Aztec Hearts Recording Update: Saved By The Volumizer

Aztec Pics and Video 035This week’s update might be somewhat shorter than previous entries, mainly because I’ve been spending a lot more time working on the record than sitting in front of a computer. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing this; it’s just a matter of time and a lack thereof. But anyway, things are cookin’ and I’m super excited. This brings me to a section of a conversation I recently had with Rajah Cheech Beldone; but first, a detour.

Among all the songs I (we) ever wrote, records we made, shows we played, I consider about four of those to be personal landmark artistic achievements. The first was a record we made as Brain Kiss in 1992 called Ride In Style, which never got released and the masters are sitting in a box, however, it did play a crucial part in getting us to New York for several shows during the CMJ Music Festival, which at the time was what SXSW is today, and would have been a landmark if we hadn’t dropped the ball. It was a fun trip, for sure, but we didn’t get the record deal and it was only a matter of time before that band imploded. In a way, New York made that crystal clear.

L to R: Matthew Tucker, Christian Adams, Ron Kwasman, Randy Edman
L to R: Matthew Tucker, Christian Adams, Ron Kwasman, Randy Edman

Anyway, Ride In Style was an achievement because it was the first record we made by ourselves. It was recorded by Dave Matz in Mike Daly’s basement on a ¼” 8-track machine. Though the sound quality was inferior to what we’d done previously and would go on to do, the quality of the songs and musicianship was amazingly tight. This was a band that had now been together for roughly three years, playing every chance we got, and I can be secure in saying that Brain Kiss was not a group to be trifled with. Like every band I’ve ever been in, we brought the ROCK every single time we played. No half-assing. We were practice monkeys. In the end, if we had any money we’d have put the record out ourselves, too. But we didn’t. C’est la vie.

Whiteycover1The second landmark achievement would be Whitey’s debut record on Crank Records, How You Do, which was recorded in November 1994 with Brian Deck at Idful Music in Chicago, and released in Summer 1995. As a trio, Ronnie, Matt and I had really come together. This was a time when there was a little bit of a buzz going around about us, thanks in no small part to Brian Deck, who took us under his wing back in ’92. How You Do was made in the most professional manner we had experienced so far. We had pre-production meetings. We had production meetings. We had four straight days of Idful all to ourselves for tracking. Plus, the weather was unseasonably warm for that time of year. I was walking around barefoot (which for some reason I was really into in those days). The cherry on top was that we we’re lucky enough to get guitar legend Bill Dolan to play on two songs, which then led to him jamming with us, and then forming a side band, and a friendship that endures to this day.

The Portable Thruster and Hyperspace Companion Kit (1999)
The Portable Thruster and Hyperspace Companion Kit (1999)

The third crowning personal achievement was writing, recording, and basically living Golden Tones’ The Portable Thruster and the Hyperspace Companion Kit. While I’d really want to talk more about it, I’ve got an entirely separate piece coming up; in the meantime you can read about the record by clicking on the link. Moving along. Unfortunately, we are going to skip over Henry Miller Sextet, not because we didn’t do anything that was something I personally value; au contraire. It’s that the entire existence of HMS goes beyond the improbable to That Really Shouldn’t Have Happened. Every thing that band ever did, from just getting that first gig at Bottom of the Hill to our mini-tours of the West Coast, was beyond my imagination. It was truly a special time.

Dying For You To Hear This (2006)
Dying For You To Hear This (2006)

However, all good things must end and as HMS began to wind down, I decided to kick this Aztec Hearts thing into gear. The result was my fourth landmark accomplishment: the debut album, Dying For You To Hear This, which I made in 2006. Having played in bands for the previous 20 freakin’ years, Dying was my first attempt at making a so-called solo record, and was tracked in very much the same way this new record is being made. And it’s actually one of three records from my past that I’ve allowed into heavy rotation on my personal iTunes. My son Henry likes to shake his ass to it, and that right there is worthy of an achievement. In fact, that’s how I will gauge all future endeavors. If Henry likes it, then I’ve done good. Having said that, there is one “original” fan of that record, a now five-year-old girl named Sage; the daughter of my dear dear friend Chris Ann Kassl.

