Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lost in the Labyrinth, Stumbling on Rocks, Banging Your Head on the Hard Place

These days a musician can be between a rock and a hard place. There is so much technology available to help with the music-making, from super-advanced and complex computer recording programs, to keyboards that practically write and harmonize the tunes for you, to sound-enhancements, and much more. The question I've heard bandied about is how far one should go before the technology swamps the music-making, which we all originally got into music for.

Here is a moral tale concerning that very issue.

For at least two years I played in a small, experimental band organized by the bass player--vibes, two saxes, bass, and drums, sometimes guitar, once in awhile trombone. Many good musicians came and went. I think now that the smartest and most efficient sized the situation up quickly as one that would never come to fruition, even though the playing itself was intense and exciting. We played mostly the leader's charts of his own tunes. And we got very tight at some points. In all that time, we had two gigs--one at a fund-raising marathon over in, I think, Irwindale (home of experimental jazz), another at a carnival out in the San Fernando Valley, where we were followed by a rock band. Our drummer filled in for the rock band, since their drummer somehow failed to show. Neither venue was right for this kind of band, but we never got into any suitable venue.

The leader knew we should do a CD in order to shop the band around for gigs, and each time we rehearsed at his house (we were doing three hours per rehearsal, almost every week) we began to notice an accumulation of recording equipment.

He (for the sake of not having to always use pronouns, I'll call him Jeb, though that's not his name--he's still working in the area) had always recorded every rehearsal, first with an MP3 recorder, then a small DAT recorder. Then the equipment became more sophisticated: a big Mac with Digital Performer, mikes for everyone, one mixing board, then another mixing board; then the house was being run with snakes and the musicians separated, the drummer in the original rehearsal room, the sax players off in a bedroom (many jokes about two guys in a bedroom together), me on vibes in the living room. We recorded and recorded. An engineer friend came on the scene--this man had great professional experience, he owned high-end pre-amps (I think--I tend to get lost in this equipment morass beyond a certain point), very high-end mikes, he had a great ear, he knew the mixing board (by this time a BIG board), and he knew Digital Performer.

We recorded and recorded. We got some great material.

That was two years ago (at least).

What has become of the all that recorded material? The CD?

To my knowledge, the equipment became a kind of quicksand. The leader and his friend kept "improving" the sound quality; we kept re-recording with each addition of new, enhanced equipment; the same music over and over.

Two years later, there is nothing. The last I heard, Jeb needed me to overdub 8 bars in one tune. Once, when the drummer came back for a visit from Phoenix, we all jammed, did a little recording, and he came out of the control room and said, "You should see those guys! They're like mad scientists in a lab. I got a group together in a studio for one day and had a good CD a month later."

And that's the way it can be--musicians get together, leave the technology to experts, make the music, do some mixing with the engineers, and voila! A finished product in a timely manner.

I'm in another group where something similar is happening. One of the members has Cubase on his computer, and we're trying to record one track at a time. We've bogged down in conflicting schedules, the weirdness of making music happen one instrument at a time. This is possible technically, but we haven't produced anything yet. Putting trust in technology is okay, but when you put all your eggs in that basket, you wind up with nothing.

I contacted Jeb recently to see if I could get even an imperfect (by his ever-more stringent standards) recording of what we'd done. I don't know if I'll hear back. I think he wandered into the labyrinth of technology and got lost. He's somewhere out there, as my sister says, in the "bewilderness."

And a big hi to all the musicians I met and enjoyed playing with in that phantom band, serious and talented people, tucked away in a plain looking house in the San Fernando Valley, rehearsing like mad for gigs that never happened and recording a CD that's still on the hard drive while perfectionists slave over it surrounded by empty Chinese-food containers and posters of Miles and Coltrane, and they take breaks at the pool table and drink from the cartons of Perrier purchased at Costco. Or, indeed, my two mad scientists could have moved on to some other sublimity by now.


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