Perils of the click track

I’m enjoying regaining all those lovely shimmering high frequencies my audiologist says are gone forever. All I have to do is wear these smart hearing aids that adjust automatically to zoom in on what they think you’re listening to – like the person opposite you in a noisy coffee shop. That was interesting, working in the studio yesterday. You have to listen to a click track and try to follow it. It gets harder later when you over-dub a vocal. I was doing OK until we did one of my songs that slows to half-time at the beginning of verses and picks up the tempo on the third line. That is so easy to do when you’re playing live. But recording a guitar track first then trying to make the vocal fit – that’s an entirely different process. We got there in the end. My producer Pix then wasn’t all that happy with my next guitar track as it didn’t sound “awesome” like my home demo. Thinks: why not produce the home demo then? It’s not that easy. My home recording system is incompatible with software based programmes like Pro Tools and QBase. Nevertheless I now have to extract my two guitar tracks from the demo and we are going to try to replicate that in the studio (next week). It’s all to do with the “feel” or the “vibe.” As all songwriters know, turning out an ambient, cruisy version of your newest song at home, when you’re still all excited about it and it shows in your voice, changes quite a bit when you’re alone in a sound booth, trying not to think about what a wasted hour costs in a professional studio when you’re not completely prepared.
All producers and sound engineers will do their best with all your songs, but when one particular song excites them, they will be so far into the detail you’ll be sick to death of it the time you’re done. That’s how it is for Bed 27 – Pix loves it and I’m glad he does because the few people I have played the demo to have given me the “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” raised eyebrow look.
So now I have to revisit my multi-tracked home demo from six months ago and work out what the hell I was doing. I’ve never played the song live, so in a way it is like giving birth when nobody knew you were pregnant.
Meanwhile we now have 12 songs “bedded down” which means other musicians can come in and add their creativity to the songs with no issues about tempo or out of tune instruments. My Maton six-string has a serious intonation problem so I have been borrowing other people’s guitars for this project, although my Yamaha 12-string is getting a work-out. We’re off on a three month road trip in a couple of weeks* so there won’t be time to do the other three songs – maybe some vocals and harmonies on the others. So we’ll come back in late September and take up where we left off. You can’t rush these things!
Whether you have done a lot of studio recording or none at all, I hope you find these insights useful. Songwriters tend to be too controlling about their material. I was lucky in a way that a 25-year career in journalism where editors are sometimes literally looking over your shoulder and saying “That’s boring as bat-shit, Bobby,” makes you less precious about changing lyrics. If you meet a sound engineer/producer you feel right about working with, you’re half-way there. Now go home and spend six months doing home demos and knocking those half-done songs into shape.
*lucky house-sitters!

All ears on Day 5

This will be interesting, trying out my new hearing aids in the confines of a recording studio. I had been in denial about the loss of high frequencies in both ears but finally trotted along to an audiologist and parted with a four-figure sum for what so far seems to be a much-enhanced living experience. The acid test will be when I go into the sound booth and put on the cans (enclosed noise-cancelling headphones), and record a couple of guitar tracks and then some vocals. This is my fifth half-day session at Pix Vane-Mason’s studio near Conondale. We have been working with multi-instrumentalist and all-round good bloke Steve Cook and so far have 10 songs “bedded down”.
For those of you who have no experience of the sound recording process, the usual deal is to record guitar tracks to a click or metronome without vocals. There may be a “guide” vocal to keep the guitarist on track. Guitarists follow a chord chart hopefully prepared by the songwriter (who, we assume, has done a lot of pre-production on the song). That is, the song has been recorded at home and then dissected. The more work done before you go into the studio the less time it should take.
I have a Roland 16-track recording desk at home. In theory I should be able to record my own album at home. So far I have managed to turn out some useful “demos” but let me tell you, there is a big gap between what you can do at home with one good microphone and putting yourself in the hands of an experienced producer with lots of microphones, audio gear and years of experience.
Home-based recording studios are doing it tough at the moment, with so many singer songwriters and bands choosing to buy an Apple Mac and Pro Tools (a computer-based multi-track recording system) and churning out downloadable albums. The DYI trend has come about because of rapidly dropping CD sales (a global trend), the rising popularity of downloads (Itunes) and a festering mind-set among the general populace that music should be free, or at least cheap.
After I finish the so-far untitled legacy album with Pix I will probably buy a computer-based programme and go that way, although for a relatively small investment, a professionally produced recording will have a much better chance of being played on radio. Our first EP “Courting the Net” was produced by award-winning record producer Rupert Pletzer, who was between jobs (at the time he was Tina Arena’s tour manager). His studio was across the road from my employ so we teamed up with Silas Palmer, a brilliant young musician we’d met at Woodford Folk Festival, and plunged in (I so did not know what I was doing). Straight away Rupert identified two songs he thought might get played on the ABC, so on the strength of that I sent it out to a few radio stations, including Ian McNamara’s Australia all Over. Some 12 years later we have had a long association with Australia all Over. Three of my songs have been included on Macca’s compilation CDs and we have toured with Macca and the band.
So yes, I trust the professional studio approach. Steve and Pix have already ironed out a few kinks in what I thought were watertight songs (they never are) and come up with the all-important “feel” or groove.
Too many songwriters spend months and year locked away in a bedroom perfecting their masterpieces with no input from anyone else and consequently develop a controlling attitude about the “finished” songs, brooking no criticism and refusing to make changes (I used to be guilty as charged).
Putting yourself in the hands of gifted professionals can rid you of many bad habits. Of course you have to jump in when you think they are doing a Deen Brothers on your song.
“Mate, the banjo is great on the train song but it needs to be just behind everything else, OK?”
So I’m off in an hour or so. I’ll let you know how I went with my new hearing aids. Last week I went in to the sound booth to record a 12-string with a capo on the fifth fret (we were aiming for that shimmering harp-like sound).
“Pix, mate, I can’t hear myself – turn me up!”
“Mate, you are turned up!”
Like I said, my high frequencies are shot to pieces. But now I can hear a crow fart 200m away.