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GOOD VIBRATIONS – Working Together in Harmony

The Students of Los Rios School of Rock Re-create Pet Sounds.

“Ambitious.” That is the word most often used to describe the Beach Boys 1966 album Pet Sounds

Google “Ambitious pet sounds” and you’ll find that word used by everyone from Sean Lennon to Rolling Stone to Wikipedia – and the Wikipedia for this one album by the Beach Boys is novel-length – longer than a John Bonham drum solo – and has 335 citations for one rock and roll album recorded in 1966. 

Wikipedia summed it up pretty well “Pet Sounds is the eleventh studio album by the American rock band the Beach Boys, released May 16, 1966 on Capitol Records. It initially met with a lukewarm critical and commercial response in the United States, peaking at number 10 on Billboard Top LPs chart, lower than the band’s preceding albums. In the United Kingdom, the album was hailed by critics and peaked at number 2 in the UK Top 40 Albums Chart, remaining among the top ten positions for six months. Promoted as “the most progressive pop album ever”, Pet Sounds attracted recognition for its ambitious recording and sophisticated music. It is widely considered to be among the most influential albums in the history of music.”

There are some sad, beautiful, happy, emotional songs on Pet Sounds: Wouldn’t it Be Nice, Sloop John B, God Only Knows, Caroline No

Good Vibrations Came Later

Funny thing is, Good Vibrations was considered a “leftover song” and never was on the album. Good Vibrations was released as a single outside of the album, and is considered by anyone who knows anything as one of the most ambitious, layered, beautiful rock and roll songs ever recorded – from the 20th Century to the 21st. 

Pet Sounds came out smack in the middle of the British Invasion and they cannodaded all those great English bands – turning the heads of the Beatles who recorded Revolver soon after.

On and on. Read all of that Wikipedia. Entire books and documentaries have been written and produced about this one album.

Los Rios Rock School Established 2010 

So what? So it was equally ambitious for a bunch of south Orange County musical teenagers – kids whose parents were kids when Pet Sounds came out – to take to the studio at the Los Rios Rock School in San Juan Capistrano and attempt to recreate the emotional, many-layered brilliance of Pet Sounds. 

Way ambitious. 

How did they do it, and how did they do?

Nuevo School in a Viejo Neighborhood

According to the Orange County Register in 2012:

“After acquiring more than $60,000 worth of music equipment during his seven years as a mortgage broker, Tyler Marolf decided he needed a career change. He quit his job, wrote his first album and started giving rock-music lessons out of a tiny bungalow in an unlikely place – the historic Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano, the state’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood. The classes began as a way to supplement his musician income, but after students kept coming, the side job has taken over.

Los Rios Rock School, now boasting 36 students and three teachers, will celebrate its grand opening Saturday in a new 3,000-square-foot performance and learning space with a concert expected to draw about 300 people. It starts at 5 p.m. at 32124 Paseo Adelanto.”

Established in 2010, Los Rios Rock School now has a faculty of 12 teachers all with funny letters after their names, and 190 families/students from all over Orange County. According to Tyler Marolf: “We have an 8000 -square-foot performance based lesson facility (see video of yours truly giving a tour  https://youtu.be/NAjiKdj702M). Our school truly transforms young humans into unbelievable team mates, musicians and friends.”

In the past decade, Los Rios Rock School has guided their students through the performing and recording of music from Led Zeppelin 2, Abbey Road, Van Halen 1, Rumors, Queen’s A Day at the Races, Boston and Rubber Soul: “All in their entirety,” Marolf said.  We make sure to play the live shows track for track like the real recordings. In this Queen clip, please note the 8 amps and guitar ensemble and choir to emulate Bryan Mays recordings and queens vocals: https://youtu.be/cBpEIZCISaE

The staff at Los Rios Rock School who worked on the Pet Sounds project included Clinton Haycraft, Phillip Allen, Erin Blagdon, Justin Norman, Tyler Marolf and Chris Bates.

WHY PET SOUNDS?

Clinton Haycraft

Clinton Haycraft is the Director of Curriculum at Los Rios Rock School. He has multiple degrees from UC San Diego, California Institute of the Arts, Switzerland’s Zürcher Hochschule der Künste and SUNY at Buffalo. Haycraft’s Linked In describes him as “Professional, personable, innovative, creative, hard-working, works well with others.” 

