Recording - Trauma

Recording your music live - "The Torture Chamber"

Most of us agree that we should try to be better every time we play. So the development of quality and consistency should at the top of our list of things to work on. Another huge issue is our own judgement of how we sound, and how we affect the music. No one else knows those things as well as we do (although your own opinion will often differ from others) So, the only real way to put ourselves to the test is to record what we do and judge it as objectively as possible. Audio is obviously the main thing we're after, but good video can be very helpful too... Let's say you have an "off " moment. Was it because something fell over on stage and surprised you, or were you just daydreaming? You might not know, with audio alone, but the video will sometimes show this kind of information, including how you're using your body, good and bad technical habits, etc..

If everyone likes what they hear, great! Typically though, everyone in the band who hears the recording will hear things they could do better. That's the idea! Each person may also have different thoughts about what's wrong, and who is at fault. Recordings are objective, but people's ears and opinions are not. We're not all "calibrated" the same. Some will like it, and some will not.

There have been times when I've been upset by something, and played poorly, as a result of reacting to it. We might have a "tantrum", and play too much, or we might have a feeling of "futility", or depression and play in an uninspired way. We're all human, and we all have bad moments, but it's very important to try and keep it from affecting our playing. Any time I've played badly, I always felt guilty about it later. I would then ask myself, "Would (insert your favorite drummer's name here here) have done that?", or "How did my attitude show itself in the music, from an audience (or recording) point of view?" So... I developed the habit early in my life of constantly recording the bands I played with, and have continued to do that for most of my life. It's been as simple as a cheap cassette recorder on stage, or as complex as a multi-track digital recording, with the combination of direct and microphone inputs from each player. These articles are a bit of what I've learned about the way it can affect our thinking. Like many things in life, it's both "great" and "terrible".

Record often, and sequentially.

A single recording of any band is not enough...
Dont' get too excited about your first recordings, and set yourself up for disappointment. The performance may have not been your best, or the recording itself may be flawed, out of balance, or whatever. Record at least several performances in a row, and listen to all of it. As you find things you want to change, both in your recording methods and in the music, be sure that you're not overreacting to a one-time event. We should be concerned with quality, consistency, and getting better... "the big picture".

With a few good live recordings in hand, you can do several things that are positive...
The first obvious thing that happens is that everyone (presumably) knows they're being recorded, and so even if no one but you ever hears the results, it instantly puts a different psychology on the band. With experience, this ceases to be "threatening", but when you first start, you'll see everyone's posture change. Then, when it comes to actually discussing musical issues, it's more objective. It's not one person having a possibly-wrong opinion, and insulting another, but it's simply a set of (more) objective facts.

What are you recording?

Is it a simple "work" recording, to find and fix errors, or are you hoping to produce a commercial product for sale? Obviously, you'll listen to these from different points of view. My opinion is that you may as well set up your recording for the best possible results, for those "magic" moments that sometimes happen live. You'd hate to miss a good one, right?

With a band of like-minded individuals, the results are usually pleasant, when you play the recording back for the band. Let's say you're a group of young, inexperienced musicians, making your first recordings. In that case, you might rush the tempo a little, for example. Still, as long as you all do it together, it will generally "feel" good. (Experienced pros do it too... The pop song "September", by Earth, Wind and Fire is a good example of how rushing can sound good.) With a group of experienced pros, you become more critical of the details, and generally have humility about whatever is wrong, knowing you can fix it. In either case, the most important thing I've found, to really analyze the "feel", is that hearing all the frequencies your band generates is important.

Here's an example:

Suppose you record with a mid-range camcorder. You'll get average video and audio. If you listen to it through small speakers, such as those on a desktop computer, or open-air headphones of the "sport" variety, you'll probably be disappointed. Good microphones make a huge difference! So, even if you use the same recorder, use good microphones. Later, if you listen to these recordings either through some very good headphones, or loudly, through some serious speakers, (maybe even your own band's PA) it will be a LOT better, because you'll notice that, especially in the bass range, the frequencies you didn't hear before help the music "groove" better. So, make the best live recording you can, but pay special attention on playback, to make sure you hear the full frequency range.

