If there’s one thing you can count on in the music industry, it’s the way we like to wax nostalgic about how things used to be. A simple scan of any recording forum on the internet will usually turn up several threads bemoaning the disappearance of tape in favour of digital recording, or the preponderance of plugins over analogue hardware, or the lack of decent budgets compared to several years ago…
And I certainly understand that. I’m a huge fan of analogue at every stage of the recording process and I have more gear than I can shake a veritable stick at crammed into my studio… and I’ve definitely done my share of moaning about shrinking budgets!
All that being said, I’m becoming more and more convinced that we’re living in a bit of a “Golden Age” of recording. There’s never been a time in human history when so many people have had access to the possibility of recording their own music and getting it out to the masses. In addition, the technology for making records is racing forward and the quality level of both the digital medium and plugins. There’s also a huge new revival in the availability of extraordinary new hardware, much of it at a reasonable price point.
To be sure, there’s plenty of quality issues that come along with these developments, both in terms of songs and recording techniques… and you certainly need the skills to squeeze blood from a stone if you want to keep afloat, but it’s still a unique time to be working in this industry.
Recently I was producing an album for a great artist that really demonstrated these facts to me… so much so that I’m changing my tune and I’m now on a ‘no moaning’ plan! If you caught my last column “It’s all about the Song” you’ll remember the process I was working on with the artist… Basically we were under a pretty tight time crunch and had a very small budget to produce his album. At the same time, we really needed to deliver a big budget sounding album and we were determined to make a record we both loved and were proud of, so we weren’t in the process to cut any corners.
The fact that he came with amazing songs made the sessions so much easier, but as we worked, we recognised time and again how this album would have been nearly impossible to make a decade or so ago under the confines we had. As it was, we had the best of both worlds as we could take advantage of all of the incredible technology available to us now and use as much vintage gear as we wanted… it felt like we had so few limitations to making a great record. If we could imagine it, it was probably possible.
One of the best moments was working with the incredible McCrary sisters. They’ve had incredible careers, singing and writing with the likes of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, and we were incredibly fortunate to have them involved with the project. The artist, Brian Houston, had actually already recorded a track at his own studio with the McCrary Sisters when they’d been on tour in Ireland earlier in the year, but we both wanted to bring them on a further three tracks for the final release.
The problem was that they’re in Nashville and we were working in my studio in Northern Ireland… and we certainly didn’t have the budget to bring the sisters over for the session, and we didn’t have the time to get ourselves over. In the past, we’d have had to send over the master tapes, trust the session to another producer, wait for the tapes to come back and simply hope for the best. All in all, it would have been a process that would take at least a minimum of a week, even with everything going perfectly!But as I said, we live in a Golden Age! So Brian and I called the McCrary’s, discussed the project and found a time that would work for all of us across the various time zones. They were excited to be involved with the project and we were thrilled when they could make it work at such short notice.
As soon as we got off the phone, I called some friends in Nashville that I work with who connected me to a great engineer with his own fabulous studio. We discussed what mics I wanted to use, what sort of vocal path I was looking in for in terms of hardware and I sent him the three songs we were working on. We went through how I wanted to run the session and what my priorities were and my workflow etc, and then we were ready to go.
24 hours later, our transatlantic session was up and rolling. Our engineer in Nashville had set up a big display in the tracking room, connected to Brian and myself via a Skype link. The McCrary sisters could hear my direction in their cans as the engineer had routed me in from Skype and Brian and I could hear the performances as I’d routed the Skype call back into my console and we had a full HD picture of the tracking room and the control room so we could speak to and see both the engineer and the McCrary sisters.
It couldn’t have been easier. We were using widely available technology and a normal broadband link… and it felt like we were in the next room.
We spent a few minutes chatting and catching up and then launched straight into the session. Brian and I could hear both the live performances and the playback via Skype and the McCrary’s could see and hear us for direction… as if we were just on the other side of the glass. I was also able to tweak things with the engineer during the tracking easily and Brian and I were able to adjust parts with the sisters and sing various ideas that came to us to incorporate into their parts.
We had all three songs tracked, doubled, layered and dusted in a little over two hours. And though it felt a little strange to produce a session from across the sea, from about 15 minutes in, it felt completely normal. In fact, it was remarkably easy to do and we didn’t have a single problem.
Best of all, I went home and slept in my own bed afterwards and woke up to all the tracks waiting for me online, edited and ready to be dropped into the album! We’d only had the idea to add the McCrary sisters on to three more tracks about 4 days previously and we were finished and ready for mix with a session that had travelled across the sea and through space several times already…Like I said… It’s a Golden Age. Whether we like all of the new developments in the music industry or not, it’s unlikely we’ll be going back to the way things were. And you know what? I don’t want to anymore. I couldn’t have imagined a session like that 20 years ago and I’d much rather have the opportunity to work with more people and bring more creativity into the record making process than ever before always…
Bad records have always been made. Even with the best consoles, totally analogue signal paths, and huge budgets. Our challenge today as producers, engineers and songwriters in this “Golden Age” is to make amazing records whether with, or in spite of, all the wonders available to us. I, for one, love that challenge and can’t wait to see what’s around the corner in this crazy business. Whatever happens, let’s make keep making the good records so our kids can moan about how great it was in our time!