Almost done with the most daunting portion of POWERCHORDS: the section on recording. For while I have experience with touring, concerts, promotion, crew gigs, musical performance and even being a star, I've spent very little time in recording studios. Vast amounts of research and discussion have yielded around 5000 words of material. Some of that will probably wind up getting cut, so here's the first portion of that section of Chapter 5, the Chapter That Never Seems To Die.
You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record)
Welcome to the Humilatron! Whether you’ve been on the road for years or you’ve simply scored some studio time or a sweet home recording gig, it’s time to strap on those headphones, step up to the mic, and hear how your music sounds when it’s recorded and not in your head.
That’s a humbling experience. Every flat note, missed cue, crappy lyric or fumbled chord change comes back at you with unforgiving clarity. The song that seemed so marvelous in the heat of the moment now sounds like soup. Sure, you can sweeten it in the mix – most folks do whether they admit it or not. Folkpunker SJ Tucker calls this the Humilatron, where all your sins get remembered for you.
And yet, there’s a rush (at least occasionally) at hearing your music played back at you. It feels, at least in the beginning, like you’ve made it big. When the chemistry’s right and the performance is solid and perhaps a happy accident or three has taken your song to the next level, you can hear magic coming to you in the playback. Quincy Jones describes this goose-bumpy moment of synergy as “a pocket where God wants it… when emotionally it hits you.” (Hence the common musician term “playing in the pocket.”) Sometimes it comes naturally, other times from careful arrangement, and usually from a combination of the two plus a hell of a lot of luck thrown in. Recording is a paradox of egos; it’s no wonder that so many musicians both love and loathe the studio.
For certain artists, the studio is the ultimate palette for their art. Removed from the grind of touring and the chaos of live gigs, they settle into recording the way a classical painter settles into canvas and paint. Certain artists – Kate Bush, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan – reached their greatest heights when they’d quit touring and stuck to the studio. In many ways, the studio is one huge instrument with near-limitless potential.
It can also be a swamp. Self-indulgence rears its ugly and expensive head when artists twiddle knobs to excess. The song that blasted forth like coked-up Athena from an artist’s head can be smoothed to paste by too much studio time. Drugs, isolation, yes-men and inter-band conflicts may rip a band to shreds – see Metallica: Some Kind of Monster for proof of that – and the financial toll alone could leave an artist hopelessly in debt. A fast in-and-out approach may work wonders with great material; several of the best albums in popular music history – Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, the Doors’ debut and Neil Young’s Mirrorball, among others – were recorded in roughly a week or less. On the other hand, many classics – including Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon, and (believe it or not) Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – are elaborately produced studio confections. Studio work is neither good nor bad in itself. Ultimately, it’s what you do with it that determines the quality of your results.
These days, you don’t necessarily need a studio to record an album. The array of available desktop mixing programs (ProTools, Logic, Audacity, etc.) allows an artist to tweak a rough mix into near-professional form. What no program can give you, however, is the experience and insight a skilled professional can bring to a session. “If architecture is frozen music,” said famous architect Frank Gehry, “then music must be frozen architecture.” A good studio experience involves not only the technological gear but the musical architects who know how to use it best.
Sound and Vision
The details of music recording can get insanely technical, and really don’t figure into a roleplaying adventure tale. Essentially, though, the recording process involves capturing the vibrations (sonic, energetic, and perhaps metaphysical) of sonic architecture and preserving them with electronic media. Early recording used phonographic (literally “voice picture carvings”) technology to inscribe physical reflections of sounds into grooves on portable “albums”; originally made of metal foil, these albums were soon pressed onto wax rolls (hence the term “hot wax” for a hit recording), and then discs of wax, shellac, acetate, and eventually vinyl. Recoding tape turned those sonic “reflections” into electronic signatures on magnetic tape. All of these media are referred to as analog recording: media that represent data in measurable physical form.
Innovations of computer technology in the 1970s and ‘80s created the digital recording method; here, the data gets preserved in numerical code. Audio waveforms get captured at regular intervals (typically between 40,000 to 50,000 times per second, and sometimes higher) and then translated into binary sequences. Although this method is far easier to employ, more compact, far simpler to manipulate, effortless to transfer, and literally infinite in physical capacity (literally years’ worth of music can fit into your pocket), digital recording lacks the “warmth” of analog recording because there’s no physical “shape” to the sonic reflection – it’s just numbers. Digital recording holds a crisper tone because of its precision, while analog recording holds an endearing imperfection because of its physical, and inevitably corruptible, nature.
Which is “better”? Artists, techs and audiophiles will probably be arguing that subject until the end of time… or at least until something else, like mental implantation, comes along to replace both.
In the early days, recording was simple: Get everyone in a room, turn on the machine, and hope for the best. The muffled, low-fidelity quality of pre-WWII recordings comes from that limited technology. By the 1950s, improved equipment allowed an engineer to record the vocals and one or two instruments separately and then manipulate the results; by the mid-'60s, studio technology evolved to the point where sounds could be recorded on multiple tracks, mixed together, reversed, shifted, rearranged or even synthesized in the studio. Since then, a combination of art and science has turned recording into a complex stew of techniques and gear, all aimed at turning recorded vibrations into emotional response.
And yeah – that is a form of magic.
Recording technology has transformed the role of music in the human drama. Until the late 1850s – and this is important – the very idea of preserving music past the moment of performance was inconceivable. Even now, in a world filled with recorded music, recording seems magical. Seriously… a little device made of plastic and metal can take sound waves and turn them into electrical impulses which are then translated into physical grooves, magnetic blips or strings of numbers? Other devices can tweak those recordings, distort them into something new, or even generate “sounds” that have no physical source or component at all? With them, you can hear people across gulfs of space, time and life itself? Dude, that’s magic. And so, to consider recording engineers and producers to be sorcerers or sonic priests, their equipment and studios to be occult implements, and the recording session as a ritual, would not be at all inappropriate.
Thomas Edison and Aleister Crowley recognized the magic(k)al element of recording. The former used phonographic gear to capture ghostly voices and “etheric force,” while the latter employed it to create sonic talismans of his magickal rites. The tie between recorded music and magic is as old as the technology itself. And so, when you enter a recording situation – whether you’re in a full-scale studio with a crew, or simply recording music at home and tweaking it on your laptop – treat that process with respect. Regardless of the technology involved, you are, in a very real sense, crafting magic...
Words of Wisdom
For folks who want to understand the recording process – from technical trivia to human dramas – I highly recommend the following sources:
• The 33 1/3 book series: These short pocket-sized books are music-lover crack. Each volume focuses on a single classic album, exploring the inspirations, influences, techniques, people, processes and legacies of those albums. Continuum International has released nearly 100 of these little gems, and I devour them like candy.
• The Quincy Jones Legacy Series: Perhaps the greatest music producer in history, Quincy Jones has collaborated on a series of books and DVDs dealing with his life, work and process. Though a tad over-chummy, these volumes are essential to anyone who seriously loves music.
• The VH-1 Classic Albums series: Like the 33 1/3 books, these videos focus on a single album and feature interviews and commentary on the story behind that album. Though not as involved as the books, the VH-1 documentaries focus on the human stories, with all the hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking perspective those people can bring.