Answering Why Pet Sounds?, Haycraft said: “Tyler will tell you it was my idea, but that’s not true. When the topic of ‘What album should we do next?’ came up at staff meetings, Tyler would often state, in an off-hand but fairly certain way, that we would eventually do Pet Sounds and that I would be in charge of it. Eventually I realized just how serious he was when it finally started happening.

“I guess you could say that Pet Sounds is not your typical Los Rios Rock School album. It doesn’t give the kids a whole lot of opportunity to show off as individuals. There are no shredding guitar solos, no belted high notes or raspy screams, no heavy drum fills. It demands another brand of musicianship – one that emphasizes dynamics, nuance, blending, and tone.

“The students took some convincing, too. They didn’t know what to make of the album at first. It became our mission not only to get this severely ambitious project ready for the stage, but to widen the student’s musical appreciation, turning them on to something they might otherwise never consider cool. So I guess what I’m saying is that Pet Sounds IS your typical Los Rios Rock School album.

CH: Pet Sounds is a Stupid Idea

“I remember speaking with a director at another school who had taken on the album a number of years prior, and after congratulating me on my ambition and vision, said that “doing Pet Sounds is a stupid idea.” First of all, it’s peculiar, artistic, and a tough sell to both the students and their parents, and secondly, the scale of the thing is ridiculous. Anyway, I thought that was a telling moment, being called a visionary and stupid in the same breath. I guess it’s true.

“That director and his colleagues were kind enough to share some materials with us. Scores, recordings, backing tracks, etc. It was helpful, but unlike Day at the Races, where after a few listens you have a sense of what instruments are playing what, Pet Sounds changes every time I listen to it. (Is that organ layered with tack piano and marimba or organ layered with harpsichord and vibraphone?) Brian Wilson and the Wrecking Crew laid it on so thick in the studio, that it still keeps the ears guessing. This is an amazing feat of artistry and sound, but a pain in the !@#% when you’re trying to decipher parts for a faithful stage recreation.”

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

Phillip Allen

Philip Allen B.M is a Grammy-winning engineer/producer/artist who is an instructor at Los Rios Rock School, specializing in development, bass, guitar, piano, drums and vocals: “The why is probably best answered by Clint and everyone else, as I came on to the project after it had already been decided.  But my personal answer for why I was excited was because it’s an incredibly challenging task, both from the perspective of a musician and an engineer / producer.  The songs and the arrangements are so unique and timeless, there aren’t a whole lot of places to “hide” musically speaking, so it seemed like a great project to be a part of.”

PA: The How of the Preparation

“But the how question I can definitely help with:  Part 1 of the how is the preparation.  This album has so many intricate parts, wild tempo changes, harmonies, car horns, horse hoofs, etc. that it would be foolish to not be over prepared going into the studio.  Clint did an amazing job organizing the parts and players, and the teacher at Los Rios really got everyone dialed in for their parts weeks before the recording date. Trying to stay as true to the “live” recording process that took place in the original recordings – with the band playing all together with minimal overdubs – we had to make sure everyone was confident in their individual parts. The teacher meticulously combed through the instrumental parts and vocal harmonies with each of their students.  

PA: The Space/Time Continuum: Hybrid Studios in Santa Ana.

When I entered the picture, Tyler asked me how it would have to be done in terms of studio time and space.  Since we didn’t have months of studio time and an infinite budget to cut the songs, we decided to book out Hybrid Studios in Santa Ana for one whirlwind day of tracking.  It had the size to accommodate a live band, a separate booth for the lead singer, and another booth for the herd of backing vocalists.  Trying to do the entire album in one day left us with less than an hour to get a take of each song.  To anyone who has ever tried to record an album in.a studio, you know how crazy that is.  To anyone who isn’t familiar with how long it takes to make a record, most professional bands put between 12 and 100+ hours of studio time in per song.  Including the Beach Boys.  

PA: Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

In order to make it work, the kids not only had to be prepared with their parts, but they had to get familiar with recording techniques.  So weeks before the recording date, we ran rehearsals with headphones and click tracks so the kids could get used to it.  It was definitely a challenge for some kids! But they all put the work in and went into the studio ready to work.  

CH: Details, then Auditions

Clinton Haycraft continued: “A lot of things had to be sorted out before rehearsals began. Which students would perform? Which instructors would be part of the main (rehearsal) team? Venue, date, production team, etc.? Once these were more or less solidified, then came the audition process and preparation of learning materials for the performers (and instructors).

