Recording Artist +20
Friday, January 4, 2013 at 12:00PM
The Artist Presently Known As Ed in drumming, matt zuniga, music, recording, rhythmic catharsis

A couple weeks ago I told the story about how a season of depression mounted during the later part of 1992. This isn't really about that, but I think that when you consider a theme that was written about in that post, that of "keep turning those pages" and "what a difference a day makes," it makes this story all the more important. In 1992 though, there wasn't a YouTube and a campaign pushing the (hopefully) lifesaving message of "it gets better," but that post went into some detail about some folks who cared for me and helped bring me back to the fold. A good thing, because a significant part of my identity was about to be formed, starting just a couple weeks after that great day when Jerry and Judy helped turn me around. Here goes.

The Maggybox

My first CD player boombox was all that Matt Zuniga and I used when we recorded the first several months of our irreverent and rude drum and vocal "performances" in parking garages, under bridges, and even outside in the wide open of a local canyon/nature preserve. We'd pack the drums up into one of our cars (it tended to be his) and would haul off and make some racket. One day Matt put the boombox upon his car and we drove off down the road. About a mile down the road at a stoplight some driver came up and gestured to us to pull over to the gas station lot. He got out and brought us one mangled Magnavox boombox that had fallen off the car top just a few blocks from my house. Oops.

my drums down under a freeway overpass in flood prone Mission Valley in San DiegoOur own version of drummers' bridge, not too far from the better known one at Qualcomm Way in Mission Valley. We only went here a few times but it happened to be the place we first recorded our nonsense.

We had just the one drumset to work with, so our excursions were either going to force us to trade off and have the other sit around and wait for a 20 minute turn to finish, and then go at it, and then turn it over to the other again. Maybe three rotations that way? But with Matt, things always got interesting. He quickly turned those outings into screamfests and the juvenile obscenities flew every direction. Over some months, that approach turned to more scripted material in the form of my primitive songs that started turning up in the second half of 1992. Those songs were far from Dylan material, and in some cases, even Leonard Cohen might be said to be a better singer (and both certainly in the lyrical department!) But it helped us pass the time, and it helped us not be discouraged by the increasingly hostile attitudes about drums in the house; attitudes that each of us ran into in late 1991/early 1992. You can read about all that in another post.

For me, finding myself kind of rudderless during that troubled year of 1992, the matter of going out and drumming was literally rhythmic catharsis. So Rhythmic Catharsis became our name in May of that year. By the fall season, after my return from a summer in Germany, that was one of the few things that really helped me feel alive. And even that was plagued with the frequently impossible attitudes that Matt put forth. But increasingly, to go out and take drums and a growing notebook of lyrics out to the parking garage became a haven for me. 

The pencil and ink hand drawn cover to the tape we made in April 1992, the first to use the name Rhythmic CatharsisThe Drummers With Attitudes (DWA) produced a recording called Rhythmic Catharsis. It proved to be a more apt name, so we went with that instead.

The thing is, to do that much shouting and wailing on the skins is a lot of energy that might at least be documented. So my habit became to record each of those parking garage jams. For a while, we used a boombox that Matt's girlfriend was nice enough to let us use, but it was really horrible sounding on tape. It could not handle the drum sound pressure levels and was terribly distorted. But it did the job. The crude job of placing that boombox was among my earlier attempts at setting up recording sessions. It was kind of a silly task but the art of recording was beginning to capture my interest. There wasn't much that could be done; the drums are thunderous, and even though Matt might often be doing some of the most possessed sounding wailing and screaming, he's still quieter. Get him too far from the drums and he's inaudible to the me (or vice versa: we slowly started to settle into the roles of him singing and me playing kit); get him too close and the recording with that boombox would be more horrendous than if there were 20' distance.

The Panasonic

That's a lot of setup to tell you that on December 29, 1992 I got a new boombox that sort of ended up changing my life. It was some Panasonic that my grandfather bought me. It was a rainy day. The most distinguishing feature is that it had a 1/8th inch microphone input that allowed me a bit of flexibility to position a mic. Granted, the mic I bought was a $20 piece of crap Sony that was sold from the same home electronics shop. But at the time, it was like I was recording at Abbey Road. Far smoother sounding. But the thing that really changed history was that that mic in conjunction with the dual cassette decks gave me a first chance at combining sound from one tape with input and capturing it on the other tape.

It's funny, those things enable or those moments when your creativity to explode. For me, it was a rather ordinary boombox with a mic input. Big deal, eh? I'm sure it was intended for people to record conversations and the sounds of their kids's birthday parties. I used it to record drums and voice, each typically putting out as much sound pressure as possible, most of the time. 

