Sunday, January 28, 2018
Anyone who’s been within overdubbing distance of a recording facility will know by now that each has its own vibe, its own personality if you will, driven and dictated by the man (and it usually is a man) behind the screen - swivel chair adjusted just so, mug of something restorative within reach, lips a-pursed, brow a-furrowed, studio tan topped up by endless nights peering into the glowing maw of the computer screen, and days very rarely broken up by the occasional snowball fight. From Maida Vale to Clarkson Street, these hardy (and frequently subterranean) folk are rarely happier than when the musicians have buggered off and they can get on with the actual business of tweaking the 60dB proximeter, re-routing the sub-service buss and overlapping the reverse Aphex so it syncs in with the Dobly pulse. And that.
It’s an intensive business, and one that requires an engineer to be part-therapist, part-life coach, part-technician, part-sparky, gracious host and full-time font of wisdom regarding rattles and hums. Good recording engineers are frequently also exceptional players of Connect 4 and Jenga. Obviously before all of this serious business gets under way the band themselves will attempt to curate a series of demonstration recordings in order to give their poor producer/engineer/record company/fiddle player* some idea of what to expect. After all, as one of the touchstone sayings of my glorious career so far goes – if you’ve got something, then at least you’ve got something to change. These demo’s may be extensively workshopped in the rehearsal room and presented to higher lights in order to attempt to extract funds for a proper studio trip, they may be self-produced in the artists’ home studio – whether that be an extensive remodelling of the former stables on their estate or knocked out in the bathroom during a break from the sound check** - or simply (in the case of one Green on Red album) bawled into a microphone while the singer shouts chord changes over his shoulder at the guitar player.
Whatever works best for each band, artist or writer is fine, and although no-one ever wants to admit that the demo versions are better than the expensively buffed and intricately mastered finished copies, it happens. It’s also worth hanging on to those early versions in case your album really does take off and you need something to fill out the remastered and reissued box set. I’m speaking to you from a time vault in the last century, obviously.
Mr. Wendell and I set out for Fiddly’s Hovel in the country more in hope than expectation. We rehearse out there when we’re likely to have to play something all at the same time and all in the same key in public and Fiddly likes to record these sessions so that he can laboriously work out what he’s going to do on the big night. He gets...not exactly cross, but certainly discomfited when we veer away from the prescribed performance format, and often volunteers to play us the original version so we can see where we’re going wrong. Having nagged us for months that he’d actually got some good performances lurking on his hard drive we agreed to go out there and have a listen, more to shut him up than anything else. It was a dark and stormy night...he emerged from the shack with a dead mouse. As usual the was preemptory chat – this time concerning rats, their lifestyles, habits and affinities. If nothing else, a trip to Fiddly’s is generally informative and entertaining before you even get to the music. Last time we were out there there was a lot about Robot Wars, for example. We settled into swivel chairs in the listening room, and playback began.
It turns out that while we were all relaxed and bashing out some reference versions, we were also turning in some astonishing performances. Not me, obviously – I was too busy hogging the backing vocals and adding unnecessary flourishes to perfectly good ‘C’ chords, but the others were, freed from the pressure of having to get it all right, paradoxically, getting it all right. Wendell and I looked at each other. We started scribbling notes. Fiddly expounded on the importance of high frequencies, decent quality microphones; words like ‘marimba’ started being bandied about. If you’re the sort of person who thinks that Tonight’s the Night has a better feel to it than Landing on Water***, as I am, this was a Damascene moment. By the end of the playback, we were humbly apologising to our host for ever having doubted him. Turns out the most important things an engineer can bring to the recording party are their ears.
We start work next month.
*Delete as applicable.
**As it were.
***And who in their right mind doesn’t?