The nature of recording music has changed radically over the last two decades, but whether you’re working with a laptop in a bedroom or in a large scale studio surrounded by engineers and expensive gear, the same question must be answered: how can elusive (and highly subjective) qualities of ‘aliveness’ that music can be perceived to possess in live performance – survive the process of being recorded?
Musician and writer Dave Faulkner tells us “The ineffable magic of live recording is a precious commodity but it is an extremely difficult trick to pull off” (2017) Sam Beam, of Iron and Wine says of his most recent record, that “by employing the old discipline of recording everything live and doing minimal overdubbing, [he feels] like it wears both its achievements and its imperfections on its sleeve”. (Beam, 2017)
The ‘old discipline’ Beam refers to are the antique constraints of the early recording studio, where recording live was the only option. The modern studio does not face these limitations, yet so often this very ‘liveness’ is often perceived to die in captivity during the recording process. ‘Liveness’ is such a desirable property in a recording that there’s famous examples of it being faked. One technique is to dub on audience sound effects. We weren’t concerned with recreating the presence of an audience, more to focus in on the authentic act of playing music together. To transpose the essence of what we do into a recording. We wanted our new album to be lively, so it made sense to try to record it live.
Sam Vincent (AKA Lesley): Recording live you get the same feeling you do when you’re playing or rehearsing and it feels much more natural. So it’s how we would normally play and there’s a nice comfortable familiarity with that. In my opinion it gives you the best sound because you get that groove of playing together in the moment. The drawbacks though, are that it is harder to do overdubs and edits and it doubles the amount of mistakes that potentially happen – so it’s a bit riskier, but I think it sounds better.
With a significant and shared history of live performance in studio and onstage, our own endeavor was to perform and record as much of our material as ‘live’ as possible.
For us the epitome of a live recording would be the capture of a sustained and synchronous live performance, played from beginning to end, without interruption or edit, unseparated in the studio, with no headphones or click track.
David Megarrity (AKA Tyrone): When you’re playing live you get a lot of spirit in the playing but sometimes when you listen back to it, you realize it’s not very accurate… sometimes when you’re multitracking it gives the opportunity to get things right and fix mistakes; but sometimes the spirit can go out of the music. So one of the things we were trying to do with this project was to record live as much as possible, just standing in front of each other and playing.
Working acoustically with ukulele and double bass being our main instruments, there was a certain simplicity and austerity in our given circumstances that aided our aspirations – yet at the same time we didn’t want these ideas to be so rigorously adhered to that they might endanger the final quality of the work. We learned more from bending our own rules than we would have from sticking obsessively to them.
Composition and Pre-production
We spent a fair bit of time writing the songs for the record. Some we’d tried out live onstage. Others we’d never really played before. Our composition and pre-production process usually involves creating demos of the songs (which you’ll be able to hear on the ‘Shadow Album’, a collection of demos, discards and alternate takes for pozible supporters) but they’re not at all definitive. Because we have limited time in the recording studio we carefully plan what’s going to be recorded – the paradox being, of course, that in order to be spontaneous, one must also be comprehensively prepared.
Red light fever and the first audience
It’s not unusual for a musician to be relaxed and ready to go, but then freeze and fail to perform optimally once the ‘red light’ of the recording machine is (figuratively) aglow. Just like a traffic light, red light fever stops (creative) flow, and worse, can inhibit performances so they become progressively poorer.
It’s a kind of stage fright, even though there’s not a stage in sight. Or is there? The recording studio is often seen as remote from the enabling presence of a live audience but there usually is someone listening. It’s the other musician you’re playing with, the engineer or producer, as well as band mates or other project workers. Even one person can constitute an audience. Then there’s the imagined audience, who only exist in the mind of the performer.
Quality of monitoring, and the pressure to perform, often under severe time constraints, can inhibit the very same spirit of live performance that the gigantic ear of a recording studio is aiming to detect and capture. Sometimes the pressure is surprisingly productive, but it’s often fraught.
The social facilitation (Zajonc, 1965) aspect of recording music live in the studio cannot be discounted. If you know what you’re doing, the presence of others can make you do it better. If you’re less sure of what you’re doing, their very presence can make you do it worse. The ability of others to aid, shape, or inhibit the collaborative process is a key factor which manifests in both structure and process. In our case, we walked into the studio with plenty of good material, well-established trust, a good plan, complementary skills and little extrinsic pressure. That doesn’t mean it was easy.
We began as we meant to continue by working quickly, setting up to play in the same room, with no headphones, just as we would live or in rehearsal. James See, our engineer, set up microphones to capture ‘the room’ as well as our individual instruments. We wouldn’t progressively stop, put down our instruments and go into the control room to listen to ‘takes’ – we usually knew when we had recorded something useful – so we quickly moved through the material.
A number of backing, or ‘bed’ tracks were recorded this way, working quickly, always acoustically, and the sounds, being created in the same air, at the same time, within earshot of each other, are indelible. But as we moved through the material towards more complex, or newer songs, we gradually added elements such as headphones monitoring and automated click tracks which enable precise tempo to be maintained. For some tracks we recorded parts separately. This means that your performance, rather than being definitive, is provisional. Divorced from the sound of your ensemble or playing partner, it’s a solo performance that can be edited or erased and re-done.
