My first recording attempts on a Portastudio 4 Track with a horrible little mic were always an attempt to capture a moment, or an idea… a song. But as time went on and I graduated through using various technologies from tape to Adats to hard drives to record those songs, I got a lot more concerned with ‘how’ I was capturing those songs. I started thinking about mics and placement, compression and reverb, room sound and processing… I read everything I could find early on and then went the internet exploded, I cultivated insomnia, following threads and topics every night, chasing the ‘best’ way to capture a song in its recorded form.
And I learned a great deal… I won’t deny it. I learned even more working some great producers and engineers who worked with my band, producing our albums and patiently letting me bend their ears throughout the process. Everything I read or surfed or took in while we were in the studio, I’d experiment with on my own as I recorded stuff personally or while my band did demos for our label. That experimentation was incredibly helpful as I found out pretty quickly that great gear made a difference, but great ears made far more of a impact on a recording.
I also won’t deny that I’m still chasing that elusive ‘best’ way to record a song and I do have racks of shiny gear, that I’ve painstakingly saved for and chosen, to help me towards that end. But I have learned one incredibly important lesson over this journey:
The song is still the main thing.
And I don’t mean a little bit… without it, all the production chops and esoteric rack gear in the world won’t make anyone sit up and take notice of the ideas, hopes, despairs, and dreams that songs are and songs become.
I recently produced a project for an artist who’s actually a very close friend. He’s a successful singer/songwriter with an international following and has worked with a very impressive roster of people throughout his career, including some producers and engineers I admire greatly.
The project actually started over a long dinner with a few glasses of wine while he and I, along with our wives, caught up on life and adventures in the rock n roll business. He told me he’d been working on ideas for his new album at his own studio, completely by himself, which was a departure for him. His previous critically acclaimed and award winning albums had all been made pretty much the same way: he’d write the songs, gather a band, rehearse for a few weeks and then hit the studio with a great engineer and producer and they’d record live off the floor.
It had been a very successful workflow for him in the past, so I was surprised to hear him talk about how much he’d enjoyed sitting by himself and building these new songs. In fact, once he’d gotten the basic ideas down with a guitar and a vocal, he’d started adding the other instruments he could hear in his head, whether or not he could play them!
So he programmed drums and plinked out piano parts with two fingers…laboured over bass lines and doubled up vocals and BV ideas. And he’d done most of it with very little thought to the ‘engineering’ of it, but as the ideas struck him. Of course, I had to hear it, so we dragged the kitchen iPod dock out and plugged in his iPhone… and from the moment he pressed play, I was stunned.
Not from the production values or the quality of the tracks, but from the sheer brilliance of the songs. They were careening passionate, articulate and melodic… and they made me want to listen to them again. Just like great songs are supposed to do…
So a few hours later, we’d decided that I’d produce the album, that we’d start with what he had already and that we’d chase that energy these freewheeling demos so obviously carried. The budget wasn’t great, the timing was insane and I was up to my eyes in mixes and deadlines, but there was no way I was going to miss out on the chance to work on songs like that!
A few weeks later we started… and it was one of the most refreshing and fun times I’ve had in the studio in my entire life. We started with drums and from day one, I broke every rule I’d learned and perfected over years of recording. I could go into loads of technical points here, and I’m sure I will in my columns ahead, but basically if I could describe what we did in what sentence it’d be “we listened to each song and it showed us what to do.”
I produce a lot of modern rock and pop, most of it garnering radio airplay, so I’m used to honing stuff for the demands of playlists worldwide. So I spend lots of time on production, editing and mixing, but most of my time is spent working on good songs that aren’t great yet… I may be a producer now, but I’m always a songwriter first.
The difference in this project was that the songs were absolutely amazing from day one, so we basically just got to have fun and push the boat out as it were… We kept loads of the original tracks because they had an energy that communicated the songs. We didn’t tune a single vocal, because the songs were so compelling as they were. We did most of the guitars in a single take per song, with amps so old they hissed and hummed all over the tracks and breathed a valve heated life into some very rough recording techniques…
And we did it all incredibly quickly. Less than four weeks after we started, we were done and the tracks were at Abbey Road being mastered by the indomitable Geoff Pesche and the album was launched less than two months after the beginning of the sessions!
In my future columns, I’m sure I’ll be writing about technique and gear, how to get the best out of artists and the curious role of being a producer who engineers rather than the other way around, but I wanted to kick things off with a look at my favourite, most valuable piece of gear in my studio: A great song.