Recording Masterclass Workshop

or "The Chuck and George Show at British Grove"

Reviewed by Peter Filleul

I must admit, I was treating the two masterclasses held at British Grove Studios as a respite and reward after the long haul of preparing and attending the AES Convention which immediately preceded it. After all, a refresher course in all things ‘session’, from a couple of the world’s best studio buffs in one of the world’s best studios, was well worth the £400. “ … probably the best £400 you’ll spend this year”, the ad suggested – and in many ways it was.

 Chuck Ainlay
 George Massenburg

The format involved a very talented band making themselves available for producer and engineer abuse over the 4 days of masterclasses.  There were two groups of two days and I was witnessing the second sitting, or Round 2, depending on where you were sitting.

Each masterclass group was taken through a regular production cycle of studio set-up, tracking, overdubbing and mixing, regaled as we went with the experiences and anecdotes of the two resident masters, George Massenburg and Chuck Ainlay.  Chuck and George obviously get on very well and go way back – which adds to the confidence with which the information they willingly impart is coloured by a mutual understanding of the best ways to deliver their pearls of wisdom.  Once or twice I believed that the possibly faux differences in opinion they occasionally exhibited were really deliberate devices to introduce stock dilemmas that are likely to befall all aspiring studio wallahs.  In fact, I think it was these potentially fractious disagreements that illustrated the true value of the whole exercise. [George confides the disagreements are genuine illustrating the diversity of approach to production processes.]

The abiding impression I retained after this event was the absolute respect and responsibility we studio practitioners need to show to the artists whose material we are generating.  Both Chuck and George repeatedly referred to the prowess and the ambitions of the band to take their recording this way or that, which was an eye-opening revelation given the relative status of artist and engineer.  The much-reminded priority for the music rather than the recording, a mantra with which all Massenburg and Ainlay fans will be familiar, added great authority to the tit-bits of studio craft that punctuated seeing how these guys do things.  Not that what they would do is very much different from what other less reputed engineers might do – it’s just that if they do it, it must be OK.

Much to the credit of the long-suffering band, conversations and debates about mics, mic positions, DI-ing the bass or where to have the tambourine mic when the band is to track live took much longer than a usual session would find time for but the band still delivered confident and accurate performances of the songs they’d rehearsed to record.

I felt more sorry for them as the subsequent stages of the recording progressed and they gradually became victim of what was always going to be an incomplete studio experience.  The band probably had the idea that they’d get a couple of nicely recorded high-class demos out of their 4 days recording, and maybe they did, but I’m not sure this format allows the guinea pig band to expect anything complete at all.  This is not a complaint.  Every recording project can go in a vast number of directions and George and Chuck have been in most of them already.

The great value of this event was the access we had to a variety of alternative approaches that open up as a session gets going.  I suppose the prime dilemmas showed themselves in the different fundamental enthusiasms Chuck and George espouse.  Chuck has an analogue approach and George loves digital.  I’m not really talking about the A/D issue as such, but the underlying attitudes they betray. The  “go for the whole performance and we’ll add some overdubs once we got a good one” or the “we can make a loop of just that section and fly it in …”.  Personally, explaining such diverse instincts was unnecessary and, curiously, all the more illuminating by being left in the air.

On the second day, the band’s very brightly and cleanly recorded tracks started to benefit from the overdub and arrangement ideas the masters had dreamt up.  After fixing a few performance inconsistencies with ambitious ploys, such as re-recording sections with different sounds, tracking lead and backing vocals, they seemed likely to become victims of limited time brought about by our endless nattering but, somehow, most overdub ideas were executed and the tracks left to the mystery of mixing, a phase where the two approaches adopted by our heroes were to become deliberately disparate.

George was mixing ‘in the box’ in one control room and Chuck was utilising the Neve console in another, allowing the punters opportunity to graze each pasture at will and not lose out too much on the joys of each experience.  Seeing both these guys using kit and plug-ins so effortlessly and with such skill and apparent understanding of how to achieve what they desired restored my faith and doused my cynicism with hearty layers of wonder and respect and even generated a private ambition to re-tackle the learning curves that have prevented me simply enjoying the music.

The race to achieve a complete mix by 4.00pm on the second afternoon was never really won.  George was close but got diverted into a ‘must fix this’ mind-set over some miniscule improvement to a sound that he admitted would never affect sales, and Chuck made a relatively early assessment that to accomplish all that he wanted to try would go way beyond the time allocated.

To my mind, incomplete or not, both tracks sounded better than they did when I first heard them and the clarity and dynamics achieved (by and large) with hardly any EQ or treatments was a revelation.  The band got the added bonus (or nightmare) of having further work done on their songs by the assembled punters via a private distribution of audio files to those who had signed-up for the event.

All in all, a very satisfactory couple of days which I would seriously recommend should the opportunity arise again.  I do have one or two tune-up ideas for the format which Chuck and George may already have taken on board for the next time but, given that the deal of the day was to inform and inspire engineers and producers, the event oozed subliminally with decades of superlative studio experience that I expect (and hope) will linger in the recesses of our minds until we need that special something that can save the day.  Thanks to British Grove, Gary Ash and Sable, and to George and Chuck for delivering.

PRF - 4/6/10

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