A combination of cookery, jigsaw puzzles and alchemy….
April 6, 2014. No comments.
That’s what Stephen W Tayler calls the whole process of making an album, as described here by Mike Cosgrave, who writes:
“First, a huge thank-you to everybody who has pledged a contribution to this album, which is sounding more beautiful every time I hear (bits of) it.
Making an album is often described as a journey (but then everything is these days, except travelling by public transport – this is more often called an “ordeal”). And so it is, from often very simple beginnings: some words (often not all of them to start with) and a melody, maybe some chords. Onto these is overlaid a sense of the mood, how to convey the words, use the abstract sounds of instruments to transfer the words from their poetic origin to something that maintains the poetry of the lyrics but at the same time transcends it. This mood influences how the different elements are brought together – melody, harmony, texture, structure – in an arrangement, which forms the basis of the recording. Then the parts that form the arrangement are recorded, often in a weird isolation where they no longer make sense at the time of recording, and in a strange order that bears no relation to the final piece: for example, you might record a variety of different parts on different songs in quick succession because they happen to use the same instrument and you like the way it’s sounding with the mic(s) positioned a certain way. It’s a bit as if you decided to do a jigsaw puzzle by splitting the pieces into three piles arbitrarily and then completing what you could from in each pile in three separate rooms, with separate pieces somehow located in their lonely places ahead of time, only finally putting them together at the last minute. As a recording musician, you start to understand how to think of a part as if you could hear what actually isn’t there yet. As if this weren’t a daft enough proposition, what you do can influence whether what isn’t there yet actually makes it there at all, or is replaced by something different or scrapped altogether.
All this presupposes that you can play what you’re supposed to, or within ideally about three goes anyway. The digital recording process offers myriad opportunities to fix things, especially if the flaws are minor (but not something so minor you can expect someone to put up with hearing them repeatedly), but you can’t beat something that’s just played right, before the performer has had a chance to get fed up with it.
Maybe it’s because the process is so improbable and so clearly set up to fail that somehow magic seems to happen along the way. Parts mesh and complement each other unpredictably well – yes, you know they should work, but there’s something better than that going on. Sounds blend unexpectedly. The mood of the song suddenly reveals itself as something you had only half understood up to that point. Ideas that had sounded disappointing without their full context suddenly work brilliantly. It seems wrong to take credit for these moments, they really seem to happen on their own. Magic.
All this can only come to fruition if the recording and mixing processes are executed by people who seriously know what they are doing – what mic to use, where to put it, how that instrument actually can and does sound, how to treat that sound after recording so it does exactly the job required in the final mix. Modern recordings use a huge amount of detailed sonic treatment, sometimes in the pursuit of a natural sound. If this sounds like a bad idea and against the principles of acoustic music in particular, you try and cook something with no herbs, spices or even salt. However good your ingredients, you can be pretty sure it could have tasted better. But providing the ingredients and then seasoning the mix are both highly specialised areas, and we are very lucky to be in the hands of Leon Hunt and Stephen Tayler in this regard. Even half-way as we probably are now, it sounds amazing.
But in the midst of all this heartfelt talk about magic and skill, there is one aspect I have failed to mention. Lots of the recording process is really, really boring – what seems like hours waiting for your go in a state of slightly heightened tension. If you want to get some sense of what it’s like, book yourself in for a music exam (or similar) that’s just about within your capabilities, but in a distant city you have to fly to. Try to make it a Winter booking so they’re some chance of your flight being somewhat delayed. That bit where you’re sitting in the departure lounge, fairly sure that you’ve built in enough time to make it even if it’s delayed by another hour – it’s a bit like that. Only hopefully with better quality seating: that’s why every studio has a biggish sofa, even if that means there’s room for almost nothing else. There’s nearly always somebody who needs to sit on it for quite a while.