The Holy Grail of Recording. Having a recording session for a musician can be like the holy grail. A permanent record of music, something to put in the personal archives. Ever since I got my first four track tape recorder, I realised that recording was not simple and performing when the little red light came on, was something that can reduce a man to sweats, swearing, frustration, loss of self confidence, major loss of face in front of your friends and more importantly, your band! A band is more than a family and the pressures of recording can be a nightmare when you feel you are letting your band down and wasting time and money as a result.
Focused pressure. I remember being completely unable to record a keyboard part in a studio in Southend when I was 15 due to the absolute pressure of playing an isolated part in front of the whole class I was working with. In the end, the engineer had to record the part and I went home in shame. The memory still makes me shudder but the reasons for my inability to produce a part to order were only clear many years later.
Firstly, I had not practiced the part sufficiently as I only had been given this in the morning and I hadn’t got the skills to pick up new material quickly. Secondly I was so nervous that my brain only functioned in its panic state which has only limited function and can only recall things it has in auto pilot mode. Ie a piece of music you are used to playing over and over again and again. This is totally and utterly the wrong way to think, act and prepare for performance recording.
So what causes us to Freeze in the studio? Well. Being a lover of analogies, and naughty ones at that, playing a gig in front of an audience is like making love and being caught up in the sensuality of the moment, whereas, recording in a studio is like being in a porn movie, performing to order in front of two rather disinterested camera men.
Not many people can or want to do this intimate act to order in such a sterile environment!
A performance has one key aspect which is essential. An audience. The relationship an artist has with an audience can be as intimate and exciting as any personal relationship and as rewarding, whereas the studio can leave the artist feeling a bit sterile and under intense scientific scrutiny. Many studios can be awful places where the engineer and producers can make the artist incredibly self conscious.
The problems in recording. As you will find out from my previous blogs, I am a firm believer in focusing on an experience and an audience rather than our own nerves. For example we might think about the bigger picture when we are playing a gig, thinking about future opportunities and future gigs letting our inspiration carry us past a problem like just getting a top paid executive job when you are worried about an overdraft. The high salary you earn obliterates the debt just like inspiration obliterates fear. Be inspired and nerves diminish.
Nerves in the studio are caused by one or two things.
1. The ability to redo any takes
2. The ability to capture the unreal
3. The ability to stop time
All of these three points have massive pros and massive cons which can devastate any recording process if you are not careful.
Point 1. The ability to redo any takes seemed like an amazing gift when I had my first four track recorder however it soon dawned on me that I could spend the whole weekend trying to ‘get it right’ or ‘get it better’ and get it down on tape. That was stressful and depressing and inevitably resulted in me getting stale and frustrated. What I really needed to do, was practice the part so it was right and then return to the 4 track but the lure of ‘capturing’ and ‘immortalising’ my ideas was too great. I would slog away for hours and for whole weekends.
It also stretched my relationships with others if I could not get things down in one take. Also, the end results sounded like a terrible soul-less patchwork quilt of below-par playing.
Point 2. Capturing the unreal meant that it was expected that the ok solo you did on stage had to be replaced in the studio with an amazing solo to end all solos. This places completely unnatural pressure on an artist. I remember practicing for a blues band, the keyboard solo that was going on our demo for weeks and weeks. In the end, I just couldnt get it in time and always went ahead because I had panicked myself so much that I automatically became nervous by association with the solo. I still shudder thinking of the band watching me, over dubbing the solo in isolation. How weird?!
Point 3. The ability to stop time. Quite often there is a tendency to want to lay down parts that you would normally not play on stage which can raise your stress levels. This goes back to the point I made earlier about patchwork solos and expecting new ideas to be laid down perfectly minutes after they have been written. It is unrealistic at times and stressful. Be careful to plan your session and make sure everyone is comfortable with the material and allow it time to be rehearsed. The other point about stopping time is that an audience gets tired whereas tape recorders go on and on…
So how do we deal with this?
It all depends on what you are recording and how you would normally gig. If you live for live gigs then it would make sense to record at your gig. These days, an 8 input sound interface is quite affordable and the number of people skilled enough to record, is increasing all the time. Microphones are also cheap and a great performance, recorded averagely beats a pristine stale recording every time. If this isn’t possible then why not stage your own event where you invite an audience to listen to your session? In fact, a German jazz label in the 60s and 70s called MPS, used to invite the cleaners or any other out of hours staff into the late night sessions so the artists would lose the nerves and enjoy themselves. Very few artists love playing without an audience. It is also easier to merge takes etc after the event with digital technology. The energy and focus an audience brings you is amazing. Adrenalin makes you focus on music and enjoying yourself and getting the audience to enjoy themselves. Most bands have a core following of fans that would give their right arms to be part of this type of event. It is worth thinking about. It may even be a good publicity stunt too, to offer as prizes, premier places in the studio recording.
