This term students in the CAT Audio Engineering Program were given the chance to run a recording session completely on their own, where the goal was to record five bands within five hours.
Earlier this year, organizers of the ‘Tune It Down, Turn It Up festival approached us with opportunities for CAT students to get involved in the event, which included an interesting component for the audio students. The organizers had the idea to have five random bands from the festival come into the CAT studio to record a song each, but with the catch that each band only got an hour. While the goal was challenging, it seemed like the perfect chance to throw some students into the deep end to see if they could swim.
The premise seems simple; the bands would all play the same backline (fancy word for instruments), and it would all be set up to record in advance. A band would show up, plug in their guitars to the pre-set amps, the drummer would sit down at the house kit, and they could be off to the races. They would get sounds for 10-15 minutes, then plan for 30-40 minutes, and wrap up in time for the next band to start exactly 60 minutes later. As the students learned very quickly, things never go quite as well as you hope they would.
With the first band showing up at 10 am, the students arrived at the school at 8 am to set up and get organized. With some advice from their department head, they came up with a concept that would offer the simplest setup that yielded maximum flexibility. Microphones were checked, instruments were tested, and headphones were setup. Everything was ready to go, and in theory, the hard work was already done. Now to wait for the first band, and quickly do a line check, and then start recording. Except that didn’t happen.
As soon as the first band showed up, they wanted to move everything around, and completely change the setup to fit their own vision for how the recordings would go. All the work of the previous 2 hours was essentially rendered pointless, and the students were forced to scramble to do a completely new set up within 10-15 minutes. To say it was stressful for the students would be an understatement, but they managed to pull it off and get the first band recorded. (Lesson learned – never assume you know what a band may want!)
Sadly, the 2nd (and 4th) band ended up ‘no-showing’, but the 3rd and 5th bands went much smoother, as they were more than ok with using whatever setup was available.
At the end of the session, each of the three bands was able to get two songs recorded in their one hour slot. After the dust had settled, I asked the students some simple questions about the session to see what it was they actually learned. Here are some of their responses:
Getting Thrown In The Deep End
What was the easiest part of the session? “The easiest part of it all was the actual recording. Once we were recording, it was actually a pretty fun and knowledgeable experience.”
“The easiest part of the session I’d say is after you get that first song down with each band. From there you just ask them which song they’re doing or if they want another take.”
What was the hardest part of the session?
“The hardest part of the session was learning ways to incorporate the artists’ will and wants into the recording while staying in the 1 – 2-hour time limit, and also dealing with the stress of having to make major changes you didn’t expect to have to make.”
“For me, the hardest part about the session was the anxiety I felt beforehand and at the start until everything got rolling. Also learning to work with musicians who aren’t necessarily used to a studio setting was a bit challenging.”
What was the most educational part of the session?
“I learned better ways to work with not only artists’ ideas, but my colleagues’ ideas and still find a way to be productive.”
“Before going into the session, I had no idea how smooth it really was when you’re working with pros who are patient with you and trust your work. It’s hard to know how it feels until you have done it yourself, as even working with a half-decent musician who kinda knows the studio, is nowhere near as seamlessly efficient of a process as we had. To sum it all up, working with the right musicians can make a world of difference to how the time goes for everyone, and how well you can work. “
What advice would you give to yourself in hindsight about the session that would have helped things go better?
“Plan for more diversity in the bands and how they may want it set up. We planned for the session to be set up in a certain fashion that was able to compensate for minor changes. We got tossed for a bit of a whirl when we had to re-arrange a large portion of the setup for the first band and although we pulled through, I wish we could’ve been more prepared.”
“If I could look back and give myself some advice for this, I’d say to relax and do what I have been taught to do. At the end of the day, stressing and getting anxious will only make it harder to get into the groove of tracking great music.”
Big thanks to ‘Tune It Down, Turn It Up’, the bands ‘A Cosmic Microwave Pickle’, ‘Pharm’ and ‘Sweet Beast’ for giving us this opportunity.
Words: Chris Holmes