From Russia (and California) With Love

Back on August 4, 2007, in my “Summer Happenings” blog, I wrote:

Speaking of the other side of the world, I’ve been collaborating with a Russian songwriter and producer, whose name is Alexei Ustinov, on a new song and recording to be released sometime later this year. Alexei is producing the instrumental tracks over in Russia, with production just now getting underway. Once the tracks are ready, I’ll be recording the vocals as a duet with a female singer, whose identity shall remain a mystery for the time being, here in SoCal. This project will be a first for me on a number of fronts. In addition to its being my longest distance collaboration to date, it is the first time someone else will be producing one of my recordings, and it will be my first ever duet recording.

I added the emphasis here in the spirit of “even the best of intentions…” That’s right, “sometime later this year” (i.e. 2007) ended up turning into mid-September 2008, but the song I’d been talking about, “Make Me Feel”, has finally made it out into the world (and most of your favorite digital download stores). That being the case, I figured it was finally time to let you know a bit more about this project, including the name of the “mystery singer” and why the project took so darn long to finish. Let’s start back at the beginning of the story.

I first “met” (i.e. in a cyberspace sense) Alexei Ustinov back in 2004 through my efforts as a music software reviewer at CakewalkNet. I was reviewing one of his company’s products (JMT Orchestrator), as well as another product for which his company had some value-added technology. The latter product was based on some vocal synthesis technology from Yamaha called Vocaloid. It turned out that, not only had Alexei’s company developed some software that added expressiveness on top of the commercial Vocaloid-based products like the one I was reviewing (Zero-G’s MIRIAM Virtual Vocalist), but he also was undertaking an effort to record an entire album with a Vocaloid singer. Over time, we traded some recordings and shared some comments on those recordings. To make a long story short, we resolved to try to work together on some kind of project at some point when we both could find the time, but that notion sat on the shelf for a while.

Cut to early March of 2007, and Alexei approached me about writing some English language lyrics to one of his Russian songs. The song was a duet, and one special consideration was that the first use of the English version of the song would be to demonstrate some second generation Vocaloid-based singers from a Swedish company called PowerFX. I really liked the melody for the song, and the notion of writing a song for robot singers gave me a lyrical idea to help get me started. That led to the first half of the first verse lyrics:

Oh, your hands are as cold as steel
And your glare could make fire freeze over
Any heart that you once revealed
Hides like April in late October

I also wrote an initial draft of what eventually turned out to be the first half of the second verse lyrics (though I’d initially written that section as the first half of the first verse), and also the final chorus lyric in that one sitting, then ran the idea by Alexei. He approved.

At that point, I wasn’t really clear where to go with a second verse, but then I had the “bright idea” that it might be funny, in a “humorous video” sort of way, to think of the duet as being between a male human and a female robot. The words would have to be something a real man and woman could sing to each other, and should have a ring of truth from real relationships, but then there would be a sight gag due to extra meanings in the words if the female happened to be a robot. That led to what eventually became the second half of the first verse, which would be sung by the female:

Once you only had eyes for me
Made me feel like your gift from heaven
Oh, but lately we barely speak
Or we rage just like Armageddon

The chorus picked up from there with:

Darling, show me what’s on your mind
What’s in your heart
What do your eyes conceal
Maybe we could cry in the night
Laugh ’til it’s light
Darling, just make me feel
Give me just a glimpse of your heart
Tear me apart
Show me that you’re still real
Maybe we could scream, hug, and shout
Work it all out
Darling, just make me feel

The basic idea was the notion that we guys like new toys, and “play with them” quite a bit when we first get them. Then, over time, the interest wanes as things get more routine, and ultimately the toy sits on the shelf, maybe getting occasional use if it hasn’t been replaced altogether. If the toy were personified, though, as with the female robot, that toy might be crying out for attention. Do we guys treat real life relationships like that? I’m guessing there might be a bunch of women who might make that case.

