Instant Karma – Dedicated to Dave Tough’s Memory

In the old times of analog recording, I sometimes witnessed fellow musicians’ – especially guitar, bass and keyboard players – faces twist, in silent complaint, against the eventual need of having to record their parts over and over again, on demand of recording producers (myself included). And the faces they made were more distorted as they had to re-record only small parts.

“Play on”, said the tech, before pressing the REC button. “Oh, it went through? Never mind, just do it again”, they instructed, when they lost the correct point of the intended punch-in – to the despair of musicians, on the loss of magical moments of spontaneous creativity. They were on the brink of tears, sometimes. Although I always stood in solidarity with the poor guys, myself, I never had the slightest regret in my conscience about creating another part to replace some other, which had already been (well) recorded, in recordings I produced. Or about asking for “more spontaneity” in the interpretation of some specific parts (as if such was possible, under the circumstances). I also could not quite understand that touchdown vibe when the first recorded run through (or any one, for that matter) was considered to be good, as a whole piece.

The reason for that: I play drums. An instrument considered, in those primeval days, as one that could not be artificially “pieced together”. A drum track was either worthy or worthless. There were no drum machines. We were the first ones to be recorded, always, and everyone else depended on our success to even start tuning up…

That might have given us, drummers, a higher degree of concentration, and we did put up our best efforts, so that all might work out real quick. With me, that did it. I can’t recall taking more than three takes until the “good one”. Then, I was on to bug the guys in the band: “So what, not up, yet? Damn, you’re running things late!” Back then (oh, how I miss it), never did I have a producer telling me what to do while recording was still on the process.

Recently, much to the dismay of both my art and my patience, I found out that this piece of cake is no longer there to feed us, drummers, with it’s sweetness. Today, in the time of digital recording, we’re par with all other musicians. Damn luck in bits of bytes.

I was called to record the rhythm track for the debut CD of my friend Glauco Fernandes, a very good electric violin player, with whom I had played live for an entire year not long before the call. “Native”, the title he asked me to record, a seven minutes long instrumental, was amongst the shows’ repertoire. I was to record with a sequencer. Quite normal: I had done it, live. No rehearsal, or written parts. “No problemo”, I was familiar with the piece. I knew that I was up for one change or another in the overall scenery, because records and live dates are not pictures in the same frame. But I was not quite ready for what followed, in the studio.

During the session, I was quite at ease… until the first interruption, at about 20 seconds, first quarter. “Is there anything wrong”, I asked. “Well, look, the beat has got to be steadier, with more drive and no fills”, answered the artist and co-producer. OK. On I went… until the second interruption, a few bars ahead. That was when I understood each and every twist of a face performed by fellow musicians, ages ago. It wasn’t long until I could hear their spectral voices: “Revenge! You’re out, buddy! There’s nothing worse than an itch that you can’t scratch!” And how! And it was itchy as hell, that day – when I paid the Instant Karma John Lennon told us about.

The piece has a drum solo of the one kind that I like: over a rhythmic and harmonic base (I share Stewart Copeland’s insight that drum solos without accompaniment are tedious for those who play or listen to it). To top that, the improv may be thought of on 6/8 time, a dream of drum soloing (as Omar Hakim proved us on “Bring on The Night’s” “I Burn for You” footage”). But, long before starting to stretch out, I was already scared of the worst. My fears were entirely confirmed when the headphones died, after about eight bars.

“Let’s try doing this way”, told me the two producers. As a good pro, I tried my best to understand the provided suggestions, and to play it right. It was good… and this routine of “spontaneity” was repeated for the whole solo’s length. Every now and then they would pop up inside the drum booth to let me in on their newest ideas — which I, obligingly enough, would play. I even wrote down some of their ideas.

It was the first “six hand written” solo that I ever played. And the last one, I hope. I felt like a drum machine of flesh and bone, a drum and cymbal robot, a humanoid. I was afraid that Deckard would burst into the studio to terminate me, without any pity, as a criminal, guilty of abandon of humanity.

When the session ended, I did not have the slightest notion of what had been produced. What had I played? When I went in to listen to the conjured result, that Rosemary’s baby did not seem shapeless. But I must confess having thought of being able to do better, in terms of spontaneity and fluency, without that much help (or with some rehearsal run through). This is, of course, paranoia of that recording’s musician, because no one, not even another musician, will find any flaw in it. But what’s registered, there, is not a product of this musician’s true art.

In case you haven’t read last week’s article I would advise you to do so, before starting to read this one. It might give a better idea of where I come from.

For those who read it, I have to say that maybe at least one of you might have thought of me as somewhat of a purist. Well, maybe.

But, as far as recordings go, I’ll always stick with the oldies goodies, preferably those which were of the first run through type. Among other advantages, they were more budget friendly for those paying the bill – you, sometimes – (the recording on question, for example, lasted almost three hours, and the music is seven minutes long). And them oldies had such a life to them which seems absent from much of what I listen to, these days. Since I’m not quite high into the recording industry, I’m unaware if recorded drums are all split up like that (and I hope not – for Saint Cecilia, high in heaven).

But this is not what worries me the most. I’m actually bugged about the impacts of high technology over the art of music. A while ago, I read an article in which a jazz musician confessed himself quite intrigued about poor quality of contemporary recordings made of acoustic drums. It was, I guess, in Modern Drummer Magazine, and, although (sorry) I can’t remember neither in which publication nor who the guy was (is), I think it’s worthy to share one of his particular visions, which I do remember quite well. This refers to the existing disparity in the sound quality obtained in the recording of drums, in jazz records, back when granny was girlie, and today, when she’s great grandmother. If dear granny has always been such a jazz freak she was quite lucky, according to our anonymous’ (sorry again) view, for what she could listen to when her hearing was in it’s best shape.

He finds it “strange” that jurassic drums, recorded in environments without proper acoustic control, sometimes with only one ragged (for today’s standards) microphone, might sound better, livelier – even when reproduced from old vinyl records – than most of those which are being recorded nowadays. The sounds of the new era, to which he’s so aghast when faced to it’s quality, result from digital reproductions of recordings of the same kind. From performances developed in instruments (theoretically) better built, scientifically placed in environments designed by sound engineers, and with a state of the art microphone, at least, per drum piece. It’s our still (oh, my…) unknown’s opinion that modern technology seems to not have helped much, at least in this specific case.

I agree with him one hundred percent. To certify that, “all you need is ears” *, as George Martin would have it. And if, to worsen it, some will start to use technology to help in not letting musicians make their music genuinely, then we’ll be in a real wasteland.

I’m not complaining on my own behalf. (And would it do any good, if so?) Neither saying that I won’t record like that again – which I already did, by the way. (I’d soon become jobless.) Business is business. And, after all, I’m a professional. This was a mea culpa, as a recording producer, for every time I have spoken in ill mannered fashion to fellow musicians, because I glimpsed their faces frown, in a session, when I asked then for that old “spontaneity” in playing something I had devised. And, as a musician, a kiss on the hands of those, colleagues, who could bring any life to the thousandth playback. Sorry, folks!

In time: If anyone may consider this piece as an alert, feel at ease to do so. I won’t find it bad, no way. OK?

* This is the title to Mr. Martin’s fine autobiography, a real must in recording production, somewhat like the christian’s guide to the Holy Grail.