In which the writer describes one of his favorite places to be.
I’m at home in this place. I feel comfortable and entirely at ease. I must have sat in this small second floor room hundreds of times in the last twenty years. It’s a place to make music, and I truly love to make music.
Next to me, poised in front of the computer screen is a pleasant-looking man wearing a tee shirt and jeans. He has kicked off his clogs, and he’s fiddling with the controls of his ‘Tops Pro’. Belying his casual appearance, he is full of positive energy and concentration as he opens up the tracks of our semi-completed recording. He is my friend, Dave Beyer, who has engineered and helped me to produce the four CDs I have recorded over the last decade or so.
In addition to running his recording studio Dave is an accomplished drummer, much in demand for his versatility and rock-steady rhythms. He has played for artists as varied as America and Jim Messina. A highlight of his career was a period playing with Melissa Etheridge which encompassed a world tour and appearances on her hit CD, ‘Your Little Secret’. Most recently he has been touring with Christopher Cross and Wilson Phillips. Part of the delight I take in these studios lies in hearing Dave’s stories and anecdotes of famous encounters in his career, such as his conversation on an airplane with Mike Love of The Beach Boys about the famous visit with The Beatles to the Maharishi’s compound in Rishikesh, India. Dave is a sparkling raconteur, and his stories are invariably laced with his wry humor. For someone who has played and rubbed shoulders with famous rock stars he is singularly down to earth and modest which is a quality I particularly admire.
I was introduced to Dave by my friend Steve Weiner back in 1994. Steve and I were recording three songs we had written together. We drove out to his charming and unusual house in Glendale where I set foot for the first time in his studio located in a small building behind his house. The door opens directly into the first floor room where Dave’s full drum kit is set up for recording or for giving drum lessons to eager students such as my friend and band-mate, Bernie Schwam. In the center of the room is a large microphone at which we record the vocal tracks. In front of the microphone is a music stand on which twin sets of headphones are usually hanging. In one corner of the room is Dave’s eclectic collection of percussion instruments from around the world including Celtic and African hand-drums. In another corner is a small enclosed vocal booth that is occasionally used when some-one wants to do a ‘live’ recording. A few years ago my own band, ‘The Weekenders’, recorded three songs with all the musicians playing together in the studio whilst I, the vocalist, was imprisoned inside this tiny booth.
Up a narrow flight of stairs is the hub of the operation. Dave sits at his historic board with its various faders and knobs. With all recording now done by the ‘Pro Tools’ computer program, Dave’s board remains purely as a memento of earlier days, but when Steve and I first recorded back in 1994, it was very much in use controlling the mix and the volume of the various tracks as they were recording onto large reel to reel tapes. I still have these large old-style tapes of my early recordings stored at my house along with the miniature cassettes called DATs that we used to transfer our recordings to cassette. There was an intermediate period when tapes resembling videocassettes were used by Dave to record my music, but now everything appears on the big computer screen. The faders for the various tracks are pictured on the screen and are moved by the mouse. The voices and instruments appear as wavy lines and can be adjusted for timing if they seem ahead or behind the beat. We can put effects like reverb or echo on the music very easily, and we can splice and edit music to capture the best sounds. It’s a very different process from live performance which includes all the goofs and off-key moments, but which, of course, has a warm immediate feel. Live music is like live theater. Here in the studio we are engaged in a process akin to making and editing a movie. And although I enjoy playing live with my friends in our band, ‘The Weekenders’, I am fascinated with the mechanics of recording music which I have slowly learned and become more adept at over the years.
Tonight we are recording a guitar track, so Dave hooks up my electro-acoustic directly to the recording system, and I prepare to play.