"The Horror"...and a rhythmic "feel" problem solved!

The reason I started recording live again, aside from the general idea of hearing what I was doing, was to zero in on some rhythmic issues that I felt were "clunky", in one of the bands I was playing with. Specifically, the single-microphone recordings mystified me, because they had a feel as though we were dragging, even when the tempo was technically steady. Even when I made a conscious effort to "push" a little, the feel was the same. I'm a drummer who's been playing since 1964, and so this was heartbreaking. I considered selling my drums and going into hamburger sales. Most people will agree that if the drummer is rushing just a tiny amount, it's ok. But if the drummer sounds like he's dragging, it will make you blow your brains out.

If you're the drummer, don't instantly blame yourself for everything.
When I mentioned to a guitarist friend of mine (outside the band) that I had been recording everything for a couple of months, he said, "Ahh... You're in the torture chamber". The point being... When you listen, be sure you can hear ALL of the instruments, not just the drums. Everyone in the band has a responsibility to make the "feel" good. Listen realistically, and fix your problems. But remember... You're listening to a band, not a drum solo, right? No one is perfect, and the chances are that each person could do things better.

At first, the cause of our "feel" issue wasn't obvious...
I should mention that in the case of the pop band I'm going to give as an example, the bassist had a "vague" sound... so vague at times that no one on stage could hear neither a specific pitch or specific rhythm from the guy. Well, he's relatively new to the bass, and also, we attributed the tone problem to the stage acoustics. (The stage is in a corner, rather than against a flat wall.) So, I recorded the band for over a month this way, trying to figure out specifically what was wrong. Both the guitarist and I were listening to these things, and (since we're the more experienced people in the band) we were both beating ourselves up over it. We felt responsible, although we couldn't pinpoint the issue. Over 6 weeks or so, both the guitarist and I had nightly discussions about it, and we both tried a large variety of things. We each brought in some different equipment (for me, different cymbals, for him, a different amp, etc.) and thought that we could improve the clarity, and therefore fix the problem. Still... Clunky! We were depressed! At this time, there was no focus on the bass player, because we couldn't hear him clearly enough.

As I started to collect my "recording kit", (more cords, mics, etc.) I decided to use a direct line out from the bass player, so I could possibly clean up his tone on the recordings. The first night I did this, the problem jumped out at us with complete clarity! As it turns out, the bassist consistently played a LOT ahead of the rest of the band... at times, roughly a 1/16th to a 1/32nd note worth. (or, for you technical types... 25 to 75 microseconds - More on that later.) Most musicians would hear this right away, but it took us longer, due to the vague tone.

Imagine how this communication might go...
If you simply walk up to a musician and say "You rush everything", that might be true, but you'll probably insult that player. If, on the other hand, you have a clear recording of the problem, and say, (as a friend and fellow musician) "listen to this", it puts a much more civil slant on the problem. You'll probably get more sincere cooperation that way, which is a great benefit.

First, a quick definition of some musical vocabulary...

You've heard musicians discuss "on the beat", "behind the beat", "ahead of the beat", right? There is no "dictionary definition" of these terms, but before we can go any further, we have to decide, for reference... What is "the beat"? Some people, including a great many drummers, feel that THEY are "the beat". Some people feel that it's an imaginary sort of mental click track, and that everyone, including the drummer can therefore play "ahead", "on", or "behind" it. (The trouble with that idea is that all of our "imaginary click tracks" may not be in sync.) For live situations where you're not using a click track or other metronomic reference, I would prefer that my fellow musicians consider the drums to be "the beat". After all, if they were playing with a drum machine, they wouldn't "argue" with that, would they? When you record the music, you have an audible reference to compare the other players with. And... If everyone simply plays with the drummer, the the band will be tight, regardless of actual tempo variations. And... If the drummer turns out to the problem, then the drummer needs to fix it or be replaced. Fair enough, right?

