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WELCOME TO The Daily Adventures of Mixerman:
All Mixerman documentary copy is presented just as it appears in the hardbound book, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman. © 2002, 2004, 2006 Mixerman Multimedia, Inc. - All Rights Reserved. No part of the following web-based document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
The Daily Adventures of Mixerman: Week 1:
Los Angeles, California
On Monday, July 29, I begin a new project. I will be recording an album of a band for a very famous producer. The band is relatively unknown other than within the record industry, which, for the most part, is currently filled with bitter losers of the biggest bidding war in the history of the music business.
I am an acquaintance of the producer-although "acquaintance" likely exaggerates the depth of our relationship. I did record for him once, but only for two hours, and I'm not entirely confident he'd even remember that. I can assure you, he would have never thought to hire me if it weren't for the band.
You see, I know the band. Or perhaps I should say I know half the band. Regardless, the band members are fans of my work.
The bands are often fans of my work. Hell, they don't know any better. They listen with the innocence of a person who enjoys music and musicality. They are still, to some extent, pure as listeners. They do not have the baggage of needing a hit affecting their judgment.
If I could describe what I know of the band in just two words, those words would have to be supreme negotiators. The label wanted them to use one of a short list of producers. From what I understand, there were two names on said list. The band members, understanding the ways of the world, pointed out to the label that it was really their choice as to what producer they hired. After all, they were the ones who would ultimately pay the producer's advance and royalties. Hell, they'd be paying him a balloon payment for their sales before they made a dime in royalties, setting them even further in debt. Of course, the record company pointed out that it was the label's up-front money that would allow the record to be made in the first place.Just in case that wasn't enough of a reality dose, the label also explained that, although it paid over two million dollars for the right to have them, it would be perfectly content if the only purpose for spending that money were to prevent the other "children" from having them. Ouch! The band looked at the short list and made the obvious choice.
The first name on the list.
As I said, the band members are supreme negotiators, and while they lost their first big negotiation where the making of their album was concerned, they had an alternate plan. They would get an ally in the room. That's where I come in. They insisted in their negotiation that I record the album. Oh, yeah. You can imagine how that went over. Mixer who? Mixer what? The label, not wanting to seem completely unyielding, and firmly believing that the tracking engineer has little power in the direction of the album (heh, heh), agreed, so long as the producer was cool with it.As it turns out, the producer is familiar with my work, which I suppose isn't so hard to believe. After all, we are acquaintances. Countless times we have passed each other in the halls on the way to and from the loo. Perhaps that was the clincher, I don't know. Regardless, the producer agreed to meet with me and ultimately agreed to the band's terms. Now the band has its ally.
Of course, the band is overlooking the fact that in the next three years, the producer will probably record in the neighborhood of twelve albums, while the band is God knows where, playing the same fifteen songs every night, wondering why they would ever write such trash. And if I were to connect the dots for you, the producer could offer me a hell of a lot more work in the coming years than the band could. But yes, despite this, I am surely the band's ally.
And so I have decided that in the coming months, I will be documenting my daily adventures in recording an L.A. bidding-war band with a famous producer. Romance novels have been written on the basis of less, so why not? It's entirely possible this documentation will be complete come Tuesday. You never know, I could be fired. But for now, I'm hired, and we start Monday. Each morning, I will supply you with documentation of the past day's events. The identities of those involved will not be revealed, so as to protect the not-so-innocent.
Knowing the band (or at least half of it) and having some knowledge of how the producer operates, I expect it could be an interesting read. Add in the cast of characters that work for the label, who are not without their own fame, and we have the makings of a veritable soap opera. Or it could be the most uneventful album I've ever made.
But, somehow, I doubt that.
According to most of the world, the crack of dawn would be just about the time the sun peeks above the eastern horizon. In studio terms, however, the crack of dawn is approximately 10 a.m., and this is precisely the time that I arrived at the studio today. I can assure you that in the world of record making, 10 a.m. would be considered a downright obscene time in which to start a session. But today was setup day, and an early start was absolutely critical. Although, in retrospect, I wish I had shown up at noon.
In setting up a session I have two main goals. First, I want to make certain that the session can move forward without a hitch. The more organized the session, the more readily available instruments and microphones are, the faster the session can move. Second, I take great pains to be sure that everyone is as comfortable as possible, including me. A little extra time, care, and effort in the setup can go a long way toward these goals-hence the early start.
Upon my arrival, I headed immediately to the recording room, which, from this point forward, will be referred to as merely "the room." The room was, as expected, in complete disarray with instrument and recording cases strewn about. It is a very large room, approximately forty feet wide, fifty feet long, and with twenty-five-foot ceilings. There are also several decent-size isolation booths1 attached to the room, two of which flank the control room.
The cases contained all manner of instruments-amplifiers, drums, and general recording gear-that were to be used for this session. The cases were to be removed from the room and stacked against the enormously long wall lining the hall. The gear within the cases was to be set up in assigned locations-assignments that I had planned out well in advance and supplied to the studio via fax.
Among the stacks of cases stood a not particularly handsome young lad, whom I assumed (correctly) was the drummer. He was methodically assembling his drums smack-dab in the middle of the room. The way I figured it, this was likely more positive than had he not been there at all, but certainly less positive than had he actually been setting up his drums in the correct spot, which, in this case, was not in the middle of the room.
As I watched him, another young lad entered the room carrying a load of cables and some microphones. He was a tall, lanky kid, laden with acne, with but a single eyebrow running across both eyes, neglecting the usual break above the nose. He wore the fairly typical nondescript studio garb of a washed-out pair of jeans, no belt, and a severely faded T-shirt, bearing the name of the studio upon it. Saving his pathetic ensemble were a beautiful necklace made from beads of rosewood and a rare '70s-era stainless steel Rolex Explorer watch. I can only assume the watch was some sort of hand-me-down-style graduation gift given to him to celebrate his completion of a two-year course in audio engineering-a course in which I'm quite certain he learned nothing of any real value. Still, I suspect he had a good upbringing, partly for the watch and partly because he immediately stopped to acknowledge me.
"Hey, I'm Lance," the lad said, holding out his pinky finger, as his arms were too full to offer his entire hand.
"Hey, I'm Mixerman," I replied, helping relieve him of some of the cables. "Are you my assistant?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"You didn't happen to get my fax with the instructions and the locations of the players, did you?"
I looked around the room, half wondering if I were on Candid Camera, as I noticed that there were no mics2 set up, and there were no headphone boxes, no music stands, no A/C strips.3 Nothing was set up, save a rug and some drums-in the wrong place, no less. I had taken several hours of my time putting together instructions to have all of these things set up, or at least nearly set up, before I had arrived. I had marked a to-scale map of the room, notating where each member of the band should reside, taking into account the acoustics of the room and the sight lines.
Thanks? He thanks me for my fax that he has thus far ignored?
"Did you happen to get the diagram of where I wanted the players to be placed?" I asked.
"Yeah, I got it. But no one ever puts drums where you wanted them."
I hate to say it, but under normal circumstances, I would have just fired his ass. This session will be costing the label, and ultimately the band, thousands of dollars per day, and it's my job to make sure the session flows smoothly. If the session is not running smoothly, I will get the blame. Not my assistant.
Unfortunately, the producer spends a significant amount of the year in this room. It could prove problematic if the producer found out that I went off half-cocked and fired his favorite assistant. My every instinct said that I was on shaky ground to begin with on this session, so for the moment, I chose the diplomatic route. I calmly and carefully explained to Lance that I would like the drums set up where I had originally planned, regardless of what anyone else had done prior to my arrival.
"Let's just set them up over there, okay?" I quipped.
"Okay, whatever you want. All I know is this is where the producer likes them."
I stared at Lance, unable to respond partly for fear that I might say something that I would regret, partly because I never actually saw a person with one eyebrow, and mostly because I had not yet consulted the producer with my setup plan. This was a fact that I was now painfully aware of given Lance's comment.
I chose to abruptly drop this line for a moment and focus my attention on the drummer. For the most part, his drums were set up, as he was obviously making some final adjustments. Not wanting to disturb him, and in an effort to keep the session progressing in some manner, I leaned down next to his snare drum to investigate the spacing in which I had to thread a mic. Typically, this procedure is a relatively safe exercise. Today, it was an exercise fraught with danger, as the drummer suddenly and inexplicably began whaling on the snare drum.
Fuck! That hurt.
