In The Studio

After five years of studio work, I somehow continue to hope that, maybe, my next recording session will be “normal”—no technical problems, no surprises, and no burnout.  But I’ve never had a “normal” session.  Apparently, in the studio, exceptions are the rule.  

Recently, as I’ve been recording my piano album Airborne, every day has been an exception:  five-hour experiments gone bad, poorly timed thunderstorms, and unexpected results.  Don’t believe me?  Read on.

Monday – Preparations

It was a dark and quiet parking lot—too quiet.  Breaking the calm, in a mad dash, I sprinted across the asphalt field under the eerie glow of fluorescent lights—a foreshadowing of the kind of week to follow.  Alas, it was 8:52 and BestBuy closed at 9:00.  Would I make it through the doors in time to buy a pair of earbuds for the week’s sessions?  But lo, the doors were open.  Mission accomplished!

Disassembling the house in the name of room treatment

Disassembling the house in the name of room treatment

Upon returning home, I came to my burgeoning pile of homemade acoustic treatments (i.e., pillows, blankets, sheets, towels, and sleeping bags) that were ready to be strategically placed in the room.  And after an hour, the studio was ready for the next day.

But the question remained: Was I ready?

 

Tuesday – “Equinox”

I’d planned a methodical schedule for recording “Equinox,” and on Tuesday, the piano tuner had arrived and left on time.  I was ready to set my mics in their final position—or so I thought.

Since I only owned cardioid mics and had my piano in a small room, I’d decided on close-miking using either ORTF configuration or a crossed pair technique.  I began my final positioning experiments, supposing that choosing between two techniques wouldn’t take long.  Oh, how wrong I was!

Just a few mic techniques I tried

Just a few mic positions I tried

By the fourth position I tried, I had a clear recording with a nice stereo image that still sounded decent in mono.  I should have stopped the experiment right then. However, my perfectionism told me I could do better, so I tweaked the setup a tiny bit—to my peril.

Let’s just say that when close-miking, slight adjustments can drastically alter the sound!  I ended up spending way too long trying to get back to position #4.  Apparently the measurements and photos I’d taken weren’t precise enough…

Even so, I ended up successfully recording “Equinox” that day, although I didn’t finish until midnight because of the extra time spent on miking.  One thing was for sure—I wouldn’t move the mics until I’d recorded all the other pieces!

 

Wednesday – “Breakthrough”

There’s clearly a wormhole separating my studio from the rest of the house.  When the blankets are over the doors and the windows, when the room has been deadened to an eerily isolating quiet, and when I’ve sealed myself in that dark space in the middle of the day, I’m no longer in my “practice room”—I am in a faraway studio, removed from mundanities and civilization.

The Impenetrable Partition of My Studio

My Studio’s Impenetrable Partition

Not surprisingly, spending entire days in this place starts to mess with you—especially when you haven’t slept much, and you’re the only one doing every job.  I was weary enough from Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I confined myself to the studio again on Wednesday, and within four hours, I’d recorded what I needed.  Shortest session of the week!

 

Thursday – “Precipice”

Getting in the Mood to Record "Precipice"

Getting in the Mood to Record “Precipice”

“Precipice” was easily the most challenging to record.  It’s over eleven minutes long, full of awful technical passages, and extremely demanding expressively.

Once I had Logic running and my pre-amps on, I hit “R” and began to record.  That first take went great, and the expressiveness was there.  Feeling pleased with myself, I put on the headphones to listen back… And heard nothing.

At first, I wasn’t concerned, because I thought maybe I hadn’t set up my output correctly.  But to my horror, I looked at the waveform in Logic, and it was just a flat line.  Gasp!

There’d been no phantom power going to the mics.  For non-technical readers, effectively, the mics were “off,” since they needed the power to bring the signal up to a useable level, so my first take’s performance wasn’t recorded.

Breathe.  Don’t… Panic…

I couldn’t let this mistake ruin the rest of the session.  Perhaps my second take would be better anyway…  So I laid down two or three front-to-back takes, before it was time to take a break, and that’s when I heard it:

Booooomm.  

In came a thunderstorm, continuing the mood of “Precipice.”  I laughed at the coincidence at first, but it wasn’t funny when it turned my “short” break into three hours… 

Around 1 AM that night, I was still recording, but between takes, my parents came and begged me to let them sleep.  So I relented.

 
Friday – “Precipice”

Okay, no forgetting the phantom power this time. Red light =  (:

No leaving off the phantom power allowed…

At this point, I’d expected to record the fifth piece, but I still hadn’t finished writing it.  Plus, I wanted to record a few more sections of “Precipice.”  I thought I had some good takes, but none felt like the take.

I hadn’t even warmed up, but I decided to start the day by recording one more unbroken take.  Within two measures, I knew I was playing the take.  It was almost perfect.  And I even landed the runs that I spent an hour trying to record the day before!

I never get a single take that’s that good—especially when it’s the first take of the day.  But hey, aren’t exceptions the rule?

 

Update – 5/31/13

With four of the five pieces recorded, editing is the next test.  And this weekend, I plan to record the fifth piece (which I finally finished composing!).  If things continue to follow the rule, I wonder what exceptions will happen…

To be continued…

 

So readers, do your recording sessions follow the rule of exceptions, too?  What do you do to prepare for the unexpected?

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About Shelby Rawlings Blalock

I'm a 21-year-old composer, pianist, music producer, audio engineer, and GRAMMY Camp 2012 alum. My neoclassical, self-produced piano album "Airborne" is available now on iTunes.

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