Mixes, new possibilities etc
Hi, my love.
Late night here. JJ made an absurdly delicious meal and now I’m stress eating green tea mochis on the couch. As is often the case on Sundays when I write these, I’m staring at a blank screen.
More blank than usual, though. I’m especially frustrated by this momentary writer’s block because if ever there were a week for taalitalk, it’s this one. Enough so that I even advertised it as such on my Instagram stories (which led to an influx of new subscribers, hello to each and every one of you, I adore you!).
Oh, my love. It’s taking a whole lot to get these fingers to clacking so that there are letters on this screen instead of blank.
And yet. The week was enormous. In the seven days since we last spoke:
(1) The Amsterdamian sun has come out TWICE (my longtime ttalk subscribers already know I control the weather but even so, can a bish get some applause)
(2) Holland has fully back opened up (not a mask or plan in sight, of course, but gooooooooooood luck y’all!)
(3) Our teaching schedule has begun again for 2022
(4) I finished the last recording for this album (!) in an epic blowout session (!) for string quartet (!) where I arranged (!) the parts (!) for said (!) quartet (!) myself (!!)
(5) Bender has mixed three (three!!!!) of the songs for the album.
Good god on that last sentence.
Bender has mixed three of the songs for this fracking album. He has created such beauty that I’ve been pacing around in absolute shock. I’ve felt like maybe I should cry? And have more so just been in awe.
Wild! Exciting! But let’s take a step back, in case you haven’t spent your whole silly life in studios and therefore aren’t sure what a mix is.
(A lot of people aren’t sure, to be fair.)
I actually googled “what is audio mixing?” to try and low key plagiarize and avoid explaining to you, because in my own whole silly life in studios, mixing as an understandable art form has evaded me until three years ago. The definitions Google gave were just as frustrating and opaque as I remember them being.
I only know about mixing myself because I finally got too uncomfortable to not know. After bringing Bender on to mix “I Am Here” in 2019, I timidly asked him to sit down with me and explain all the terms I had heard male producers and engineers sardonically throw at me over the years.
(I never had the heart to ask those producers and engineers, choosing instead to retreat and bill myself as a “songwriter, not a singer.”)
(This time, on my debut album in 2019, I was finally the singer.)
(And of course Bender obliged, because he is not one of those male producers or mixing engineers to sardonically throw words as a power play.)
(Someday, mark my words, I’ll make a video about all those terms so that no young woman ever ends up where I was from 2011 - 2019 or ever)
(But let’s stay on task.)
Though there are many complicated ways to explain, suffice it to say that every piece of music you’ve heard that you like has been mixed.
When musicians go into a studio we record straight into a mic, raw and with nothing “on” it. This can immediately sound lower or higher quality depending on the mics, room, preamps, board that the sound is traveling through, etc.
If the song is done at the end of the session, the engineer bounces down all the parts into a listenable piece of music. And for a while we live with this listenable piece of music, often referenced as the “rough” version. Roughs sound fine, they often even sound great (for example! this album’s! because! the musicians! are so! good!) But they’re not ready for anyone’s ears until they’re mixed.
Mixing is where the art goes from recorded to connected. Mixing is adding colors, story, dynamics. Zeroing in on the drum sound, making the vocal distinctive, guiding a song where it needs. Mixing is adding salt, pepper, spices to your recipe: It is deeply artful, deeply personal, and depends heavily on the professional doing it.
And though there are many great people who mix on this here earth, there is no one on this here earth better suited to mix this album than Bender.
Bender, a brilliant, complete oddball slash the only person I’ve ever met able to throw down on 30 rock refs almost on par with me.
Who puts art above all things and can hear me, exactly as I am, enough to fully grasp something like the below (on track tentatively titled “Somewhere over Kansas.)
Bender isn’t just perfect for this album because his pedigree is off the chain (former assistant of Philip Glass and Russ Elevado, to name a couple).
He isn’t just perfect for this album because his musical ear and skill are unparalleled.
He is perfect for this album because he knows me, really the frack well at this point. He has been with me through the whole behemoth process, through all 300 of the demos, through that massive Google sheet with all of its different pages.
Bender knows exactly what I went through, was there on the other line as we were almost dying and losing everything.
And these mixes the fuck sound like it.
He started with the first and last song of the album, so that we could get a sense together of the way it would feel as a through statement. This was no small feat, because the album ends with an ambient stream of consciousness and begins with a string quartet.
(Strings! Strings! Strings!)
