I did something this week that I rarely do these days, I went to another studio to produce some vocals. Why would I go to another studio? I could have walked up to the end of my garden (yard for my American cousins) which takes all of 30 seconds on a long commute, and had the talent come to me. However, on this occasion, I had been asked to produce a track in a local studio, it had been booked, and all I had to do was turn up and do the magic.
So for this job I read about four emails which consisted of job spec, studio equipment spec and telling me where to be and when and then I just needed to turn up on the day.
The studio was about 30 minutes from my house, so at the designated time a taxi arrived and picked me up. It was a glorious day so quite a lot of the journey consisted of the driver and me joking about the hot thing in the sky and how it wouldn't be long before it was pissing down again. If you lived in Ireland you would appreciate why this would be amusing banter - Ireland is not known for its balmy days and sun-soaked months, Ireland is green for a reason... the rain. My wife swears she permanently wore a cagoule until she was about seven.
The driver had been to the studio, and although hidden in such a way that only someone with secret service training and a drone would have been able to find it, he knew where it was.
I walked into reception about 10 minutes before the start of the session and was greeted by a happy receptionist who said 'Hi are you Russ?' I wasn't sure how they knew my name, not unless they had recently been watching Europe's ten most wanted. The reason she knew my name was that she was good at her job and made sure arriving clients are greeted in a way that made them feel welcome and special. It worked.
Getting The Job Done
A few minutes later the three singers arrived interrupting my viewing of an episode of the Jeremy Kyle Show on the enormous TV screen in reception. It was quite a blow to be honest, as a father and son were about to come to blows about some domestic situation which seemed to stem from a pet dog, a car, some drugs and fruit bowl. I was watching mainly to know what role the fruit bowl had played in this break down of another family unit. However, we had a session so I will have to die not knowing how that story played out.
We walked into the control room, and the engineer was sitting in front of the desk, Pro Tools session open, tracks created and named, mics set up and all he needed were the artists to record their stuff. I handed him a drive with the track on it, which he duly loaded into the Pro Tools session.
I then spent a few minutes in the control room with the singers just going through the parts, which they had rehearsed to within one inch of their lives, good, a studio is no place to start learning and perfecting parts. We were ready to record.
The singers went into the studio, and we took a few minutes to listen to different microphone setups to decide which sounded best. I need to add that during this time a cup of tea had magically appeared in front of me, it was like heaven.
I had great talent, a more than able and willing engineer who knew his onions and a decent studio to record. In a few hours we were done, and I was on my way home in another taxi sharing more stories about the fantastic weather and how it wouldn't last. No word of a lie, a few years ago I was walking my dog one Saturday morning along the local coastal path and by lunchtime, it was snowing!
Producing the track in this environment was simple and easy, it was a pleasurable experience and freed me up to do what I do best.
The Dream Studio?
Now contrast that with me being back in my studio, there was a parcel containing a new USB hub which was needed to dig me out of quite a technical hole I'd been trying to get out of for several weeks and I hoped this would fix it, more on that at a later date.
Then it dawned on me, has the dream of a home studio become a nightmare?
I don't know about you, but I didn't get into this stuff to spend half my life either being a computer scientist, fiddling with other things or doing my thousandth software upgrade. Or to be presented with another obtuse message about my buffer being too large or error 7547 occurring which sends me on a wild goose chase on Google and leads to an answer in a Polish forum that is inhabited by about seven people most of the time.
As I sat in my beautiful home studio with so much gear I can record anything and enough computer hardware to put a person on Mars, I found myself longing to be back in the other studio with my engineer, magically appearing cup of tea and Jeremy Kyle show.
I grew up in the 'good old days' of studios; you know real consoles, tape machines and all that. Anyone who calls them the good old days has never had to line up a tape machine or spend hours pulling out channels from the console trying to find the problem, or indeed spend about £100 to buy the tape for one track. I'm not suggesting that recording before the home studio explosion was any less technically taxing, but because a studio was a costly purpose-built investment when most of us went to use them all we did was make the music, other people did the hard stuff.
Of course, you can get the same technical results for a fraction of the cost from a room in your house, but I'm coming to the conclusion that there is a price to pay, and it's a higher one, and that's creativity.
I sat down yesterday to work on a session, and within ten minutes another piece of software was telling me about a buffer error. I rang James Ivey who told me to download the update, and it worked. But the moment had gone, and I was too engrossed in being the studio tech to get back to being the artist.
It doesn't matter what particular piece of software it is, it happens far too often.
Complexity Is Overrated
Perhaps it's because of what feels like a never-ending stream of production distractions that I'm leaning towards more straightforward software, software that is less complex and often consists of a few knobs to get your desired result. Products with one knob, or a few choices to get the sound you need. Or products like EZ Drummer or UJAM's Virtual Guitarist and Drummer.
Bravo! The problem with a lot of modern music gear is that it gives you so many choices that you end up going down a technical black hole or disappearing up your arse and before you know it you've lost hours and forgotten the lyrics to the song.
I think my malaise caused by the combination of studio technology hell and 'bigger, better, ten squillion presets, game-changing, next level' software has caused me to gravitate to software that's easy to get a great sound in an instance - like a virtual studio engineer but without the tea.
I see a lot of snobbery around some of the less complicated software like the Waves Greg Wells series, Virtual Drummer or iZotope Neutron et al. There's more and more of these plug-ins appearing and I'm embracing them. After all my clients need projects delivered quickly and more often cheaply but still of high quality, the fast/cheap/good triangle meme might make an excellent Facebook post but in reality that's the life many of us have to live.
The music and audio snobs want to tell you that this kind of software is killing real talent and reducing the art of recording. Perhaps it is, but I counter that the modern recording studio, which requires us all to be computer scientists, developers, and engineers is killing our talent.
As I've already said, if I can find a tool that enables me to get things done without all the distractions of the modern studio, then I'd be a fool not to use it. I simply don't have the time to learn most things and still be able to deliver quality work on time and budget. I can't be the only person who tries to read an entire 100 page PDF user manual in 60 seconds so that I can get back to the job. After all, an hour spent in a user manual, Googling or screaming at my computer, is an hour I can't bill. Don't get me wrong I believe in learning how to use things properly, but at a time of my choosing not every time I come to work on a project.
Everyone who comes to my house and sees my studio says 'wow it must be wonderful to have this.' Don't get me wrong it is, I do love having a space where I can go and create and get paid to do so, but I am coming to the conclusion that if we are not careful, we allow the very thing that is meant to empower our creativity to restrict it. I need to deliver excellent creative ideas, and yet it seems that the very things that are intended to help hinder me.
One of my solutions is to find tools that distract me less and in some cases give me instant results - it may not impress the snobs and the armchair forum warriors, but they don't pay my bills.
Keep It Simple
This article is not an advert for easy-to-use plug-ins or indeed a polemic against complex software. Neither am I arguing that a professional studio is better than a home studio, both have their merits.
It's more to remind each one of us that these tools are meant to assist us in doing our job, just like my experience in the studio this week. Sadly modern tools often do anything but remove the distractions and instead end up killing our mojo, we need to make choices to guard against that happening.
Now I'm off to find out what happened about the dog, the drugs and the fruit bowl.