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Late Night Funeral Home Recording with My Friend Autumn
photos by Dodi Strunk
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Band Name: My Friend Autumn (Matt Cummins)
Recording Studios: Shalkop, Grace and Strunk Funeral Home, Spring City, PA (also recorded in a Victorian beach house dubbed “Big Water,” Cape May, NJ; drums tracked at a friends’ vacant house dubbed “The Bunker,” Hyattsville, MD; and Matt Cummins’ home project studio dubbed “Anthology Recorders,” Phoenixville, PA)
Record Label: Self-released
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Production Credits: Produced by Matt Cummins, Engineered by Chris Kudela, Mastered by Ham Stanley
What was your pre-production like on this project?
Pre-production was spread out over the course of three years or so, as songs were written. No demos, just a lot of writing and rewriting. The collection did not start as an album, but songs were written that fit a specific mood and the album began to solidify. Starting with my father, nine people of personal significance died in succession, and the songs became a way to remember such a turbulent time and eventually help put it behind me: a catharsis. Other than planning out recording set-ups, no real preproduction took place.
Why did you choose to record partly in a funeral home?
I wanted to see how physical setting can affect finished, recorded results. I knew I needed time to deliberate over the songs and to tinker, so a conventional recording studio was out. My brother-in-law is a funeral director, and kindly allowed us to use his funeral home to track. Coordinating with Chris [Kudela, engineer] put us there on Halloween night 2009 and it just so happened it was the night Daylight Saving Time ended. We were there working out takes, late night, getting a bonus hour. It was kind of like time travel. The setting was too good to pass up.
What kind of sound were you looking for and how did you achieve it?
Somber and reflective, yet somehow hopeful. We achieved this by letting the songs guide us as to what location gave the best feel, which is how we ended up recording in a funeral home. One of the songs recorded there (“Field Manual”) has a second version that I really tried hard to make work, but failed. It was recorded at a beach house, off-season. Built on top of a slowed drum sample (“Cancer For the Cure,” by Eels) with many layers of vocal harmonies on top of a Farfisa bass line, it sounded like the mutant Beach Boys of Death! The album version is stripped down and forthright…which is much more faithful to the song.
Did you use any special gear or recording techniques on this one?
I would not say special, but I would say “primitive” in studio terms, as to not offend the true defenders of the craft. We used a three-mic “live” set up: an Audio-Technica 2020 on the vocals (with a pop-filter); a Shure SM58 with the windscreen removed, pointed at a 45 degree angle at the saddle of the guitar; and a Nady SP7 pointed at the 12th fret of the guitar. We recorded into Logic Express 7 by way of a MOTU 828mkII, using a Behringer mixer as a preamp for the guitar mics. Each was hard panned in a separate direction, and some light post-production work was done to vary the sound of the guitar for certain sections of songs. Nothing too high end or techie, we like to call it “middle fidelity.”
Interesting note: on a whim I emailed Doug Williams at Electromagnetic Radiation Recorders for some advice based off photographs of his recording sessions for The Avett Brothers Gleam EP series. Not only did he email me back in under an hour, we exchanged a series of emails throughout the day that served as a crash course in avoiding phase issues. It was completely selfless and generous, and his kindness was deeply appreciated. I was hoping to have him master the album, but he does not offer such services. I hope to use the services he does offer for future projects.
What was your philosophy on live, full-band takes versus individual tracking?
I like to track individually to have more control over the finished product, but only if it serves the song. In the context of the funeral home takes, I was less interested in perfection than I was capturing the heart of the song, so most everything was done live. Two of the non-funeral home-recorded songs on the album were recorded to drum samples amalgamated from Bob Dylan, Beatles, Eels, Elbow and Maritime tracks, but were replaced or deleted once it became apparent the songs might not only be for personal use.
Any special guests?
After the funeral home sessions, we overdubbed my wife – Anne DeMutis Cummins – singing harmony, but that is only because the more I played it while sitting around, the song grew to need that harmony. It was not recorded with that intent, and the other track that made the album from the funeral home sessions was truly recorded live, no overdubs. On the album, Jim Greif plays most of the drums and percussion, Steve Leibrand plays drums on a track, and J. Tom Hnatow from These United States plays pedal steel and slide guitar on another.
What did you try to accomplish in the studio that you’re not able to do live?
I wanted to create an album that could work in either context: full band or solo acoustic. The only constraints we have are geographical, as all of the players live in different places, and some, in the case of Tom, keep a full touring schedule. There’s some Mellotron and organ that I do not ever expect to replicate live, though. The songs might actually be more effective in a solo acoustic setting, but I wanted the record to be more than a performer and a guitar, if possible. Still, I had to fight my tendency to overdub in order to let the songs breathe.
What were the toughest challenges you faced?
Mixing was the biggest challenge of the project, for the more full-band tracks. It was hard to keep the finished mixes from peaking. I have learned that I need to either farm out this work, or start setting my levels from the ground up once mixing commences. Many of these tracks were mixed and recorded simultaneously.
Any funny stories from the session that you’ll be telling for a while?
Being one of two people in a funeral home at 2 a.m. on Halloween night, it can feel a little ominous. We recorded in a room adjacent to the main parlor, which was unusable due to a dance party happening in the garage next door, and the bass was bleeding through. This added some levity, as between takes we’d do little dumb dance moves. I also decided not to tell Chris there was a “client” in the prep room, which was downstairs. Not everyone can be expected to be comfortable in that context!
How did you handle final mixing and mastering?
All mixing and “mastering” was done at home, again, in a primitive manner. With a combination of fumbling around in the dark and tweaking, we arrived at a finished product. Again, the point wasn’t so much perfection as it was a constructive outlet.
How does it compare to your last release in terms of style and the creative process?
The last release, Summer Music For Winter People, was 75% recorded and mixed at Inner Ear in Arlington, VA and was written when My Friend Autumn were much more of a functional band. The songs were written for a louder, live context whereas Vespers was written as a somewhat stripped-down, personal companion. It wasn’t until I realized that the material might be helpful for someone else going through the same thing that I was going through, that I decided to collect and release it. Though everyone in the band had a hand in the new record’s creation, with such personal content, we agreed to release it as a solo album. In turn, I have been helping Chris work on his project: Cottaret.
What are your release plans?
I am pressing 100 copies and posting the tracks on bandcamp.com.