with boredom

It isn’t safe for your lover to be miles from where your home is
Wherever he should lay his head he’s sure to feel homeless
Now he’s far from the bedroom
Where your moves are the cleverest
But he’s looking for headroom
From Manhattan to Everest


Give him something old to love, give him something new to covet
If he’s seen it before, then I know he’s likely to love it

Now the cities are empty and the landscape is haunting
When he’s not beside his lover he’s beside himself with wanting


Give him something old to love, give him something new to covet
If he’s seen it before, then I know he’s likely to love it

Behind the Video

Jeff upped the production value by at least 47% with his new slider

We ended up tracking the song AND shooting the music video in one night! We shot it right out on our Halloweeny porch (thanks to Mitchell Johnson). Brian and Ashley stuck out the cold weather for about three hours as Jeff filmed shot after awesome shot. You should probably start subscribing and/or following Jeff on YouTube and Twitter.

It turned out to be a great way to meet our uptown neighbors. A couple guys about our age dug the music and came out and invited us to play pool. An older Native American guy came up to us and wanted to go on camera to say that he’s the “most dangerous Indian you’ll ever meet.” It was hard to tell if he was joking. Another one of our neighbors from across the street came out and said he was having a horrible day until he heard Brian and Ashley playing. You would think playing any sort of music on our porch at midnight would get the police called on us. I think it’s a sign that Alpenglow is destined for fame.

Behind the Mix

Ashley and Brian have so much chemistry in their live performances, we considered recording everything simultaneously (vocals, guitar, ukelele, and drums). But we decided to track it all individually to give me more control over the mix.

When I record acoustic/electric guitars, I generally only mix in a little bit of the direct output, since putting stereo mics in front of the guitar tends to sound much better. But Brian’s guitar sounded really good plugged directly in, so I mixed that in at about the same volume as my mics.

For Ashley’s electric ukelele, I used some tricks I usually use with electric guitars. I plugged it directly into my mixer and also recorded her picking with a mic. Then I played it back through her amp and re-recorded that sound. When you want an electric guitar to have some natural amp distortion but you might still use the clean signal, this is the way to go. I actually didn’t end up using Ashley’s amp sound at all (it sounded slightly muddy in the mix), so I’m glad I recorded the clean, direct in sound.

Brian’s kick drum, as awesomely unique as it sounds in real life, didn’t sound very awesome at all in the recording I got, even though I placed four different mics around it. Since it’s stuffed with a pillow, the recording sounded like a really dead knocking sound. Here’s the original kick:

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So I had to get a little creative with this one. I added four different effects to it to give it more oomph and a little more sustain. It sounds a little strange on its own, but mixed in it works pretty well. In this sample, you’ll hear each of the four effects on their own, then the composite of all of them, then the kick drum mixed into the song:

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Four effects I created for Brian's kick drum in Ableton Live. The right side shows the EQ "tuning" I did to it.

What’s going on here?

  1. The first sound is close to the original kick, but with compression and some EQing to get the tambourine out of this track.
  2. For the second sound, I used EQ to bring out a tone in the drum. Since the song is in E Major the whole time, I essentially “tuned” the kick to the note E.
  3. The third sound uses an Ableton Live grain delay effect. It’s also tuned like the second effect, but it has a little more low end and a little more grunge.
  4. The fourth sound is a noise effect that sounds a little like rushing air. It makes the drum sound more soft and pillow-like. To be honest I happened upon this effect by chance. I put a vocorder effect on it and just toyed with the settings until something cool came out of it.

It was a pleasure working with Ashley and Brian. They have a whole collection of great songs not yet recorded, so if you’re in the twin cities area, you should check out an Alpenglow show – facebook.com/alpenglowmusic. Brian is also having a solo CD release show on November 17th at the Turf Club. Visit facebook.com/brianlaidlawmusic to get a preview of his album Wolf Wolf Wolf.




