There’s an analogy that used to be routinely employed when discussing music production philosophy – to painting and photography. Some producers, said this analogy, were like portrait painters, more interested in getting to the emotional truth of the subject than in presenting the most detailed and realistic possible depiction of them. Some painters (Lucian Freud, say), while still doing work that is clearly representational, move a long way into the realm of stylisation or expressionism, or even abstraction.
In music, some producers – goes the analogy – aren’t interested in documenting a real-time performance of a song but instead creating a sonic artefact of which a band’s original live performance (if there was one) is just a basic line drawing. Layers of overdubs can be employed, and any number of signal processors (equalisers, delays, echoes, reverbs, compressors, limiters, modulators, pitch correctors). Acoustic sounds can be, and are, routinely remade in the service of the overall work.
Other producers, goes the analogy, work more like photographers. The camera doesn’t lie; neither does the microphone. These producer-engineers set up microphones in a room and have the band play in front of them. And it’s true that early in the history of sound recording, this was the only way to make a record: musicians would be arrayed around a recording horn and, as sound waves travelled down the horn and moved a stylus, inscribing an ‘analogue’ of the sound wave into a wax disc, every record was a document of a single performance.
Since the advent of multitrack recording, this production philosophy has become less and less widespread, to the point of scarcely existing today. Even engineers famed for the liveness of their sound would probably admit that they create effects (such as a drum kit presented with a wide stereo field) that the listener couldn’t experience if they were in the room with a band during a performance.
But the analogy starts to break down here. It’s true that long after the recording engineer had 24 or 48 tracks to play with (and a potentially even greater number if bouncing tracks together), the photographer still only had one camera and a very limited palette of after-the-fact effects. But this is a long way from the reality today. Multi-camera rigs are, if not common, certainly far from unheard-of, and the same information theory that underpins the science of digital recording and mixing also allows for huge levels of post-production tweaking of photos.
It’s as well to assume when you see a photograph in a magazine today that fair amount of work has gone into editing and processing it after it was taken. Similarly, the vast majority of recordings you hear will have been layered from the ground up, likely with no live performance to use as a foundation. Many recordings don’t dissemble their artifice so much as advertise it boldly.
Some people, occasionally, make a record the old-fashioned way. Yo Zushi, for example. Over the last few years I’ve been working on and off with Yo on his songs, recording 20 or so them in that time. Recently, he picked a bunch of them to finish off and make into an album, and the new record will be coming out in July. On Thursday last, I played with him at his single-launch gig. The song in question, Bye Bye Blackbird, was a late addition to the album. It comes from a session we did last autumn at One Cat in South London, with the excellent Jon Clayton engineering. Yo was enamoured of a couple of songs we’d recorded where his basic guitar track had been recorded live while I or Dave Brown (Lazarus & the Plane Crash) played drums. He wanted to do more like this, but take it further, go properly old-school in approach.
We put together a band (Kit Joliffe on drums, James McKean on guitar, me on bass) and went to One Cat to record live, all together, in the room. This was very different from most sessions: recording drums in the same room as acoustic guitar is a scary process, because drums get everywhere. If you solo the guitar tracks, Kit’s performance is clear as a bell.
When it came time to mix, the possibilities open to me for independent processing of channels was limited by the amount of bleed. Changing the guitar sound would change the drum sound and vice versa. The record, so to speak, mixed itself. Put the faders in a line, 90% of the mix is done. There are very few ways to change the balances without making the overall result sound worse. The vocals and lead guitar were overdubbed, I grant you, but the vocals were recorded as performances (the backing vox by James and Hana Zushi were done together) and the number of edits on the vocals is super-minimal by modern standards. There are no edits on the instruments. Not one.
One song from the session (Green Briar Shore, also on the album) even includes live vocals, recorded in the same room, at the same time, as the drums, acoustic guitars and bass.
Bye Bye Blackbird is not a photograph. But it’s just about as close as anyone ever gets these days.
Yes, this has been an 850-word plug.
Bye Bye Blackbird cover by Zoe Taylor
At One Cat: l-r James McKean, me, Jon Clayton (seated, obscured), Yo Zushi, Kit Joliffe. Photo by Hana Zushi