Sunday, April 02, 2006

Where Are We Now?

I don’t know.

I had thought to make that the whole blog today, but decided that my readership wanted more (since my readership consists of my mother and Leon, one of whom thinks everything that comes out of my mouth – or keyboard – is a gem. And it’s not Leon.)

My recording is in the hands of the engineers now and I’m just waiting for word about when it will be ready.

Ready for what?

Ready for the final mix.

So what are they doing now?

Something called editing. Actually I have no way of knowing if they’re actually doing anything. They could be sitting around, isolating all of my guitar tracks and laughing. They could have put the project in a prominent place where they’re sure to be reminded every day that they have to get to it, work on some other project until it’s time to go home, make a mental note about making it a priority, come in the next day and work on the other project just to get it to a place where it makes sense to stop, use up the day doing that, jot my project down on the TOP of the to do list, come back in the next day and become distracted by some new project.

Not that that’s ever happened.

I really don’t have much to write about. (WARNING: THAT LAST STATEMENT TURNED OUT TO BE A LIE. IF YOU CONTINUE READING, YOU WILL BE ENGAGED IN THE LONGEST BLOG I'VE EVER POSTED. NOW BACK TO THE BLOG.) But that’s OK. I make up a lot of stuff to worry about. Ante Up Audio is a fine organization. I trust them. They’re wonderful. My worries are all just a part of an overactive imagination and anxiousness to get this project done.

So what is editing?

If you really want to know…it goes some thing like this: Editing is the process by which they make the recording sound “clean,” (not as in “Parental Advisory,” but think of detailing a car, only instead of appealing to the visual senses, appealing to the auditory senses) track by track, note by note, beat by beat.

Each song is comprised of tracks. In the old days (like, back in the 1990’s) songs were recorded on tape. Every track you recorded was literally assigned a physical space on the tape. Think of ribbons rolled out across your living room so that they are all parallel and all flush, edges touching, to form one wide piece of ribbon – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and a little white one with silver and gold threads (the colors don’t actually matter, but it will help with the illustration). Now, you go into the studio and start to record tracks. You start with a click track (see glossary). That’ll go on the red ribbon. Then you record a reference guitar track on the orange ribbon, and a reference vocal on the yellow ribbon. (These three tracks are usually not “keeper” tracks. In the days of tape, when we were done with these tracks we’d just record over them if we needed to.)

Now we’ve got our three main guidance tracks so that any other musician can come in and put his or her part down. You will go back at the end and put down the keeper vocals. Usually, you’d start with the rhythm section, drums and bass. The drummer puts his track on the green ribbon. The bass player records onto the blue ribbon. Let’s put a keyboard player on the indigo ribbon, and maybe you want to add an accordion to your song (who would do that?) so you put Mr. Lady Of Spain on the violet ribbon. Now you have all of your tracks, each one a separate entity unto itself, yet meshing perfectly with all of the other tracks (well, almost – that’s where mixing comes in). Each musician puts on a pair of headphones to hear the other tracks so all you get is the one instrument on any one track (no bleed). There, now we can begin to…

Wait, your producer wants to add bagpipes and a banjo? Thankfully, you’re out of tracks, you think. You could use the red ribbon and record over the click track. But, you’d better not. The bagpiper might need it to stay in rhythm (I know, I know. This is just a fantasy.) You can’t use the orange or yellow ribbons, the reference tracks. And you can’t use any of the other tracks because they contain all of the other instruments. Whew! (Uh, oh. There is that little white ribbon with the silver and gold threads. But didn’t the engineer say not to use that for some reason…?)

But wait! Your ever-so-helpful engineer says there IS a way! Great. Before we get to that, we need to talk a little bit more about the other tracks…

So, why did we record everything on separate tracks? Can’t you and your band just go into a studio, sit down, tune up and play? Well, yes. That’s the way they used to do it in the early days of recording, into the early 1960’s. Some bands still do it that way, but because they want to, not because they have to. The advantage of having everything on separate tracks is that it gives you – the musician, the producer, the engineer – more control. Let’s say everything is going along swell. All of the musicians have played everything perfectly up to the final chorus. You’re about to finish the song and the keyboard player plays the wrong chord. If you were recording live (all of the musicians at one time) everyone would have to stop and do the whole song over. And that’s the way they used to do it. Now, all you have to do is record the keyboard part over, or maybe even just that one little part he got wrong (see glossary for “punch”). Every musician gets as many chances as they need to get their part perfect (“takes”). You may even have several takes that are all good, but have different feels or “vibes” or “grooves.” You now have choices, and more importantly, control over those choices, as to how the final mix comes out; the final product; the way your song will be remembered.

To come out with a good product (let’s not even talk about song writing skills, song choice, vocal ability, etc.) in the studio, every detail really does matter, every beat needs to line up, every note needs to be in its proper place. Shortcuts rarely work. Non-musical people may tell you that they can’t tell the difference. But every hearing person’s ears, whether or not they can discern and describe exactly what it is – a misaligned beat, a dampered string, a slightly under pitch vocal – can perceive something; Something that is the difference between ordinary, mediocre, merely good, or excellent. Everyone can.

