The Making Of Records

Dave Keir

Dave Keir - \"Dave Keir\" album sleeve, c. 1976

When, in 1972, I moved from Scotland to London I was able to develop my performing chops doing spots and, after a while, getting paid gigs at folk clubs in and around the city. My favourite place was a folk club hosted every Sunday in the upstairs function room of a pub in Twickenham in south-west London called the Cabbage Patch. It was here, in 1976, I was approached by a gentleman who had been leaning on the bar listening to my set. He introduced himself as Theo Johnson and said he owned a small record label and offered to record my songs.

The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

I remember nothing at all about the recordings sessions; only that some time after Theo presented me with about a hundred or so copies of the LP for me to sell at gigs. I don’t even recall in what retail outlets the record was available, if at all. I do remember the pride of being able to sell my record at gigs in the UK and, increasingly, in Europe, especially in the towns and villages in throughout Belgium and Germany.

Theo Johnson c.1970

The music on the record are a mixture of the songs I was writing and performing since the beginning of the ’70s and some Scottish fiddle tunes which I had arranged for guitar. These tunes had come out of my infatuation with the guitar playing of Stefan Grossman and with the guitar tutors he published. One of his books contained his arrangements of traditional American tunes which were fun to learn to play, so, in copy-cat mode I attempted a similar process with Scottish tunes I picked from little books called Kerr’s Collection of Merry Melodies. I used these arrangements at gigs as interludes between my songs to lighten the mood.

After not too long almost all of the copies that were pressed were sold. There was only a few left which I kept as mementos of my first recording project. At least that was until Seelie Court Records approached me with a view to re-releasing it. They remastered the album from one of the copies I had of the original pressing and released it as a CD in 2022 and then as a vinyl reissue in 2023.

I Can See Dover

In 1979/80 I was approached by a couple of guys (Robert Golding and Colin McLeish) when I was playing a gig in Herne Hill in south London. As I recall they explained that their day jobs were recording engineers at Chappell Studios in central London but had also formed a joint venture (Clondyke Music) seeking out acts to record and promote to record labels. They expressed an interest in doing this for me and consequently I did a couple of sessions which they later overdubbed with bass, drums, keyboard, electric guitar and even backing singers. The resulting two songs were pitched by them to a few labels but I presume little or no interest was forthcoming and the project fizzled out.

Recording at Chappell Studios, London

Around the same time I had become friendly with the members of The Mighty Honky Band whose path I had crossed at venues in London. We occasionally shared the stage sitting in on each others songs. When, in ’81, I decided to make and self-release my second album, members of the band – Mandy Carlton (vocals) and Stuart Hall (guitar and mandolin) – agreed to help with backing on a few of the songs. These recording sessions were filmed and and the videos are included below. In addition, Robert and Colin (Clondyke Music) kindly gave their permission for me to include the recordings from their sessions on the record. So these, plus some solo tracks, became the content of the album. A real mixture and unique in that it’s not only me and a guitar.

Interim Reports

At the end of the day, “Interim Reports” is a collection of songs; some old – and some older. Just for interest, and because I make a note of these things, here’s the chronology of their composition: Red John (1987); The Spaniard (1986); Blah Blah Blues (1997); Entropy (1993); Apropos Of A Working Day (1991); The Tumbler (1988); A Little Bit Of Fun (1977); Mademoiselle (1991); Everybody’s Somebody (1997); The Pretender (1989); Go Down (2004).

There is a span of over 25 years from the oldest to the most recent. I didn’t realise this until I looked the chronology up for the purpose of writing this. Nevertheless, the collection is not any kind of intended retrospective. The songs on Interim Reports are simply those that were in a state of readiness for “publication” when I was ready to commit to the production of the CD. The CD title is deliberate and, as I wrote in the booklet, “there will be further reports”.

That said, the recording and pre-production of the CD was a pretty inefficient process due to my novice-like approach to the technical aspects of the whole thing. A one-man singer-songwriter, recording engineer / producer, graphic artist and record label CEO all wrapped up in the notion of being an “independent” artist is a fantastic concept – but there were areas that I had to learn about from the ground up.

Recording started in February 2005 (judging by the timestamps on the earliest audio files I have) but it was not until late 2005 when the content of the record was starting to take shape. I guess I had always known that I wanted Red John, Everybody’s Somebody and maybe a couple of others to be on this first CD, but there were many, many other candidates floating around. I had, I suppose, about twenty, or more, songs in various stages of recording and at rough mix stage in early 2006. There were some 80 others that were previously unreleased and that I had not even started to record. Some of these recordings were pretty awful, it has to be said, and some were, well, marginal. In one sense, the songs that finished up on the record chose themselves in large part simply by way of their sonic quality when recorded and mixed at that time.

In the spring of 2006, once a dozen or so songs were fit for purpose, I felt I was ready to put a timeline on the CD. I was already in contact with a mastering house in Cambridge, England, who (bless them) called me regularly looking to book a date for the mastering. That was still a bit premature but it was another nudge to focus on getting the recordings right.

