oodles of recording noodles………….

So let’s swing back to the core of what a band does to promote itself – recording music.  Recording, the private, back room activity that an active band engages in, should be central to a your band’s development. You should always be setting something down on tape. This could be demos, live tracks as the band plays out, major sessions with a producer, a running project to rerecord “Dark Side of the Moon” as a salsa album or collaborations with other artists. It all counts. It is all central to being a great band and it all should be DONE WITHOUT DELAY!!! Stop fucking around and make the record.

Over the course of my career I heard the same lame excuse with sickening regularity. There are many variations but it basically goes like this ” We’re waiting for Tyrone Mablamawitz to find time in his schedule so we can work on some tracks” The key word is “waiting”.  Your waiting for the studio. Your waiting to finish writing two more tracks. Your waiting for label to show some interest. Your waiting until you buy that new compressor. Your waiting for your lucky groupie to get outta rehab…..Bullshit. Why wait? Never wait. If you are going to be a band that records songs then FUCKING RECORD AND DON’T BE AN IDIOT ABOUT IT! Great records are made by bands that actually push the RECORD button. If you are too timid to do it, if you are always finding an excuse why you’re not ready, then you’re not a great band.

You have to feel the fierce urgency of NOW!

Look at it this way. You’re in a band. You have the lives of four or five people tangled up and committed to the crazy campaign to make great rock. How long can this last? How long will the band hang together? How long until someone pisses off everyone else and things change? I have thirty five years experience in this subject and I can tell you with no reservation that answer to all of those questions is “Not long at all”. All bands are temporary. The only ones that stick around for decades are the ones that make it big. Once that happens you will have already figured out that you need to get it down on tape.

All of the arguments that you are not ready don’t really add up. For example if you find yourself arguing that the tunes need to be practiced in order to have enough polish then get to it and knock out the practices. That is part of the recording process. There is a subtle but important difference between “Yeah we have just been practicing” and “We’re doing preproduction practices”. One is the humdrum pace of a band wasting its time and the other is a band working towards a short-term goal.

Let me sum up this rant. ALWAYS RECORD WHAT’S GOING DOWN IN THE BAND. It all has use and if you are not recording then you damn well better be playing out live. Oh yeah, if you are playing live you damn well better be getting some of the shows on tape. Listening back to a live shows tape is a great way to figure out that it’s time to fire the drummer or that “I’ll cry over your puppy baby” really sucks and the band should finally drop it from the set list. (which, of course, will mean you can finally fire the drummer since it is his only song)

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This post looks like a few random recording topics. Since there are always lots of brief comments rattling around in my skull I will occasionally spit out these disjointed posts. I hope that they fit in with all of the other more structured posts.

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How do you get good tracks in the studio? How do you make a recording really special?

Getting great tracks

This, of course, could be a huge post with lots of subchapters and scores of stories. Tonight, at least, I am going to give a few quick and dirty tips and rules to help ensure cutting great tracks.

1. Great tracks are based on great, relaxed, well centered playing. It all starts with everyone in the band being in a great mood (by great I mean appropriate and intense in some way) Everyone should be well fed, and focused. The band should try to record at the hours where everyone involved is working at their best. If your bass player just spent 14 hours unloading UPS trucks and arrived with no sleep and utter exhausted then you are on course to cut lousy tracks. Another piece of this core idea is that you should never work really long sessions. I have seen it tried hundreds of times and it has never worked. The best tracks are always cut when the band is relatively fresh and everyone’s ears are fresh.

2. Always keep practice takes and shoot for cutting the base tracks in one or two takes. If you find yourself playing a song again and again then you either need to go back into the preproduction rehearsals or the band needs a break.  The ideal session should run around 10 or twelve hours maximum. This is important. If you think you are smarter than me on this one good luck. You will spend lots of studio time banging away at the same song  and the tracks will sound lame when you go back and listen with fresh ears.

At my residential studio, Morrison Hotel, I always recorded from noon til twelve with a two-hour break in the middle. During the break I would cook a big meal. Get the band loose with substances of their choosing and tell them a bunch of rock stories to get everyone in the proper mindset. 80% of the tracks on my recordings at Morrison Hotel were cut during the two or three hours after coming back from break. The really great tracks, the ones that I can look back at and say they really rock were first or second takes.

If things start to get stale while recording take a break and do something fun. Go throw snowballs at the Hookers on the Avenue or go to the piggly wiggly as a group to see what trouble comes up. Stick together but take a break.  When the lead singer needs to “go for a pilgrimage into the woods for five hours then you are going to be getting a new singer soon.

3. Break the rules and experiment when you hit a roadblock. Every band finds themselves frustrated and stalled at some point while trying to record. When this happens use some strategies to break out of it and reenergize the session.  I think the key here is to do something creative and impulsive.  Try to rewrite a Beatles song. Record the song with the structure backwards. Cut out the chorus and try rewriting a quick and dirty version of the song with new verses and a new bridge.

Brian Eno, one of the world’s most creative producers, invented a set of cards called Oblique Strategies in the early 80’s. The purpose of these strange Tarotlike cards was to shake up the creative process. I believe you can still buy them if you are curious.  They looked like a Taro set. On each one was printed a command like “Erase and Start again” or “Take a minor element and make it a primary element”. When you got stuck you cut the deck and did what it commanded. Simple, brilliant, inspired. If you want to hear the result listen to “The fly” by U2 or any of the tracks on the Talking Heads “Remain in Light”.

