Lesson #17 Hit records are free, recording with your band…………..

Recording with your band is damn important. In fact many musicians see recording as the core purpose of being in a band.  I, on the other hand, see being in a band as a balance between the studio and the stage. So far this blog has been about the stage and touring. Now I am going to turn some of my attention to recording.

Over the past 15 years the role of recording has changed drastically. Twenty years ago making recordings which were then turned into albums was the primary road to getting rich. Having a gold or platinum album on your wall told the world that you were set, that you have made it. This has changed. The advent of downloading has destroyed the value of a successful record.  I won’t bother to discuss whether this is good or bad we will just accept it and move on. In today’s music scene a band’s recordings can make them money but the real riches must come from playing live since it’s the one thing that can’t be stolen.  Don’t get me wrong. Just because making a recording and then selling it to the world is no longer a way to get rich doesn’t mean that recording is in any way less important than it was in the past. Actually the opposite is true.

Recording technology has gotten ridiculously cheap. Everyone can afford it and everyone does buy it.  The end result of this major change is that recording gear is largely in the hands of amateurs. I am a big fan of amateurs. I also recognize that when it comes to recording amateurs don’t really know what they are doing.

What does all this do to the music that is being put out by bands? The quality of recordings is dropping. It is also a lot less likely that someone is going to spend 2 million dollars to lock a rock band away on some island paradise to make a record.  Why would they when the day the album is released it will downloaded tens of thousands of times? This is a major change. It also offers you, my reader, a golden opportunity.

Since amateurs rule the world now, being a talented, knowledgeable amateur will pay off.  Any recordings that you make in today’s market are essentially promotions tools. They may make you some money but that is no longer their purpose. Instead all recordings are sermons. When someone downloads your song or pops a disc in and turns their attention to your music you have the opportunity to convert them, forever, to your religion. The religion, of course, is you and your band.  (Now christian rockers don’t get all feisty over my overuse of a metaphor) How serious should you take that opportunity? Do you think you are going to get many chances with each fan?

So there it is, the new world of recording is deadly serious, and, at the same time, a brilliant opportunity. Let’s approach recording with that in mind and one, extremely important , additional attitude. As some background I have been recording music since 1977, mostly in professional situations. I have produced or produced and engineered hundred of sessions. I am not even sure what the true number is any more. In all that time I have learned one essential lesson. Recording music must be fun!

Look at it this way. There are many important things people do. Open heart surgery – very serious, extremely important, never fun. Airline Pilot same deal. Making a kicking rock record? Well that should be a party in your head. It should be a trip to the circus, a   nantucket sleigh ride ,a conga line full of pranksters,  a day in morning sunshine that never fails, a crystalline snapshot of talent, in short it should be awful fun. The attitude that a band has in a recording session goes down on tape as strongly as the kick drum and vocals.  So for Christ’s sake loosen up and have a good time. I’m sure some of you readers are saying to yourself  ‘my music isn’t fun! it’s heavy and dark’. Yeah, yeah I get it. The rule still applies.  When you listen to a really great heavy, dark , monster of a record, I’m talking a record that is flawless from track to track, you are hearing a great band RULE THE WORLD. Guess what, it’s all attitude.  What you are listening to is four or five egos standing in a studio, a long way from you, both in time and distance, and they are strutting their stuff and ruling the world INSIDE THAT STUDIO.  Take it from me because I’ve worked on some great sessions.  When a band is cutting a track like that the studio is electrified with energy, it’s their energy, the energy of the band and they know it, they know they are burning down the studio around them and, in the end, if you really look at it, it’ all attitude.

So right from the beginning you can set aside the school of recording philosophy where people spend 9 days and three hundred and twelve takes to cut a bass line. If you want to learn about recording from that angle go somewhere else. 

Throughout the eighties and nineties I listened to engineers and bands crazy theories about how to record.  After a few years and a thousand or so hours of studio time I started to be able to predict what a musician or engineer was going to say before they would complete the sentence and by the end of the paragraph I would know what obstacles I had to overcome by getting them to unlearn some really bad studio habits.  I now have enough experience that I’ve figured out how many of these bad habits got started and why, at some other time and some other place they made sense.  I will try my hardest to cover a complete list of known bad habits. I may not remember them all just sitting at my laptop but I hope if I keep writing about the studio and how records are made I will cover all of the important ones.

What kind of bad habits? Well I’ll shoot some holes in one to give you an idea of the kind of thing I will cover in this blog.  Also I should point out that my studio advice is not going to be based on just telling you what not to do. I’ll strive to tell you what to do and what not to do and, most importantly, give you some reasoning to back it up. I’ve learned enough about my personality, and how this blog is shaping up to know that sometimes I’m gonna say, “DO IT THIS WAY! JUST DO IT! WHY? DON’T ASK WHY, JUST TRUST ME!”. In that case just trust me.

