Austin, Day Eighteen
Iain Harvie from Del Amitri once commented that to the uninitiated it must appear as if nothing actually happens in a recording studio. Ninety percent of the time they are sepulchrally quiet places with no discernible activity going on. There’s a lot of waiting, a fair bit of listening and very little performing. Outside of the control room, studios are desolate environments; pianos sit unplayed, microphones hang like dead flowers on their stands and the walls resound with nothing but the hush of the air conditioning with the occasional muted thump of a drum part drifting from beyond the double glass. There is the odd flurry of industry – when the whole band is laying down initial tracks or a string or brass section shuffle into their positions. But there is far more music going on in the external environment: radios in cars, MP3s squawking away in every bar, shop and restaurant. The most fun thing to witness in the studio is the taping of a session orchestra. That gorgeous sound, the gossiping of the players between takes picked up by the mics, the conductor’s strained facial expressions and coaxing hands making motions in the air. The dullest thing is either drum programming or vocal double-tracking. We once spent two weeks programming drums on three songs, Stone Cold Sober, Opposite View and Kiss This Thing Goodbye. I wanted to shoot myself. By the time we came to mixing we’d overdubbed Stephen Irvine drumming on the first tune and didn’t even notice when the mix engineer, the wonderful Julian Mendelshon, completely ignored the programmed drums. Because the record company thought it was a hit there were at least three completely different versions of Stone Cold Sober and countless re-mixes. We must have spent thirty grand on that track for it to bomb as the second single and for the third, an acoustic track recorded in a few days to become the first big hit. Often a favoured song will be worked on mercilessly for countless days until everybody decides the demo is better all along. Everyone will tell you – it’s the ones you really believe will fly that bomb. And it’s the throwaway things you put on an album at the last minute that end up going nuts. But all this experience counts for nothing. Just like the movie industry – nobody knows anything. I’ve heard songs on the radio that I’ve been convinced will go to number one only for them to paddle in the lower reaches of the charts for a few weeks before being led away. You just never know. It can be the oddest little things about a record that grab the audience. You thrust what you consider your masterpiece in their face and they go off sniffing round the bins and come back with a B-side between their teeth, wagging their tail furiously. Nobody knows anything.
It’s the penultimate day and we seem to be on schedule, for what it’s worth. I could dick about with the vocals a lot more but I feel that would be redundant. The more time you spend on something the more you can end up chasing your tail. And that’s something most cats grow out of.
It has been odd working on tape again. It’s a different rhythm and a warmer medium. A good tape machine does something indefinably beautiful but I have never figured out if that’s because all the classic records made on tape recorders condition your ear to that sound or whether there really is something intrinsic to the process that is more appealing to the brain. I can usually tell when something has been done to tape. But do I like that sound because it reminds me of After The Goldrush or Fresh or the White Album or because it is more human? The software plug-ins that replicate tape compression sound pretty good to my ear but what is all that number crunching really doing to your music? Are there mice under the floorboards covering their ears and grimacing in agony at the ridiculous frequency modulations thrown out by such processing? Or is this about that dread quantity nostalgia? Will we ever be nostalgic for the tinny, nasty, thin sound produced by early digital recording? Will the Jack Whites of the future be playing Kramer guitars through Roland Jazz Choruses onto Mitsubishi X-850 one-inch digital tape machines? They quite possibly already are. It’s all bullshit anyway. If it’s good enough it doesn’t really matter what the medium or the format is. Who listens to music on anything other than 16 bit shit anyway? Hi-Fi Buffs? Jesus – have you met those people? Music haters, every one of them. Those people would go to see the Mona Lisa and get excited about the varnish.
I take some air as the sun sets. In the lot outside a musclebound pick-up truck sits hooked up to a trailer long enough to house a small ballistic missile. I’m nosy enough to want to know what’s in it but polite enough not to ask. I suspect it’s some kind of racing vehicle, a dragster perhaps. In the rehearsal room next door a band strikes up, the rumble of the drums and bass filtering through the fabric of the building. I sneak back into the silent studio where nothing seems to be happening at all.
15 Responses to “Austin, Day Eighteen”
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the tiny bits of nothing. Love it. It’s something most musicians don’t understand. They don’t involve themselves in the finer details… tracking – that’s enough… I love the chasing your tail comment, as I’ve found that to be true… 25 vocal takes, and we end up using the first one in it’s whole, or majority. can’t wait to hear what you haven’t been doing.
If you are willing to buy a car, you would have to receive the home loans. Furthermore, my brother usually uses a auto loan, which seems to be really firm.