Startled would be an understatement, here. Were I a cat, I would have been on the ceiling holding on for dear life. To make matters worse, I stood up so quickly I hit my head and my shoulder on his cymbals, just barely retaining my balance enough to grab his drumstick in mid-strike as I steadied myself with my hand on his snare drum. All in all, this was a dangerous maneuver, for had I not managed to grab the drumstick, he would have likely cracked several bones in my hand with the pending whack.
A well-timed snare hit could do untold amounts of damage to my hearing. It could end my career. At the very least it could shorten it significantly. One should NEVER play the drums when the engineer is standing next to him, certainly not without fair warning. This is Recording Etiquette 101. It's a rule. Perhaps an unwritten rule, until now, but a rule just the same. I, of course, explained all of this to the drummer. I suppose I made some sort of impression upon the guy, because the next time I entered the room, he stopped playing.
Very good, I thought to myself, easily trainable. Still, it was unnecessary for him to stop playing if I walked into harm's way, but I saved that discussion for another time, as I didn't want to confuse the issue.
"Thanks for stopping," I praised, "but I want to hear what the drums sound like in the room, so you can play now." And he did just that.
For the briefest of moments, I thought that the drummer was actually playing a practical joke on me. I say this because I can only categorize the sounds emanating before me as some of the most god-awful drum sounds I've ever heard. Ever! Believe me when I tell you, I've heard some awfully bad-sounding drums. I mean, these drum sounds weren't bad in a cool sort of way. These drum sounds were bad in every way imaginable.
Perhaps it was the drums, I thought to myself, if only to stave off the actual truth of the matter from my fragile brain.
"I think these drums are probably better for playing live," I said aloud.
This was a standard line that I, and just about every other recordist in the history of the world, uses when a drummer's kit4 sounds like shit. While I generally prefer to be as straightforward as possible with people, this little white lie is sometimes necessary and works far more effectively than copping to the drummer on the first day of a session that his drum set sucks-live or otherwise. Believe me-if the drum set sucks in the studio, it sucks live too.
"What would you think about playing a nice set of rental drums that are designed specifically for recording?" I asked him, as admittedly it is very difficult to stop telling white lies once you've started.
The drummer sat there following my inquiry, with nothing more than a blank stare upon his face, as if I had asked him this question in Chinese, which I'm assuming he doesn't understand. I know I don't. I considered waving my hand in front of his face, but chose rather to rephrase my question into a statement.
"I think we should probably rent some recording drums," I stated, a little more slowly this time, as emphatically and with as much conviction as one can muster while using words like think and probably.
"Okay," he snapped quickly with this odd little smile that I could only assume was his best impersonation of Jim Carrey in the movie Dumb & Dumber.
By 10:30 a.m. the drums were in the wrong spot, my assistant was anything but assistive, and my confidence over my planned placement of the instruments had been shattered. Oh, joy. A call to the producer was in order.
In our phone conversation, the producer and I discussed a variety of topics germane to the setup for the recording. For the most part, he gave me carte blanche to place the players where I saw fit, so long as the sight lines were good for everyone. We also discussed a few sonic and directional concepts for the record, picked a song to start out with, and broached the subject of the rental budget, which, as it turns out, is quite sizeable.
"Get what we need to keep the session moving, regardless of cost," the producer said. Sizeable, indeed! Unlimited, more like!
All in all, it was a very positive conversation, until the producer dropped a bomb on me, coming in the form of both confession and request.
"One last thing before you go," he said. "You might already know this, but Lance is my nephew, and I want him to get some actual hands-on experience recording. If you wouldn't mind, any time you can let Lance take the reins and get some time behind the console, I'd really appreciate it."Great! I thought to myself, as my mind flashed into the future to the record-release party where I was ceremoniously given my copy of the manufactured CD. I imagined myself sipping champagne and guffawing with the band, as I came to find out that there had been one million preorders for the album, an unprecedented event for a new band-hell, an unprecedented event for an established one. We toasted the huge success of a record that wasn't even for sale yet. Then I watched myself opening up the CD much like Charlie opened up his chocolate bar in search of the golden ticket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I remember being vaguely conscious of the bandmates each nervously and expeditiously excusing themselves from my presence, as I made my move to open the CD. Momentarily ignoring their peculiar exits, I opened the booklet to gaze proudly upon my name as the recordist of such a successful work, only to find in bold print the following text:
Engineered by Lance Nephew
Of course, that particular dream sequence was ludicrous on more than one level. Such an obviously overblown scenario would likely be the least of my problems, as my assistant was supposed to be my ally, watching my back for possible mistakes or potential problems. Not a relation to the producer!
"Sure, no problem," I gulped.
Despite the distressing news of the nepotism and the fucked-up dream sequence in which I was deprived of a well-earned credit, I had established my needed authority to set up the session as I saw fit. At the moment, this was all the ammunition I needed.
I found Lance and explained to him that I'd had a long conversation with the producer and that I would like to set up the room as I had originally laid out in my fax. Then I asked Lance, as politely as I could possibly phrase such an inquiry, "Are you planning to set up the mics in the near future?"
Without so much as a grunt, he rolled his eyes, picked up my setup sheet, and exited the room as I remained wondering what the fuck he thought his gig was.
By this point in my day, the rental drums had arrived, and I had managed to sample a few of the kits. I finally settled on a vintage Ludwig kit, which seemed the most appropriate for the song we were starting with. The producer had expressed a desire to use a few different drum sounds on this album, so I had the rental company leave a couple of other kits as well. I also kept about ten extra snare drums. It's very expensive to keep this amount of drums on hand, but I just couldn't get the phrase "get what we need to keep the session moving, regardless of cost" out of my head.
I asked the drum tech from the rental company to set up the drums in the area that I had originally selected. He obliged and proceeded to fine-tune the drums. Being a seasoned pro, the tech asked my permission to play while I was in the room, which I happily granted. The drums sounded great! I was elated. Relieved, even.
Then the drummer took a turn. He adjusted some positions of the toms and cymbals to his liking, settled into his throne, and unceremoniously commenced playing the drums. My feelings of elation instantly turned to dejection. This drum kit, which I have actually recorded with great success on numerous occasions with drummers of every ilk-a kit which had sounded fantastic just moments prior-now sounded like absolute dog shit.5
As I listened to the wretched tones bombard me, I confirmed what I could only have defined prior to that moment as a super-strong suspicion. The drummer sucked.
To be perfectly honest, I should have known this coming in. I think that perhaps I did, but was trying to convince myself otherwise. The drummer didn't sound very good on the demos. But drums rarely do sound good on demos. I'd seen the band live once, but that was with a different drummer. The fact of the matter is, I didn't know this drummer. My relationship with the band was with the lead singer and the bass player. I was surprised that they would accept playing with such a lousy drummer.
Regardless of my feelings on the quality of musicianship sitting before me, I resigned myself to setting up the mics, which were still trickling in at a snail's pace. After some prodding, I finally got Lance to get all the mics in the room, and I proceeded to set them up around the kit.
Aside from the actual instrument in the room, mic placement is probably one of the more important steps to a good recording. Where a mic is placed can make a huge difference in what it picks up. Even what appears by eye to be the tiniest of movements of mic position can cause a dramatic improvement or degradation in sound by ear. In the initial placement of mics, I am merely making an educated guess as to where I think they will sound best. I must go through the listening process in order to determine where they will ultimately end up. To some extent, that's a hit-or-miss process.
With mics in their initial placement, I had Lance get the drummer behind the kit, as I made my way to the control room, where I had the most mind-numbing communication that I've ever experienced with a man. And no, I am not a chauvinist. But if you're a woman, you must realize by now your propensity toward largely complex and seemingly illogical thought processes, making you capable of inflicting unusually cruel amounts of distress upon the relatively simple mind of a man. Personally, I'd take that as a compliment.
"Play, please," I said over the talkback, which is much akin to a walkie-talkie, allowing the players in the recording room to hear me when I hit a button.
"What?" the drummer yelled, as if he couldn't hear me.
"Can you hear me?" I asked. It's quite possible that he couldn't hear me, although the talkback volume was way up, and I could hear a momentary feedback, which told me that my voice was probably pretty loud in the room. As if this wasn't enough to convince me, I recalled having heard Lance communicating earlier to me in this manner.
"YEAH, I CAN HEAR YOU FINE!" he responded, yelling as if I couldn't hear him.
"I want to hear the drums in here. Could you play?"
