Monday, April 30, 2012

Cheap Seats 3: A Day in the Studio

The blog is back, and why is that?!  Last week I reached a surreal milestone in the recording of my next album--I've pretty much finished tracking overdubs; just one more drum session and we're on to mixing, mastering and release!  This means the blogging time I had to sacrifice to recording-related work is all freed-up and you can expect resumption of a steady stream of reviews and Cheap Seats content!

To keep the Cheap Seats ball rolling, I've decided that the next logical step is to delve a bit deeper into the technical details of the recording process itself.  Based on conversations I've had with friends and family, most people are pretty unfamiliar with the process by which music is recorded in a professional studio.  This blog's readership includes quite a number of music enthusiasts who probably have an above-average understanding of the recording process and terminology--at the risk of insulting your intelligence, please permit me to define some of the basics as I describe a recent day in the studio.


April 25, 2012: It's day three of a five-day session week.  The recording is in its twilight phase--we're starting the 20th day of what will probably be 26 total studio days to track the whole album.  At this point, almost all of the songs are pretty fleshed-out and Justin and I are adding some of the final parts to the songs at Cloud City Sound.  Things are starting to get a little bit surreal, as the project has been going for almost six months and we're finally getting to the point where we're doing "the last" of things--yesterday we recorded the last of the woodwind parts (good riddance, as far as I'm concerned--my wind chops plateaued in 1999) and today's going to be most of the final guitar parts.  What we're doing is called "overdubbing," a process where new parts are added to a pre-existing recording.  Most recording sessions start with what's called "basic tracking," where several members of the ensemble record a number of instruments simultaneously; usually it's at least the rhythm section with at least the bass, drums, guitar, keys etc. laying down a recording of the song's core parts, after which the vocals, extra guitar parts, horns, etc. are overdubbed.  Of course, every recording and group is different--for example, a lot of jazz groups are doing everything live, so there won't really be any overdubs, whereas a lot of rock groups may have four members playing on a song with three or four guitar parts, so it won't be physically possible the play all of the parts live, and vocals are often overdubbed because of the technical issues of getting a hi-fi recording of a voice while lots of other noise is happening.  In the case of this project, where I play almost all of the instruments, there wasn't really such a thing as basic tracking--for each song there was a day when I recorded the first part (usually either an electric or acoustic guitar) to a "click track" (a recording of a metronome) which will be used as a guide throughout the rest of the recording project and removed in the final recording--everything else from there on out is an overdub!

It's been a fun week so far--we've worked on a lot of songs, recorded a lot of different instruments (including the studio's awesome vintage Hammond B3 organ) and made some serious progress.  Monday was a fun day because my jazz pianist friend Peter tracked some slick piano on three of the songs, making him the second musician besides myself to contribute to the album (more on the special guests later!).  Being a one-man recording project has its positives and negatives.  On the one hand, I've usually got extremely specific ideas and goals I want to get across and playing every part gives me the maximum amount of control and cuts down on the sometimes difficult process of communicating desires and instructions to other musicians.  On the other hand, it can be extremely time-consuming to compose, arrange and rehearse (if I even get around to that phase) parts for numerous instruments--some of which I am barely familiar with--and in spite of my confidence in my own ideas, I'm always humbled by the fresh air that a skilled collaborator can breathe into arrangements that are in danger of becoming claustrophobic; it's thrilling to see someone else's ideas transform a piece of music I thought I'd considered from all angles into something more

Emboldened by my recent woodwind accomplishment, I've decided that today's the day to finish most of the final electric guitar overdubs.  Justin's job title is audio engineer, which means he performs a number of different duties crucial to the recording process.  Firstly, there's the physical engineering of the sound--selecting the microphones and preamps best suited to whatever instrument we're recording, and setting the volume and compression levels to get the best possible sound for the part.  Secondly, there's the actual recording of the instrument--Justin uses his thorough knowledge and years of experience with industry-standard ProTools recording software to set up tracks for each instrument, hits "record" over...and over...and over...and applies editing wizardry where needed to compensate from the fact that this isn't actually a live recording and to make things as smooth and seamless as possible.  Later, these skills will reach their culmination when we mix and master the raw tracks we've been recording.  Simply having a professional engineer means that this project is instantly worlds more high-quality than In Not-Even-Anything Land, and Justin's particular expertise and sympathetic attitude to the material has really taken things to the next level. 

When it comes to recording guitar for this album, we've used countless combinations of mics, guitars and amplifiers to give each part a distinctive character and ensure that this will be a kick-ass guitar album with awesome tone that matches the often ear-challenging guitar parts.  We start our 10-hour day two hours later than usual at 12 pm, loading three amps into the isolation booth (the tiny room next to Justin's office where I've been recording vocals, horns and various acoustic instruments).  From there, we'll send out cables and I'll sit right next to Justin while I play and he records.  The guitar parts for this album can be roughly divided into three categories--composed rhythm parts, composed lead parts and more improvisational textural parts.  Today, we're recording some of both of the latter two categories.  While it's anathema to what a lot of musicians and music fans think the recording process "should be," the creation of this album has been an unusual and painstaking one.  The process starts at home, where I compose the parts in demo form using Apple's free recording software, GarageBand.  The sound quality is horrible and the performances are often pretty lackluster, but the main function is to figure out what the instruments are playing and give me a chance to hear what things sound like together, as I work primarily by ear.  At this time, if I'm "working smart," I'll also be transcribing the part I'm composing either with standard music notation onto a five-bar staff, or onto a guitar tablature sheet for later reference in the studio (one of the earliest lessons I learned is that the inconvenience of transcribing a part as I'm writing it pales in comparison with having to go back and figure out what I played two weeks ago).  Ideally, I'd then practice the parts at home in advance of the session to ensure smooth reproduction of the ideas for the final recording.  In reality, though, my time is limited--I work to pay for the privilege of recording this music, and during the last six months my free time at home has been more often spent writing, arranging and composing the next parts for whatever songs are coming down the pipe, and my rehearsal discipline has suffered accordingly. 

