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Wednesday, 05 March 2008 00:00

In the studio...

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You start a band. The band writes material, rehearses, and plays some shows. What’s the next step? Merchandising? A world tour? Possibly a big fat record deal and huge cash advance from the label? Wait a minute; the record industry is currently dying a slow and painful death, so ... maybe not.

No, the next step is to record those oh-so-hip tunes you and your buddies have been banging out so that you can finally hold a magical shiny disc in your hands and know that, on some level, you have finally “arrived,” as they say. Easy, right? Not so much.

The things that slip by unnoticed at a live show, those nebulous musical moments where you flub a few notes or the drummer drops his stick in the middle of a fill aren’t so little under the microscope that is the recording studio. Whether it’s your buddy’s little computer based home recording rig or a huge pro studio that costs an arm, leg and maybe a nose, putting your music to “tape” is always an eye-opening experience. It’s exhilarating, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also a lesson in musical “honesty,” if you will.

Some of the things that might pop into your earphone saddled noggin in the midst of tracking an album:

“Hmmm ... I’m pretty sure I wrote this song, so why the hell can’t I seem to play it?”

This is a classic symptom of “red light fever.” One minute you’re as on the ball as can be, ready to lay down the most awesomest track ever, but as soon as the engineer pushes the little red “record” button, you turn into a drooling idiot with some strange guitar shaped object strapped to your chest. “What is this thing?” you may ask yourself. “What is this strange place with all the pretty blinking lights?” It’s alright, take a deep breath, put your head down and ... run for the nearest exit.

Even better:

“Curious — how could it be that a song that takes about four minutes to play at the club magically turns into a week-long ordeal to record in the studio?”

Ah, the whole “microscope” thing mentioned earlier. Once you lay down all the initial tracks, there’s yet another evil button lurking in the mixing board: the dreaded “solo” button. It only sounds cool, believe me. No, the solo button basically isolates a track of music, silencing all the other stuff happening around it, so that you can hear (as well as everybody else in the room) just how impossible it is for you to do anything right. Without the cushion of all the other instruments, every little inconsistency stands out like a flaming platypus. Vocalists especially hate the solo button, and everybody else simply despises it. The problem grows exponentially once you start obsessing about all the mistakes you’re hearing, causing you to want to “fix” everything, which we all know doesn’t work. You just wind up doing it over and over until it’s only slightly less awful. Maybe it’s that whole “art’s never finished, merely abandoned” thing.

And finally:

“Even though my previous question worked under the premise that everything takes forever in the recording studio, paradoxically time simultaneously seems to get sucked into some kind of vortex , so that every time I look up at the clock, it’s not just ‘later,’ it’s massively, panic inducingly “late.”

Don’t really have a snappy response for this one. Time certainly flies when you’re having fun, and drags like a drunken mule when you’re not. The most productive times during a recording session often seem to fly by, but as soon as you take a break and step outside it’s apparent that, like, lunch was about 12 hours ago. It was sunny just a few minutes ago, right? Oh, wait — that was yesterday. There’s a term in the business called the “studio tan,” which is not in any way a reference to a tanning studio. It’s a descriptive term used in reference to the pasty, almost translucent hue that many musicians and engineers develop after spending countless hours in the windowless confines of the studio. They also blink like squinty mole-men when they’re exposed to sunlight

Joking aside, the recording process is something that all musicians encounter at some point. Hearing songs that at one time only existed in your head take shape and come to life in the air is one of the great musical joys. It’s also infuriating. But — and boy does it feel like I learn this every time — the things that you’re positive were complete crap when you first played them are often the coolest, freshest musical moments. I’ve left the studio completely humbled, ready to sell off all my gear and take up door-to-door vacuum sales, only to return a few days later and find that not only do I actually like what I played, but there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. Go figure. And with the surge of affordable home recording technology, you don’t even really have to pay someone to make you nuts — you can do it to yourself. So get out there and make some music — it doesn’t hurt. Much.

(Chris Cooper is a writer and musician who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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