When I overhauled my studio website last year, I had ideas about the process of record making, production, all the advice I could think of to write down and post in the pages. I even wrote a special section on the hazards of getting hung up on “important details” in the studio, with hopes that I might be immune to the same pitfalls. Since the day I switched over from ADAT machines to a Digital Audio Workstation, I saw the change in the way we work in the studio. I was a latecomer to the thing we call Pro Tools, leaving linear tape in 2003. I work mostly in Cubase, which is the German equivalent, as far as what it does. Pro Tools is the commonly-known name, like Kleenex or Tylenol. I've used most of the DAWs, in search for the best, and while I have my favorite, it’s all basically the same idea. A DAW emulates what we did with tape machines and mixing boards, as in, “Do you actually know what every one of those knobs does?” I miss hearing that.
Sound goes in, becomes a computer file that you can fiddle with just like in Photoshop. There’s more to it, but the push of technology is always toward more options, more features, more choice. Regardless of when you began, you started out sometime in the past, so naturally everyone can recall how it “used to be.” So, I won’t go into a Luddite diatribe about how great it was spending days to accomplish what anyone now can do in a couple hours with a laptop.
The big difference is that the technology allows the user to defer decision making until later; in fact you can “finish” the project and then keep working on it! You’re never finished until you say so, which wasn’t the case with the older method. Once you made some kind of final mix to the mixdown machine, that was it unless you wanted to start from scratch days later, plug the wires in other ways and try something else. If you’d decided to return to work on something, likely you’d have to put all the knobs back to where they were, if you’d even written it down. For better or worse, the sound would be a close approximation of what it was last time you’d worked on it. Nowadays you open a song session and every setting returns as it was via total recall. I find myself tweaking things on the computer, trying to make it better on some atomic level over two days; meanwhile the whole ship has drifted halfway out of the harbor. You get the idea. It’s how it goes when you have the option of “undo.”
Artists need deadlines, they say. Without a deadline, I rarely find the same motivation to push a piece over the finish line. I go in and out of the inspiration to roll a little gem off the line, polish it up and present it to the world. Once I started using a DAW, nothing felt finished. I could always go back and do the vocal again, mix the guitars up a little the next day. It was like a huge restaurant menu, the dilemma of choice stopped me in my tracks. This killed my ability to get anything done, and I wasn’t even aware of it. I’d read some articles about this, but I hadn’t recognized it was a problem for me. One day I told Cyril Jordan that I’d been working on my album for six years, and he gave me a little whack on the arm saying, “You just don’t know when you’re done!”
There’s more to this story than how the computer messed me up. I didn’t know whether my new songs were right, good enough, too weird, self indulgent, etc. When all that second-guessing combined with the ability to record endlessly, I went on and on. I recorded hundreds of things— songs, song fragments, multiple versions— so many I don’t even remember. Titles like “Penelope Pit Stop” or “Hot Dog” were random names I gave to song sketches, which makes record keeping confusing.
Now I’m going through this haystack of audio. It’s daunting, especially with the backups I’ve tried to keep, so there are multiples and alternates on five different computers in my life. One by one, I pick a song from these multi-terabyte drives and finish it. I don’t get any sleep these days, but I am having way more fun than I was poking around on Facebook or updating the driver for my webcam.
Seriously, where the hell have I been for eight years?
About the song: I stumbled upon this one when looking for the demo tape of “Bad Black Lonesome.” It’s one my first songs when I got into songwriting more seriously in 1988. It’s a dirge, indeed, and I re-cut it last week with Michael Israel. It’s called “Halfway There,” which is one of those lyrical concepts that feels true no matter where I am. So, what is old is new again. Let’s keep doing it.
Recorded at Tape Vault at Hyde St, Sept 9-17, 2013. CvS - vocals and instruments; Michael Israel - Drums.