In this week's issue of Phoenix New Times, writer and musician Serene Dominic details the reality TV-style site TheRecordingArtist.com, which features bands recording tracks in realtime. Here, he dives into the studio, and journals the process for Up on the Sun.
I will admit to being somewhat skeptical about submitting myself to TheRecordingArtist.com's method of recording a satisfactory track in three hours, all the while being videotaped and streamed on the Internet. I didn't have any qualms about the studio (I'd recorded at Chaton once before) or OttoD'Agnolo's abilities as a producer/engineer (I know him and I share the same sort of pop sensibilities).
See also: TheRecordingArtist.com Remakes the Music Biz Being naturally self-involved, I was worried about me. Like a guy who has worked out of his home for so long, reintegrating me in a professional recording environment could prove troublesome. "Doesn't work well with others" is the phrase that most readily comes to mind.
I'm used to doing all my own bass and guitar tracks, picking an already dynamite sounding drum sample to do what I want and then working on tracks over a short period of time where I'd have multiple tries to get it right.
Also troublesome was the worry of having to rely on other players. I asked the guys from M.B.E. (Mutant Beat Expo, an early Beatles cover band) to play on the session since I know them, they show up at the gigs we book and we've played the song we were set to record numerous times. You might think having a band that knows the complete early Beatles catalog would give you a great musical vocabulary to draw from but just try to get a bunch of guys accustomed to playing every great Lennon & McCartney song to learn one of your originals and you quickly realize what George Harrison felt like trying to squeeze one of his songs in a recording date. You run down too many chord changes and eyes glaze over as if you're giving someone too much homework over the weekend.
To combat this, I chose a relatively easy song "Unfriend Me" over the more difficult one I'd wanted to cut because the band already knew that one. Of the few originals we managed to sneak in at MBE gigs, that one we had down cold. And when our guitarist didn't make the session, it wasn't such a struggle for me to lay down a solo. I only play one of two solos and luckily that was one of them.
5:00 PM We show up two hours before the start of the session to set up. I bring a long a banjo, an acoustic and electric Epiphone, and a toy piano just in case it's needed. Our drummer Nick Pasco gets some great sounds almost immediately. We do a few run-throughs so that when 7 o'clock rolls around we'll be well and sick of the song.
7:00 PM: We're streaming live performing with no bass for the cameras. I know you kids like bands with no bass but bass is the glue that holds everything together IMHO. Sorry. It's just how I feel. Our bassist Pat Singleton had enrolled in college courses and that night was his first one. He said he'd be here in the last hour of the session. And I believe him. Great, I thought. This would be the built in "drama" that we would need for a reality show. Will he make it? Won't he make it? Will I get to fire him on air like Donald Trump with better hair?
7:30: The scratch vocal was deemed pretty good so we're already ahead of the game. Rhythm guitar and acoustic are relatively easy to get down, so I lay down a bass track to play leads over. If Pat fails to make it, this will be the keeper.
8:00: Lead guitar is going to be tricky because I get very emotional and move around a lot, which is OK for performance but not always so for fidelity. I stumble across some licks that Otto likes so he picks and pastes the best ones in.
8:25: The red tambourine track. Do not underestimate the power of the red tambourine track.
8:45: Pat arrives but since Otto likes some of what I did and some of what he is doing, he has Pat do a little of both bass ideas. That's what a producer does, makes the all-important judgment call that saves it from being someone saying, "Do it the way I just did it." Yuck! Nobody wants to hear that, myself included.
9:15: Harmonies are recorded. That would be me again. I'm suddenly aware of how much camera time I'm getting as opposed to other bands and their many members. Maybe it's a blessing.
9:50: With all the major tracking done, I try out that toy piano. Alas it's not in the same key as the song. Outside of a weird harp flourish that's added in at tomorrow's 3-5PM mix session, we are done.
POST ANALYSIS: I am really pleased with the track now. Doing the show I realized two important things about how I record. What all my home recording is about is songwriting. I'm actually making the song up direct to the computer timeline, which is great in one way but in another it's a huge hindrance. You get used to hearing the song one way, even if it's not the right way. I can't tell you how many times I cut and recut vocals and guitars on this song, unwilling to delete initial tracks if they had a kernel of an idea I liked. If you're totally happy with something, that's great. But otherwise it leads to madness.
It really helps to start from scratch and try getting a performance from a bunch of guys in a room. Yeah, you lose the little minute details here and there but the recording becomes more of a complete performance and that's what Otto did on "Unfriend Me." The second thing is getting the immediate input of others after you've exhausted all your ideas on your own. Getting that feedback from a producer or engineer really tests the validity of your ideas and by the time you're ready to record, you can choose your battles wisely.
Here is a ten-minute encapsulation of the three-hour session.
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Here is the original track of "Unfriend Me" to compare and contrast.