More on Creative Process – Recording

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I have a love-hate relationship with the business of recording. On the one hand I love the sense of achievemnet and satisfaction as something begins to take shape and come together. It’s great to get a tangible result and to give form to your ideas. On the other hand it can be a slow and sometimes frustrating experience at times. For me it depends on the nature of the material and what is involved. I am working on a new piece at the moment which involves a lot of fairly tricky acoustic guitar work. This is fine in itself and I really like the piece but something like this often involves multiple takes in order to get it right. Recording and re-recording the same part until I get a version that is good enough. It’s just that any mistakes really show up and I am pretty fussy about how the final result sounds. I’ve just spent the guts of three days recording some guitar parts for this piece; it actually went surprisingly well but it still took ages.

Soon I’ll be through this phase and able to put the icing on the cake which involves adding effects, mixing and so on. This is all challenging work as well but not as pressurised as the ‘performance’ aspect. Another difficult area is mastering; this is the process of polishing  and adding effects to the final mix as a whole so that it sounds as clear and strong as it can. It’s easy to overdo this and to make it too loud and compressed, especially these days when everything is supposed to be maxed out in terms of loudness, which isn’t always good for the music. An awful lot of modern music still suffers from this. It is often referred to as the ‘loudness war’ which some say is over but I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. Certainly it was the case up until very recently that mastering engineers often found themselves having to wildly over-compress what might be essentially a good mix in order for it to compete with other commercially produced records. The industry seemed to demand this sort of over-the-top loudness which usually robbed the music of all dynamic subtlety and rendered a result which was often actually painful to listen to. Thankfully those in the know like the well-known and respected mastering engineer Bob Katz actively tried to combat this trend by voicing their concerns throughout the industry media and this seems to have helped mitigate this trend in recent years.

I try to avoid this problem when mastering my own material. Sometimes it is best to hand it over to a professional mastering engineer in order to get a fresh pair of ears, as well as a quite specific expertise, in on the act. In fact this is usually recommended because no matter how good your engineering skills are, and musicians who record their own material usually have limited though often adequate skills in this area, it is hard to be sufficiently objective about your own work to get the necessary distance to do a proper job. My first commercially released CD “Head Room” was mastered by Bob Katz and he did an excellent job.  My most recent orchestral album “Islands Suite” was mastered by Holger Lagerfeldt and he also did a wonderful job. On the other hand I read recently that the great rock musician Todd Rundgren, an old favourite of mine, recorded his album Arena entirely on a laptop using no other musicians or producers and then mixed the whole thing using headphones! This is unusual and takes real skill and experience to pull it off. I have the album and it sounds great. Even the drums are all programmed by Todd using the computer but you’d never know – they sound entirely real.

Photo of Todd Rundgren by Carl Lender [CC BY (]

Well I don’t have quite that sort of skill but hopefully I can achieve good enough results with my own equipment and skill-set. I am actually embarking on a professional course in mastering over the next while so time will tell!

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