This is a cautionary tale about the differences between studio recording and live performance, as it applies to the musicians who are recording. These differences did not always exist, at least not to the extent that they do today.
In the past, before the age of Pro Tools and computer recording, bands would typically record in a linear fashion. That is, they wrote a song, rehearsed it over and over, and then would record “live on the floor,” much like recording a live performance.
Limitations would force this. Bob Marley’s big album had its main tracks recorded on an 8-track tape. The problem was they had 40 members playing. They rehearsed for 8 hours per day for a full month before recording. They were as tight as they would ever be. That tape was then sent to England, where the “Western” instruments and elements were added in a bigger studio.
With computer recording, many people will come up with ideas in pieces. They have a main riff, a chorus, a bridge, and come up with an intro and ending. They play the main riff once, and then copy/paste.
These two different recording techniques would bring about a major divide between recording and performing, over time. Being in Los Angeles for 33 years, I encountered this problem more than once.
Today’s entry is about one of those challenging times.
I will NOT be naming the band, even though chances are good that they are no longer together. This isn’t about shaming them, but rather about warning others regarding this problem. It’s my story to tell.
This “band” was a handful of people who got together on occasion. For a few years, I would go record with them. They would let me know what instruments I would be playing. They’d either email me a scratch track of what they’d hobbled together so far, or give me a CD of the same.
How they wrote and recorded their songs was precisely like the second example noted above. They’d have an idea, record a few bars, get it nice and tight over the course of time, and then copy/paste. They would get some good results.
One of them told me that the band should try their hand at live performance. I warned them that this was a completely different beast from what they were used to addressing. The “band” leader set up the rehearsal, and I warned him with two words.
I probably should have been more precise, but it wasn’t my band and I was already overstepping my boundaries as a person who would be invited to track on occasion.
THE FIRST REHEARSAL
I was ready to go, since I sat with all of the songs for several hours the week before the rehearsal. The keyboard player showed up with notes and scribbles, so he was ready. The bass player would share notes with the keyboard player, so she was ready. The singer had lyrics printed out, so he was ready.
But the guitarist showed up with nothing. As he said, “I wrote these songs, so I should know how they go.” Fine. Let’s do it.
We start the first song, and right away the “songwriter” was having a problem. He couldn’t remember how his own songs went.
Because he had never played them in their entirety in a linear fashion before. His way was always about coming up with parts and recording the parts. The rest was studio magic. He never really sat down and learned the songs.
He tried looking at the keyboard player’s notes, but he had no ability to read music.
So here I was, as the drummer, picking up his guitar and showing him how his own parts to his own songs went. He said at one point that he wasn’t too happy with this situation. I commented that I wasn’t either, because I had warned everyone to “be prepared.”
I suppose he didn’t know what that meant, either.
This rehearsal was in a big rehearsal room that was costing by the hour. It was a total wash. While I lost no money, it was still my time and energy that was wasted. And it put me in a position where things between him and me were becoming combative and tenuous.
We had a handful of rehearsals at his condo. I called them “The Unplugged Sessions,” because we all used acoustic instruments and I played bongos instead of drums. If I were an ill-prepared drummer who knew nothing, then they’d be in big trouble because I would be losing important time with those rehearsals.
Luckily, I would go rent my own space and get some intense practice in.
We played the show. I didn’t record it, because I had very low expectations. My instinct was right. As it turned out, I was the most prepared out of anyone in the entire “band,” and it wasn’t even my band.
I was the most prepared because I was the only one who had live performance experience. None of them had live performance experience. Not only that, but none of them had ever played the songs through in linear fashion before the announcement that we’d be playing a show. Luckily, they were by far superior musicians to the guitarist and owner of the “band.”
SESSION AFTER THE SHOW
The guitarist never recovered from this degrading experience. His ego was severely bruised, possibly beyond repair.
A few months later, they called me in to record some drums. We had a rented room and I was ready to go. Their sound engineer / producer was on the DAW and board, and the guitar player / owner was sitting in a corner. He was on his laptop with headphones on, listening to music.
