A casual music listener may hear a catchy song and know they like it, but not think beyond that. A more serious music fan may pay attention to vocal harmonies, guitar solos and the rhythm section, but still not think about how much work actually goes into creating that piece of music.
Recently, Screamer was given the rare opportunity to sit in on a recording session to see and hear just what goes into making the music we listen to. The invitation was extended by Seattle-based songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Cody Beebe, who fronts his band Cody Beebe and The Crooks. Their musical style has been described as roots music, Americana, traces of New Country, Tom Petty…people always want to put music into nice, neat categories. Forget it—all you need to know is that Cody Beebe and The Crooks make rock n’ roll–and damn good rock n’ roll at that. Come along with us and see how it’s done.
Beebe was working on a series of songs that will be released as singles, and they were being recorded at London Bridge Studio, which is located in a suburb of Seattle. The studio is in a nondescript light industrial park nestled among trees, and approaching the location there is no signage to indicate where you are. The only clues are tables and chairs arranged outside, and a locking keypad on the front door. Having spent some time in studios, and knowing how musicians desire relaxation, isolation and privacy when recording, those are good clues that you’re in the right place.
The front door is unlocked so you walk right in. There’s a staircase directly inside the door so you start upstairs, and soon run into a studio employee. You tell him you’re here to see Beebe, and he redirects you downstairs. The first thing you see is a wall of gold and platinum records that have been recorded there, and it’s almost like a shrine to music history: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Temple of the Dog, Mother Love Bone, Candlebox, Blind Melon, 3 Doors Down. You pause for a second to take it in, and then open a glass door to the studio proper. The band is already in the live room: Cody Beebe, lead guitarist Skyler Mehal, bassist Eric Miller, keyboard player Aaron Meyer, and drummer Brian Paxton. In the control room are producer Brandon Busch and engineer Carson Lehman. It’s unseasonably cold in Seattle; daytime highs only in the mid 30’s, and the cold air permeates the studio. Everyone is bundled up in hats, flannel and sweatshirts.
For the songs being recorded at London Bridge, Beebe and his band are recording live.
The two traditional ways to record are tracking, where each instrument is recorded separately, and playing live, where all members of the band are in the room at the same time and play a song just as they would at a gig. There’s more flexibility in tracking, because if a musician makes a mistake only that track needs to be recorded again. When recording live, a mistake by one member may throw off the rest of the band, and the entire effort must be discarded. However, many musicians like to record live because it can capture the energy of a concert, as opposed to the more sterile feel of each musician recording their part separately. The actual recording process (gearheads will love this; lay people will find it head-scratching) is this: The songs are recorded live through a vintage Neve console to a 2” tape machine. From there it’s dumped to Pro Tools (the industry standard for digital audio editing).
The first song being worked on is Give and Take, which will be released sometime in late January. It’s a catchy rock tune which builds midpoint to a blistering slide guitar solo by Mehal. The band performs the take again and again and again. Behind the glass, Busch and Lehman comment to each other on subtle differences in the takes that most people would barely notice—if at all. A little uneven tempo here, a blown note there.
After every few takes, Busch calls the band into the control room to hear the playbacks. “You’re in a good zone right now, but how about if we try it with a click track?” A click track is an electronic metronome, and while it helps the band keep to a constant tempo, many musicians find it obtrusive. Nevertheless, they go back into the live room for more takes. After a while, the takes begin to blur into one. During one playback session, Paxton, the drummer, says “I come from a punk/metal attitude where it’s three takes and we’re done. I’ve never been real comfortable in the studio.”
As the takes and hours wear on, and the quest for perfection builds, sometimes it’s a bit of humor that breaks the tension. As Busch is commenting on a stray bass note that ruined the end of one of the takes, everyone glances subtly at bass player Miller. No one dare says a word, obviously knowing that they could easily be the bad guy on the next take. The silence is broken by someone issuing forth a single deadpan declaration: “Loser.” Everyone in the control room bursts out laughing, and the frosty mood instantly changes.
After about five hours and innumerable takes, both Busch and the band are satisfied with the results. Later, overdubs such as vocal harmonies can be added, and minor imperfections can be fixed using Pro Tools. For now, it’s time to move on to the next song.