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.


  1. I am just letting that soak in... "...the instruments and amps were setup and they have ATTEMPTED to tune..." Sheer joy.

    I echo Jay's recommendation. Everyone needs to read The Daily Adventures of Mixerman, http://www.mixerman.net/diaries1.php.

  2. ...never had a hangover? ...That is mind blowing Jay...it is a very bad dehydration headache and fatigue...sucks to work and or perform hungover...i know because it is good to understand where the musicians are coming from headspace-wise so i peformed a study in performance and hangovers back in the day...laughs. Hope the band paid in advance, then the pressure you for they're messup....

  3. Dale, you crack me up. The band paid 1/2 up front and the rest before masters were delivered.

    My understanding is that hangovers are also caused by impurities in the booze. That's why I'll never drink Cuervo or Budweiser. Nothing but the best!