Over the summer of summer of 2006 I recorded an album with my college band. Going into the process I was convinced nothing would come of it. I thought we would run out of time or money and curse ourselves for wasting both. To my surprise we finished the album as planned. While I think that many artists come to resent their art, the album is still something I enjoy listening to. So here’s the story.
The band was called Paragon. Our style was hard rock or power pop. I like heavier music that is also melodic, so that is the music I tend to write. (I will get into writing music later. I think that may be interesting as well.) The band formed when a few friends from high school got together the summer after our freshman year of college. The group was Greg on drums, Keegan on guitar, Ben on bass and vocals, and myself on guitar.
We had been in bands before so it was natural to gather in a basement with some instruments and play covers. We did this for a little while and then started coming up with songs of our own. They weren’t much, perhaps a chord progression or fragment of a melody. Most of them were improvised and changed each time we played them. I will skip ahead here, because this isn’t about forming a band. Needless to say, we wrote some songs, played some shows, and named ourselves “Paragon” after the word of the day on merriam-webster.com.
My uncle was a partner in a recording studio in Kentucky and they had some time available. We booked 8 days in late July 2006. Looking back now, the location of the studio was key. We were all from Michigan, so Kentucky was far away from family, friends, jobs, and anything else that would have been a distraction. We were there to make an album and we had nothing else to do. It was also good that we had a limited amount of time. Everyone was laser focused. I think that constraints are important for getting things done. I can be a perfectionist, but when time is your enemy, you learn that ‘good enough’ is just fine.
The studio wanted us to send them a track list and a CD with the “scratch tracks.” These were recordings of a rhythm guitar and lead vocal on top of a metronome. Figuring out the tempos was hard. We played consistently live - that is not speeding up or slowing down. But when writing we never said “this song will be 140 BPM.” The tempo on any night depended on the energy in the audience and how we were feeling. So one night in June we all sat around with a metronome and tried different numbers until the songs felt right. Once we had this, Ben and I made the scratch tracks on an 8-track recorder.
Recording these tracks was tedious. Some of the songs had long instrumental passages. With no musical reference points, Ben and I would have to count out the number of bars as we recorded. Sometimes we would lose count which meant starting the track over. Eventually we got these tracks done and mailed them off.
The band also talked about arrangements during this time. When you play live, you can only use as many instruments as there are band members. But in a studio setting you can use as many instruments as you want. A lot of people take this way too far, adding layer upon layer. It was important to us to stay close to our live sound but we weren’t against adding additional parts if it helped the song. Later in the studio we added extra instruments in places that sounded too empty and scrapped some of the more ambitious things we had planned. Just like the time pressure this adaptability helped us finish the album.
Arriving at the studio on the first day I was nervous and intimidated. Fortunately everyone was friendly and we had a lot of work to do so I quickly forgot those feelings. We unloaded all of our gear. We had taken two cars to fit everything. We had 5 guitars, 1 bass, 3 amplifiers, 1.5 drums sets and a bunch of miscellaneous junk. The studio personnel helped and chatted us up. One of the producers asked Keegan if he could “tap that hum-bucker” pickup on his fat strat to make it single coil. We had no idea what he was talking about. To this day we still joke about that.
The studio had lots of its own gear, some of which we considered using. The recording engineers tried to persuade Greg to use the studio drums because they were tuned and the microphones were already positioned. But he was comfortable with his own set, so they packed up theirs. Greg then got a lecture from the studio owner about the cost of each drum mic. If he was joking, Greg wasn’t laughing.
We all picked locations in the room. I chose the area right in front of the control room so I wouldn’t have to look at anyone except the band. There were always people coming and going from the control room and I didn’t want to be distracted watching them. We all got huge, well-insulated headphones with volume controls for each ear and everyone got a microphone so we could talk back to the control room.
When everyone was situated, the recording engineer placed several microphones and little foam walls around each guitar amplifier. The walls kept the sound from bleeding into other microphones. They didn’t want Ben to play his bass through an amp because bass frequencies travel further, so he was plugged directly into the mixing console. It didn’t really matter because his bass was in our headphones, but as a player it’s always a little embarrassing when you can’t play through a big amplifier.
At this point they had us run through a few songs to warm up. It was easy. The mix in the headphones was great. I could actually hear myself which was usually impossible when we played live. I could also dial in the perfect volume in my headphones - also a problem live. They had us practice playing to the click track for a little while. “Wait for the click” was a phrase we heard many times in the southern drawl of the recording engineer Steve. I’m sure some bands practice to a metronome but we never did. Regardless, it wasn’t difficult.
Recording methods vary, but this particular studio wanted to do the drum tracks first and build up the song from there. The focus of the first two days was getting the drums down. The band would play the entire song, but the engineer was focused on the drums. If Greg messed up or the engineer heard something he didn’t like he would have us start over. This was really strange. When you make a mistake live you keep playing. If you hit the wrong note you hit it again twice as loud and pretend you meant it. Fortunately, Greg is a solid drummer and didn’t mess up much. We would record several takes of a song and then gather in the control room to listen. Steve would isolate the drums and we would decide if we liked a particular take. Even if we were happy with a take, we would record a few more just to see if Greg could do better.
It came out during one of these listening sessions that Steve was a huge metal fan. The ring tone on his phone was a riff from Pantera. I think he could tell early on that most of my solos were cheap ripoffs of Randy Rhodes. Another studio employee (the same guy who asked about “tapping that hum-bucker”) correctly identified some Night Ranger guitar tricks I had stolen. While we didn’t sound anything like Pantera, Randy Rhodes, or Night Ranger, we now had a common bond with Steve. I felt comfortable that our album was in the hands of a metalhead.
After a lunch break and several more hours of the drum tracking we retired for the day. I could already see that things were going much better than expected. My anxiety faded to excitement. There was nothing to think about except what we had to record the next day. My aunt and uncle took us out for victory pizza and it was delicious.