Creating the "A Dying Star" Album
Creating the A Dying Star album was a unique challenge. Not only was it my first attempt at performing all the technical roles (engineering, editing, mixing, mastering) on a single musical release, I had to record it in multiple locations over the span of about two years. Also, I never seriously sang on a recording before.
Creating Surface of the Sun as a solo project was never a specific plan I had. I originally got into the music industry to become a recording engineer. I’d been a guitarist for a few years and loved playing and writing songs, but saw it as secondary to engineering at that time. But creating music was a big part of audio engineering school, and something I enjoyed regardless. I was never one to learn how to play another person’s music. In fact, to this day I don’t know any songs that aren’t mine in their entirety. When I pick up my instruments I go straight into creating.
Before, during, and a couple years after college I did jam and write with people, but nothing serious ever developed. It wasn’t until after I left recording music full-time that I was able to focus more on writing. Over the next couple years—while finding a new career path—I kept writing with no specific objective other than I enjoyed it. I tried a few different jobs, one of which (as is the trend with most musicians) was at a musical instrument store (in my case, Long & McQuade). It was there I first met Jay Benison, who would later drum on the album (actually, we crossed paths during a recording session a few years prior, but we didn’t recall that until much later). We became work-buddies and eventually I mentioned that I might have material I’d like him to drum on eventually.
I spent the next few years finding my way in a new career, tinkering away at song ideas, bringing in more instruments as ideas naturally progressed into a solo project. I don’t recall exactly when the idea to create the music as a solo project first happened. I think it was in 2007. Though, even then, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d take it that far. It wasn’t until around 2008-2009 that I finally committed to the idea, even though it’d been naturally headed that way for a while by then.
One of the main prompts to kickstart the project was a forced relocation with my then intended career path. The relocation was expected and part of the hiring requirements, and though not permanent, would last at least a couple years. The move took me away from the Vancouver BC area and recording studios. I did have a very small and simple home recording rig at the time, but it was limited in quality, options, and processing. So, to take advantage of the accessible recording facilities before the quickly upcoming departure, I decided to complete the songs I had as much as possible, knowing much would still need to be done in a less than desirable location.
Recording drums was the main driver to work quickly. Not only did I need a drummer, drums are expensive to record well. You need a lot of time, space, and equipment. It’s quite typical to spend the first half day or more in the studio just setting up, tuning, and placing microphones on a drum kit. At some point during my time at Long & McQuade I became acquainted with a guy who’d started a small label and recording studio (called Arc of the Universe) in Surrey. His facility was pretty close to where I lived at the time, and since much of his focus was trying to help small artists, his studio rates were pretty damn good. He had a massive live room that was perfect for recording drums, enough quality microphones to mic a kit, and had availability in my limited window of time.
Now, the timeline is a bit hazy since it’s been so many years, but there wasn’t much time between giving Jay rough (I mean very rough!) demo mixes of the songs to prep for the studio, and the actual recording days. I’m pretty sure it was about a week, and he wasn’t even around his kit during that time. He’d already booked a road trip to Seattle or someplace nearby, so he couldn’t even practice the songs. He just had horrible sounding, vocal-less mixes that he listened to on is iPod when he had time.
While the studio was nearby and affordable, it did present some challenges. Firstly, I’d never used it before, so figuring out how it was wired together for patching in equipment in microphones took time since there wasn’t an accessible patch bay. Also, learning what mics and other gear they had and how to best use them required experimentation. The biggest challenge though, was the recording software they used. I’ve used Pro Tools almost exclusively since 2004 (first learned in 2002). They did not run Pro Tools. While most recording programs are quite similar and operate on the same principles, a lot of time can be lost just by simply not knowing where to find the thing you know you need (like changing inputs, for example). Since all of this was being paid for out of my pocket, and I had limited time, I decided to bring in another computer rig running Pro Tools and integrate it into the rest of their system. It was a great idea, until I ran into issues with the new system failing to recognize their digital audio converters. All research showed they’d work fine together, and they eventually did, but it was one hell of a fight!
Once things were up and running, and the drum kit was mic’d and dialed in, I abused Jay for the next two days. We took minimal breaks and each day was about 12-13 hours. I remember late the second night Jay took power naps on the couch any chance he got. If I spent a few minutes dealing with something on the computer, like preparing the next song, he was out like a light, sprawled across the sofa behind me. At the end of the second day he thanked me though. He liked the abuse, I guess. (As a final note on the drums, Jay had a couple kits of his own, but he recommended he borrow his friend’s DW kit, which he felt was better suited for the music. I trusted his judgement, and always loved the sound of DW kits, so I agreed without hearing it first. This kit belonged to Chris Warunki, who later drummed on Panacea and Dragon. This is how Chris and I became acquainted, though we didn’t actually meet until years later).
After the drums were recorded I think there was about three weeks left before I moved. Much of that time was spent prepping and packing, so I only had enough left to record guitars. I had a buddy at the time who owned a small studio that he let me use for free (I helped him build it and had worked out of it a couple times). So, after work I spent as much time as I could laying down guitar tracks before getting too tired.