This kind of separated, multi-tracked recording means the ‘live performance’ becomes plural. Multiple performances, recorded in separate spaces, at separate times, are later merged to simulate one moment of performance. Our recording process became more gradated as we progressed through the project, and while 70% of the songs were tracked live in one way or another, there were some songs that resembled the classic approach to studio recording, in that “the best bits from many takes are seamlessly strung together to make the best possible take – the one the band couldn’t actually play”. (Guttenberg, 2015)
But performing live in the studio was still something we aspired to. We’d try as much as a possible to record our instrumental or vocal takes in one continuous performance. Why? The best analogy is the difference between film and theatre performance. Everyone knows film is most often created in little ‘bits’ which are recorded separately and then edited into a semblance of a live presence. Theatre is created live and ‘in the moment’ in which breath, word and movement are organically joined – for better or worse, you can see it unfolding in front of you. Whether you can hear the sound of that unfolding on a music recording is another matter.
We wanted to expand our sound with some other voices, so asked vocal trios The Pockets and Tenori to come in and lend us a hand. Each took a different approach. Kellee Green had composed a vocal arrangement for ‘I’m Gonna Dream’, which she, Joyclyn Vincent and Kylie Southwell recorded gathered around a single mic. Their parts were ‘mixed’ in the old-fashioned way, with singers stepping towards, or away from the mic.
Tenori (David Kidd, David Pryor and Craig Atkinson) took a different approach for ‘Mouth Trumpet’, and we worked up their parts collaboratively at the beginning of the session to a point where they could be performed live, but for accuracy, chose to record each of their parts separately.
These were two different vocal groups, who prepared differently, working on different songs, on different dates, so there’s little point comparing the sessions technically, but it was easy to observe each group attempting to balance the energy of performing live with the precision required to ‘nail’ their part.
Overdubs and fixups
We built the layers of the album up from their live origins, overdubbing new instruments, and composing new parts while we were in the studio. Returning to some of our live work, after a break, we decided to re-record two tracks: Moth Song, a very fast tune which we discovered slowed down significantly as it progressed, and Half Full, an ostensibly simple arrangement of voice, bass and finger snaps, which we simply thought we’d like to have another go at, recording the parts separately to see if we could make it better.
When we returned to listen to our live recordings, sometimes we heard things in our performances we really liked. Sometimes we found things we didn’t. Some of these things needed fixing, some didn’t. Some couldn’t be. This is where the art of the engineer/mixer comes in to play, and the pros and cons of recording live are perceivable in sharp relief.
James See (Engineer): it can be a pro and it can be a con, but when you do track live you have a little bit less to do on each instrument, or you have a little bit less… control over what you can do in post-production, like you’ll have bleed between different mics which can be a good thing if they play really well together and you’re capturing that – but sometimes if the takes weren’t so good, you limit how much you can actually fix anything because they’ve tracked it live.
It’s easy to forget that there is no prior definitive version of anything we’re recording. The songs are new. We’re inventing the goal, and shifting its position even as we kick on towards it. You might call this emergence.
The compositions are new, the arrangements are new, and even if we’ve road-tested the songs,we know that the studio version has a different kind of life force than the live version. They may change as they’re being created. The process may instruct us, rather than the other way around. Afterwards it makes sense –during, it can make very little – and requires a distinct combination of concentration and hope. These are tender moments, when a song makes its way into the world for the first time, under the close scrutiny of men and their machines.
These moments of intense anxiety and frustration, determination and surprise lie behind some seemingly effortless musical moments.Michael Stipe describes recording the vocal for R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ (Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe):
It was always very hard for me to present a lyric, to present an idea for the first time…Because you’re ….as vulnerable as you’ve ever been, presenting this idea for the first time. I wanted to sing it in one take, and the deliverance could not come across at all as fake, or pop, it had to just be heartfelt. It had to come from here [gestures to heart]. To achieve that in a live performance is no problem, but to do it in the artificiality of a recording studio with an engineer who’s a little sleepy because they had too much barbeque for dinner, or whatever it is I was [makes angry/frustrated gesture] like this. (Stipe, 2000)
And it cases no less consternation for an instrumentalist. Here James Fearnley, accordionist with The Pogues, evokes the live recording of the introduction to Fairytale of New York (Finer/MacGowan) upon which he and the notoriously unreliable vocalist Shane MacGowan collaborated in a live studio performance, and the definitive version of the song was created, mistakes and all.
The whole agonizing precarious minute and a bit, as I hung on every moment in which neither Shane or I fucked up, was an ordeal. I attended to every syllable of Shane’s voice in my headphones. I was morbidly aware of the rest of the band listening in the control room. I strove to remember where my fingers were going next. I was ecstatic to get through it. Of all the takes, the keeper was the one in which, after Shane had finished singing and I was on my own, in the very last measure, I hit a top E instead of a D…I wanted to do it again, but the rapture which met Shane and me when we came back into the control room was such that [producer] Lillywhite and everyone else declined to re-record it. (2012)
Fearnley later describes how he had to wear MacGowan’s rings on his fingers when the director of the video clip demanded a faked close up of MacGowan’s (a non-pianist) hands miming the very same piece.
