The Recording Process

October 10th, 2007

When a band first approaches me to record an album the first thing they mention is how they want to record the band playing all at once. It takes everything I have to not roll my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to record the album like that, there are a lot of benefits. It will absolutely give you a better performance over all and a lot more energy, it really does add to the vibe of the record. The problems these days is that bands are much too unrehearsed to actually pull this off.

In order for you to be able to record the album like that the you need to know the songs, perfectly. You need to already know where the bridge is, how long the chorus is ect ect. It’s not easy to memorize a dozen songs and be able to play them perfectly on cue, it takes a lot of effort and work. Just getting the song mapped out and written down is quite a challenge. I’m not in any way trying to belittle the efforts of these bands, I’ve been there. Hell, I am there.

What happens in reality is people come in and and assume that because it’s being recorded digitally we can just chop it up and morph it into something that sounds good. They come into the studio assuming I can fix all of their issues in editing, this is not the case. We can do a lot with digital but at the end of the day: Garbage in, garbage out. If you played a crappy guitar solo you are going to hear it on the album. We can go in and move some parts around and make it usable but it’s not going to be great. You have to be great to get great out of the process. But since they start the process thinking we can fix everything later and make it sound amazing they play lazy and as a result the record is lazy.

Back when editing was hard work involving razor blades and the chance that when you slice the tape you will make an unrepairable error people were much more hesitant to edit. It was easier, safer and faster to just play it correctly. People were forced to know how to play well and forced to do that on cue.

These days I’m hard pressed just to get the guitar player to play his solo twice let alone the backing rhythm tracks that are such a huge part of the overall song. They finish a take and when I ask them if they want to try it again they look at me blankly through the windows and say ‘Nah, you can edit that later.’ In the end I’m left with 1 or maybe 2 crap takes that are out of time, out of tune and in a lot of cases just wrong. All I have are takes full of lots of buzzing strings on frets or missed hits on the drums. It’s a mess.

What am I supposed to do? The band gives me crap and expects me to produce a hit record. Recording an album can be a grueling process and people don’t think about that. They see it on VH1 as a simple quick 30 second blurb. The artist records a take one time and it sounds fantastic. They assume thats how it will be in real life. Peopled don’t understand…realize…know that that is television, not reality.

So what happens is the band comes in and plays through the songs a couple times together while I record. Then they listen back and start to hear some of the problems. They say, we’ll rerecord that guitar section, we’ll fix that drum fill, we redo the vocals on that verse and the list starts to get long. So I sort of back them around to another way of doing the recording, one track at a time, each person playing alone. It lowers the stakes, people can mess up and only ruin their track instead of the whole band’s take. People can slow down and focus on one section of the song and redo it 10 times until they like what it sounds like.

This method has some obvious draw backs, it takes longer to record the song and you loose that whole band vibe but you do get the overall quality that you need to make it work in the end. The only unforeseen issue is someone has to be first. Some person needs to record their tracks alone without any backing tracks, just them and the click. The click is like a metronome played back in the headphones to keep the musicians on the correct beat. Usually the person to go first is the drums.

This is tough. It’s not easy to play to a click and for someone who is not used to it, it can be very frustrating. It seems like it would be simple. As a musician you probably assume you have pretty good timing but when it comes right down to it unless you play with a metronome a lot your timing is probably not that great. It can be so confusing people will ask me if I’m sure the click is correct. They are so sure of their timing they assume it’s a computer malfunction. I can assure you.. the computer is not wrong. But, once the drummer has recorded his parts we are off and running and the process becomes much more easy.

This is the way more current records are done. One thing at a time all the way down the line. For professional studio musicians this is no problem, those guys can be handed a chart and play to perfectly on the first try. If you played 8+ hours a day you could do that too but in reality, most of the musicians that come to my studio are weekend warriors and are hard pressed to find 8 hours in a week to play! Now, again, don’t get me wrong. I love this stuff and not knowing your songs 100% doesn’t bother me at all. I know most of these guys have day jobs and I want to do everything I can to make the record as good as it can be so that they can be proud of it. I’m not complaining, I’m really not.

All I want to do is bring people around to the idea that playing in the studio all at once may not be the best choice. I want your record to sound great. It’s good business for me and it’s great to have something you can sell and be proud of. There are few things more rewarding, for me at least, then finding out someone is really enjoying a record you played or worked on.

Topslakr

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