Leading up to this point I constantly had the idea me performing vocals in the back of my mind. I’d been practicing and taking lessons, but honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off. I wasn’t aiming for great; just good enough. I’d written a few lyrics and sang to the demo-mixes in my car during commutes to get a sense of how I was, but much felt uncertain. By the time I was at the studio to record guitars my opinion was that I was not quite there yet, but I believed I would be. I thought it might take a while, but I’d do it eventually. One of the main issues I faced was my vocal range. I guess my voice has always been a bit on the lower side, even considering that I’m male, which added to the natural difficulty of singing higher notes. This wasn’t so much a problem for the bulk of the vocals, but was for some harmonies I envisioned. I’d found during my car-ride experiments that I really struggled to hit some of the notes for ideas that stuck. So, while sitting in the chair at my buddy’s studio with guitar in hand, about to hit record, I made the significant decision to drop the key of many songs by a whole note. I did this by changing my guitar from its already lower tuning of D-Standard (all strings down a whole note) to Drop-C (the low string down another whole note, making it four notes below standard guitar tuning). This decision required me to relearn how to play everything as I recorded it, and started a fight with my guitar’s intonation (it was not built for such a low tuning and is a struggle to this day). This was further motivated by the fact that I had three songs in a custom tuning I created where the lowest string was already down to C, so was comfortable with the change (that running is low to high: C, F, C, F, C, D).
After moving and settling into the temporary home, I slowly picked away at editing the drums and guitars. I then recorded and edited the bass, and finally a bit more than a year after recording the guitars, I started vocals. It was also around this time I visited my movie rack searching for inspiration to find a name for the project, and settled on Surface of the Sun (I was at the fuck-it-I-need-to-just-pick-something-I’m-running-out-of-time part of the project. The name was inspired by one of my favorite sci-fi movies, Sunshine).
At that time, I lived in a rental house that had an unfinished basement with challenging acoustics. It was a massive reverb chamber due to all the exposed concrete. Not so bad if I wanted to record a string ensemble, perhaps, but nasty for trying to mix in. I set up my recording computer there and built these multipurpose acoustical panels to try and make my mixing position less problematic, as well as assemble them into a make-shift recording booth. They were stupid-heavy, but did the trick. The vocals went slowly as I experimented and pushed myself in a way I hadn’t before.
Aside from the overall challenge of singing beyond what I’d ever attempted before, the part that stands out the most in my memory as being difficult were the verses in Oceans of the Universe. A consequence of changing my guitars and bass to Drop-C to lower the key of the songs was that it also lowered the lowest note I might need to sing (harmonies an octave lower than lead vocals, for example). When I made the impromptu key changes I’d not written all the lyrics or vocal melodies. I think I had most of A Dying Star (which was the song that primarily prompted the change due to the verse and chorus harmonies), and perhaps a bit of a couple others, but that was it. The vocal melody for Oceans of the Universe did not exist at the time. So, a year later I struggled to sing a note lower than I ever considered I’d need.
It neared fall when I completed the vocals, then I shifted into mixing throughout the winter months. I placed the bulky acoustical panels around me in the middle of the massive basement, attempting to minimize some reflections. That was when I put my small recording setup to the test.
The equipment I had was never intended to be a system used to complete a full album. It could do it, but was significantly underpowered. I purchased it mainly as an editing system for working on larger production teams (I worked with Brian Howes at the time), and a system for writing music on. It didn’t have enough CPU power and RAM to run the recording software and enough needed plug-ins (these are things like equalizers, compressors, distortion, reverb, other effects, etc.). Also, the ProTools LE software version I had maxed out at 32 tracks (the drums used 17 of these, for example). This required me to pre-mix and bounce down multiple tracks to new stereo tracks to free up space (For example, I could take those 17 drum tracks, mix them, and re-record them in the software to a new stereo track, effectively freeing up the other 15). This worked, but was time consuming, and I had to commit to the way things sounded prematurely, which often proved incorrect and needed to be redone. I also had to permanently apply some plug-in settings instead of processing in real time to take load off my CPU and RAM. Again, this required decisions to be made early that sometimes had to be redone. Mixing on that system in that cavernous basement was an absolute pain in the ass.
The last process to get songs release-ready is mastering. The role has changed a bit as listening mediums changed, but one of its core purposes is still to help get the songs to sounds as good as they can sonically. Though similar to mixing, mastering is its own skillset. And while I can master, I’ve never claimed to be a mastering engineer. I firmly believe that the person that mixed a song should not be the person who masters the song. Mastering is an opportunity to get a second set of ears, using a new system, in a new acoustical space to give the song a final polish. There will likely be issues with the mix that the mixing engineer didn’t notice because they were fatigued from having listened to the songs so many times already, or perhaps the room acoustics simply didn’t allow (or over enhanced) certain things to be heard by anyone, things that will become prominent once brought into a new space. A Dying Star is the only one of my releases I’ve mastered. I did that to save money. The whole project was very budget conscious.
I listened to the album again recently, inspired to while writing this. It's neat hearing something so old, and noticing how my skills have improved as a writer/producer and recording/mixing engineer. It's also somewhat painful to hear all the things I would now do different or better. But that's where my skills were at the time, and I did the best I could with what I had to work with. So, I can't regret anything. It's not really fair to now say, "I could've done this better, or that different."The best thing I think I can do is to learn from the experience, then move on and apply those learnings to the next one.
Not including the writing process, A Dying Star took about two years to complete, and then another year before I finally held a physical CD in my hand (which was a big part of the goal). It was a massive undertaking for one person, but I’m so glad I attempted it and am still proud of myself to this day. Apparently, I’m a nincompoop and like the stress and challenge of it because I keep doing it.
Thanks for reading.