"What song do you want me to play?" At which point I told him the name of the song that the producer had requested we start with.
"Okay!" he replied. Ten seconds went by.
"Are you going to play?"
"Do you want me to play now?"
"That would be helpful."
"Which drum do you want me to play?"
"The whole kit!"
"Oh, okay!" He started playing and then stopped after barely a measure went by.
"How long do you want me to play for?" he asked.
"Until I ask you to stop."
He started playing again and then stopped after a whole two measures this time.
"What?" he yelled out.
"I didn't say anything!"
"Oh, I thought you yelled to stop."
"No. I want you to play for a while."
"Okay!" Ten seconds of absolute silence went by.
"Play!" I yelled. The drummer jumped in his seat, and immediately started playing again. As I listened, I realized that he was playing the wrong song.
"Stop!" I yelled in the talkback, but he didn't stop. "Stop!" I yelled louder and closer to the talkback mic. "STOP!!!!!!" I yelled at the top of my lungs directly into the talkback mic.
"What?" he replied with a stupid-assed look on his face.
"Yes, could you play the song we discussed?" I was close to exasperation.
"You want me to play it now?"
No, I want you to play it tomorrow!
These brilliant exchanges went on for the entire day. This guy was easily the dumbest schmuck that I've ever had to deal with, and I've dealt with some serious idiots. I swear to you this drummer is only one notch above being a retard, and I've come to find out through the course of the day that he is the butt of the band's constant jokes and haranguing. At one point, I began calling him Cotton, and the bass player asked me why I called him that.
"'Cause he's dumber than cotton," I said dryly.
I guess he thought that was funny, because he fell off his chair and ran to tell the singer. To me, however, the name Cotton doesn't really do the drummer justice. Personally, I much prefer what I've been calling him out of earshot and between exchanges on the talkback.
After about six hours of changing drums, moving mics, trying out compressors-which are tools that engineers use to even out an overly dynamic volume differential of an instrument-and anything else that I could do to somehow make Dumb Ass's drums sound acceptable, I finally got a sound that I thought was fairly decent considering what I had to work with.
By this point in the day, the other players had been at the studio for some time, and they had been setting up their instruments and their playing areas. Lance Nephew was on "vibe" detail and had been busy hanging my tapestries, arranging lava lamps, candelabras, candles on plates, string lights, and Magic 8 Balls (of which I have three varieties). He also took it upon himself to place the studio's wool Oriental throw rugs throughout the room, a service for which I was most grateful. For the moment, Lance was doing what he was supposed to and wasn't causing me too much grief.With drum sounds relatively complete, I could focus on the other instruments. I rented a bass head and cab,6 because I wasn't particularly enamored with the rig7 the bass player was using. I rented a few guitar amps for the sake of variety, and the producer had several amps of his own that were delivered along with a large assortment of percussion instruments and guitars. I set up a wall of guitar amps in the large iso booth so that the guitar player could plug into a variety of amps, depending on the song. All in all, I would say there were about fifty guitars in the room, some rented, some newly acquired by the guitar player, some belonging to the producer. I rented a few of these big twelve-banger guitar holders, and we got the cases out of the room.
I set up the bass cab (the speakers) in another decent-size iso booth, and placed the bass player's head (the amplifier) in the room with the drums so that he could stand next to Dumb Ass while they were playing. Bass players usually like to stand near the drummer, as these two instruments supply the groove of a song. I set up large baffles8 to cut the players off from the drums and to give the band members their own kind of space. Each player had his own little "Apartment," or "Living Room" garnished with his choice of furniture, gear, and assorted vibe paraphernalia.
After about ten hours, the room was finally completely set up, the players had been placed, and their instruments were accessible to them. All the empty cases, racks, and extraneous gear were piled up in the hall. The room was beautiful. It was a sight to behold!
I got a bass sound and a few guitar amp sounds. I had mics throughout the room so that I could readily hear each band member, and they could readily hear each other in their headphones. Each Apartment got a set of headphones and small mixers, where each player could set up his own little eight-fader mix for himself (very handy). We ordered dinner, which is a complete story in and of itself that I'll reserve for another time, and I set up the vibe in the control room.
Post-dinner, we were ready for the producer. So I called him and left a message telling him same. But the producer never made an appearance, even though he had expressed a desire to make some takes tonight. I guess he was too busy.
Not wanting to sit around doing nothing, I had the band play down the first song a couple of times, as I laid it to tape and made a few adjustments. All in all, I'd say the test recording sounded okay, but quite honestly, Dumb Ass really sucks balls as a drummer. He has no feel, no time, no talent, is stupider than fuck, and has an incredible knack for making great drums sound like ass.
Other than that . . .
Today gives the term "dandy" new meaning. That's because today was definitely a dandy.
About thirty minutes before the crack of dawn, I received a call from the producer. Apparently, he had mysteriously been stricken with a great idea. He wanted to use a PA system9 to amplify the drums in the room, so as to get a really "big and fat drum room sound." He referenced another producer who was a friend of his that swears by this. He then proceeded to tell me that he'd had his personal assistant (a relative, I'm sure) hire a sound reinforcement guy to come to the studio and set up the system.
After dropping the little PA bomb on me, he decided to ask me how everything sounded.
What's it matter? It's all going to change now! I thought to myself.
Regardless, since I wasn't 100 percent happy with the drum sound, thanks to Dumb Ass's less than stellar coordination of multiple limbs hitting skins, I decided to fill the producer in on my disappointment with his drumming skills.
"I think the PA is a good idea. The drummer could use some help," I said in an exaggerated, half-laughing way so as to get my point across.
"He could? I'm surprised to hear that," replied the producer.
Surprised? Didn't he do rehearsals with this band? How can this be a surprise to him?
"I thought he was a really good drummer," the producer continued.
As if I wasn't fucked before!
I intimated that I thought the PA system was a good idea, and, in an attempt to perform some damage control, I told him that the PA would probably solve the small problems that I was having with his drumming.
"When will you be coming in?" I asked innocently.
"I'll probably be there by late afternoon-early eveningish, to listen to sounds."
"Great, see you then," I replied as the producer abruptly hung up the phone.
I drove to the studio for a noon start. When I arrived, I saw the sound reinforcement company's truck in the parking lot and Dumb Ass sitting on the patio smoking a cigarette. Dumb Ass informed me that he always likes to get to the studio early. Oh, joy! I decided that I'd make a beeline for the room, since that was where Dumb Ass was not.
Normally, I would expect to see the room exactly as I had left it the night before. Expecting this would be as usual as expecting summer to be hot, birds to fly, dogs to bark, or any manner of everyday occurrences that have few exceptions. Unfortunately, today was one of those exceptions.
Rather than walking into a well-organized, fully prepared recording session that I had spent ten hours of my time preparing, I was greeted by a half-dismantled, unorganized clusterfuck. You see, when I arrived at the room, the microphones that were only fourteen hours prior to this tightly locked down and surrounding the drums-microphones that I had spent hours painstakingly positioning in order to somehow gain even the slightest edge on the poor drum tones I must somehow present in a flattering manner-were now completely removed from the drums in an arbitrary and seemingly random fashion. At first, I was stunned.
As I said yesterday, mic placement is the single most important part of recording, aside from what you are recording and the room you are recording in. Lance had made movements of centimeters (per my direction), as I listened in order to get the mic to pick up what I wanted it to "hear." To move the recordist's mics is the cardinal sin which anyone who has spent more than a day in a studio knows you never commit under any circumstances-certainly not without first consulting the person who placed the mics.As I stared upon the disastrous scene before me, I became consumed with anger-anger so great that I could not accurately describe in words the extent of it. In fact, there is really no way that I could accurately describe the magnitude of the microphones having been removed from the drums, as certainly no one in the history of the world has died from such an event. Still, I'll try my best to put this into perspective.
If you have ever spent hours laboring over anything at all, in the hopes that you will derive some fruits from that labor, even if those fruits are merely the self-satisfaction of accomplishment; if you have ever created anything that in and of itself is intended to have no permanence, but by its nature serves as a painstakingly critical first step toward the accomplishment and free flowing of a creative endeavor; if you have ever created anything, even as mundane and unimportant as a jigsaw puzzle or a sand castle, or even a domino trail, only to have it destroyed in one fell swoop by an idiot with no consideration toward common sense or human decency, then you have a firm grasp on the aggravation and pure unadulterated hatred of mankind that I was feeling at that particular moment. Put another way, I was about to fucking lose it!
