The Demo is the Record: Bill Baird on Recording

Bill Baird

Welcome to Music Is My Business, Business is Weird, a three part series curated by musician Bill Baird that explores the funny nature of the music industry. With each edition, Baird offers insight through experience on the strange business of being a musician both on the major label level and the DIY circuit. He begins in the studio, where there's cake, engineers, but never the Gallagher brothers.

Bill Baird

I'm not much of an Oasis fan but I always liked their haircuts—greasy mop tops combed forward towards sneering scowls, like characters from a gladiator movie, except dueling their own mediocrity rather than an oily body builder. I'd heard tell that Oasis were down in the Capitol Studios and thought I'd pay them a visit. I'd gotten my ticket into the “big game” and wanted to soak up every experience possible. Why the hell not? I was there anyway and I had a special “pass” that allowed me to walk around like somebody special.

I imagined the Gallaghers doing 10-foot lines of blow across the mixing board, meeting in the middle, slapping high fives, plagiarizing another top-40 hit, insulting the world with their coked-out sneer and bratty boring blah-ness. Yes, it sounded amusing, if not enlightening, so I walked down the long hallway and made my way into the studio, but the Gallaghers were nowhere in sight. Instead, there sat two hunched, balding, paunchy, middle-aged engineers in t-shirts programming a boring clinical drum beat.

“Is this the Oasis session?” I asked.

“Yes,” one of the engineers replied, not even looking up from the computer. The control room was larger than my house.

This experience enlightened me, but not in the way I'd anticipated. The painful blaring mediocrity of their facade had become apparent, sure. They'd cultivated an image and I'd bought it and now it was in tatters. The smart pop stars know this and use this common knowledge. They factor it into their schtick. This is the reality of most studios. It's not inspired, it's not Fleetwood Mac in bunk beds in the main tracking room; it's drudgery performed by thankless, nameless engineers. The drugs and bad attitudes are left at the door. When you've got work to do, there's not much time for that shit.

…Well, I take that back. While recording Career I was overdosed on Nyquil, coffee, and pain medication. I felt like I was swimming inside a bubble of condensed saline solution while wearing a pair of fluffy purple pajama pants and goggles made of teardrops. I'd caught a stomach bug at a taco stand down in Mexico. When I came home I had to go on an I.V. and lost fifteen pounds. Life had gotten weird. Driving to the studio, I kept hallucinating herds of deer running across the road. At one point I became inexplicably tangled in mic cables. The music sounded different to me, too. It wasn't the stereotypical “trippy” music you'd associate with hallucinations. Nor was it blissful or zoned out. It was distorted, thrashed, and with way way less ornamentation—a giant BLAST of color, the music sounding like an overloaded electrical circuit.

DONT EAT THE CAKE

Nyquil induced hallucinations aren't for the faint of heart and are probably not the way to embark on a music recording “career,” but by the time you do something like that, you've probably seen and done plenty. I certainly had, by that point having dabbled in studios both cheap and fancy. The latter tend to be the ones you remember, though, if only because they are such a rarity and filled with such bizarre details. One studio in Nashville provided a $100 chocolate cake for its staff and clients every day.

A $100 chocolate cake in a recording studio kitchen doesn't help you record a song. It doesn't even taste that different than a $5 cake. What is tasted like was a brown mud effluvia dripping out the blowhole of a rapidly descending Hindenburg blimp holding myself and all my bandmates.

Stare not into the $100 chocolate cake, lest it stare back.

“This is what you've come to, eh, Bill?” the cake taunts. “Success! Take a bite.”

Bite not into the cake lest the cake bite back.

You almost want to eat the chocolate cake just to spite the damn thing, to shut it up. But the second you ingest it, its voice only gets louder. It's now rattling around in your guts, and next thing you know the very words you speak are no longer your own but those of a $100 chocolate cake that symbolizes all that is wrong with this horrible train wreck collision of art and commerce.

“Auto-tune!” speaks the cake, now coursing from your belly through your blood stream, infecting your mental process. “More compression! (burp) Find me some whiskey! (burp) Call in the session players! Put it on the label's tab!”

You think you've consumed the chocolate cake, but the chocolate cake has actually consumed you.

Hell yes, I ate that taunting cake. I took a bite. By God, I took multiple bites. I had to! When would I ever get another chance at such excess? A royal wedding? To me it felt more like a funeral, my own funeral, watching my band Sound Team get buried with a silver shovel in an overpriced confectionary grave. Perhaps the cake's rich brown color and earthy texture was appropriate. I chewed slowly and tried to savor it all. In the other room, our producer desperately ran our overproduced clump of a record through another set of knobs, another set of filters, more computers, more plug-ins. I had been furiously screamed out of the room after suggesting “more bass.”

“Get the fuck out of here!” was the polite request.

THE DEMO IS THE RECORD

So I did just that. I grabbed another handful of cake and got on a plane and left Nashville. This didn't feel like music. The recordings ended up getting sent to another aesthetically soggy industry insider. He had recently mixed an album for The Killers and I guess Capitol thought he could sprinkle some of his “sonic gold dust” on our music. All for naught, however. His “sonic gold dust” sounded more like sonic dandruff.

