The harsh reality of life as a part-time, unknown band is that where big bands have plenty of people around them to do all the non-creative, non-musical stuff, we have to do everything from humping equipment to…. well, to writing blogs and updating the world on social media. We’d love to spend all our time concentrating on writing songs and playing them. To be honest, I like writing this blog, which is a good thing. I have written a book, so the process of writing isn’t a hardship and as I told you in last week’s post, ‘The Artist’s Way’ course I followed might have been a life-changer, not just because it allows me to compose music but also because I don’t procrastinate about posting these pages.
However, when I read Keith Richards’ autobiography I was struck by the discovery that he and Mick Jagger wrote in the studio. Studio time is expensive, but I guess the theory… and for me it’s just that, a theory…that you write and record at the same time saves time. You’re compressing the creative process into one place and hopefully the environment will get you writing quickly and successfully. It definitely works for the Stones. How many Number One albums have they had? And it’s pretty common practice. On the other hand, we can’t afford to go open-ended into a studio in the hope of giving birth to fifteen or twenty songs, so I write on my own, or much too occasionally with Ray. As I was saying in last week’s blog, I wanted to put down demos that would give the guys a much better idea of the finished song but using an analog recorder was difficult and didn’t give me the finished product I was hoping for, and absent a shiny, well-equipped studio with recording engineer ready to commit my musings to posterity, I needed to find an alternative.
So I decided to learn how to produce music. Every week through the autumn of 2018 I went to Soundflow Music Academy in Guildford. Nikos Argallas, better known as Lektrix, his stage name, teaches other DJs, and people like me, how to produce and engineer. It was, and is, difficult. It’s that left side/right side of the brain thing. All of a sudden the musician in you has to learn about the physics of sound transmission, attenuation, microphone set-up, EQs, compression, delay, and all the million things an engineer can do in his sleep. But it gave me the first building blocks of recording techniques and enough knowledge of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. I told you it seemed complicated when I watched our engineer, Rob, using it when we were cutting our EP. If anything it became even more incomprehensible but I persevered. It does get easier, slowly. The other day I managed to record, on my own, a pretty comprehensible track. This after two terms with Nikos. But the insights he gave me were enough to get started and together we worked on a song called ‘Pilgrims’. It will be out later this year, coronavirus lockdown permitting, and the proceeds will go to Cancer Research. In a later post I’ll tell you about how I wrote it, the recording and the video which will be released at the same time. And if you’re interested why I wrote it, please do go to www.justgiving.com/fundraising/thousandkilometrewalk to read about my walk through Northern Spain. And if you’re wondering who Graham Knight is…. have a guess.
Back to recording: when I watch Nikos, or Tom Hughes, from Dragonfly Studios who is producing our album, their fingers fly over the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. Currently I have 11 thumbs and what they do almost intuitively takes me minutes to work out. However, in my defence, it’s their job and they’ve been doing it day in, day out, for years. And although my time seems to be spent more and more in front of a monitor, I know my limitations. For one, and any fellow musicians reading this will know what I’m talking about when I describe how difficult it is to play an instrument and record yourself at the same time. You get the track lined up, you’re ready to go. You hit ‘record’ and the 2 bar count-in starts. Plenty of time. You know this song inside out. Hang on, where’s the pick? You put it down to hit the key and now you can’t find it. Meanwhile the track is being recorded, or rather the silence while you locate that pick. And while other people are great at concentrating on more than one task at a time, it’s not my forte and I’ll be so busy concentrating on the guitar or keyboard part I’m trying to record I will have forgotten about checking my levels so I play a blinding track only to find it’s unusable. Nevertheless it’s worth persevering…. I think. I’ve just written and recorded a song about coronavirus, or rather the effect it has on us. Given the logistics, I had to record it then send the project to Tom. He quite rightly threw it straight back at me because I got the timing wrong, so I had to start again. The second attempt hasn’t been flung contemptuously in my direction yet so I can only hope this one has been accepted.
There are so many advantages to having a great producer. I’ll talk about several individual flashes of genius from the ones I’ve had the pleasure to work with in later posts, but most of all you get a very professional eye looking at your work. I’ve long gone past the notion that everything I write is brilliant. That version running my head might be a masterpiece but the lesson I’ve taken is that you can write it, you can lay down the tracks, you can sing it from the bottom of your soul but you need a great producer with a trained ear to give a detailed critique of your work. Sometimes it’s hard to hear.
NEXT WEEK: A FLASH OF UNEXPECTED INSPIRATION