Knee-deep in the carnage before me stood a disheveled Mountain Man sporting a full-on Grizzly Adams do, wearing a torn tank top, shorts, hiking boots, and a trucker's baseball cap with a perfectly straight brim-a fashion faux pas of the highest order in some circles. He was casually plugging a whole new set of microphones into a live PA console parked, no less, in the middle of the singer's Apartment, destroying every bit of vibe that I had worked so hard to achieve. This, of course, was the least of my problems.
"What are you doing?" I asked, practically shaking, half thankful I didn't have a gun, half wishful that I did.
"Oh, hey," the Mountain Man replied obliviously. "Just setting up my mics for the PA."
Getting slightly distressed I asked, "Why did you move my mics? You moved my mics! Where's Lance?"
"Who?" he asked.
"Lance-where's Lance-who let you in?"
"I don't know, one of the staff or something," he answered. "I hope you don't mind, but I had to move the mics to get my mics in on the drums," he continued. "Ah, you're a pro. You know how this works."
I stood there for a moment in absolute disbelief at what this Mountain Man had just said to me. My mouth hung wide open. Were there a fly in the room, it would have likely flown right in. I would guess that I looked more stupid than Dumb Ass looks on a regular occasion. For a moment, I understood what it was like to have an out-of-body experience. My consciousness was floating above me, looking at myself and the room, wondering how this could possibly happen. I watched myself gazing vacantly at the drums with a feeling of helplessness, much like one feels when he's lost something important to him. Thoughts of physical violence as a means toward retribution entered my mind, but I quickly dispsensed such ideas, for a studio and the ridge of a volcano are two of the last places where one wants to get into a physical altercation.
"Excuse me," I retorted, as I made a quick exit from the room for fear that I might say or do something that I could regret. In retrospect, I can think of plenty of things that I wish I'd said, but one always comes up with the best comeback material after the fact.
At that point, I had pretty much decided that it was time to meet the studio traffic manager. Unfortunately, I was way too pissed at that particular moment to express myself clearly and without sounding like a raging lunatic. I decided it would be best for me to take a drive, which is what we do instead of take walks here in La La Land. Dumb Ass offered to come along, an offer that I turned down flat.
After allowing myself the opportunity to calm down, I returned to the studio complex and headed directly to the office. It was time to introduce myself to the traffic manager, Magnolia, whom I've never actually met. While I have worked at this particular facility before, it has been many years, and Magnolia has only recently accepted the position as traffic manager. Oddly, despite the fact that we have many mutual friends, circumstance has prevented our paths from ever crossing. But then, circumstance is like that.
Magnolia seemed happy to meet me as she immediately wanted to kibitz, a skill that seems to be a requirement for becoming a studio manager. Personally, I desired to get right into the circumstances of the disaster but couldn't do so effectively with all of the kibitzing going on. I grudgingly exchanged some niceties, but I quickly and awkwardly segued into the disaster in the recording room.
"All of my mics were torn down from the drums," I stated.
"Wow, I'm surprised to hear that," she replied to my complaint.
Surprised? I've lost hours of work and she's surprised? How about appalled? I would have been happy with appalled. Appalled would have been a reaction that I could live with. She gives me surprised?
Upon investigation into the matter, Magnolia informed me that Lance still hadn't arrived yet, so a runner had let the Mountain Man into the room. She apologized and promised to speak with the runner, but she attempted to remove some of the blame from herself and her staff by pointing out that the Mountain Man should have known better. In some small way she was right-he should have known better. But certainly one of the purposes of an assistant and a studio staff is to prevent the clueless, under the guise of being professional, from infiltrating a session and moving the microphones! Doesn't she know that?
By now, I had come to accept the fact that I couldn't change what had happened and that my only recourse was to prevent it from happening again. I told Magnolia that in no uncertain terms was anyone allowed in the room without myself or (gulp) Lance being present. I'm not 100 percent convinced that had Lance been there, this disaster would have been thwarted, but at least I could have held him accountable. Perhaps then I could have hired someone not related to the producer to assist me!
Having resigned myself to getting drum sounds again and convincing myself that I probably would have had to approach the drums completely differently anyway with the addition of a PA system, and having temporarily shelved my hatred of the entire world for how it happened to affect me, I was able to face the situation at hand in my usual happy-go-lucky manner.
The first step in the healing process, since I was probably the only one in need of healing, was to introduce myself (officially) to our beloved Mountain Man/sound reinforcement specialist.
"Mixerman," I announced.
"Buck," the Mountain Man replied, as he held out his hand momentarily and then sneezed into it.
"Charmed, I'm sure," I quipped sarcastically, neglecting to accept his hand as he was now wiping it on the rear of his pants.
"You know, you moved mics that I had spent hours setting in place. In general, that's considered really bad form."
He seemed unfazed by my admonishment as he continued to patch cables into the monstrosity that sat obtrusively in the middle of the singer's Living Room.
"Uh, do you think we could move this beast?" I said as I placed my hand on the console.
"Oh, I thought that would be the best place for it," he said after briefly glancing up to see what I was referring to.
"Well, it's right in the middle of where the singer is going to be for takes."
"You're not going to keep those vocals are you?"
"That's somewhat irrelevant," I replied, as I was beginning to lose my patience with his obtuse nature.
I can't for the life of me understand why I ask a question when what is really called for is a statement-note to self: Consult with shrink about this.
"I'd like to move the console to here," I proclaimed as I held out my hands, as if they were on the sides of an imaginary console and walked to an unobtrusive corner of the room.
"But I won't be able to see," he replied, bewildered.
"Why do you need to see?" I responded, even more bewildered, "You're not even going to be here once we get audio passing."
"Oh, I thought you would need me to be operating the board."
What???? I almost choked on my own saliva I was so taken aback by the absurdity of this statement. What was he talking about? Why would we need someone to operate the board? This wasn't some live mix gig. This was a PA to be used to boost the level of sound of the kik10 and the snare drums in the room. It was for an effect. "Set and forget" is what I do in a case like this. And if I do make changes, it's between songs, and those adjustments can be made by me and/or Lance, depending on the situation.
"No, we definitely won't be in need of that!" I replied bluntly.
Lance had finally arrived, nary an apology for his extreme tardiness. He seemed raring to go. Yeah, right! After some coaxing on my part, I convinced Lance to help Buck move the live board to the corner of the room, out of vibe's way.
I took a moment to go through Buck's mic collection in the hopes that I could avoid having two sets of mic stands and two sets of clunky microphones on each and every drum. In reality, I didn't need a second set of mics at all. It would have been just as easy, if not easier, for me to use the same set of mics for the recording as for the PA, which I won't get into the technical details of here. But there were valid arguments for using two sets of mics, although at the moment I can't think of one. Buck had a plethora of clip-on mics in his arsenal. I managed to convince him to use those instead.
Since all of the mics had been removed and since there was now a PA in the room, I decided to reapproach my own mic selections for the purposes of the drum recording. Upon completion, I gave Lance my new and improved list of mics and asked him to set them up instead of what we had set up yesterday. Lance sat down to examine the list, which leads me to suspect that Lance's father may have berated him one too many times for walking while reading, an act I would have much preferred. But I guess that's not how Lance operates.
In the twenty-four hours that I've been around Lance, I've not once seen him make what could be construed as an accelerated motion of any part of his body. The guy would never be mistakenly shot by police officers thinking that he was somehow "going for a weapon." Since this operation would likely take awhile, I decided to go out and eat lunch with the band. Of course, even my lunch was ruined, what with the presence of Dumb Ass.
I realize that I may seem a bit harsh with Dumb Ass, but honestly, I'm nice to the guy, particularly compared to the rest of the band. In fact, they've taken to calling him Cotton to his face. Certainly, Cotton can frustrate me endlessly to the point that I either want to choke the living shit out of him or just give up on life in general. But I do remain calm, I never put him down to his face, and I'm always extremely careful to let go of the talkback button when I call him Dumb Ass. He is the definition of a boy that only a mother can love. I am thoroughly convinced that, were Cotton and the Pope in a room together, it would only be a matter of minutes before the Pope would begin insulting him. There's just no way around blatantly stating your disdain for him. I mean, if the Pope can't refrain, you certainly can't expect me to, right?
