Mandala – Making of the Debut Album

Kalachakra Sand Mandala

The Inspiration – MANDALA was intended as a snapshot of my life; a benchmark to show me where I’ve been and where I might be headed. MANDALA has many meanings, for me. Perhaps listeners will determine the true meaning for themselves. MANDALA is new territory for listeners who are familiar with my acoustic solo performances. Elements of my older incarnations are still present, except they are magnified by a more group-oriented approach.

Some songs are much heavier than they were when they were first written. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter first, and this album has allowed me to push the envelop of that title. At first, I was not interested in conforming to “radio readiness,” or a “pop sensibility,” but I can’t deny that there are elements of commercialism present. To my older fans, all I can say is give it a chance – you might like it. Newer fans that are only familiar with my web presence, or with my more recent musical experiments definitely have something to chew on.

MANDALA, the album, is a chronicle of who I am, was, and hope to be. It is a document, both for myself to reflect upon (and/or forget) and for others to read with an interpretive eye towards a journey that many people may take. I’d like people to know that I am proud of MANDALA, the recognition that it brought, and the milestone that it represents. However, when it was being finished, I was already working on material for my next project, and had already left behind many of the attitudes that wer epresent when the songs for MANDALA were written.

It is difficult to keep the recording process in line with one’s musical values, in realtime. Originally, the concept of the Mandala (for me) acutely represented the need for me to put some things behind me. My musical path was changing, along with my own values of right and wrong, and my ideas of success.Long hours of tedious work go into a Tibetan sand mandala. The same goes for a recording. The mandala’s subsequent destruction and dissolution into a body of water were analogous to the cleansing process of working on (and finishing) my own mandala. The CD artwork was also an outward expression of Buddhism, something that has guided me on many journeys. From rather naive beginnings, little did I know that MANDALA the CD would overturn new meanings for my life and my spiritual practice.Below are some areas of interest for those wishing to learn more about the nitty gritty process of working on an album like this…

Books – I have always been an avid reader. Books are a significant part of my life. Each book I read becomes a part of my world view, and some books stay with me daily. Several books contributed inspiration for MANDALA. Their influence may or may not be obvious:

Bhagavad-Gita… As It Is – A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Baksheesh and Brahman Indian Journal 1954-1955 – Joseph Campbell
Tibet, My Story – Jetsun Pema (Sister of H.H. Dalai Lama)
Mandala: Architechture of Enlightenment – Denise Patry Leidy & Robert A.F. Thurman
Mandala – Sacred Circle of Tibetan Buddhism
12 Habits of Highly Effective People

To recover from the album, I read the following:

The Artist’s Way
The Art of Happiness (H.H. The Dalai Lama)
Ethics for the New Millenium (H.H. The Dalai Lama)

Musical Inspirations – During the years that led up to MANDALA, my ears were opened to a palet of sound that was much broader and brighter than it used to be. From the throat singers of Tuva, to the East Indian fusion of Jai Uttal, to the blues of Muddy Waters, there was a different sensibility to the range of artists I was exposed to. And I think even Ian Anderson would agree that a lot has happened since Jethro Tull hit the scene. For examples of the broad listening habits I developed, see my music listening log.

Spiritual Inspiration – At it’s base level, the Mandala represents a meditational guide or tool used by Buddhists to transcend the physical world into other worlds. It is a two or three dimensional representation of an environment in which a transformative process takes place (the recording studio perhaps?!.) In some schools of Buddhism, it is directly connected with tantric practice; a practice whose friend-destroying path I’ve crossed in the recent past, shortly before this album went into production. And, in a personal sense, as I discovered the importance of the mandala concept, I felt it would be a fitting tribute to the friend I lost and the circumstances that surrounded it, because I still plan to send her a copy of the finished product to place in her collection.I can attest to the very real power of the Mandala. I am not qualified to claim to have experienced the quasi-supernatural visions that occur in a genuine Buddhist practitioner, but in my own way I have seen something powerful happen to me.

  • “In Buddhist usage, a mandala is a matrix or model of a perfected universe, the nurturing environment of the perfected self in ecstatic interconnection with perfected others. It is a blueprint for buddhahood conceived as attainment not only of an individual’s ultimate liberation and supreme bliss, but also as the attainment of such release and bliss by an individual fully integrated with his or her environment and field of associates.”
  • “A mandala is compassion, it is form, it is infinite wisdom expressing infinite love extended to those caught in the finite-infinite dichotomy to whom it opens a door of liberation, a gateway to freedom, a portal to the infinite.”
  • “… mandala is the term for a chapter, a collection of mantras or verse hymns chanted in Vedic ceremonies, perhaps coming from the sense of round, as in a round of songs.”
  • “A mandala is also any circle, such as a disc of the sun or moon, and, by extension, any environment or surround, the sphere of influence of a kingdom, the circle of acquaintances of a person, and so forth.”

