Mastering Albums

“Can I just say something else?”, asked Sam. A pall of indissoluble murkiness settled over me; through the train window I could discern the shapes of several hundred ravens flying in an uncanny human skull formation. “Sure”, I said, without really meaning it.

“I think you should re-record the entire vocal”, said Sam. A terrifying wind whipped through the trees, probably because the train I was on had just sped past them at about 100kph. “Hmm”, I said brightly.

As Sam continued to talk, the grim realisation that he was right settled over the carriage. I’d sent him a rush of the last track from Why Wait for Failure? to get some feedback on a very specific artistic issue (the presence or absence of an extra harmony part) and he’d come back with a wider criticism which could not be ignored. The take lacked soul. It lacked vibe. It was a good technical performance, but there was no heart in it. The song itself was highly emotive, but I didn’t sound like a tortured artist clawing at my last vase of prosecco. I sounded, in short, like a guy singing a song.

Had I taken the time to think about it, it’s the criticism I’d have expected from Sam. He does his vocals in one or two takes – I’ve seen it happen – and he always absolutely nails it; his vocals invariably attest to an enormous level of artistic perfectionism without ever quite allowing you to shake the feeling that he’s improvising every word straight from the heart. And heart is the easiest thing to lose in the studio – days are long and tiring, the focus is always on technique, on sound, on individual errors.

But heart was also the most important part of this track, which is the album’s closing thought as well as one of the oldest and most well-liked tunes I’m putting on there. It’s also, unlike the rest of the record, very pared-down: it’s the only track which consists solely of my voice and a single guitar. And it’s the most emotionally raw tune I’ve got. Getting those vocals right was absolutely essential.

But there was a problem with the timing. The recording was meant to be finished. The train I was on (8am on a bank holiday Monday, picture the scene) was supposed to be taking me to a mastering session – all the finished material stacked together, checked for compatibility with your home CD player. The prelude to release. A technical day, not an emotional one. “Dean will kill me”, I whispered, a single tear slipping over my soft cheek. “I can’t help that”, said Sam, sensitively. “It’s him or me, basically”. It’s conceivable that I’m embroidering this conversation slightly.

Recording vocals parts isn’t something you can just do. The AKN 505/7-GCA, which is probably the name of the microphone we use, has to warm up – you have to switch it on, painstakingly arrange all the accessories, and then give it a good forty-five minutes to really come to terms with itself. All this requires moving around, a prospect which Dean doesn’t take kindly to at 8am on a bank holiday Monday. Picture the scene.

“Hello, Dean”, I said, dropping myself into his svelte Mazda. “You’re looking great! Fantastic beard”. “Hmm”, said Dean. We drove out of the station car park, listening to the radio talking about the European elections. “Bloody UKIP”, said Dean. “Yes..!”, I replied.

“Ahahaha”, I said. “Shall we go to Sainsbury’s?”, asked Dean.

At the Sainsbury’s, I was theatrically chased across the parking lot by Matt Sage, who was there by coincidence. “The whole car park was looking at us”, said Dean. “Can we re-record an entire vocal part?”, I asked. Dean did that thing you do when you’re driving a car where your eyes don’t leave the road. “He took that well”, I said to Sam, when we reached the studio.

Sam had very generously agreed to give over his own bank holiday morning to coming into the studio and making sure I bloody did it properly this time. “Is that a bag of snacks?”, he asked, embracing me warmly. “I thought you might have one of those”. In the live room, I recorded an electric guitar part I’d forgotten to add to one of the other songs while the microphone warmed up. “Isn’t this fun, Dean?”, I asked. Dean aggressively checked the rugby on his iPhone.

It’s hard to bring out searing, technically-adept emotional honesty in environments like this. “How was that last take?”, I asked, peering through the murky glass into the control room. “I think there could be more searing, technically-adept emotional honesty”, said Sam. Dean just started the recording again.

Eventually, we did it. The thing about these kinds of situations when you’re recording is that it’s always worth it – the new track sounds many times better than its predecessor, and properly conveys (I hope) the feeling behind what I was trying to write. I suspect that Sam wanted even more, but it was a really significant improvement. “Good work”, he said, exiting the studio. He left behind him a suspiciously empty carton of green olives and a challenging situation: we now had six hours to master a fourteen-track album. Remarkably, we did that too.

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