Friday, February 02, 2007

Playing, Playing in the band

I spend a lot of time in recording studios here in L.A., and I've seen many strange things.

Here is a studio I spent 5 years in:

And here is one I spent 2 & 1/2 years in:

People ask me almost everyday if they can record an album at the drummer's Grandmother's house 'cause on account of she lets him practice on Saturdays when she's at Senior Citizens?

Or what about recording at Snark Studio, because their fav band Twitch456 recorded there?

Thing is, you can record anywhere. But will it sound good?

Depends on lots of variables: sound of the acoustic space, sound leakage into/out of the space, quality professional gear, but most of all, people who KNOW WHAT THEY'RE DOING!

Witness, here is a story that rolls up many wrongs into one horrific day in the studio.

From my good friend Patrick (note: all place, people, and band names changed to protect the...):
Actually walked out of a studio yesterday.

It was with BandX. I have spent most of today thinking "Why didn't I see this coming?"

There were so many warning signs that I ignored.

I spoke with Spanky, the owner of the studio a few days in advance, and he told me he was excited to have us in.

But Spanky, also the main engineer, is going to be out of town the day of our session... However, there are some other engineers who use the studio. They're other guys who have been around the XXXXX scene forever and used to have tape-machine based studios- I kind of know them, so I call to set up times and stuff.

"What time do you want to be here?" asks Pxxx.

"I'll be there at ten, we'll set drums and mics, get the rest of the band in by 11, roll tape around noon?"

"Oh, ok... early is ok...."

"Early? Dude, I said 'Ten.'"

"Oh, that's early for me."

As Charles Mingus used to say, "Um, ah... oh."

I get there first the next morning and start hauling drums inside. Dad comes by and we catch up. It's great to see him. On a personal level, I really DO like everyone involved.

Then I get into the drum room.... carpet below and loads of foam corners above. Loads.

"Hm..." I think.

"Thud thud thud..." say the drums.

"Um... oh." I think.

I tried five snare drums, four of which I had brought. A Ludwig Supraphonic 402, a solid ebony custom made drum, an old mahogany Slingerland Sound King and a 5 x 14" Black Beauty. They all sounded like shoeboxes full of pudding in that room. I finally settled on the least bad option, my 5 1/2 x 14" Radio King snare with a Remo Ambassador naked and tuned up to the point that the head was creaking like a submarine hull in deep water. Even THAT still sounded flat in that room.

Then we started trying to get sounds to come out of the board... wait.... there's no board! It's all digital! The only external control is a Mackie Big Knob! Danger, Danger Will Robinson!

There was some confusion, though. Pxxx and his assistant, who are very sweet guys... but let's just say that their morning coffee was legal but breakfast wasn't... stand over the snake in the drum room and argue about what drum is going into what channel. After several agonizing minutes of this one of them says "Man, didn't you write it in the notebook?"

and the other one says "Oh, dude... I totally did..."

"OK, where is it?"

"Dude, I have no idea. It's next to my coffee, I think."

"Where's that?"

"I don't know."

Part of me is ready to leave at that point, but the other part of me is thinking "No need to get hung up on technical details. These guys may have something worked out here that sounds brilliant. Maybe.... I mean, there were Dinosaur Jr records that HAD to be recorded this way, right?"

The rest of the bands sets their amps, gets scratch tones, and then we start recording drums so I can hear the sounds they're getting.

Steve, the drum tones were so bad when I came into the control room that I actually had that sort of "someone just threw hot water on me" sensation of panic and raw embarrassment. I was embarrassed for these two engineers and I was embarrassed that I had thought this studio might work. I felt just like someone had opened a hotel room door and found me having a nice social drink in my underwear with an orangutan. Nothing good can come of this, especially if word, y'know, gets around...

We move some mics around, adjust some tuning and isolate the kick drum with a blanket and finally get something 'workable.' It's worth noting, though, that the kit is a set of 1952 Radio Kings with new heads on- it sounds like a dream. I have put this same kit up against $3k kits and had engineers go goggle-eyed and say "I want to record THAT kit. Holy cow!"

In this studio, my drums sounded like someone running over a plastic trash can with a lawn tractor.

However, we're a punk/metal band, right? No need to be the prima donna. Maybe I am just being hyper sensitive about this. Let's get guitar sounds and roll a couple of takes and see what happens.

Oh, hey, did I mention that there's NO BOARD... which means... brace yourself....


I am starting to think... "It would be generous to call this 'Amateur Hour.'"

Talkback is accomplished instead by having the engineer who is at the (non) board tell the singer what he wants me to know, then having the singer speak into the scratch vocal mic. I respond by shouting into the hi-hat mic. SO AWESOMELY EFFECTIVE.

But, finally, we get headphone mixes adjusted, click track running annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd WE'RE OFF!

It takes five or six passes, but the band finally settles in and I get a workable take with my workable tones and I think maybe, y'know, this is... maybe... sorta... kinda workable. I don't even feel like I am being overly generous about it. It's.... going, at least.

There's a little part I hate at the end of the take, though. A bad decision that I know is going to haunt me when we release this. I figure there's a NICE BIG GAP for a punch nine or ten seconds before it... just punch it. It's totally dead spot on with the click, no problem right?


I got to Cheech and Chong and I say "Let's punch it," and they look at me and then at each other and then at me again, and then at the ProTools screen, and then back at me again... then at each other... then back at ProTools...

So I, in my limited experience, suggest that they open up new tracks, put them in record mode and leave everything else alone, let me play along with myself, cut and paste, and Voila!

Disaster. They end up blowing the whole end of the song away.

It is while they are quietly arguing with each other about how this happened that I motion or the rest of the band to follow me outside.

"Gentlemen," I tell them, "We are paying for these guys to learn ProTools. We have no budget for this recording to start with. They have told me that they can fix the drum tones in the mix. 'We can fix it in the mix' is a promise I have seen unfulfilled more times that you have had hot meals this year. We gotta get out of here."

They all nodded solemnly.

We troop back into the studio and I say "Let's strike those mics. This isn't working out for us."

Whew, what a heavy decision that was. It really knocked the legs out from under everybody. Us, them. The dog.

We packed as quickly and as non-confrontationally as possible. God, it sucked to be in that position. I just told them that the drum tones weren't aggressive enough. We paid them for their time, and I resolved to just keep the whole shitty experience to myself.

I even wrote Spanky a letter.
The rest of the story later. We all need time to heal.