No E’s, Please

Every Single One

What shall we do this weekend? I know! Let’s record organ parts. Oh, how did you know that would be my favorite thing to do?

Playing organ is an entirely different animal than playing the piano. If you think like a piano player when you’re playing organ, you will sound lame. This is a fact. Although both instruments have white and black keys arranged in the same linear fashion, their physical appearance is about the only thing they share. When recording organ in the studio, using a real leslie speaker is also important. And incorporating the drawbars is a must.

Drawbars are little rods that you pull and push, each one can be set a different length to change the sound of the organ. Don’t even get me started about drawbars. They’re a whole world unto themselves. Here’s a brief summary: (obviously I can’t help myself) Drawbars can be pulled out towards the player, this corresponds with an increase in volume. There are usually 9 drawbars on most Hammond organs. Each one produces a different tone. One will be the fundamental (the pitch of whatever keys you’re playing). The others are: an octave below the fundamental, a fourth below, an octave higher, 2 octaves higher, 3 octaves higher, a octave + fourth, an octave +fifth, and an octave + seventh higher.

Drawbars coupled with the two different keyboards on most Hammonds, in conjunction with the leslie speaker which alters the pitches via the Doppler effect create a vast, endless world of organ sounds which can be specifically tailored for each song, for each different section of a song.

So we set up the leslie and the organ in the studio and I tried to get familiar with the drawbars so I could make a whole bunch of different organ sounds. Keep in mind, I don’t own an organ or a leslie so although I knew what I wanted it to sound like, I was basically flying blind with somebody else’s equipment. But every time I record organ parts I learn more about how to do it better. And I think jeez, I should get myself a real organ.

Mike settles himself in the control room and we begin. Before every take I have to position the leslie speaker in front of the mic. Then I play, turning the leslie on/off with the foot switch while my left hand adjusts the drawbars to a different setting for each section of each song. It’s all very invigorating, keeping track of all that stuff while thinking about notes and chords and so on. Every take was easier and more comfortable until…

“Um, there’s a something really jarring in those chords, try it again?” Mike says. I do. “It’s that E. It totally sticks out, it’s way louder than the others. Can you avoid it?”

Okaaaay. Yes, I can. I think. Sometimes that happens with recording organs, particular notes are way out of whack in relation to the others and you can hear it instantly on playback. Playing it live, probably no one would notice. Except Mike.

I added “avoid the E above middle C” to my mental list of things to keep track of while playing and we recommenced. Soon I was feeling comfortable again, although I had no brainpower left for conversing or assessing the quality of each take. But that’s why you have a producer, right? He’s more than happy to say “Do it again. Nope. Do it again”. So, every single take for me was like a mumbling crazy conversation you might hear from someone on the bus you’d rather sit far away from.

“Ok, set the leslie to mic. White 8, brown 5, brown4, white3, white2, white,5, black2, black4, black6. (drawbars) Foot on leslie switch. C, Am, Em no E’s. Turn leslie on. Turn leslie off. Bridge! White 8, brown3, brown2, leave white, change blacks 4, 4, 8. Leslie on. C, Am no E’s, leslie off.”

Beam me up, Scotty.

After 6 hours of this, we had all the parts recorded. I’m actually a little afraid of the editing session that will have to follow. What if a rebellious E snuck in there and we have to go back and do it all again? The organ sounds fantastic though, and those drawbars and the leslie are always worth the struggle. Hopefully all my burned out brain cells will grow back too.