Jerry Garcia, of the spelling-impaired,but otherwise competent band, The Grateful Dead, said that “making a record is like building a ship in a bottle. Playing a concert is like being in a rowboat on the ocean.” (We should be patient with the spelling-he and his colleagues grew up eating a cereal called “Kix.”) The contrast between these two nautico-musical enterprises is a hefty one, perhaps unexpected. Here’s what it means today.
We live in a time when most media consumers watch the DVD that contains the actual movie once, then watch the “making of the movie” special features until that disc will no longer play. So we pretty much have the process down and understand that, as Gary Cooper put it, any day on a film shoot is a matter of creating some “little piece of the mosaic” that will result in a film.
But CDs of songs don’t typically come with “special features” companion discs. About the only clue that something fishy is going on is when we read on the insert that Mark Knopfler played the electric guitar on a particular song and also the acoustic guitar (on the same song) and maybe kazoo to boot (which is what many people wish would happen to all kazoos). How can this be? It’s like a particular actor playing both parts in a love scene in a movie (which I have done in several books, feeling doggoned weird about it): possible, but perverse.
It’s called “overdubbing,” which most of you probably understand, although you may not appreciate the extent of its use. Mr. Knopfler puts on headphones and plays along to what’s already been recorded, doesn’t like it, and tries it again. Likes the first half of the solo but hates the second half-so plays the first half again and keeps the second half. I have liked the first half of single words I’ve sung and hated the second half-often I’ll find a second half I like and meld the two halves together. I often have to go hunting for final consonants to snip out and tack onto lazy words. You might here imagine a pretty engaging “out-takes” version (“out-takes” versions are so popular that Pixar spends millions of dollars creating errors to include in them)(in a “Liken the Scriptures” video, knowing that there would be funny out-takes included in the package, I faked a couple of pretty funny errors-they made it in-don’t tell anybody) that includes all the unfinished words right in a row; or much funnier, a fast-paced series of all the consonants. You could, of course, make an out-takes feature including all of the actual errors, but they would all sound bad. That’s why they were “taken out.”
(Here’s a funny “musical errors” story that I may have told you before. Famous Hollywood Movie Composer JAC (stands for Jonathan Alfred Clawson) Redford used to be a less famous Orem musical whiz-kid who played sax, flute, guitar, mandolin, pretty much anything that had been invented, for yours truly in my band. At a rehearsal one day, he played this undeniably (to the rest of us) wrong note. We stopped and said, “Hey,” and he just looked at us innocently, as if to say “What’s the fuss about?” when actually saying “It’s a flatted thirteenth.” No error, you see-although it would have sounded funny (bad) on a “rehearsal out-takes” feature.)
There is a maxim in the world of music recording. “We’ll fix it in the mix.” This has been used in instances wherein performers have erred, or, as we say in the church, “fallen short,” or, as is the more apt word in all these instances, “sinned.” The idea behind the maxim is that when all the elements are recorded and we’re determining the various levels of instruments and vocals relative to one another, all of which are adjustable, and the amount of reverberation to apply (we can make a ukulele recorded in a closet sound like it’s being played in the Notre Dame Cathedral (this would not be in South Bend, Indiana, but in Paris-not the one in Idaho, but the one in France), and whether a particular element should sound “bright” or “dark” or “spiritually ambiguous,” which process is called “The Mix,” we will address certain shortfallings by masking them with cool licks played by some other instrument, place them in the farthest corner of Notre Dame (I just typed “Notre Dave.” That would be “Our Dave.” I’m going to start calling my third son “Notre Dave.” It will be funny), or simply eliminate said shortfallings altogether.
Before the age of digital recording, back when we recorded magnetic signals onto tape, or sometimes onto clay tablets, or the bark of trees, (here’s an interesting thing: magnetic signals recorded onto the bark of trees would, of course, perish before magnetic signals recorded onto clay tablets. Back when we were recording onto tape, everybody imagined that the recordings would sort of be eternal. Nobody suspected for an instant that about twenty years later most of the tape would actually disintegrate. That’s what’s happened to most of my album masters. You would think we’d learn from that, but now we expect CDs to last forever. It could very well be that clay tablets is the answer) “fixing it in the mix” was secretly known by all record producers with any real experience to be a false hope. “We’ll fix it in the mix” usually meant, “After you’re gone, we’ll bring in a real guitar guy who can play it right.”