Drum machines and sequencers have their own issues...Contrary to what many people thing, they're not "perfect".
Unless programmed otherwise, drum patterns from machines are typically all "on the beat", meaning that any "hit" that lands on a drum or cymbal is technically "right on". Some drummers play like that too, but most real drummers have a set of habits, which might vary depending on what they're playing or who they're playing it with.

You can be "perfect", and still sound horrible...
For example, maybe the (actual) drummer tends to "lay back" on songs with a pop rock feel, maintaining a steady tempo, but placing the snare hits on 2 and 4 slightly behind the beat. If the other players understand that concept, then it's no problem. But if they interpret this as "dragging", and try to push the drummer, then the effect on the band is bad. Same for the drummer. If a certain player tends to sing or play ahead of the beat, and you react to it by trying to "hold them back", then the effect is the same. It's MUCH more important that the musicians in a band play "together", than to play "perfectly". Fix the actual tempo problems, but in the meantime, play together! Let soloists and vocalists phrase however they feel it rhythmically, but don't be led astray by that.

It's due to a very simple phenomenon, which is that people instinctively want to hear the percussive "attack" first, time-wise. (cymbals and drums) The next time you listen to some music that you think is "funky", or that "swings", listen to it with that in mind, and you'll find that the best musicians play either "with" the drummer, or slightly "behind" the drummer. You can even demonstrate that by yourself, with a sequencer. Try placing the rest of the music slightly ahead of the drummer, and you'll see the (bad) effect.

Here's a simple example of these "feel" descriptions. (This is an excerpt from my article, "Musical Clarity".) Note that the "band" is equally metronomic in all three examples. It's only the relative placement of the instruments that changes. (I did this in "GarageBand", on a Mac, using built-in Apple Loops.) Just click the PLAY arrow to hear these examples. (just drums and bass)

Everybody "ON the beat"

In this example, the drums are synched to be "on the beat" with the band.

Drums "behind the beat"

In this example, the drums are synched to be "behind the beat". Since it's all relative, the same sound would happen if the band was trying to "push" the drummer, who instead, remained steady.

Drums "on top of the beat"

In this example, the drums are synched to be "on top the beat" or "ahead of the beat". Since it's all relative, the same sound would happen if the band was trying to "hold back" the drummer, who instead, remained steady.


If you and your band can (intentionally) create the "on the beat", "behind the beat", and "ahead of the beat" feel, you'll find that you have more ways to express emotion in your music. Combine that with other devices, to create your "style".

You decide which of these suits your ears, but one thing is obvious... When the band attempts to fight the drummer, they typically achieve the OPPOSITE effect. Trying to "push" the drummer results in an even "draggier" feel, and trying to "hold back" the drummer, puts him even further ahead, so they fail again. The best bet will ALWAYS be to follow the drummer, whether a tune slightly rushes or drags. At least the "feel" will then be good.

Fixing problems:

For rhythmic issues, the simplest answer is that everyone should play with the drummer. I don't just say that because I am one, but because of the frequency issues mentioned above. If the whole band plays with the drummer, then you can (intentionally, for effect) be metronomic, speed up, slow down... whatever, and it will sound good. Buddy Rich's bands are the best example of that I can think of. LOTS of emotional content, with much of that achieved through their intentional use of rhythmic effects. (As one example, listen to how Buddy's bands played quarter note triplets in ballads.)

Other players need to hear the recordings, for various reasons. Even the worst recording will typically show the basics... whether it's in tune, in time, and in balance. If things don't improve by listening alone, (which they rarely will) then some discussion is in order. The best players on the planet have always listened hard, and used their recordings and their experience to get better. Try and keep your music moving forward, and think about aiming higher with your goals.

When a person with some experience hears that they have a problem, that's great. But they typically can't fix it "that night". It takes time to break old habits and develop new ones. And, what we do in music is always relative to all the other players. One person alone cannot typically "fix" a band. So, be patient in the interim, and do what you can to make things better. You may have to replace a player, but it's worth the effort to try and nurture them and fix their problem first. Just keep moving forward!

- Mike James

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