July 25, 2003

The Struggle Continues

Here I am with Jym listening to the playback of a drum track-- I think it was "She's not a Flower." "


To my amazement, we actually managed to finish all the drum tracks today. Some of it still needs to be cleaned up, but this puts us further ahead than we have ever been in three days. Jym had done a great track to the Boyfriend Box demo yesterday, and today we spent some time making sure it synched up perfectly. So now we can use bits of the drum machine if we want, and much of the other demo tracks will work if we need them. (I haven't decided whether to use the machine for the fake percussion bits-- finger snaps and frog-- or do something fancier or loopier to replace it.) But it's great to have the option. Heard in the right context (with real drums and a new bass track) even the vocal, which I recorded at my house with a hand-held SM-58, didn't sound too bad. We tried using some of the original bass guitar as a subliminal super-low end "presence," and even that sounded pretty good, if weird. We've still got some things to do to it, and I'll probably re-do the vocal with a good mic and pre-amp, but if we had to we could almost use it as is. Amazing.

The basic tracks of six out of the eleven "band songs" were done "live" in the big room. "Live" means you all play together in the drum room, hearing the isolated amps through headphones. It's a pretty uncomfortable and disorienting way to play guitar, especially if you're half-deaf like me. The headphones can never be loud enough, and the whole thing has a ghostly, distant quality, kind of like how rock bands used to sound, and occasionally still do sound, on TV shows: loud drums, funny, thin guitars. If you're lucky, some of the guitar might be usable, but the main point is to capture the drums and the sloppier-than-a-metronome feel of a live band. You generally do the faster, more "rockin'" ones that way, though sometimes it's nice to try mid-tempo tunes that you want to sound loose. (We did the country rock-ish "Sorry for Freaking Out on the Phone Last Night" and the sixties-y guitar-oriented "Everybody Knows You're Crying" that way, for that reason, even though they're mid-tempo and not super aggressive.) We haven't recorded so many songs "live" in quite awhile, and I have to admit I find it a little discomfiting. But I think we got some good stuff nonetheless.

Part of me wonders whether it's a good idea to be writing in such detail about the process here, as the ultimate goal (in many if not most instances) is to produce a recording that creates the impression that it is a "performance" by a band. Of course, it is that in a sense. But in another sense it's not that at all.

But now that I've written that, I'm not all that sure it's true. That is, I'm not so sure that listeners hear recorded rock music that way. For example, do people hear, say, "Wouldn't it be Nice" and picture a bunch of guys on a stage playing instruments and singing into microphones, and when that first horn comes in they imagine that one of them puts down his guitar and pulls out a baritone sax (or is that a trombone?) and blows a couple of notes before picking the guitar back up and joining the rest to sing "woo oo oo oo"? Or in "Across the Universe" do they imagine John playing an acoustic guitar and singing into a mic, while George sits across from him with a sitar in his lap, which he deftly ditches just in time to pick up the electric guitar and somehow play it backwards here and there, while a crowd of around 12 castrati huddle over on the side piping in with "nothing's gonna change my world" every now and again?

Maybe those aren't good examples. How about "Safe European Home"? When people hear that recording, do they automatically get a picture in their heads of a group of four guys with leather jackets and bad teeth playing in a garage after a meal of fried poster paste? Because I totally don't. I hear "Safe European Home" and I picture Sandy Perlman saying "and we're rolling" on the thirtieth take as the drummer rolls his eyes, and, months later, punching in one of the multi-tracked leads in the little instrumental bridge part; and I idly wonder whether, when they did those guitar overdubs (famously at the Automat in San Francisco), that was before or after three or so Mick Joneses sang "where'd you go?" on tracks 14, 16 and 18. What amp was it? It sounds like a Mesa Boogie to me. Was it a Boogie? Mark III? A Fender bassman, maybe? 4 X 12 cab with two of the speakers mic'd with 57s? Celestions or EVs?

But then, I'm a little weird.

Posted by Dr. Frank at July 25, 2003 10:15 AM | TrackBack


Personally, I really enjoy reading the details of recording an album. As much as art might seem like a spontaneous expression of emotion, it's almost never totally spontaneous -- it's a craft, which means it combines creativity, inspiration, and actual skills (from singing on key and playing instruments to knowing how to record sounds and then combine them). I'm not a musician, so I don't ask the equipment questions you posed about the Clash, but as a listener I'm very interested in how this craft actually works -- like wondering how a painter paints light reflecting off water, or how a chef makes food taste the way it does.

And knowing something about the process doesn't ruin it for me, at least. It might demystify it a bit, but that just makes it more human, if you know what I mean. It makes it easier to relate to.

Thanks for posting all this stuff after what sounds like tiring days in the studio.

Posted by: Nick at July 25, 2003 03:40 PM

If I can't see you live then the next best thing for me is knowing I can go 2 your blog reguraly and read about your day and the record that will hopefully be bringing me one step closer to the first mentioned. I have a blog also but it's a deadjournal...and it get's kind of disheartning when no one posts comments, you get them a lot so feel swell *LL* Anywhoo about the album, PErsonally when I'm rocking out a an album, I picture the band playing it live, but without all the extra's. Yet, extra's are stupendous for the album and kind of a must-have, b/c if you don't have them - hearing it live won't be anymore of a sweeter treat then hearing it @ home, except for the visuals and amps of corse! *which trust me counts for A LOT =D* But yeah....get what I mean? Maybe I'm going on a whim 2 write the next coupple of lines but for me MTX is about the lyrics more then the sound. I mean you're sound is incredibly solid & uncannly swank but just the way you warp the English language into un-mercifull accurate verse's about being in and out of love, life and random everyday BS people have to deal with, is the cherry on top for me. That's why you've been my favorite band for so long is because of *pardon for feeding your ego* the lyrical genious the band is set on. The sound will always rock.

