I recently attended at talk at Red Emma’s to celebrate the release of the book The Inner Ear of Don Zientara: A Half Century of Recording in One of America’s Most Innovative Studios, Through the Voices of Musicians by Antonia Tricario. The round-table discussion was lively and engaging but dealing with a topic that many non-musician folks don’t think about. People just expect music to exist, to be played at events, to swim through in a seemingly endless digital stream of well-recorded pristine tracks.
But I know it is not quite that easy, as did the folks on that panel, to get your music from idea to demo sketch to full studio recording.
It also recalled to me the old discussion among bands: when to record in the studio? The prevailing wisdom was, at the time of my entrance in the underground, to only record in the studio after you’d had time to play out the songs live, maybe take them on brief tour. Something happens live: ideas get refined, songs find out where they are ultimately going, lock into place.
Of course, back then, having the ability to take material into the studio at the right time was itself a tricky thing. You needed time and you needed the money to pay for that time. I spent a long while following a recording session paying off the person who recorded it, paycheck by paycheck, long after the band broke up. The stats on making a living off of your music remain daunting, much less realizing a profit from recording.
In 2023, of course, the line between studio and home studio are very blurred. Don Zientara is now recording from his home. An old friend of mine, Chris Coady, who has worked at both Electric Lady Studios and Sunset Sound, also now records in his home. Pop stars break after recording albums in their bedroom with their brother. Pop stars can record a hit album before playing their first show.
Still, I advocate for “going into the studio,” whatever that means now. It is a different thing you create there. It is nowhere near as immediately satisfying or adrenalizing as live performance or as quick as a home demo. The “take after take” studio tedium can be difficult; the building blocks being made slowly to achieve the finished product (I recorded with one band member who vowed never to record in the studio again; he just couldn’t stand it). It can also reveal, at first, something very different from what folks who follow your music perceive as your band’s “sound.”
I made music for a long time, and, of the two bands I was in that made the most impact, one went into the studio, and one did not. The first band, The Unheard Ones, was aptly named, existing briefly, appearing online to this day a grand total of once, playing a show in my mom’s basement. The second band? We opened for Of Montreal, Liars, and various other groups of the turn of the century Baltimore underground scene. The second band played more shows, made more waves. We were heard and seen by more people.
But The Unheard Ones recorded in the studio and demoed to reel to reel tape. Now, a project to re-release the music we recorded is heading to a 2024 finish line. The music we recorded around 25 or so years ago will live on in a different way.
The debate may still be had as to when a band should record in a studio, but I stand firm that they should. I know that it is a costly venture with uncertain immediate reward. But, in the long run, I doubt it will be regretted. I will let the “unheard/heard” final lines of this piece write themselves.