CH: Making the Score

Getting the score together was relatively easy, as parts for most songs were available (in comparison, most tracks for Day At The Races were not, and needed to be notated by ear).

However, some Pet Sounds tracks still needed to be deciphered, notated and/or rearranged for our group of singers. Once this was done, I went to work with Erin Blagdon recording every single voice for every single song. We did this for Day At The Races as well. Deciphering, notating, rehearsing and performing all the vocal parts of an album like Pet Sounds is a long and arduous process that I enjoy thoroughly.

CH: Harmonizing

The biggest challenge with performing vocal music like the Beach Boys is remembering all the harmony lines and holding them while the rest of the voices are singing other parts. If singers aren’t sure of their parts, the group ends up singing unison before the phrase is over. To give the students the best chance for success, each part was recorded as a video and shows me or Erin singing along with a backing track and notation in the lower third of the screen.

CH: Thirteen Lead Vocal Opportunities

Auditions are always tough. It’s a balancing act at Los Rios: we want to have an amazing show but also want each student to have a meaningful, memorable and fun experience. For the tracklist of Pet Sounds plus the two bonus tracks, we were looking at 13 lead vocal opportunities. Luckily we had just about that many audition well, so each vocalist ended up with a lead, and then sang in the choir on every other song. Instrumental players would each play on a handful of the tracks.

CH: Three Months of Rehearsals

Rehearsals ran weekly for three months. Justin Norman rehearsed the band in one room while Erin Blagdon worked with the voices in the other. I would hover between both rooms. Eventually we brought the singers to the stage and everyone rehearsed together. Having six6 instrumental players and 13 vocalists all amplified on stage together and trying to make sure they all heard themselves and each other was the most difficult logistical aspect of rehearsals. We ended up giving each singer their own microphone and putting them through the five5 stage monitors. Once Phil came on and joined us in rehearsals, we switched to headphones, and it was a game changer.

Rehearsals for a project this ambitious are difficult. The instrumental players had it tough. They had to play quieter than they were used to. They had to know the forms of the songs so well because they couldn’t depend on cues from the vocalists or the orchestra. Vocalists had their own challenges. Not only did they have to deal with knowing their harmony parts for all 16 songs, they had to work on things like vowel modification, blending, tuning, microphone technique, etc. Some of the students actually played instruments AND sang on the album.

PA: Tracks in a Day: Hybrid Studios in Santa Ana

Phil Allen continued: “For the actual recording day, we utilized Hybrid’s huge live room to track bass, guitar, and drums.  We set drums up on one side, bass in the middle, and guitars on the far end, trying to get as much separation as possible.  We tried to keep our instrument and mic choices as “vintage” as possible, using minimal studio tricks.  The lead singer for each track got one vocal booth to themselves, and the backing vocalists (sometimes more than a dozen at once) crammed into the other vocal booth.  Keyboardists were set up in the control room.  It was a lot of mics and headphones.  

We were up and running with levels within an hour, thanks to the awesome staff at Hybrid.  We had click tracks premade for each song and the kids tracked full takes all together.  We typically got 2-3 full takes per song, often nailing it on the first or second take and then one “fun” take where they got to branch out a bit.  We definitely used every minute of the time we booked at the studio, but we tracked every song in one day.  

FROM THE STUDENT MUSICIANS: 

ANNA MOELLENHOFF

I’m Anna Moellenhoff and I was the lead on That’s Not Me. 

I am currently 17 but 18 in a week!  I am from San Juan Capistrano and became involved with Los Rios Rock School after a friend suggested that I go check it out and help my singing and performance skills. This was about three years ago – 2017. 

My biggest musical influences would have to be Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen, Eric Church and Miranda Lambert. I hope to continue my path in the Country genre and learn from all these artists as they continue to release their songs and grow. 

I have heard of the Pet Sounds album before and I have listened to it but I did not know the songs well enough to know them by heart. There were a couple that I knew from when I was a little kid because my parents would play them in the car. 

My experience through this project was very exciting and sometimes difficult. During those times when it was difficult, I was learning how to control my voice and not overpower the rest of the track. It took time but I loved every step of the way because it made me into a better singer. I really enjoyed singing with all my friends and that I was lucky enough to work on a project like this. 

