Too Wet

When I auditioned for Hamlet when I was 27, I had yet to remove my recording experience from my resume. The director told me at the callback “It looks like you’ve spent more time in a studio than you have on stage”. Despite the fact that it’s probably true, I’ve learned a hell of a lot less while recording than I have while acting. I have an entire rant that I want to call “On Storytelling”, but, to be perfectly honest, I’m so dissatisfied right now with aspects of my acting life that I don’t dare say anything out loud.

In the studio, I’ve learned quite a bit, but nowhere near enough to be of any use. When I have struggled for work, lots of people have said, “Why don’t you call all the local studios and see if they’re hiring?” Which is sort of akin to, “You are a great clarinet player, why don’t you call the symphony hall and find out if they need help hanging lights?”

There is a continuum in the art world. On the one end, there are the gear head nerds and on the other there are the lone-gunmen crazies.

The gear head nerds have a hundred magazine subscriptions and they have a collection of, for lack of a better term, equipment. Cables and buttons and the newest little box that alters sounds in microcosmic ways. These guys are best suited either to percussion or engineering, and they are capable of incredible magic when it comes to editing and polishing. They are like 120 grit sandpaper. If you go into one of these guys’ kitchens, you would find eleven different sizes of souflee pans.

The lone-gunmen crazies have apartments covered in paper and hands covered in ink. They haven’t figured out the computer, or if they have they just play everything in live and they bring in scores with flute lines that have 29 32nd notes tied together for rhythm. They have an ability to create macrocosmic beauty, great melody lines and fantastic interpretation, drifting often from what’s written to something even better. These guys are best suited to composition and opera singing. I wouldn’t go into these guys’ kitchens, but if you do, you’d find a stack of unused pans and a single sandwich plate, used over and over and never washed.

Most of us are somewhere in between. I can hang for the preliminary gear head talk, but after about two minutes I’ve reached the end of what I know, and after five I’ve reached the end of what I can understand. The only magic I can claim responsibility for is getting a gear head behind the console and a lone-gunman in the studio and then playing to each of their strengths. It does no good to tell the gear head that you want to record the entire phrase, he’s gonna try to grab the one out-of-tune note, and it does no good to tell the lone gunman to sing that one note better, you have to tell them what to feel and hope it translates.

The one place where everyone comes together is reverb. Once you record something, you “throw a little reverb on it.”

Reverb is short for reverberation, it’s the sound that bounces back of hard walls in large halls, like a tiny short echo. Something magical happens when you throw on reverb, suddenly everything you recorded has breathing room, a little space. Without it, you get the sense that someone is singing right next to your head, it feels invasive, but with it, you actually get the sense that there are other people around you breathing and listening. It’s bizzarre.

Creating reverb has it’s own amazing history. It used to be that everyone used “plate reverb” which is, I’ve been told, a giant metal plate, five feet by ten feet, suspended in a room. The shoot a sound signal through the plate and then pickups (just like on a guitar) convert the sound back to an electronic signal. There are dampers on the plate to control how much reverb there is. These are obviously way too big for regular guitar amps, so they accomplish the same thing using springs instead of plates.

There is also digital reverb, or DSP (I’m guessing digital signal psomething or other), which uses algorithms and charts and gear head-y stuff to invent reverb that sounds natural. On the other end of the scale is “Chamber Reverb” wherein, you’re gonna love this, they put a speaker in a very large room and a microphone on the other end and just record the room buzzing.

(The last reminds me of one time, being in the studio with a percussionist friend of mine. After bringing in six fifty pound sacks of different sized instruments, each with its own unique variation on the wood block, he was asked if he had anything that sounded like a rock being dropped (for a song called “Stone Pounding”). He thought for a minute, said he’d be right back and went back to his truck. He came back with two rocks from the driveway and hit them together. Sure enough, they sounded exactly like two rocks being hit together…)

Almost all reverb today is digital, which is a shame because much of it isn’t any good. No-one has room for the giant reverb chambers or suspended plates anymore. I heard that the entire basement of the Capitol building was once a reverb chamber, but they turned it into parking once DSP was invented. It really is a shame, because it’s damn near impossible to get that same great sound. I’ve had the good fortune to work in one studio where they still had the plate reverb, and it was glorious.

The digital reverb has the effect, usually, of sounding like reverb instead of giving you the unsettling aspect of space. A good reverb will make you feel something, bad reverb makes you hear something. Of course, once you train your ears to hear every stinkin’ thing that happens it’s hard to lean back and let a sound make you feel something.

Each studio, and each engineer, has a certain amount of “wetness” that they like, and it’s very telling that everyone refers to it as a liquid. If you say, “are we listening to this dry?”, you mean the recorded tracks with no reverb, and if you say, “it feels damp,” you may get a look, but any engineer would know what you mean.

And that’s the thing. If I’m looking for work, just because I know what types of reverb there are doesn’t mean I know which button to push in order to make it happen. Shit, anymore I couldn’t even pull up the songs if someone handed me a hard drive. I shouldn’t even say “anymore”, if someone brought in a two inch reel, I’d have no idea how to string it through the player.

So, yeah, I’d like to be able to talk to a local studio and ask for work, but I’m so much closer to the lone gunman (despite my number of souflee pans) than I am to the gear head, so I’m going to have to just focus on my madness and hope it all comes together somewhere down the line.