I always get very nervous when I have to play in the studio. Although I have played guitar for a number of years, I am not a natural musician, and I have reached my modest level of proficiency only by dint of slavish practice and persistence, but I have always been good at listening and following instructions. So when Dave suggests a couple of strumming patterns for the verse and chorus, I am soon able to reproduce them fairly respectably. Although he is primarily a drummer, Dave is an accomplished musician, and has contributed numerous, creative suggestions to the various other musicians who have played keyboards, saxophone, harmonica, guitar and accordion on my CDs. I am strictly a rhythm guitarist and my instrumental contributions are usually buried well into the mix, but I like to know that I’m there, and Dave helps me to achieve a satisfying sound. When we’re done, we listen to the track, and Dave makes minute adjustments to the wavy line that represents my guitar track to ensure that the ‘strums’ fall in exactly the right places. Not being a professional, I sometimes get ahead or behind the beat, but with ‘Pro Tools’ we can fix that. Finally we are satisfied, and call it a night.
Dave has always played the drums on my songs since my second CD, and he rightly considers that a solid, steady drum beat is the foundation of a successful recording. He is meticulous in his playing, and anyone who has seen him live will attest to his rock-steady rhythm. He is not a showy player, he just nails it good and solid. This always provides a strong basis on which to build the overall sound.
Usually I will come to the studio with a new song, composed on my keyboard in a certain style (I particularly like ‘ska’ and ‘gospel’), and play a guide track to which he will record his drums. We then add a bass, either played by a musician or by Dave himself, using a large state-of-the-art keyboard set up in the studio. We will then add whatever other instruments seem appropriate such as guitar or keyboards. Nick Kirgo, a gifted guitarist, who recently played dobro on a track called ‘Spider’, has played some lovely guitar on several of my tracks. My favorite guest musician is the multi-talented Bob Emmet, a wizard of piano and keyboards who can reproduce any sound or style I desire. On a recent CD he created an entire string section of cello and violins using Dave’s keyboard for a song about my grandmother. Dave’s wife, Debra, has crafted some beautiful backing vocals on a number of my songs, and her faultless harmonies bring a new dimension to many of them. Sometimes I like to have friends come and play on my songs: Matt Gottlieb is a fine guitarist, Bernie Schwam has played drums, Paul Bernstein is a driving bassist, Craig Carter has contributed keyboards and my brother-in-law, Tim Holtwick once provided a nice ukulele solo!
The final step in recording a track is almost always my vocal. This is the part I enjoy the most.
To stand by the microphone with the instrumental track coming through the head-phones, singing my heart out as I attempt to convey the emotion and story of my lyrics is a joyous and uplifting experience. As hesitant a guitarist as I am, I truly believe in my ability to sing. I may not be the sweetest or the most powerful vocalist in the world. I’m not Roy Orbison –my range is scarcely two and a half octaves – but I can get inside a song and project the feelings of it in a way that I find highly satisfying. In the beginning of my recording career, I frequently had to go back and re-sing some parts, patch up parts that were not quite in tempo or on key, but these days, after recording more than fifty of my songs, I can usually nail the vocal first time out, particularly if I’ve had time to practice to the track at home or in my car.
When all the instrumental and vocal tracks are completed, Dave and I mix the track, determining the levels of the various instruments as well as where they come in and out. It is a delicate and fascinating process creating the final overall sound. Of course Dave, a life-long recording engineer and producer, is a master of this part of the process, and the final product is very much a result of his experience and expertise. Over the years I have learned more about it and I feel I am able to contribute much more to this process these days.
The opportunity to compose and record music has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I only began in 1994 when I was already in my forties, but I have managed to cram many hours of this rewarding past-time into the last twenty years of my life. From my very first recordings with my friend, Steve, through the primitive learning process of the ‘Icebox’ album with Craig and Solomon, and throughout the journey of creating my own four solo CDs, I have enjoyed many good times in the snug little studio at Beyer Recording in Glendale. It is one of the few places in the world where I can honestly say I feel completely comfortable and at peace. I believe that this feeling is largely the result of the presence and the style of my good friend, Dave Beyer. His warm and friendly manner, positive and encouraging attitude and his clear decision to make my music the best that it can be makes me look forward to my visits to his studio with pleasurable anticipation. So he has my undying gratitude for making my musical experiences of the last twenty years so satisfying and rewarding. Cheers, Dave, and see you at the studio very soon.