Truly an amazing opportunity! I learned so much about my voice and how to record in a studio and I’m headed to Nashville to pursue songwriting. I also had the opportunity to glance over Phil’s shoulder while he was recording the instrumental soundtrack such as ‘Pet Sounds’ and it was inspirational to watch! I’m so lucky to have been able to do this project with my whole group! 

DAX BATES

What was your favorite thing about doing Pet Sounds?

My favorite thing about recording and playing Pet Sounds would have to be playing with my friends. I had such a blast being able to record such an amazing album with a tone of amazing people!

What was your least favorite thing about doing Pet Sounds?

Going in and auditioning for pet sounds I honestly wasn’t into the album as much as I should have been so I came in with not so very positive mindset. but towards the end that all changed. So I would have to say my least favorite part was just the album in general but now I love it and think it is one of the best albums out there!

What did you learn through the process?

This was my first time recording so I learned how the whole recording process goes and how to set up and play with a click track. I also learned how to play as a full band in the studio instead of just being one instrument at a time

LILY KELSO

My name is Lily and I sang for The Beach Boys project. 

Originally when you asked I wasn’t sure how to sum it all up. Recording Pet Sounds was an amazing, challenging, multifaceted experience. 

One of the things that stuck out to me most was how the group dynamic changed over time. We started out with a hodge lodge of kids and many of us either didn’t know each other or hadn’t spent much time together. This quickly changed. Over the course of many rehearsals and a lot of hard work, we all became really good friends. We had inside jokes about a line from That’s Not Me, we all bugged each other about good mic technique, and would laugh about messing up as we worked together to fix it. The coolest part about getting closer with everyone was to see it reflected in the music. Bit by bit songs started coming together as we learned more unified vowels, got used to “the beach boys sound,” and found our rhythm with the band. The process was slow but extremely rewarding. 

When the big day got closer, the teacher started pointing out smaller and smaller things, pushing us to be our best and easing us in to the recording process. I think I speak for everyone when I say we were nervous but beyond excited. 

Recording at Hybrid Studios in Santa Ana was incredible. It was my first time in a real studio, so getting to explore and see all of the technology that professional musicians use to make their music happen had me bubbling over with questions. Phil, Clint, Erin and everyone in the studio were welcoming and accommodating during this process, and even with all of their tasks they were there to answer questions and make it a great learning experience from warm up to clean up. The day was long but went surprisingly fast as we got to relish our hard work together and put it to the test. Students took shifts based on the songs we were needed for, and the time not spent in the recording booth was spent joking and singing and reminiscing on the months leading up to recording day. 

Overall, recording The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album with LRRS was a once in a lifetime, invaluable experience. Working with our instructors to learn new skills and perform our best, and growing a community with each other was awesome. We learned so much about recording, singing in a choir, songwriting, arranging, and instrumentation. It is experiences like this that make me love music. Huge thank you to Los Rios Rock School for that. 

HOW DID IT COME OUT?

CH: Something Magical and Transformative

As with Day at the Races, this album seemed impossible every step of the way. That director was right: “Doing Pet Sounds is stupid.” But something magical and transformative happened when we hit the Coach House stage with Day At The Races. Many individuals became something much larger than the sum of each one of them. This also happened when we recorded Pet Sounds in Hybrid Studios on Sunday, May 26th 2019 (in one day!). The kids rose to the occasion once again, and pulled off the impossible. Suddenly, all the late nights and difficult rehearsals paid off.

CH: Credit Where It’s Due

I’d like to give credit to my colleagues Erin Blagdon, Justin Norman and Phil Allen for their professionalism and hard work at rehearsal and in the studio, and of course to Tyler Marolf and Chris Bates for their vision and creating the space where such wild things can occur, but I must say I am most proud of the kids. They really made it happen, and you can hear it in that recording.

PA: Donovan the Drummer Gets Most Valuable Percussionist

Phillip Allen added: “The real MVP was Donovan Hess, who played drums on every single song.  It was a very long day for him.  We had a lot of back and forth with how we were going to do the orchestral elements, but we ended up playing and programming it all in as overdubs later. It was probably the most ambitious recording project I’ve ever been a part of, but it was a blast.”

CH: At The End of the Day

Haycraft said: “At the end of the day, our main goal is that the kids learn something from the process. Something they can take with them on the stage, and in life. I know I sure did. I’d be very interested to hear their feedback looking back on the experience.”

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