Let us discuss the recording of music from a songwriter-acting-as-engineer-acting-as-producer standpoint.
Several unique difficulties present themselves to the home-studio recordist, with many resulting in the plateauing of the artistic enterprise. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a one trick pony, but unless one is prepared to be totally objective (or, at least something approaching it) and brutally honest with oneself, it can easily happen.
Not that one can’t become famous at it.
Or at least, one used to be able to.
I remember a rainy evening back in the late winter of 1974. I had attended a social engagement. A rare treat for myself. Although I enjoyed thinking of myself as worldly, I seldom visited friends, felt oblique at parties, and knew little about how to read the opposite sex. I gave a ‘friend’ of a friend a lift home. She was talkative and polite on the way home, and I, in my complete naïveté, took her attitude toward me as love at first sight. I was infatuated with her. I had to see her again, but how?
As I drove away from her house in my split pea green Ford Pinto, the song ‘Mandy’ by Barry Manilow came on the radio. I will never forget sitting at the stop sign in the rain listening to that song, thinking of her.
I was an idiot. She didn’t care for me, and left with another guy at a concert that we later attended to prove it.
And the song ‘Mandy’ was about a dog. I just didn’t know that at the time.
For the era, ‘Mandy’ was a good song. Bear in mind, KC and the Sunshine Band were being played every fourth or fifth spin back then, and as a budding songwriter, I felt that there was a bit more substance in the lyrics ‘..I remember all my life…rainin’ down as cold as ice..” as opposed to “..I’m ya boogie man, I’m ya boogie man..turn me on..”
But on the other hand, I later determined that Manilow must have produced his own work. I never did check on my hunch, but I’d lay money on it. As the years passed, I realised that what attracted me to many songs were not the writing nor the performance, rather the production. Many times, the production is what we are listening to more than the music itself. Bear in mind that no amount of production magic can brethe life into a lame singer or a lackluster song, but bad production has the capability of ruinning the best of either.
After ‘Mandy’, all of Manilow’s songs sounded the same to me. The song would always begin with the vocal and the lone piano (both with the same signature reverb), then the strings would enter the mix and then the french horns and the background singers and then the kettle drums and the gigantic cymbal crashes into cresendo. I finally lost count of the tracks, but I noticed this primarily because I listened to the production. It became apparent to me that, although many songwriters wrote songs of a different nature, they would invariably produce every song in the same manner, and that this was their one trick pony, their Achilles’ heel.
I wasn’t long into the recording process before I noticed that this same phenomenon was manifesting in my recordings. This is what many may refer to as a conditioning of the ‘comfort zone’. Most people don’t enjoy being uncomfortable. Once they find a way of performing any number of tasks, they habitually return to the same ‘tried and true’ method. The main disadvantage to operating in this manner is that newer, daring courses are never explored. A better way may exist that we will never discover if we continue down this path.
For instance, I had grown accustomed to utilising a particular mixing board. It had taken some time to set up originally, and I had gone to great lengths to cut individual XLR cables and attach the ends in order to avoid clutter and reduce waste. I became comfortable with the arrangement and used it as though I were an automaton. I could sit down, and in the shortest amount of time, be up and recording.
Then the board ‘broke’. Actually the power supply pooped out on me. I lost my phantom power and this was soon followed by complete failure of the entire unit. Later I found that the transformer had fried. I felt lost. “What the hell am I going to do?!” I recall saying aloud.
Then I heard the silence amidst all of the noise. I recalled a time when I had recorded on far worse equipment under far worse conditions. I took a deep breath and broke my rack down and removed the board from the signal path. It was a bitch. It took me a few days to re-cut re-solder new cables, as the old ones would no longer fit the new setup that I was going to have to arrange. I was actually amazed at how freaking lost I felt, simply because I had lost the use of the device. But it was a blessing in disguise, because the mixer had ceased being a tool and had become a crutch. I recall it taking me quite a few weeks before I learned to walk again. But when I did, I broke free. I became used to how my voice really sounded without all of the sweetening of the mixers onboard effects which I had come to rely on. I found that I had to tap my own creativity in order to fill the imagined ‘void’ that the mixer effects afforded.
Within my revelation, I also realised that I was always attempting to translate the song into something that I was familiar with, rather than trying to capture it as it originally came to me. I was guilty of making the tune conform to my weaknesses, rather than playing to the strength of the piece. I was, in the attempt to control my Muse, choking the life out of it.
Although I still insist on using a click track because I realise that my time is not as good as I used to think that it was, coupled with the fact that it makes real-time drum programming much easier, I unequivocally refuse to start every song with ‘the vocal and the lone acoustic guitar’ (both with the same signature reverb). Now, I go out of my way to begin the tune with the instrument that I hear in my head.
I may never capture the sounds that I hear perfectly, but I am no longer satisfied with merely trying to approximate them. Sometimes I awaken to sounds that no known instrument makes. My Muse is throwing me a curve ball. I always accept the challenge, and sometimes it seems that every song is a compromise, but my ability to replicate what I hear has only gotten better.
I simply had to learn how to follow the leader.
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter and publisher at Hell Paving Company.