Recording - Bad Experiences

Some "interesting" studio experiences...

Like anyone who does commercial studio work for others, I've had some very pleasant and professional experiences. In most of these cases, my concern was simply to please the producer, do a job that I wasn't ashamed of, and get paid. That's generally considered appropriate, when you're a "sideman". When it comes to creative work, my opinions are quite different. Then, even if I'm "just the drummer", and not the leader, I take a much more personal interest. Here are some examples where I was NOT pleased.

The "studio-tuned" drum set...

In the late 1970's, I was working with a good, but generic show/dance band, on the road full-time. The difference, for me, was that there were some very serious and talented people in the band, and the potential to record some cool original tunes. (in the "light FM" sort of genre... funky, but generally commercial) We wrote and arranged some tunes, rehearsed them, and got ready to record a demo, which was to be four original tunes.

The band's manager, who I had known for several years and respected, took me aside and said basically... "Mike, I know you think the drums ought to be done a certain way, but this is being produced by "so and so", (name not important) and he's done "this and that" (list of "name" projects) so please just consider taking his advice, even if it seems wrong at the time, He knows recording, and it will all work out fine at the end." I conceded. After all, I wasn't a recording expert, wasn't paying for the project, and I was trying to be "mature and supportive".

When we got to the studio in Orlando, Florida, I went to the drums, which were in an isolation booth, sat down, and lightly played the drums, to get a feel for the sound. They were good quality (Gretch) drums, in a typical setup, (snare, bass, two toms on the bass drum, floor tom, and a few cymbals) but with heavy Kevlar drum heads. They had NO sound... just a papery sort of flat attack. So, I pulled out a drum key and started to adjust the drums. The engineer, who happened to have his headphones on, said "You're not changing the drums, are you? They're tuned to the studio." This got my attention, and I asked him what he meant by "tuned to the studio", to which he responded that they were "tuned to a C sharp chord".

At that time, I had been playing drums for about 15 years, and this just didn't sound right to me. I always carried a chromatic pitch pipe in my stick bag, so I pulled it out, and began tapping on the drums to see how this "C sharp chord" was applied to the drums. Well, there was nothing even close. The pitches of the drums had NOTHING to do with a "C sharp chord" or any other "chord". They were simply tensioned to typical minor 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths. When I pointed that out to the engineer, he became irritated, and assured me that they were "tuned to the studio", that I should trust him, and (I hate even saying these words) "it would all work out in the mix". Remembering the manager's advice, I chose to cease fighting, and go on with the recording.

Next, the producer insisted on changing some of the drum parts at the last minute, despite our opinions, and our weeks of rehearsing. He also insisted on me playing them in such a way that was difficult, on the studio drum set. So, the tunes felt different, and uncomfortable to all of us. During the entire recording process, over 3 days, I always thought that both live, and on playback, the drums sounded like cardboard, the band felt uncomfortable, and the whole thing sounded "distant", due to the isolation methods. But I was "mature" about it, and kept my mouth shut.

Several weeks after that, we had the recording. Guess what? The "studio-tuned" drums sounded like cardboard, the band sounded uncomfortable, and the mix had an odd "distant" sound, just like we thought when we were doing it. The "big time" producer did NOT fix everything in the mix, and the recording disappointed everybody, including the public.

The "Acoustically-Perfect" Studio...

Years later, I was in another commercial act, and we were approached by "record people" several times, based on our live sound. Ultimately, we ended up in a studio, with the project being paid for as a result of our winning a month-long band competition in Atlanta. The band had been together and worked hard for about 2 years, and this project excited us, because we were going to be able to record the whole band "live", in a big room, without isolation booths. Cool!

This studio was advertised at the time to be "acoustically perfect", meaning that from some engineer's point of view, there were no "bad frequencies" or other anomalies associated with the room we'd record in, and therefore, we would accurately capture our "real" sound. What struck me about my arrival there was that the engineer immediately came out to where I was setting up the drums, and started telling me how I should tune them, that I should remove my front bass drum head, and so on. This is just a couple of years after I had obtained my (1938) Slingerland "Radio King" drums. Everyone who had heard them thought the sound was great, but this engineer who had never heard the band, was telling what to do with them. I was in a bad mood before I even opened half of the drum cases. This engineer was simply wrong, both acoustically, and morally. Apparently, it never crossed his mind to ask me (or "us") what we wanted to sound like. The other players didn't like their sound in this "acoustically-perfect" room, either.

So... The rest of the band set up, and we ran through a couple of tunes, to set some preliminary levels. Right away, the engineer came out of the booth, and said, basically, "We have to start all over". He told us all that we should "forget about the dynamics", because he can "fix that in the mix", and to just "play everything loud", so he could have constant levels at his board. When we objected, telling him that wanted our dynamics, and the variation in tone we get from our instruments by playing at different volume levels, he didn't want to hear it. He insisted that he had a "system that has worked for everybody", and that we should trust him. We weren't so eager to do that, and actually stopped the session and had a meeting. In the end, we decided that since this recording time was free, from our point of view, we would (against our judgement) try this guy's approach, and get on with it.

As in my first story, we didn't like it while we were doing it. We didn't like the feel of playing everything loud, we didn't think the mix was right, and we didn't feel "normal" or "comfortable". There were times when we had to stop, and go outside to vent to each other, but we continued on, hoping for the best from this "acoustically-perfect" studio, and this "pro" engineer.

No surprises at the end... When we got the recording, the sound quality sucked, the mix was wrong for us, the band sounded like a bunch of people who never heard of dynamics, and again, the recording was a failure, from our point of view. Instead of saying we had "won the studio time", a better description would be that we "won the opportunity to let some engineer who never heard us do whatever he wanted, with us having no control whatsoever".

If you're paying, the engineer is an EMPLOYEE.

I recall a conversation I had with an engineer once, when I arrived for a recording date. The guy wanted me to completely muffle the drums. So I asked him why. He said he needed a clean "attack" sound, and would "add back" a good tone, and some resonance, via some special effects, later. I then took a stick, hit my floor tom, and said, "a sound like this?". When he said "Yes", I then had to ask, "Why don't you just put a microphone on this drum, and leave it at that?" It's not rocket science... But I sometimes think engineers prefer it to be. Maybe they're used to working with drummers that have poor drum sounds, or maybe they just enjoy using their equipment, whether it's called for or not. Who knows?

If your primary motivation for being in the music business is to make money, then of course, do studio work from a "please the producer" point of view, collect your check, and go home. (But don't complain about the recording) I just can't do that though, when it comes to my own bands. So, after a few of these experiences, I decided I would never do it again, and would instead, use my own judgement, right or wrong. Hey, if you're not happy with your recordings, what's the point? I'm not trying to get a commercial deal, but rather, am trying to please myself artistically. If people like it, great! If not, I still have my opinions, and will stick to them. Be careful... I do this knowing that it's a poor financial decision, and you must decide these things for yourself.

- Mike James

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