ROB LONG TELLS US HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR RECORDING SESSION, AND KNOW WHEN A SONG IS FINALLY DONE.
One issue that comes up time and time again, on every recording I do, is knowing how far to take the production process and in what direction – where are we going, and how do we know when we’ve arrived?
Like any artform, once you begin to work on a piece – song, video, painting, sculpture, etcetera – part of the challenge and skill is knowing when you’re looking at or listening to the finished product.
Take the analogy of baking a cake, then having an entire cupboard full of toppings and decorations at your disposal to dress it up in a thousand different ways. Suddenly you’re faced with virtually infinite possibilities – an overwhelming prospect!
Do you put one cherry on top? Do you cover it so the cake itself is invisible? Who is going to eat the cake? A room of screaming kids, or one special person with some very specific tastes?
With today’s digital recording rigs, even humble setups can provide more options than a sophisticated studio did in the mid-to-late 1960s. So, it follows that once you’ve got yourself a modest setup happening, you’ll have an audible world of possibilities at your fingertips. But does that mean you need to use them all?
RECORDING VERSUS PRODUCTION
Back in the day, when this crazy industry we call the recording business began, it was actually just that – the business of recording a performance in its most simple form. You might possibly do a few takes, then simply choose the best one. That was it!
There was no overdubbing, no drop-ins, no editing, no mixing, no processing – just raw performance captured live and unadulterated. You either had something or you didn’t.
The production, as such, was all in the artistic preparation, presentation and performance – the right singer, song, musician(s), key, tempo, arrangement, style, chemistry between performers, and so on. The magic was in the music, not in the studio or the post-production.
Obviously, there are people who still strive to write, perform and record this way. We see so much video footage of people performing live in the studio, almost as a return to the heydays of early recordings. People are visually showing that this is a ‘live performance’. There’s very little post-production or studio trickery – just clever arrangement, good performance and good engineering.
This is refreshing and very positive, but it’s not going to work for every session. I’d say I do one album per year that is literally what I’d call a ‘live capture’ of what is happening in the room(s). The post production for such a project is minimal, and I’ll often stem the entire set of songs into one single DAW project, thus making mixing simple and streamlined.
I can set up a mix/busses/FX for the first song and simply do minor tweaks for each song after that. This works well for solo or duo performers, up to small ensembles – say, a tight three-piece outfit – with minimal overdubbing, a guitar solo, some backing vocals and a bit of tambourine here and there.
Occasionally, I’ll get a larger ensemble wanting to track 100 percent live – including live vocals – but unless they're seasoned pros, you find cracks starting to appear, fatigue sets in and there are complications with tuning, spill, monitoring... They usually end up splitting things up and overdubbing parts to keep the quality high.
So, at one extreme, we have the ‘live capture’ that, like a simple line drawing on paper, is virtually complete as it stands; frame it and hang it on a wall! At the other end of the spectrum, we have completely computer-created, sample-or-loop-based tracks that are layered, edited and otherwise manipulated to within an inch of its life. There’s no right or wrong, and
each to their own. In today's business, so much music is made where the only ‘instrument’ is the computer. But regardless of the content, recording medium, instrumentation or genre, you still have the same issues: when is it finished? Is it appropriate for the target audience?
Returning to the more common, middle ground projects, the typical scenario is an artis or act who makes the most of the sounds they want on their recording when they play the piece live. With a decent live capture of the basic elements and a small amount of overdubbing, the piece is pretty much nicely cooked and ready for some basic work in the mixing and post-production phases.
OVERCOOKED VERSUS MEDIUM RARE
Overproduction tends to be more of an issue when there’s an over-zealous artist with too much money and not enough experience to know that if you live alone, five bathrooms is possibly overkill.
I’ve seen everything from the jaw-dropping one-take-wonder that left us with an unrepeatable, pristine take that waited for nothing; to the kids in the toyshop who started with something quite respectable, then proceeded to bury their own treasure in mountains of trash percussion, tuneless ‘roadie’s chorus’ backing vocals, swirls of over-effected Hawaiian lapsteel played by someone who wanted to ‘have a go’, and a hellish clapping orchestra from some Gary Larson cartoon. You can imagine what the mixdown session was like!
Generally, people tend to want things left simple, and are under the impression that what they are doing, playing or singing is fairly complete in itself, and will require minimal musical or technical assistance or enhancement. This is often the case, and is usually the most enjoyable type of project.
However, often it’s necessary to build a large track one brick at a time. It may be that you’re working with a solo artist who has ditched the idea of working with a band for a multitude of reasons, yet still wants to have a product that sounds like a band. It could be the your client(s) don’t actually play an instrument at all, and is going to rely on you to co-write parts, arrange the music, organise musicians and tell them what to do – handing you a seed and wanting you to give them back a tree!
I see many artists who approach their project with the philosophy that the recording should be a neat and tidy version of what they do live – no fancy stuff, all 100 percent reproducible. This is noble and often totally achievable,
but not necessarily always desirable.
I feel that the recording should be a work of art in its own right. Likewise, the live performance should stand independent and complete from the recording. It’s the artist’s prerogative to interpret and reinterpret their own work as appropriate for the situation. In today’s climate, artists must often be able to present their show in different sized packages. Having the full monty with all the bells and whistles is often only possible on special occasions, unless you’re commanding large audiences!
THE LAST TWO PERCENT SYNDROME
If you find yourself bogged down with a client at the 11th hour tweaking things that only a trained ear would hear through a $2,000 pair of headphones – after you’ve told them what to listen for – then you could be into the ‘last two percent’ of issues, which only the artist will notice or care about. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pursue it – as a producer, it’s your job to make the artist happy, but also to manage time. If you can’t hear the difference after A/B-ing something three times knowingly in perfect listening conditions, then it’s unlikely a casual listener will.
So much of knowing where to pitch something and how much time, energy, effort to put into something depends on your target audience. If you set up a fancy table on the street at 2am selling $45 mains to the night zombies, you’ll risk attracting abuse! Likewise, serving up nuggets and dim sims in a five-star restaurant will fry your culinary future.
It has to be said that sometimes the ‘target audience’ is the artist themselves, and ‘both of their fans’. Whatever the motive for recording, setting a relevant and realistic goal before you start is the. Let the intended audience, context and motives inform how you produce.
PLAYING TO WIN
Working to the artist’s ability is paramount. The recording scenario opens up possibilities for artists to explore and extend themselves beyond their normal field or abilities.
Sometimes the best sessionist is the artists themselves, as they are inside the music more than anyone – as long as they're not using productive time floundering in an indulgent dreamscape. It’s fairly frustrating to watch someone learn how to play a shaker when there’s a paid session drummer out the back making the coffees.
Finding the balance between time, budget, ability, dreams and reality is a tricky business. Navigating a project through a multitude of obstacles – expected and unexpected – can be challenging, as is knowing when the cake is baked. A trusted set of ears, and even a trial ‘taste test’ with expected target audience members, is sometimes a great way to get feedback.
BELOW: DAW OVERLOAD!
ABOVE: A FICKLE LINE TO CROSS
ABOVE: STRUNG OUT
LEFT: KEYED IN
RIGHT: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! ABOVE: JUST A FEW OPTIONS