As if Dumb Ass's incessant idiocy isn't enough, the guy has this whole retard act. I mean, he'll act like a retard. I would greatly appreciate for someone, anyone, to tell me why a retard would act like a retard. I posed this in the form of a question to the singer, but he kept repeating the question as if attempting to decipher the answer to some complex, deep philosophical question. "Yes, why would a retard act like a retard?" "Why would a retard act like a retard?" "Why would a retard act like a retard?"
Ya got me!
After returning from lunch, I watched as Lance was putting the finishing touches on his mic setup in a manner that one might imagine Michelangelo touching up the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Dumb Ass was kibitzing with Buck, getting along like one would expect two retards to get along. I placed my mics on the drums, went through the painful exercise of getting Dumb Ass to actually play the drums when I wanted him to-as opposed to when I didn't want him to-and got Buck to get the PA pumping (like I needed him for that). After a couple hours of tinkering with subtle mic movements, I got the drums to sound okay again.
You have to understand, okay drum sounds are not what I'm going for here. With a great drummer, drum sounds take all of ten minutes. With a shitty drummer, if you actually give a shit about your craft, drum sounds can take hours. I suppose one could argue that I'm earning my money. Admittedly, sometimes the recordist's job is to take a less than stellar source11 and make it acceptable. This is what I'm spending my time doing thus far, so in this case, that is my job. But personally, I prefer the other side of the coin, which is to stay out of the way of what is inherently great or, in other words, to do everything in my power not to fuck things up. To me, that's a far more valuable service than the first, as anyone can stomp the snot out of drums with compressors in order to make a crappy drummer seem slightly consistent, which I am already doing to arrive at just "okay."
At this point, I wasn't sure if my new drum sound was better than last night's, so I recorded a little bit and compared. While the PA was slightly different, it didn't really improve Dumb Ass's sound very much. At this point, I had come to the realization that there was no way for me to avoid reality anymore. He just sucks! How can drums sound good when the guy just plain sucks? The answer is, they can't. I was dejected and needed a producer because I was out of answers. The drum sounds were fine. It was the drum playing that was fucking things up to this point, and until the producer could come to that conclusion himself, there was little more that I could do on this front. The fact that the producer perceives him as a good drummer is not a good sign. I can't help but wonder if I'll make it past tomorrow.
I dismissed Buck, and he exchanged numbers with Dumb Ass. I believe I overheard that Buck thought Dumb Ass was a really good drummer. [Sigh]. Is it just me? Have I lost my ability to judge drummers? Perhaps I've set my standards too high. If this guy's actually a good drummer (and he's not!), then I'm toast.
It was dinnertime again. When I have a less eventful daily log, I'll be sure to fill you in on how such a benign thing as ordering dinner can turn into a fucking fiasco of epic proportions. Finally, we ate our dinner and still no producer. I had the band play the first song again, this time with the PA drums, and I recorded it. The band enjoyed the new sound. Dumb Ass thought it was the most rad drum sound he'd ever gotten. Funny, it's one of the more pedestrian drum sounds I've ever gotten. I suppose it's true. . . .
Perception is reality.
Today, I decided I was going to take some control of my life. It is typical for me to constantly evaluate how I am contributing to the well-being or degradation of a session. By not taking control of the assistant and the studio-and in some respects Dumb Ass-I have come to the self-critical conclusion that I have contributed to the degradation of this session. At the very least, I have not been improving upon the situation and therefore I needed to make a tactical change in how I was handling myself. Of course, not having a producer show up has not helped matters. Still, considering the fact that we haven't even made a take yet, the damage should be easily rectified.
Take control was the plan of the day. Thus, the name of my plan: Operation Control.
The first thing I did today after drinking a cup of coffee, taking a poo . . . Okay, forget about all that! The first thing I did today was to call the producer and ask him if he'd be coming in today.
"Yeah, man. Definitely. Sorry about the delays. Drama. You know how it is. How's the PA working out?" he asked.
"It's fine. I recorded one take with the PA and one without, and you can be the judge."
"Great, you're the best! I'll see you later today." And with that he hung up the phone.
I wasn't quite sure how to take "later today." Regardless, I chose to be optimistic and assume that I would have a producer later today.
Now I needed to implement Operation Control. First up on the agenda was Lance Nephew. Phase One of Operation Control began, unwittingly on my part, last night.
Phase One: Train Lance to be a worthwhile assistant.
At the conclusion of yesterday's session, ahem, I explained to Lance what I meant when I used the term "start time," expressing very plainly that if we call the session to start at 10 a.m., then I wanted him there at 9:30 a.m. Among other duties, he was to double-check all the documentation from the day before (he was a bit confused by this one, as he still hasn't documented one thing); fire up the "tube" equipment,12 which takes time to warm up; make sure the Apartment environments are neat and clean; organize notes, messages, and receipts; remove obvious trash; and untangle cables, lines, etc. Some of this was being done by the cleaning staff, but Lance was not without his own obligations. I explained to Lance that his job was to help me keep a session running smoothly and quickly, and I asked him if he was going to be able to do this. He assured me that he would.
Lance was only thirty minutes late this morning, which was incredibly encouraging considering that, to date, he has not been less than an hour late. As encouraged as I was, this wasn't good enough. So I decided that he needed to meet the wrath of me. After all, an important Intelligence Operation cannot always be implemented without the use of some force. In a nutshell, I tore Lance a new asshole-a tactic I reserve for when all else fails.
Lance was shocked, nay, flabbergasted at the way I laid into him. But at least I think he's starting to get the picture now. No more Mr. Nice Guy! I was either going to have an assistant I can use, or one of us was going to go. At this point, I didn't care which one of us went-although I was hopeful it wouldn't come down to that. Lance wasn't a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination. Phase One would have to remain a work in progress. I moved on to Phase Two.
Phase Two: Put the studio on notice.
I went to the traffic manager's office, exchanged daily niceties, and allowed Magnolia her mandatory kibitzing time, which I found quite painful as I abhor kibitzing when I'm in the middle of a mission. I then reiterated to her that ours was a "closed session." Only the band, the producer, Lance, and I were permitted in the room. She agreed to my terms. I also explained to her that I wouldn't tolerate Lance's being late any longer, and that I wanted him there before the session started, regardless of nepotistic relationships that may exist. She was noticeably taken aback by my bluntness on this matter. She quickly regained her composure and assured me that it wouldn't happen again. I was reasonably sure she "got it" now. Phase Two of the plan was complete. Back to Phase One.
I took Lance into the room, grabbed a clipboard with a pad of paper, and demonstrated to Lance how one documents the settings on a guitar amp. I drew a little circle for each of the knobs on the guitar amp, and I drew a line, like the hands of a clock in each of the circles, which indicated where the knob was set on the amp. It was kind of like kindergarten class, but this was an important step in implementing Phase One.
I explained to Lance that on every song, and even every take, if we're switching instruments and amp settings, he was to write down the guitar that was used, the amp that was used, the settings of the amp, the pickups, tone and volume control settings on the guitar, pedals used with their appropriate settings, mics used, snare drum used, kit used, bass used, head settings, compressor settings, mic pre-gain settings, EQ settings, tempo, etc. I suggested he make some templates and photocopies of those templates, so he didn't have to constantly redraw the guitar amp knobs every time we changed the settings on the guitar.
I showed Lance how to use a pencil, as opposed to a red Sharpie marker, on a label directly on the two-inch tape13 box, much like the marker that he used to sloppily write what I believe said "Test Drums & Test Drums II"-even he wasn't quite sure if that's what it actually said. I explained to him the importance of using details in order to prevent assured confusion later on down the road. I counseled him on the importance of trying to use neatness in his documentation, so that we could read what he had documented at a later date. There is one studio in town that actually runs its future assistant engineers through a course in penmanship. Obviously, this wasn't that studio. It was then time for Phase Three.
Phase Three: Teach Dumb Ass to play drums like a man.
I took a listen to Test Drums and Test Drums II, as Lance was affixing labels to the two-inch box and writing a novelette on the origins and purpose of each take.
In listening to the takes, I determined that I would need to make some more adjustments with the PA, but more importantly, with Dumb Ass. He hit the toms like a pussy but would whale on the hat14 as if he imagined it was the guy who raped his sister. I gave him the short lesson on hitting his drums and then had him practice while I made my adjustments with the PA.
The sound improved tremendously. The toms were singing in the room a little better. In fact, the drums were starting to sound pretty good overall. I gave him some more encouragement-yes, I do encourage Dumb Ass-and recorded "Test Drums III," labeled as such by my newly inspired literary scholar of an assistant, with a three-page dissertation written on a label designed for, at most, a sentence or two. (Sigh.) Should I tell Lance he's gone too far? Or should I just send the runner out to buy a quality magnifying glass on the band's dime?
