Putting out an album: a long-held dream of countless bands in countless garages and basements around the world. The Humming, a band comprising Ian Stearns, John Thomasson, Reggie Martell and Harvard alum Ty Gibbons '99, have taken that dream, however, and turned it into a reality. Here, Gibbons begins a four-part series following the recording process.
Part One: Pre-Production
Rock'n'roll: a term as sexy as the music it describes. The "R"s parade off of the lips, and the "n," too cool to be a part of the word "and," slides effortlessly by. Only one other phrase demands as much reverence and fear-induced awe in my mind, and it is, of course, a close relative: the rock'n'roll album.
It's not that the rock album is a rarity in today's pop-obsessed culture: one band-name registration outfit on the internet reports more than five million separate entries from around the world, many of which are bands that have already succumbed to the lure of producing an album. Record stores grow amoebae-like as new releases sell alongside re-releases, old releases, indie releases, foreign releases, repackaged releases and digitally remastered re-releases. And yet the desire remains: can a rock'n'roll album be made that differs from, challenges and stands up to the innumerable LPs that have come before it?
If it was this desire that propelled my indie band 'The Humming' into the realm of the album, then I must admit to over-romanticizing what turned out to be an extremely laborious process. Not that we didn't enjoy every living second of it, but, behind the scenes, the rock'n'roll LP is a behemoth and lumbering project. There are three main phases of the process: pre-production, studio time and post-production. Pre-production consists of everything that has to happen before the band enters the studio. It is the hypothesis of the experiment, the research and development stage; it dares to ask, "what studio, man?"
We visited 16 locations in the greater Boston area, bravely facing obstacles like the eviction notice we found at one studio and the foul smell emanating from the recording room of another. The biggest problem was reliability. The music industry is notorious for its less-than-professional attitude towards the little things, as in a meeting time (or a meeting day for that matter). Nevertheless, there were some strong candidates, which we subsequently compared to our ideal of a spacious, well-lit, well-run castle in the south of France renting out for around $30 a day and offering a free airfare special.
Even more crucial than finding studio space was the accompanying process of seeking out an engineer. The engineer is responsible for getting the sounds you produce onto a recorded medium in the most effective (which, depending on the genre of music, could mean either "beautiful" or "extremely grating") way possible. The responses from potential engineers were manifold: our questions brought on statements such as, "Dude, you tell me what kind of thing you all want to do, and my job is to... do it" to the more concise "We're going to make a record! A damn good record! 'Cos my [expletive] sounds [expletive] good."
In the end we found an intriguing combination in Matthew Ellard and Fort Apache Studios, in Somerville, Mass. Fort Apache is a Beantown favorite, boasting the major-label successes of Radiohead, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Morphine. Ellard is the first-call engineer there and has earned engineering experience both in England and the U.S. working with acts from Queen to Coolio. Of course, the question of finances weighed greatly on our collective-band-mind. Both the Fort and Ellard gave us significant discounts because The Humming's album would be independently funded (major labels give their clients anywhere from 30,000 to multi-million dollar advances, drastically increasing the chances for that South-of-France experience). On top of studio payments, however, we had tape costs, mastering and duplication fees, graphic design, photography, art work, promotional expenses and those notorious, no-name boxes of pasta for cheap eating. Needless to say, we were slightly over budget. Unabashed negotiation and downright pleading helped make the project possible. Our graphic design firm, for example, accepted "one gig owed" as part of our payment. Nothing wrong with revisiting the old barter economy, I say.
Our collective band-mind faced a new problem, however. There would be no sexy "R"s and "n"s rolling off of the lips without sexy tunes to accompany them. During the five years that the Humming has been touring as a live act, we have generated over a 150 songs; choosing the right tunes promised to be a daunting task of negotiating intra-band politics and differing musical identities. We worked out a one- through five-star system, and quickly narrowed the choices down to 39-still not exactly a helpful number when preparing for an album of 10 to 12. With each elimination, the process got harder and the collective waters became more troubled (with nary a bridge over them to be found). I was convinced that my new tune, "The Queen of Guadeloupe" needed to go on the album. It told a decent little story about Mr. Monterey, an embezzler who seeks refuge in Mexico, only to return to the arms of the law because he misses having an identity. "It sucks," the rest of the band said (in only a slightly less pithy way).
Rebounding from the loss, I implemented a new ten-star system, with no option to abstain. After whittling the list of potential songs down to 20, we recorded a few "basement tapes" (fittingly recorded in a basement). These low-fi, pre-recordings help to get a general sense of how a tune is going to sound on tape. Songs that leap up off of a live stage may adopt a sluggish crawl when forced onto the recorded medium. Perhaps "The Queen of Guadeloupe" was fated that way.
It was time to enter the Fort. In my next installment, "The Studio: Part One," I'll deconstruct the rock'n'roll album into basic tracks, overdubs, the role of a producer, and why having an engineer with a British accent makes all the difference. Until then, break out that old vinyl LP and give it a spin. The rock'n'roll album is a beautiful and sexy thing.
Ty Gibbons '99 is a member of The Humming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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