Recording project

A few weeks back I did a studio session that was a lot of fun, and I thought I’d share my experience here.

My friend Sean is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, and all-around wizard. I have collaborated with him in the past on a few projects, so when he reached out to me recently about a new song, I was more than happy to jump in.

It was a busy time for me, so we started our collaboration over email. He sent me a track and described some ideas that he had for it. I listened to it for awhile, and then spent some time in my home studio laying down a bunch of different ideas on both Alto and Tenor so we could pick a direction to focus on. I tried a few with effects too, since I felt that the song lent itself to that direction.

Sean sent me some notes about what he liked and didn’t like, and ultimately we decided that Tenor was the best fit for this track. We set a date to do the recording at his new studio.

When I got to his new studio, I was surprised to learn that he’s gone 100% analog. He’s recording to tape. No Pro-Tools! No plug-ins! No auto-tune!! He already had a horn section lay down the background parts, and if he didn’t punch the solo in and out precisely, I’d overwrite their parts!

This was going to be new for me. I don’t do a lot of studio work, but for the past 10+ years, it’s been mostly digital. So when it comes to soloing, the approach has always been as follows: Do a ton of takes, record everything, throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks. Then, the producer/engineer takes what they like and they piece together something coherent. You may get a whole solo in one take, but really all you need are solid phrases and sections that work together.

This wasn’t going to work that way. We did do a few whole takes. We’d talk about each, and which ideas we both liked. Once we had a bunch of ideas floating out there, Sean got out his guitar and we just sat down and worked out the solo one section at a time together. Tape wasn’t rolling, we were just refining the ideas that we wanted to use.

We worked backwards, from the end of the solo to the front. Once we had something that worked that I could repeat consistently, we laid it down, just one phrase at a time (4 bars or so). Then we’d go back to collaborating on the ideas that could lead in to that phrase and repeat. We did that about four times (I think it was a sixteen-bar solo).

It was very challenging for me musically, because it’s hard for me to improvise the same way twice. There’s this ‘butterfly effect’ in my playing where the slightest difference in performance will take me in a completely different direction. Sometimes that’s cool, but it does make it hard to refine a single idea for the tape.

In the end I was pretty happy with the solo. There are always things that I would change, but I definitely arrived at a very different performance than if we had used more ‘modern’ recording techniques. I have a new level of respect for people that do a ton of studio work, and even MORE for the people who did it back in the day before Pro Tools!