Dumb Ass's drums were actually halfway decent, although the guy has this very odd loping feel. It's like riding a galloping horse with its push-pull motion. I see Alsihad in my future.
Alsihad (pronounced AL · see · hod) is my own personal name for what is currently the most widely used computer program for recording in the industry. I created my own name for the platform, partially because I don't think the real name fits the product, and partially because I wouldn't want to be responsible for even one sale of the product.
For years, albums were recorded to tape. To date, many rock albums are still recorded to tape. But many albums are recorded to computers. In order to record to a computer, one needs both software and hardware aside from the computer itself. The hardware converts sound into the digital format of 1s and 0s. The software is the platform in which an operator can manipulate the sound. Alsihad is both the software and the hardware. Some people in this industry feel that Alsihad sounds fine, and some people in this industry feel that it sounds awful. Some people don't think it really matters, since all records end up in the digital format of a CD anyway. I'm in the camp that thinks it sounds awful.
Regardless of my feelings on the issue, when a drummer comes in and has such poor timing as is prevalent in Dumb Ass's playing, Alsihad is typically the first choice to fix the timing anomalies. At that moment, I didn't see Alsihad in the room, and this was just fine by me.
When the singer and the bass player entered the control room, they immediately noticed the improvements on the drum sound. I requested that they go back in with the guitar player and play down the song, which they readily obliged. It was late afternoon, and the producer still hadn't made an entrance. As they played down the take, I remember having these unusually insecure thoughts come through my head.
This drummer sucks, regardless of how I improved his tone, I thought to myself. Sure, I'm hearing an improvement, and it actually sounds pretty good to me. But perhaps I've lost perspective. Perhaps the tones still suck, but I think it's okay because of the improvements I've made. But what will the producer hear? The producer is under the impression that Dumb Ass is good, and he's heard Dumb Ass play. But it's sooooo obvious to me that Dumb Ass is not a good drummer. Will he hear that the drumming is subpar, or will he hear that the drums just don't sound good? After all, you never can tell with producers. He might not recognize something so painfully obvious. Just because someone is a successful producer doesn't mean that he has the skills to go with his success. This industry is fraught with people who have no business being near a studio. Would that be the case here? "Wait a minute!" I thought to myself, as I snapped from my trance of doubting thoughts.
I was in the midst of Operation Control. I couldn't allow insecurities to overcome me. I've been in this situation countless times before. I must think positively and overcome any obstacles that present themselves. It was useless to worry about the producer's reaction. I just needed to be prepared to convince him of where the problem lies. Operation Control was about taking control of the situation. Not fear.
With that little episode behind me and with a renewed sense of confidence, I decided to mic up the rest of the guitar amps and get the mics positioned so that I wouldn't have to move mics every time we switched amps. The more I can avoid moving mics, the faster I can keep the session going. With the rental of several microphones, all of the amps and cabs had their own mics placed in front of them. The guitars were sounding great. I also had two EQ/compressor chains set up, which I named Chain A and Chain B.
As an engineer, two of my tools are equalization (EQ) and compression. When one uses these tools in series, they form what's called a chain. The entire chain in this case would be the following: the source (the player, the guitar used, and the amplifier used), microphone, mic preamplifier (which amplifies the microphone), EQ, compressor, and tape machine.
The treble and bass boost in your car stereo system is a simple EQ. I use much better and much more powerful EQs in the studio. I can cut or boost just about any frequency in the human range of hearing and beyond with EQ. This allows me to shape the sound of the instrument for the benefit of the recording.
A compressor allows me to reduce the dynamic range. You know the DVD of the movie that you watched at home last night? The one you had to turn up in the soft parts and down in the loud parts? That's an example of a wide dynamic range. A compressor reduces that dynamic range so that the soft parts are closer in volume to the loud parts. If you strapped a well-set compressor onto the output of your DVD player, you could put your remote control away. I have engineer friends that do just this.
A compressor, however, can alter the sound quality of the source dramatically. Learning which compressor to use, how much compression, and even when to use compression can take years to master, and the selection of which can take years to master and can still be a somewhat hit-or-miss process.
Lance's job was to document accurately not only the settings of the entire chain, but also the settings of Chain A, while I was recording with Chain B. The reason for this is sometimes we have to go back and fix something later on in the session and for any number of reasons. If I don't have all the settings in the chain documented, we would have to redo the entire track, rather than a small section of the track.
With my guitar chains in place and Lance prepared to document everything, I was ready to go. Unfortunately, something, or shall I say someone, was missing.
The evening went pretty much as the previous evenings had-some dinner, some billiards, some foosball, some resting, and yes, some clandestine diary writing. I took the measure of calling the producer and leaving a message telling him we were 100 percent ready for him. The way I figured it, he might have been waiting for this information before he planned to make an appearance. But much to my chagrin, he didn't call back, he didn't come by. Nothing.
I was half tempted to start making takes, but thought better of it, as I couldn't be sure what the reaction to such a course might be. The band doesn't seem to mind too much at this point. They're happy to be in the studio: They were signed two years ago, and the record company has had them writing the entire time. They were just happy to finally be ready to make an album. Plus, as far as the band was concerned, we have been working the entire time. They are extremely happy with the tones. I'm getting along very well with everyone, even Dumb Ass, regardless of my disdain for him. So that's positive. In fact, all in all, it was a very positive day-mostly because I got back control of my session. I would venture to say that my first two days are a good reminder for all of us, regardless of our professions: We must run our sessions and not let our sessions run us.
With lesson in tow, all I needed now was our esteemed producer, who I have decided will no longer be referred to as "the producer," as I've named him for the purposes of this journal. His name henceforward?
Lance and I arrived at the studio simultaneously today! Of course, I was fifteen minutes late. I might as well have been twenty-four hours late, because Willy didn't show again. We didn't record. I didn't even make an attempt to put the reel on the machine.
I wish I could tell you some great recording stories from today. But I can't.
Essentially, I was paid my book rate to sit around and kibitz all day. Hey, I enjoy kibitzing as much as the next guy, so long as I'm not on a mission. As much as I'm happy to be paid highly for such activities, I chose to record and mix15 albums for a living because that's what I wanted to spend my days doing. If I just wanted to kibitz, I would have chosen kibitzing as my profession.
Sometimes, however, I feel that I'm irrational on this subject. Why should I give a shit if I'm actually recording the album or not? Every day I'm at the studio I'm getting paid. But I don't want to be recording (or in this case not recording) an album for months on end for lack of momentum. Been there, done that. Discographies16 are the name of the game in this business. The deeper and hotter your discography is, the better. The recording biz is basically a small controlled lottery. The more albums I work on in the course of a year, the more lottery tickets I have in my possession. The more lottery tickets, the more chances of a hit. Once you have a hit, you get even more lottery tickets. I just hope I didn't get the piece of paper with the black spot on it, as I have a marked aversion toward being stoned to death.
If I'm locked up spending months on this record because Willy Show never shows, then, overall, that's not a good thing for my career. The more this record costs to make and the longer it takes, the more unlikely it is that it will ever sell more than 10,000 records. For an individual, that number is decent. For a major label, that number is abysmal. The fact that this band was a bidding-war band and that they've been basically on the shelf for two years does not bode well in the first place. So yes, I want to be recording right about now.
I called Willy Show again this morning. He answered his phone, and he apologized again for his no-show. This time he decided to give me a little information teaser. He alluded to having trouble with the contract, and he was confident that it would all be worked out by this afternoon, after which he would be in to take a listen. I told him that I was looking forward to finally meeting him again, and I felt like an awkward idiot in doing so, but I'm over that.
I was considering asking Willy if he wanted me to make some takes, but the fact that he intimated a desire to listen to where we were convinced me to abandon that thought. There are plenty of producers who expect their engineers to do the nuts-and-bolts work as the producer acts more like an executive. I had a producer tell me once that my job was to make him look good. He wasn't kidding. I had to make all the decisions and take complete control of the session. In that case, the producer viewed his job as an overseer of sorts. He would come in and approve or disapprove of what we had done, and then it was my job to either move on or fix what he didn't like.