Pick your engineer. Some engineers seem to anticipate your needs and understand you and your music. A good engineer should take an interest in you and your music and have a sympathetic vibe to you and your band. So choose wisely because engineers who get amazing recordings for some bands may not be right for you if you find their personality difficult for you to be creative. Some engineers kill the vibe completely and you need a good vibe above everything else. It is your life blood.
I would recommend that you get the who, why, what, when, where, how sorted to best represent your band.
Who will be recording you? Who will be listening ie who are the studio audience?
Why are you recording? Is it a demo? Who is it for? What songs will you be recording? What do the tracks mean for you and the band? Keep all the answers to these questions deep in your heart.
When will you record? What time of day is good for you?
Where will it be recorded? Why?
How will you record it? In a venue with multi track sound or in a studio?
Preparation for recording. The studio is NOT the place to learn to play music. Many top artists only record what is comfortable at the time. Dave Brubeck did NOT take a solo in the quartet’s best selling Jazz song recording of “Take Five” because he did not yet feel confident soloing on the song at that time. After the recording, Brubeck went on to perform the song with the full band taking extended solos. The fact that Brubeck Did not improvise on the track, was in no way a reflection oh his piano skills but just a desire to do his best and realise that Joe Morello was more than capable of performing a drum solo on this number.
I take great comfort in that story! Nowadays, with the advent of Recording equipment being fairly accessible I tend to prepare mp3 tracks of the songs I will be recording with my vocal parts in and with them NOT in so I can prepare my subconscious for the recording. I want it to be natural when I am recording and I want to have the chance to be lost in the moment and NOT lost in trying to remember the lines or harmonies.
There is no reason why you cannot ask the band to play without you for a rough recording to give a Hole for you to practice with on headphones. I like doing this. It really makes it fun and easy. Any dictaphone is a good idea – it doesn’t have to be hi-tech.
Prepare for recording with a few gigs to gig in the material. Tweak the parts you are playing in the gig and think, “when I record, I like that bit, I’ll put that in. ” etc. remember that pink flloyd gigged dark side of the moon, improvising, composing, testing and refining it for 6 months before they went into the studio. I hear that album did quite well…
Be professional in practicing for the recording. Many people think that when recording, it is easy to fix in the mix. This is not always true. If you can only just about play something it will sound like you only just learned it. Think about how you want it to be and what it could be like. Sometimes I simplify a part when recording to make it more reliable and playable. When in the studio, it is easier to go for a good rendition that you are happy with than waste time trying to obtain the once in a life time solo etc.
Recordings reveal quite a few things that gigs do not but you can use the process to help you. Separating out guitar parts, chords from solos and some fills can give you more freedom when you record. If you know you will feel stressed, change the part or talk to the engineer. You can take control over the situation so you might as well make your life easy. Seek advice from engineers about the bits you are worried about and find solutions. As Paul Simon says, he loves recording as there are no problems he cannot solve in the studio. He can fix it in the recording process, breaking tricky parts down into smaller parts. Overdubbing and separating out parts is an excellent strategy.
Expand the good thoughts.
All the time you are playing songs before the recording process starts, be thinking “why” you are recording the songs and talk about them with your band and really feel what they mean to you and what opportunities they will give you as a band. Will it be a seller? A promotional recording? Something for YouTube or Facebook pages? Treat each song lovingly. Give them names and love them like your own children. The more they mean to you and the more you focus past the recording, the better they will be. If you think about mistakes, you get mistakes. I tend to think, “Cool – we now have a demo we can use to get gigs!” or “We now have something to sell at gigs” or I want to be thinking “this recording will be amazing as our fans love this song and I am so proud of it, so I want a great record of it and I cannot wait to get it online for our fans.” What would you like to be thinking about the songs you are going to be recording in the studio?
- Eat good nutritious food and plenty of water. They fight fatigue and help you to stay focused for long lengths of time.
- Take breaks and get fresh air. (great advice from Rob Brian – Session Drummer.
- Practice the songs so they are solid. Use technology to help you practice ie rough backing recordings.
- Immerse yourself in them completely! Know every aspect of them.
- Consider having a hand picked encouraging audience in the studio.
- Consider a live recording at a venue.
- Only record what is ready to record.
- Use gigs to thoroughly rehearse the material and let it develop naturally.
- Think and know in your heart why you are recording the songs.
- Think past the problem of red light fever. Thinking “this song is a problem” attracts problems.
- Solve these before you set foot in the studio.
- Change your instrumental parts if need be so they are reproducible with reasonable ease.
- Aim for exceptional performances in the incredible songs that you love knowing that the recordings will bring you more wonderful opportunities.
Lastly, just change the recording light to green….