My opinion is prolly in the minority, but that's ok because anyone who can understand where I'm comming from deserves a cookie.

Thanks again Dr. Frank for letting us be involved by keeping up this wunderous blog ^.^

Posted by: Allyson at July 25, 2003 04:27 PM

I urge anyone interested in radically changing how they hear a significant chuck of rock-and-roll history to check out "Carless Love," volume 2 of Peter Guralnick's definitive Elvis bio, for detailed (and amazing!) narratives of how Elvis conducted things in the studio.

On an MTX note, I wonder if Dr. Frank has ever considered stripping away the studio smoke and mirrors and issuing a live MTX disc (other than "MTX Comes Alive"). Any thoughts, Doc?

Posted by: David at July 25, 2003 05:20 PM

Good stuff again, Frank.

Keep it up, please.

Posted by: Bryan at July 25, 2003 06:22 PM

Frank - I like reading the studio details, too. I'm thinking anyone who doesn't like it isn't reading!

Regarding what people picture when they hear studio songs, I think probably musicians are about the only people who imagine the band playing. Most people probably don't worry about the instrumentation or production at all.

I'll frequently try to figure out the instrumentation. If it's a band that I've never seen, I might wonder if they have two guitar players or one player laid down two tracks. For stuff that is obviously heavily produced (you mentioned "Across the Universe") I don't even worry about that - I just assume there is no way of knowing.

I've been fooled. I remember having an old album by Ben Folds Five. I listened to it several times and drew what I considered to be two very obvious conclusions: 1) there were five guys in the band; and 2) they were a studio creation - their dense sound and narrow-range vocal harmonies were clearly the result of studio manipulation.


I saw them at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, NC, and learned that: 1) they were a trio; and 2) they pulled off EVERY NOTE of their album in the live show. Damn thing might as well have been recorded live. I was utterly flabbergasted.

Posted by: Steve at July 25, 2003 06:56 PM

Dr. Frank-

For me, when they're good, records have/are their own distinct realities, and I do mainly experience them as "live" in some sense, and I'd guess that's true for many, maybe most, people, or average listeners anyway. But I don't really worry about things like who's playing the horn and whatnot, in your sense, because I don't ever, or I rarely, experience the record as a document of something that's complete outside of the record, or, if I do, it's in the context of a kind of tacit agreement about how to approach it, rather than a general ignorance about its construction. I'm also a big Frank Capra fan though, so maybe it's just me and my kind of taste, but I know about the "smoke and mirrors" and I love'em...as long as they don't call attention to themselves *when I'm listening.* It's not like, say, learning how a magic trick is done, because all there is to that is the trick, and there's more here. Anyway, enough philosophastering...

The personal stuff (like your "30 days" post) is a little more interesting to me than the nuts and bolts of recording, but whatever you decide to share about this stuff, please keep it coming, because, speaking as an mtx fan, it's all so very exciting!


My only request is that if you decide to let out that Jym isn't really a Hingefreelian Drum-bot from Arkintoofle Minor, you include some kind of spoiler-warning in the header to your post.

Posted by: spacetoast at July 25, 2003 07:24 PM

Y'know I've always assumed that "Book of Revelation" was recorded live, complete with a guy in a powdered-wig playing the harpsichord.

Posted by: greg at July 25, 2003 10:19 PM

Just wondering because on the old albums when Jon was in the band, it never said..now that MTX has 3 guitar players again, who is playing lead, you or Angel?

Posted by: Channon at July 25, 2003 11:48 PM

Great stuff, Frank. PLEASE keep posting this studio stuff when you can, as my life is starting to depend on it.

Oh and what exactly did Kevin think was poopy? Did it get fixed?

Posted by: Matt Riggle at July 26, 2003 04:50 AM

Dear Dr. Frank,

I wouldn't worry about your inside information being a spoiler. It has been my experience that plenty of people can and do listen to music that they love and not even notice all the parts, let alone consider who plays what. Those who do notice all the parts are realistic enough about modern studio technology to know that it isn't all happening live. Such people, however, often fail to notice details such as the band's only guitar player maintaining a solid rhythm track while playing a ripping solo. Many other people hear every part clearly, but don't know anything technical enough to be able to figure out how it is achieved.

Basically, the people who care about the technical end are going to know the difference between a studio and a live recording, but not be bothered by it, whereas the people who are ignorant of the tricks of the trade are going to have no idea what you're talking about, or are simply not going to care.

Posted by: justin banal at July 26, 2003 07:09 AM

Hey Greg,

I think the harpsichord on "Book..." was played by the baby crying at the start of "There's Something Wrong With Me." He probably missed a note and overreacted. One more step in the Grand Unified Theory of MTX album production.

Posted by: Nick at July 30, 2003 04:43 AM

I seem to remember reading that Mick Jones recorded the whole of Give 'Em Enough Rope with a Mesa Boogie (I think a Mark III too). He liked the sound Blue Oyster Cult had.....the shame of it.

Posted by: Giles at August 4, 2003 09:50 AM