The jam days prior to getting that boombox were already hinting at a bigger sound than a typical drum kit and voice. It was beyond my ability to play and sing at once but there were times when we both did our respective shouts and interjections. It might be more my role to have tried to add some extra percussion toys to the mix while I was shouting. Matt didn't care about that much but did bang on some stuff now and then. I can't kid you; this was noisy and rather crappy, and girlfriends only pretended to like it. It was always more my thing than Matt's. That's because he was barely on board himself. My songs were often quite silly, and since he was a bit more savage than I was, he tended to cut down my efforts a lot. But somehow, I kept on because I could tell something was happening.

Matt at the drums on a sunny day in the Volt parking lot.Matt, fall 1992 at Volt

On this day 20 years ago, we went to a place called Volt in Kearny Mesa, a giant commercial-industrial district of San Diego. Volt was itself a temp hiring agency so it was rather still on weekends when we played there. It had enough of a covered garage to be suitable for any season, out of the sun and rain, and best of all, it had AC power. That often separated a good enough space from one I loved to get back to. By the end of 1992, it was standard practice to record things, and my book of lyrics grew a lot and we kept on making first stabs at many songs. So it was that on January 4th, 1993, I brought the usual stuff and this new boombox and its mic. Among the songs we recorded that day were relatively new songs called Disco Fever and When the Elephants Fight. I doubt we did anything differently but when I got those tapes home and my ears were rested for a day, I was tickled!

Okay, maybe it wasn't Abbey Road material but it sure seemed like a giant leap. It was on that day when I set about doing what I call "proto-overdubbing" using the tape+mic method. It immediately captured my fascination. Elephants benefitted from a couple passes of percussion and extra effect voices. Disco did too. It felt like a band now. What that enabled me to do was to go out and capture the heart of the performance—drums and voice, no additional percussion—and then to bring things home and have a chance at adding things with more forethought and a chance to execute things better. Even that cursory experiment at overdubbing on a couple songs led me to feel like I was walking on air. I carried the walkman around for everyone to hear it. (For you kiddies out there, the Walkman was the iPod's pappy. It's from the EIGHTIES. LOL!)

Matt doing some cheeky dance in one of the parking garages we set up at. 1994Matt, 1994

What a difference a day makes. Indeed. That experience nearly exactly bisected the DWA/Rhythmic Catharsis period. There was "before" and "after." Over the rest of 1993 (at least until RC dissolved in August), Matt and I kept at our weekend or overnight jams. New songs kept coming. It was interesting trying to keep finding ways to play a drumset in a way that gave different songs their own shape and flavor. A few did better than others. Some became favorites. Recordings got better as I learned to work the proximity to the mic back at home, to help lower the volume naturally so incoming parts would not totally bury the source parts. Knowing that each tape bounce would cause generational loss and a darkening of the tone, my overdubs were kept to a minimum if possible, and what I'd do to avoid too many such dubs, I'd set up a small percussion rig that suited a given song. Maybe it was a shaker in one hand, a tambourine in another, and even a kick drum pedal striking a cowbell or a stacked set of cymbals turned sideways as if it were the kick drum. All that approach got refined by the time we broke up. Not wanting to let some of our best takes go to waste, I finished off another album project—the seventh under our name of Rhythmic Catharsis, and our ninth overall—and then sort of adopted RC as my own project.

It's Not Quite the Grammys...

I recall in those days I met every musician who ever made a bad recording with a 4-track tape recorder. I though then that their mixes were out of whack, or the overall sound was muffled and dark. I kept that belief for a while—two years, even—until I eventually got a 4-track myself and pushed it harder. See, the thing about one mic capturing things like a drum set in a hard-surfaced parking garage is that the sound is so much more balanced and present that way. I got a sound from those places that dudes could not get in their bedrooms or carpeted garages and rehearsal spaces. The drums became one instrument instead of six. With one mic, the sound is all coming in at once, and the space makes them all sit in realistic proportion to one another. Bad 4-track mixes skew all that. And of course, the tapes have an odd noise reduction scheme that seems to take more than it gives. My little rig was essentially suited well enough to record my rather jazzy sounding but physically slamming drum sounds.

Me goofing off at home with a whole stack of cassette decks behind me.At the peak of my cassette recording method, I had four different dual well cassette decks and a single too. The Panasonic boombox that made history is the gray thing behind me, and its speakers a bit lower. The stereo recorder RC used sits atop.