Chris Ann was always supportive of my music and so when I finished Dying, I sent her a copy. Several years went by and then she sent a series of messages, which are condensed here:

When Sage was a wee babe and I would have to drive the car to get her to sleep, I would play your CD often. Well, her favorite song is #3 “Fat Ass”. It is my favorite, but I know I did not tell her that. Also, now she specifically asks for that song!!! It’s crazy!! She is three years old and this is her first favorite song! I love it! And I love the song and CD! It’s so cute although I listen to the song about 10 times every car ride!
Oh, and you will crack up…Sage now sings “the song” she knows a lot of the words, I’m telling you, it’s kind of freaking me out! OH!! I have tried to capture her glazed over look when it’s on, but she keeps catching me and changing the look…! LOL!! SHE is a smart cookie! I will keep trying…in the midtrum (my own word) I have intro’d her to two other songs just because I was afraid I would wear a hole in the CD of songs #3 and #4. She loves that one, too…SO NOW, LOL!! She calls “the song” her “ORIGINAL SONG” LOL, this kid is funny…Sage wants to thank you for “the song”….

So what’s all this build up to the conversation with Rajah C. Beldone? Well, we were talking about this record, The Inner Distance, because he’s going to be involved, and at the time, I was really anxious about some of the technical maneuvers I had to pull off in order to make it happen. We were jawbonin’ and I said, “The reason I’m so amped is that if I can pull this shit off, with all the different people contributing and all the back and forth, this record is going to be right up there will the handful of landmark achievements in my life.”

Those of you who’ve been following will recall from the last post that I used the Internet to solve my bass issues, in the process of which, I met Stu Morrow, who is the creator of Strat DIY (And Other Guitar Projects), and close personal friend of Rajah Cheech Beldone. Upon learning the nature of this project, Stu offered to let me borrow a couple of effect pedals, one of which he designed and built, The Volumizer.

Aztec Pics and Video 039
No Name Pedal, courtesy of Stu Morrow

Because I am running the bass direct into the 8-track, I was having a hell of a time getting it to sound, well, like a bass. That’s one of the inherent issues with going direct, especially on one of these standalone, all-in-one units. Sure, they have all sorts of presets designed to give you options, for instance, amp and speaker modeling. Having used them in the past, I have stretched their limitations to the fullest, and still haven’t found a sound I like.

For the previous two records, I had the luxury of being able to run the bass through Chris Lanier’s Ampeg SVT and mic it up. I don’t have that luxury this time around. Plus, I was seriously concerned that I might actually damage the machine by running a hot-wired active pick-up straight in. There are all kinds of potential electrical issues that may or may not arise. Anyway, so I asked Stu if he had any suggestions and he offered to lend me a Behringer Direct Input Box, The Volumizer, and a funky-cool No Name box that Stu described as being sort of a hybrid-Rat distortion pedal that could be dialed down to give the bottom end some beef.

Aztec Pics and Video 035
This pedal is THE BOMB, made by Stu Morrow

The DI didn’t work at all. It either drove the signal too hard or too soft. Then I plugged in the Volumizer and Shazam! Instant bass-ness. I don’t know enough about the tech angle to describe what the Volumizer does, even though Stu explained it to me in fairly straight-forward detail. The only thing I know is: if I owned one of these fuckers, it would be used on EVERYTHING. The difference it made was mind-blowing. Anyway, the No Name pedal turned out to be exactly what Stu said it was, and I used it to get a super-cool distorto-fuzz bass tone that I used on “Ain’t No Man of the World”, and basically makes the track.

So now, the bass is done. I may go back and redo the tracks I did BEFORE I got my paws on the Volumizer. In fact, that’s what I’ll do tonight. Otherwise, we’re moving on to the really exciting phase. Due in no small part to the gracious generosity of some really talented people, in just a few days I will be able to announce the new members of this collective called Aztec Hearts. I’m so excited I can hardly sleep!


1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the shout out. I can’t really claim much originality regarding the Volumizer, btw. It is basically a clone of an MXR Microamp. I took the circuit diagram and redrew it so it would work on Veroboard, then built it from there. I may have had to change a couple of components just through lack of local availability too. Anyway, it ended up sounding pretty nice. I’ve never tried an original MXR Microamp, so can’t compare the two, but I’d imagine they sound pretty similar.

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