Beside a deserted road littered with chunks of gravel is an unexceptional building that’s pale green, squat and narrow. But inside is a world entirely different from the structures boring exterior. Expensive gadgetry that seems ripped straight from the pages of a science fiction novel is scattered throughout the place, and microphones of all shapes, brands and varieties are arranged in the corners.
This is the hideout of Big Sky Recording, and it’s only one of many recording studios in Ann Arbor, a city with a burgeoning music scene rife with acts both established and up-and-coming.
While listeners are drawn to music by intangibles — memories evoked and emotions stirred through chords and melodies — the process of recording music is much more involved.
The definition of a good recording will vary depending on whom you ask. There is no absolute. But many factors remain consistent, even between genres as disparate as a cappella and gangsta rap.
THE RIGHT SPACE, THE RIGHT PLACE
First and foremost, musicians must feel at ease.
“You want the musicians to feel comfortable,” Geoff Michael, chief engineer and owner of Big Sky Recording, says. “The set up is important. Set it up how musicians feel best, not necessarily (achieving) the best acoustics, because comfort is key.”
Drew Leahy, Music, Theatre, and Dance senior who took his band The Promenade to record at Ypsilanti’s Pretty Suite Recording, also feels that being comfortable with the work style of the engineer is important to developing a good atmosphere.
“It’s important to be comfortable in the studio, both in the actual space and with the people you work with … just talking to Brandon (Wiard), the studio owner — visiting the studio, talking about his equipment, and feeling out his personality and workflow,” Leahy says.
The physical layout of a studio can greatly affect a recording’s sound as well. Wood brightens, or “livens,” a recording, which explains why many studios have wood floors and are lined with wood panels along the walls. To maintain a balance some studios have dampeners on the ceiling that absorb sound waves to “deaden” the recording.
The physical positioning of musicians in the studio is also important in determining how a recording will sound — space and sound are inextricably linked. Booths are used to isolate musicians from each other so different instruments’ sounds don’t “bleed” or “leak” into each other’s recorded tracks.
Even seemingly minute details, like the placement of instruments in conjunction to microphones, can be crucial in developing a solid sound.
“This will sound like a cop-out, but I think a ‘good recording’ is open-ended,” Brandon Wiard, producer, engineer and owner of Pretty Suite Recording says. “Sometimes pristine is the (desired sound) but I tend to work on a lot of projects where noise and experimentation are the focus.”
Separating a good recording from a bad one is often as simple as a matter of taste.
“It’s all about what you want your band to sound like,” Leahy says.
While Wiard’s preferred method of recording involves experimenting with different sounds, some other studio engineers in Ann Arbor concentrate on masking imperfections.
“I’ll listen to each instrument and choose the equipment to record it based off of what I hear,” Eric Wojahn, chief engineer and owner of Solid Sound, says. “For example, if I’m working with a vocalist, I have them sing something for me so I can hear the detail of their voice. Then I’ll choose a mic that will accent certain characteristics of their voice, or maybe one that will help hide a flaw.”
Recording equipment is also used to enhance certain sounds. The outboard, a large rectangular contraption intimidatingly covered in knobs and switches, subtly changes the sound by warming or cooling the tone by slightly raising or lowering the pitch.
Different instruments and vocals are recorded on separate tracks, which are later mixed together on a computer.
THE COST FOR STARVING MUSICIANS
Though GarageBand might make it seem otherwise, the recording process doesn’t come cheap. Local bands like Mason Proper and Tally Hall as well as well-known international acts like Regina Spektor and Death Cab for Cutie have recorded in Ann Arbor.
Recording budgets vary greatly. Rates in Ann Arbor can run over $100 per hour, and for local artists, the price can seem quite daunting.
To save money, many musicians record parts at home. Michael talks about one instance in which a vocalist recorded at home and e-mailed him the vocal track, thus saving hours of recording time in the studio. Michael said that drums take a longer time to record because of set-up and take-down.
Leahy’s band cut the cost of recording time by recording the drum tracks at home.
“This saved us a lot of money and time recording real drums live, which can take hours,” Leahy says.
Leahy recommended that musicians spend time in the studio only after they have a concrete idea of the sound they are aiming for.
“Going to a studio to record your music is great if you have the budget. I recommend doing a lot of recording at home to think about exactly what type of song you want to write and how you want it to sound,” Leahy says. “It was worth the hourly time just to have our instruments played through a professional studio’s quality circuitry.”
Jared Saltiel, a member of Ann Arbor-based The Dirty Birds, who recently recorded some songs at Big Sky Recording, is another musician who found it worthwhile to record in a professional studio despite the cost. By giving the technical responsibilities of recording to a professional studio, Saltiel and his band were able to dabble more in the creative aspects.
“The thing that I loved most about recording in a studio was that I didn’t have to double as engineer and musician. I could focus on the creative end of the process,” Saltiel says.
“When you’re switching back and forth between maddening Pro-Tools meltdowns and trying to lay down emotional vocal tracks, it creates a stifling creative environment. When you’re able to focus on performance, recording is a completely different experience, and I think it yields a much better result,” Saltiel says.
PERFORMANCE MEANS (ALMOST) EVERYTHING
One thing is for certain — a solid performance from well-rehearsed and talented musicians is the most important element in creating a good recording.
“Performance trumps everything … not to reduce the importance of what we do here,” Michael says. “What comes across on a CD that’s good is the performance.”
Leahy attested that performance preparation is the most difficult part of the recording process.
“Getting prepared before going into the studio is the toughest part. As a musician, you want to be able to go in the studio and just hammer out the parts like its second nature,” Leahy says. “The last thing you want to do is waste time in the studio, because it’s very expensive.”
Time is of the essence, especially when there’s a price tag attached to recording time. Saltiel was wont to spend less time at the studio, but not at the expense of performance quality.
“Practically speaking, the one thing that’s imperative is buffer time. You need to have the space to take longer than you expected,” Saltiel says. “It’s very stressful to try to rush the process. We tried our best to go quickly, but we all defaulted to an extremely high standard, so it took a long time to get it right.”
The pressure of recording under a tight schedule inevitably took a toll on Saltiel.
“It got right down to the wire, and I even got sick because I was barely sleeping. We actually ended up recording the last vocal the same day that we mixed the last song,” Saltiel says. “That’s not something I ever want to do again. But you live and you learn. Next time I’m sure it’ll be totally different.”
All the bits and pieces of the recording process — the fixation on mic positioning, agonizing over the right gear as well the cost and the long, painstaking hours— finally comes together to create a finished product.
And in the end, it’s all about the music.