And now has Justin suddenly realised ‘Roll to Me’ was that throwaway 6th track gibberish on “Twisted” but is actually as good as everything else on that wonderful album – nah thought not… it fits and yeah it was a throwaway 2 minute to fill in a gap between the end of the chat and the news… but it was a HIT
When I settle down again, I plan on hooking up that turntable that’s trekked from storage unit to storage unit these last few years, never quite making it into the house. I have a feeling this album would sound good on vinyl through those old JBLs. Safe travels and please come back in the Spring with a tour, barring time really ending and all that.
I have a box of old tapes, a small stash of memories! I did get rid of loads though, time moves on doesn’t it.
I bought a second hand Bang & Olufsen Beomaster amp and turntable recently for £65, because it looks unbelievably cool, and I thought it would be fun. It must have cost 10x that 3 decades ago when it was new.
Here’s the thing, it does actually sound fucking amazing. I hope never to attain the cuntish status of a “hi-fi buff” but if I can find the full Del Amitri collection then that will do me.
I have both “Del Amitri” and “Waking Hours” so far, wish me luck in getting the others. Did they even make vinyl copies of “Can You Do Me Good?” anyway? I assume the others were early enough?
It came with a box of records, the obligatory Queen, Alison Moyet, Genesis type stuff, and the surprise of the box is an amazing Barbra Streisand film soundtrack. It blew me away, who’d have thought it, I was ready to bin it.
Anyway I was playing the ‘Del Amitri’ album whilst peeling some spuds the other night, and I suddenly became aware it sounded very different from the CD. Its a cliche this warmer thing, but it really, really was! maybe its more apparent on that album or something with it being an early 80’s recording, as its not quite so apparent on waking hours, but WOW! Just wow.
Please no more . Get yourselves to Rio you bunch of bores.
Thank you Miss Havisham. Remember, sour grapes can never make sweet wine.
Are you two the same person?
Really enjoyed reading that. Thankyou. Didn’t have a clue about the process of recording, never thought about it at all. However, in my own ignorant way I do understand and empathise with regard to what you think will do well and what actually does. I would guess that the same is true of everyone no matter what their job. You’re doing ok, you know that…
Why did you feel the need to clarify that Iain was from Del Amitri? Those of us with any substance know EXACTLY who Iain is! ;-)
Anyway…….I know nothing of all the equipment you speak of, nor the process you describe, but you speak of it so beautifully and vibrantly, it really does come alive! The imagery you provoke through your captivating style is almost as if the reader is there, seeing it with their own eyes. Stunning, Sir, just stunning.
Its a good job I can’t hear you speaking these words in your lustrous tones, or I’d be drowning in a pool of my own juices!!! Errrrrrrrrrrr… hows THAT imagery for you! Ha ha ha!!
Stone Cold Sober, and indeed all Waking Hours is momentous, nuff said!
How long are you going to make us wait before we get to hear your labours of the last few weeks? Not long I hope…… xxx
I swear we had one of those Ferrigraph recorders at school. They kept it in the library and would even lend it out to kids overnight for projects. Fantastic photo!
Very enjoyable reading of your favourite and least favourite studio experiences. Speaking of orchestras, I remember seeing some amazing youtube videos of you and the Ryan Quigley big band doing some great old standards and an absolutely astounding version of the The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows. I wondered if you ever recorded with them. I hope so.
All the songs on Waking Hours are golden but I would have thought Kiss This Thing Goodbye would be the standout single. Just as you say, nobody has a clue.
Oooh! Speaking of Neil Young, and the enigma that is songwriting, I remember a story he told that really resonated with me. He said he had a room in his house, filled up literally to the ceiling with cassette tapes. A chorus here…a lonely bridge there…subconcious mumblings at 3:00 am…he says he doesn’t know what to do about the room. He tries not to go in there! lol! I remember feeling quite relieved at this revelation.
God knows what was in that trailer…it’s probably the guy’s house. Or squirrels…;-)
Bon Voyage darling! The album will be FAB!! Don’t worry.
After me correcting you I’ve just read back my first comment only to discover I’ve made an error, instead of ‘your’ I’ve put ‘you’. Oh well, shit happens.
What a wonderful piece of machinery, it looks like a suitcase, maybe you could stuff some of your clothes in it. Ah, tape, they were the good old days. Every now and then I still get out my old tapes and listen to them, even vinyl still sounds good to me, I still listen to my Waking Hours album every now and then. I hope you didn’t mind me correcting you about getting you days mixed up, I can be a bit anal like that, it must be the virgo in me.