Five Recording Studio Documentaries

I was going through some of the footage of the band in the studio recording the new album, and it gave me the itch to watch the documentary The Wrecking Crew, about the unbelievably prolific LA session musicians who recorded most of rock ‘n roll in the 1960s. It was really good, so naturally it made me want to watch and re-watch some of my other favorite music documentaries.

I found a bunch of lists online of music documentaries, but to be honest most of them are either concert films (e.g., The Last Waltz) or retrospective interview-style profiles of bands of individuals (e.g., Beware of Mr. Baker). So that made me want to put together a list of some recording studio-centric docs in case anybody else wants to go down this rabbit hole with me.

It’s worth noting this is not an attempt at a “Best of…” list. It’s just some good flicks. We’re off!

Let it Be – The Beatles

This is the real deal, right here. The cameras followed The Beatles through rehearsing and recording what wound up being their final album. You get a sense of the dysfunction in the band, but there are some moments of joy, too, like the famous, impromptu rooftop concert scene. This movie’s been out-of-print for decades, but there are bootlegs floating around.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco

The story behind Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album is legendary — from the tensions between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, which resulted in Bennett leaving the band, to the album being passed on by the band’s label, only for them to sell it to Nonesuch Records for buckets of money on its way to becoming a big hit. And cameras were there capturing it all as it happened. This movie was actually how I heard about Wilco.

A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica – Metallica

I don’t know how many times I watched this documentary as a teenager, but it was a lot. A LOT. Part one covers the recording of the black album, and part two covers their first tour in support of it. As much as Metallica became known as self-absorbed blowhards, this is on the whole a fun look at the making of an album nobody had any idea was going to change their lives forever. And the whole thing’s on YouTube.

Sound City – Various

I love Dave Grohl. This documentary tells the story of Sound City, its legendary Neve mixing console, the demise of the studio, and Grohl’s resurrection of the board in his own studio. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a music doc. Appearances by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, Rick Springfield, and tons more.

Muscle Shoals – Various

I’m cheating a little because I haven’t seen this one, but it’s about the music scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like The Wrecking Crew, it publicly tells the story of something that was never well-known outside of the recording industry. And also, a bunch of our fellow contributors to the annual Couch by Couchwest festival hail from the Muscle Shoals area.

Singing Through Sickness

One of my longstanding fears has been having a show booked, and then getting sick right before it. I am not a trained vocalist, and therefore do not possess any of the mystical secrets they no doubt teach opera singers for this very eventuality. Nor do I own an old-timey atomizer, which is kind of a shame.

If I zoom in far enough, though, I can see my soul… (File photo)

Well, not once, but twice! did this exact thing take place last week. I got sick on Monday, sang for an hour on Tuesday, got real sick Thursday night, sang for close to two hours on Saturday, and sounded like deteriorated excavation equipment on Sunday. But I had my voice when I needed it. Here’s why:

1) The video store and the bed (Rest). I was fortunate enough to have some time on Friday to just chill in the bed, watch a couple of movies, and keep my mouth shut. I went from not being able to talk at all, to being able to talk a little bit.

2) Liquid Licorice (Tea).  Holy crap did I drink some licorice tea. An opera singer friend recommended this a couple of years ago, with the caveat that it was vile, vile stuff. I actually find it pleasant (unlike mead, which *is* vile stuff), and good thing, too, because I was floating in it by Saturday night. Mix in a tablespoon of honey, and Bob’s your uncle. I don’t know all the science behind it, but the heat, the licorice, and the honey lubricate your vocal chords, help open up your respiratory passages, and just seem to work a little bit of magic. I guess you could try mixing the licorice tea and mead (which is made from honey), but please do so far away from me.

3) Diplomatic Immunity (Airborne). I took 1 – 2 Airborne tablets a day for a few days to help boost my immune system during its hour of need. Formerly, I would’ve recommended Wellness Formula from Whole Foods, but then Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey went and ran his mouth about fascism and unions. He is therefore unlikely to receive endorsements from self-described folk musician-types like me.

