I am standing in the recording studio, staring at the microphone, waiting for the count-in. I am trying not to think of how much this is costing, and how much time we have. Time falls away like powder, and nine hours will easily become two if we’re not careful. Or if I mess up.
This is our first studio recording together, and we’re doing it live, a selection of tunes from our set. Nothing too ambitious, just four songs. Play each one through a couple of times, keep the best one, move on to the next. Shouldn’t be too difficult as we’ve already played them dozens of times on gigs, but this is a recording, and the rules are different. It’s a recording, and we don’t want to make mistakes. I don’t want to make mistakes, because mine are the only ones I will ever hear.
In the days of analogue, engineers were economical with tape, and you had to make a choice there and then as to whether you kept a track; play, stop, listen, play, stop, listen all day long. Now with digital, you can keep everything and save the hard choices for later – but you will still have to listen to it all at some point.
We are on our first take of the day. As we progress through the tune I start hearing a voice, one that hasn’t been there for a long time, but used to accompany me on gigs, saying, ‘okay, you’ve got through the first verse, now the chorus, you’ve not messed up yet…’ talking me through the tune. This isn’t a guiding voice, like Obi-wan Kenobi telling Luke to use the Force, this is more like Darth Vader; ‘You’ve not messed up yet, but it’s coming. Sooner or later you will, and the take will be ruined. You’ll never get this recording finished. You and your band, but you in particular, will sound crap.’
The voice is subdued and soon we are on the second take, then the third, by which time I’m beginning to feel the familiar looseness in my lips that says that very soon, my lips are going to give out. I’ve already played for about an hour this morning, just with warmup and mic checks. On a gig, I can last for about two hours. In terms of lip fatigue, today is going to be like playing four gigs. The voice returns.
I’ve been preparing for this date for a year. I didn’t want to do one at first, but the need grew for better recordings to get bigger gigs, to have something to sell, to have a record of what we’ve done. I’ve put in specific practise to ensure that what I end up playing on this date is worth listening to, that I will be happy with what goes down, that it will stand up to other recordings I love. Like the rest of the band, I’ve had plenty of experience in studios, but usually playing for other people. This is my chance, and it’s all about to go down the pan because my lips aren’t strong enough.
We get a passable version of the first tune, and we can come back if time, and my lip, permits. I haven’t looked at my watch yet because I don’t want to know how much time we’ve used so far. I’m thinking too much, about my lip, about the notes, about the fact that it’s Bank Holiday and these guys are here and not being paid. At least it’s raining. I need Obi-wan telling me to stop thinking and use the Force.
He appears in the form of Mark, the engineer. ‘Just treat it like a rehearsal,’ he says, adjusting my microphone, ‘you’re practising, I’m practising, we’re all just finding our way through.’ Uh huh.
The second tune goes down. Mark, our guitarist, isn’t happy with his take, but it sounds fine to me. He’s captured the mood of the piece and instead I feel I let everyone down with a particularly poorly-placed note in my solo. We press on, try to get the next two down before lunch.
I make it through the next number and play a decent solo, but eight bars from the end, my lip goes. I can’t hit the high notes. We keep playing, but the take is a scrub, and with it, probably the whole tune. Our last track before lunch features the drums and bass. They both sound great and Russ, our drummer, lays down a rhythm that I wish I could play to, but the chops have gone. We break for lunch.
We take a long lunch break. More money, the clock ticks, but I’m physically incapable of playing anything. Time to take stock; one tune that’s decent, three that need to be re-recorded. Once fed, I’m feeling optimistic again. We’ve still got three hours left. Plenty of time to get three tunes right.
The first one goes down. I’m feeling rejuvenated and relaxed, my range and stamina have returned, the niggling little Darth Vader voice has disappeared. We do multiple takes of all four tunes again, and with time to spare, lay down two more.
At the end of the day we emerge from the studio. I’m happy with what we’ve done, and the rest of the guys seem satisfied. I don’t want to think about it too much though, I’ve done enough of that for one day.