Now THAT was an experience.
So I have been in studios before (mainly radio and TV, but still with mics and other bits & pieces you don’t have at home) and done some bash recording, but nothing is quite like recording an album.
And if it hadn’t been for as number of wonderful people, some requests and some supportive influences along the way over the past two years, it might never have happened.
So here’s a little bit of the story and a few things I learned along the way.
When talking to friends about someone to do some recording, I was looking for very good quality that really captures the full spectrum of vocals, and something with spark rather than too smooth (I like my peanut butter crunchy).
It was recommended that I have a chat with Robbie Duncan of Braeburn Studios, and some samples of his art suggested that was a good idea. Some of the recordings he has done are superb, with a sound that seems to live inside your head rather than come at you.
Wise decision. He is an absolute pleasure to work with, fast and with the gear and approach that resonated with my aims. He would rather have a recording with that special ‘something’, despite the odd slight imperfection, than one that is over produced but characterless. And he is an acoustic recording maestro.
His studio is actually part of the house, with the ‘control room’ overlooking Wellington harbour and the main recording studio was previously the living room. You can use more of the house as well, as if you need an extra recording booth, that’s the bedroom, and we even pressed his kitchen into service to get the right sound of trudging feet.
He has a wonderful way of communicating during a recording session. “Would you have another take in you?” = that take wasn’t right, you can do better. Or if his smiling face appears around the corner of the studio door you know it’s time to go have a listen.
Most of the tracks with multiple musicians were recorded in one session, usually in the studio together. That gives far less scope for cheating with takes, but was great fun and I am sure the smiles we had recording ‘live’ helped us to raise our game.
A couple of instruments are too loud / stand out too much for that technique as they impose themselves on other microphones. So for She Moved Through the Fair Philippa was in ‘booth 2’ (the bedroom, but visible through glass doors) with the ocarina.
Robbie had been itching to get his microphones all over the hurdy gurdy and we recorded that separately as well. I just had to imagine the gurdy part while we laid down the guitar and vocals for Roll on the Day.
One word of warning about high quality recording; it is brutal. You will expose every glitch in your playing, every waver in tone, everything in the way you phrase a line. Things you easily get away with when performing live just stand out, but in ultra high quality sound. Things can sound good when you are playing them at home, but don’t work when you listen on real high quality speakers.
You shouldn’t be under-rehearsed. You may even want to do home recording and play it back to yourself until you get it right, or until you are happy that something works. That’s what I did with the harmonies on The Magpie. I had to be sure the sounds in my head worked when we listened to them.
Rehearse until you can’t get it wrong in the studio and waste recording time (and money, and possibly even tire yourself out before you get the right take).
Until you get used to it (if you ever do), a recording studio with the mics on you is a slightly alien environment. It’s weird, I am usually confident playing live, but there was one little bit of In the Dawn I just couldn’t get right with the mics turned on, but ran through perfectly whenever Robbie wasn’t recording.
Luckily, there are several things in the recordings that only I notice aparently. Others say they can’t hear them. Maybe they are just being polite.
Robbie is also great at helping you build a track. For A Beggin I Will Go, the picking guitar track was a little too bare for what I was after, so we added a second strumming version. Then hunted around his studio for percussion with just the right sound.
It was immense fun hitting heaps of different things in so many different ways, but I finally settled on a large drum to give a low resonant ‘boom’, and the wooden side of a small one for the ‘tap dancing cum spoons’ section. Robbie added some finishing touches with a quirky guitar solo after I had gone home.
Modern recording technology is just fantastic in so many ways. For example, rather than traditional reverb Robbie can put us in ‘sound environments’ with natural echoes. We spent much of the album playing in a 17th Century Dutch stone church – nice.
Each time you leave the studio there’s another CD in your pocket. I listened on everything I could find, from lap top speakers and budget headphones to car stereos, a CD player in a noisy diesel van, decent speakers, good Hifi gear and excellent headphones. I wanted things to hang together however and wherever the music gets played, and that meant some changes to the mix as we edited.
So back to the edit with a heap of time coded notes. Editing itself can be a time consuming, careful and tiring process. You can be making decisions in quick succession, in the timeless dark of the control room.
And then you leave, with the final master CD. An exciting moment to complete a fun process.