Creating The Triptych
"Scream and shout it out..."
In Summer 2020, while demoing a vocal part that we hope, on hearing it, will blow your minds, Hannah blew her voice.
With the recording sessions for the most technically demanding music she’d ever performed in her life just a few weeks away, some serious retraining was in order. And so, let’s fast forward through a month of vocal exercises, new singing techniques, honey tea, throat sweets, and Hannah sitting with a towel over her head while inhaling steam from a bowl, to September 12th 2020…
On all our previous releases, vocal recordings have taken place in the Lewis family home (‘Humber Studios’), with Pete sitting quietly in the corner recording each of Hannah’s vocal takes onto his laptop. In a stroke of good fortune, as Pete lives alone, we were able to continue this approach on The Wayfarer Triptych by taking advantage of the recently introduced ‘support bubble’ system which allowed us to be in the same room as each other for the first time in almost 6 months.
Having rearranged all the furniture in Hannah’s bedroom to maximise working space, we set about creating a makeshift vocal booth using the corner of the room, an open wardrobe door with a blanket hanging from it, a couple of Pete’s homemade acoustic panels, and Hannah’s home recording set-up - a Rode NT1A condenser microphone with pop shield, shock mount and reflection filter. It looked almost as ridiculous as The Mothership’s ‘guitar fort’ but, more importantly, worked just as well.
The following day, Pete returned to find Hannah in very high spirits as she’d become an auntie just 2 hours before. And so, with Cool Aunt Han spurred on by the arrival of her new niece, the vocal recordings began.
Wait, hang on…what about that lost voice? Well, here goes: click, click, click, click…
I hear the sound of the earth falling
Dying smoke leaves burning embers
Collapsing stone shattered upon me
I lie trapped, I’m all alone - blinded by darkness
The voice was back! And though the fear of it going again at any moment remained in the back of her mind throughout the entire recording process, Hannah knew that if her technique was flawless and her luck was good she might just be ok.
The Wayfarer Triptych has a lot of singing on it, with the lyrics contained within its 9 tracks far exceeding the word count of all our previous releases put together. Aside from the main vocal parts, there were also stacks of harmonies, wordless vocal solos, background layering, and choir parts that needed to be recorded. Oh and some altogether stranger things which we’ll get to in a bit…
Hannah’s vocal range on Wayfarer.. exceeds 3 octaves, spanning from D#3 up to an E6. For some context, in choral writing a passage around D#3 would be deemed too low for an alto and given to a male tenor instead; an E6 is beyond the upper limit found in most standard operatic repertoire for a soprano, heading into coloratura territory (Sarah Brightman sings an E6 at the end of The Phantom of the Opera.) Singing at such extremes of range requires a lot of relaxation in the jaw, soft palate and back of the throat, (along with the rest of the body, particularly the shoulders) as tension could result in the note being forced out and potentially damaging the voice. With really high notes, opening the mouth more (almost to the point of smiling) and lifting the soft palate gives more space in the throat allowing for a strong and resonant sound. These were techniques Hannah had been practicing following the lost voice incident, and worked wonders with delivering the various vocal acrobatics on Wayfarer… in a healthy and effective fashion.
The Wayfarer Triptych is, of course, a concept album, narrated almost entirely from the perspective of one girl. With this in mind, much of the recording sessions found Hannah ‘in character’, acting out her parts as if she was experiencing everything the girl sees and feels as the album narrative progresses. Thus, it not only required a larger vocal range than before, but also a greater dynamic and emotional range within the same performance to fully convey the dramatic twists and turns of the storyline - it was no longer good enough to just hit the right notes. Deviating from almost all of the rest of the album, Serenity and Chaos is vocally largely from the perspective of 3 beings whom the girl meets on her journey. To achieve this effect, Hannah adjusted her vocal tone for each of these characters: one breathier, one harsher/bassier, one more normalised but with very precise diction. We’ll look a little about how this effect was furthered in next week's investigation of the mixing process.
It’d be remiss of us to discuss vocal recording on The Wayfarer Triptych without mentioning the amount of choral sections dotted throughout various tracks. With no budget to hire an actual choir, Hannah had to record, in total, 230 different voices herself to achieve the desired effect. Each take was done standing about a metre from the microphone, to replicate the sort of mic placement that might be used to capture an actual choir. Most of these sections were left for the last couple of vocal sessions (in early October) which turned out to be a wise decision as, having tracked take number 230, Hannah’s voice finally gave up.
But there was just one thing left to do….a terrified, blood-curdling scream.
Yes, not very ‘choir girl’ is it? But, as we mentioned, some very strange things got recorded for The Wayfarer Triptych. After 3 years, Pete’s metalhead ways had finally corrupted Hannah and her classical training to the extent that she spent one evening screaming, growling, gurgling, babbling, hissing, screeching, and generally making noises into a microphone. Why? Well you’ll find out on October 1st when a certain tempest is conjured…
But for now, we’ll let Hannah rest her voice, and indulge in copious amounts of cheese, chocolate and cider (all of which she’d been avoiding for months in the name of a healthy voice), as we head back to The Mothership for the final stage of any Across The Sea recording: soundscapes and effects.
Though all standard (in Across The Sea terms…) pedal effects (organ-like sustained chords, shimmery reverb effects, simple drones etc) had been tracked as part of the regular guitar recording in August-September, the more experimental noises and textures were to be added once everything else, vocals included, was in place. This process took a couple of days and, in comparison to the intensity of the rest of the recording sessions, was actually very relaxing, involving Pete sitting on the floor with his pedalboard, essentially recording hours of improvised ambient music. These recordings were then sifted through during mixing to build the various soundscapes and textural layers throughout the album so, again, more on that next week.
Over this 48 hour period, Pete also recorded his own set of strange noises, which involved dragging a knife up the guitar strings, banging on the body of the guitar, ebow improvisations, pick scrapes, string scratching, and, at one point, recording a guitar through a delay pedal while chopping all the strings off at once…it’ll all make sense on October 1st we promise you.
There is one final part of recording The Wayfarer Triptych that we’ve yet to mention, but we’ll get to that next week. But for now, the album recording was complete, and it was time for Pete to disappear into his mixing bunker - a disappearance which would turn out to be far more long-term than either of us anticipated…