As I deepen my processes and the understanding of the work at hand, I revise concepts that I knew, or that I thought I knew, finding new nuisances and details. One of them lately has been comping and/or overdub, two concepts that for me until now kinda lived in a grey area where I used them pretty much interchangeably.
Now I've come to differentiate these, and these are the definitions I use. It's been a while since I last researched the "academic" definitions of them -and my brain makes "ouch" at the mere idea of going into that again-, so bear in mind that these definitions are only mine, the ones validated in my process by the value of use. Your millage will for sure vary.
The issue came to mind first when I was tracking guitars, and for the first time I tried doing it in these two phases:
1) Song from beginning to end
2) Listen to the song; whenever you find a fragment not quite to your liking, stop and re-record it.
This is what I understand as overdubbing. I hadn't done it in the past because I was afraid of problems of "vibe", the "body" of the track rejecting the new transplants... But hey, with guitar, as long as you don't do something silly in the middle -like changing parameters-, the newcomer is going to be impossible to differentiate from the earlier recording.
I've found this to be not only a swift workflow to generate guitar tracks, but also a very pleasant one, because of the "load leveling" of tasks between playing-listening. (There is, though, an entry toll: make sure you go into this process having the parts well rehearsed.)
Then I moved to tracking vocals, and that's a different beast.
My usual method here (which is also the one I applied to guitars in the past) goes:
1) Record song from beginning to end. Then again another take form beginning to end. Then again another take from beginning to end...
2) Relisten creating chunks of sections that you like/don't like, etc in each
3) Create a "Frankenstein" of the best moments (a take of "supernatural perfection", like the guys of Sound on Sound put it).
This is what I call comping. As in short for "composing", compose something out of different loose parts, like choosing the best flowers to "compose" a bouquet.
The overdub system had worked so well with guitars, that this time I was tempted to try it on vocals too, but in the end I didn't do it because singing requires a lot more of setup for me right now (take the complications of guitar takes and add bottles of water, pop filters, abundant kleenex, and hundreds of "parameters" like body posture, "role" you play in the song...)
I'm like a "one man orchestra", so I was afraid of unavoidable vibe problems if I went "atomic", plus vocal sessions are already very tiring for me as they are to add more instability by now; I prefer to consolidate and iterate what I got a bit more. Additionally, for this song, the usage of proximity effect was very important, so any variation in distance to the mic was going to add up to the instability, etc...
Maybe in the future, as I streamline my process, I'll be able to do it, or maybe for certain songs; I'd love it because it's very "tight", and fixing problems at the source is a lean principle for a reason; it makes infinitely easier to locate and countermeasure any mistake, while with the other method you're generating a lot of takes, inventory that later you have to go through, sift, etc.
Add to that the fact that, with the singer and the listener being the same person, and with human voice being the complex musical instrument it is, subjectivity sometimes plays tricks on you; in more than one occasion I have left vocal sessions not knowing AT ALL on which part of the cool/sucks spectrum lived the takes I had just recorded. Zero judgement capability. Imagine doing that with 1 second fragments.
This limitation probably yields a lot when you stop being the one-man-orchestra; I've seen at least two examples of bands using vocal overdubs; Deicide, whose vocalist punches in sentence-after-sentence to assure intelligibility of the lyrics, and also in Motörhead. In a 2010 documentary I saw there is this scene: Lemmy sings a missing sentence / Producer says "nope" / Lemmy goes again / Producer says... Etc.
The more I practice it, the more I fall in love with standard work, and I wonder how on earth I've managed without it for so long.
I'm sure part of my enthusiasm has to do with the fact that by now I have a lot of hours of practicing it (read: making mistakes) under my belt, so I've acquired a better "knack" of how to go about it, when to use the telescope and when the fine grain, how to better phrase an instruction to get the effect, when to use a picture, or a diagram instead...
(Of course in these matters, the more you know, the more you discover how much you're still lacking; some elephants have still proven to be uneatable for me at the moment, but I certainly feel I'm entering the next, better stage of my "unsatisfaction" :) )
Here's an example of standardization: I've been doing some guitar tracking these days. I've written down a "card" that I check before each take, and it helps me immensely.
It's just a piece of cardboard with a few jots; using a different material makes it stand out visually from all the other notes, papers, and all the mess that unavoidably accumulates during the session-. Here it is, in all its crudity:
It takes my eye perhaps 5-8 seconds to slide through all the indications before hitting record in the DAW -the combination of picture + text helps things click in an even easier way-. Not precisely state of the art technology, but the thought contained within this humble device has saved me I would say already a few hours of silliness and frustration. Forgetting any of the simple things contained in the card is bound to send a track to waste. Plus that horrifying fatigue of continuously starting-then-stopping-tweaking-ok-are-we-really-ready-now...
None of these things are earth shattering, but together they amount to quite a bunch of potential "paper cuts" when you are a musician who has to "engineer" himself. A few examples that will feel sadly familiar to any home recordist out there:
* Not using the right (closed) headphones can leak the metronome into the take.