Keep in mind that he could NOT hear the playback to what I was drumming with. He had no idea what was going on at all.
I start playing and the producer stops recording. He says, “The intro was a little loose.” Fine. I’m used to this happening at times. It happens to everyone. We just start over.
But as soon as the producer said that, the guitar player chimed in. “Hey, that was a little loose there. Get your act together.”
There would be a few other incidents. The producer would say something, and then this asshole would repeat it, adding his own personal jab, as revenge for the embarrassment he felt when I had to show him how his own songs went.
Again, he wasn’t listening to the tracking, so he had no idea what he was talking about. He wasn’t being productive or helpful. He was just being an asshole.
The next time he made one of his duplicate asshole comments was the last. I’d had enough. I confronted him and asked him why he was doing that. He replied, “What’s the problem? You’re the one who’s always messing up here.”
Ah. Because four whole mistakes while recording amounts to “always messing up.” He was trying to make my small errors out to be worse than him not knowing how to play ANY of his own songs that HE wrote himself.
I gave him a reality check. “I understand. This is your band, not mine. I’m not even a band member. Hell, I’m not even being paid to be here. The ONLY reason I’m here is because I found the experience to be enjoyable.”
His eyes widened. He knew what I was going to say next.
“This is NOT enjoyable. Since enjoyment is my pay, and I’m not getting my pay, I think that’s a clear sign that we’re done here.”
He got mad and begged me to stay. As I was packing up, that attitude changed to, “Get the fuck out of here now!” I wasn’t going to leave any gear behind, because I didn’t want to have to return to get it. We were DONE!
I never talked to him again.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO…
Word has it that this guitar playing songwriter, who didn’t know how to play his own songs, ended up quitting his music pursuits. He moved back to Alabama, took a job in his family business, and got married.
I would stay in LA for another 15 years, with a grand total of 33 years, before I’d decide that there are other things that I’d rather do. When you’ve played the Sunset Strip with dozens of bands over decades, there reaches a point where you want to do other things.
That’s why I’m currently in the middle of nowhere, writing this. I no longer feel that I need to be in LA to do whatever I want to do.
IN THE END
Over the course of my life, I’ve been in bands that record in a linear fashion, “on the floor,” meaning the entire band performs and we get the recording in one solid linear take. I’ve also been in bands that record in modular fashion, putting things together.
On my own, I have recorded using both methods, linear and modular. Most of the time, I’ll record the entire song on one instrument, and then record all instruments in linear fashion.
I’ve even engaged in “comping.” This is where you record a passage several times over, or you record several bits, and then you can pick the best one, pick pieces here and there to create a performance, or you can string the performances together.
The last example was how the ending solo for “Comfortably Numb” was created. David Gilmour just comped a bunch of passages, and the producer strung them together to create one of the most epic guitar solos of all time. In other words, he did NOT write this in linear fashion.
There is no shame in any of this. If it’s good enough for David Gilmour, then it’s most definitely good enough for me.
However, the thing is that David Gilmour had to, at the very least, sit down and learn the solo before going out on tour. That said, I’m willing to bet that he took the comped version of the solo, learned it, and re-recorded it for the album.
Not that he would have to do that, but that’s my educated guess. Considering the fact that they were working with tape, I think that I might be correct on that guess.
So if you’re sitting around at home, writing and recording a bunch of songs, then that’s really cool. I dig it. Make music any way you can. Do whatever works.
But if this is all you’ve ever done, and you later decide that you want to gig out, please understand that this will have great implications for you down the road.
Ask yourself whether or not you’d pick up a guitar, or whatever instrument you play, and perform the song in public at a coffee shop. If the answer is “yes,” then you will probably be fine in your preparation methods.
But if your answer is “no,” then you are nowhere near what we call “gig-ready.” You’re a musician. Maybe you’re a writer. But you are most definitely not a performer. At least, not yet. Don’t give up. Just understand that it’s going to take a great deal of work on your part.
After all, there’s a big difference between recording bits and pieces in the privacy of your bedroom studio, and playing a full song, front-to-back, in front of a big audience.
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