28 March, 2009

Looking at the masterpiece through the veil of the incomplete

This is the first time I have been involved in the recording of a full-length CD. I have played on a few EP's before. I could go on a tangent about terminology such as EP, LP, etcetera, but that probably would not be fantastically interesting. Suffice it to say, my recording history is as follows:

  1. Played on 2 tracks of an EP for my friends' band back in Boston, because their guitar player had left the band before the disc was finished. That consisted of playing all the guitars on one song, and half the guitars on a second song.

  2. Recorded a 6 song EP with a band in Seattle - my first "real" project - done in a studio, with an engineer - and released in small production numbers (250 discs, I think).

  3. Recorded 4 songs for a CD with another Seattle band - but the band broke up before anything was finished, so I never actually got any finished product from that project.

  4. Recorded either 4 or 5 songs for an EP with yet another Seattle band that I quit before the project was completed. That one was released with most of my tracks still on there.

So I never have done a real CD. Until now.

Fortunately for us, we have the luxury of having a "free" recording studio available to us in our singer's garage. I say "fortunately" because it means that it gave us the ability to take our time with things, and not feel under the gun. There is definitely a lot of stress associated with needing to get something done in just a few hours, or else it will cost you more money. The downside, of course, is that we have been recording since some time in July of 2008, and only now is the CD about to be finished. 

I haven't gotten to my point yet, though. About seeing things coming to fruition. We are recording these tracks, but that's all they are. Tracks. We make all these tracks. Drums (6 tracks?). Bass guitar. Vocals (who knows how many tracks). Lead guitar (1, 2, or 3 tracks... who knows). Rhythm guitar (1 to 4 tracks). Keyboards. Tambourines. Sandpaper. You name it. All these things are separate entities that fit together temporally. But we don't yet know how they will fit together sonically and dynamically. 

All that will be in the hands of Mr. Soundguy, as we refer to him. 

These "tracks" will go to the recording engineer later next month, and he will do the magical process of "mixing" which is far more elaborate than it sounds. For most people who are not musicians, mixing sounds like one of three things: talking with lots of people at a party, combining various alcohols together, or adding flour, butter, and sugar together and making something delicious. But for music, mixing is something that deserves to have a far more sophisticated name: distilling, layering, processing, orchestrating, manipulating, refining, transforming

Our mixing engineer, who is a well-reputed musician and sound engineer, will take all these tracks, and decide lots of things:

  • which ones do we use?
  • how loud are they relative to one another?
  • when are they used or silenced?
  • what types of musical manipulation (echo, tonal adjustment, etc.) will be applied?
  • what do we need to fix or remove?

In addition to this, he might completely shuffle things around to the point that they become almost something different from what we gave him.

So it's a non-linear transfer function. What you put in (the tracks) need not necessarily map obviously to what you get out (a CD).

And that's where the art and beauty lies. When we finish our recording process, we have only a vague idea of what the CD will sound like. There are one or two songs that sound so good from the "rough tracks" that we know they're going to kick ass. The raw materials are already gold, and Mr. Soundguy will hopefully have an easy time of preserving or transcending from there. Many of the other ones are nuggets of potential. Diamonds in rough. Unknown entities. We played them to the best of our abilities. We fixed our playing errors. But when you listen to everything, it's just a series of well-played tracks. Mr. Soundguy has the capacity to take those materials and hone them into masterpieces.

Or not.

But hopefully.

So it's an exciting time. I like the idea that we have no idea what the order of the songs will be. We have no idea what the best song will be. We have no idea what will be played on the radio. We have no idea what people will want to hear at shows. We don't know anything. We have some guesses. But it's TBD.

I was talking about this with an artist friend of mine today, and she said that she felt that way when producing art. But one major difference is that the artist is always the final hand in how it all turns out (except if you include fate). In music, the artist surrenders a certain percentage of that art to the recording engineer. That's neat, and scary, and kind of a beautiful element of the process.

I don't want this blog to be found when people are searching for the name of my band, so I will not refer to the band by name.

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