WE are recording artistes. This is not the royal ‘we’. This is Pete and me. You remember? The infamous band Jam To-morrow? No? Thought not.
Anyway, we’re in a basement studio in north Leeds and it’s a padded cell.
Graham, the studio manager and engineer, amiable, bearded, shakes hands. We unpack our kit and plug it in while Graham rustles up a strong cup of tea.
I notice a stack of broken cymbals. “How do you break cymbals?” I ask. “You should see some of the boys who come here to rehearse,” says Graham ominously. “They know how to hit hard. It’s surprising how many cymbals they break.”
I was chatting recently with George Gray, lead guitarist for 45 years now with legendary Huddersfield blues band Ckreed. They once put down 19 live tracks in one session.
“It was a long day,” George conceded. And it has to be said that Ckreed know their cover stuff backwards, whereas Pete and I were still writing the lyrics for Syringa Street the day before we were recording.
Syringa Street, Marsh? Well, why not, if the Beatles can write about Penny Lane?
Mixing desks the size of a grand piano are not, it seems, any longer in vogue. Graham operates a desk little larger than a laptop keyboard and the action takes place now on a computer screen with a couple of piano-like keyboards that can give you believable farmyard noises, helicopters landing, two dozen different piano sounds, orchestras, strings, brass, woodwind and any percussion you could conceivably need.
Pete and I decline the use of a drummer.
“I can call him if you want,” says Graham. “The only thing is, I know for a fact he was out late last night and won’t be 100% with us.”
That decides it. Graham, turn on the ‘drum’ switch and keyboard it all into place.
Pete and I get miked and headphoned up. Bass guitar and electro-acoustic goes into ‘DI’ and straight to the engineer’s desk.
I use a heavy pick or plectrum which gives my sound a ‘burr’. To blur that signature Graham puts a second microphone next to the guitar fretboard. My guitar, then, has two simultaneous inputs.
For sound engineering, as for most other specialist activities, there is code. DI is not detective inspector in this instance, it is Direct Input. EQ, as I understand it, is short for equalising in which the signature of a moment of sound is compressed and subtly manipulated and those changes applied to the rest of the track.
Then you can ‘EQ’ all the threads of a song together to bring, say, percussion, bass, lead, rhythm, vocal or any other element to the fore or send it back. This is called mixing and is the stage before mastering.
Vocals go down on a second track so to keep us in line I mouth the songs’ words. We get most of the stuff down in one take, but when we go wrong – on the song called Love Rock And Roll, for instance, a song we can normally play in our sleep – it takes half a dozen calls.
Errors repeat themselves and become imprinted. Graham knows this and uses patience and psychology to get us over the problem.
Then it’s my turn. Pete and Graham lock themselves behind the engineering room’s heavy double glazing and I’m alone with a serious microphone that pretty much picks up my heartbeat.
“Let’s get in close for Baby Blue Eyes,” says Graham. “It’s an intimate song, not a shouter. The sound needs to be dry.” Another technical term. I’d have thought getting nearer the mic would have made for a wetter sound ...
Graham adds a soft jazz piano bridge and we move on. Harvest Moon and then Love Rock And Roll and, finally, Syringa Street, get inspirational inserts of lead guitar from Pete and Harvest Moon runs out on a clever little fade from Graham.
Our agreement was four songs but this, Graham reminds us, is negotiable if we want to get a rough version of a fifth song down. Pete and I confer. We don’t because time is getting on and we’d like to take home a mix, if not the mastered version.
Graham’s final words: “Don’t record, mix and master in one day. Sleep on it. Bring a fresh ear to it the next day. Things will occur to you later that were not apparent when you recorded them.”
And then he’s off to teach an early evening music class and later to compere an open mic night.
The day is only six hours long but is strangely exhausting. We play the mixed versions in the car on the way home. Twice.