The recording studio offers a freedom of expression and collaboration away from the public eye that live performance cannot always imitate. On stage, inspiration might result in special moments, but they are gone in a flash. Within the safe confines of a studio, artists do not need to bottle lightning. This safe place leaves them free to cultivate and refine ideas until they match their vision.
Of course, it is not always that easy. A recording session might begin with a rough demo track and end with upturned bins used for percussion, microphones taped to the floor, or drums set up in the stairwell. This is a space for experimentation in search of the “perfect sound”.
Inspired by the new “Sound of Music” infographic created by Technical Foam Services, read on to discover some of the most fascinating ways in which great artists like Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson created some of the most iconic moments in music history. But be careful, you might never hear your favorite song in the same way again!
The search for this elusive “perfect sound” seldom means a clean recording. After days, weeks, or even months of work, it is just as likely to be a misheard lyric, a mistake, or a strange sound on the recording that will be remembered as much as the song itself.
The Van Halen instrumental “Eruption” wasn’t planned or intended for an album. Eddie was simply rehearsing for a live performance and the producer recorded him. The track is widely regarded as one of the greatest solos of all time, but a mistake at the start of the track annoys Eddie to this day.
In their effort to push boundaries, many artists have inadvertently stumbled on a new technique or found a novel use for equipment which has revolutionised its usage. The unique sound flowing underneath 10cc’s hit “I’m not in love” is a great example.
The sound is the result of three weeks of the group just singing “ahhh”. The final 256 voices were loaded onto 16 tracks and controlled through the mixing desk, essentially creating a voice synthesizer that could be played along with the song.
For the purist, the recording studio experience is about fine-tuning the syncopation between sound and message to build a resonant atmosphere on the finished track… but sometimes the producer may even ask the vocalist to sing through a cardboard tube!
Bruce Swedien, a producer famous for his work with Quincy Jones, did exactly that to Michael Jackson. The result? The “don’t think twice” vocal sections in the song “Billie Jean.”
Sometimes even the greatest studios in the world will not be quite right. Despite perfectly set up rooms filled with the highest quality equipment, the studio might be unable to offer what the producer is looking for, and they will have to take drastic action.
The drummer is often the victim of this practice and they may be sent to record in an obscure location like a hallway, or another room entirely. During the recording of the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control”, it’s rumored that producer Martin Hannett went as far as to force drummer Stephen Morris to play on the studio roof in an attempt to capture the right drum sound.
Whether the session is in a traditional studio, on a living room floor, or in the middle of a field, the primary aim is to capture the creativity of the performers. To do this effectively it is important to have the right equipment. This doesn’t necessarily mean spending thousands, but it does demand high quality materials, from acoustic foam to cables, as even the finest instruments will only sound as good as the equipment they are used with.
Springsteen’s “Nebraska” is famous for being a home recording. The pair of microphones he used were low budget, but certainly not lacking in quality, as the master cassette (yes, a standard blank cassette) of the record would have been unusable without them.
For all the craft and creativity, one of the greatest joys of recording music is when an unintended sound results in an incredible moment. The unmistakable swelling feedback at the beginning of The Beatles’ “I feel fine” is a perfect example of an accident that became iconic, but also that artistic awareness is still required to commit to an unusual sound, rather than simply re-recording the section.
Whether deliberate or accidental, the task of capturing the best sound is nothing new. From Elvis to Queen, the greatest artists of all time have taken on this challenge, and it is a task that future generations will continue to tackle with creativity, innovation and, sometimes, a little bit of good fortune.