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.