But now it’s digital, and not only can we “fix it in the mix,” but can often just flat “create it in the mix.” Digital recording, like computing generally, promised to make everything we do quicker and easier. In fact, it makes things take wa-a-a-a-a-a-ay longer and be much harder. This is because perfection is possible. You can shift things from side to side, make a sung phrase longer to match something the sax is doing, take any particle of music and tune it, stuff like that.
Saturday I spent much of the day inserting single drum events (by “event” I mean a single drum kick, snare whap, tom boom, hi-hat clink, or cymbal tap) into their appropriate places along click tracks (long rows of metronome ticks, lined up on the computer screen like Civil War pickets) to which I and two of my sons (Joshua and Notre Dave) had recorded bass and two guitars simultaneously. This may sound like a tedious process. Whoa, Baby.
Last night a dear drummer friend of mine (Famous News Anchor Bob Evans) asked me why I didn’t just call him in to play the drums? The easy answer was that there isn’t room in my tiny studio for his drums (it isn’t called “Babymoon” for nothing). The answer I held back was that, as steady a drummer as he is, I’d still spend about the same time microscopically re-aligning his “events” to match what we’d already recorded. And I’d have enough “bleed” between the seven mics I’d haveused on his drum set to make that realignment even more difficult. I told him that my drums parts wouldn’t be a tasteful or imaginative as his, but not only would they not include anything impossible, like having something that would require three legs to play in real life, they’d be steady.
But drums, you assert, must be played by an actual somebody. And they were. By Todd Sorensen, best drummer in the state, at Rosewood Recording Company by Guy Randle, best drumrecordist and producer in the state.
Seem a little crazy? Yeah, but there you are.
Liz Manwaring plays fiddle on “Roses and Hope,” which is the CD I’m recording right now and from which these examples are drawn. She played a nice line on a particular tune, and then played a harmony line alongside it, in the spirit of Mark Knopfler. After she left, I inadvertently, and possible irreversibly, deleted the harmony. Bummer. But I duplicated the original line (cut-and-paste) and then tuned the duplicate up a third. It sounded pretty funny (bad) because it really should have been “up a third for this note, then up a minor third for this other note, then back to a third for the next, and up a fourth for the next” and like that. So that’s what I did.
(In 1982 I was recording an album at Rosewood. I was alone in the studio for a week while Guy was visiting relatives in Texas. A very fine trumpeter came in to play his single line in a baroque arrangement JAC Redford created for a Christmas song of mine. In the excitement of the moment, we didn’t perceive that the trumpet was a tad sharp-we were all feeling a tad sharp. So in the mix stage I transferred that trumpet phrase to another tape machine that had the capacity to vary the pitch by slightly speeding up or slowing down the process of the tape over the playback heads. I then played it back onto its discreet track on the main two-inch-wide tape (number nine of sixteen tracks) at a slower speed. I had to drop it in right where it would start infinitesimally early in that section of the music and end infinitesimally late, but it worked. This took an hour. Now you would select that portion of the wave and lower its pitch by 21/100’s of a half-step in four seconds and be done. But the temptation, to which everyone yields, is to start hearing every note of the hundreds in a particular song as out-of-tune, or in-the-wrong-place, or too-loud-at-the-beginning-and-too-soft-at-the-end, or whatever, and fix it in the mix. Because now you can.)
So where’s the music in all this? Well, it isn’t all micro-alignment and obsessive tuning. It’s shading and nuancing and trying to shape on the screen what the musician heard in his or her (or my) head and aspired to in their performance.
And it’s repentance. (Major parable implications, here-take note, cross-reference, and file in “Typical Useful Backstage Graffiti Parable Implications That You Have To Work To Discern And Apply For Yourself Every Month.”)
And it’s the memory of sitting on the front porch last summer and fall, and wandering the ridge west of here, and of waking up in the night upstairs in the cabin, and of getting to rehearsal with the boys in Salt Lake and urgently asking for a scrap of music manuscript paper to get some idea down that came in the car on the drive up. That’s when the songs were conceived and got the breath of life, usually to the accompaniment of my old “beater” Martin guitar that I could leave outside while changing the hose to a different part of the garden. That part is natural and organic and gestational.
What we’re talking about here is the birth, which requires a bit of fuss.