In May of 2002, Rush released their 17th studio album, Vapor Trails. This was a major accomplishment for the band, and it is very well documented everything it took to release that recording. But amidst all that was going on, one thing suffered: the quality of the recording.
Vapor Trails sounded, well, awful. The noise level seemed way too high, and that prevented the listener from hearing what each member of the band was playing. Compare that to Counterparts (1993), arguably their best sounding CD, and you could tell right away that Vapor Trails got the shaft. This bugged the members of the band so much that finally, after 11 years, a remixed version was released in September of 2013 - what a difference. It was like hearing a new release, something you hadn't heard before. Now it's Vapor Trails that's arguably their best sounding record, but such are the things that Rush fans like to argue about.
In any case, it didn't occur to me that I would ever cover a song from this record (although the live Rush in Rio version of "Earthshine" is very tempting) - I just never got around to it. But then the remix came along, and the wheels in my head started churning.
One song that I always loved was "Nocturne". Sometimes a particular song stands out on a Rush record that seems to be out there in left field, sort of different from the rest of the songs (I thought "Double Agent" from the aforementioned Counterparts was one such song; "Vital Signs" off of Moving Pictures is another example). I always wondered if I could play this song, but because of the original release sounding, well, not good, I really couldn't make out what Neil Peart was playing. But the remix changed that. I could hear everything now - the recording is that good. I hadn't recorded a drum cover in quite a while, so this would be an awesome way to get back in the swing of things.
Nailing the Song
As I do with any cover, I first go out and check to see if the artist has published a video of the song. But I found none. Next, I checked YouTube thoroughly to see if anyone had already covered it. No go there either. Now this presented an interesting dilemma. I like to see how the artist, and even imitators, play the song, so I have a good idea of what I'm going to do, leaning heavily toward the artist's performance, of course. However, this time, I had no video to go on. So this cover took on an even more interesting challenge - basing the whole drum cover on my ears. Fortunately, that's my preference. I obviously would like to see what the drummer is doing, but usually it will already confirm what I've heard. So I'm proud to say that I am the first person to cover "Nocturne" on YouTube (or on the Internet, for that matter). I could be wrong! I just didn't find anything.
Then the real listening started. I played the song over many, many times, trying to get the flow of the song in my head. Of course, that's no use until I actually attempt to play it, so once I thought I had it figured out I took it to the kit. And as always happens, I flopped big time at first. I spent a few hours trying to get a good take, and after several attempts, I give it up and try again another day. But what happens is I commit the song to 'muscle memory', if you will. The next time I attempt to play it, I'm not starting over. I'm literally starting where I left off. I didn't want to wait too long this time between days, so I got right back on the horse the next day. By the time the day had darkened a couple of hours in, I got a take I was happy with.
As far as the song itself, like every Rush song, Neil takes his drumming through a lot of twists and turns. It really took me to the last few takes to figure out what he was doing on the toms during the verses. Not only that, the second time the verse comes around, he's playing the toms differently. Also, during each chorus he doesn't play any of the transitions the same (when I say 'transitions', I mean between each line in the chorus), so I had to remember which one was which, and when. But what might have been the most difficult part of the song was during the first verse, where he's playing 16th notes on the hi-hat, and striking the bass drum at seemingly random times. Of all the takes I recorded, I think I got it right twice, and many times I almost decided to just leave the mistakes in. But fortunately, in the end, I ended up with a take I was very satisfied with.
For you see, I decided a little while back that it was not absolutely necessary to play the song exactly 'to the letter', if you will. At the same time, if I were to play anything differently, or if I were to leave a mistake in (or mistakes), it would only be if it fit in seamlessly with the original performance. If there was any difference, it would be as if it was just another night on a tour, because it is more likely that a drummer playing a song over and over again will change it up just a bit, but not too much. In Neil Peart's DVD Taking Center Stage, he plays his own drum cover to "Caravan", off of Clockwork Angels. It's fascinating to watch. He made a few tempo errors and didn't play the song note-for-note (although it was very close), but it was awesome nonetheless. If it were that important to play it exactly to the recording, then he would have played until he got a perfect take. The moral of the story? If your cover isn't exact, note-for-note, don't fret - sometimes, close enough is good enough. But if you strive for perfection, you may not get it - but what you may get is a killer take that you can be proud of.
