Day in the Life: Recording a Record in the Time of Social Distancing

Kevin Young

June 10, 2020

Originally this piece was meant to describe a typical day in the studio with my band, Moist, during the short period of time we were holed up in Toronto’s Revolution Recording in early March.

Granted, from project-to-project and musician-to-musician, what a ‘typical’ day looks like varies widely depending on your goals, on where and how you’re recording, and on a boatload of intangibles. But there are commonalities. You’ve prepared, collectively and individually. You’ve prioritized. You’ve established your workflow, assembled your team and your tools. Still, inevitably (and also typically) your plans and reality will come into conflict. There will be technical issues, bouts of intense navel gazing about form, tempo and feel. There will be failures, and even more technical issues, but collectively you’ll sort them out and, when you’ve finished, will hopefully have what you need to move forward.

 

We did. We always do. This being the initial phase of the recording process for our next record – i.e. getting final drums and as many other bits in the can, as is humanly possible. We figured we’d have plenty of time together later, while overdubbing in our guitarist/producer’s home studio – to address any other issues, crises of creative faith, and/or moments of collective self-doubt that might crop up.

 

Over the course of our five-day stint in Revolution, however, what was going on outside our little creative bubble went from ‘normal’ to ‘unprecedented’, and changed everything.


With a global pandemic in progress the question, ‘What now?’ – when applied to how to finish a record – is admittedly trivial. It certainly wasn’t top of mind for us when the scope and impact of Covid-19 became apparent. But after a short time in self-isolation we did begin considering our next steps.

 

Over time every member of the band has engaged in vastly different recording processes. All of us have tracked – alone and with others – in a wide range of scenarios and spaces ranging from sophisticated to bare-bones basic. Technology being what it is, creating and completing projects that are far more complex than a rock record (without ever setting foot in the same room with other players), is commonplace. It’s just not the way Moist makes records. Ever.

 

Back in the day one producer described us as a ‘five-headed beast’. It wasn’t meant to be entirely complimentary, but it was entirely accurate. Each of us have strong opinions that often differ – sometimes wildly – from each other, and no compunction about sharing those opinions bluntly. Sometimes the resulting comments are lightly varnished, but not always. Either way, if you’re on the receiving end of an opinion or criticism, it still sometimes feels as if someone’s poking your latest brilliant idea, with a stick.

 

God, how I miss that.

 

Full disclosure, as a freelance writer I’ve covered audio and recording technology extensively over time. As I’ve often said, I believe that’s my punishment for studiously avoiding pushing faders myself during every recording session we’ve done as a band.

 

It’s not that I don’t like recording or recording technology, it’s just that, as a keyboard player, I’ve got a mitt full of technology already – and don’t feel predisposed to adding more unless it’s unavoidable.

 

All that said, aside from beefing up my home recording space with some outboard gear and recording software I’m only remotely familiar with. The process isn’t all that different. But the workflow is. In fact, there was a lot more ‘work’ than ‘flow’ initially.

 

During previous album sessions when moody technology decided to be uncooperative, or when the mix I was playing to wasn’t “just right”, or some random noise cropped up, I’d take a breath and wait for our engineer, producer – anybody really – to sort it out. In the interim I might go over a part, tweak a sound, check my email. Now, however, I’m the one resolving those issues and hoping to salvage whatever ‘flow’ I had going on before something went sideways.

 

Fast forward a week or so, and the upsides of working this way are clear. Each day is mine to schedule. I can take all the time I want to flesh out ideas that might never have come to me otherwise or have been abandoned before being fully formed.  None of my keyboards or peripherals need to be packed up, or stacked perilously to one side so someone else has room to work.

 

On the downside, that’s because no one else is coming to play with me. 

 

While I believe I’ve progressed as a musician in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise; for which I’m grateful, what’s missing, in my opinion, is an ongoing, in the moment dialogue.  The kind that’s been such a huge part of every record we’ve made together, and is founded on years of our trying to get the best performances out of one another. 

 

And while we still have that dialogue, it seems somewhat muted by the lack of immediacy. Instead of blurting something out that might change the direction a given song, or the record overall will take, and be able to do so immediately – we have to wait. We’ll still have similar outbursts and conversations, but they’ll lack a certain degree of urgency and energy.

 

It’s that real-time urgency and energy which has always fuelled our writing sessions. Regardless of how fully formed a song is, or how compelling a new idea or riff is, it has to run the gauntlet of opinions and ideas in the rehearsal space before it becomes well and truly finished, and ‘ours’.

 

I don’t know that I’d choose to make a record this way again, but I value the experience and the realization of just how important frank, unvarnished, real-time dialogue can be, and how critical it is to the creation and performance of music or any type of art really.

 

More broadly speaking, not unlike the casual in person interactions that until recently were so commonplace, most people barely spared them a thought. But it really is integral to progress in general, individually, collectively and globally.

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