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Session Notes: Edge Of Insanity

Released: 1986

The Edge Of Insanity recording sessions were one of the most nerve-wracking yet pleasurable times of my life. They also marked the beginning of my professional music career, and were the first pro instrumental recordings that I made back in the early Eighties. I had recorded and played these tunes countless times, but only with other excellent players from my area. Now I found myself in Northern California in the company of Billy Sheehan and Steve Smith planning the recording of these tunes, after being featured in an issue of Guitar Player magazine’s “Spotlight” column.

The studio used for this session was called “Prairie Sun” and is located on a ranch in a small town called Cotati outside San Francisco. Its location is really pretty relaxing because it’s the type of setup that allows you to live there for the duration of the recording process. We went for a very straight forward approach with only 3 days of rehearsal and 4 days of recording masterminded and overseen by the super ears of Mike Varney/Shrapnel Records; and captured and mixed by the one and only Steve Fontano on 24 tracks through a Trident into a 24 track Studer 800 Tape Machine.

It was at the rehearsal sessions that I learned so very much about laying back in the pocket of rhythm as opposed to sitting on top of the beat as you would with a drum machine. My skills at that time were not so sharp because I was still nervous at the fact that I was suddenly making a record with two of my favorite musicians of all time - Billy Sheehan and Steve Smith. I remember a year later after the album was finished, driving in the car and back to my apartment in San Rafael and hearing Journey songs on the radio and think to myself “wow I just recorded an album with that dude.” It was a very musical-yet-surreal time for me.

Many of the tunes we recorded had grown so much from their infancy as demos, and they became these real epics. Billy Sheehan has a remarkable ability to comprehend the direction of a song and interpret that into his playing. So rather than sound like every other session player, he brought a really unique music personality to the record that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Unlike my demos where it was quite easy for me to overdub the tracks, we decided to record the basic tracks all together at the same time, and that’s where I realized I had so much to learn about playing music on that level. I was forever driving Steve crazy with my rushing...haha! And coupled with the fact that we did this session cookie cutter style, you had only a couple of cracks at getting it right until it was history. I learned to relax and let it happen - it’s a great feeling really when that happens.

I played through a couple of custom Marshall heads and some Peavey Classic heads into two Macintosh 4x12 cabs with my main guitar - a white Kramer. It was a very simple setup and not really my ideal tone, but it was my first real rig so I had to go with what I had. The endorsements did not come for a full year after that session, which is why the records after that really had a better guitar tone.

Steve Smith was simply amazing to watch when he recorded his parts - especially his work on “The Witch And The Priest” - that being one of my favorite tracks on the album. The Chopin Prelude was recorded at Steve Smith’s house in a couple of takes. I was used to playing piano more at that time so it was not as stressful. Steve Fontano was very helpful when it came time for me to cut some solo spots. I had to get used to the fact that there were many reasons that something could not be left to live on a record - even if it was something that you liked. I suppose I had a more open mind to suggestion back then compared to today. Playing the solos was the easy part for me because it was something I did for hours everyday back then. The challenge was more about finding the right feel and intensity for each song. The solos really did not change much from the original demo tape, but it was just a bit different playing them in such a large place with so many people watching. I had this really strange thing where I didn’t want to hear the music in headphones, so Steve arranged for me to hear a combination of my amp sound and the studio monitors together, and funnily enough to this day I prefer that type of setup.

Billy made such an impact on me with his phenomenal technique that we decided to come up with one more song titled “Birds of Prey”. If ever there was a one take artist it had to be Bill as he would play with ease these things that were so difficult for me to pull off. “Birds Of Prey (Billy’s Boogie)” was released as "soundpage" #18 flexi-disc in the March 1986 issue of Guitar Player magazine (see side bar). It was also included as a bonus track on the Japanese pressing of the album.

The ideas that Mike Varney had for my songs really forged the direction of my music for the next few years after that session, and from that session it was the birth of a collaboration of people that worked together for quite sometime after that.

You know, from a very early age I have always had a personality trait that some may interpret as one who is never satisfied with the final results. Not true here in this instance. This album was so important for me in so many aspects: I learned that I could play at the level of these amazing giants (which was monumental to begin with;) and I learned something that my first teacher Marion Jensen was constantly trying to impress upon me for the twelve wonderful years I was in her charge: to realize that you can only give what you have at the moment from your heart. Anymore and it’s contrived, any less and it’s boring.


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