These are two very different stories of two very different songs, but there are commonalities. The equivalence of live performance with authenticity, or at least ‘not-fakeness’. The presence of the first audience of co-creatives, representing positives and negative aspects of social facilitation. The admittance of mistakes as being a part of the process, and the word ‘deliverance’, chosen with characteristic precision by Michael Stipe. It means both “a formal or authoritative utterance” and “the action of being rescued or set free”. Both senses of the word apply to the first live performance of a new song in the studio.
Rather less famously, trapped behind glass with the red light on, the doors of the studio closed and a live performance at stake, the ear of the microphone is relentlessly attentive. It’s worth more than my car. It can reveal all sorts of imperfections in the playing you thought you knew so intimately. But it may also allow new discoveries.
The penultimate OPTIMISM session is mainly about recording lead vocals for the remaining seven songs. This is tricky, and requires concentration. I’ve been rehearsing for it, so I feel as prepared as I can be, yet it’s still a deep challenge. There’s a kind of double-think involved, between playfulness and precision, as well as imagining that what you’re doing is provisional, when you know that elements of it will become indelible.
In performance, my aim is to make each vocal part as live as can be, sustaining breath and thought across the story of each song, just like I would when performing for an auditorium. For the most part we’re able to achieve this. I say ‘we’ because it’s not just me in there on my own. Well, it is, but the significance of the interchanges between myself Sam and James in the control room, while I’m behind the glass, with headphones on, cannot be discounted. They’re the first and only audience for performances that will be frozen in time. If they wandered away while I was working, I have no doubt it would change my performance. This is social facilitation at its most basic.
Recording a live vocal, I have to be simultaneously consumed by, and yet observant of my performance. Aiming to create a single, sustained live take, I don’t ‘listen back’, but rather trust my own instinct and recollection of my performance. More usually I defer to the aesthetic judgments of my trusted colleagues, who I can’t see, but whose voices travel to me via the polished (or is it worn?) little talk back button on the studio console.
These talkbacks confirm certain artistic approaches or technical decisions, and allow conferral on whether any given attempt is improvable. I’m not a great singer, so there’s only so good any given song can get over a series of takes, before diminishing returns set in.
The last day
One of the last things we do is play a long, sustained piano note, sitting very still, in the presence of the sound, recording until its resonance has died away completely. Then we reverse it and lay it into the bridge of ‘I’m Gonna Dream’, and it sounds marvellous on playback. I jump happily around in the studio because it sounds so wonderful, and gives the song a most unexpected lift.
Hearing the songs all in a row, I feel again what a beautiful, complex process this is, and what keeps me coming back to it. In this case we’ve achieved our aim of making things as live as possible. There’s one track that’s completely live, and beyond that, a set of other musical creations involving everything from live ‘bed’ tracks to the simple overdubbing of parallel live performances, to studio inventions essentially assembled from fragments. We’ve re-recorded two songs entirely, and we’ve never done that before.
Yet beyond the unity and variety of songs and musicianship, this armada of big decisions and small compromises hangs together in a really satisfying way. There’s another story here about how our engineer/mixer James See shaped the tracks into their final form, but that’s for him to tell, and the focus of this piece is on the act of recording live in the studio, rather than the subsequent manipulation of the audio.
In this rough and delicate process of turning acoustic actions into audio artefacts, we’ve balanced the exigencies of social facilitation, spirit and precision, artificiality and authenticity, the spontaneous and calculated, the indelible and the erasable, the definitive and the provisional, the ensemble and the solo, sustained and intermittent performance, the live and mediated, using natural and automated rhythms, musical as well as verbal and textual communication, in togetherness and isolation, in creating an all-acoustic album, much of which was recorded live. It’s an album. It’s called OPTIMISM.
Faulkner, D. 2017 ‘Jen Cloher review’ in The Saturday Paper https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2017/08/04/jen-cloher-review/15018061995013 Accessed October 2017
Fearnley, J. 2012 Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues Faber & Faber
Guttenberg, S. 2015 Recorded and live music are even more different than you think https://www.cnet.com/au/news/recorded-and-live-music-are-even-more-different-than-you-think/ Accessed October 2017
Stipe, M. 2016 An interview with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of R.E.M. about ‘Losing my religion’ for the program ‘Top 2000 A Gogo’ on the NTR (Dutch Public Television). It aired December 2016. https://youtu.be/Zd2_RHEetM4 Accessed October 2017
Rettig, J. 2017 Iron and wine ‘Call It Dreaming’ Video http://www.stereogum.com/1945527/iron-wine-call-it-dreaming-video/video/
Zajonc, Robert B 1965 RB Social Facilitation. New Series, Vol. 149, No. 3681. (Jul. 16, 1965), pp. 269-274.