Friday, February 09, 2007

The Snow Came Down on This Ol’ Town

Another day in the studio, and another chance to sit in a comfy swivel chair and stare at lines on a screen. Back in the old days, you see, folks got together and played a song over and over in a recording studio until at least two of the band got it pretty much right, and then a young person who’d expressed an interest in getting into music would sit poised over a rewind button for the next three days while everyone else watched the tape rewinding over and over again as the guitarist tried to nail ‘the one’ take that would be committed for posterity and the singer fretted that there wouldn’t be enough time left at the end of the sessions to do more than three takes on the harmonies.

Occasionally the Tape Op would be despatched for coffees, sandwiches or to wake up the singer to see what he thought of the latest solo, or to drag him away from the pool table/Spinal Tap video/ pub, depending on the salubriousness of the facilities. Once, I came back from a refreshing lunch to find that the engineer had locked the rest of the band out of the studio while his Mum cooked tea for him (we were working on decidedly different timescales). I think it’s fair to say that this studio was at the lower end of the range facilities-wise. 

George Harrison once notably responded to George Martin’s “Tell me if there’s anything you don’t like” with the legendary riposte “Well, I don’t like that tie”. On this occasion the singer responded to a similar enquiry from our bass player simply, “I don’t like him. Or his collection of porn which he insists we go and watch while we’re trying to do those guitar overdubs”. They were simpler times. The studio was in a converted stable. After the sessions were over we made a bolt for the door. These days, we stare intently at a screen on which our notes are displayed and endlessly analyse whether things are in time, in tune and of the correct amplitude. I’m not entirely sure what that means, which is probably why our engineer turned the displays off at one point and insisted that we simply listen to the track. And we had to go and get our own coffees. 

The luxury of digital editing is that no-one is too concerned about having to rewind the tape to the right point as “…that bit just before the middle eight” is clearly visible onscreen, as are the bits where the horns come in and that section where we put down a vocal just in case we’d need it later. The bits of paper with “gtr – left” written on have been replaced with drop-down menus and digital interfaces which mean that the spectres of the tape becoming see-through, stretched, stuck together or simply dropped have gone with the wind. Imagine though, the first Boston album with even more overdubs… 

As it turns out, the instant rewind is as much of a curse as a blessing, as I listen to the twenty-fourth take on the simple phrase “When I look back!” I am intent on making sure that this, the first line of the song, is as intense, visceral and moving as I remember it from the demo. The Singer is having trouble getting a reservation to ‘that place’, let alone a ticket, and The Engineer is laying his head restfully on the recording console, from which there emanates a slight thudding noise. 

My production technique is starting to look decidedly flaky. The phrase “Concentrate on the N” is received with blank looks from both, and justifiable mild irritation from the man wearing the rather fetching headphone ensemble. We decide to “get back to that one” and to play with Pro Tools instead. As any fule kno, Pro Tools is a system whereby you can pick up bits of digital information (recorded sound in this case) and move them. Back, forward, up, down – whether or not there’s something going on here and we’d like to keep it hidden, we’ll try almost anything once, and no move is forbidden. Naturally we rely on the integrity of our performance, and so there is absolutely, and I want to get this straight, no manipulation of harmonies going on at all. Oh no. At one point I drift off and am woken by a conversation involving E flat (it’s not all glamour in the music biz you know). 

There are manipulations of red lines on the screen, mouse clicks, and a cutting and pasting frenzy to put all but the most active of pre-school playgroups to shame. In the end though, as in the days of tape, the result will be the same. A small boy holds out his work and says “Look. Look what I did today!”

As an adjunct, this is one of the tracks we were working on that day

No comments: