Monday, January 17, 2011

Best Day in the Studio. Ever.

Every once in awhile, in music, there are moments that are truly magical. I suppose that's why we audio engineers do what we do. We want to be a part of that moment. We want to be there when that combination of talent, equipment and sweat, culminates in the golden silence following a take because goosebumps are being felt and everyone in the building knows that was IT. I was blessed enough to be a part of at least one of those moments.

A couple years ago, I was in the fortunate position of first engineer of a tracking session for a superb Americana band by the name of Great American Taxi. We spent ten days in the studio together, living, eating and recording music. They hired an excellent producer, Tim Carbone, of Railroad Earth to help focus their arrangements and offer his musical prowess on the fiddle.

I'm always nervous when working with a band and a producer for the first time. Thankfully, in our pre-session dialoging, we roughed together a plan of attack for our setup and procedure. I really appreciate a producer who knows what they want and knows how to get it done. Careful planning also took care of booking extra musicians for overdubs. I was excited to get rolling.

Our first day didn't start until the afternoon because the band had a late gig the night before. All we had planned for that first day was to get instruments setup with levels and tones. We spent a fair amount of time getting everything just right. Since we would be recording thirteen songs, continuity would be a factor during mixing. Furthermore, both Tim and I prefer to get the sound we want going to tape (or hard disk, as the case was). It saves a lot of time later in the mixing stage.

Our first day of recording went well. We were able to record and punch-in on three songs in a ten hour day. I should tell you, I was really impressed with the level of musicianship in Great American Taxi. These guys could (and can) play. Vince Herman and Chad Staehly front the the band and their collaborative songwriting effort was phenomenal. I was digging the music and we were getting some good takes. Days two and three were also wonderful. Excellent energy. It felt as if we were starting to gel and settle into a groove as a whole.

Day four was the magical day. It began just as effortlessly as the first three days. A couple of songs during the daylight hours. Punches were smooth. We were on a roll. As the sun settled behind the rockies, the studio lights were dimmed and it was time for another song.

The song began with acoustic piano (Chad Staehly), drums (Chris Sheldon) and bass (Edwin Hurwitz) playing a sweet, slow half-time shuffle. A little acoustic guitar by Vince Herman for flavoring and ornamented with electric guitar (Jim Lewin) and pedal steel (Barry Sless) fills between stanzas. First chorus a little heavier, a little darker. This song continued to build through another verse, chorus and bridge. Just when it felt like it was about to climax, the bottom dropped out to a single piano note with the drums and bass following into the quiet groove from the top. Another verse and chorus building to outro which was bigger than the bridge. When Jim Lewin's smoking guitar solo came in, I about jumped out of my chair. The sound was bigger than life. The song ended on a sustained chord and dropped off gradually.

Once the music had stopped, nothing could be heard in the studio for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone was looking at each other silently. Nobody wanted to spoil the mood. We knew that was it. The first and only take. I felt the goosebumps.

Then Tim got on the talkback and announced that "was IT." I remember thinking to myself, I could die a happy man right then. There was nothing left I needed to experience in my life.

The band adjourned to the control room and we listened to the playback. Man, what a great song! Great performances. We still hadn't added the Black Swan Singers or all of Tim's copius string parts yet and it was already an exceptional song.

I'm actually getting goosebumps from reliving that night. It is definitely one of the highlights of my career. These are the moments we all live for. I'm very happy to have had one. Everyone deserves to experience magic at least once in their lives.

Rock. Roll. Repeat.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Worst Day in the Studio. Ever.

Nice title, eh? Caught your attention?

Next blog, I'll describe my best day in the studio. This entry is about my worst day in the studio. Mine is nowhere near as bad as Mixerman's, but close. If you haven't read Diary of a Mixerman, you should. It's a humorous daily account of a typically bad LA studio session. It's only funny because it's true.

A band booked a day with me in the studio early on in my career. I was also the acting producer. Let's call them The Whenevers. That appeared to be their motto. Their communication skills were severely lacking. Not a word from them before the session except to comfirm the date, time and location. Regardless, I went through the trouble of booking the studio and personnel.

On the day of the session, I arrived two hours before the start time to supervise and assist setting up and preparing the studio. I didn't know the instrumentation, so I prepared basic rock instrumentation. Since this was a meager studio in SoCal, we didn't have studio intruments or amps. All I could do was setup mics, setup the patchbay and calibrate the tape machine (yes, this was before Pro Tools).

Okay, session start time arrives and The Whenevers have not. No phone calls. Not a word. I tried calling all the numbers I had for them. No one answered.

An hour into the session time, still no band or a single phone call.

Finally, ninety minutes into the session time, I received a phone call that the band played a show the night before that went late and they were just now waking up . Their ETA was another thirty minutes.

Upon their arrival, it was apparent they hadn't brought any instruments. They had carpooled in the singer's Nissan Sentra which barely fit the musicians, much less any real equipment.

After debating for awhile on who was more sober, the bass player went to retrieve the band's van.

A half hour later, a van arrives with all the band's equipment. The equipment is road worn. Old strings on the guitars. Beat up drum heads. A keyboard missing a key. Not exactly studio ready. But, it's equipment and we're hours late getting started as it is. And, since that was the only day we had to record, we had best get crackin'.

An hour later (three and a half hours late), the instruments and amps were setup and they have attempted to tune. Time to position mics and get tones.

I usually start with drums. I'm a drummer. Egotistically, I believe once a good drum sound has been achieved, everything else falls into place. Kick drum - sounds good. Snare top - sounds good (as good as can be with a dead head). Snare bottom - sounds good. Toms - sound reasonable given the dilapidated state of the heads. Hi-hat.... Hi-hat... no sound from the hi-hat. Hmmmm. Let's move on to the overheads and have the second engineer trace the cabling and solve the hi-hat issue. Overheads.... Overheads....

Uh, oh. Upon further troubleshooting, it was determined that the phantom power supply in the console had passed on to the next life. A friend of mine once joked that all electronics ran on smoke. Once the smoke was released, the equipment stopped working. The phantom power supply must have released all its smoke. It wasn't the end of the world. In fact, given how the day started, I half expected it.

Another half hour to replace the condenser mics with dynamics. Not a lot of good options here either. Replacing KM84's with SM57's and 414's with RE20's. These are not ideal substitutes.

Thankfully, the band was patient. Given my name for them, they had no choice. I thanked them anyway.

It took four more hours to get tones and levels. I recorded a little onto tape to get the band's opinion. They were flat about the experience and simply said, "sounds fine." Fine? Fine wasn't good enough for me. I wanted to see that sparkle in their eye. I wanted to hear the air rushing into their lungs as they gasp in amazement. Fine is not acceptable.

I spent another half hour trying different mic placements on instruments and playing with eq's to get the sound that will make the eyes pop out of their heads. But, to no avail. They still seemed unchanged. I sloughed it off as hangoveritis. Never having a hangover myself, I can't relate. But, most people I've run across who've had them, tell me they can only focus on getting rid of the pain. I could sympathize with them a little. They were quickly becoming a pain for me.

We proceeded to tracking. Only eight hours late. I had been there ten hours already myself.

The Whenevers turned out to be pretty good. I'm sure we could've done a much better job had we been in communication throughout the entire process and the band actual gave a horses derriere. Equipment failures are inevitable. Although, usually not as catastrophic.

All in all, we recorded two songs they subsequently submitted to Musicians magazine, and were ranked in the top twenty best unsigned bands in America.

Rock. Roll. Repeat.