Musicforce Feature (Part Two)

(This article originally appeared on Musicforce.com)

Inside the Industry: The Breaking of an Artist - Heather Miller

Part Two - The Sessions Begin

Welcome to Part Two of our series on the making of Heather Miller's sophomore KMG Records album, Send Me An Angel. In Part One, we introduced you to Frank Chimento and Brad Ford, two executives from Miller's label, who explored Miller's history with KMG and gave us some background on preparations for the recording of Miller's new disc.

Returning for Part Two are Chimento and Ford, and we'll meet Pete Stewart, one of the producers of Send Me An Angel. Pete will engage in a little "tech talk" and take you into the recording sessions.

The Production Team

Pete Stewart spent five years as guitarist, vocalist and songwriter with the acclaimed rock band Grammatrain. After that group's retirement, Pete released a solo disc in 1999, which was the fledgling effort of Breaking Productions, a team which also includes dc Talk's Michael Tait and drummer/songwriter Chad Chapin. Tait and Chapin will be more involved when Heather begins doing vocals, but it's Pete who is spearheading the initial recording sessions.

As we mentioned in Part One, Stewart and Tait were enthusiastic participants from day one. "I guess, to put it simply, we both think she's very good," says Stewart. "She's a fantastic singer, very talented. When I heard her demos, I heard something that was not only of quality, but also fairly unique to the Christian market. We felt like she could make a great record."

Much like Ford and Chimento, Stewart says he was won over by the person behind the songs. "I wish more artists were like Heather. Her music and her ministry are an expression of her lifestyle. I feel totally cool about how genuine she is. She puts a lot of herself into the songs. That's what we were attracted to in the first place."

The Castle

Tracking sessions for Send Me An Angel took place earlier this year at The Castle recording studio in Franklin, Tennessee, a Nashville suburb. The studio is in a building that's actually smaller than many of the ostentatious homes in its neighborhood. It gets its name from the stone facade, which gives it a striking resemblance to a medieval fortress. That's fitting because its previous tenants included one of gangster Al Capone's henchmen.

"Before we even started tracking, I was already thinking of things we could do with the arrangements," Stewart enthuses. "The demos we heard were almost all voice and guitar. That's the best way to listen to songs for the first time because it leaves your imagination wide open. I could hear this kind of organic rhythm section behind her through all these songs. Heather's music has a very rootsy, stripped-down rock vibe, and we wanted to capture that. So we tried to keep the recording of the rhythm section as 'live' as possible, and really let the songs breathe."

Stewart says he and engineer Reid Shippen worked out basic arrangements with the core musicians, including bassist Craig Young, drummers Greg Morrow & Jonathan Smith and keyboardist Carl Herrgesell. "I just played the demos for the band. We would listen through, and I would write out a simple chart. I don't really know the 'studio shorthand' that a lot of session players are familiar with, but we came up with something we could all follow. We didn't really need more than a few hours with each song. I usually did a scratch guitar (Ed. Note:-a guide track for the other musicians, usually erased in the final mix), and Heather did a scratch vocal. That way, they could get a feel for how the final mix would sound, how she would phrase the words, and how much of her range she would use--so the instruments wouldn't 'step on' the vocal."

Pete feels his multi-faceted resume gave him a special insight to the recording process. "I definitely understand things from a player's point of view. There are a lot of great writers that aren't necessarily accomplished musicians, so they have a hard time communicating to producers and session players how they want a song to sound. If I hear a part in my head, I usually know how to describe what I'm looking for. And being a writer helps, because, if you want to boil producing down to anything, it's serving the song. You want to do whatever it takes to make a great song better, something a listener is going to enjoy being a part of. If you understand things like too many repeats of a chorus or too many solos or too much busyness adding to listener fatigue, then you're more than halfway home.

The sessions went remarkably quickly, says Stewart, with only one snag. "Craig was playing so loud that his bass amp was bleeding through on every track. We actually tried running a cable out to the parking lot and putting the bass amp in his car. But we got too much vibration from traffic on the street. We ended up putting the amp on the second floor of the building!"

Pete's Basement

After tracking 10 songs in only three days, the recording sessions moved to Pete's Basement, a studio located in--you guessed it!--Pete's basement. Stewart's house, in an older Nashville neighborhood, is a duplex with an unfinished cinder block basement. A cold front hit Nashville about the time the overdub sessions started--and since his central furnace makes a lot of noise, a hefty propane heater provides most of the warmth.

Shippen moved in a tape machine from which to transfer the basic tracks to Pete's Ensoniq PARIS computer disk recording system. "We recorded the album on 16-track, 2-inch tape, then transferred it to my PARIS system," Pete explains. "All three projects I've done so far have been on a combination of analog and digital equipment. I really wanted to try tracking this album on 16- track, 2-inch tape. You spread fewer tracks over the same width that you would normally recorded 24 tracks, so you get a fatter, warmer sound. But we've been doing all the overdubs straight onto the PARIS. It's a real cost-effective way to do records."

Although he wasn't really set up for a full-scale tracking session, Pete felt confident he'd be able to most of the overdubbing--recording of additional instruments and voices onto the basic tracks--in his basement. "We may bring in a cellist or a few string players. We're going to do acoustic and electric guitars, a few more keyboard parts, percussion and of course, all the vocals. I'm also going to add some programmed loops on a few songs."

Keeping a Track Record

On the night I sat in on the sessions, Pete was adding acoustic guitar to a couple songs, parts that he called "subliminal. You'll know they're there, but they won't really stick out too much."

So how does one decide what works and what doesn't, when embellishing the basic tracks? "What we did as we transferred the songs to the computer was make notes on what we felt each song needed," explains Pete. "We stuck a piece of legal paper on the wall for each song with a list of what was on the track already, along with our notes as to what additional parts we wanted to add. You have to listen as you go, always keeping the whole arrangement in mind, or you'll forget about what parts will clash. It helps knowing music theory, and that if someone's playing a minor third and you're playing a major third, that's not going to sound very good."

Stewart found that out as he started to dub in a guitar part that conflicted with an existing organ solo. Discovering the error, he fixed the single bum guitar chord on the second try. "That's the beauty of doing this in my home. We don't have to be watching the clock, wondering what kind of a studio rental bill we're racking up and sweating each little mistake."

Although he hasn't been as omnipresent as some label executives tend to be during the recording process, Brad Ford has been keeping tabs on the progress of Miller's sessions and has nothing but good things to say about what he's heard so far. "Sometimes you find yourself in a situation that seems so effortless you immediately question good fortune. This record has come along pretty easily because we started with good songs. Sure, they needed a little tweaking, but not much. Then you get two respected artists who step in and want to produce. Every time I listen to each step of the process, I hear magic. I see a perfect relationship growing and budding in the making of the album. I can't see people not enjoying it."

(In our next installment, we'll talk with Heather, Pete Stewart and Michael Tait about the lead vocal sessions for Miller's sophomore album, Send Me An Angel.)

Click here to read Part Three.

-- Bruce A. Brown