Adventures in Solar Powered Recording – Part 1


Overview

In September of 2012, I went on an adventure – I spent a week out in the woods with 4 of my best friends, and we tracked the debut album for our band “Willow Smoke” in a solar powered, boat-access-only cottage which we have dubbed the “Mother Pine Jam Studio” – It’s located in the middle of the woods of northern Ontario. We were “about an hour by snowshoe” from the Quebec border (using the local measurement system)

In six days, with a day on either end for setup, tear-down, and travel – we managed to not only lay down the framework drum, bass and guitar tracks for 11 songs, plus scratch vocals and a few solos, but we actually wrote and arranged most of the parts for these songs while there.

None of us really know how we did it – We went out there for a vacation, an escape from the monotony of the grind, with the intention of seeing what we could put on tape. We came out with an album in every sense of the word.

We came armed with some of our old material, a bunch of acoustic jams from various campfires of recent years, and a desire to create. All those acoustic songs ended up turning into heavy insane prog/funk rock craziness. None of the originals we have ever played live even got recorded. It was all new, and it all has a common vibe – we tribute this entirely to the venue.

Charging the Guitars

Acoustic, Electric, Sun & Trees – The Perfect Combination!

The Venue

There’s something about going out to the middle of nowhere, with no-one but your bandmates – So long as you can ensure everyone keeps their F***ING cell phones off (I don’t own one), there are zero distractions – the only distractions out there when the amps get turned off are the sounds of the birds and the fish jumping.

The guys in the band, myself included, are all Engineers. For their final year project, a couple of them decided to redesign the bass player’s family cottage to be a solar powered, off the grid retreat – where a band could plug in all their gear, and play LOUD to no one but the animals and trees.

And then they built it.

Outside of the Motherpine Studio with a literal boat-load of music gear

The venue has been running smoothly for 5 years. Only once or twice has the solar power system been drained in a given day, and very little ‘electric’ music was being made out there prior to our session. Then we came out and pushed it to it’s limits. We drained those batteries every day, and during the prime “power hours” the batteries were topped up, and our amps were literally drawing energy directly from the sun – How epic is that???

A Typical Day

The Morning Ritual

Day 1 was all travel and set up – Rage Against the Machine was our “setting-up-the studio” music, which may seem like a strange choice in such a pristine setting for some people, but not for Willow Smoke, who started out doing RATM, RHCP, Zeppelin & Floyd Covers. It definitely set the mood for the week – or at least the first song we recorded, which had tinges of all four of those bands.

We would start the rest of our days off easy – with the batteries drained from the previous night’s work, we had a few hours to kill in the morning before we could really get in the game, so we would go fishing, take a sauna, jump in the lake, and eat a hearty breakfast of eggs, meat, fish (the bass count for the week was 15), and coffee with Bailey’s. We’d jam acoustically, work on lyrics, and get ready to slay some tracks.

Once the sun was ready for us, we would head up to the studio and start putting down some tunes. We usually did one song in the morning and one in the evening. The details of this process, including the gear used, will be discussed in part two of this blog. I’m also hoping to include some audio samples in that one.

A Learning Experience

A couple of things to note if you ever record on a solar powered system:

1) If you rock hard for 12+ hours a day – you will drain the batteries.

My APC battery backup surge protector saved at least one “perfect” take from deletion every day. It seemed the power would always die sometime between 10 PM and Midnight, and always right as we had nailed that final take we’d been slaving after for hours. We’d go to play it back and boom – lights out. The APC allowed us to save the project, shut down for the night, and go work on some lyrics or whatever over a few pints.

The mighty SM57 sucking up some vibes from a Traynor Stack – and a very relaxed drummer

2) Amps sound better on Solar

Due to the fact that the power is literally “clean energy,” we have found that our amps sound better on solar. Half the time we would forget to turn amps off, because the usual “hum” of the idle amplifier just didn’t exist. There was no noise coming out of these amps, it was magic! Nothing but pure, delicious tone.

I’ve been told this is due to the fact that the power comes in as a perfect sine wave (or Pine wave as we became accustomed to calling it). Grid power alternates – up, down, up, down, up, down – its like a switch being flipped on and off countless times per second. I don’t know the details, but if you were to graph it, it would look like a bunch of spikes – not like a nice clean wave.

3) Cell Phones are Pure Evil

I’ve already gotten into this a little bit but we had a strict rule of cellphones staying off during working hours. There was one incident where someone had left their phone on and gotten a text. Said text arrived during a take, and it just happened to be THE take for that song. The culmination of the ‘morning’ sessions work.

Well wouldn’t you know it, but that burst of signal raining down on us from outer space showed up in the TRACK! We actually have a blip in the take, on every single track, when that text came in.

We’re not sure if we should edit it out – It could serve forever as a reminder to us of how cell phones, texting etc. are the bane of society.

What’s Next?

We are planning to release a single on 31/01/2013 with the album to follow sometime later in 2013 – things are sounding awesome so far!

Click here for Part 2 where I do my best to get into the nuts and bolts of the recording process.

This is by far the coolest project I’ve ever worked on, and I hope you guys/gals are diggin’ it.

Update: January 31st, 2013 – the First Single from this Session has now been digitally released – Check out both the A-side “Video Diplomacy” and B-side “Rattlesnake (The Ballad of Bill Tilden)” at the link below!!

http://willowsmoke.bandcamp.com/

Let there be ROCK!

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2 Responses to Adventures in Solar Powered Recording – Part 1

  1. Lara Ryan says:

    I am so impressed and all I want to do is brag about this to all the good people I know. You guys are inspirational. And… this kind of a listen has been missing from my life. Thanks!

  2. Ted Carter says:

    How could you not be inspired in such a virgin environment. As a burnt out 50+ rocker who has jammed in everything from leakey chicken coops to converted paint booths, I can trully be jealous. Too Cool!

    …Ted

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