Zen of Recording

Beauty vs. Glamour

Some of the most treacherous and barely navigable dialogues start innocently enough, I suppose….

“Honey, do you like this mascara I’m wearing?”

“No, babe. I like you better without it.”

“You don’t think it’s pretty?”

“No. I think you’re pretty. That just covers it up, to me.”

“So when I put this on, I’m not pretty to you. Right?”

“No, no, no, that’s not what I mean at all! I’m just saying that I like you better without all of the extra accessories and accoutrements. You know, au naturel.”

“Sven, people have been wearing makeup since the times of the ancient Egyptians. You mean everyone’s been wrong about cosmetics… about beauty all this time?”

“No! I’m saying that there’s a difference between beauty and glamour. Beauty is self-evident (in the eye of each beholder, of course). Ultimately, it is what it is. Glamour is when you take something that is( or may not be) already beautiful and dress it up in finery to imply that it is now something even more exquisite. To me, the whole concept of fashion and glamour seems like a contest to see who can do the nicest job of gift wrapping.”

I paused here. It seemed like a nice enough point in our conversation, what with me all self-satisfied and all. Of course, from back over the net comes the kill shot.

“Whatever, dude.”

Well played.

I continued pondering these points for a while after the “Game Over” lights had dimmed from our conversation. Specifically, how this beauty/ glamour dichotomy plays out within the world of recording music.

Many of my recording projects start in the following fashion:

An artist or band comes in, I set up some microphones and record them singing a song while playing. From the start, I’m listening not just for technical things like pitch and phrasing or even the voice’s texture, but more abstract considerations – like how it makes me feel, how I’m connecting with this song and its performance on an emotional level.

At some point, we both agree it’s time to listen back. Beauty is then being mutually assessed by both artist and producer. Barring any mild disagreements over subtle nuances, we eventually arrive at a place where we’re both satisfied we’ve got what we need.

Quite often, the next thing I’ll do is edit together a definitive performance from the takes we have. Sometimes the artist will listen intently as I do this, offering suggestions or opinions as we work our way through each section of the song. Some artists, however, completely dislike this process to the point where they can’t even be in the same room while I’m doing it! Eventually, you develop an intuition of when it’s cool to have it up in the speakers and when you should just put the headphones on.

The jeopardy obviously increases exponentially when working with multiple band members, but we will ultimately arrive at our goal: A beautiful sounding recording of a beautiful performance of a beautiful song.*

Here stands our record, naked, unblemished, and unadorned. What will we do next and why? A great makeup artist can often go to incredible lengths to enhance a person’s natural beauty in a way that still looks effortless and untouched. Technical processes that mirror this approach include gentle compression and EQ, as well as understated usage of spatial effects like reverb and delay.

Still, there are more strategically related concerns: do we want to try to move it into a slightly different musical direction so that it will fit in with the other songs on the album? Is there a “vision” for this song’s production, or do we recognize and react to every happy accident that occurs along the way? Do we want to apply effects or techniques that will make the recording sound more modern? More retro? More unique? More everything? Much of this dialogue probably occurred already during the planning stages of the project, if only to establish a page for all involved parties to at least try to be on.

As the tools and toys we employ become more apparent, calling attention to themselves in the process, the more “on purpose” or even forced our efforts will seem. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound is an example of a producer’s signature sound looming as large (or even larger, at times) than the songs and performers themselves, just as a red carpet design by Versace can seemingly become the most talked about thing at the Oscars.

This is all not meant to vilify glamour, either. There is a veritable cornucopia of glamorous musical moments to feast upon, in all their grandly slathered splendor: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Whitney Houston’s iconic turn in “I Will Always Love You,” “Good Vibrations,” U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” etc… It’s just that so many song productions can feel as if they’re laboring under the weight of excessive glitter, gloss and expectation.

According to Wikipedia, “Glamour originally was a term applied to a magical-occult spell that was cast on somebody to make them see something the spell-caster wished them to see, when in fact it was not what it seemed to be.” Fair enough, but there always comes a point where we have to let it be what it is. Or peel off that last layer of varnish. When we’ve done all we can do, even if it’s not ideally where we wanted to end up…

As long as we’ve consistently served the essential beauty at the core, these shortcomings become less important and our choices seem more the product of personal taste then professional failure.

That said, I’m gonna go listen to Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” now…

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer, songwriter, and now arranger. www.kaspro.com.

* Rockers, punks, and industrial artists: please excuse the terminology.

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