Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Use of Recording Technology in Progressive Rock

Keyboardist/vocalist Ellsworth Hall has some comments regarding the use of recording technology in Progressive Rock.

Les Paul pioneered a new recording technique (thanks to Brooks Keys for the link):
Overdubbing in 1947

Classical pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould were known for having performances released on record that were stitched together from the best takes.

George Martin pushed the envelope with the Beatles in what could be accomplished in a recording studio.

Eddie Offord in recording Yes' Close to the Edge stated in an interview that they recorded it in little pieces and then spliced it all together. Only later did they have to learn how to play it live. He was a master of tape manipulation.

Look at the technology involved in recording 10cc's "I'm Not In Love." Amazing!

Frank Zappa embraced digital sequencing with his Synclavier and said he could get it do things he couldn't get his band musicians to do. UK keyboardist Eddie Jobson also used a Synclavier for his Theme Of Secrets CD.

Peter Gabriel on his 3rd album: “...worked out the rhythmic sequences on a small electronic drum kit, then I built up the songs on top of them. For the lyrics, too, I exploited the repetitive rhythms of the drum machine." He found inspiration having bought his first drum machine in the late 70s.

Geoff Downes brought the Fairlight CMI into Yes utilizing sampling technology in 1980. He'd further this use in Asia ("Cutting It Fine" for example).

Steve Hackett used a Linn drum machine for all the "drumming" on his Cured album.

Ian Anderson used sequencing and digital instruments including a Fairlight CMI on the Jethro Tull album, Under Wraps.

Yes' 90125 has sampling technology all over it under the capable producing of Trevor Horn.

Genesis of course used drum machines from Duke through Calling All Stations.

Rick Wakeman's keyboard parts were recorded into a sequencer on the Yes album Union (and reportedly, infamously changed around by producer Jonathan Elias) while Bill Bruford played his electronic drums (as he had on Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe).

Carl Palmer triggered drum sounds (via Dynacord) for ELP's Black Moon CD.

Trevor Rabin engineered and recorded Yes' album Talk using a hard disk recording system (Mark of the Unicorn) and allegedly sampled Chris Squire's bass and played the sound when Chris was unavailable. (Hey if I was under the deadline pressure Trevor was, I would have as done it as well to finesse a part to get the track finished).

There are many more examples of musicians using the latest technology in progressive rock (and pop for that matter); and hard disk recording with all the MIDI sequencing integration and cut-and-paste audio editing is commonplace now.

So why are some folks seemingly upset when these technologies are used (or in their view, abused)? As purists, would some folks would rail against prog rockers for using a Mellotron instead of hiring string musicians and a choir? If the budget would allow, sure but many times it did not.  You use what tools you have at your disposal to make the most of the music you're recording.

The reason I bring this up is that I use hard disk recording and sequencing in my soundtrack work and also when I recorded the most recent Aethellis album, Northumbria. The first Aethellis album was in essence a solo project with a band name for which I recorded everything myself. It was a reaction to the frustrations of my previous band Logos Affinity where we had recorded material at a local studio for our second album but couldn't get it together to finish anything. I started assembling the bits and pieces we had recorded in my studio but didn't like the onus of putting it together when there was a lack of overall commitment.

The first Aethellis album got good reviews but some folks wanted to hear a "real band" for the follow up. So I assembled some of my old band mates from the Affinity/Logos Affinity days for gigging the album live and invited them to participated in the follow up album, Northumbria.

However I am a control freak in the spirit of Trevor Rabin (just kidding, I love his work) and took the reins of recording and engineering the new album. The reviews have been very positive and the contributions of my band mates has helped the music reach new heights. Guitarist Mark Van Natta and I have been writing together since the late 70s and have had a music library company in the 80s and 90s when we wrote quite a lot of material together in many genres. A few things we really liked made it onto Northumbria ("The Awakening" and "The Penal Colony"). Bassist Erik Marks and I collaborated on "Sounds Good" which came out of some jams in his studio back in the late 90s.

It has also been a delight to have Mark playing his distinctive, emotive guitar parts for the new album which adds a different dimension from my sort of funky, chunky guitar style. Erik is a bassist par excellence. And having Erik's brother Chris Marks (who was in Logos Affinity) play on the album, a classically trained, pyrotechnical whiz on the six-string, was a joy. In fact several of the band members are classically trained including myself. Not to hold this up as some kind of badge of honor necessarily, but rather to point out that we can actually play our instruments and we do. We don't have to fake our way using technology as a crutch. And neither did the aforementioned prog rock musicians. Technology was simply a tool.

I played all my parts into my computer's sequencer and in some cases (like the Hammond organ solo in "Northumbria") improvised the whole part in one take. Then just went back and cleaned up a few bum notes here and there. But I try not to quantize (correct timing) too much to keep a "live" feel. And if my timing is way off, believe me it's easier just to play the part over than diddle with quantize settings. As a result, I still feel the piano solo in "Exchequer Prague" is a bit off; but that adds to its jazzy character. The same with recording my vocals (and Mark's); punching in is sometimes more of a hassle. If we mess up too much, just re-record it.

Now, enter drummer Mike Harrington. Mark and Mike have played together off and on since the early 70s. So you know we're a band of old guys! Mark invited Mike to play with Aethellis in 2004 and he's been with us ever since with the exception of gigs here and there when he had family commitments.

We recorded Mike playing drums in Mark's home studio to a DAT deck that Mark had bought way back in 1992 when we were recording our second Affinity Music Library CD. Mike has the funny tendency (which we never noticed live) of humming along with the music as he plays! Sort of like Keith Jarrett. So we tried to get him to control it and he did a great job drumming. We finally ended up using some of the audio and for other parts I took audio of his playing and using what is amusingly called "drum replacement therapy" converted the audio to MIDI data (which is possible with the Sonar digital recording software) and had that MIDI data trigger drum samples recorded at recording studio in New York.

I used those drum sounds on much of the album in order to create a consistent sound across all the tracks since we had some varying musical styles (but keeping the prog ethos on each). I also played some distinctive analog drum machine sounds myself on a few tracks; but that was because those sounds were part and parcel of the genre (electronic/New Wave) we were applying our prog sensibilities to ("The Awakening" and "Exchequer Prague"). I also played the synth bass parts on those tracks for the same reason. Prog rock originally borrowed from all kinds of genres and why not do the same today?

The point again is, we played our parts. We're capable of playing our parts. I used the technology to try and enhance the sound of what was played; if I used samples I felt they sounded better than what we could get on our own. Or they fit the track better than the origninal audio. People may disagree with the choices, but that was the motivation. Not to be lazy and let technology be a crutch, but rather use it to enhance our sound.

I don't have the funds to access a huge recording studio; I have my own modest set up in my house which I've used for years to create soundtracks for various producers and projects. I used what I had to make the Northumbria album and I was very happy with the results. If someone feels it is sterile, so be it. To me, it feels like band.

The album was pieced together, of course. So was Close to the Edge; in a different way perhaps, but still it was assembled using the technology at the time. But instruments were played. Some timing was corrected to make the parts fit together better. Some timing was left alone. Nothing was programmed in step mode or anything like that.

So like Yes, we had to learn all this stuff after it had been put together so we could play it live. But we can and we do!!!