Church of Hed: The Father Road – Recording Notes (Prologue)

This series of articles covers the recording of Church of Hed’s 2022 release, The Father Road. Consider it to a type of diary, but one with a backwards point of view. Most of the studio activity remains fresh in my mind, hopefully making it easier to glean meaningful insights on the techniques and tools we used.

Paul and Moog. Photo by Angela Williams.
Paul and Moog. Photo by Angela Williams.

Instead of writing a massive article covering the entire album, I’ve broken things up into four sides. This is a bit ironic, since this double album fits on one CD, and vinyl releases are not in the budget at Eternity’s Jest Records. Nevertheless, it provides a nice metaphor for breaking these notes into shareable parts.

As a prologue, let’s provide a few insights on The Father Road album itself and our recording setup, including the DAW, studio gear, and other items relating to the album’s production. In the other four articles, we’ll dive into each track and the bespoke recording approach making each a sonic reality. Enjoy the journey.

A Closer Look at The Father Road

Church of Hed’s new double album, The Father Road, takes us on a surreal aural journey across the United States along the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road built for automobiles. It’s effectively the sequel to the band’s 2011 album, Rivers of Asphalt, which traveled the legendary Route 66. The music shifts and evolves in tandem with the scenic backdrop of America, from San Francisco to New York City. As with the original release, the sense of a lost era lurks throughout the album.

The music features Church of Hed’s unique mix of spacerock, psychedelia, prog rock, krautrock, and electronic music. It channels diverse influences, ranging from CAN, Cluster, Brian Eno, and Hawkwind, to YES and The Flaming Lips, in addition to Glass, Reich, and Riley. In the end, it always manages to sound like Church of Hed. Of course, Kraftwerk provided the original concept of combining electronic music with a transportation corridor!

I composed, performed, and produced The Father Road with help from Quarkspace guitarist, Stan Lyon, on bass and guitar. Not surprisingly, my music performance tools include an array of synthesizers, keyboards, and electric drums. Surreal ambience highlights the western portion of the highway, while more lyrical instrumental pieces sonically describe the more populated eastern sections of this old road. Check out the expanded liner notes at: churchofhed.com/releases/church-of-hed-the-father-road/

The Genesis of The Father Road

The original intention involved The Father Road’s music as the second half of Rivers of Asphalt, Church of Hed’s 2010 release which traces modern Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. Work on the entire project began in the mid-2000s. Thankfully, a quick realization revealed itself: composing and recording 150 minutes of music for a single release seemed like overkill. Thus, The Father Road would be a separate album.

While the muse provided some of the music for The Father Road back in those halcyon days, most of the composing happened over the last few years. Acquiring the Yamaha MM8 and its 88 weighted keys improved my playing (drums remain my first instrument), while providing a center for most of the album’s composition. Despite delays for work on Quarkspace’s reunion album, All These Suns, and Church of Hed’s The Fourth Hour, The Father Road finally became our main focus.

Our Hardware Synths and Keyboards

As just mentioned, The Father Road’s primary composition took place on the Yamaha MM8, effectively serving as a piano. I mostly use the grand piano patch, but occasionally a Rhodes or Wurlitzer inspired electronic piano makes an appearance. The legendary Line 6 DL4 provides the delay that’s an essential part of my piano performance and writing. An Elektron Analog Drive pedal adds some oomph and occasionally a bit of distortion when necessary.

Synths provide most of the sonic weight on The Father Road and most other Church of Hed releases. The Moog Sub37 highlights our collection. I typically pair it with a Make Noise 0-Coast semi-modular synth over MIDI: the MoogCoast. That desktop semi-modular synth effectively serves as a meaty extra oscillator for the Moog. A Moog MF Delay and TC Electronic T2 reverb serve as the primary effects pedals for the Moog.

The venerable Korg Z1 teams up with the Waldorf Streichfett to provide the massive string synth sound used throughout The Father Road and most recent Church of Hed albums. Other hardware synths making an appearance on the album include the also venerable Kawai K5000W, paired with a Waldorf Micro Q rack over MIDI.

A similar MIDI connection happens between the Korg Prophecy and Roland MVS-1. I love to mix my altered Prophecy waterphone patch with the VS-1’s choir mellotron. That sound is heard as the album fades out over the ocean at the end of Times Square as well as throughout many Quarkspace and Church of Hed tracks. For me, it’s a signature sound. A recent purchase, Modal Electronics’ Skulpt SE, also makes an appearance on a couple of tracks.

Electronic Drumming and Percussion Setup

The Alternate Mode TrapKAT remains my drum kit, now for well over two decades. It powers a Roland TD-8 drum module, with one stereo output routed through a virtual guitar amp stack on the Boss VF-1 multi-effects unit and another clean stereo output run directly to our mixer. I also record the MIDI notes in the DAW, triggering the Melda Production MDrummer plugin. More on this setup later.

I also use an Arturia DrumBrute drum machine to provide those gloriously warped mechanical beats. It appears all over The Father Road, especially in mountainous regions in the West, as well as throughout the Eastern half of the United States. We use an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Boy and Hotone chorus pedal to enhance its sonic footprint.    

Recording The Father Road at Eternity’s Jest Studios

We recorded most of the original backing tracks for The Father Road using my ancient copy of Pro Tools 7 and the Digidesign Digi 002R. This also provided the setup for Quarkspace’s All These Suns, which ended up being the last album we ever used Pro Tools (the first being Quarkspace’s Drop in 2001.) The increasing requirements for the DAW meant it failed to support our brand new Lenovo laptop with only 8GB of RAM. Of course, Avid recently implemented a subscription payment model, likely ensuring we never return.

