Recording studio life – Finding the 'magic'
Recording studio life – Finding the 'magic'
The professional recording studio is seen by musicians and music followers alike as ‘the place where magic happens’. This is where all the artists or bands’ aspirations are fulfilled and distilled down into ‘musical gold’ with some form of artistic alchemy, crafted by the hands of a genius ‘chemist’ – the producer – through a multitude of rare and revered electronic boxes.
The truth is somewhat more sobering and less flattering than this, and poses the question, are musicians finding the magic, or losing themselves in the process?
With 15 years experience as a recording engineer and studio manager I have experienced working with quite a range of recording artists, styles and types of sessions.
However, very rarely did my experience reflect any true magic – a group of people with a sense of unity and harmony, a common purpose, and aligned to producing something truly magical, for all to enjoy.
Most of the time the sessions became a clash of egos, mine included, which naturally created an underlying disharmony and struggle amongst us all. This can be very subtly played out or not, depending on the dynamics, but if we are there to work together, how can there be a harmonious working environment when everyone has their own agenda?
The project sounded great – it was the first solo record by a member of an internationally respected band and was to be produced by a musician and producer who was equally recognised and someone I personally respected, and who I was excited to work with: little did I know that this held only trappings of glamour that I was totally caught up in. I knew this session was going to be testing as it came with aspects of ego and arrogance often found in the music industry, and quite typically, the first bubble burst when I met the producer. He offered a somewhat stern and aloof introduction as if he was too cool to even be there, and this attitude didn’t change for a week.
Instead of the agreed 11am start the session settled into a groove of the artist arriving around 12 or 1pm. The first job of the day was to review the work done the day before. The main purpose of this ‘review’ was to hear it for the first time, as it was recorded the night before in the haze and fog of alcohol and drugs. We had no real idea what had been recorded. The producer, using some common sense, left earlier in the evening around midnight, and so didn’t hear all of the evening's hazy takes.
Typically, it would then be decided at the review the next day that the majority of it was no good, and so we would embark on getting prepared to record for the new day. But the problem was that this involved ‘getting in the vibe’ so the drinking started again, and the whole cycle played out over and over. It is no surprise that (as the budget allows with big name bands) recording an album can take months!
The pinnacle of this session came towards the end, after about 7 days straight. We were at the stage of recording guitar solos – the icing on the ‘rock’ cake. The evening had progressed as usual; after dinner the session became more serious, meaning everyone got more serious about their drinking, and whatever else they were taking.
Gradually the ‘hangers on’ dropped off, the producer left around midnight as usual, leaving myself, the artist, and the guitarist still working on guitar solos. With the guitarist in the recording room, the artist was half sprawled across the mixing desk, incoherently encouraging the guitarist to do another take. When it become too much of an effort for him to press the talkback button and hold his glass of red wine, he decided it was better to go into the recording room to give his advice directly. Staying vertical was at this point very difficult, and so he assumed a horizontal position on the floor.
I remember looking up at the clock which read 4am when I realised the artist had passed out, with his head hard up against the guitarist’s amplifier turned up to the max, cranking out solo after solo in an attempt to find ‘the magic’.
The truth was, we were all seriously lost.
This was the point at which I realised how I had allowed myself to be a part of this crazy circus for too long. I had totally lost myself in the pursuit of my dream. A session that I had thought would deliver my ‘finest moment’ reflected back to me the disregard and abandonment of oneself that often takes place in the music industry.
A distinguishing factor of recording and music making is that the vast majority of recording sessions include drinking alcohol and/or taking drugs. I have seen this time and time again, and have also been a part of this myself; the transformation of people being their natural selves, to needing to alter themselves in order to be part of the group, to play their instrument, and find the so-called ‘magic’. It often felt like we were unable to make music without it.
The ‘vibe’ definitely changed when the alcohol or the drugs kicked in. When this happened it was as though we were ‘driven’ to work, however, on reflection it was more like being hijacked and taken on a ride of emotional and physical devastation that left me with a totally empty feeling at the end of it.
Listening to the music the next day, it was like someone else had recorded it. The irony is, music is thought of as something that connects people, but I felt so disconnected by this typical way of working that I knew I needed to make a change.
No longer wanting to have this in my life, I re-educated, changed my direction, and started to work in a different industry. However, in the last year and a half I have come back to working with music after having the opportunity to work with Michael Benhayon.
The amazing thing is I now finish working on music feeling fresh and full.
- Full of the real me, not lost to the numbing and draining effects of the studio life I had previously lived. No longer am I devastating my body day in day out simply by working on a session. I enjoy working in my own studio in an environment that sustains and supports my vitality: there is no searching for the ‘magic’ through losing myself by drink or drugs. In fact, I work at being as present as possible.
- As for the magic, it is naturally there in my expression through my connection and presence as I work with the music. There is consistent equality, harmony and understanding between all those involved in making the music – how a true ‘band’ of co-creators should be. If this lessens in any way, then it is felt immediately and harmony is restored before we continue.
In this way, there is no searching for the ‘magic’, the true magic is already there, living in the expression of the music for the listener to receive.