Inside the Recording Studio, Part 2
When I was 18, I showed up at Berklee College of Music as an experienced and confident performer whose recording experience mostly consisted of a USB microphone plugged into GarageBand. Four years later, when it came time to record my band’s first album, I had made minimal progress from there. We dove headfirst into the process armed with only secondhand knowledge of how it would work. I also wasn’t prepared for how exhausting, mentally taxing, and rewarding it would be. After two Lula Wiles albums and a bunch of freelance recording sessions and bedroom demos, I’m only just beginning to crack the code.
When you listen to a finished recording, it’s often difficult to tell how it was made – were the musicians all in the same room? What kind of room was it? What kind of mics and other gear did they use? Were all the tracks recorded at the same time? How were all the production choices and decisions made? How much was the final version edited? Did they play to a click track? Were any substances involved? (Well, sometimes you can tell.) All of those considerations can have a huge impact on a song’s sound.
One of the best things I’ve learned about recording is that there are very few one-size-fits-all answers. There are certainly best practices and tried-and-tested outcomes, but every artist, engineer, and producer has their own unique relationship with the process. I’ve had a lot of fascinating conversations with my musician friends about this, because although we may know each other’s music intimately and see each other play regularly, we usually don’t see each other’s recording processes. It can be a deeply personal thing, sometimes shrouded in secrecy. (That was part of why I found Esperanza Spalding’s project Exposure so affecting, as detailed in my last column.) For non-musicians, I imagine it’s even more mysterious, so I’ll attempt to shed some light.
The process starts, of course, with the songs. You live your life, you observe the world, you get your heart broken, you write a bunch of songs about it, and eventually you record some of them. “Pre-production” is the phase that happens before you even enter the studio, where you take a look at the songs you’ve got and make some decisions. If I’ve got 25 songs, which 10-15 of them could make a cohesive album? What kind of arrangements and instrumentation do these songs suggest? Will I rehearse with the band and work out all of the arrangements in advance, or will we try different approaches in the studio and then decide what works best? This part of the process is really different for a band than it is for a solo artist: with a band, you know who the players will be and the kind of sounds they can create together. A solo artist chooses (usually with a producer) the musicians and sounds that will bring their vision to life.
Which, of course, brings up the question: What exactly does a producer even do? This is actually a great question, because the producer’s role is one of the most widely variable factors. In the mainstream pop world, it’s common for the producer to make most of the big musical decisions: they can choose the songs, shape the arrangements and the album’s overall vibe, and even do the bulk of the playing (or programming). On the opposite end of the spectrum, some producers are much more hands-off; the artist makes the artistic decisions and the producer is mostly there to direct workflow in the studio. In that case, many artists will choose to forgo hiring a producer and let the recording engineer help direct workflow. Most of the time, a producer’s role is somewhere in between those extremes.
My band chose to co-produce our first album with our friend Adam Iredale-Gray. We had clear ideas of what songs we wanted to record and how we wanted them to sound, but we were total recording-studio newbies. We wanted to bring in someone more experienced to help us hone and execute our vision, someone who knew us both as musicians and as people. Adam fit the bill perfectly. For our second album we promoted Dan Cardinal, who engineered and mixed our first record, to co-producer as well as engineer, and he’s always been fantastic to work with.
In my experience recording with a band, one of the best reasons to have a producer is simply that they’re not in the band. They bring a fresh set of ears to the music we’ve been toiling over, and their opinions exist outside of the sometimes fraught band dynamic. When the band disagrees on something, the producer’s opinion can be a neutral deciding factor that helps break the tension. Both of the producers we’ve worked with have struck a really great balance between bringing in new ideas and letting the band’s vision drive the process. They’ve also helped us figure out what recording methods will get the best performances from each of us.
There are so many considerations involved in figuring out how to record a song, it can sometimes feel like a logic puzzle. A lot of the factors at work have to do with editing. Musicians will often record with a click track (or metronome) in their headphones so that every take will be on a consistent rhythmic grid, which also makes editing between instruments and takes much easier. It can be difficult, though, to get an organic-sounding groove when playing to a click track. Recording everything live in the same room captures a kind of organic vibe that can’t be manufactured, but if the musicians are too close to each other, their voices and instruments will bleed into each other’s microphones, which limits the editing and mixing options considerably. This means that if the fiddle player makes a mistake during the guitarist’s perfect take, the guitarist may be out of luck. That’s why a song is often recorded in two phases: the basic track, which usually consists of the rhythm section and sometimes the lead vocal, and the overdubs, which are added later. I often record my lead vocals after recording my instrumental parts, since my guitar parts are often intricate and it’s difficult to really nail both tasks at the same time. Recently, though, our producer encouraged me to record lead electric guitar and lead vocals live on one song, which I wasn’t sure I could do. In the end, though, it made me analyze my own playing and singing less. I felt more in the moment, and that’s reflected in the performance.
I’ve come to realize that limiting one’s editing options can be a good thing. If you record every instrument in complete isolation with a click track, your editing options in the age of digital audio are pretty much endless, and you’ll drive yourself insane if you go too far down the editing rabbit hole. (I think many non-musicians would be stunned if they saw the dozens of edits made in a recording.) If you record in a way that limits the engineer’s editing abilities, many of the choices are already made for you. That’s what a lot of these decisions come down to: How picky and precious do I need to be about this?
Obviously, financial considerations affect a lot of these decisions, too. Often, you’re paying by the hour for studio time and you’ve booked it in advance, which means that when the time runs out, you’ve got your album whether you feel finished or not. Other times you may be working with a more flexible budget, or you’re recording in someone’s home, which means more time and more freedom to experiment. It can be great to show up in the studio with a bunch of completely arranged and rehearsed songs, but it can also be really magical to let the arrangement take shape spontaneously as you record. I’ve experienced both approaches, and I try to aim for a healthy balance of the two.
One thing I was not really prepared for when I started recording was how psychologically taxing it can be. Having to dissect your own singing and playing in minute detail can feel like all of my limitations as a musician are screaming in my face. I’ve learned how to take care of myself while recording – staying hydrated, eating and sleeping well, wearing comfortable clothes, taking breaks to go outside and walk around the block. On the flip side, though, I’ve learned that sometimes a shot of tequila or whiskey is the only thing that can get the right performance out of me.
Lula Wiles recently finished recording our second album. The very last thing we tracked was the vocals on “The Pain of Loving You,” a Dolly Parton cover in three-part harmony that’s become a rowdy mainstay of our live set. We recorded all the instruments first, then all three vocals. It was the eleventh hour of our eleventh day of tracking, and I was alternating between water, echinacea throat spray, and Espolon tequila. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.) We were basically delirious with exhaustion, but once the three of us were in the room, facing each other, belting out the harmonies as we’d done a thousand times, I could feel the whole album coming together in my mind. I could feel the current of creative energy running through all of us. I’ll remember that moment every time I hear that song, and I hope I get to have many more of those moments throughout my recording career.