As expert recording artists, my bandmate and I recently booked our first-ever studio time. Some people think we are jumping ahead, because we have not even played our first gig yet. However, the preference comes down to a matter of opinions, only one of which is right.
Live music delivers a certain energy, I grant you. It’s a bit of a high-wire act, where anything is possible, and any number of musicians could plummet to their deaths. However, music wasn’t ever intended as a spontaneous, generative, communal act of creation. Music isn’t designed to incorporate our human flaws, those little moments when we play the wrong note or start singing a different song altogether. That’s what jazz is for.
Recorded music, on the other hand, doesn’t force your performance to compete with beer and women for anyone’s attention in the moment. The producer at the soundboard is your entire audience until you eventually acquire some groupies, and he gives you his complete attention. Recording music is what he loves to do. And also, you are paying him.
In the studio, you also negate the risk of music’s ephemeral transience. With live music, the moment you hear has already happened. It’s in the past. The same is true with recorded music, of course, only you can play back every breath and every beat as many times as you like until the neighbors call the police.
Our soundman (who would like to remain anonymous, which is why I’m avoiding publicly thanking Scott “Scooter” Smith at SoundSmith Audio for his skill in recording us with more nuance and depth than I ever managed with my Voice Memos app) had one simple recommendation for us as our recording date approached: Practice the songs.
“Play them a thousand times,” he said, “because I guarantee you’ll forget how to play them when you step into the studio.”
I understood how some musicians might succumb to nerves like that. So I was certain to play our songs once a day, every day, for the entire weekend beforehand. I felt good about “laying down these tracks,” as those in the biz say, because our band has no pressure to succeed.
Some musicians, like Beethoven, have the weight of their reputation boxing them into perfection. Others, like Bob Dylan, have to live up to their accolades, and there’s nowhere to go but down after landing a song in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. Our band—let’s call it “Oxygen on Embers,” because that is its name—can do whatever it wants, because we are true artists, beholden to no industry standards or capricious fans, so long as they buy our merch.
Pressure-free, we arrived at the studio at noon, because rock ‘n’ rollers don’t do things in the morning. Rock ‘n’ rollers also don’t typically carry their own instruments, but we believe in not hiring roadies until we’ve paid off our studio time. So we hauled in all the gear two people need to record three songs in an afternoon: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, tenor guitar, ukulele, harmonicas in five keys, a very fine hat, amplifiers, snacks, lucky totems, a framed photograph, picks, capos, straps, and a shaker egg, just in case.
Unloading the cars spent a significant but necessary amount of our studio time, so we set right to work recording, as soon as we tuned our instruments and ate a snack and confirmed that we had practiced the same three songs over the weekend. Scooter, it turned out, still had work to do too. For instance, he had to demonstrate for us how to wear headphones so we could hear ourselves.
And I mean HEAR ourselves. One can spend one’s whole life talking to oneself, and singing in one’s shower where the acoustics are particularly resonant. One can even listen to one’s own voicemail recording. And still, one is underprepared to discover just how amazing one sounds, even if one is apparently a little flat, although I honestly can’t tell the difference.
The rest of the afternoon is a haze of drugs and booze, which sounds way more rock ‘n’ rollerish than singing out one member of the band for enduring a case of nerves. We discovered just how long you can spend working on recording and re-recording the guitar solo for a single song, and we learned that high-quality speakers make us sound WAY better than playing at an open mic night.
Most of all, we learned that we are doing the right thing by pursuing our passions and being true to our art. So buy our album when it comes out! You can feel good knowing that one hundred percent of our profits will probably benefit a roadie in need.
This Fool’s Gold column originally appeared in The Durango Telegraph and is forthcoming in Four Corners Free Press.