Monday, October 11, 2004

The Comfort Factor or Second Time's a Charm

Some music producers will say the secrets to a great record are...

1. the song
2. the performance
3. the recording quality

In that order.

That being said, for the engineer who works with a different artist every day, who often hasn't even met the artist until the day of the session, who's probably never heard their music before, making a great record is a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Especially when the artist is a band that wants to leave 8 hours later with a 4 song demo they can use to get gigs, a manager, or a deal. Maybe they're a four piece with three members who've never been in a studio, never overdubbed vocals, never even performed with tapes rolling (or hard disks spinning). Perhaps they've never heard their music from anywhere except inside it-in a rehearsal room or live gig. They've certainly never been in a position to listen back, to analyze their performance from an "objective" standpoint (is there such a thing?). They've saved up their $200, they've practiced, but how can they really prepare for a day for which there's no reference? The mysteries of multitrack recording are truly a mystery. If we do everything live, can we change it after? Maybe they have a favorite record or band they want to sound like. Maybe not.

SO, back to the three keys to a great record... song, performance, recording quality. In that order.

Well, I'm probably not going to try to rewrite or rearrange their songs. They know them, I'm just hearing them for the first time. Often the first time I hear a song it's without vocals (we'll overdub those later) so there's no way to know the verse from the chorus. There may be vocals during that instrumental break; I'll know when they sing 'em. That can be the best part of a session-hearing the song, with the vocal, for the first time, after hearing it as an instrumental for an hour. AHHHH! I get it now. I see.

Alright, until I'm at that point I certainly can't suggest that they double the length of that chorus or get rid of the second bridge. Thankfully, by the time they get to the studio, most bands know which of their tunes are their "hits," which ones have gotten the best reaction from friends or fans. They've performed them, maybe a couple of times, maybe for years. So for now the songs are set. Cross number 1 off that list.

Number 3, of course, is supposed to be my top priority. That's what I'm really being paid for, right? If they wanted a crappy recording, they'd go to a rehearsal space and use the single old mic hanging from the ceiling into the tape deck that's never been cleaned.

Whoah-wait a minute. Sometimes those are the best recordings, right? Completely spontaneous, in a familiar environment, no stress. Ah, yes. Number 2. The performance.

A band in a new space, with an engineer who may or may not hear things the way they do. Some of the gear is different. Certainly the environment is different. So we really need to worry about that performance, 'cause that's what we'll hear, even more than the recording quality.

I'm obsessive about recording quality, of course, and like many engineers I know the ins and outs of my gear well enough to get a good sound. Every recording I do brings me a little closer to the ideal.

This is where it all comes together. For the artist who's in the studio for the first time, the best thing they can do for their music is come back. Because then we know each other. The anxiety of the new space is gone. I've recorded them before. They've listened back before. We've all heard their music on different stereos, in the car, from the little speakers on their iBook. They're old pros. We've all learned something from the first time, which is always a little stressful (who here remembers their first time?). It all helps the performance, which is the 2nd most important part. And I've heard some of their songs in completed form. We're a little more familiar with each other, and maybe-if the first session went well-I can start to listen more to structure, to figure out ways to improve the songs, and they'll trust me. So Number 1 gets a little help as well.

So come back, come back! 'Cause if the second time's a charm, who knows what the third time will be?


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