Looking over the notes I scribbled down in the "Converse: CONS" branded notebook that I picked up upon entering Rubber Tracks, the community-focused studio situated on a quiet block in Williamsburg, I see the same tired list of platitudes that have been repeated ad nauseum thousands of times by anyone who has ever touched an SM-57:
"There's no right or wrong way."
"Don't let limited gear stop you from making music."
"You can't fix it later."
"With recording there's no rules."
I was there for a workshop entitled "How To Record Live Instruments," part of a "series of global creative projects brought to you by Converse CONS, to help inspire high school and college students who find their creative outlets in music." The room was filled with a diverse range of ages, though by my best guess, it was mostly a disheveled, male crowd ranging from 17 to 21. A few younger kids with parents in tow slouched in their seats, simultaneously thrilled and embarrassed to be there. My relentless note-taking received several weary looks, as if they were confused by the fact that I felt any of the information being transmitted was important enough to write down.
The four men imparting their wisdom to us were all esteemed in their various fields: Benjamin Weinman and Billy Rymer of The Dillinger Escape Plan were the lead presenters, while William Putney of the Machine Shop and Kevin Antreassian of Backroom Studios assisted, and handled more of the technical knowledge. This was admittedly a huge opportunity for fans—how often do you get to see the songwriter from your favorite band doodling on a guitar and talking about his experiences recording on Cubase? However, I will freely admit to having no knowledge or interest in the band or even the universe of music that they play. Nevertheless, I love the art of recording and have spent many hours inside many studios, and even more time at home recording my own music.
So, was it possible to learn something from musicians who occupied on the opposite side of the spectrum? I was curious and ready to be challenged. Maybe Ben and Billy could show me something new and make me discover something in my own music I hadn't considered. Maybe some of their secrets would shine light on my own methods in a way that was totally obvious and I had been overlooking. Or maybe my ear drums would just be pummeled mercilessly and I'd walk away with a catered lunch and a notebook full of my own terrible handwriting.
It turns out the truth lay somewhere in the middle. I arrived a little late, so by the time I got there, Billy had already been set up behind a mic'ed drumkit in the corner with Ben detailing his past home recording setups. Describing his first basement studio as a "Crate mixer, a Digi 002, and a piece of plywood for a desk," he stressed the importance of creative limitations, a lesson that is becoming harder and harder to learn with the proliferance of cheap gimme-gimme gear, thousand preset-bearing softsynths, and forums full of know-it-alls, spouting the latest hearsay they read on Gearslutz.
Ben spoke knowledgeably about working within your budget, the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones, and the variety of polar patterns to use when recording. A Pro Tools session was being projected on a giant screen as the workshop transitioned into discussing the importance of dynamics when recorded. Billy demonstrated a few variations of drumbeats, some played with no accenting and some played with more nuance. Admittedly, the differences were pretty hard to detect considering the loudness of his playing in that big, echo-y room, but the point got across.
Unfortunately as the day progressed, the ideas that Ben and Billy were illustrating became less and less organized and in some cases, contradictory. A prime example of this was the discussion of quantizing / correcting the timing of recorded drum tracks, a big no-no in their book. This was understandable, as the type of music they are playing is dependent on documenting a real band playing "real" music. However, immediately following such a statement, they proceeded to illustrate just how to quantize your drums if you should choose to blatantly ignore the previous advice.
This sort of confusion continued throughout the day, fueled in large part by the fact that the presenters didn't really know how much knowledge the audience had. After delving into a detailed discussion of the differences between driving the input and output stages of a mic pre, we backpedaled for those in attendance who didn't know what a mic pre actually was (which was about a quarter of the audience). The discussion of compression, an admittedly complex subject, was also made more confusing by some mixed metaphors and the failure to actually demonstrate how different compressors work. The focus was certainly intended to be on how to record live instruments, as the next day's workshop with El-P and Nick Hook was to be focused on using outboard gear, but it felt like a missed opportunity to be sitting in a recording studio with many fine compressors and not demonstrate the use of ANY of them, instead resorting to calling up Pro Tools' functional but bland built-in compressor. Following a catered lunch, the group was broken up into small ensembles to participate in some individualized recording. I chose to hang back and observe, and the huge disparities in skill and interest level among the participants became even more apparent.
It's hard to blame Rubber Tracks for these faults, as these workshops were really the first attempts at engaging local youth. The studio has been hosting bands for free daily sessions (one of which I participated in) but I couldn't help but wonder if making the entry a little harder would have benefitted the workshop. While much larger in scope, Red Bull Music Academy's notoriously stringent admissions to their annual month-long school contribute greatly to creating an environment in which each student can benefit the most. All that being said, the excitement in the room was palpable as many attendees were just thrilled to rub elbows with some of their heroes, regardless of how much knowledge they gained at the end of the day. Rubber Tracks really must be commended for these workshops, and while maybe I didn't walk away with much more than a full belly, I did witness a room full of strangers bond over the magic that is making music.
Leo Maymind is a Pro Tools pro, not a Pro Tools tool. Follow him on Twitter - @LeoMaymind