As with every high-profile producer, there were plenty of stories floating around about Willy Show. The word on the street is the guy is pretty hands-on. His not showing to the session would be, quite obviously, uncharacteristic for a hands-on-style producer. Asking him if he wanted me to make takes seemed counter to getting our relationship (can I call it that yet?) off to a good start. I know that if an engineer I hired asked me that, I'd be immediately distrustful and probably dislike the engineer.
On the other hand, I know several producers that just expect you to start making takes. But those tend to be hands-off, music-supervisor-type producers. They won't even tell you that's what they expect. I knew that Willy was going to eventually show, and we would be working on the album. I also was reasonably confident that he did not want me to start making takes. So that was the tack that I would continue to take.
The band seemed pretty happy by the end of yesterday. Unfortunately, after only a couple of hours of no-show Willy, their happiness swiftly eroded to discontentment. The guitar player called their management on the issue. Personally, if I were the band, I would have called my management two days ago. But that's me, and fortunately for me, I'm not in the band.
The mystery of Willy Show's nonappearance was finally revealed. Apparently, Willy's producer's contract wasn't complete. Furthermore, Willy had made it very clear to everyone involved in this project, who didn't happen to be in the studio waiting for him, that he would not start work on the record until the contract was complete. In my travels, this is nothing short of unusual. In fact, it is not uncommon to finish a producer's agreement in the middle, or even, remarkably, post-completion of the album. But Willy was holding out for some reason.
It's even more unusual, on those rare occasions that the producer is threatening work stoppage (or should that be work non-startage?), for the band to be in the studio waiting until the contract is done. In the rare instances that a producer is insistent on a finished contract before commencement of the album, the session will typically be put off until such contract is completed. At the moment, thousands of dollars are being spent every day with no music being recorded. As near as I can figure it, based on the information relayed to me by the guitar player, Willy Show didn't tell the label that he wasn't going to work without a contract until this past Monday, probably simultaneous to my reeling in pain from a snare shot to the ear.
Producer contracts sometimes take weeks-actually months-to complete. Was the label going to actually fork over all that bread to have us sit here for weeks doing nothing? It wouldn't be the first time something like this happened. I'd be lying if I said I weren't somewhat suspicious of this contract story. I couldn't help but wonder if Willy Show was finishing up another album and not admitting to it? Or was it truly a case of wanting the contract complete? Perhaps the contract issue acted as his "beard," much like a gay man's girlfriend is intended to hide his sexual preferences.
I can't say the band was very happy about this news. They weren't. Neither was I for that matter. Their management told them that the contract was almost complete, and there were only one or two more negotiating points of contention. Apparently, the contract would likely be done by tomorrow, which begged the question, Why am I here right now?
Then there's the issue of my nonrefundable three weeks of work deposit to hold the time. I haven't even gotten that money yet. Fuck that! If they cancel or postpone this session, the label will only want to pay me for the days I've worked. With independent labels (indies) and international labels, I will do no work without a deposit. With major labels (majors), I've never gotten a deposit before I actually started a gig. So I hadn't given it much thought.
In receiving this information, I placed a call to my manager, who acts for me just as a band's manager acts for it. She promised me that she would get me my deposit "pronto." For as much money as labels go throwing around like it's disposable, they sure don't like giving it up.
I spent time with the boys in the band today, and I'm starting to get a good idea of their personalities. As I said earlier, the bass player and the singer I've worked with before. I mixed a record for them when they were in another band that was ultimately dropped. Unfortunately, mixing with people for seven days doesn't provide much time for developing super-tight personal relationships, and I wonder if I, perhaps, had overestimated just how well I knew these guys. Regardless, I wasn't there because I was buds with the band. I was there because they liked how I approached music and engineering. That's nice, but I wish they would have told me about Dumb Ass before I took the gig.
I continue to marvel at the depth of Dumb Ass's stupidity. Today he was running around the studio naked. I didn't even ask why. That would just encourage him. I just pretended like it wasn't happening. Don't feed the retards, I always say. All the band members have a certain distaste for Dumb Ass. He is probably the diversion that actually unifies this band. He's the scapegoat. I think if it weren't for the "pile on Dumb Ass" game that they have so regularly engaged in, this band would be broken up by now. I say that based on my recent determination that the singer and the guitar player really can't stand each other.
The two of them have been writing this album for two years now, and the label has been ruthlessly-with no concern for the band's general mental well-being or confidence-rejecting their demos outright and insisting that they keep writing. The label wanted hits. Remember, they were a bidding-war band. That means that when they were being bid on, the labels all thought their music was great at that time! So why two years of writing? That's like torture. Come to think of it, so is this session so far.
I also discovered that the band has gone through two A&R reps17 (now on their third), both of whom hated the band, mostly because they were a president's signing. Frankly, I wonder if this band might be a pain in the balls for the label. I could see that side of them in today's conversations-many conversations of which I was only half privy to. It seems that there is a serious history of problems in this band's marriage. As if that weren't enough, it also seems that publishing, which deals with how the writer's portion of the money is paid, is a major point of contention among the band members. I've been down this road before.
I'm starting to suspect that the singer is a megalomaniac, but I know the guitar player is completely tweaked. I can't cite anything too specific yet. Actually, I suppose saying that I know the guitar player is tweaked is a bit strong. Rather, I'll call it a super-strong vibe-a premonition based on years of experience dealing with people who can't hold down a job. Let's put it this way: I would vote for the guitar player to be "most likely to mow down a crowd with a machine gun" in the band. I think he's unstable, and I'm almost positive this guy is seriously depressed. I'm not a shrink, although after years of recording bands I might qualify for an honorary degree. All I know is that the dude doesn't seem very happy most of the time. He mopes, and he never seems to get excited about anything. We're going to be making a record for Christ's sake! Every new record is exciting for me. How could it not be for this guy?
Case in point, I'll record what I and the rest of the band think is a pretty killer guitar sound on our test takes, and he'll walk into the control room, listen to his part, and talk about it like his grandmother just died.
"Yeah, I guess that's okay," he'd say, followed by "I hate my life." I'd be lying if I say that didn't depress the fuck out of me. Shit, I put my best foot forward, and the tone I capture makes someone hate his life? That's certainly not good for one's ego. It's not as if he's playing poorly. He's a good guitar player. I just don't know. Perhaps he's depressed that Willy Show hasn't shown. I can only hope. In the meantime, the guitar player shall be dubbed, most appropriately, Paulie Yore.
As always, I wonder if Willy Show will come to the studio tomorrow. More importantly, will I be working on Saturday? Seeing as, to date, I can only reach Willy in the mornings, I'll have to ask him that question tomorrow. And seeing as it's almost 5 a.m., I'd better get some sleep.
As if I won't have plenty of time to rest during the day.
I called Willy Show late this morning. As usual, he asked how I was doing. Why, I'm fantastic, Willy. I love sitting around all day waiting for you to never show, and how are you? This is what I wanted to say to him. For obvious reasons, I chose the more diplomatic route.
"Er, I'm fine," I replied, "but the natives are getting restless."
"I'm sure they are. I'm sorry about that. I'm pretty sure I'll be there this afternoon," he replied.
Days two, three, and four, he basically assures me he's going to be there. Today, he's just pretty sure? Is this some kind of sick joke? Can you place bets in Vegas on whether producers will show to recording sessions? Because I was ready to bet a bundle on today's outcome.
"Great, it'll be great to finally work with you again!" I replied as I reeled silently at my own response. I wanted to kick myself, not only for being a dork for having said this to him on four separate occasions in as many days, but also for using the word great twice in a sentence.
Upon completion of our morning niceties, it was time for me to ask the most important question of the week-The Mother of All Session Questions-the question that's been in the back of my mind ever since this project began and to date I haven't dared to ask and for good reason! I don't know Willy Show from Adam. So at my first opportunity, and without the use of a remotely clever segue, I took a deep breath, and I blurted out my question.
"Will we be working Saturday?"
My sanity and well-being as a person hinged on the answer to this very important question. In my experience, sessions that run six-day weeks go downhill at an alarming rate. One day of rest is just not adequate time for people to recharge their batteries after six twelve-hour-plus days of trying to record an album, something that to this point we have not done at all. I realize that the practice of working six days is commonplace in this business, and many others, as well. But I also know from experience that sessions with weekends off are generally more fun (ahem), less stressful, and, most important of all, more efficient than the dreadful six-day work week.
The phenomenon of losing the forest for the trees in the creation of a production is reduced drastically by taking two days off a week. The people involved in making records five days a week are generally more rested and happier than they would be if working six days. I've been on projects that we have worked both ways. Even the most seasoned engineer and producer are better able to judge takes, sounds-hell, just about everything-when they are well rested.
