I’m re-watching the TV series/rockumentary Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways on Amazon. If you haven’t checked it out, you should. Each song on the album is based on a different city in the US, and they recorded each song in each of those cities. Each episode of the show is about that particular town, and the history of music there. Super inspiring stuff.
On Episode 5 (the Los Angeles episode), the band heads out to a studio located outside of LA in the desert. It’s called Rancho de la Luna studio. It’s basically just a small house with a bunch of studio equipment in it, but the vibe is incredible.
Because of the lack of space (much like a typical home studio), musicians are forced to play in close quarters, and something magical happens.
Famous producer Daniel Lanois was instrumental in setting up the studio. In the episode, he talks about recording Emmylou Harris’s album Wrecking Ball.
Here he’s talking about recording with Emmy, himself, Steve Earl, and Larry Mullin from U2:
We just set up in this tight little circle. And what happens when you set up in a tight circle is you listen, because you have to balance yourself. We have that in us as musicians. We are capable of self-balancing, and it doesn’t have to be left up to someone else to do it after the fact.
So, is that a jab against us audio folks? Are we unnecessary? Nah, not at all.
But for me it’s a really good reminder of what we’re doing when we step into our studios. Music is meant to be shared.
Just yesterday I was recording a few acoustic guitar parts for a song I’m producing, and while I enjoyed myself, I felt a little lonely. While I knew I would share the tracks with the artist and get feedback later, there was something a little empty about working completely alone.
We have the technology to record a full band album without ever actually interacting in-person with another human. While you can make great music this way, there’s a big potential to go too far. A few decades ago, to record an album you needed all the musicians to be in a room, playing the song together. We’ve come a long way.
Yeah, it’s nice to not have to deal with the bleed of the lead vocal getting picked up by the guitar mic, and yes it’s nice that each musician can record his/her part on his/her time in his/her own studio. It’s all great. But when I hear Daniel Lanois talk about people sitting in a tight circle making music, it stirs something in me. Something musical.
Our job as producers and engineers isn’t to capture the cleanest, best-sounding signal as possible. Our job is to capture the magic that happens when musicians play their instruments. It can be tempting to tell the guitar player, “Let’s record the verses first, then you can change your tone for the choruses, and we can record that.” Nothing wrong with that, per se, but how about letting the guitarist play the entire song like he would at a concert? Maybe it won’t be as clean, but putting him in a position to “self-balance” could pay off with a much more “real” performance.
Keep that in mind next time you set up a microphone or fire up a mix. Keep the music first. Everything you do must first serve the song.
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