After day 1 in the recording studio, my mother asked: “Was it exhilarating?” Well no, not exhilarating exactly, but rather both tedious and magical, which is what a good day in the studio always is. Day 1 involves a lot of loading in and setting up instruments and other equipment, changing variables and “getting sounds,” and getting intimate with the inevitable street-find furniture in various states of torn upholstery and funkiness. And then, you get to the music, and the magic.
I’ve been in the more sterile, corporate studios, largely in Manhattan, but these tend to have all of the tedium with less of the magic. I’ve peeked into behind-the-living-room studios on suburban streets in Kingston Jamaica, sung in little cottage studios overlooking Lake Zurich in Switzerland, and worked in studios in the bland industrial sprawl outside Toronto and Munich. Typically they are masculine spaces by definition, run almost entirely by males and decorated haphazardly with random pieces of cheesy art, electronics awaiting repair, and usually one lonely action figure or other plastic toy, sitting atop a vintage mixing board.
A recording studio is never a place into which a musician may hop in and out, as might be the case with some performance venues, with a quick turnaround from soundcheck, to set, to the end of the night’s work. No, a day at the recording studio usually lasts 10 or 12 hours or more, and these days can pile upon each other for weeks. At least they did, in the good old, pre-digital days of rock and roll. Musicians are more efficient and sober now, for better or worse, and budgets more stingy (for better but mostly for worse). But still it all takes time.
In my first years as a musician in New York City, I spent many a late night at a funny studio called 78/88 (named for the non-descript cross streets of the corner in Queens at which it was located). This place was dark and musty, and therefore all the more authentic to my romantic sensibilities. And of course it was affordable. Local hip-hop artists trailed in and out of the tighter digital room to the side, where we old school analog purists put up with the oft-broken 2” Studer magnetic tape machine on which to lay my untested songs. Meanwhile, in the hours of late-night downtime where I was not needed to sing or make production and mix decisions, I would retreat to a back hallway to play games upon game of Galaga, the vintage video game whose exposed innards meant that a bad start could easily enable you to jiggle some wires and start again. And again. And again. This was the only video game I ever sort-of mastered, and its flat graphics and simple spaceship shooting narrative were as far as I ever wanted to go in the video game world.
Then there was Sear Sound on West 48th Street, a much revered audiophile palace whose founder Walter Sear had over decades amassed a collection of elite microphones manufactured behind the Iron Curtain and other exotic parts. Walter, along with his dryly comedic studio manager Roberta Finley, also had a past collaboration in making B (or maybe C or D) horror movies, and the requisite posters showing terrified cartoon blonds with cleavage up to their chins were interspersed on the walls among the generic red rose on piano keyboard pop art prints. I thought fondly of Sear today when the whole band was suffering from plummeting blood sugar, and remembered how the assistant engineer there had in their job description to lay out a full spread of bagels and cream cheese, and the Entenmann’s cake of the day. You were never hungry at Sear, as the inevitable down time was filled with mindless, nutrition free, carb-full munching. I have many memories of Sear from over the years, not the least of which is 4 month old Maceo Crump bouncing in a jumper seat affixed to a doorway as we mixed my album Ready in early 2006.
The assistant engineer is a fascinating figure who almost always adheres to an unspoken code of conduct. He gets to the studio an hour or two before anyone else and leaves an hour or two after everyone leaves. He knows “the room”, the mixing board, every storage closet and quirk of the equipment, and he (always a “he”) can answer every question patiently and precisely. He pulls out the take out menus at meal time, jots down the orders, and unpacks the delivery bags when they arrive. He gets water, coffee, or snacks as needed, as they were urgently today. (I realized today how odd it was for me to have my needs anticipated so solicitously, as the mother of young children who keep me up and back to the kitchen at all hours.) He uses his judgment, is always on call to adjust a microphone or do banal paperwork, but stays out of the way when not needed. Most impressively, and for me, most painfully, he always maintains complete tact and a poker face, and never reveals any reaction to the music being made. So many times I have wished that I might catch an assistant tapping a foot at a good groove, or even cracking a smile at a tasty lick, but that would not fit the code. Someday, I’ll make music so good that even the ever-courteous yet ever impassive assistant engineer cannot resist it, but that day has not come.
Our assistant this week is Miles. Today was Day 2. We tracked 4 songs. It was a very good day.
Join me in the making of my new album, Reckoning http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/jenchapin