As a followup to the previous post, let me try to break down what I actually do hear when I playback something we've recorded-
My guess is that when Jil listens back, as the drummer she hears the particulars of the drum performance much differently than I do. But as far as my ears go, most of what I hear is- Are these drums good enough? If 'No', then let's redo them, or else I can try to fix it in the mix. If 'Yes', then let's move on to other stuff before Jil gets grumpy.
With my rather primitive recording setup, everything gets mixed down to just a single (stereo) track right as its recorded, so there isn't a whole lot I can adjust after the fact, other than overall volume and EQ. But basically, if I can hear a pretty good balance between the kick and the snare, and maybe a little stereo effect on the toms and cymbals, and it all sounds good enough together, then I am happy.
But there is obviously lots of room for growth for us here. For instance, to address the phasing issue he could hear in our drum track, my friend Jay suggested I try recording the drums using only one microphone. And with so many different approaches to recording drums, it is certainly worth my time to listen harder and learn more, and continue to experiment.
I'll track the guitar right after the drums, and aside from the overall mix, the guitar is where most of my listening focus seems to go. So there are a bunch more considerations beyond "good enough? yes/no." Does the rhythm match the drums? How is the tone? Does it sound full enough? Should it be panned left/right/center? Should it be layered or doubled on the opposite stereo channel? Is there enough additional "kick" when I switch on the distortion? A lot of stuff that even I probably don't hear unless I'm listening through headphones.
Back to the simple question of "Good enough? Yes/No." Either I can stand my vocals or I can't. Usually I can't even make this judgment call until I apply a bit of reverb to the vocal track, because I simply can't tolerate the sound of my dry vocals. Aside from this though, I find my approach here it more or less to not overthink it, and even if I tried to do multiple takes, the first take is often the one I end up liking the best and using. Then maybe I'll add some some doubling and embellishments there and there. And harmonies? Ahahaha yeah right.
Typically I guess bands track the bass with (or immediately following) the drums. Instead, I save tend to it for later, and first ask "does the recording really need bass?" The honest answer in most cases is probably "Yes," but despite this my tendency has been to leave it out anyway. Or at the very least I'll maybe adjust the EQ on the guitar part to fill in the low end a little more. Overall, in not doing a whole lot with the bass I'm making a conscious effort to, for better or worse, push the sound in a slightly different and unconventional direction. And if I change my mind (which I totally think I might), I can always add it back in later.
Probably 90% of my time and focus on the recording is spent here. Do the drum levels sound balanced with the guitars and vocals? Did the things I tried to tweak and fix sound smooth? Does anything just stick out like a sore thumb? Those guitar and vocal layers that no one else will probably ever hear or notice are painstakingly adjusted until I feel they add rather than detract. Unfortunately what sounds fine in my headphones often does not sound great out of my PC speakers, and what sounds OK there can still sound shitty to me when I play it back in my car. But if it sounds good in my car, I find that it seems to sound good enough everywhere else too.
Overall, I want to try to be more aware of my blind (deaf?) spots- to remember that I can't actually hear what everyone else hears in the music we make and record, and that not everyone hears what I hear. But it's also cool to remember that my favorite musicians are likewise too intimate with their own creation to ever hear it the same way I do. And that different aspects and layers will emerge to different people, or even to the same person listening again later. Just knowing that there is so much more to a song than I can ever hear and experience at once- of course it's cliche, but it's remarkable too. Remarkable enough to ensure that music (and art) is still something that we humans continue to value generation after generation.
So maybe it's frustrating that not everyone shares my same headspace and biases and excitement about these little mundane things in our songs. It even makes me wonder if I'd give a second listen if the same recording were someone else's creation, not mine. And I imagine this is the value of having experienced people like engineers and producers involved in the recording process- to provide some knowledge and objectivity to balance out the self-centered whims and biases of the artists they are recording with. One day...
Now sitting here listening back to Blame the dog again, on my computer speakers, I think maybe I can hear what my friend was talking about with the phase cancellation in the drums. Maybe I'm learning!
A musically talented friend of mine, one with a lot of recording experience, was giving me some much-appreciated feedback on a recent recording of one of our songs (this one, called "Blame the Dog"). He mentioned that it sounded like there was some phase cancellation in the drum mix, something that can happen as a result of using several mics to record the drums, which we certainly did... Jil and I recorded those drums ourselves with no adult supervision in our non-soundproofed basement on my laptop using a bunch of shitty mics I collected over the years. (For example, the snare and high-hat is mic'd using literally a $10 computer microphone from the early '00s). And although I know what he's talking about in a technical sense, I can't say that I can actually hear it at all (or maybe just barely?), even though I'm sure he's right and it's probably there.
