I have now recorded a singer-songwriter Texas man from behind prison walls via telephone a 1000 miles away and put a band behind him. With a total of about 378 edits on the singer’s vocal, I believe this to be a first ever to do such a recording due to all the complications involved, and not being allowed to take a recorder into a prison. I guess I am known for my off the wall experiments with recording, but nothing ever like using a telephone for a microphone to record a voice. Presently, I am recording all the parts of the Hallelujah Chorus, soprano, alto, tenor and bass 175 voices, and will be mixing them to a “chorus of one.” I’ve been waiting for about nine months for an answer from Guinness world Records. I truly believe that is quite a feat. I didn’t pay them hundreds for a so-called fast-tracking, whereas they give you a quick answer within days. In their last email they wanted to know how many records I would guarantee to be sold. What? Someone please tell me what that has to do with establishing the record of the most overdubbed voices by one person on a recording. Also, I need to know what record company anywhere will guarantee any sales on a record. I’ll keep you posted and will do my next post on that.
A fellow contacted me from behind bars in Texas a year or so ago and wanted me to record myself singing and recording his song, Devoted Man in honor of his dad, who was quickly fading with Alzheimer’s Disease. There wasn’t a lot of time left for him and he felt that if his dad had a CD of the song he could hear it over and over while he still had his memory.
Ronny Hullum’s dad was his hero and he really expressed it in the words of the song. I got the bright idea to why not have Ronny sing it over the phone instead of me singing it and I would put a band behind him. Although an extreme impossibility to have any kind of decent sound on a phone, and even more impossible to add a band to it, I decided that it might be worth a try.
Of course, recording machines are not allowed in prisons, so the phone would be the only way. I decided that if I could make this work it would be something to really be proud of and to tell my grandchildren. But mostly, it would be a very, very special event in the life of a man fading with Alzheimer’s and his son singing to him from behind bars with a band yet.
Ronny’s opening line of his song went, “My daddy’s name is Pistol, so I reckon I’m a son-of-a-gun.” He relives some growing up memories and underlines that he “fought to keep our country free.” Ronny had high hopes for parole within six years but it would be too late for his dad to hear him sing it in person if he did get out, since he was suffering all the effects of the disease.
We set up a time for Ronny to call me and I would have the equipment up and ready to record him. Our biggest fear was for a guard to question what we were doing and shut us down. I had Ronny sing as close as possible to the phone and across the phone microphone to eliminate heavy breathing, which was coming through very loud. Also, it wouldn’t attract too much attention.
I must say that the sound from that particular phone was one of the worst I had ever heard.
We established the right key and the tempo for the song and proceeded. Ronny ran it down a couple times to get rid of his nervousness. I had him slap a beat on his leg in order to try to keep as close as possible to a final beat. The phone time was limited to fifteen minutes and a recording comes on to remind you that you have another minute. She ruined one take. It was my shortest record session ever, inasmuch as it sometimes takes hours to properly record a vocal, with the proper conditions, and in a studio yet, with all the great microphones and necessary equipment at your fingertips.
We did it and I now had a not so great voice track from 1000 miles away sung on the crappiest of phones to my hard drive on my computer. But now, the real work and the biggest challenge began. I listened and analyzed and realized that I really had my work cut out for me. I kept asking myself if this was going to work or not, because the odds were certainly against me. It would never work at all with using tape. I set up a drum track approximating close to Ronny’s tempo. Inasmuch as a set tempo would never be in sync for more than a few beats, I worked meticulously with exactly 165 single edits, and was able to edit each word to take out background noise and arrange words and phrases to bring Ronny into perfect tempo with the drums for the entire song. It was so very much in sync with the drums that it sounded like he was actually singing with the drums. Those edits also enabled me to remove much of the background noises.
It is well known that telephone microphones are the worst, and the sound is very lacking inasmuch as there is no high nor low end frequencies. So, I equalized the voice heavily and set up a microphone and did the more unheard of impossible task of adding the missing sibilance sounds to his voice, mostly cut off by the lousy phone reception. I whispered or spoke the missing s, b, c, d, ch, p, t, etc. sounds on a track, edited out all but those sounds to a track lined up with the vocal, and synced them to Ronny’s voice with another 213 edits. Next, I brought certain of Ronny’s words into perfect pitch with the established the key I would play in, and formed an arrangement with verses, chorus, and instrumental solo and decided on a modulation up a half tone in pitch. Next, I played a bass part, three guitars, and did piano, and organ with my keyboard. Although all my audio and video recording and editing was then done on the Vegas Pro recording and editing program which easily handled these problems, I now swear by Apple’s new Logic Pro X. I truly believe it gives ProTools a run for the money.
To smooth out Ronny’s voice I ran it through my treasured classic LA3A limiter and speeded it up slightly. I then got Texas Western Swing Hall-of-fame fiddler Bill Dessens in Houston to call in and add lead and fills, also by phone.
Next was mixing and a bunch more hours with 34 total tracks, which was as difficult as any mix I had ever done. Listening to the final mix, although it may not be the best microphone, it is not so bad and really does at least show the talents of Ronny Hullum’s traditional down home country singing and songwriting from behind bars. But I’ll have to wait six more years to get Ronny into a studio, that is if he makes parole.
I heard from Ronny’s brother soon after I sent him the CD that his father was overwhelmed when he heard Ronny singing the song. At least Ronny’s brother provided some compensation for my many hours of work and dedication. I got this short letter from Ronny recently that really encouraged me to share the story with my readers and I have included the letter here. He began calling me Uncle Don. The letter tells it like it is. His dad is much worse, and Ronny writes that “I know I will never see him or talk to him again, but we had our chances to say all that needed to be said, pretty much.”
I’ve started my Emixing service for worldwide mixing of tracks to multi-platinum sound, which will be right here at this site very soon. I just completed mixing Prahlad’s forty tracks out of Australia to a great rocking single, and reminiscing about Ronny Hullum gave me the idea to get the word out to people in prison that I can do for them what I did for Ronny. There must be hundreds of singer-songwriters in prisons wishing for a way to get their songs demoed, and prepared for copyrighting. Actually, I could do it for anyone out there who needs a quick demo even just for applying for a copyright. Well, I am going to get the word out there that I am available, and am offering this service along with the Emixing.