Does It Matter How a Record is Made?
Watching Peter Bogdanovich’s extremely thorough yet watchable documentary on Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream, I was struck by something Petty said about his work in the early 90s, during which he and producer Jeff Lynne began to use the studio as an instrument and recordings became less about a live performance. "I like whatever makes good records," he said. "I don’t care how it’s made. Nobody cares how a record is made. They care if they like it or not.”
I’ve thought about this quote often as I struggle mightily to complete my current album and employ studio tricks that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Yesterday I wanted a cymbal where there wasn’t any recorded during my day-long studio session in late February, so I simply copied a cymbal from one section of the song and pasted it onto another section. On the same song, I noticed that several of the notes I sang were slightly out of tune, so I simply shifted key notes into tune. As for the acoustic guitar I’m currently recording, this I have to do section by section, and sometimes measure by measure, as my playing is so poor that I can’t complete an entire verse or chorus without accidentally deadening a string or striking an unwanted open string. Even my piano tracks – definitely my best instrument – needed a little tweaking, as yesterday I erased an erroneous low note that was clashing with the bass part.
Clearly, I’m not recording a live “performance.” Is this cheating? Does it matter if it is? Is Tom Petty correct that nobody cares how a record is made?
In his illuminating book, Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick writes about late-night sessions during which Paul McCartney would record bass parts over and over until he had the perfect track. Impressive, though I've no doubt that were Emerick recording The Beatles today, he would splice together various bass tracks to create one usable one. Is one technique more pure than the other? Does it matter?
For Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s first several albums, they would track everything live at once until they had a perfect take, effectively rehearsing until they got a great performance. This is in stark contrast to the recording of Into the Great Wide Open, during which a musician like Benmont Tench would be asked to play a particular keyboard part during a few measures of a song, and then leave the studio.
On his recent interview on the radio show Sound Opinions, Geddy Lee of the band Rush discussed recording the album Hemispheres. The band initially tried to perform the ambitious side-long title track in its entirety, but ultimately had to record it in sections. Does this fact make the recording any less impressive?
Even Steely Dan, who employed arguably the best musicians on the planet to play on the album Gaucho, used recording tricks to the get the sound they wanted, as producer Roger Nichols created a drum machine called a Wendel to perfect drums parts initially recorded by the likes of Jeff Porcaro!
Clearly, even getting past today’s largely sterilized recording techniques, we can come up with multiple examples of musicians and producers doing whatever it took to get the sound they wanted. But is Petty correct when he says nobody cares how a record is made?
I suspect it depends on the listener, on the band, on the era, and on the circumstances. For guys like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, who get to play with the greatest musicians known to Man, I like to think that the albums they record are more performance-based and less studio-trickery, and I would hope that studio guys like Steve Gadd and Michael Landau would insist upon it. And part of the joy of listening to, say, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, is knowing that I’m listening to a live performance. Something would surely be lost if it came to light that “So What” had been recorded track by track.
It's also kind of sad that our ears have gotten used to hearing perfection, because there was a time when the performance was more important. Keith Richards’s fuzz guitar errors on “Satisfaction” can be heard loud and clear fifty years after the song was recorded. Would the song be any better if it had been recorded in 2015, when no doubt Richards would have rerecorded the guitar part (or, more likely, would have recorded the tune several times and then spliced together various parts for the perfect take)? Do the mistakes take away from the song, or somehow make it more endearing? I don't know.
For now, I continue to plow through what has been a somewhat grueling recording process and attempt to make the best-sounding record I can using the resources available to me. And some of those resources are digital. The Palisades will be complete by summer’s end, and God-willing, it’s going to sound great thanks in large part to modern technology. I’ll take this over a bad-sounding "authentic" record any day.
Maybe Petty has a point.