Over the years I have had the great privilege to work with a number of fantastic charities and groups that support people with learning disabilities through creativity and Music Therapy.
In this article I would like to share some mindsets and workflows that I have developed when managing recording sessions that feature people with learning disabilities. These sessions are often very unique and do require a different approach and appreciation to the “normal” methods of recording.
A little history to explain why I am writing about this topic
I was approached at the beginning of 2012 by an independent charity called UpROAR who at the time was looking for a studio to work with them.
UpROAR is a band formed of people that have learning disabilities. UpROAR is creatively led by Gwyn Jones, an inspirational songwriter and musician. Back in 1998, Gwyn discovered there were a lot of talented people with special needs that had fantastic musical abilities with no outlets for them to express themselves.
Since 1998 UpROAR have recorded and released over ten albums of original material written by themselves. They have sold thousands of copies in and around the South London area, of which I have had the pleasure of completing three of.
The following points are general things to consider if you are going to record people with learning disabilities.
These points are based on the recording sessions I have done with UpROAR and from working closley with Gwyn Jones to discover the best studio workflows and techniques when recording the members of UpROAR.
Health and Safety
Before any recording sessions ensure that you have easy access in and out of your recording space, especially if you have a client that uses a wheel chair. Also make sure your toilet facilities are also as easy to access. Ensure your route to the fire exit is clear. Keep as little equipment out as possible in your recording area to help minimize the chance of an accident. Always make sure your cables are laid clear of any floor space that will be used by a disabled person.
I know a lot of these points go without saying… however, I feel you need extra vigilance and awareness when recording disabled people in your premises. If you are unsure about the health and safety requirements of your client then arrange for a staff member from the charity or group that wishes to work with you to come to your recording space to undertake a risk assessment. If your space is unsuitable you may need to offer a location recording at a place that meets their risk assessment requirements.
Create an atmosphere that makes them forget about the outside world
You have to focus your entire attitude towards patience, care and kindness… well before a desire to create something sonically brilliant and polished. There should never be any moments of pressure or negativity towards the artists. You have to be positive and encourage teamwork, involvement, interaction and participation amongst all… regardless of what you record. Treat the session as an experience for them, not as an exercise.
Some may be unable to read and articulate words well
Some people with learning disabilities will struggle reading lyric sheets. In our experiences we found many have great short term memories for melodies. Approach the recording of their vocal lines in small chunks. Sing with them before each chunk is recorded; try a call and response method to help them lay each part down. Tapping the rhythm of a melody line on their shoulder can also help.
Some do have difficulty articulating their words. What we have discovered works well is to give these guys “laa” and “Ahh” melody lines to sing. Try to discover what works for each individual and play to those strengths. Let them express themselves in any way to ensure they are getting a worthwhile creative experience.
Always approach a recording session with clear and attainable goals. Understand that you may not get the best sonic quality that you would get from an able person. You need to capture their emotion, personality, performance and creativity well before sonic brilliance. This is what I believe Music Therapy is all about.
I always record their vocals through an external preamp with a compressor on the way in. This helps me as the engineer avoid digital clipping as some disabled people find it hard to control their dynamics when singing into a microphone.
Some disabled people may have restricted movement so make sure you move the microphone to suit their position. Some guys find it easier to sit down when singing. I find sitting helps them stay in a fixed position so that they don’t move away from the microphone when singing.
Have something in the mix for them to sing along to. Make sure the song has a well-recorded guide vocal playing along side in their headphone mix so that the tracking process feels as natural as possible to them.
I strongly recommend that if anyone reading this gets an opportunity to record people with learning disabilities to take it and give it a good go.
I first thought such sessions would be stressful… oh how I was wrong. In fact they are the complete opposite. These amazing and creative individuals are an inspiration to work with.
This is a music video to a song by UpROAR called “Sky’s The Limit” that we released in 2012.