4) Lots of Silly Sounds (Vocal Warm Ups). Immediately before my set on Tuesday night, before band rehearsal on Saturday, and again before the set Saturday night, I did my vocal warm ups. I’ve been doing these more-or-less daily for well over a year, so this isn’t a quick-fix, but it’s an essential part of my vocal routine that makes it possible for me to exert greater control over my instrument under both the best and worst of circumstances. I recorded myself playing an octave and a half of ascending and descending scales on piano, then put that recording on my phone so I could do these warm ups in my car during drive times. I cannot stress how helpful doing these daily has been for vocal control. Many, many thanks to Eric Arceneaux’s YouTube videos, which is where I derived much of my routine from.

5) The Show Must Go On (Plain Ol’ Will Power). While I’m not terribly mystical, don’t really believe in the power of positive thinking and all that, I do believe we have substantial power over our bodies. As soon as I lost my voice, I told myself that I was still going onstage Saturday night, and we were still going to kill. For me, that certainty had a very real impact on my ability to come through when I had to. There was no out, and I was going to do what I had to in order to make the show what we wanted it to be. So let it be written, so let it be done.

If you sing enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll have to do so after coming down with something. Hopefully you’ll find a worthwhile tip and/or trick here that will help you out when the time comes…or when it comes again.

A New Bag for Old Tricks: I Attempt an Audiobook

The other night I set up mic, mixer, and preamp to record a couple of demos of new songs, and I figured, “Hey, why not try to make an audiobook?” It seemed easy enough. It’s been awhile, but I’ve been paid actual money in the past for voice over work and I know how to read, so what could go wrong?

It’s me. Making an audiobook. While the neighbors
blast “Brick House.”, to which I have been addicted for several years now, has set up the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), and since I’ve been writing a lot of prose of late, just released a short story digitally for the first time, and will have at least one novel coming out in the next year, I figured the short story would be a good candidate for a kind of dry run. The ACX allows authors to either upload their own performances of their work in audiobook format, or allows authors, producers, and voice talent to connect for projects. It’s pretty great.

Here are lessons I learned from my attempt at making an audiobook:

1. Read too fast is both easy, and bad. I speak fairly slowly (I’m from the South), but read aloud just fast enough to scramble words together when I’m not paying enough attention.
2. It’s exhausting. On the ACX site, they have a video with pointers for people trying this for the first time, and the guy on the video says “This is grueling work.”  So, like a dummy, I scoffed and thought “Grueling? Come on.”  Ok, it’s not grueling…I’m going to save that classification for perilous physical labor…but it is far more draining than I expected.
3. You gotta commit to voices, or leave them at home. About 90% of the audiobooks I listen to have the performers doing some kind of voices for different characters, though some are only very slight modulations of their regular reading voices. You gotta make up your mind BEFORE you sit down what your voices are going to be, not by the seat-of-your-pants.
4. Singing into a microphone and reading into a microphone = way different. It even felt far different from acting, since with a script you’ll prepare intentions for each line, etc. But even with a short story — let alone a full-length novel, you have to find a different way in.
5. Warm-ups are important. I always, always do vocal warm-ups before I sing. Why I thought I could get away with not doing it before recording an audiobook, I don’t know. I’ve got 25 minutes of lip-smacking reminding me to not cut corners, now.
6. Your neighbor’s party? Yeah, you’ll be able to hear it. I love my neighbors. They’re the best. But “Brick House” and “Rolling in the Deep” do not make a very good soundtrack for my short story.

So in the end, I was right: attempting my new short story was a good dry run. But it’s a dry run that’s going to stay locked away in an archive folder on my computer. Now I need to do it again…but for real, this time.

I guess it goes to show, even though I’ve done lots of things *like* this, I’d never really done it before, and it was nice to be able to dip my toes in before committing to eight hours or however long a short novel will eventually take.

Anyway, you can check out my story, The Lennox Kid, here for Kindle, and please leave a review if you’re so inclined.