So let kick off the Dear Abby Column Advice For Recording Bands with one of my personal pet peeves, CLICK TRACKS. Click tracks piss me off. I have seen them terrorize scores of bands and ruin hundreds of hours of high cost studio time. I’ve seen great, talented drummers fired because of click tracks.

Now ask yourself, if you’ve had a drummer in the band for three and half years and he has been fantastic. That is to say he has been fantastic as a drummer. His inevitable run ins with the cops and his habit of small scale arson are just quirks and don’t enter into this conversation. Now ask yourself why in the name of god would you fire this guy solely because he can’t play along with a click track? I’ve seen it happen, many times. This kind of action is classic band stupidity.

Let me straighten out the record. I have an advantage on this particular topic because I was recording BEFORE click tracks became common and, of course, I have seen 25 years of click track mania. I had to listen to lots of yahoos  and turd polishers lecture me why click tracks are the foundation of recording. Often, these idiots would back up their lecture with a fictitious history of the click track lecture. My reaction has always been to tell them to shut up and sit down. If this fails I point to the door and growl and, as a last desperate action have the road crew kick the stuffing out of them.

Click tracks came into the studio from DANCE RECORDS.  Remember disco? Of course you don’t. If you did you’d be as old as me. Well disco was a music movement that featured a steady 4/4 beat that clocked at 60 BPM, 80BPM,100BPM and 120BPM (that’s beats per minute) There was almost no change in tempo over the course of a whole record and never a tempo change within a song. It’s tempting to say that there was no tempo change in the whole decade of disco. 

Another new fad of the age of disco was the drum machine. Can you see where this is headed? No? Ok, I’ll lay it out. People were making records with drum machines playing a relentless steady beat and if that wasn’t being used they were looking for the drummer to play a relentless, unchanging, steady beat.  Since this was often, very, very hard to do engineers imported an idea from the world of classical music, the metronome. As another bit of background I will confess that from aged 7 until aged 16 I played classical piano. So I am extremely familiar with the proper use of the metronome.  Now think for a moment. Think of a classical orchestra, there’s the strings, the horns, the kettle drummer, the woodwinds and there up front, on a podium above the rest is a giant metronome. Wait a minute, that’s not right!? Oh yeah there is some crazy guy called a conductor in a penguin suit. He flails his arms around and has great trouble controlling his hair… yeah that’s the right picture. So why isn’t there just a giant metronome? Well, it seems that the METRONOME is a device for aiding the PRACTICE of music.  What orchestras do is PERFORM music.  This is quite a bit different. In fact a classical score is littered with wierd words in Italian, like  accelerando, ritardando, and oddly even Rallentando and Rubato. These wierd words mean go faster, go slower and oddly, get slower and slower and you been robbed! what? What the hell does that mean?  Rubato actually does mean robbed in Italian and the term is used for a tempo that is devoid of rhythm. Well that’s pretty strange isn’t it. Why would you need terms like that? After all music has a tempo and you play along with that tempo through fiery attacks of demons and assaults of fans throwing panties right? NO! Music changes time, tempo, rhythm, volume, cadence, rhyme, …I could go on for quite a while. For the sake of this blog let’s just say it gets faster and slower.  Don’t believe me? Take a classic rock record and set a metronome to it. You may run across a song with flat time but you’ll also run into many where the time varies . The reason a player works with a metronome is to learn to play flat time, when it is called for. This does not mean that all music, and certainly not all rock music, is performed in flat time.

Now I’m certain that I’m going to get email from people that have used click tracks. They will argue that in order to edit together different takes the band must be playing along to a click track.  Oh really? If that’s true how did every band prior to multitracking, that is too say 1969 turn out hit record after hit record using countless edits without it ever being heard? Well, actually if you spend much time editing music you start to be able to hear edits on all records but that’s beside the point.

So point one on recording, forget the damn click track. Instead the band should be gunning for just the right pacing. If the track picks up a little speed as you go into the bridge or slows down as you go to the anthemic, triumphant chorus that’s a good thing. This is the way music is played.

So now I’ve done it. I’ve started to write about work in the studio. I will continue on with this in coming weeks. I will try to talk about subtle things like getting the “right feel” on a track and nuts and bolts things like what the hell does a compressor do and why would I want that done to me?

One final topic for tonight’s blog.  It’s a big one and I will get started on it and it will come up in various ways from all kinds of angles.  What should my band’s recordings sound like? Seems like  stupid question doesn’t it? Well, if you do a decent amount of recording you will be faced with this question repeatedly.