Most of the initial lyric came together within the space of a few days back in April 2007. By late May, the robot singers’ version was up on the web, sung by PowerFX’ Big Al and Sweet Ann. The lyrics got rearranged, and saw other minor tweaks after that, but the song was, by and large, complete.
Meanwhile, Alexei and I began considering what was going to be my duet with a female Vocaloid. He supplied some basic tracks, and I put together an initial demo with MIRIAM, the Vocaloid I’d reviewed for CakewalkNet. I used that to solicit some feedback on the song. While the song got pretty positive feedback, I think the notion of a male human dueting with a female robot just confused most. Also, in these days of overly AutoTuned vocals, someone wouldn’t necessarily pick up on the notion the female singer was a robot without the video, which neither Alexei nor I had the animation talents and time to make.

In parallel, Alexei had begun considering the idea of making a much more polished recording of the song, using real Russian studio musicians. When he proposed that, with the idea that I’d sing the male part, I proposed the idea of using a real female singer. Since this was to be a song about a mature relationship, I wanted to involve a singer with a mature voice. If I had a mental model based on well-known singers, it might be something on the order of a Sting/Bonnie Raitt duet. (Hey, Sting and Bonnie, if you’re out there reading this, it’s not too late!) While most of the female singers I knew locally had young voices, I immediately hit on an idea for the part.

Beverly Bremers and I met something like a decade ago. We were in a very short-lived (one show) band together. While I had not been aware of her prior to that experience, Beverly had a big hit on the pop charts back in 1972 with “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember”, had appeared on Broadway (including in the original cast of “Hair”), and had co-written that classic of the Disney aerobics set, “Mousercise”. While our mutual band didn’t work out, we had worked together a few times after that, including co-writing a pair of songs back in the late 1990s, for which Beverly sang the demos. I thought her voice would be perfect for the song, and, luckily, she agreed to do it. This was in early June of 2007.

Beverly is one of the busiest people I’ve ever met. In addition to teaching vocal technique, songwriting, and voiceover classes, she is still very active as an actress, both on stage and on television, voiceover talent, and session vocalist. While this is great for her, it also meant it could be challenging trying to get together with her between an already hectic schedule and the inevitable last minute changes when, for example, an audition required her to be in Los Angeles ASAP. A month passed between the time Beverly agreed to do the project and the time we finally succeeded in getting together to set the key for the song to make sure it suited both of our voices. We did get together in early July 2007, though, then Alexei and I started going back and forth on the instrumental arrangements. By the end of July, we’d agreed on the basic arrangement, and Alexei began involving Anton Ilyashenko, of MegaTon Studio in Novosibirsk, Russia in coordinating and engineering the recording. This was just before I’d written the above-referenced blog with its overly optimistic prediction on how long it would take to get the recording out the door.

Besides engineering the recording, Anton also played bass guitar on it. Other musicians involved included Andrey Galuskho (drums), Andrey Orlov (guitars), and Nikolai Panchenko (saxophone). Much later, I also overdubbed some keyboard parts, but, unfortunately, did not get to travel to Russia to do that, rather recording my parts in my home studio here in Orange County, California. Most of the instrumental parts were completed in August and September, though some delays after the initial parts were tracked got us to late November before an instrumental mix with most of the parts was available, then to mid-December for some revisions to be ready to begin the vocal work here in California.

By that time, the holidays, more scheduling challenges, and a sore throat ended up delaying tracking vocals until late February 2008. In the mean time, I’d gotten another idea. Since Beverly and I would be doing the one duet as a single, maybe it would be worth considering adding a second song, sort of like the old A-side/B-side 45 RPM vinyl singles of yore. I thought one of the songs we’d written together back in the late 90s, “Unsaid”, would work as a duet, so I ran the idea by Beverly at our vocal tracking session. She agreed. I already had tracks for this, originally designed for another project, then tweaked to fit Beverly’s key (which I already knew from the demo of the song), so we just tracked Beverly’s lead vocal for the extra song at the end of our session for “Make Me Feel”. We’d have her come back later to do background vocals, after I’d tracked my vocals and my own background vocals.