Well, I guess that was the part that gave me most trouble. I now had the songs and I had them recorded. All that was left was to apply a little bit of EQ and a splash of reverb and they would be good to go. Yeah, right. I burned a disproportionate number of CDRs, auditioning them in all the players and systems at my disposal in an effort to get the “mixes” to “translate” as widely as possible. I tried MP3 players, too, but after a couple of months, I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. In reality, deep down, I knew my problem lay in the fact that the songs were recorded and mixed in the same room. A room that was untreated acoustically. Now, it was not a bad room – in fact I consider it was a good room – but like all rooms it had its resonant modes and it was fast becoming clear that it would be just not possible to get things right unless I did something about it.

In May 2006, I installed some quick and dirty acoustic treatment in the form of triangular chunks of mineral wool, stacked floor to ceiling, in each corner of the room. This took all of half-a-day to achieve. I wish I had done it at the outset. The results were like night and day. Suddenly I could hear what was going on and make proper judgments about the sound without futile attempts at compensating for the room’s modes. You can read about the studio and the work I carried out here. Very quickly, and with revived enthusiasm for the task, I remixed the songs and was quickly able to bring this part of the work to a close.

I had contemplated the artwork for the CD and text for the booklet from time to time and had concluded that this all was going to be an in-house effort. Only a couple of days spent with my favourite graphics program, some photographs I had taken in the hills, and I had something that I liked. (That’s the complete panoramic image at the top of this page from which the booklet artwork was prepared.)

Finally, in July, I somewhat nervously brought my songs to Sound Recording Technology, not really knowing what to expect or what reaction the output from my humble studio would receive. The mastering engineer, saying nothing at the outset, made some EQ adjustments which were like drawing a veil away from the music. I was duly impressed and the engineer was pleased, too. Four hours later it was all done and dusted and I was handed a CDR to audition at my leisure. I was content. There were no changes to make. All that remained was for the artwork to be submitted, proofs to be approved, and money to be handed over.

“Interim Reports” was released on the 31st August 2006, and although there was no big release party or anything of that kind, a milestone had been met. I had enjoyed the whole process, despite some of its frustrations, and I was deeply glad to let the songs go into the big wide world, at last. Its sales are not so numerous that each is not a little bit special to me and it’s a fantastic thrill when a customer says or writes kindly about the songs, the performances, or the recordings. “Interim Reports” has made something real and tangible. To me, the making of the CD represents an authentication, and its sales a validation, of my songs. Just as importantly, it provides enfranchisement to proceed with the next.

Uneasy Listening

Dave Keir - Uneasy Listening

Songwriting had become a habit ever since I squirreled myself away in my bedroom as a child in the ’60s and it was inevitable that I would build up a store of songs irrespective of whether I was touring and performing, or not. Part of me considers Interim Reports, Uneasy Listening and Good Grief (see below) as a “triptych” containing a lot of the songs that turned up since the recording of I Can See Dover. That’s a lot of time. And a lot of life and experience.

I recorded the songs for Uneasy Listening in the same space as Interim Reports. This time I sent the finished recordings to Airshow Mastering in Colorado and finally released the CD in 2008.

The CD contains 15 songs variously reflecting on (as the accompanying booklet describes) “the Highland Clearances in Scotland in the 18th century, insomnia and the consequent imaginary enumeration of sheep, an aspiration to a moonlit elopement, deeds of impish devilry, dazzling daylight and Dionysian revels, husbandry and parenthood, lovers won, lost, aborted, discarded and remembered, gods invented of merely imagined, and the mantras of self-help gurus.”

Good Grief!

First, the credits!

Recorded: Bridge Of Canny
Edited and Mixed: Durris and Balerno
Mastered by Matt Azevedo at SoundMirror
Photographs by John Need
Design by Neil Warden
Produced by Dave Keir

Good Grief!, like the other CDs, was a lot longer in the making than I imagined before setting off. With about 20 candidates for the album recorded during 2009/10 I took an unhealthy amount of time auditioning them in the car, on mp3 players, on boom-boxes, through my hi-fi… wherever… But I got there in early 2011 and then spent the next months sorting the order, arranging the mastering and getting the photos and design done. Well, well… this is what it means to be an independent musician – and how I love it! Manufacturing is easy – just send it all off and await a truckload of CDs to arrive on the doorstep. There is a frisson of fear as you tear off the shrink-wrap and audition it in the desperate hope that no errors have been replicated 1000 times. Good Grief! was released on the 7th July 2012. That’s over 3 years in the making. For a CD containing 12 songs of one man playing acoustic guitar and singing. I hope you like it!

From the booklet: “Fast slow fast slow. As far as ordering songs on my records, I can’t get over the habit. I thought I’d try and avoid it this time around. But here I go again…

Why “Good Grief!”? Well, I claim that there’s at least a measure or two of exasperation in each of the songs herein. Can you hear it? Catharsis!

The tunes. The damn’ tunes! I’ve lived with them and rinsed them repeatedly. Some are hot-off-the guitar and some are as old as my hills. Blues influences and modal forms elbow each other. That can cause accidents and evidence of this provided.

The lyrics. A blurting out at a tempo to fit a melodic and harmonic arch. Some verses are cock-a-hoop and others are downcast and trodden but this is of the essence and per the recipe. I hope they are self-explanatory and are not in need of laying out in tiny type in this booklet. Where they puzzle, be assured that I share your bewilderment.

Fast slow fast slow fast. Slow. Finally and at the end there’s a slow slow. What the heck.
I hope you enjoy listening to all of these as much I enjoyed whipping them into shape.”


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