Column: [Can't Make A Living] – An Ode to Minimalism Pt. 2
I’ve been really busy this last week with CMW and tour dates – so my apologies for my tardiness with the column. Now, onto PART 2 of my Ode to Minimalism …
To recap, the goal of the minimalist aesthetic of making records is to document a band or ensemble playing live, together in a space. It is an attitude in recording that strides towards documenting an actual performance as opposed to creating a performance out of “thin air”, as many recordings are made today. Having a minimalist aesthetic does not preclude overdubbing, the use of artificial effects, creative mic’ing techniques, etc. but it does affect how those things are utilized within the context of making a record (more on that next week).
The point (or modus operandi) of a minimalist recording project is to have as many members of a band play together as much as possible, thus allowing them to react and “play off” each other and to “play into” the sonic environment while the bulk of the music is being captured – this is key.
In order to achieve the minimalist aesthetic you need three vital components: separation, an objective ear and preparation. As you will see, these three components are very much linked together.
There are two types of separation: physical and mental. Both will work; however, as you will see, one makes the task at hand much easier while one requires a lot of patience on the part of both the artist and the recordists involved.
Physical separation is basically the ability for the recordists to monitor what the band is doing, though the recording equipment and medium in real time. In a typical studio, this is achieved through the use of two spaces: a live room and a control room. Both rooms are acoustically separated from each other so that the results of the acoustic environment, the mic’ing techniques, use of effects, and the band’s performance can be heard, analyzed, and corrected almost instantly.
Physical separation is therefore by far the most effective and convenient form of separation.
When you don’t have the luxury of physical separation the recordists must create mental or temporal separation. This takes time. The recordists must be allowed to record several trial performances. You record a performance, you stop, you walk out of the space you are using, you allow some time to clear your head (ten or more minutes at least) you go back to the space and listen to what you recorded, you make adjustments to the equipment (or tell the band to play differently or change the band’s monitoring to facilitate a change in performance) and then you record again, repeating the process until you nearly achieve your sonic objective — only then do you start doing “real takes”.
This method is painstaking and requires a lot of patience on the part of both the recordists and the artists.
The Object Ear(s):
All the while, I’ve been using the term recordists. Note the plurality. That is because we require not one but two pairs of outside and objective ears to achieve our desired aesthetic: namely the producer and the engineer.
The producer and engineer work in tandem but play very different roles. They are, in ideal circumstances, two separate persons. When you have one person playing the role of both the producer and the engineer you either have a very rare and talented person in your midst or you are making a major compromise (this is also true if a member of the band is doing one or both of these roles).
In the indie rock scene today, the role of Producer and Engineer are combined so often that the roles have become convoluted and confused – so I want to set the record straight right now (at least my opinion about it).
The engineer’s job is to:
a) Set up the recording gear, plug everything in, make sure everything is operating, and to
b) Constantly listen throughout the session for technical glitches or problems related to the acoustic environment or the gear itself and to make them known and to correct them.
This is an involving and very creative full-time job. Usually, the engineer must translate (into practical terms) the sonic vision of the producer. Depending on the technical know-how of the producer, requests can range from “please help make it sound more orange” to “please increase the compression on the bass drum by 3 db.”
The producer is the person the artist/band has entrusted their project to. It is the producer’s job to to see a project through from start (pre-production) to finish (mastering). This involves being around the whole time – keeping his/her eye on the clock and the money so the artist doesn’t have to. Basically, their ass is on the line because they have to make sure the project comes out sounding awesome and gets finished all within a set budget. Meanwhile, the producer may have a vision of the end result that is in line with what the artist wants.
Like a film director, a producer is most concerned with:
a) Coaxing the best possible performance from the artist (usually by creating the right creative environment) and
b) Making sure it sounds cool. “Cool,” might mean “making it sound like it could be played on the radio” or “making it sound really, really orange” – it all depends.
The engineer and producer work together taking care of all the details and making the judgement calls so that the band/artist can solely concentrate on playing their instruments really, really well (or orangey). I know from personal experience that playing some or all of these roles can be very, very difficult and can put a project in jeopardy.
Last but not least in our list of requirements is preparation. In order to “make it happen” the band must be ready to be captured and revealed on tape (or hard drive). For most players/artist/bands this means being very rehearsed. Usually, the producer will work with a band long before they ever choose a studio to set foot into. It’s the producer’s call to decide if/when a band is ready to record.
What’s my personal acid test? Guitar-wise, if I know a song well enough that I rarely make mistakes and I start adding little things, just for the fun of adding some flourish, then I know I’m ready to record. I call this “stretching out”. This only happens when I’m so comfortable with a piece that I don’t have to consciously think about what I’m doing – it becomes second nature; in fact, if I do think about what I’m playing, I’m more likely to mess up.
A good producer should get a feel for when an artist or band is at this stage. Sometimes, a producer might want to capture a song to tape while it still sounds tentative or “fresh” – that’s because he/she feels the song sounds better that way, a little loose – there are no absolutes in music.
Next week I conclude this little tirade and recall some of my own memories of making minimalist recordings.