Friday, March 26, 2010

What's a Zak Claxton recording session like?

I could sum up for you what a Zak Claxton recording session is like in maybe four bullet points:

• Totally fun
• Super productive
• Creatively fulfilling
• Physically exhausting

But what fun would that be? There are a lot of details in a recording session, but instead of writing 10,000,000 words about it, let’s do this pictorial-style instead.

Get ready, for here I come...
I don’t have a traditional band that gets together and rehearses and stuff like that. Instead, I have a group of friends -- Phil O’Keefe, Bunny Knutson, and Ken Lee -- that are all excellent musicians and music producers, and every so often we get together to record songs that I’ve written. So, to prepare for a session, I send them emails with rough demos and notes about how I envision the vibe of the song will be.

Traveling Riverside Blues...
The studio where I record all my stuff, Sound Sanctuary, is about an hour’s drive east of here, in Riverside, CA. Kat and I get up and leisurely get ourselves ready and collect what I need for the session:

• My acoustic guitar
• My harmonicas and other music accessories
• A change of clothes

After a quick stop at the store for snacks and drinks, we get on the road. If I'm lucky, Kat chauffeurs me rock star-style.

Finding Sanctuary...

We all arrive at the studio at noon, usually with Kat and I pulling up first followed by Ken and Bunny. Phil, of course, is already there; he lives there. First thing we do is put the gear (and snacks/drinks) inside the studio, though (luckily for me), most of the instruments I use for recording are already there.

Communication Breakdown...

I start each session by gathering the troops in the studio lounge and talking with them about what we’re trying to accomplish so everyone is on the same page with the vibe I envision. I also like getting some feedback from them about their ideas for song parts.

During this chat, I usually have my guitar in hand so I can play through various areas of each song and talk about what’s going to happen when we record them.

Feel the rhythm...

The first thing that gets set up are the drums. The way we generally record is as such: once the drums are up and miked and Bunny is at his kit in the live room, I stand near the glass in the control room where I can see him. I make sure I'm in tune, and then we do a couple of runthroughs of the song we’re going to record. Once Bunny feels good about it, we try a take. Important note: we are recording Bunny’s drum parts for posterity here, but even though I’m playing guitar and singing, we will not use that performance on the record. Those are called “scratch tracks”, and I’ll end up overdubbing those tracks later.

Lay it down...

Next, we start overdubbing layer after layer of more tracks on the song. Once we have the drums down, Phil will do a quick submix of the drums since we’ll be playing everything else on top of them (so they’d better be right).

Each song calls for its own arrangement of instruments, but a typical order of tracks (after we get drums) would be as follows.

• Bass
• Rhythm Guitar
• More rhythm/ambient guitar parts
• Other instruments (keyboards, percussion, and so on)
• Lead Vocals
• Harmony/Background Vocals
• Instrument leads

Two a day...

If we’re being productive (and we usually very much are), we’ll get two songs done in a single day of recording. Keep in mind that each session lasts about 14 hours; it’s rare that I get out of the before 2am, and I don’t think we ended any session before midnight.

The way we found works best for this goal is to get all of the rhythm tracks out of the way for both songs. So, after Bunny and I do the first tune with the basic tracks down, we usually start the basic tracks for the second song before we start overdubbing on the first tune. It’s a good way to make sure we capture the most important aspects of both tunes while we have the opportunity with Bunny’s drums already set up and miked.

Break it easy...

Despite wanting to get as much as we can done in the time that we have available, I still am a proponent of frequent breaks while recording. First, it gives your ears a chance to rest. Second, it gives your hands a chance to rest. Third, it gives you a chance to talk about how the song is coming along and make decisions about what’s next with some better objectivity. I usually step outside the studio and bask in the sun for a few minutes between takes, as well as while one of the other guys are putting down their parts.

Recording the recording...
There are tons of great reasons to document your session with photos, video, or both. Kat’s primary duty at the sessions (other than to be my morale booster) is to grab as much footage as she can throughout the day.

Produce, but don’t babysit...
I work with Ken, Phil and Bunny because they’re terrific, intuitive musicians. While I do oversee the recording process and make sure that they know what my vision is, I almost never hover over them while they do their parts. In fact, when they do a take, I’m usually outside the studio, making mental notes about what I’m hearing. But I leave them alone to do their thing, and Phil is in there to make sure the recording gear is working as expected and to have them do as many takes as he thinks we’ll need for the mix.

Pizza Pirates, ahoy...
One of our traditions in recording at Sound Sanctuary is getting our dinner delivered from Pizza Pirates, a little local pizza chain that’s unbelievably yummy and ridiculously cheap. When it gets to be about 8pm and I’ve been playing and singing for eight straight hours, I can’t wait to dive into an extra-large deluxe and cheese bread and all that delicious stuff.

Rough cut...
The last thing we do before calling it a night is have Phil put together a super rough mix of both songs, and give them a listen. It really helps you get excited about what you accomplished when you can hear some immediate results. Though it may be awhile before a more refined mix is ready, you’ll be all the more jazzed about the song when you walk out of the studio with the rough mix still echoing in your head.

The lap of luxury...

I had a couple of sessions where I left the studio in the wee hours of the morning and drove the 70+ miles back home to the beach. Bad mistake, especially when you’re exhausted and there are way too many drunks on the road on a very late Saturday night. More often, Kat and I check into the luxurious Motel 6, about a mile up the road from Phil’s, and crash there until we drive home in the morning (usually after a stop at Denny’s for a huge breakfast).

That's all, folks...
A Zak Claxton session, start to finish. By the way, we've scheduled the very first session for recording some new stuff, presumably for the next album, on May 15, 2010. Should be fun!

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