More on making that CD –

Our first recording session was epic. That was probably the day we got the most tracks down, since Douglass Closson was playing guitar parts on so many songs. I even played guitar on a couple songs that day – definitely my first try at that game.

It was a warm Sunday in April. I wore my lucky Roots hoodie, which was the first thing to go when I got into that toasty little room. James Boblak’s operation, Artspoke Studio, is a compact little building obviously built by hobbits, sandwiched between regular-sized buildings in downtown Berkeley. And with all that equipment plugged in, that cozy space gets mighty warm. I won’t try to go into the types of microphones James used, since other people speak gear so fluently and I don’t, but he had the soundproof room all set up for Doug. There was small talk about the donkey jawbone, which James keeps in there for a Peruvian (James? Peruvian?) band who use it for percussion. He warned me to be prepared if I ever bring in a guest with a dog. Something about being responsible for finding a replacement donkey.

Doug gamely installed himself on the puffy piano bench, removed the car keys and other “auxiliary percussion” from his pockets like the pro he is, and knocked out most of our tracks in one or two takes. I’m a big fan of this guy’s playing. He brings the right kind of drive to a song that needs it, and that’s the perfect foil for my soprano singing. I like some muscle in a song, but I just don’t have the right kind of voice for muscle. He worked out terrific leads on some of the songs, which meant I got to play rhythm. That was a healthy challenge for me, since I’d been playing the same 3 chords at the same level of incompetence for my whole life until I spent the last year finally taking lessons and practicing seriously. Like you’d expect, now I play like someone who’s been playing for one year. James assured me that he can make my playing disappear in the mix.

I wish I could have been able to concentrate on Doug’s playing more that day, but the best way to get his tracks down was for me to sing the vocal outside the soundproof room for him to hear it in his headphones. So I stood behind James and the consoles he apparently lifted from Chief O’Brien’s transporter room, and sang along. Now that’s a whole different experience than being in the room with your bandmates. I’m big on communication with whoever I’m playing with – eye contact is great, and I’ve had my foot stepped on more than once when someone needed my attention – so it’s disorienting at first to have nothing to rely on but your headphones. I could see Doug through a little pane of glass, sort of, but there was glare and he was, like the pro he is, looking at his charts.

I’ve heard people say countless times that recording is all about sound. Seems obvious, until you break it down. There’s no extra communication with the audience when they’re listening to your CD. You can’t smile at them or set the mood by telling a story. Any emotion or nuance you’d put into your performance, it all has to go into their ears. You can’t do ESP with the band either, unless you’re recording live (that’s where everyone plays together). Our approach was tracked instead (one instrument gets recorded at a time).

So my lesson for that first recording session? I rely on my eyes a lot to play music: looking at whoever else is playing, looking at whoever’s listening. Concentrating just on what was coming through my headphones, that took some getting used to.