Scratch tracks, punch-outs, overdubs and waiting around are as much a part of a recording session as the music itself
by Lee Abraham †
A bright red -IN SESSION- sign flashes itís warning outside the studioís thick wood door. Inside, a wall of glass separates two very different worlds. On one side, an engineer and producer sit behind a Capt. Kirk style command center... dials, knobs, faders and blinking lights everywhere. Fifteen feet away on the other side of the glass, a singer faces into the dark expanse of the studioís otherwise empty -live- room. A candleís slowly dancing reflection momentary illuminates the impassioned contortions of the singerís face. Her voice brightly contrasts the roomís silence as music pulses in her head phones. She wants this to be the performance of her life. After the take, the singer slumps into a chair. Emotionally drained yet strangely buzzed by the studioís sonic microscope, she listens back to the tape. This is the fourth time through this song and the engineer says he wants another take. Taking a deep breath, she rises from the chair. Stepping up to the mic., the singer once again seeks to conjures inspiration.
"It's the most excruciatingly tedious work I've ever done," says Sheray Larsen of local rock band -Inside Scarlet-. "The hardest thing for me was going through a song, over and over, and then over again, just to get the track right. The repetition is really challenging." Not only is a recording session tedious work and expensive (putting out a -professional- quality CD can range from $10,000 to $20,000 and up), itís usually emotionally charged and time consuming. The process is such a grind thereís no way to get through it without a team effort.
"We walked through the gates of hell with it, a few times," says Kelly Zander Gaughan of Zen Exit. "Youíve got to have the right people to work with. We started over several times, because it was our first time doing this kind of -big- project, with a large band and this kind of music really needed a lot of tracks and then all the additional production techniques and effects. Having the right engineer is -so- critical." While a -producer- is often the -idea- person, someone with a -vision- for the project, the -engineer- is the techno-freak and studio manager, responsible for everything from turning knobs and keeping account of what instrument is on which track, to making sure the vocalist has the proper ambiance to be comfortable and relaxed.
"The ideal is to make the studio transparent and for the artist to be having fun and not thinking about recording," says Rob Ferrari of -Digital Insight- recording studio. "As an engineer in the studio, youíve got to be in control of your session. In most cases, that sort of relationship starts way before the band walks in the studio door." Ferrari is among the handful of top recording professionals actively involved in the local music scene. Copperpot, Mark Huff and A Pig Named Jodi have all recorded with him. So have members of the Rolling Stones and Guns and Roses. Years of experience has taught Ferrari how to deal not only with different styles of music and colorful personalities, but also the importance of being totally prepared.
"For most bands the most important thing is pre-production," says Ferrari. "Bring in the engineer or producer to some rehearsals to trim the fat." Being well rehearsed and ready to record is an important first step to a successful session, but once a band is -in- the studio, the ability to maintain enthusiasm and focus in the face of brain numbing boredom becomes key. Studio time drips slowly. Musicians that show up -ready to play-, find themselves waiting around for extended periods.
"Usually when I write a song, they come out real quick," says musician and band leader, Mark Huff. "So I try to record them real quick like that to capture the original feeling, but when you get into the studio it becomes sort of like a sterile environment where everything moves slow."
One of the most tiresome exercises happens at the very beginning of virtually every session. Itís the complex, drawn-out and occasionally painful procedure known as -micing-? the drums. "Weíll usually put something like ten microphones on a drum kit," says Michael Sak of -Kill The Messenger- studios. "That usually takes around an hour and a half, although some engineers will take all day with that." With a -platinum- album to his credit for his work with the Goo Goo Dolls and twenty years of recording studio experience, Sak is in heavy demand. Itís a position that requires him to pick and choose the local artists that he can allot the time to work with. Mama Zeus and Big Bad Zeroís debut albums are a couple of local projects that heís been involved with.