4. Work on the band’s sound and get it to sound amazing before you put mics on it. Yes, the recorded tracks should be cut with the best mics and compressors you possess but the secret to a great sounding recording is to get the band sounding amazing and then capturing it. The mics, compressors, recording console and effects will not create world-class recordings by themselves. They can add to the sound. They can sculpt the sound but they can’t make it sound great when it sounds like shit in the tracking room.  THe first thing you do is get the drums, guitar amps, bass amps, leslie cabinets etc. sounding like the Voice of the Great God Jupiter. Once you do that it becomes a simple process of capturing the sound on tape.  Another way to put it is great tracks are not created in the mix room they are created by the players themselves using gear they understand.  GET IT RIGHT IN THE RECORDING ROOM FIRST. MAKE THE AMPS AND DRUMS SOUND LIKE MAGICAL SPIRITS AND THEN PUT MICS ON IT AND HIT RECORD!!! That’s the way professional, world-class records are made.

OK that sums up tonight’s advice. Of course there will be more to say in the coming weeks…. stay tuned…..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

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4 thoughts on “oodles of recording noodles………….

  1. Hey Brad, thank you so much for all the great advice! I have a question about girlfriends in the studio. I’m not sure if you have discussed this in an earlier blog but here goes…

    My band is currently recording our first full-length CD. A couple years ago we made a rule that no girlfriends were allowed at rehearsals or at recording sessions. This was after we got sick of our old singer bringing crazy chicks around who felt the need to give their two cents even though they knew nothing about music… Anyways… when I told my girlfriend (who is a trained Jazz and Opera singer) that she couldn’t come to the sessions to watch she was offended that “we don’t respect her as a musician/ trust that she can handle herself in a studio.” Where is a good place to draw the line? MY girlfriend wouldn’t cause any problems or disrupt the session but I don’t know about the other member’s… this was the original reason for the “no girlfriends” rule. No one wants a Yoko Ono…

    -Mario

    • Hi Mario,
      Thanks for the praise and the question. I haven’t, specifically, addressed the subject of girlfriends in the studio. I will do so, with pleasure, now. I will be brutally honest. I suspect that the girlfriends of the world won’t see it that way.

      The general rule “no girlfriends in the studio” is a good one. Let me point out that the term girlfriends is code for any significant other – boy, girl, transsexual baboon, or hyper expensive love doll. It doesn’t matter that the creature involved is a woman. (now, from your girlfriend’s perspective I have called her a creature and a baboon. She is certain to take offense)

      The recording studio is not a spectator sport. It is not a gig. It is not a democracy. You can try inviting her along and saying “Sure, you’re welcome at the studio. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t take offense when I don’t pay any attention to you for the next 12 hours!” Does that sound like it will work out as planned? I believe you can see the broad outlines of what my arguments will be. Let’s just play out the fantasy for a moment.

      You bring your girlfriend along. She is a musician. Is she there to just make you nervous? Is she there to add her unsolicited opinion to the already delicate balance of arguments in the band? No, no, no. That’s not why she is there. Ask her, why does she want to attend? Gee, since we are speaking about an actual woman here, we can add the possibility of the drunken drummer making a pass at her. All of these arguments don’t apply? Perhaps she can make the drummer nervous, or the lead singer? Once again, ask her what her role will be, ask her what she will spend her time doing.

      If you ask her all of these questions you may likely end up without a girlfriend. Unfortunately all of these questions are valid. The fact that she is making an issue of being excluded from the studio is a bad sign. People that decide to get involved with musicians need to understand boundaries and limits. They rarely do. That’s why there are so many songs about broken hearts.

      OK, here is another way to look at the situation. Your girlfriend has a job, hmmm let’s say she is a bank officer. Can the band come along to her job and sit around and watch her deny local businessmen loans and play solitaire on her computer. That doesn’t sound like it will work, does it? The studio, is, in fact, work. It is a job. You are there to work. Once again work is not a spectator sport. It is not a democracy.

      The arguments against girlfriends in the studio are the same as arguments against bringing along a random selection of friends. It is the same argument that leads you to conclude that bringing along the band that opens for you on Tuesdays at McGuirks is a bad idea.

      Now let’s consider one more point. I have watched bands crash and burn in the studio. I have seen a band that has their shit together, are well prepared and highly motivated go into the studio and the pressure of recording tears the band apart. The conflict of ideas and egos often get out of hand. Now, accepting that as a possible danger – do you think you should add the extra pressure of bringing along the lover. No danger you say? Perhaps you should drag along everyone’s mom and dad. ( I have seen this exact scenario happen. It wasn’t pretty)

      Finally I will address her argument she was offended that “we don’t respect her as a musician/ trust that she can handle herself in a studio.” This argument on her part assumes, falsely, that her role as a visitor in the studio is as a musician and musical consultant. How could you be failing to respect her as a musician unless she imagines that her role during the session will be to advise the band about music. If she really wants the band to consider bringing her along BECAUSE she is a musician then she may be stunned to discover that the band might find 50 other musicians better qualified to sit on the couch and advise the band on the tracks.

      So the short answer is, tell the girlfriend you love her. Tell her she’s asking to break the rules. Tell her that she should respect you and your art and that requires having the space to do your work. You can also tell her she can write me an angry letter and I will post it alongside this reply….Good luck in the studio.
      Brad

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