Saturday, March 18, 2006

Whammer

The gig a couple of weeks ago is now but a fuzzy memory and now we've gotten down to work. Make no mistake about it, recording stuff is work. When you play live mistakes are gone instantly. Every beat is a new beginning, provided you don't make too many mistakes, the audience won't really notice. But recording, well, it's for keeps.

A live performance is about getting the band working together as a single unstoppable unit whose goal is to make the maximum impact on the audience. A hammer. When it's working right those listening will get what you're on about whether they want to or not. They might not go home knowing the chorus or humming that pretty little turnaround from the last bridge, but they should have felt the emotions you intended to convey. Of course on a bad night all they go home with is the emotional equivalent of a smashed thumb, but hey, that's why bars serve booze.

Recording is a whole 'nuther kettle of metaphor. Because any mistake you make is permanent, it's less about drive and unity of momentum and more about getting the details right. It's like building watches: little tiny pieces slotted into their places just so. Everything has to fit 'cause there's no place to hide when it can be played back over and over.

The process of getting the details right often sucks the life out of a great song. It's a common experience were the band was great in performance but the CD bought at the merch table sucks. There's a thing called "Red Light Fever" where performers who know the material inside and out still tense up when the recording light is lit. When you're trying not to make mistakes it's inevitable that you're going to play cautiously and caution isn't exciting.

So how the hell do you build a watch that's also be a hammer?

We're recording the band as a whole, where everyone plays at the same time rather than overdubbing each part separately. This help keep the energy up but it means that if any one of use has a bad take the whole track is lost.

We've also been employing tricks like playing two takes in a row without stopping in the hopes that the second will be a little less stressful. Segmenting the songs as much as possible so that a mistake in the last section won't ruin the whole take helps too.

All in all everyone seems to be enjoying this session a lot more than the last one. I'm not sure why. Maybe we're getting better at it. I know for myself I'm really enjoying the process of watchmaking.

We've isolated the instruments as much as possible and everyone is using headphones to hear each other. I love this. I can tailor who's in my ears and make it whisper quiet if I want. Sweet indeed. I've found all I really need is the drums to be clear and present with just enough bass and lead guitar to know where I am in the song.

Now that I can hear myself and the drums clearly I'm finding that it's getting easier and easier to fit my rhythm into what E's doing. Our parts are beginning to dovetail together in a way that they never did before. This is immensely satisfying. I'm getting a kick out of it that rivals what I get from hearing an audience respond.

There's satisfaction in swinging a hammer, it's primal and visceral. But there's satisfaction in an intricate job done right as well. In some ways it even goes deeper. Hammers are all about the moment and immediacy and because of that the feeling they create fades quickly. (Insert drug reference here.) But watchmaking speaks to grander things. Putting it all together correctly is a reflection of the intricacy of our world and perhaps even the universe as a whole. Each part has its role and the sum can't be achieved unless everything is working properly. This is as true for songs as it is for ecosystems and I think on some level we can feel that. Maybe it's hubris, treading on ground that is meant for the gods alone, or maybe we're just inseparable from our baroque clockwork universe. We are in it, and of it to such an extent that creating our own little universes is what we're meant to do.

If so, it doesn't matter if we can get the watch to be a hammer; the attempt is enough.

4 comments:

Fred said...

Reminds me of the last time I was in the studio, back in 2000. We were so excited to get the project done in 2 days but looking back on it now I wish we'd taken more time. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the inspiration the day before I enter the studio to finally work on my solo album!

Where are you guys recording?

Over the past two months, I've been rehearsing twice a week alone with my drummer (because we'll be laying down the basic tracks, with guitar, fiddle and voice as overdubs). As a band, we practiced only once per week (due to people's busy schedules), and I also worked with the guitar player and the fiddle player individually as much as possible. It's nice to get a feel for the variety of dynamics.

Over the past two weeks, we've been practicing without vocals (to simulate recording as much as possible - vocals usually go on last, unless there's time for scratch vocals). We also recorded all of the practices so to give us a chance to listen to the arrangements to ensure as little surprises once we get into the studio (and paying for the time we spend there).

If I drew anything from this experience of prepping to go to studio is that I learned to listen. I'm playing in the pocket with my drummer, (and I'm not even playing bass on this recording - well, OK, the double bass on ONE track).

I feel that we're as ready as we possibly can be, and I'm excited. Now the trick is to not get 'red light fever.' On the other hand, I'm recording at L ittle B ullhorn Studios where D ave D raves has recorded the likes of K atheleen E dwards. I've worked with him three or four times in the past, and he knows when to push for another take, and when to suggest moving on to something new. He's also great at telling you to do something over without smothering your self-esteem as a musician/singer. I trust him implicitly.

I've booked the studio for Thursday, Saturday and the following weekend. Seven songs of drums and accordion go down on Thursday with the intention of taking all of Friday to ensure we're satisfied with what we hear. There's nothing like laying down a track, feeling really good about the performance and later listening to it thinking it's pure crap. I just wanted to have a bit of time to step away and then really listen. Too much time, however, can be paralyzing. You can't afford to tear yourself apart either. You'll never go back to studio after that!

Saturday, we redo any basic tracks we feel need to be redone and we tear down the drums. Then we alternate between vocals, fiddle and guitar depending on how everyone feels. The last thing I want is to put my voice through an 8-hour vocal session.

That night, everyone goes home with rough mixes to give a very careful listen until the following weekend which will be used for any necessary retakes and punch-ins (with the exception of drums - they HAVE to be done by the first Saturday morning) and mixing.

That is the plan. But in response to Freddy, I've also informed D ave that this will take the time it will take and will cost what it will cost to have a decent product. No one wants to spend money unnecessarily, hence all the time spent prepping for a recording. On the other hand, it has also been my experience that to rush things too much leads to disappointment in the future. It's a shame that an extra two hundred dollars will mean the difference between something you like and something you don't want anyone else to listen to.

The trick is knowing what when to keep working (and spending money) and when to put the thing to rest.

Happy recording!

Love,

MJ xx

Fred said...

I know what you're saying! The studio is fun but my last experience left me feeling a bit empty afterwards. The fella who designed our cover & jacket thought it cool to use clipart and I was thoroughly pissed (it looked like it was done by a kid using Microsoft Word).

The CD I'm doing is at home. I don't play fiddle and since they're fiddle tunes, I'm forced to use my computer. It's not too bad, but I'm treating it more like a full-length demo until I can find a fiddle player to do them real justice.

My next goal is to record the songs I've written but because I'm still getting to know Ottawa's music scene, I'm waiting until I can find a banjo and mandolin player to create the sound I want. I play guitar, piano, and accordion, but I really want a lot of strings for that Celtic/bluegrass sound. One day I'm sure I'll get to do this.

Let me know when your CD is out! I'm curious. Do you have a band web site?

Cheers,

Fred

BWE said...

Ha! As long as you don't make too many mistakes is right. My band played a show on wed. night (I too am too old to be a rocker but I bit the bullet and bought an acoustic. I'm in an acoustic bar band. So's my brother. Unbeknownst to us, the sound guy recorded us. Amazingly, it wasn't that bad despite hearing my brother the bassist say covertly (he thought) "That's why you shouldn't give Drunk people microphones!" Apparently, the audience must've heard that comment too.