As expected, the result was an inflated bloat, a empty belch of music industry excess. Everything in the recording is perfect, every note tuned, every beat lined up just right, which means the recording is dog shit. A perfect everything is a meaningless nothing. Music needs dirt, mistakes, errors, flubs. It needs reality. Even computer music reality, even an electronic composition needs that bit of wiggle room, the allowance for error, in order for the composition to breathe, to have life and to give life to the listener. The most direct path from me to the listener is what I've always aimed for. If I could plug my guitar straight into their ears, I would. Every filter between my intended sound and the listener is a layer of interference. The music gets softer, loses its edges. It becomes death by a thousand tiny cuts. What is the best recording format? The one you have with you. I'd rather have a lo-fi something than a hi-fi nothing.

This creates a weird situation, though, especially for anyone interested in industry “success.” In the music biz, you normally record a demo, polish it, spit shine it, take it to the carwash, wax it, and cruise it around with the top down. At the very least, you vacuum the floor mats. You remove the dirt and impurities to reveal the perfect gem of a song lying within the seed you'd earlier planted. You revise, you re-record. You ditch the demo.

But everything that would be immediately excised in a proper studio environment—the tape hiss, the coughing, the bumping of a microphone, the out of tune guitar, the dog's barking, the crackhead walking through your front door asking to buy a sweet potato—these are precisely the elements that give a recording its life. I'd rather listen to a crackhead coughing any day over the latest Coldplay/Train/you-name-it bland-ass perfection clump of flavorless musical unseasoned mashed starch food product.

For me, the demo IS the record. Rather than endlessly polish, I'd rather just record a new song and push the energy forward. The refining happens through the process of writing and releasing more and more music. By your second or third release, maybe your recordings sound better, maybe the songs don't stink quite so bad. You learn by doing, by projecting into the world. You advance leaps and bounds in your craft while folks you started out recording and songwriting with are still endlessly tweaking that shitty first song they wrote. “This kick drum sounds a little poofy,” they'll say. Yeah, sure. But the songs just plain stinks. Ditch this flim-flab and write a new tune. Keep moving.

But sometimes by focusing on mistakes and how they “keep it real,” you miss the big picture. You crawl down your little obsessive rabbit hole. Music is ultimately a shared experience, it's communal, and if you go too far down your rabbit hole, you're all alone with your head in the mud. You can even end up actively cultivating error and mistakes, which is just as contrived as an auto-tuned perfect production.

I've attempted to upgrade my approach and can even make professional recordings now. I've got the reel to prove it (link here to my online portfolio, etc) Main rule of good recordings is this: Get the nicest gear you can, however you can, set it up in front of a musician, hit record, and that's it. That's all there is to it.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

I once took a recording class at Willie Nelson's studio. The class was supposed to teach me how to be a “pro.” What a crock of shit. No lecture can teach you recording; you learn by doing it. The class setting was ridiculous, as well. Willie Nelson's studio, called Pedernales, has a golf course out back and an old-west movie set elsewhere on the property. If this sounds nice, don't be fooled. The golf course was riddled with weeds and hadn't been used in months. The studio's interior was a Bob-Ross-velvet-texture-wet-dream. Of course, there's the dozens of gold records and photographs of Willie with heads of state and supermodels. He also had some life-sized replicas of himself, which impressed me mightily. But it also felt kind of sad. So much wealth and excess concentrated in so few hands and hardly being used at all. The swimming pool out back, Olympic sized probably, was drained and filled with leaves.

At the recording class, they tried to drill something into me. Can't quite recall what. Professionalism? Probably. But this is rock and roll, not manners class. I mean, you have to get a little weird, a little out there. It's not all about exchanging pleasantries and business cards and switching to green tea because it's much more sensible. Is it?

While there I plugged my Casio SK-5 into some of the nicest mic pres on the planet and made a cheap synthesizer drone. The class instructor was disgusted. I think the week before Pedernales had been host to the Dixie Chicks.

Whatever, though. The recording class did nothing for me. You can't listen to somebody tell you how to record music. You have to freaking do it yourself! You have to want it so bad you're willing to fail, over and over again. You have to be an insane person to learn this stuff. You have to deny reality and bend it to your own purposes. You have to be Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, investing pointless activities with the weight of the world. No activity has any meaning but the meaning we put into it.

At some point you have to take care of yourself. You want to stay alive. The myth of the burned out rock star is a myth that has persisted far too long. You dial yourself back if only allow yourself to live for those occasional moments of excess. They are worth the wait. And life is a beautiful thing, meant to be embraced. You can't do that if you're dead.

The reality of the recording studio lies not in tales of excess, but in the boring drudgery: winding cables, aligning the tape machine, confirming appointments, taking out the garbage. If you can't attend to these details, you burn out. You become overwhelmed by reality. Because reality is mostly these boring small moments. If you can wade through the drudgery, you can unexpectedly arrive at the epiphanies, the moments of clarity, when time seems to speed up, the creative wheels are turning, the gears fit together, the process clicks and hums. To get at these moments of inspiration, which can last anywhere from an hour to a week, you have to wade through the ho-hum daily reality. There is no way around it, and you won’t find the answer in drugs or chocolate cake.

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