Everyone and their dog can record these days. Anyone who tries to make a living recording music knows this, and fears it. Their clients don’t go to them anymore. Their mic collections, good sounding rooms, £50k mixing desks, mean nothing to the excited musician who is trying to record their acoustic guitar on a new £200 computer recording interface.
Part of me feels guilty for contributing to this problem. But the recording industry being what it is today, we can’t hold out much hope of getting a record label to pay for us to go to an incredible studio. They want us to walk into their offices with a finished product they can sell. We can’t afford excuses – “Oh, the drums don’t sound very good because we couldn’t afford new heads”, “Yes, the lead vocal is a bit sibilant, in an ideal world we’d have had the time to fix that…”.
To me though, the difference between a basement demo and a big budget studio production is a lot more than just the sound quality. I think people can get hung up on sound quality, the clarity, the beautiful tones, and use that as a judge of the music. Some fantastic records, huge hits, have glaring production flaws but they still sound brilliant. No, the difference between a good and bad record is the feel of the music. A good song recorded badly is a good song. A bad song recorded well just lets people know exactly how much the artist sucks. My favouriteproducer is Daniel Lanois, and he likes to say that a good performance equals a good mix. I didn’t know what he meant until the first time I tried to mix a bad performance. No matter what you do to it, you’re compromising, trying to hide flaws. But if everyone plays well, the mix is almost irrelevant. Even if something is too loud, it doesn’t matter – because it’s worth hearing.
So with our album, my main concern hasn’t been the quality of the recording, but the quality of the performances. If we all played together, it’d be easy – we could just keep playing until we get a take that feels good, and that’d be it. But we can’t do that.
Why can’t we do it? This is why:Our recording space isn’t big enough. It’s our practice studio, so we obviously can physically get in there and play music together. But all the noise making things are so close together, it’d be impossible to get a great recorded sound. People think of microphones with some reverence. But they’re just like crap ears really. Imagine what it would sound like to have 15 half deaf ears all over a small room an insanely loud rock band was playing in. Ok, that’s hard to imagine so I’ll help you: It’d sound awful. Guitar sounds spilling through the drum mikes, bass rumbling through EVERYTHING with as many different tones as there are mikes in the room, that’s just two of the terrible problems that would confront me when it came time to mix what we recorded.
And I don’t want that. Not even a little bit. Mainly because when we we’re recording we’d be all pumped and thinking it sounds great, then after months of mixing I’d present the other guys and you with a record that sounds like the musical equivalent of a Yorkshire pudding that didn’t rise. Or a Chocolate cake with 6 raw, rotten eggs in the middle.
Instead, we needed to record each part separately, but somehow perform as if we were playing together. It’s not such an easy task for musicians who aren’t very used to it. Imagine you’re a bassist, playing along to a drummer. You’re not just playing along with what you hear, you’re also playing along with what you see and feel. You can see the drummers arms swing through the air, so you can predict the exact point his sticks are going to hit each drum. You can see him bopping away on his stool – his legs move in time with the music, his head nods to the beat – so as well as hearing and seeing what he is playing, you can see how the music is making him feel, what the beat in his head is doing. You can feel the sound from the drums too – the kick drum makes the floor you’re standing on shake. And likewise, he can hear, feel and see your bass playing, and will adjust his performance to more closely match yours.
Now record that drummer, and play your bass along to the recording. You can’t see him anymore. You can’t feel his playing. And he isn’t reacting to you anymore. So your playing changes, and becomes less natural, less tight. That makes the recording feel worse, and illustrates the problem with recording bit by bit. So how did we get round that sticky wee issue?
I pondered the dilemma for weeks. I went trekking in distant mountains. I stood in the line for the self service checkouts in Tesco’s, and smashed a beer bottle at the feet of the couple that inevitably pushed in front of me. My manic stare cowed them into submission. I slunk off to my car, still pondering. Then I had what I thought was a great original idea, until I learned that loads of people do it.
We started recording takes of the whole band playing together, with not too much regard for how the recording actually sounded – it was just a “feel template” or as Alex immediately dubbed it, a “phantom” of the proper recording. Then once we’d got a good take of each song we wanted to record, we recorded Mez playing the drums over the top of it – so Mez was hearing and playing along to a recording of the band who had been listening to and reacting to Mez’s drums, which meant that even though he was playing along to a recording in his headphones, it was a recording that reacted to the way Mez plays drums.
Simple, maybe. Confused? Sorry.
But by recording a phantom performance and then overdubbing separate performances on top of that, we’ve been getting the feel of playing together, even though the actual keeper takes are recorded separately, with the various advantages that provides – cleaner sound, the ability to really concentrate on the fine details of each performance and having the whole room and all our gear just to get the best sound we can out of one instrument at a time.