So it's pretty clear that when I listen back to my own stuff, I must hear something possibly quite different than someone else with more recording experience. My ear forgives things that might stick out to that person and require immediate fixing. And what might sound to me like a decent approximation of an early Bikini Kill or My Bloody Valentine recording, probably sounds nothing like that to someone else who is familiar with those records.
And even a casual listener with zero recording experience will certainly hear my song very differently than I do. I am certain of this, as a casual listener of tons of other music. The little details that took so long to get just right, the others that just popped up accidentally and would be near impossible to duplicate-I hear and care about those things in a way that no casual listener would. But on top of all this, I hear the potential of the song itself- its fundamental reason for existing according to my gut. And I doubt many others (maybe Jil and Alex?) would be able to hear or infer this core potential based on any half-assed basement recording. That combined with my firsthand knowledge of the recording limitations that we live with down in the basement undoubtedly makes me extra impressed with some things that I hear in the song, and extra forgiving of others.
There's actually quite a bit more I want to say on this, but since it already looks like I'm running on and on, I'll make that a separate follow-up post.
Today I was listening to "The Wilderness," just released by Explosions in the Sky, and it had me kind of daydreaming about music and the creative process, and all these sorts of feelings and notions and half-formed thoughts that tend to float through my head whenever I'm hearing brand new music from a familiar artist.
...The excitement and anticipation of not knowing exactly what is going to come next in the song, a certainty that whatever it is, I'll like it.. combined with the risk of disappointment that maybe I won't. That weird space where the familiar and the unfamiliar meet and interact. And that whole behind-the-scenes process of trying to contextualize what I'm hearing in real time.
Am I hearing 4 guys collectively pushing their creative limits, or am I hearing 4 guys at the top of their creative game just naturally doing what they do best? Does the question even matter, or make sense? OK, I'll admit it probably doesn't.
Still, while listening my mind drifts into the rehearsal space with these guys- or wherever they were for whatever portion of the past 5 years they spent writing and crafting this new music. What was the overarching mood there? Excitement, certainly. But did something akin to worry about how to follow up 2011's amazing Take Care, Take Care, Take Care enter their minds at all? And did this accumulation of creative decisions hitting my ears arise out of something like a tense struggle, or more of a relaxed natural flow?
Is one mode generally better for the creative process than the other? I don't think so. Or, at least maybe it depends.
I'd argue that, by definition, one must be outside of their creative comfort zone to actually push any boundaries. And so that entails a certain risk of failure- that maybe what you create won't be any good to anyone, or that it will please you but be rejected by your audience. Although if you don't occasionally fail, can it be said you're just playing it safe and not pushing hard enough?
Operating in the midst of all this I think is an implicit contract between artist and audience. For example, when I hit play on the new Explosions in the Sky record, I know that I will not hear a polka breakdown or someone singing about hooking up at the club, or any number of other perfectly fine things. As groundbreaking as any of that those could be in defying my expectations and challenging me as a listener, this would be a violation of The Deal- the only rules that maybe matter: We Like What You Do / Don't Fuck It Up. I get the sense that critics appreciate it most when artists flirt this line without crossing it, and they hail the result as pushing new boundaries.
And certainly the tension and pressure associated with the risk of failure- of going too far, or falling short- must get baked into the music somehow, and even make the final product better. But must creative growth be challenging and risky for it to actually mean something important, or can it just as well come naturally and easily?
I guess if my rambling post has any point, it is just that- I'm sure as an artist you must always feel some sense of urgency to improve upon and surpass what you've done in the past. But I'd wager that sometimes meeting this standard comes with relative ease, just because you've grown as an artist. Other times, maybe you just don't see any possible way to top the last thing- it was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, so you choose to follow up with Adore. You take your struggle in a new direction instead and flip the script and start exploring something else. And by its very nature, this unfamiliar territory presents challenges and risks, and new artistic struggles.
Whatever the actual case with this particular record, in my imagination I hear nothing like struggle when I listen to The Wilderness. Instead I see these guys just doing what comes perfectly natural to them- exploring their surroundings and reporting back to us with the music from this incredible otherworldly place.
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