That being said, let's not forget that the most important part of a drum cover video is the drumming, no matter how much you wish to indulge in video editing or camera shots, angles, and effects. Get a great drumming performance recorded first, then you can do whatever you want with the video afterwards. Again, it's always about the drumming first and foremost.
A Drum Cover and a Song Cover
If you listen to the lyrics of this song, you'll note that it's a take on dreaming - "Did I have a dream, or did the dream have me?" Well with lyrics like that, I couldn't just do the typical drum cover. The idea came to me about a drummer dreaming that he was, of all things, drumming - but not knowing if it was real or not. Was he really drumming, or was he dreaming? Is he sleeping, or not? The end has an intriguing twist, a la "The Twilight Zone" (which is actually a Rush song too - sheesh). Let's just say that this is not just a drum cover, but a song cover. The good thing about recording drum covers is that over time you get a little more adventurous, and you're not satisfied with the status quo. As long as the drumming is sound, you can add some neat twists and turns to spice up the visual.
Putting It Together
I decided from the beginning that this performance would be from one camera angle, so I just set the Canon FS100 in the ideal spot. For the audio, I set the Zoom H2 recorder about a foot away from the bass drum on a little tripod to elevate it off the floor, and slightly to the right (in front), so I could get a more direct sound from the snare drum. After I got the performance I liked, I brought the audio of the drums and the audio of the song into Audacity. There I mixed the two audio sources so that my drumming merged seamlessly with the original. I then had to play around a little with the volume level of my drumming and adjust it so my drumming was at least at equal volume with the original, and maybe a little more. Then I saved that as its own mp3 file.
The sequence at the beginning and end of the video, and the part in the middle where the drummer is sleeping, were shot the night I finished drumming, because the idea was fresh in my mind still as to how I would 'direct' the scenes, and I didn't want to forget anything.
I then brought all these video scenes, and the mixed mp3, into CyberLink's PowerDirector, and synced the audio with the video, with the main video obviously being the drumming. I also brought in clips of some of my previous videos, to show the drummer dreaming of other performances, as well as the one he was actually playing (or was he?). When you accumulate a certain amount of material, you just never know when you're going to use it again. I'm just glad I had it!
Way back in April of 2010, I wrote an article called "The Paradiddler's Wish List for Rush's Next Tour". In it I expounded on what songs I thought Rush should play whenever they toured again. Since that article they've toured twice, the Time Machine tour, and the Clockwork Angels tour. A few of my requests were fulfilled ("The Camera Eye", "Territories", "Where's My Thing?", part of the "Fear" anthology), and were a dream come true for this Rush fan. One of the songs still remaining though, is "Nocturne". What incredible visuals would accompany this type of song! I've said in other occasions that this may be Rush's most underrated song of all. It's such a deviation from the other songs on Vapor Trails, and lately I've been thinking that this may be a song that Neil indirectly referenced in the Taking Center Stage DVD as a 'production' song, or a song that was never meant to be played live. They've broken the mold though by playing songs like "Witch Hunt" (which he admitted that it was not meant to be played live, yet it has). It's possible though that the 'problem' lies with the guitar work in the song, in that Alex Lifeson plays so many layers of guitars that it really is almost impossible to pull off live. I think they can make it work though (I'm hoping).
And you know? Maybe I've given them an idea. As of this article's print date this is the only performance video of this song anywhere, and I think it deserves more attention. If I can contribute in a small way to bring this song to the band's attention, I'll be happy. But in the meantime, this is my way of reviewing the new Vapor Trails remixed version, by means of this absolute killer track, and I hope my performance did it justice. But I'm still perplexed about something that's been on my mind, but I can't seem to figure out...
Did I have a dream, or did the dream have me?