Enter Reaper. I originally played around with Ableton Live, and while it offered some intriguing functionality, Reaper provided an intuitive interface and tape recording metaphor with which I felt comfortable. A Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 serves as the new digital audio interface. A happily still-working Behringer MX3282 still holds the fort as our main mixing board, with a Yamaha MG102C and a Mackie 1402-VLZ serving as submixers. Ironically, any slight awkwardness with the Reaper UI disappeared after updating the DAW app – AFTER I finished the album. Old habits die hard.

I didn’t want to commit to using Reaper for The Father Road until I fully vetted the app. So Church of Hed’s The Fourth Hour served as a useful litmus test. As this album featured fewer overdubs, it helped with my comfort level when using a new DAW after two decades. However, on the track Q Ching, I added a healthy measure of overdubs and orchestrations to see how Reaper performed with around 24 tracks. It passed with flying colors.

Migrating From Pro Tools to Reaper

So we now had to port the audio files for the initial backing tracks for The Father Road from Pro Tools to Reaper. For connecting the Digi 002R and Scarlett, I used an ADAT lightpipe cable for 8 tracks and an analog snake for the few songs with more than 8 tracks. Everything worked perfectly. This process needs to be repeated in the future for other older Pro Tools recordings slated for a future Church of Hed or Quarkspace release. 

The mastering of The Fourth Hour also happened completely within the box. I wasn’t fully happy with the results. Since the studio sports a still-functioning TC Electronic Finalizer as well as a BBE Sonic Maximizer, Lexicon MPX 100, and other tube compressors and EQs, The Father Road used this traditional mastering setup. I may return to “in the box” mastering for future releases knowing our outboard gear still works great for providing a top-shelf stereo mix for live in-studio recordings.

Effects Plugins Used on The Father Road  

Of course, completing The Father Road within Ye Olde Pro Tools version 7.x remained a possibility. However, I wanted to fully leverage the latest in effects plugins for aesthetic and production reasons. In addition to a whole host of software synths, we also used a variety of effects plugins on the album, even while mastering outside the box.

Speaking of mastering, we wanted an EQ plugin for Reaper’s internal master buss. Each song used Maag’s top-shelf EQ4, with its “Air Band” providing a sense of sheen and detail. We also used EQ4 on most individual tracks throughout the album. Occasionally, another EQ plugin saw use depending on the bespoke needs of that individual track. Acustica’s Cream warrants mention as a perfect partner whenever the Arturia DrumBrute appears on the album.

Softube’s excellent Tape rounded out the master buss on each song. This plugin provides that measure of “warm glue” serving to tie a mix together. It made sense for The Father Road to feature a 70s mixing style, which dovetails with my typical psychedelic spacerock approach. 

Other reverbs and delays saw use throughout the album, with a special mention for Valhalla’s excellent free reverb, Super Massive. It provides that sense of space suitable for nighttime drives across the desert along the Lincoln Highway. The plugin pairs nicely with pads and atmospheric synths. If you already have it in your plugin arsenal, you’ll likely recognize it throughout the album.

Creating a Universal Drum Buss

I also need to give attention to the plugin chain used on the drum buss, on those tracks with drums. I’ve been an electronic drummer for over two decades, primarily for aesthetic reasons considering Quarkspace and Church of Hed’s mix of electronic and kinetic music. As noted earlier, my drum sound mixes two stereo channels of a Roland TD-8; one stereo pair dry and one run through a virtual guitar stack on the Boss VF-1 multi-effects unit. I also record MIDI, mostly using it to trigger either Melda Production’s MDrummer or Spitfire Audio’s Hans Zimmer Percussion.

All that drumming audio is sent through an effects chain containing the following. Eventide’s Instant Flanger (I LOVE flange!), the ubiquitous Maag EQ4, Eventide’s TVerb for that “Berlin” room sound, Softube’s Drawmer S73 for a bit of compression, and finally Softube’s Tube providing that warm glue. I’m happier with the drum sound on The Father Road compared to the 20 previous years of recording my electronic kit sonics.

The Father Road’s Synth Plugins

A variety of synth plugins typically get used on projects here at Eternity’s Jest. The venerable Rebirth began this trend on Quarkspace’s Recaesarian way back in 1999. Church of Hed’s Brandenburg Heights served as the only exception to this rule, as the entire album features hardware synths.

When covering the use of soft synths on The Father Road, it starts with Spitfire Audio’s LABS, a top-shelf collection of sample libraries. Amazingly, this robust collection remains available for free. This likely serves to attract more customers to Spitfire’s excellent line of sample-based products. The Father Road features a variety of LABS’ string, trumpet, and other libraries on various tracks. We also use their BBC Symphony Orchestra and Hans Zimmer Percussion on the album.   

XILS-Lab’s XILS 4 also warrants mention. The legendary synth maestro Tim Blake served as a consultant on XILS 4, which simulates his famous Crystal Machine synth setup featuring two VCS 3s. On the album, this plugin provides those classic analog sound effects on Sierra Ascent. Its classic synth burbles, bleeps, and bloops rival my hardware Moog Sub 37 which also fills a similar role throughout the release.

Finally, Arturia’s classic V Collection deserves discussion. We’ve been using these synth plugins on Quarkspace and Church of Hed productions for around 15 years. I’ve long needed to write a TabMuse review covering our favorites. Their CS80 V and Farfisa V especially highlight a nighttime trip down the Lincoln Highway in Wyoming.

Thanks for reading this prologue! We explore The Father Road’s production more deeply in separate articles, one for each side as noted earlier. Expect a deeper dive into each track’s genesis and recording approach.

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