We’ve talked for a whole year about strings. Remember in the beginning, when my queen Miriam sent me the Spitfire Audio BBC Orchestra? Back then I was certain that after this year of absolute loneliness, all I wanted was as many droplets as possible on this album. I set my sights on a full orchestra, and got to work.
For a moment it looked like this wild dream was coming to fruition. But I’m still learning how Holland works, and am finding that my hardcore NYC hustle doesn’t even remotely match the pace here. So after a year of confusing back and forth, it became clear there was no way an orchestra was going to come together in time.
Still this album needs to happen, because see NYC hustle and also my Jewish neuroses that if these songs don’t get to your ears soon I will explode. So this past Tuesday while Tisha shuttled over (I made them a cherry pie instead of rose by the way, because my homemade evaporated milk had gone bad, no regrets), I called Bender and pitched a new idea: What if we just did the album’s intro as a quartet instead of a full orchestra?
Bender was all ears for this. Bless him, in fact, because he had been holding back major reservations about the orchestra.
I am deeply grateful that Bender still gave me the space to fantasize about all the droplets they orchestra would bring, but his reservations were correct. The real beauty of this album is that it is overwhelmingly intimate. It is human.
Based, essentially, on the sum of its parts:
Songs that I slaved over for the three years of absolute hell that created them.
My and Bender’s production, sensitive but deeply directioned.
Dustin Kaufman on drums, driving and full of presence, taste and charisma.
Ben Williams on bass, a master of the low end with lines to break your heart, reminiscent of James Jamerson or Pino Palladino.
And then me in the middle of it all, with vocals tripled, breaths, claps and a bunch of piano.
How did I ever think that an orchestra would make sense in the tight knit family that this album turned out to be? This album, created while Dylan sat next to me in the tiny room where it was made, with José’s ears always on it, is the closest thing I’ve had to a north star throughout these three years. Its sounds honor the tiny cadre of humans who created it, speaking to a broader heartbreak through a few key individual voices.
Of course a quartet was the right call instead of an orchestra. Strings, yes. Enough to rip your heart out and announce what the fuck you had to hear. But an intimate, wrenching accounting of it, not a shouting chorus.
I’m grateful the universe knew better than I did, but that still left the task of writing for said string quartet. Bearing of mind, of course, that I have never written for one, and had four days to do it.
I did my best. I put down the parts I had written originally. I did it at 3 am one night because it needed to be done. Got my blue light glasses on and wrote some parts so that Sam, our arranger, could have a rough idea of what I wanted and fix it into an actual arrangement.
Somehow Sam sent it back to me the morning of the session with no notes. And that is how my exact arrangement ended up what the brilliant string players played a few days ago. I feel enormous imposter syndrome about it all, but that is the truth, my love.
But I am nothing if not a poster child for said imposter syndrome (for serious! put me in the google image search!), so I apologized profusely because I still didn’t really trust that Sam wasn’t lying to me. The quartet got to work ignoring me slash absolutely murdering it, and we were done in just about one and a half hours.
They open the album, and they do it with absolute breathtaking prowess. They did it in just four takes. We ended up using the one that Vince of Flowriders Studio colored purple on ProTools.
And what a purple take it is. I’m currently in the process of writing each of them thank you notes because I have enormous difficulty expressing myself sincerely in such moments. I’ll remain forever grateful for this treasure of a photo, where all of the joy is right in there.
Man. Just like that, the album done.
And now I have three mixes. Three ways that this album is coming together. I told Bender that it feels like my favorite quote, from my favorite book, part of which is tattooed on my back and is the namesake for two of my EPS.
“Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It's never been anything but your religion. Never. I'm a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? ... I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions.' Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”
Three mixes so far. I’ve listened to them hundreds of times, they haven’t gotten old to me yet. By the time I write to you next week, there’ll be this whole album done.
Here’s its track listing for now, sent to my darling Ezgi / newest member of the Rainbow Blonde family, and now ready for your taalitalk community eyes.
Next week there’ll be a whole album, I think. Then we’ll go to the next step (mastering! we can talk that, too!). And then months and months of business things that will feel both exciting and terrifying and will make it so that when the album finally gets to your ears it is in the exact right way.
But for now let’s just celebrate together. The screen isn’t blank anymore, my fingers clacked and did the damn thing.
With the enormous help of a string quartet, a best friend, a producer, a bassist, drummer, a husband and you, I have sat down and shamelessly written the one piece of music in all the world that Talia Billig would most want to hear if she had her heart’s choice.
And holy shit my love, it feels pretty amazing. Three mixes down, ten to go.
More next week.