Yesterday took us back into the studio to begin work on two more songs (specifically, “Hey Jane” and “Shoes in the Road”). This is always an exciting, stressful, and strange experience for me; exciting because of the potential of creating something special, stressful because of the uncertainty of the final product, and strange because doing it correctly requires a kind of tedious excitement.
It got me thinking about the differences between live and recorded music. They are such distinct art forms, but to me, the distinctions are largely temporal in nature.
On stage, it’s all about instant gratification. The rush is immediate. The energy flows through you to the crowd and back again. It’s right now. It has to be, especially when you’re in a band that embraces improvisation. Thinking about anything besides this exact moment (with apologies to Dixboro) leads to train wrecks. Likewise, the little mistakes tend to be fairly ephemeral. They fly by before most people even notice them. And strangely, playing at high volumes actually hides many errors; they just can’t be heard over the din of the other instruments.
The studio, on the other hand, is basically a place for foreplay. Hours are spent setting up equipment, playing take after take, experimenting with sounds, mixing, and mastering. It can be weeks before you even know if a song has potential; months or years before you have a final product. Mistakes, of course, are magnified not only because they tend to be obvious in the mix, but because they are, if kept, pretty much permanent.
Now, to this point I haven’t painted a very flattering picture of the recording process, but that’s an oversimplification. In truth, the hours of hard work and effort make it all the more satisfying when you create something great (not that I’ve been able to do that yet, but I keep trying). The magical moments on stage are fleeting. Even if you record that live performance, it’s a shadow of the actual experience. It’s a picture of the thing, not the thing.
A studio recording, though, is different. It is exactly what you make it. It’s a painting instead of a picture. To paraphrase Shakespeare (or Bill Hicks maybe, I always get them confused), the recording’s the thing. With all of the incredible power provided by today’s, digital tools, if you can’t create the final product you desire that’s all on you.
So, what makes a quality recording? I think it’s the same thing that makes a quality live performance. It’s all about sharing something honest. Then, if it connects with someone, you’ve really succeeded.
At its heart, music is emotion. It’s a medium for directly sharing your truth with others, without the clumsiness of language. Even lyrics, when paired with notes, can take on meaning that is completely independent of the words themselves. I think that’s why lyricists are often reluctant to share the meaning of some of their more cryptic quotes, because their original meaning is irrelevant. What matters is how they make you feel.
So, will we manage to create something special in these recording sessions? Probably not. It rarely happens I think, and I certainly haven’t even been a part of something like that. Still, it is possible. People just like us have done it. They’ve stumbled on that magical mix of so many indefinable factors and made something timeless.
That’s the rush of recording. It’s all about the possibilities.
Reading back on this I’m beginning to wonder if this should be re-titled “prove you’re an obnoxious, music nerd, blowhard in 500 words or less.” Ah well, in my defense it is closer to 600 words…