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RAP'S BLOG: BACKSTAGE ACCESS

Adventures in the Recording Studio in 2017

I’m an analog guy, but the modern recording studio might as well be Disneyland

Recording studio

Hi everyone,

If you have been reading this blog over time you probably know by now that aside from being in the music biz my whole life, I am also an avid guitar player (read my blog about my new Les Paul guitar here), and in the last five years or so have become very serious about upping my game and making some of my own music.

Wanting to play mostly blues, I started my own little jam session about three years ago.  I got some good players together and over time the jam session organically turned into a real band.  We got good enough to play out and have gotten some great response, so now we are going to the next level.

A singer-songwriter friend suggested I write an original song.  I had written what I considered a few worthwhile songs in the 70’s but I really don’t fancy myself as a songwriter.  He told me I should try and so I began to think about what I might write about.  Well, it’s a blues band so I figured what am I blue about?  The first thing that popped into my head was how sad I was about how the world had turned out.  In the 60’s I had high hopes for the end of war, the human race evolving to place of greater understanding, etc., etc.  I could not have imagined 9/11, the war in Iraq, what’s going on in Syria and the planet in danger of dying due to pollution.  Also, as much as I love the Internet and Smart Phones I do believe that we have somewhat become slaves to the overload of technology.  I wish we would all talk a bit more with one another rather than leave most of our communication to e-mail and texts.  The world has changed for sure, so that’s what I wrote about.  Lucky for me, at the same time I was sitting in bed one night playing unplugged before bedtime as I often do, and a great riff popped out.  I really dug it and knew where the influence had come from but I had to double check to see if I stole it, or, if indeed, I wrote it.  I am happy to report that the latter is the case.  I put the two together and a really good song came together.  It’s called “The World Has Changed (a modern blues).”

We picked a day to record the basic tracks and then a couple of the guys came back on another day for overdubs.  I haven’t recorded since the 80’s and WOW have things changed!  Because I am basically old school I recorded the rhythm tracks with nothing more than my Les Paul plugged into my original 1955 Fender Champ amplifier.  For those who don’t know, this is a very small amp (only has an eight inch speaker) but when turned up to about 6 or 7 begins to break up and gives a great big gutsy sound.  In fact, early recordings by the Who, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and others utilized this amp for larger than life guitar sounds.

Les Paul
My Les Paul

When the producer hit the record button I was pleased to hear how good we had all become as individual players and how tight we’d become as a unit.  Once we figured out the best way to record the drums we knocked out the basic tracks in three or four takes.  That is a far cry from my very first-ever recording date in the early 70’s when I remember playing in a band and struggling mightily.  I’ll never forget that day and the memory that looms largest is when through my headphones I heard the producer say “Take thirty-six.”  Take thirty-six??!!!  I knew very little about recording then but when I heard “take thirty-six” I distinctly remember thinking, ‘something is dreadfully wrong if we can’t get this right in at least thirty-five tries!!’  Ha, ha–OMG, how embarrassing.  At any rate, much better this time and feeling very professional about it all.

I laid down a vocal (there’s a sentence I thought I’d never write) and then started working with the producer on honing the best sounds for all the instruments and the vocal itself.  This is where all the fun began.

I had played the rhythm tracks through the Champ but also had put down a lead solo to use at the end of the song using the same amp.  The producer suggested a more beefed up sound for my solo.  “Let’s see how your guitar will sound through a stack of Marshalls.”   “Great!  I’ll go plug in,” I was so excited.  “No, he said, you don’t understand.  I just have to re-amp your existing solo through this software.”  He pushed a few buttons—voila!  I sounded like AC/DC!  “Whoa, too harsh,” I said.  “OK, here it is through a Vox AC30, here it is through an Orange, here it is through…” you get the idea.  I settled for the Vox AC30—bigger but smooooooth.

“Now let’s work on Rob’s solo” (I chose the other guitar player’s solo for the middle of the song).  Let’s put him through a Fender Twin, hell, let’s put him through two Fender Twins.”  So forth and so on–what a blast!!

