Off the grid

I forgot how draining it was.

Over the course of four days, I sat in my studio recording guitars for something like twenty-four hours. I know I’ll look back on it as something awesome and I really am thrilled with the results, but it was more stressful than I expected.

I locked myself up in the studio working on the guitar tracks for five songs that Dead Pool are recording. It was a new experience for me because it was the first time I’d ever recorded myself playing through a decent guitar amp. I’d never done anything like this before because these tube amps, the amps that are actually worth recording, are extremely loud. Considering my studio is really just a spare bedroom it just hasn’t been practical to just crank my Mesa and put a microphone in front of it. But since we had the opportunity to record drums at a great studio a few months ago, I felt I owed it to these recordings to make a bigger effort this time.

Here’s the boring technical details. I ran my guitars into my beloved Mesa Single Rectifier, which sat in the studio, and then ran a thirty foot balanced lead from the amp out the door into my room, where I had miked up my cabinet with a trusty Shure SM57, on-axis and on grill. The mic lead then fed back into the studio, into my little Soundcraft desk and then into Pro Tools 8 via a Delta 44 soundcard. I closed both doors to make sure I heard as little sound from the cabinet as possible and monitored from inside the studio room with my Alesis M1 Active MkIIs.

I tweaked the amp a little and then I went about my work. I woke up at 7.30am each morning, went downstairs to have breakfast and then started recording just after 8. I recorded for a block of two hours until my Dad got home for lunch. It was too loud to record when anyone else was in the house, so I waited until he’d go back to work at 11 before going again until about 2pm. I was genuinely concerned about the noise levels the entire time. I convinced myself that it would only be a matter of hours before someone knocked at the door or put a brick through the window. It added a whole layer of stress to the process and kept me on edge the entire time, but as far as I know I didn’t have any complaints, which was lucky.

I worked pretty methodically, doing parts of songs with similar guitar sounds together to minimise the amount of messing around between takes. Each night I would listen to the recordings, take stock of what I had done and what needed to be fixed, upload some mp3s for my bandmates to listen to and then make a list for the next day. Then each morning I’d go back to the list and pick up where I left off.

I’ve been playing guitar since I was about eleven years old, and I got my first electric guitar for my thirteenth birthday. Even after all these years though, I didn’t fully understand just how temperamental these things can be. I’d do a take and then tune. And then do a take and then tune. And then do a take and then tune. And even in spite of all this, I’m sure there will still be spots where someone will hear something flat and tell me to fix it. Another thing I noticed is that the difference between playing live and tracking in the studio is like night and day. Every little squeak, buzz or bum note is just so obvious; doing big, chunky, quadruple-tracked guitar riffs is a ruthless, demanding process. Almost every guitar part on the recordings I did last week were recorded four times for that thick hard rock sound. That meant that if I needed to change even the tiniest section it would end up taking me half an hour. When everything needs to be done perfectly four times over, redoing anything is just so time consuming. I would play the same part over and over, not quite up to scratch, then I’d make mistakes because I was drifting off and not focusing. I suppose if I was sick of the parts, I’m sure the neighbours grew even more sick of them.

I was in this weird lockdown mode for the four days. I still did a couple of errands each afternoon and made sure I went to the gym most days, but by Friday afternoon I was a mess. I hadn’t shaved in over a week, my hair was scruffy and long, and there were piles of clothes in my room and cables all over the place. My studio still hasn’t recovered; there is still gear everywhere. You might expect all of this mess to be a normal state of affairs for a musician, but for me it’s really unusual. On Friday afternoon I went down the street and having looked down after leaving a shop I was in that there was multiple casserole stains on the hoodie that I was wearing. Disgraceful.

It’d been a long time since I’d done so much music-related stuff in such a short space of time. Back in my high school days I’d come home exhausted after long days of dress rehearsals or shows, but not only was this was just as draining, but it was more stressful and a little bit isolating as well. It was just me, my instruments and my computer for long slabs of time each day. I had some time with one of my band-mates, which was good, but I was mostly in my own world; playing, tuning, swearing to myself, making lists and adjusting faders and knobs. Being a creative professional that worked alone the majority of the time would take some getting used to, I think.

I’m really proud of the results from my efforts last week, and when the vocals are done and everything is mixed I’ll be even happier. I gave it everything I had. I figured out how I was going to do it, took a weeks leave from work, blacked out the time and got my hands dirty. It certainly wasn’t a walk in the park; it was goddamn hard work, but I learnt a lot. I learnt about recording, about my guitar playing, about these songs and about myself as well, I suppose.

Frankly, this is not a typical thing I’d write about for this site. I don’t think many people are interested in a long-winded story about me sitting by myself in a room recording guitars for four days. I was lucky, I think, because I feel like that there isn’t that many people who can take the time to do something they love so much in such an intense fashion. I really do think there’s something to be said for really putting your head in one place and going off the grid in order to get something done. If you’ve got a big project you need to finish and have the chance to take the time off to focus on it, I’d say go for it; you really can achieve a lot, just don’t expect it to be a walk in the park.