"The live performance, what they always do, is where you start," says Sak. "First we get the tones for all the instruments, starting with the drums. Then the bass, guitars and whatever else there is. Getting things dialed in at the beginning is critical." On the engineerís side of the glass, itís easy to concentrate on -setting the levels-, itís the foundation the recording will be built on. But for the musicians, who are usually focused on the songs and their performance, -getting the levels- can start the session on a sour note.
"There are just so many methods to make it crunchy or fatten it, whatever, all these tiny things that can go into it that just make such a difference in the end product," says Gaughan. "Sometimes the possibilities can become overwhelming." "It's like an eternity to me," says Huff, "It takes a lot more time then people would imagine. Waiting around for the brief moments that you actually get to record is the hardest part." Recording all the tracks for a complete album can take days, weeks or months, depending on the project. Usually, the band plays the songs as a group in the studio, although they may be in different rooms or isolation booths.
"It's strange because normally you make music and you're with the band," says Gaughan. "But in this case you're in a little booth by yourself and you have the tracks playing, so it's not live and the feeling isn't there. You have to really visualize a lot more if you want to get the emotion out of it." Whether it was sheer bliss or absolute torture, once recorded versions of the songs with -acceptable drums parts- are finished, any of the other instruments that need corrections are -overdubbed-. Sometimes the entire part will be replayed from the top, but most of the time the engineer will que the tape to the specific part, and apply a quick-fix sonic Band-Aid known as a -punch-, a new fangled, high tech solution to an age old studio problem, punching-out enables the musician to only rerecord the specific part that needs to be fixed.
Usually the vocalistís performance during the first take of each song is intended to help the bandís timing and is referred to as a "scratch track." Part of the plan includes the singer coming back at a later time, after the -music- is recorded, to redo the vocals. "The thing that was most surprising was the vocal tracks," says Larsen. "You'll do like five to ten vocal tracks and then the producer and engineer will piece together a track to create the best performance possible." Recording vocals is different than instruments. A good engineer strives to create a mood in the studio thatís conducive for the singer.
"I find out before hand if the vocalist wants people there or not," says Ferrari. "A lot of times I face them away from me in as dark a room as possible with some candles so they can vibe themselves out, relax and feel comfortable." After all the tracks are done, vocals included, itís time for the -mix down-. This is when the volume and tone of each track in the song is carefully blended together with all the other tracks. One song at a time.
"Mixing is a lot like a great golf swing," says Sak. "It's the opposite of everything that you think. Everybody wants a -big- record, you know, who doesn't? Who walks into a studio and says make this sound small?" "It used to be the worst," continues Sak. "I used to dread the mix down, but with automation what used to be a lot like a three man juggling team pushing knobs and faders in a crazy choreography, is now a much more manageable process. But it can still take 3 to 4 hours per song."
After each song is -mixed-, the album is -mastered-. Essentially a final mix that can sweeten up aspects of the sound if needed, -mastering- the makes sure that the sound levels and tones -among- the songs have continuity throughout the album. Even after the recordings are mastered and sent off for reproduction and packaging, most bands still have a lot of work to do before the CD hits the market.
"We really participated heavily in the artwork, we did a lot of that ourselves," says Larsen. "Then once you do get the CD it's time to put together the press kits, make sure everything is together for the CD release party, and just on and on. It never seems to stop. Looking back it's like, 'How the hell did we do all that?í"
Don Hartley has a unique perspective on the recording process. As an engineer/producer for Alien Audio and drummer for King Cartel, Hartley has experienced both sides of the glass. "Engineering or producing for someone else is almost as rewarding as playing the music because you get to see it come together," says Hartley. "It's interesting, you know, to hear the recording process come together from laying down the drum tracks to overdubbing the bass, guitars, keyboards or whatever and then finally the vocals, you just get to see it build, sort of like a house. I like that. Sometimes I see that house get built from the outside as the engineer, or other times I'm one of the guys pounding nails from the inside as one of the players. It's rewarding both ways." † ###†