When does a favour become a chore?
An excited conversation fuelled by far too many pints finds me setting up for the kind of session that has become all too familiar to me: an unsigned band I'm acquainted with have a few tracks they'd like to cut — and I've offered to do it all for a free beer.
While powering up my gear, arranging microphones and making the place comfortable, I'm convincing myself that this is an excellent chance to put some knowledge into practice, try some new things out and hey, they may even turn out to be the next big thing. It's never the most ideal way to start any project, justifying to yourself why you're doing it.
After the customary phone call explaining why the band will be late (drummer ate his dog), I set about perfecting my Pro Tools über-template, which is the most creative I've been at the studio in a long while and has now become analogous to me sharpening my pencils when I should have been doing my homework.
As the band arrive and pleasantries are exchanged, handshakes escalating into the sudden and awkward onset of bromance, my checklist of gripes are ticked off one by one. How a band can turn up to a session with a carrier bag full of ale and cookies but forget their plectrums has long baffled me.
After a few plays through, I'm pleasantly surprised. As riffs, hooks and choruses are delivered with great fervour, I put aside any bigotry and reaffirm myself that this could be the next OK Computer, or perhaps even the White Album. Their timing may not be perfect, and their gear beyond the sympathies of any pawnbroker, but they believe in themselves, I believe in them, and it is here that my downfall begins.
Having offered to put together a demo in a day, I'm faced with the conundrum that is: do I produce this band as if this were their debut album, or stick with plan A — knock out a few tracks and hope they'll come back once they've made it. In lieu of my own current streak of creativity, I decide to put my faith in them.
One big down side of working for peanuts (and beer) is that the person offering their services can find it hard to command the session, and those taking up the offer can be oblivious to the effort that goes on behind the scenes. You end up feeling like the Wizard of Oz, pulling all the levers while promising a band of misfits their lives' greatest desires — yet still they ask for more!
As we're tracking, I'm on a mission to capture the best sound and performance I can, but band members don't react well to you telling them that the beloved guitar they've pulled out of a skip squeals like a pig and they're "more than welcome to use the one I have here with the fresh strings”. It's 'their' sound — and it sounds like shit. Am I being patronising? Absolutely, but then I'm the one spending hours later taming said pig.
As the day draws on, for the sake of simplicity I give in and tell the band we can break the cardinal rule of not 'fixing it in the mix'. Now I find myself ready to sacrifice what's likely to be the rest of my life to massaging the rhythm section to the grid, remedying embarrassing off-key vocals, and aligning a never-ending selection of hopelessly out-of-sync guitar tracks.
This has now unwittingly become my baby — with only me to blame. Having enjoyed the highs and the initial excitement over the prospect of the end product, I now experience the comedown; bringing this all together, with countless edits and listening sessions, far from the masterpiece I had wanted to make.
Will I learn from my mistakes? As long as beer and good chat are used as bargaining chips, probably not. But the experience was definitely worth it, and as I find myself putting my new-found techniques to good use in my fifteen-years-in-the-making solo album, perhaps they'll be just in time for prog to make its long overdue re-emergence!
Barrington Haynes is an aspiring professional rock god and part-time cowboy-astronaut-millionaire. In a previous life, he paid his dues as a web guru for the BBC.