Sure the first week of a six-day-per-week project isn't usually too bad. But by the middle of the second week, people start to become testy. Starbucks runs become more frequent. Red Bull18 becomes a staple rather than a refreshing mid-afternoon boost. By the third week at the six-day pace, most people have no business even being in the studio. Why do people torture themselves so? I contend, (and this could never be proven for obvious reasons) that if I were to take the same band with the identical set of circumstances in parallel universes, and one band worked five days per week and the other identical band worked six days per week, the band that worked five days would actually finish the album sooner, even having spent less actual time in the studio.
As much as I dreaded the answer to my question about working on Saturdays, I was at the very least relieved to have finished asking it. Now I just needed to hear his answer.
Please let it be five days, please let it be five days, I thought to myself in the 500 milliseconds it took Willy Show to respond. That's half a second to those unfamiliar with metric conversions. To be honest, my greatest fear was that Willy would be a seven-day kind of producer. There's no way I could do that. I'd be dead.
"I don't usually work Saturdays or Sundays . . ." he started.
Yes! I pumped my fist like I had just scored the game-winning, sudden-death, overtime goal in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals. No matter how fucked this project is or becomes, I can handle it if I'm not working Saturdays. That means a good night's rest on both Saturday night and Sunday night! This is huge! My excitement knew no bounds as I jumped for joy at the news.
". . . but I think we need to work this Saturday," he finished.
"Okay," I responded. "That's cool. Whatever you want to do," I replied in an upbeat manner as my heart sank.
He proceeded to tell me that if all goes well, he'd see me today. With that, our phone call was complete.
Although I was elated with the news of a five-day work week, I was mildly bummed at the prospect of working this Saturday. I could only come up with two viable scenarios. Either I was going to sit there all day Saturday and Willy Show was going to live up to his name, or Willy actually would show, and we'd be working long hours for day six. Either way, this sucked. Disheartened, I got myself ready for my day and went to the studio.
I've been setting our start times later and later. Yesterday, I didn't even go to the studio until 2 p.m. I figured if the producer wasn't showing until late afternoon (as you recall he didn't show at all, as if anyone could forget that little fact), why should I go in at 10 a.m.? Regardless of what time I come in, I've been staying close to twelve hours a day. I don't know what the hell I'm doing waiting there for such a long-ass day. But any time I think that I should just split at hour nine or ten, another part of me thinks that if I do go, that will end up being the time that Willy Show finally decides to make his first appearance. So I wait-not wanting to risk missing the big entrance. And who could forget Lance Nephew's way of keeping me longer than I really thought I needed to be there, just by his mere presence as a relation to the producer. Although, I have come up with ways to manipulate Lance's sense of time, particularly as it relates to the beginning of the day.
With a planned 2 p.m. start, I told Lance that our start time for today was 1 p.m., and I told Dumb Ass our start time was 3 p.m. That worked great! According to Magnolia, Lance arrived at 1:30 p.m., half an hour early. Dumb Ass, at 2:30 p.m., was half an hour late, although he thought he was half an hour early, but still asked if he was late. Perfect! This would be my new method of making schedules work. It should be good for a while, until Lance figures out that he's always half an hour early or that I'm always half an hour late, at which point he'll likely start to come half an hour late to the start time I call for. Confused yet? Read it three times fast. But when he does that, I'll switch it up on him, and then he'll be really late again. He'll never know whether I'm giving him the real time or the fake time in order to get him there early. What can I say? When you're not recording for twelve hours a day, you have time to come up with these sorts of schemes.
The singer, the bass player, and I all arrived around 2 p.m. They told me that we'd definitely be recording either today, tomorrow, or Monday. Apparently, they had just gotten out of meetings with their management and attorney trying to wrap up the producer's agreement with Willy. There was only one sticking point, and that was being sorted out today. I surmised from my conversation that the band's been dealing with this all week; it's just that Willy kept saying he was going to come in, even though the contract wasn't done. It has become quite obvious that this was not, in fact, the case.
In anticipation of actually recording, Dumb Ass was asking me today about Alsihad. Actually, he asks me every day about Alsihad. He's scared to death of having himself edited. You'll recall that Alsihad is my fabricated name for a very common brand of recording software and hardware that uses a computer for editing takes. It is a very intricate program, and it requires a trained expert to operate it, which I call an Alsihah. Alsihah is actually the name of a Shriners' Lodge in Georgia, and Alsihad is a derivative of that word. There's no actual reason for my using that word, other than I liked the ring of it, and it was emblazoned on my friend Fletcher's fez.
Regardless, it seems that Dumb Ass doesn't want to have his drums edited, as he thinks it destroys the feel of the drumming. I couldn't help but think to myself that the feel of an unnatural galloping motion-much like the one caused from slowing down the beginning of the measure and then speeding up the end of the measure-is a feel best left for destruction. As I've intimated, I'm not a big fan of Alsihad myself, but I wasn't quite sure how his drum takes were going to be kept without some serious editing.
I pointed out to Dumb Ass that currently, Alsihad was nowhere in sight. But that fact didn't seem to calm him.
"Do you think Willy will use Alsihad on my drums?" Dumb Ass asked.
"I have no idea," I replied.
"Is Willy big on using Alsihad?" Dumb Ass asked a few moments later.
"Uh, I've never worked with the guy, so that would be pure speculation on my part," I replied.
We went around and around this subject. It was ridiculous. He kept coming up with different ways of asking me the same fucking question that I had no way of answering. I tried telling him not to think about it, but that was useless. So I told him that he needed to play the takes like they were performances, and if he laid down a good performance, he wouldn't need to be edited. That too was ineffective.
At this point, I was doing anything I could to get away from Dumb Ass. I even went into the lounge to play video games with Paulie Yore. That was about as much fun as visiting the urologist for a prostate massage session, but it was still better than trying to explain for the zillionth time to Dumb Ass that I DON'T KNOW THE FUCKING PRODUCER, hence, I couldn't predict what Willy Show would want to do about his drum takes.
At one point, I decided to take a moment to talk to Yore about Dumb Ass's insecurities. I couldn't figure out why the hell he would be so worried about being edited. These days it seems that most drummers want to be put into Alsihad.
"I think Cotton is worried about being edited in Alsihad." I explained to Yore.
"Fuck him. Cotton's lucky to even be in this band, so he should just shut the fuck up and do what he's told," Yore stated without hesitation. Nice.
I sat there for a while in silent and stunned disbelief as I attempted to hurl ninety-nine-mile-per-hour Randy Johnson fastballs past Barry Bonds in a virtual baseball game. I knew the band liked to razz Dumb Ass, but this was a whole new level of disdain that I was unaware of. Shit, do any of these guys like each other? I didn't even know how to react. I suddenly realized that Dumb Ass has an inferiority complex, and it's because of the band. Determining to what degree their dismantling of his confidence was degrading his performance was impossible to tell. That's like trying to figure out whether the chicken or the egg came first. Was he this bad before the band started laying into him, or was he halfway decent, and the band was bringing him down several notches with this attitude?
As I marveled at Barry Bonds' home run number 126 on the season flying out of the park off the most dominant pitcher in baseball, it struck me that Dumb Ass might also be nervous. This was his first record, whereas the others, including Yore, have all made records before. It was clear that I was going to have to talk to Dumb Ass and try to build him up. Acting upon this revelation would have to wait though. I had a call.
It was my manager. She had news. It was five in the afternoon, and she had just gotten off the phone with the band's management. I was free to go home for the day!
Willy would be coming in at 11 a.m. on Monday morning to start work on the album. My manager said that everything was cool, the contract was complete, and Willy was ready to start work after the weekend. At first I was skeptical, but my manager offered irrefutable proof. My deposit was being couriered to my house as we spoke.
Yes! I thought to myself.
Labels don't give you a three-week deposit when there is some question as to the status of making the album. That is the reason that I had not gotten it before today. Willy is going to show on Monday, and we are finally going to start making this album. I could feel it. I sent the band and Lance home for the weekend, and I sent myself home too. My week of purgatory was over. No longer would I have to push the same large boulder up the same hill over and over again.
Of course, being that I was going home in Friday rush hour in L.A., it took me close to two hours to drive what takes me approximately thirty-five minutes late at night. But that just seems to be par for this course.
Now doesn't it?
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