Robert A.F. Thurman Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment (essay) (© Robert A.F. Thurman) Reprinted with permission.

Inspirational People: My Father, Buddha, H.H. The Dalai Lama, The Musicians, Singer-Songwriters, Various ex-girlfriends

Inspirational Places: Philadelphia, PA, Hazleton, PA, Harrisburg, PA, Hickory Run State Park, Las Vegas (and all points in between there and Harrisburg)

“There is nothing to it. You only have to hit the right note at the right time, and the instrument plays itself.” — Johann Sebastian Bach

Songwriting and recording are not all emotion and mushy stuff. Nor are they fun 100% of the time. This page, and the links from it, will go into the technical aspects of this recording. Beware if you are not a musician or engineer. This stuff is boring!

On the other hand, if you are interested in this sort of thing, I am sure you will get some good insights into how a production like this comes together. If you are also a songwriter or recording musician, there are invaluable hints.

100% of this album was recorded mixed and produced with the Roland VS-1680 Digital Audio Workstation. Minimal outboard gear was used. Mastering was done with Cakewalk, WAV plugins and Easy CD Creator.

See my separate – much longer and geektastic – entry on the recording process, but here’s a summary.

MANDALA Trivia & Statistics:

  • 16 Months in the making
  • Approx. 2100 Hours of recording time
  • Over 80 Hours of Mixing & Mastering
  • 2 Soundcards
  • 18 Sets of Guitar/Bass Strings (total)
  • Recorded, mixed and mastered in 1 apartment, and 2 basements
  • Over 3600 MB of Storage for 12 completed songs
  • 1400 Miles on my car during mixing & mastering
  • 2 Cars
  • 3 Broken Guitar Strings
  • 3 Three publishing houses for reprint rights
  • 0 Record company executives to bring this to reality

Hurdles: Lou had to come up from Florida for a week to do his parts. In May 1999 I had a car accident, effectively halting the project for a month. Anxiety attack in September really started to change my perception of things as I lay in the ambulance wondering… Hurricane Floyd threatened to delay further the hard work of my dedicated team.

Gear & Instruments used: Roland VS-1680 Digital Audio Workstation & CD Burner, ART Tube PAC (tube preamp + compressor), ART Levelar (tube compressor), AKG 414, Shure SM57’s & 58’s, VP88 Stereo Condenser Mike, Audio Technica 4050CM5, Peavey PVM520i cardioid dynamic mic for bass drums, Iomega Zip Drive (SCSI), WAVS Plugins, Cakewalk 8.0, Ovation semi-shallow body cutaway, Alvarez Acoustic, 98 American Standard Fender Stratocaster, 4-string Fender Precision-style Stinger Bass (made by Martin), 4-string Washburn Bass, Carvin 5-string, Carvin Custom 6-string fretless, Fender Blues Junior, Kurzweil K2500, Tascam DAP1 (for sampling), Various Ibanez guitars and ART processors.

How my techniques have changed since Mandala…

After Mandala, I needed to do something stripped back (Cadillacs & Tarantulas). My present day technique combines the techniques used on Mandala with stripped down, acoustic-only recording, and adds loops/samples to the mix.

On drums… for a while after Mandala, I used sampled drums because they are more flexible, and I didn’t have access to a room, mics and engineer. I didn’t do live drums again until Chaos Rise Up.

I use the Roland with my PC for MIDI and digital audio sync using Acid Pro and Cakewalk Pro Audio, but I’m running a Pentium II, so there’s sometimes latency issues. I am looking forward to a Pentium 4 soon.The Roland’s mike preamps and D/A converters aren’t the best. They are good, but in my experience, I have had better results when using tube preamps and other off-board equipment. Preamps are necessary to get better signal to noise ratio, especially with acoustic guitar and voice.

Based on comparisons I’ve done with a few other artists using Roland products, my project was probably an 8 or 9 on a scale from 1 to 10.

I never felt that I truly pushed the Roland to its full limit. To do so would be unnecessarily complex. It’s more machine than most people need, and if you are at a point where you DO need all of its features, you might be better off using a real studio. For example, the automation is decent, but if you really need that feature, there are better options on larger systems. Waveform editing is very tedious and inexact at best, and there’s nothing like using a PC for that task.None of this is meant to detract from the Roland line of workstations. I’m simply much wiser and more realistic about how I approach my projects now. The Roland is integral to my writing and producing process.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.