Recording an album (fortunately or not) is nothing like assembling an erector set. Though many people today pursue home recording as a self-described “hobby,” the process could not be more dissimilar to constructing a model airplane or sewing a dress. The unique aspect of making a record which separates it from the process and skill behind other kinds of production is the fact that it requires an alchemist fixation of a set period of time; typically unified and infinite. Music in a fantastic quality, shared with its sisters dance and film, occurs in time and requires such to unfold. When time is altered, music is altered. Thus, one may imagine the songs as the subjects, and the performances of their parts as the brush strokes. A musician may either splatter or stipple one’s chromatic fantasy onto the canvas of time. Likewise, the actual recording technology should be considered (as I believe technology traditionally has been in its interactions with the arts) as the fixing agent. Just as the film behind an open shutter lets one trace with fleeting light, a microphone and cellulose lets one bind the sound of time.
The producer is the solely sober midwife of this bacchanalian demon delivery.
I say all this in order to give you some understanding, when I propose that recording an album is a process or even ritual that can only be described as magical. Tacking down corners of the fabric of the universe is not fare for those who fear the supernatural. Even a veteran performer can recall the uncanny effect of first hearing one’s voice played back. Never forget, this unnerving feeling visits those who crease folds in the fabric of time.
All that being said, how is one to approach the recording process? In a world like today’s, when the emphasis of the industry is on not magic at all, but polished perfection and production quality? Bass thump and high end clarity are favored over feeling, making it difficult for the producer or the performer to attain a sense of magic in the stress of the studio.
Having performed on and/or self-released over 30 records, including the upcoming sophomore LP of Albuquerque’s favorite psychonautical rock ensemble YOU, recorded in January with Lee Sillery at Push Drive studios, I have some things I have learned to share with my fellow magicians.
1. Agree on financials BEFORE going into the studio.
It is not easy to make money as a musician, producer, label, distort, etc. Therefore, it is not easy to get money from a musician, producer, label, etc. As renegade independents in a cutthroat industry, we need to look out for each other financially. For these reasons and more (money hardly ever plays a positive role in workings considered magical), I encourage you to meet with your producer or engineer prior to the appointed beginning of recording; to iron out the details of what products and services are being paid for and ensure that all parties are comfortable with their financial responsibility.
These issues can be very broad in scope. For instance: Does everyone in the band have working equipment that will be up to par for recording, or will gear have to be rented or borrowed? Is there a constraint on the amount of time available to put into this project? Will the producer also be expected to mix and/or master the album? Can your unemployed bass player actually come up with his share of the recording costs before your producer has to send his kids to college? I encourage you to ask all these questions before the fact, as they will be nothing but ice water on your time-fixing flame should they arise during the recording ritual.
2. Know thy space. Know thy song. Know thy self.
As I suggested earlier, there are a very limited number of fixed elements that participate in the recording process. In order to maximize the fluidity of the process, minimize confusion and conflict. These essential elements should be discussed openly and considered thoroughly before entering the studio.
The space itself is the most obvious of these. Try to record in a place where you feel comfortable, ideally a place where you have performed before, or where you feel the songs will resonate. You need a space that can contain the full dynamic volume of your tunes, a space that fits neatly and snugly around your sonic presence.
This brings me to the second element, your songs. Chances are, if you have gathered the band and the clams to be booking studio time, you’ve already had plenty of time to rehearse. That being said, up until a day or two of rest before you roll tape, too much is never enough. Each band member having meticulously dialed in their tone and finesse, the group operating with a telepathic tightness and road-worn synchronicity, is the very least a band can do in the way of ensuring their record comes out sounding how they want it to. There is no more direct or efficient way to capture a set of songs with all their richness, dynamic, and feeling, then to start with flawless live performances.
That being said, I myself am a devout appreciator of improvisation, and of the 67 minutes of material recorded for our new album upwards of 15 of them are purely improvisational. This worked for us because it was part of our collective expectation for the record and identity for the band. One’s expectations are indeed the third element of the recording ritual to be discussed and considered in advance to its commencement. Often times, there are elements to a song that will remain unheard forever in the theater of your imagination if you do not find a way to articulate them to your bandmates or your producer. Often times, despite your best efforts, they will forever there remain. However, if you want your best chance at realizing your aural fantasies, discuss them at length with your bandmates and your producer before laying down so much as a scratch track.
3. Allow the magic to happen!!!
The most obvious as well as most crucial is my final piece of advice. As a musician you are a natural magician—as long as you believe in yourself. Perform your songs with feeling and emotion. In many cases, this is virtually the best audience your band will ever receive. Do not fear! Fear is the mind killer. Allow yourself to tap into the emotions which initiated the words, melody, perhaps even the entire concept of the project itself. Grabbing hold of these things and letting them fly can take a recording from decent to outstanding with the right man behind the board.
Speaking of whom, the rule applies double for your producer! Just as you must have faith in yourself and your bandmates to express the expectations discussed, you must have trust and respect for your producer and engineer, as their magic is just as fettered by fear. Allow your producer to follow his or her heart just as you expect to follow your own. His position in this situation is above you or your players. The producer is the solely sober midwife of this bacchanalian demon delivery; separated by glass and headphones from the sweat and scream of the ritual, like the designated driver of a party bus to outer space.
This third rule, however, is not always all fun. Our last album was recorded just days before I was scheduled to move away from home. At the end of the second day of tracking, before I had an opportunity to overdub any of the live-recorded scratch vocals, I had a fainting spell and was taken to the emergency room with my front teeth knocked out and holes in my face that would require more stitches than I had years in my life. We kept the scratch vocals, and I was glad I sang my little heart out during those initial sessions.
During the recording of the first Gusher album, Lee decided to record the opening cut of the record, a rowdy number called “Fuck Poetry,” only after the rest of the songs were finished. In the last moments of tracking that song, my guitar amp overloaded and blew a tube. That song, as recorded, ends with the un-imitable blood-curdling squeal of a 50-watt death gasp. On a trip to Texas with friends, my laptop containing mixes of a solo album I had been refining for weeks upon unsatisfied weeks was stolen from our hotel room. Having the opportunity to fiddle with it taken away; I was forced to release all I had, the last print of the record which I had been unsatisfied with. Today, I consider that record one of my greater accomplishments and I am very proud of it.
What I am getting at is that magic often works in ways you are not expecting it to. I encourage you to follow it anyway, and remain positive in its gaze. Despite any attempt at circumnavigating the chaos and mysticism of creative art, your music will never be exempt from its influence.