Creative Spaces: Producing Rock and Pop in Non-Studio Environments #arp13

Seacliff asylum. Scary building, great impulse responses.

HOLLAND, MICHAEL (University of Otago, New Zealand)

Creative Spaces: Producing Rock and Pop in Non-Studio Environments

[abstract] This paper takes a wide-ranging view of the concept of ‘space’ in music production, in attempting to further our understanding of the nexus between the physical locations in which records are produced, and the their resulting sonic qualities. Specifically, this paper explores the choice of non-studio recording spaces as challenging to established creative production practices in cultural, sonic, and performative terms.

This paper combines self-ethnography, interviews with artists and producers, and contemporary theory with musical examples from records produced both partially in, and completely outside of, a large- scale academic/commercial recording studio. Some of the alternate recording locations discussed include; defunct mental asylums, churches, isolated community halls, and large empty theatres. It should be noted that none of these locations are home studios, or simply ‘low cost’ alternatives to professional studios; rather, they are non-studio environments deliberately chosen as a substitute for conventional large-scale studio locations.

These spaces have a profound impact upon the musicians’ performances, through the alteration of players’ correlation of kinesthetic and auditory senses as they attempt to ‘play the room.’ This line of enquiry explores the changes in tuning, tonality and performance style that can be brought about (or required) by a deliberate shift of performance space. The paper also discusses the suitability of non-studio spaces for ‘off the floor’ tracking of full bands playing in ensemble, in terms of the relationship between groove, personal interaction, and the particular acoustics of a tracking space.

The ‘room,’ poses another set of important questions for this paper. The physical size, reverberation time and acoustic character of non-studio spaces serve not only to aide the producer in eliciting a specific variety of performance from the musicians; the producer may also use specific recording techniques to capture aspects of the rooms reverberant acoustic signature. This practice assists in the both the acoustic and cultural differentiation of tracks produced outside of studios, and the paper explores the line between discernable production techniques, and artists’ and producers’ propagation of a mystique around particular production spaces.

The connection of recording spaces by high-speed networks also permits the concurrent use of studio and non-studio spaces. In exploring this phenomenon, particular consideration is given to the experience of the producer in maintaining communication with, and between performers, and the changes to creative practice that synchronous networked performances demand. The paper concludes with a discussion of the use of non-studio production spaces as an increasingly prevalent form of creative practice in contemporary rock and pop production; a form that both enables, and fundamentally alters significant aspects of the production process.

Mike will be presenting in two parts – non-studio space and performance practice; and the acoustic nature of such spaces and how this relates to narrative and structural changes in the music, with a discussion of the implications of convolution reverb for this.

He begins with a song he produced himself by the band Left or Right – a song called ‘Do Things’ – here’s a related YouTube excerpt;

He focuses on the initial a capella vocal, which was recorded at First Church Invercargill. The venue was chosen partly because of the performance mechanics – there is a free-time microtonal melisma in the song’s intro that would have been difficult to track one vocal at a time – and partly because of the acoustic staging. He notes that this approach fixes permanently both the pitches of the vocals and to some extent the reverb time and mix. This had implications for auditioning and monitoring while tracking the vocal intro.

The next example is by Ink Mathematics and their song Huia, recording in the stony walls of Seacliff asylum in NZ. Mike then discusses the ‘as live’ music and the extent to which it was mediated by the venue. He used a musicological (track analysis) and ethnographic (band interview) method to analyse the practice; one band member [who is also an academic, hence his verbosity] stated; “Technologies of audition… reveal one facet of the asymmetrical power relations of the studio, and of the asymmetrical listening practices contained within”.

We now look at the relationship between acoustic space and narrative instructional change. The example from the same band is called ‘Frozen Cat’, a storytelling song about a young boy who finds a frozen cat and asks his family to thaw it out, not knowing that it is dead – so the lyric deals with themes of loss of innocence etc. The moment we hear in the narrative is where the boy sings an ‘unlikely eulogy’ to the cat in the form of a ‘lost cat poster’. This is sung in three-part block harmony. Mike’s role as producer is to ‘stage the cat’s lament’ and he needed to achieve a sonic shift in spatial character due to the relationship between the boy’s voice and his parents in the story.

Schizophonia and Rhizophonia are touched upon, but Mike asserts that the hybrid performance environments (of non-studio space and studio space) makes an additional contribution to these cultural/sonic theories.

We now return to the (abandoned) Seacliff asylum environment and a different song ‘Huia’; Mike notes that the abandoned asylum has no weatherproofing or mains power, so it wasn’t always practical to record there for long periods. He took the decision, therefore, to create convolution reverbs for the venue’s spaces. He shows the impulse responses (a 4m space from the old kitchens) and we hear the vocals, first dry, then with the IRR applied. He then plays us a (deliberately distorted) vocal from the end of the song, where an angry character appears in an improbable but arguably authentic [that is, an IR created mental asylum] quasi-physical environment.

He concludes (after Moore and Dockwray) that all studio production to some extent creates a ‘perceived performance environment’ and cites related issues of agency and determinism.

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