A few months into 1993 I came upon a steal of a deal on a Sony field recorder that let me get somewhat better mics into it and to record our basic sessions in stereo. I didn't know much about actual stereo placement but the two mics were situated next to each other at no angle, and Matt was told to not get too far into "one ear" lest his voice go annoyingly off to one side. The resulting tapes did sound far bigger and sweeter. The subsequent overdub/layering went on with a mono mic, but the overall sound got bigger and richer since the big kit was captured in some kind of stereo in a giant, booming garage most of the time.

Now I can listen to those old tapes and hear what garbage it was, but that's because I know what 24bit, 44k audio is now. But back then, it was just a huge thing to hear things played back that way. I don't bother with trying to be an audiophile, but I do appreciate that the tools have gotten insanely good since then. After refining my 1993 approach for much of that year, and then taking about a year off during 1994 while doing other band projects, in the very end of 1994, that whole approach was revisited when Matt and I once again went out and killed some time one night in December. I used that basic approach to do about two and a half of my first solo projects before I got a 4-track portastudio myself. What's amazing is not that it sounds good. It doesn't hold up at all now. But it was enough to get me excited, and to hear the world in a new way. For a lot of years, recording was a huge piece of my identity. Even my moniker now, TAPKAE—The Artist Presently Known As Ed—arose from a recording heyday in 1996. And great stories of meeting musicians can be told only because I geeked my way around shows with a walkman or a minidisk player and asked people to hear what I had just done. Hog Heaven Studio was a complete indulgence of my recording urge.

ReCyclED, Remixed?

1997 studio including some basic mixer and outboard electronics, 4 track tape and no drums.1997 during the recording of the Hog Heaven project, and shortly before ReCyclED got under way.

These days, starting just last week, in fact, I have had the good fortune of acquiring a VS-2480 that is helping my collect and export data from my VS-880 recordings during the Hog Heaven Studio era. All those recordings done on Roland machines were fun and games during the period when Roland was all I used. But now on the computer, WAV files are the most common format. All the data disks I've had since 1998 or so (and some DAT tapes that served as data archives for the 880) are now finally getting their chance to be converted into contemporary format.

Hog Heaven Studio at its peak, insanely packed with drums, several guitars and bass, keys, amps and studio racks.Hog Heaven Studio at its peak, mid-2000. All that stuff is mine.

My target project is to finally remix a number of tracks that have been languishing in obscurity for over a decade now. They include a handful of the songs Matt and I used to play, albeit in radically different form for the most part. I labored mightily during 1997-1999 on the songs on ReCyclED and have mixes that have been pretty solid considering the limits of the technology (which was stupendously amazing compared to what Matt and I used). But now that all this stuff is mostly recoverable, I think I'll finally mix it in Logic and be done with it. It also comes at a time that marks 20 years since Rhythmic Catharsis' most prolific period.

There is also an attitudiinal shift about recordings and distribution. These days, with sites like Soundcloud and YouTube making sharing and discovering media so easy, I've been having a feeling brew inside me, saying, "get those damned tunes done, tagged right, and uploaded. ReCyclED is the standout for me, having toiled on it so long (it was first conceived as a six month project of quick 4-track recordings to enhance what Matt and I used to do, but it would be all solo). So much of my music has been given away now that I am online, but without a good platform like Soundcloud, stuff might never get heard. It's my aim to get this done finally.

Parallels and Perspective

For a number of reasons not entirely unlike the ones that depressed me in 1992 (as I wrote about in December), I was pretty down for a while there. It isn't that the situation has changed since a couple weeks ago. No, I'd still like to know a job and my family might have me, and all that. Instead, I feel a bit brighter because of the hours of recent transfer work. Seeing so much of my creative product in one compressed period of time has given me some sense of how big all this has been to me. Again, it's not all good, and some of it is total garbage, but the hope for capturing some transcendent moments on tape or hard drive is something that persisted. While remixing and assembling ReCyclED is a goal, the thought has occurred to me that if all my recordings (digital ones anyway) are in one format, all ready to be worked with on the same machine, the opportunity is there to assemble some interesting stuff that draws on smaller bits that otherwise might be overlooked. It's got my creative juices flowing again. Studio craft has always excited me, and now after a lot of years of doing it with machines that now seem clumsy, I'm jazzed with the opportunity to see it all as one well of material. Better still, there are new songs starting to happen here too, and they're coming to me on guitar and voice.

What a difference a day makes. Indeed. Again, thanks to Jerry and Judy for keeping me on track. If I were to have snuffed out in late 1992, what story would there be to tell about all this?

Article originally appeared on The Artist Presently Known As Ed in word, image, and sound (http://tapkae.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.