When it comes to recording the parts in the studio, I sit with my notes in front of me and a copy of the demo queued up on my iPod for immediate reference.  Here's where things start to become anathema to some people's expectations.  Of the aforementioned three guitar part categories, the first two are meticulous in their specificity and can be extremely time-consuming.  While some believe that guitar parts should be recorded all in one pass or compiled from several complete takes, that's simply not how we've recorded the guitar for this album.  ProTools has a function called "punching in," where the engineer can roll the recording and start and stop recording with the click of a button.  The function is designed to fix small mistakes, continue a take where maybe the first half was keep-able but the performer stopped playing, etc., by giving the performer a chance to play perhaps just one missed note correctly without having to record a whole take.  From what I understand, this process has been around since the analog days, but digital technology makes punching in much easier and more controllable.  Not to pull the curtain back too far, but in the case of my sometimes-labyrinthine composed guitar parts, they are most often recorded using a punch-heavy technique where sections of the part are recorded one at a time.  The composed rhythm parts tend to be less difficult and can be recorded in larger chunks, but some of the more difficult lead parts eventually have to be broken down phrase-by-phrase in order to accurately achieve the part I've composed, often including a formidable amount of rigidity and precision  in terms of interlocking parts and counterpoint.  I'm sure some purists scoff at the approach and I can understand why; it's natural for a musician's ego to demand an uninterrupted live performance, which is one of music's core avenues of expression.  In truth, I would love to have prepared the parts to technical perfection and recorded them in just a couple of passes, but the reality is that some of the parts I wrote are so difficult that rehearsing them all to perfection would probably add another year onto what's already been a half-year-long recording process!  Beside, the "off the cuff" approach is pretty much abandoned the minute you decide you're going to record a one-man project. 

There's also the objection that the element of spontaneity is lost when all of the parts are pre-composed.  In relation to my artistic goals, this objection is beside the point--the ultimate goal here is the final product, which is the total experience of an album-long recorded piece of music.  Whatever it takes to get there is what has to be done.  Again, I'd love to be able to simply improvise these parts in the studio, but my guitar part goals usually center on coming up with the most out-there and cliché-avoiding parts possible; only improvisers of unbelievable skill (i.e., definitely not I) are capable of ad libbing such parts (indeed, most improvisation actually tends toward the spontaneous reassembly of what can fairly be described as...clichés), and the benefit of hindsight allows me to fine-tune the parts I've written in order to improve them before they're set in stone.  It's true that I could eliminate the middleman by doing the part-composing in the studio, but that situation would remove the option to tweak the part later and would not be a cost effective use of my studio time--for every hour I spend reproducing a composed part in the studio there's at least two to three hours of hair-pulling and composition at home.  The punch-in recording method is likely to be a surprise for a lot of music listeners, but the truth is--though they aren't using the functionality to quite the same painstaking extent--almost all recording artists use punch-ins, editing and take compilation to create the best recordings possible.  In the case of my project, it's simply what the process is--the compositions, ideas and listening experience are the ultimate goals, and those goals take however much time and whatever means necessary. 

So, Justin and I sit down to start the day, choose a song, and fire away.  I've decided to use the morning's freshness on one of the more difficult parts left to record, and away we go--there's lots of "again please, same punch," a lot of swearing on my part, and a lot of digital clean-up needed when all's said and done, but the parts get done and it takes as long as it takes--the record for this album is five hours for a four minute lead part!  Whatever it takes for the ultimate goal!  At this point in the session Justin and I have gotten our system in place and things tend to go faster--one to two hours for a difficult lead part, and I've been playing so much guitar that I've gotten much better at hitting the parts in fewer tries.  At this point Justin performs one of his most important duties: quality control--paying attention to timing and synch while I do my best to hit the parts and keep the energy up in what's often an energy-draining situation.  Today we've got three difficult lead parts (two of which are in the same song) and some more textural, improvised stuff.  Each song change necessitates a change of guitar and amp, a resetting of levels and another adventure--luckily we can alternate between tough parts and improvised/textural ones, which gives me a break from the demands of brutal precision, and gives Justin's punch finger and patience a much-needed break.  We break for lunch around 2:00 (today's a big milestone; I'm redeeming my buy-seven-get-one-free coupon at the Safeway deli) and get back to work around 2:30.  By 8:30 we've recorded guitar for eight different songs and the scheduled guitar program is finished.  I decide to spend the last 90 minutes hitting a few backing vocals, which provides a nice cool-down for a day of hard work.  Tomorrow will be the final acoustic guitar overdubs, more vocals and starting the last of the bass recordings. 

And that's how it goes...the days are long and things can get frustrating, but hearing everything together (which has been happening more and more as time goes on) is worth it for many reasons, not least of which is that the sound quality blows the demos out of the water.  This'll probably be the last really "technical" post until we get to mixing (others will probably focus more on the artistic and aesthetic aspects), but a lot of people have been asking me since as early as January, "So, you're almost done?"  I hope the detail here has helped clarify my "No, it's going to be a long time" reply and, as is the overarching goal of the Cheap Seats series, I hope it's given you some more pieces of the puzzle of what exactly goes into the production of an independent album and the way we can attempt to quantify and express the ultimate value of this kind of thing.  More soon!

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music

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