OK, good segue back to the bagpipes and the banjo. Now that all of your other tracks are perfect, and you’re absolutely sure you want to keep them as they are, the engineer can maneuver a technique called “bouncing” or “bouncing tracks.” Remember the little white ribbon with the silver and gold threads? This is why the engineer wanted to keep it open in the first place. But, there are two more tracks to record and only one open one. True. But we’re not going to record directly to the open one. We’re going to bounce some tracks to it, and open up some other ones. Let’s say you like the bass and the drum tracks just as they are. Bounce them, that is, record the two of them together, onto that open track. Now you’ve got one, unalterable, track with the bass and drums, but you’ve two open tracks. It’s a good idea to always keep an open track, so let’s bounce a couple more tracks. Now you’ve got three open tracks. You could bounce the two bounced track to one track, opening another track. Ostensibly, you could bounce infinitely, but I don’t think anybody’s ever tried it. The Beatles came close.

Footnote (I know it’s not at the end, so call it what you must, but I’m calling it a footnote): Let’s put a little perspective on this. In our little fantasy recording, I’ve given us eight tracks to work with. Depending on the year, that was state of the art. It grew, as technology does, exponentially (I don’t know if that’s the right word. Mathematical, I’m not) – 16, 24, 36, up to about 136 (maybe more) tracks. People rarely use 136 tracks, but it's not unusual to use 20 or 30 or more on a commercial pop-rock album (the most I used was around 12 - 15). But, in 1967, the Beatles recorded the entire Sgt. Pepper album on...are you ready?... four tracks. Four. Listen to the record today. It stands up against anything recorded before or since. They, along with George Martin, were geniuses.

And consider all of those early Blues and Rock and Roll records – Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thorton, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Bill Haley…no way to name them all here. One live take. After take after take after take…That’s why we’ve got compilations or multi-disc sets coming out with “alternate takes.” Those are the takes that were good, but weren’t chosen to be released. Some of them got saved. And some of them, even though it’s the same song (same artist, same day), sound very different from the songs our ears have gotten used to.

Obviously, the more tracks you have available, the less bouncing you have to do, and the more control you have. But it’s not magic. You, the artist, still have to sing well, play well and hit the beats. Recording is a tedious and time consuming process. If you got the front half of one take of a song the way you want it, and the back half of another take, a skilled engineer could splice the tape for you – find the exact spot, physically, on each piece of tape, cut them with a razor blade, and tape them back together in the right sequence.

Well, that’s the way it was. That was state of the art on through the ‘80s and a little into the ‘90s. Now, the word is: Digital. Along with the computer age came digital technology, and it was, and is, applied to everything. Most recording is done tape-less these days. So now, it really kind is like magic. The computer program that most in the recording industry use is called Pro Tools. Its functions and possibilities, along with companion programs, are limitless. That’s not hyperbole. Really, really infinite.

There still are tracks. But now, they are unlimited. And instead of tape, they show up on a computer screen. You see a visual representation of everything you’re doing. I don’t know if I can get this across without you having actually used it, or at least seen it in action for a session or two. Same concept as tape – that is, individual tracks. Not only are they unlimited, but within one track, you can keep an unlimited amount of takes. Punching in is virtually seamless and instantaneous. If you want to lengthen a song, say, add another instrumental break or double the intro, it’s just a matter of cutting and pasting, like in a word processing program. Same with getting rid of something. No more razors and splicing. Also, since every sound is now a visual representation, with the click or drag of a mouse, you can move beats, shift pitches, take out breaths or noises, change the tempo without affecting the pitch…it’s endless.

This is not to say that one doesn’t need to sing and play well anymore. Although there are plenty of manufactured stars out there (but there always has been, because the bottom line in the industry is always money). But good music is good music. If you’ve got a good song, and you execute it well, and you know your audience, and you know how to use the technology, and you know when not to use the technology (sometimes less is more), you will only enhance your product. Sure, if you sing one note flat in a great take, you can shift it, but you gotta have that great take. You can’t manufacture passion and emotion and genuineness. Real talent shines through.

The tediousness and time consumption has not disappeared because of the technology. It’s evolved. If anything, it’s greater. It’s like when offices switched over to computers and everybody thought that we’d become a paperless business culture. In fact, we’re using more paper. And dealing with different headaches. Or that computers and other mobile technology – cell phones, Blackberries, email, etc. – would be time savers. They’re not. They’re time suckers. Since the option exists to create a “perfect” product, the pressure’s on. Recording is hours and hours of sweating the small stuff.

And this is where we are today: the editing process. This is all the stuff I don’t want to be involved with: aligning beats and cleaning up noises, brightening the horns and tuning the piano; when my finger picked guitar part, and David’s finger picked guitar part don’t align in one measure; when I sang one wrong lyric in an other wise really good take and you have to go into all of the alternate takes and find that one word and make it match…this is all the stuff I don’t want to be involved with. Thank goodness for dedicated and talented engineers. This is what they are doing now. The editing. Then, the head engineer (and studio owner) will get all of the songs close to what he thinks is a final mix (it’s good to have “fresh ears”). Finally, David and I will go back in for the final mix.

This was a pretty long blog for not having anything to write about. But heck, it’s a pretty good Intro to Recording 101. Feel free to point anyone interested toward this blog. Or cut and paste it, for that matter. You have my permission, as long as you cite the source. And please feel free to use the comments feature and respond to any of these posts in a public forum. Point your mouse to the grey number next to the title of the blog and the word “comments” will pop up. Click on it and leave a reply. At least send me an email and let me know that you’re reading this. (Not you, Mom).

So, where are we now? I still don’t know. The emails have been vague. I’d love to set a release date. Maybe I’ll call the engineer tomorrow.

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