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Two Tracks Are All You Need — Really
By Jeff Webber
The record executive picked up the phone on the third ring. He never wanted to appear too anxious. "Hey Bob, we start tracking Holly's record this morning at 11. Why don't you fall by the studio at 11:30 and we will give you the first single, ready to go." The executive said, "What are you talking about?" "No time to explain now, just get down here if you can." And then the record producer hung up. The executive thought for a moment and then decided to show up. It had been quite some time since he had been in a studio.
Jeff Weber is a twenty-year industry veteran who has produced over 120 CDs with releases on every major
label as well as a host of independent labels. He's picked up two Grammys with another seven nominations
along the way. Nancy Wilson, Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Luther Vandross, David Benoit, Tim Weisberg,
Kenny Rankin, Diane Schuur, Luis Conte, Jeff Berlin, Maynard Ferguson, Lalo Schifrin, Freddy Hubbard,
and Sarah Vaughn are just a few of the artists he has produced. Oh, and Jeff is also on TAXI's A&R Staff
When he got to the studio, the usual preparations were taking place but he noticed the vibe was far more intense than he expected. The studio was full of musicians and singers. He counted four keyboard players, six background singers, the artist (singing), three guitarists, bass, drums, two percussionists, and a small string quartet. Oh yes, he just then heard three horns. He noticed a vitality to the music that he had not experienced before at the many other sessions he had attended in the past. There was a sound he felt, rather than heard, and an immediacy to the music that got under his skin.
Was the song that good, he wondered? Was the singer delivering the goods? She sounded more emotional, more dramatic, and more believable. Even he believed her. And why did the track sound so damn good, so clean, so dynamic, so in his face? He noticed that his body started moving with the beat. What was that shit all about, he wondered. After twenty years of making music, he never responded this way to music. What in the hell was going on?
And then it was over.
The producer conferred with the engineer and the associate producer and then motioned for everyone to come into the control room and listen to the track. As everyone crowded into the control room, the exec noticed that the players and the singers were excited about the music, really excited. The playback started and suddenly everyone was moving. It was contagious and even he started getting into the groove again. The players and singers were yelling and screaming at what they heard. Why were they so genuinely excited?
And then it was over.
Everyone filed out and the producer presented the exec with a DAT copy of the song, ready for mastering. The exec had this dumbfounded look on his face and the producer just chuckled. He explained that the track was recorded live to two tracks, with no mixing, editing, or overdubbing. The executive still shook his head with wonder.
Years ago, the producer explained, there were only two tracks. This, of course, was a dramatic improvement of mono. As the recording studio became more and more technically sophisticated, additional tracks became slowly available and the microscopic examination of recording music began. Soon, artists began to be seduced by the availability of studio technology to such an extent that the artists, in pursuit of musical perfection, forgot that music was the collective dissemination of emotion in the form of musical stories. Making music had become a series of isolated overdubs with the heart mixed right out of the recording. The singer often never even saw the band. Often, the band never even saw each other. They were just brought in individually and their parts were recorded separately and then all the various parts were assembled like some sort of prefab housing.
Live two-track recording allows a group of musicians and singers to simply do what they love to do, to make music. Performance is their perfection. Not technique. Not technology. The result of the process is a track that is sonically superior, emotionally satisfying, and financially responsible.
With no mixing, editing, or overdubbing, you save a generation in the process and the product becomes more intense, more vital, more revealing. Knowing that the track is being recorded live in a controlled environment forces everyone to be on top of his or her game. They are intensely focused and the result is a far more emotional product—a clear result from the joy of playing together. This emotional surplus is the bridge that has always connected the artist with the listener. When you start groovin', in any way, with any part of your body, you have connected with some part of the song. Everybody wins. Best of all, if it takes three or four days to record the project in its entirety, when everyone looks at the recording budget, you're a hero.
Is live two-track recording a dangerous way to go? Sure. Is it for everyone? Of course not. But how else can one retain the energy of a live performance in a controlled environment? Multi-track recording is a poor substitute for storing the emotion of a song. If a musician believes in his own ability and does not have to rely on studio trickery to create artistry, live two-track recording is a monumental achievement. "It is not for everybody, but for me, it is the epitome of the musical process," the producer explained.
The executive left the studio, dazed from having to listen to that religious zealot of a producer, and exhausted from the emotional energy he expended just listening to the music. Yet he was energized, and he knew it was from what he had just experienced. He smiled.
And then it was over.
(P. S. This is a true story...)