On this topic I have some good solid advice for any band that still hasn’t made records that sell or moved up to larger shows with packed clubs, that is to say, most of you out there in interwebland. For the forseeable future your recordings should sound like your band does live. The other side of the coin is that your live show should sound like an extremely solid recording.  Even if you have a jam band this is true. As a band gets its act together (isn’t that clever use of words?? Geez i is so smart) the band should be striving to develop a strong sound and personality that defines the band on every level. Your fans should be able to hear a verse and chorus of a live tape or recorded track and say “Hey that’s Arterial Bleeding! I’d know that sound anywhere.” Yes there is a place for growing changing, throwing your audience a curve ball, going acoustic etc. but first you HAVE TO BECOME SOMETHING EXTREMELY POWERFUL AND CONCENTRATED.  Your band needs to have its own sound and this sound needs to be put down on tape.  As part of learning to do that I believe quite strongly that early recordings should be cut  live.  That is to say, everyone playing together in the studio at the same time.  Don’t worry about overdubbing your way through a record. At first you should cut tracks together and, as a result, learn to play together in the studio which is a completely different “feel” from playing together live on stage or in a practice.  If you’re about to record tell the engineer that you are going to set up live and cut the tracks with just a “scratch vocal as a guide track”. This will annoy him enough to keep him out of your hair and it should be a few more sessions before he finds the time and nervous energy to meddle by insisting that you add bad keyboard sounds on the chorus of every song.

If you doubt me listen to “The Who Live at Leeds” or “The Beatles Revolver”. Both albums have many edits but the sound on tape is a band playing together live and doing it ridiculously well.

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

4 thoughts on “Lesson #17 Hit records are free, recording with your band…………..

  1. Amen! The question what should my record sound like is the dumbest one I know of! Well Einstein what does your band sound like? Yeah well that! And the advice about live recordings the best advice I have heard you give so far. Catching it live is the best way to get a band together to start off. Each instrument sounds unique and gives the recording an energy that can’t be duplicated on the 77th take. Great advice and tips so helpful. Thanks again!

    • It may very well be a stupid question but I have heard it countless times. On one level it is understandable. There are certainly producers and engineers that imprint “their sound” onto every band they work with, people like Phil Spector for example. Because of this history many bands seem to be resigned to accept that the studio will change their sound in ways they don’t understand or control.

      Actually the exact opposite is true. The studio usually captures the bands true sound. When they experience their first playback of a track they invariably say “that’s not what we sound like!!”. Well yes, that is what you sound like. The drummer’s snare has a horrible ring because it isn’t tuned properly, his crash sounds like a jiffy pop tin. And yes, the guitarist is out of tune and his les paul copy guitar has intonation problems. The bass player is not playing along with the kick drum and it’s obvious that the song needs an actual ending.

      All of this is good. This is how bands learn. Led Zepplin didn’t spring, fully formed from the Devil’s head and start to rock our world. They learned to play being session players for other, talented artists. When you are in a band the most important observations are self observations………..(gee that sounded lame)

  2. Hello- I play in the electronica/dance scene but I started out in punk and rock bands. I rock at this electronic stuff. I know I do and all my friends think I rock too. I can even play it live..yes electronic music can be very live and sound different every time. So..since I don;t really DJ and don’t like the whole Balkanization thing that the dance scene does but “sure as hell no electronic band using a sequencer is getting on my stage” I fit in absolutely nowhere even though I rule. Is there a person like you Brad in the electronic music world (I do think it is a type of rock and roll sort of)? Do you know this person? Thanks for your time.

    • Hey JB,
      Thanks for the question. I don’t know the name of anyone in particular. My days of electronic dance music where in the late seventies and I quickly moved on to punk. I did tour with Depeche Mode once if that counts. There is one thing that you must remember. You are not the only one in your situation. There have to be other artists “that just don’t fit in”. Try to network with other people with the same problem. You can build shows based upon a couple of different kind of bands. Believe it or not, when I first started promoting bands I booked punk shows and reggae shows. I even booked some punk/reggae shows. HAVE NO FEAR. This is important. Try putting together your own show. What’s the worst that could happen? You lose $500 bucks on renting some gear and a room? One of my blogs covers how to set up an all ages show. There are some good pointers about being your own promoter. Build your own scene. A pick up truck with a borrowed generator, an empty lot, a half a pick up full of beer and you have something more interesting to do next saturday. If you believe that you are great live then play live …find a way. Call attention to the music you make and pretty soon the promoters will “discover” you. Good luck and keep asking questions it’s the easiest way to learn quickly…………………………………..

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