* Forgetting to enable the metronome will result in an uncomfortable, uneven performance -or even if you heroically make it to the end, it will strain you due to the additional concentration required-. Plus you have gifted yourself a session of rework later with any mistake you make. Not the most comfortable perspective to let your artistic self flow.
* Not sitting at the edge of the seat means (in my case) uncomfortable posture for playing, i.e. risking additional strain, injury, or at the very least mistakes in the take that again you'll have to go back and overdub later, etc...
* Not checking tuning before each take results in a magical effect where, the better you play, the more out of tune you'll find you were later.
And so on with all the elements of the card... I really wonder how I managed without little things like this. My way to simplicity has been quite complicated, as it sometimes is the case...
This happened some time ago, in the pre-Internet times, when I had a punk band, integrated by human beings, and we played gigs mostly for our friends, and got ripped off by most of venue owners (I'm sure the scene has improved a lot since then; OK, end of sarcasm).
It is easy to remember this guy, therefore, because there weren't others like him. He appeared out of nowhere in one concert, nobody knew him, he came alone, he wore glasses and looked a bit of a weirdo (I've found often that my music is a great weirdo magnet -a fact that I don't intend consciously, but which I find glorious).
I'm trying not to idealize too much here, so I think maybe he came only to two, three concerts tops, before our band imploded for the usual reasons a band implodes when you are in your twenties and decide to form a band with your buddies.
But to me something like this happening was so moving... The guy used to stay on one side of the hall, where he could get a good visual, paying a lot of attention, and pointing towards us, with great seriousness... a tape recorder!!!
You can be sure there was no pecuniary reason involved for that, given the zero notoriety, profit and even sympathy that we commanded in our environment in those times. No, it looked more something in the lines of "god, I need more of this shit". Like the guy who lives in a desert, and when he visits a fountain, brings with him a big container he can fill. How do I know so sure? Because I've been that guy too, in other contexts, with other people to whom I will forever feel in debt.
There were other moments like this in those days, but this one is perhaps the one I recall more fondly. Having been that person for someone is something that gives me goosebumps even right now, as I write. Like I always say, I have to make music, I would do it under any circumstance, it's like breathing to me, I cannot not do it. But what a great bonus is when something like this happens. What a great fucking bonus.
I suppose every grief process you go through is different; with most of my other musical heroes departed recently, the sadness has usually come together with a lot of rumination right away. In the case of Tom Petty, however, after the initial pang of pain, my stance for some time has been something more along the lines of "yeah, I know...", "I'll get to that later..."
I guess you could say I was in denial; the habit of knowing that Tom Petty is no longer with us is a tough one to acquire, and as usual (argh), it happened in a waay too untimely and sad manner.
In the latest weeks, however, my initial tendency has peacefully, naturally shifted towards one of simple acceptance, recognition and gratefulness. I've been hanging out quite a lot lately in the tubes with Tom and his buddies, listening to him talk shop, and enjoying the incredible energy and unique vibe of his band.
I've been familiar with Tom's great songs for a long time; like I mentioned in a previous post, among other no small feats, his music helped me cope during a particular tough period in my recent life. But I hardly knew anything about him as a person. What I've found, turns out, connects in a way with my "lazy" attitude towards processing the news.
Tom Petty was a person devoted to music like no other; in one of the documentaries he defines musician as "a noble profession", which he approaches in terms of service: you get in, help people forget their problems for a while, and you're done with your day's work.
Not the regular rock star stance, that's for sure. With him the music was always in the first place, and he was always very grounded, very conscious and grateful of his wonderful gift and the possibility of using it in the way he did. That attitude shows in every bit of his music, that has absolutely no fluff. His songs are all well rounded, just like oranges are rounded. There are no fillers; bred in the school -and personal friend- of Bob Dylan, he sees no point in demanding an audience's attention unless he really has something to share. And share he does.
I've also loved to discover him as a member of a "band of brothers". The "and the Heartbreakers" in the artistic denomination is not some kind of polite concession; all the members of the band bring their own musicianship to the table, and it's incredible to see them perform, at some moments with that mask of pure concentration in their faces that shows they feel what they do is precious and must be well executed (another musician on which I've seen that kind of concentration sometimes is Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler; you see him play and it's like he's saying "hey, I'd like to rise an eyebrow as a greeting, but you see, I have 100% of my resources committed right now to nail this part"...)
Watching Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play live is watching the beauty and the awe of unity of purpose; what happens when a bunch of humans set out a common goal and work together to get it. "Tight" doesn't even start to define it, a lot of bands are tight in different ways. It's magic.
So this is what Tom Petty lived for, and the rest are silly details, not interesting to him, or to me. We have his music and his example. Not his model, which is different; it's not about imitating Tom Petty, it's about following his example: be the best "you" that you can be, and stick to it through thick and thin.
I also have to say that in some of the latest interviews he looks (he says it himself) a bit battered and tired. Maybe he found hard to take the turn the world has taken nowadays. He famously fought back record companies at one point against their price tyranny, but how do you fight back the shady, ubiquitous Googles and Trumps of today? I find a lot of that contemporary sadness and uneasiness in a song I've already mentioned, "Shadow people", one of my favorites, and the last song of what turned out to be his last record. "Shadow people... in shadow land..."
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it