Friday, April 30, 2010

You Can Polish a Turd

When I worked in the recording industry there was an expression I heard a lot that went "you can polish a turd but then all you have is a shiny turd".

The funny thing was that it was always used by the assistant engineer or engineer after it was way too late to fix the fact that you were working on a crappy recording and well into the polishing stage (This would have needed to be fixed during the recording process by the producer). In the age of digital recording and editing it seemed to me that there was a lot more time and energy spent fixing bad performances than there was concentrating on getting a good performance. Some of this was because the musician or singer simply couldn't sing or perform well enough to get a good performance. Or it could be because it is "more work" to get a good performance. (Of course this is a fallacy.  I like to draw the analogy that it is similar to buying a cheap car to save money but once you factor in more gas because of bad gas mileage, towing and repair costs it would have been cheaper to buy a more expensive car). Or it could simple be laziness.

I was actually shocked on my first session. I knew that it was standard practice to record each instrument individually.  Usually the band all played together but the focus was to get good drum tracks. Once the drum track was done the rest of the band would take a break while the bass player either re-recorded all his parts or fixed certain bad spots. Then the guitarist would re-record, and so on until you have the whole song.  This was how we recorded our album when I was in the band. So, I wasn't too surprised to see that the band was going to work this way and the producer had them start running through the song.

It seemed that the drum parts were not all ironed out yet. So the producer stopped them often asking the drummer to try something different in a section and we recorded everything (you never know when you are going to get a good take). Once each section had a few different options on it the producer called the drummer in to have a listen. This also didn't shock me as I thought they were going to pick which parts went in each section and this is exactly what they started to do. Jumping between takes they chose which part went where and even took a first verse part and copied it into the third verse section. We listened to the whole song and the parts all made sense and seemed to work where they were.

And this is were the shock came in. The drummer was done. The band ordered dinner and headed to the lounge. The producer left for a few hours and the engineer started to polish. The drummer never played the song for start to finish. He never he played the outro which was composed of snippets of the choruses. Drum fills were edited and flown around as needed.  The drum part was a Frankenstein.  It had no soul.  It had no feeling.  The drummer was very capable of playing all the parts for start to finish.  So why didn't he? I never felt he turned on his performance energy level.  Maybe most people won't notice but the same energy that is only present in front of a live audience (and missing, say, in rehearsal) was missing from rehearsal.  It is the thing that I found challenging when I was laying down drum tracks.  How do I get that live audience energy level when I am just performing for the microphones?  I guess if I didn't play the song all the way through and we just chopped the song together I wouldn't have to...of course we could have used a drum machine to do that, but I am glad we didn't.

1 comment:

  1. You and I see eye to eye on this... It's such a shame that people with world class recording facilities at their finger tips could choose to cheat the music so badly.