Zen of Recording

Context Is Crucial

She moved through the restaurant as if floating on air, like a wingless angel held aloft by her very presence, an intoxicating combination of serenity, grace, and radiant, stoic beauty. From the first glimpse of her entrance, he had watched her with an enraptured focus usually reserved for a bases-loaded 3-2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning of an all-tied game seven of the World Series, or like watching a beautiful bride ascending to the altar on her wedding day….

Just as that latter vision began to materialize in his mind like a desert mirage, he was suddenly startled back into reality by the arrival of his dinner, which he had just as swiftly and almost entirely lost his appetite for. He briefly regarded the plate with an utterly blank expression usually reserved for junk mail and dryer sheets. Quickly turning his head back toward her, he discovered she’d been seated at the adjacent table, less than three three feet away!


It must’ve been destiny, he reasoned. What other possible explanation could there be?

He continued stealing glances for several minutes. What would be his next move? How would he capture her reciprocated attention? He shifted around in his seat, swinging his feet beneath his chair as he continued to work it all out in his head.

Then it came to him. He knew exactly what he would do.

He sat motionless for a moment, as if he were running through all of the possible resulting scenarios and outcomes from his next maneuver.

He first pointed his feet toward her, followed by his upper torso. Lowering his head slightly, he then leaned almost imperceptibly forward until he was a mere six inches from where she sat, still unaware of his presence. He lifted his hands and placed his open palms on either side of his own slightly blushing face. He inhaled deeply, like a birthday wish before blowing out candles…


It rang through the diner like a proverbial fart in church, which is almost precisely what it sounded like, except for all of the fork dropping.

Miles!” I exclaimed in surprise and embarrassment. “We do not do that!”

The girl sized him up, regarding him with an equal measure of disbelief, disgust, displeasure, and total disdain. She rolled her dark 18-month-old eyes and slowly turned to her parents, as if to say “Mother? Father? Could you please inform this cretinous buffoon that I have absolutely no interest in his clumsy and hopelessly inane attempt to garner my attention?” Then she wordlessly returned to her crayons and kids’ menu.

“Turn around, Miles.” I said sternly. He reluctantly complied, seemingly stunned by the apparently unexpected outcome of all his deliberate strategizing.

“How can this be?” He seemed to be wondering. This same vein of humor was absolutely killing the kids at Kensington Park, just a week before. One of them even fell off the monkey bars, she was laughing so hard.

Different time, different place. Totally different context.

Earlier, I’d received a phone call from an artist that I’ve worked with many times before. He had recently finished recording a new album and was releasing it in a couple of days. He explained that although he had always been very proud of and happy with the work we’d done together, it was really important to him on this outing that he and the band do all of the producing, recording, mixing, and mastering themselves, with little or no input from outside contributors or previous accomplices. Despite this policy, he was very interested in my opinion of the results they had achieved. He sent me a link so I could hear it and asked if I would get back to him with my thoughts, ASAP. I agreed to do so and the next day I set aside some time to listen to it.

It should be noted at this time, that the artist told me particular attention was afforded to the lead vocals, which were captured in one or two takes with minimal editing and absolutely no pitch correction. There were also no-click tracks that the band looked upon as an opportunity to be even more dynamic in its performances; not just soft to loud amplitudes, but a feel and a timing that are unrestricted and more organic at their core.

I instantly loved the sound of this record. It retains the artist’s trademark Fender Rhodes 88 electric piano at the fore, with just the right amount of bite and distortion to give it some snarly attitude when played harder. The band is uniformly excellent in both sound and performance, with each instrument distinctly owning its own space in the mix. The click-free grooves ooze “band” vibe and really go a long way toward setting these recordings apart, although there were a couple of places I felt came a little too “unglued.”

Compared to the artist (and his band)’s previous offerings, the sound of this album is much more aggressive. It holds the intellectual intimacy of Radiohead, the compositional melodicism and rock grandeur of Supertramp, and the in-your-face “it-band” swagger of the Strokes.

The vocal sound, specifically, is almost belligerently up front. This is accentuated by a gritty distortion and a lot of wonderful compression. The vocals are very, very dry—effects-wise. I mean, like the previously mentioned desert dry. While this does aid the mixer’s ability to keep the vocal focused, cutting through even the densest musical passages, it also brings up another issue: context.

Many of the songs have an intimate lyrical setting or message, which are framed  very tasteful musical settings. Yet, the vocal still has that previously described hostility to it. The cumulative effect is often akin to two young lovers quietly walking with their arms around each other, as he gently sings into her ear WITH A BULLHORN. Granted, much of this edge is supported lyrically, but so many times it just comes off as ham-handed and over the top. The absence of reverb or delay actually distracts my ear. There were several points where I could see how the vocal needed to be up so high to make it more intelligible, but it could’ve sat easier in the mix with just a little ambience to make it seem less separated from the band’s space.

Everybody’s taste varies of course, but there is more to having the ability to use or emulate the sound of great modern and vintage gear. Yes, you can get fantastic sounds now, but you still have to use them in a musical, contextual way.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer and performing singer songwriter. He dedicates this column to Glen Heffner (formerly of Avantone, whose products have been reviewed here). A knowledgeable colleague, fierce supporter, cool musician, and wonderful friend, he believes himself to be the absolute nicest person he ever ever met. Rest and rock, Glen.

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