It only got better from there.  Our harp player, who’s a white Jewish guy from Muttontown, Long Island had played an inspired solo that sounded as if the devil himself had inhabited the body of an old black blues player from the south.  We all loved it and now Peter Kaplow has been nicknamed “Black Satan” by the rest of us band mates.  I told the producer that the solo performance itself sounded great but the harp needed to sound dirty and gritty.  “You mean, like this?”  He punched up  “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin where Robert Plant’s harp sound is exactly what was in my mind—a few clicks later and Pete’s harp sounded exactly like Plant’s!

Two Fender Champ amplifiers. The one on the left is a replica, hand built by the other guitar player in the band. The one on the right is my original 1955 Champ that I’ve had since I was 7 years old!

Then came the most amazing part.  I told the producer that I loved Pete’s solo but I wasn’t happy with the last two notes.  They had resolved in a typical blues turn-around style but they didn’t quite fit with what the rhythm section had played.  I asked if we could find another take with a different ending and use that.  He said, “We don’t have to, I will now show you one of the most evil things in new studio technology, it’s called Melodyne.”  Hold on to your hats folks—I watched a graph on the computer screen and listened as he took the last two notes and raised their pitch little by little until they matched the previous two notes!—really?!!!  He said, “Yeah, and watch this, I can extend any note as well, as if you asked a singer to hold a note a bit longer.”  OMG, the possibilities are endless with this thing–positively Orwellian.

“Hey do you like the drum sound?  If you want I can hit this button and they will sound as if Chris Lord-Alge recorded them!”  Geez, now you don’t even have to hire Chris Lord-Alge, he’s virtually imbedded in the freakin’ software!!

As excited as I was (and remain) about all the possibilities of all this new gear, the idea of it kind of rails against my usual vision and desire for authenticity.  I hate the idea of  “Auto-Tune” which is a device that will alter the pitch of one’s voice to make sure all the notes are pitched correctly.  Many of the pop singers you hear today cannot sing that well in real life and Auto-Tune makes them sound like they have talent that they do not truly possess.  So I found it funny and quite hypocritical when all of the sudden it was my turn, and I was looking for all the studio gadgets and extra help I could get! Ha!

I am proud that we did it mostly old school using our talents.  The drums were played from beginning to end with no loops.  So were the rhythm tracks and the guitar solos were not comped  (pieced together from multiple takes), they are entire performances from beginning to end.  And my vocal IS NOT AUTO-TUNED!  Thank God we’re playing the blues and not Opera.

I also know now first hand why most of the big recording studios are out of business.  In our small studio with all the state of the art software, I produced one song from soup to nuts for only $400.00.  If I had recorded the same song at The Hit Factory back in the day, it would have cost $4,000.00!

OK, so where’s the freakin’ song already—let’s hear it, right?  Well, here’s the other part of the business that I am learning first hand.  I can’t play it for you yet because I am in the process of getting both the song (lyrics and music) and the sound recording copyrighted by the United States Copyright Office, joining ASCAP to track the song when played, and signing up to TuneCore for digital distribution, etc., etc., etc.  And of course I have to make a video.

The plan is to get all of our ducks in a row and then release the track in the fall.  I have played it for a few close friends who are in the biz and have gotten some very good reaction, and my wife even likes it and she hates everything (ha, ha, well, just not a blues fan that’s all) so I figure it must have turned out pretty well.

I am pumped to release it, and a link will appear in these pages as soon as all is completed.  I just really wanted to write about my experience in the studio now, while all the memories were still fresh.

I encourage every musician out there to go and experience what it’s like to record these days.  Just like Disneyland you will have a lot of fun visiting Frontier Land, Adventure Land, Tomorrow Land (which is now Today Land), and mostly Fantasy Land!!  I guarantee you will have a blast.

Keep rockin’ kids!

Rap~

© Paul Rappaport 2017

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