Part two of our four part
series on the making of
an album: In the studio
Making a rock 'n' roll album is a bit like running a road-race naked. For one, endurance is a must: the 18 days, 12 to 14 hours a day, take their toll on both body and spirit. Furthermore, one is constantly exposed. Every inch of tape is previewed, reviewed, whistled at and at times, rejected. It is, essentially, a nudie marathon. Of course, in more literal terms, studio time amounts to standing around, mostly clothed, playing and listening to minute musical parts over and over again. Not quite as glamorous as a nudie-marathon, you say? Settle down. It was just a metaphor.
Welcome back to Recording: a four-part series. In the previous segment, I characterized the organizational process of pre-production. Let us now enter the studio.
The first notes I played with the tape rolling at Fort Apache Studios were not good ones. I plucked at my bass as it I'd never seen it before. My hand had fallen asleep.
"Okay...well. Everyone should relax. It's sounding tense. Not very good a-tall," our producer and engineer Matthew Ellard informed us in his British accent. This was an understatement. He pointed to the Christmas lights that hung up on the wall. Some had been wound into the shape of a heart and blinked rhythmically on and off, much like my motor-skill coordination seemed to. We dimmed the lights some. Okay, relax.
We started the ditty again, and Matthew, waiting for us to warm up, went back to reading Rolling Stone. A Morphine album he had engineered was resting at the top of the college charts, and it brought about a quick smile. For our band the Humming, Matthew was both engineering and producing: simply put, an engineer captures sounds onto a recorded medium, whereas a producer is responsible for getting the best performance out of the band. The latter job includes instrument choice, style and tempo suggestion, specific note review, song selection and an overarching vision for the project. This relinquishing of control was both inviting and disturbing for us. I remember feeling distinctly, after going through pre-production rehearsal with Matthew, that I had no idea how The Humming's debut would sound. I knew the music inside out, but could not guess what the album would sound like. I feared an outcome resembling Mtley Cre. I imagined adding '80s hair wigs to our stage gear.
This nightmare (and I specifically choose "nightmare" rather than the misleading "fantasy") can probably be written off as a bit of first album paranoia. But giving up creative control is a familiar process for artists and their industry. Aerosmith, for example, had an entire album thrown out by Sony when the band tried to reinvent its sound. Apparently, it was not Aerosmith enough. Neil Young was sued by his record label over the contents of an LP he made.
Unlike a proven act, however, we had no recorded "sound" to live up to or break away from. We were in the process of inventing that sound, and we had handed that job, in part, over to Matthew. However, if giving up some creative control meant adding experience to our debut, it was a trade I was eager to make. And at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I'll add that I was more willing to trust to a man of British roots. Think George Martin with the Beatles. (Well, okay, the Beatles themselves were British.) Think London, underground, at night. It's just much cooler, somehow.
The first week was dedicated to basic tracks, the most important of which were the drum parts. The drums are the foundation-the steel frame of the car, the cement cellar of the house, the constitution of country. We recorded bass, drums and guitar all at once to capture the proper vibe, but focused on the drums, the idea being to build the song up from the bottom. The 16 microphones and stands placed around the drum kit looked like something out of Star Wars. In the console Matthew flipped from mike to mike, listening to the sound each captured. They were all remarkably different. My favorite was the "crotch mike." Named after its unusual placement near the drummer, it picks up a dark, distorted sound appropriate for the slower grooves.
We used a click-track as well, a programmed metronome that only our drummer could hear. It was a frame of rhythmic reference for him, and, subsequently, the rest of the band. We worked with the click on all but one of the 11 songs. Our engineer was in favor, exclaiming at one point, "the guitar, bass, and drums are pretty bad here, but the click track sounds fucking amazing."
All this meant four days of pressure for our drummer, who was the only one who could not afford to make a mistake. Appropriately, the rest of us attempted a few old-school break-dance moves during takes while Reggie, serious and sweat-drenched, suffered.
This, of course, came back to haunt each one of us in our turn. Day five of recording was the day of bass. I used two different electric basses and an upright for takes. Each tune was then reviewed and scanned with the proverbial comb so that we could "punch in" any problem notes. Punching in works like a patch-I play along to the existing bass track, while Matthew records a bit of the new part onto the problem spot. Anything from rhythm and intonation to volume, tone and quality of note are susceptible. Meanwhile, Rob Schneider's classic movie Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo, played in the lounge.
Our guitarist Ian paid his dues as well, as a number of tunes had four or five separate guitar tracks. These required using an electric Fender with space echo additions to an acoustic strung up in Nashville tuning, an old trick that replaces the lower strings with high ones, producing a clear, ringing sound. Ian also outdid my studio setup of two bass amplifiers by using a total of six guitar amps, though never, I believe, simultaneously.
The race was half run, but the tunes were still bare. In my next installment, I'll reveal the secrets of the Neumann Tube Microphone, and the mystery behind mixing on a 1970s BBC console. Until then, carry on with your rock 'n' roll lives.
Ty Gibbons '99 is a member of the Humming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org