The initial idea was to mix “Make Me Feel” in Russia, so, after choosing the bits and pieces of our raw vocals that would make the final cut, then getting those all put together, they were shipped back to Alexei and Anton in early March for the mix. Later in March, we had an initial mix, but Alexei decided he wanted to replace the drums, so new tracking was scheduled, and the results became available in mid-to-late April.

Meanwhile, I’d begun working on the “Unsaid” recording, getting Beverly’s lead vocal, as well as my lead and background vocals, finished around mid-April, then scheduling tracking of Beverly’s background vocals for early May. I’d also passed an early rough mix of the song by Alexei, more or less as an “FYI” since we’d be coupling the final recording of that with the final recording of “Make Me Feel” for the ultimate release. Alexei asked me if he could get the lead vocal tracks for it as he wanted to try an experiment. By late April, he’d provided a possible alternate arrangement of the song.

When Beverly and I got together in early May, besides tracking her background vocals for “Unsaid”, we reviewed the latest mixes from Alexei and Anton for “Make Me Feel”. This is the point where the idea of my adding keyboard parts arose, and where we also started to change strategies on how we would attack the final mix, with parts being mixed in Russia by Anton and other parts being mixed here by yours truly. We all went back and forth over the course of a few weeks — I was also interspersing background vocal work on “Unsaid” with this — and we had a close-to-final mix of “Make Me Feel” in late May.

Right around the same time, Alexei delivered his first mix of his alternate arrangement of “Unsaid”. Beverly and I both listened to it, and, though we liked some aspects of it quite a lot, there were other parts of it that just didn’t feel right to be the main representation of the song. I’ve since come to affectionately refer to that version as the “Leningrad Cowboys Russian Stadium Mix” because of the larger than life feel of both its arrangement and its processing. Our dilemma was that it was an interesting version of the song, just not the one we wanted to be the main representation of the song to the outside world. I came up with the idea of seeing if Alexei would be interested in letting us use that as a branded remix of the song, and he agreed. His production company is called Virartech, so we now refer to the final version of that mix as the Virartech Remix.

Now there was another dilemma, though. It would seem unbalanced to have a 3-track “single” with two versions of one song and one version of the other. Remembering back to the early robot demos of “Make Me Feel”, one of which had an electronic club style, I approached Alexei about the possibility of doing a club remix of that song. He agreed. This was still in late May. Alexei had an initial club mix to check out in early June, and most all of June was spent working on, and going back and forth with comments, both from those on the project team and from several outside parties, on the various mixes of all the tracks. Those had now expanded to a total of 5 — besides the club mix of “Make Me Feel”, there would also be a radio edit of that mix.

By the time we had final mixes of all the tracks together, we were into early July, and I began work on the mastering. That was finished by mid-July, and it was on to working on the packaging and administrative sides of getting a release out the door. I won’t bore you with the details on all that. Suffice it to say that, between doing the actual work on those aspects, coordinating responses, and coordinating schedules for a few in-person meetings between Beverly and me, it took another couple of months before the product was finally ready to go out the door in mid-September. Let me just say I’m glad there were no major labels involved to slow down the project!

Beyond that point, there was still some more waiting, for the various digital download stores to take the product live. However, most are indeed live now (GroupieTunes and Rhapsody are two notable exceptions as of this writing), including mainstream stores like iTunes, AmazonMP3, and Lala, as well as more indie-oriented stores like eMusic and Amie Street. Here’s the final track list from the project:

1. Make Me Feel
2. Unsaid
3. Make Me Feel (Virartech Radio Mix)
4. Unsaid (Virartech Remix)
5. Make Me Feel (Virartech Club Mix)

It’s been a long time coming, but I hope you’ll enjoy the results.