Week 8: Whitaker Trebella – “Ghosts of Hallemot” (Cardinal Quest Theme)

This week’s challenge was a little different. My friend Whitaker Trebella (formerly Blackall) asked me to do a cover of one of his video game compositions, from the game Cardinal Quest. He lives in Chicago though, so it was all up to me to figure out what to do. I decided to go in a completely non-synth direction.

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Cardinal Quest Main Menu Theme
Composed by Whitaker Trebella, performed by Charlie McCarron.

Whit moved off to Indiana University to study music and then Chicago to make music, so I haven’t really seen him since high school. But I’ve been following his composing career, and it’s pretty cool what he’s been up to. He started writing music for video games by just connecting with a few game developers on forums. After scoring a few very successful mobile games, including Tilt to Live and Super Stickman Golf, developers have been knocking at his (virtual) door to tap into his brilliant musical brain. Turns out he never actually meets these people in real life. Oh, the wonders of the internet!

So anyways, I was honored when he asked me to do a cover of his composition for Cardinal Quest. You can hear the original music at http://www.cardinalquest.com/demo. I really liked the main menu theme. It seemed peaceful and foreboding at the same time, and I thought it would translate really well to violin. I originally thought I would use just violin tracks, but I felt like it needed something in the low register for the second time through the progression. This tune will be one of many on a Cardinal Quest covers album, coming out soon. I’m excited to see what other musicians do with Whit’s music.

If you’re looking for a fun composer to subscribe to on YouTube, Whit is the guy.

He posts a bunch of composition and production videos showing what goes on behind the scenes. I’ve been really fascinated by his 10-minute song production videos he does right in Logic Pro. It’s along the lines of some of the stuff I do, only 10 times faster.

You can check out Whit’s many creative projects at WhitakerBlackall.com or contact him @wblackall.

Week 6: Head Eclectic – “A Minor Monster”

This week I had the treat of recording with a band I just met. I saw Head Eclectic at the 331 Club and asked if they had a CD. Nothing! What a travesty. So I asked them to be a part of this song a week challenge, and the results are in.

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A Minor Monster
by Head Eclectic

She checks her balances
Update the deficits
Print more money quick
Blueprint the Mazes

And as for the kids let ’em sleep
All their problems mapped out in their dreams
He looks behind him in the street
His Hands are full of sand but empty
But empty

Put all your problems on the kids
Just to see how they handle it

She gazes at them sleeping in bed
Strangely they remind her of herself

All their problems mapped out in the trees
He looks into the street
He’s red from all the heat

Who’s got the big red shoes, he asks
Kid, here’s looking at you
With the look in his eye…
Meet me at the very bottom

Josiah Quick – Vocals, Guitar
Wyatt Simmer – Bass
Thomas Myhre – Synth, Rhodes Piano
Joshua Perez – Drums

First up, Joshua on drums.

“A Minor Monster” challenged my mixing skills right away; it’s the first song of this challenge to have live drums. I used all five of my microphones (see this post for the specs) and tried to find the best spots to place them. I put one mic over the hi-hat, one near the floor tom and ride cymbal, one right next to the snare and high tom, and one right underneath the crash cymbal. I stuck my kick drum mic right into the soundhole, about 4 inches behind the beater.

We were having some trouble getting the snare to sound good. It had a ton of ugly ringing tones. Luckily Joshua had a trick up his sleeve. He rolled up small pieces of (clean) toilet paper and taped them right on the snare head. They were perfect improvised mutes.

After the drums were tracked, everyone plugged into my mixer.

Because the whole rest of the band is electric (aside from Josiah’s vocals), I had them plug in directly to my mixer, and we recorded everything simultaneously. Then later on, I ran Josiah’s direct guitar recording through his amp and re-recorded it. For the final electric guitar track, I ended up using a mix of both the amped recording and the direct-in recording (with a number of Ableton effects).

It was great working with these guys. Check them out next time they’re playing around the Twin Cities. facebook.com/headeclectic