Thursday, September 20, 2012

First Impressions from a Nashville Recording Session

I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy many great experiences in music. Recently I got to spend two days in Nashville working with a major artist who was recording two songs for an upcoming soundtrack album. Although the artist had already recorded amazing versions of these songs for the film itself, he decided that he wanted to take it up a notch for the soundtrack album.

Nashville is legendary for having some of the best musicians, and some of the most legendary studios in the world. The artist wanted to have a very organic sound for these songs so the decision was made to go old school and record live to 24 track, 2" tape. Although I had worked in the format in the early 90s it had been a long time. Also, the artists I had worked with in the 90s we're not tracking tracking live to tape - but rather laying down scratch guide tracks and then building the recordings via overdubs. 

In this case the 24 track machine was configured to 16 track width, providing more fidelity. The featured artist played acoustic guitar and sang. The backing band consisted of an electric guitar player, a dobro player, upright bass and a drummer/percussionist. All takes were tracked directly to the 24 track tape machine and also to a Pro-Tools HD rig (after the tape in the signal chain). There very were minimal overdubs. The focus here was on rehearsing the songs, and tweaking the arrangement along the way.

This really confirmed something I've known for a long time. Arrangement is production. Performance is production. The large decisions about how these songs would sound were made before the session began. The day before the recording session with the artist, the backing band loaded in, and worked with the producer and engineers to mic up the signal path for each instrument. This included setting up the tape machine, etc. Each instrument's signal path was a complete production signal chain including EQ, Compression, Reverb and Delay (if, and as needed per instrument) on the way to tape. By the time the signal hit the tape, it was pretty much dialed in.

This organic approach to recording has it's own limitations and trade offs. The primary disadvantage to recording this way (if you can call it a disadvantage) is that the sound you are tracking is more/less the sound you are committed to. There will be room bleed, and that means limitations for overdubs. Also, because the effects for each instrument are in the signal chain there's little that can be done about reverb, delay and compression later.

The obvious advantage however is the musicality of the recording. There's nothing like live players hitting a groove. Also, because the performance is the production it really encourages critical thinking of the arrangement for each song. Another advantage to this type of recording is that songs can be recorded relatively quickly assuming the same instruments, players and signal chains will be used on each song. This also ads to a very cohesive feel to an album of songs all recorded in the same environment.

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