Passive Studio-based Songwriting #arp13

The Bee Gees in the studio, early 1980s

O’GRADY, PAT (Macquarie University)

Passive Studio-based Songwriting

[abstract] Studio-based composition is the use of a studio environment and associated recording technology to compose a piece of music. Brian Wilson and Brian Eno exemplify this process, where structure, timbre and textures are altered – sometimes drastically – by recording technology. This paper will examine “passive” use of recording technology for songwriting. By passive, I mean uses of equipment and studio production processes that, although creatively important, do not obviously alter the sonic aesthetic of the finished work. This paper seeks to broaden the concept of studio-based songwriting and composition.

A number of scholars have pointed out the importance of studio work to creative product. Cunningham describes Wilson as conceptualizing the studio as an instrument like a piano or guitar (1998, p. 75-76). Moorefield states that for Eno “what is being made is not a replication or extension of a concert experience, but something altogether different.” (2005, p. 54). Theberge adds that a “sound recording has become productive, not simply reproductive.” (1997, p. 216). These approaches involve an intensive use of recording technology, where it plays a significant role in the sound of the completed work. This paper argues that this conception of studio-based composition confines such practices to more experimental music styles such as electro-acoustic, or psychedelic rock or pop.

The Bee Gees will be used as a case study, focusing on a documentary where they demonstrate their studio-based songwriting practices. Relative to Wilson and Eno, I argue this is a passive use of the studio. Although passive, this approach in the studio is significant in the creative process. Here, the reverberated vocals give a songwriter the feel they are singing on a record, which potentially inspires them in the melody and lyric construction. A recording of the session provides the songwriter with a detailed high quality archive of the songwriting session to listen back to, and recount parts of the process which may have been omitted through the creative process. This practice widens the current conceptual scope of a studio-based songwriter.

While the Bee Gees’ influence on popular music culture solidifies their practices and discussion on such, the technology they used at the time of the video is now out-of-date. This paper will draw from a practice led research case study of works which will use modern studio technology and seek to use the studio effectively but passively. The works will be in a genre which aesthetically would not lend itself to the kind of studio manipulation Eno has employed. To avoid any idiosyncrasies between varying technologies, the works will use various DAWs and studio spaces, respectively. Like The Bee Gees, the studio will be used to construct a simple demo and then later used more traditionally to record the two songs. The documented process of the works – and their contextual similarity to the Bee Gees practices – will frame and inform my argument that the studio can be used passively but essentially for the songwriting process.

Pat’s presentation begins with a summary of his abstract (see above). His methodologies are twofold – firstly a critical analysis of the Bee Gees’ songwriting processes based on a 1997 TV documentary, and secondly a personal auto-ethnographic approach based on the presenter’s own creative practice as a songwriter.

He notes Théberge’s (1997) point that “sound recording has become productive, not simply reproductive.” We next proceed to a detailed analysis of the Bee Gees’ songwriting processes, taken from a point (in the song “Just In Case” where the chords and structure are complete, but the vocal sings nonsensical syllables and vowels. Their approach is, according to the Gibbs, to find the perfect melody with all the syllables correct, then develop the lyrics thereafter.

Pat now looks at the creative options available to the creative studio team, reflecting on the relationship between the evolution of the song and the listeners/creators present in the team at any one time. He notes that when authorship is questioned the documentation of process [in 1997 this was a DAT] can be used in evidence (this actually happened to the Bee Gees when their authorship of a particular song was challenged). He compares his approach to that of other songwriters, including Brian Eno and Diane Warren, and notes that all three creators prefer a low-tech approach to recording.

He now looks at the present and discusses the advantages of using a DAW over a DAT or Walkman, asserting that the former’s ability to slice and move audio in time gives the creator the opportunity to make structural decisions regarding song form or instrumentation. [Pat uses Apple’s Logic Pro as his screenshot example, though of course all contemporary DAW software applications provide the same facility]. This leads to an interesting discussion of real-time reverb in the songwriting process, particularly relating to how a vocalist feels whilst recording [or, I infer, songwriting]. Pat notes the ubiquity of digital reverb and its convenience over physical spaces, including the simulation of classic hardware units (e.g. Lexicon) in software that is now available to all songwriters on a modest to medium budget.

There follows a discussion of trans-national recording, citing Théberge’s conceptualising of the studio as a non-physical place.

Pat concludes by stating that he has deliberately introduced the term ‘passive’ to refer to processes in recording practice that have, he asserts, an inevitable impact of the writing of the song.

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