April 27, 2016

The Recording Process

As reported earlier, I was fortunate and thrilled to be awarded a recording studio residency via Jack Straw's Artist Support Program. This gives me twenty free hours of studio time with an engineer, plus an additional twenty hours at half of their normal studio rate. It's a great program and I constantly recommend it to artists in the Seattle area.

Recording this piece has been an entirely different process than that of developing it as a live performance. It's not just a matter of playing it live in the studio and documenting that. This is an opportunity to really hone the original piece, to cut out any dead weight that may have been tolerable in a concert but does not stand up to repeated listening on a recording. I'm not so concerned about getting the "perfect performance" out of the musicians. Being the great improvisers that they are, there will always be differences in every version, so the idea of any one recording being the definitive performance is contradictory to the nature of improvisation. It's more about sculpting the whole thing into an optimal home listening experience

My main concern has been with editing the band's performance — having them play only when it is needed — and in mixing them carefully in relation to the recorded soundscape material, being mindful about not letting the instruments dominate the field recordings. I don't want the soundscape to become background for them to play "over." There are times when they should be completely embedded within the ambient sound, almost indistinguishable from it, and other times when they should be brought forward in the mix.

Left to Right: Greg Sinibaldi, Lesli Dalaba, Steve Peters, Beth Fleenor, Naomi Siegel (photo: Doug Haire)
We recorded the four main wind players together, with no overdubs. They played through the piece twice without stopping, and we've been using the second take in the mixing phase. Because they were recorded together in the same room, there is no way to completely remove a single player, though we can control the volume of each instrument somewhat. The more unpredictable elements — percussion and my saxophone — were overdubbed on separate tracks, to allow for easier editing and mixing. The tracks were all recorded in two sessions, and since then we've been working on the editing and mixing.

Doug Haire and Paul Kikuchi (photo: Levi Fuller)
I have to take a moment to say what a pleasure it is to work with Doug Haire. We are good friends and band mates (Seattle Phonographers Union), and I've worked with him on several studio projects in the past. Most of the time when an artist brings this kind of project to a professional studio, the engineer has absolutely no idea what we are doing. They can help with the technical aspects, but when it comes to making aesthetic decisions they often throw up their hands and step aside, because they just don't understand it. As a like-minded sound artist, Doug completely understands the nature of this work, and so is able to make invaluable suggestions and observations that greatly benefit the final outcome. And he's a fantastic engineer. I have nothing but respect for him.

The piece is now at the point where it is sounding quite good and close to finished. Just a few more little tweaks and it will be ready for mastering.