While I don’t tend to be a fan of multi-part articles, this topic is simply too important to cram into a single issue. Capturing a great performance is every bit if not more about the performance as is it about recording it. While it seems obvious that coaxing an inspired performance out of a musician is an essential part of a great recording, most of the articles I’ve read on recording offer little or no input on how to do this. All of this is further complicated by the fact that these articles tend to be written by and for engineers. While honing our engineering chops is part of what we’ll be covering, we live in a day and age where many of us function as both the talent and the engineer. To me this means we’re probably having the wrong conversation to begin with. To help bridge this gap, this series of articles is going to be written from the perspective that the creative, recording, and performance worlds have collided in a beautiful way. Whether you’re an engineer wanting to make more inspired recordings, or a guitarist wanting to capture the actual sound of your guitar in the room, this series is going to have something for you. For those of us who have to think as both an artist and engineer, I am looking forward to serving up some great food for thought, as well as some really practical advice on how to raise the bar across the entire creative experience before, during and after that little red light goes on.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with producers/engineers like Eric Valentine (Keith Urban, Maroon 5, Third Eye Blind, Slash), John Cuniberti (Joe Satriani, Chikenfoot, Dead Kennedys, Jerry Garcia), and Richie Corsello (McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Greg Kihn) in some pretty amazing studios, most of which are now closed. Generations of engineers got their start as interns, making coffee and cleaning toilets before working their way up through the ranks. If they had talent, a strong work ethic and the right attitude, the older cats would take them under their wing and show them the ropes. As the heyday of big recording studios declined, so did this process.
Although many of us share a common set of challenges, our varied experience and financial means can really limit our perspective on the recording process. That is to say that if you’re sole recording experience is using Garage Band on an iPad, that is the lens through which you’ll likely see the world of recording. Because of this I’d like to start by equalizing our collective perspective.
LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
To help level our collective playing field, looking back at what’s been lost in translation as we’ve moved into the digital age is a great place to start our conversation. The producers and engineers who showed me the ropes were talking with me and not at me. They really cared to pass on the things that shaped their careers with the hope that they could help shape mine. It is in this exact spirit with which I’ll be writing this column.
THE DIGITAL VACUUM
Today, it’s easy to live in a digital vacuum where we master how to harness technology without the benefit of knowing more about the path that got us here. As recording in a home studio has become the norm, a wealth of experience-born knowledge has tragically been lost along the way. It used to be that engineers were a community of people working at one or more studios, sharing their trade secrets, and deconstructing those used on the latest records. In those days people used much the same equipment, which meant that the path from point A to point B was much easier to trace. Whether it’s Mac or PC, corporations have made it their mission to separate us into tribes instead of a community of recording enthusiasts. While the iconic producers and engineers might have had their preference between a Neve or an API console, it all ended up on a Studer 24-track machine. Because of this, their collective experience was more alike than not. This meant that a great sounding record was the result of a great production.
ANALOG TO DIGITAL
Units like the Fostex X-15 four track cassette recorder I bought in the early 80’s are the historical equivalent to Garage Band. Once I finally got a home recording setup, I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn both as a player and an engineer. In the beginning it was a rather painful process. I’d love to help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made as well as those I continue to make.
Back in the day, going into the studio required coming up with a budget for how much time and tape you would need to get the job done. Before we ever went into the studio, there would be a pretty intensive period of pre-production. The way the many of us rehearse music at Church is pretty much the antithesis of what pre-production was and is all about. This is hugely important, so we’ll be coming back to this in a moment.
In the old days if you did not do the heavy lifting in pre-production you would blow through your studio time and have nothing to show for it. Unlike the home studio environment, working in a big studio requires substantial set up time to get “tones” (getting everything dialed so it sounds great). This meant that if you had to come back into the studio to cut more basic tracks, the tracks would always sound different, even when it came time to mix them. The other danger was running out of time once you started mixing. Just like the tracking process, once you got the studio set up to mix, you wanted to mix everything at the same time since the board would get “zero’d” (all knobs turned to zero and the luscious analog outboard gear would get unpatched once your “lockout” time ended.
As I relaxed into home recording I developed a few bad habits along the way. Because the recording process is a creative one for me, I am no longer as efficient with my time as I once was. When I’m in my most creative space, I tend to use my emotions about a performance as a gauge for good or bad, not the amount of time it took to get there. While I value the feedback of living in my emotions, it can be a slippery slope that prevents many people from ever finishing what they start. If that’s you, this next section should prove helpful.
Back in the day this meant doing some rough recordings on my eight-track reel to reel before heading into the big studio. There were a number of benefits to this process. First of all it allowed me to get comfortable with tracking the parts themselves. It’s one thing to play a part on stage. It’s a completely different thing to sit down without the bright lights and hear it in the ugly light of day. While this can be a bit discouraging at first, but a good reality check is a great way to check your reality! The other, and perhaps broader benefit was that I got to live with the rough mixes of the parts and arrangements as I recorded. Because recording outside of the box (not using a computer) required a bit more skill to get from point A to point B, you never left a session without running a mix. In those days you had to spend a lot more time listening to the rough mixes because what you tracked is what you had to work with. If it didn’t work on the demo, it wasn’t mysteriously going to start working in the big studio. Auto-Tune was not an option.
One of the other benefits of living in the digital age is the fact that you don’t have to use a band to make a record. Once you get a bit handy with plug-ins like EZdrummer, the average listener will have no idea that they are not listening to a real drummer. That said, there are some serious drawbacks, especially for Church musicians who have never had the benefit of rehearsing a song for weeks before playing it live. While one might argue that learning to be a one man studio show is a great way to go, nothing can replace the organic chemistry of musicians interacting as they take a song someplace together. The idea of playing one song for hours on end is completely foreign to many if not most Church musicians. And herein lies our challenge. We’ve become so insular in how we do what we do, that there is a total disconnect when it comes to understanding what bands outside of the “Aviom bubble” actually do to craft ideas into arrangements.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll be covering a range of pre-production solutions for the digital age. Can’t wait to continue the conversation!