Thursday, September 27, 2007

Great Demo! Now Why Does My Master Feel Like Shit?

I was going back and forth with my friend Pieps today via email and he brought up a great subject. I started to discuss what I felt but as I have only so many keystrokes in me, I chose to save them for this entry.

I've said a lot in this blog about broadcast standards and recording techniques, how to mix a demo to portray a song effectively and the benefits of professional recording when attempting to actually sell music. But Pieps raised an extremely valid point that I have failed to discuss. This concerns the "spirit" of musical creation as opposed to the technical aspects of recording.

When it comes to recording the art of music, one size does not fit all. Carnegie Hall is regarded by many to be a nearly perfect acoustic environment. But would you really want to see Rammstein perform there? Sometimes a bedroom recording rig is the perfect environment to create an ethereal sound collage not requiring an acoustic environment. Or, in the case of a young bunch of musicians playing their hearts out and recording their inspirations on a laptop, will a professional recording environment improve the spirit and intense vibe of their efforts.

So what's more important, ass-kicking feel, vibe and honesty, or a proper equalization curve? Well, I want it all...all the time. But I have to side with Pieps' opinion that properly recorded crap is still crap...and that there is a huge amount of great music out there that bears listening because of what it is, not how it is recorded.

And this brings me to the title of this entry. What the hell are you supposed to do when you record a demo dripping with vibe...and you take the song into the studio only to find that the "moment" will never allow itself to be recreated? This is absolutely the most frustrating experience an artist can have when working on a record. When you're watching the clock, paying triple-scale musicians and have some idiot suit breathing down your neck it can make delivering pizzas seem like a viable option.

When we were recording the "Windows" album with Beej Chaney, we ran into that situation a lot. Beej recorded his song ideas on cassettes. He would make up a kooky drum loop, play his jagged style of guitar and sing the song at the same time. Now this guy only had one way of doing things. It didn't matter if he was playing to a cassette, 2 inch tape or 50,000 people, he made his music with every cell of his body. The cassette demos were technically horrible, but there was an honesty, feel and vibe that would prove to be difficult to capture in the studio. Luckily, he owned the studio and we did settle into a work routine that allowed us to come damned close.

We decided to track only one song a day. We would convene at about 2:00 pm, shoot the shit and hang out for about an hour with the demo playing in the control room. Then we'd drift into the studio, pick up our instruments while still visiting and absent-mindedly start noodling along with the demo which was still looping over the speakers. Gradually, the feel of the demo would start to infect everyone in the room because each of us was playing along with the wacky little drum loop and all the other idiosyncrasies on the cassette. After about 2 hours of jamming with each other along with the cassette, things would start to bubble along. Then we would take a dinner break, come back to the studio where the guitar player would make a round of ridiculously strong cappuccinos, and hang out at the back door smoking cigars and farting til about 8:30 or so. We'd go in, tune up, mount up and push record. Many times the first take would be the track but we always did at least three just because it was fun.

It sounds like we were just fucking around, doesn't it? Actually a lot of thought went into the process. Any of us could walk in, play whatever was on the music stand, collect a check and be home in time for American Idol. But the idea was for all of us to become Beej, to play our parts as if he were playing them. In the end, we were fairly successful in capturing the vibe of eighth-graders with studio chops. But I did get spoiled and that's why I say that I want it all...vibe and quality.

There was another instance at Shangri La in which the compromise between capturing a vibe and recording properly became a hands down decision to opt for the vibe. John Hanlon was producing Belgian artist Admiral Freebee's album "Songs." We had the grand piano mic'd up for a ballad. While we took a break, the Admiral went across the room to the old upright and started to play through the song. As he noodled, he started to sing the song to himself and also to play the harmonica which he still had on his neck holder from a previous track. Suddenly, John reached over and put the tape machine into record. I told him that the upright wasn't mic'd but he said, "Listen to that man, he'll never sing it like that again!" It didn't seem to matter that the upright and the vocal were all being recorded through microphones that were about twenty feet away from where they should have been. After the song was over, the Admiral pushed back the stool and walked down the hall to the control room, opening and closing doors as he went. John caught it all on tape and that's the last track on the album. We could have worked that song for the next two days, but we never would have caught that moment again.

Yes, there is a lot of great sounding, technically correct crap out there. Some music doesn't warrant the ridiculous piles of money and resources thrown at it. But that's the nature of the business sometimes. Wouldn't it be great to be a fly on the wall when a bedroom recording genius kicks one through the goal posts? Better yet, wouldn't it be great to be a fly on the wall with a nice pair of C-12s so the moment is recorded properly? I can't help it...I want it all. Thanks Pieps, you always make me think.

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