When does an engineer/producer feel like they’re in engineer heaven? Consider the scenario of my most recent recording project: a large, extraordinary recording room with beautiful ambience, tons of natural light shining through the skylight; eight of the most valuable vintage tube microphones on the planet by Neumann/Telefunken and AKG; dedicated, exceptional musicians willing to go the distance and a singer/songwriter with enormous talent. All the elements for a magical experience. And was it magical? You betchya! Recording projects range from being magical experiences to challenging and/or frustrating ones. So it’s especially wonderful when one is as magical as this one was — from start to finish! And does it show on the recording? You betchya again! Dreamwalker by Laura Bird — recorded, mixed and mastered in a total of nine very efficient days over a five-week period, pulled off almost completely without a hitch, is a very special album.
Recordings take on a life, a vibe of their own and without really knowing it, the listener can often feel the personal dynamics going on at the time of the recording. How it feels to be together making music really matters and shows up on tape (or whatever format you’re using these days!). We’re not just recording music and sound, we’re recording a vibe, an energy that was happening between people at the time of creating music together.
How do you know if the personal dynamics of the people you have chosen to work with is going to feel right? Short answer — you don’t! Just because you have chosen experienced, reputable people to work with does not mean you’ll get along with them. I’ve often heard horror stories of personality conflicts that really got in the way of a recording project. One time, an artist I know asked my opinion of her new album. This is an artist whose songwriting and singing I think very highly of. When I heard the album, I was surprised and disappointed because it seemed rather “flat”…no vibe, no passion. When she asked what I thought, my first comment was a question. What was going on at the time of the recording? For the next 20 minutes, I got quite an earful about the personality conflicts and outright arguments that were going on at the time of the recording. It effected the entire project, even though people apologized to one other and moved on to finish up.
In comparison, here’s an example of when greatly recorded vibes outweigh everything else. A few years ago, after a very long session of working on percussionist Ubaka Hill’s album, Dance the Spiral Dance, we were officially finished for the day. I put away the microphones except one that I couldn’t get to because so many instruments were in the way. I went to dinner and when I came back, I heard from inside the large recording room, an incredible after-hours drumming party going on with 10-12 people. I was so drawn to this intense, spontaneous energy that I couldn’t stay away. I walked into the room and felt an overwhelming desire to capture this “party jam” on tape so everyone could enjoy it later. I sneaked into the control room and not being fussy about what format I was going to record it on, (cassette, DAT) I popped the first blank tape I could find into a machine (it ended up being a DAT). I then realized there was only one microphone in the room left plugged in, and it was not in an ideal position for recording (it was pointing at the ceiling) but it didn’t matter, after all, it was “just a jam” and not for anyone else but ourselves. I didn’t want to disrupt the energy in the room by setting up more microphones or letting them see that I was about to record them. I turned on the EV RE-20 microphone that was pointing at the ceiling and recorded 11 minutes of this party jam. The recorded jam’s energy was SO intense and felt SO good that we decided to use 3:30 of this wonderful vibe on our final album, regardless of the “less than ideal” style in which it was recorded. Moral of the story — energy and vibes matter much more then technical/sonic perfection, ANY DAY!
I would like to acknowledge Escarpment Sound in Acton, Doug Walker Microphones, Pizazzudio and the Lacquer Channel for their participation in Laura Bird’s album project. Ubaka Hill’s album was recorded at Applehead Recording Studio in Woodstock, New York.
Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile, and other published articles can be seen at her Web site www.total.net/~mixmama.