There are a lot of ways to live this life.
Sometimes I let my mind wander and try to imagine what it’s like doing another person’s job. And not just doing it, but having it be my life — living the job. I’d think about this while working at newspapers both here in Boulder and down in Denver. Much of my duties at these newspapers revolved around visual layout; in Denver I would design and update the Rocky Mountain News‘ constantly-changing website by manipulating code. In Boulder, I designed pages and section fronts using complex software. Mostly I was sitting at a desk, staring at a screen. Sipping coffee. Checking visitor stats.
And then a report would break over the police scanner, matter-of-factly. “Officers respond to a car versus pedestrian, emergen response, code black,” with the location following.
Stop. Everything. The words “code” and “black” next to one another can bring the bustle and din of a newsroom to a screeching halt. Conversations cease, keyboards mute and everyone looks at one another, trying to fill in the context through the static on the radio.
The only two people in the room who aren’t transfixed by those two words uttered in sequence are the photographers. Instead, a part of them has switched on. They’re grabbing their lenses and heading for the exit. To be a good news photographer, you have to be ready at all times, and it helps if you carry an urge to bust out of the boring newsroom for some action.
To be a great news photographer, as Boulder’s newspaper’s photo editor Paul Aiken says, “you have to do this.” (He pantomimes holding a camera and taking a huge step forward.) What he’s saying is you have to put fear aside and get close to the subject to capture what’s really happening.
So when our photographers would silently slip back into the newsroom about an hour after we had heard the “code black” on the radio, I would think about the difference between their job and mine. As I’d be toning and cropping one of their photos of the crash scene, I’d put myself behind the lens and think about how I’d deal with that imagery when I went home after work, if it was me stepping close to the bodies instead of viewing them miles away in Photoshop.
I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill here, or take us too far away from music. I just want to set up this point well. As my career has moved away from journalism and thoroughly into music from all angles, I’ve seen this concept stick around. Live recording as an engineer could not be more different than taking your time in a studio and being a studio engineer. Yet to some, they are considered roughly the same thing.
The photographers and I were both journalists. But like the studio versus the stage, our day-to-day experiences were quite different.
Live sound reinforcement and recording presents many challenges, and those challenges sort of define it, in my experience. To some extent though there is some similarity, and it can look like a stripped down version of studio recording. Just how stripped down is up to the skill of the live engineer, or more likely, limited by the technology at hand and by the time at hand.
A live engineer needs most of the sound of the group to be figured out before the band arrives. Dealing with feedback, frequency balance, coverage and monitors within the limited time window is enough headache — heavy EQ work to make the band’s equipment sound better sometimes isn’t possible.
Live sound relies on a tight schedule. There’s a load-in and sound check for each band. On a bill with multiple openers, the amount of sound tweaking and sweetening is narrowed to the basics and main priorities.
All of this nightmare is gone in the studio, replaced only by the nightmare of cost. But if that’s not an issue (which is hardly ever the case) the studio permits an entirely different approach to the same thing. And in a way it is the same thing — bands come to a live engineer asking to sound great, and they ask the same of a studio tape jockey.
When a band has the space and time to sit down and plan things, to strategize over the soundstage and the spectrum and fret over frequencies, they’re often able to do more and go bigger with their ideas. The studio can sometimes be the best way a complex compositional style can shine.
I came upon this realization early on in my experiences with the quick, one-shot live video recording studio we built just off of Boulder’s newspaper’s newsroom. Given that I was trying to bring studio sensibility and processing to a completely live situation (replete with a punishing schedule), I would sometimes slam right up against the reality that we’d need much more time to do what we were trying to do well.
One such band was a small Denver rock/pop/indie group called Rossonian, named after a historic Denver hotel. These guys have been crafting the compositions of leader Seth Evans into a surprisingly fun and original sound for the last 4 or 5 years.
Rock/pop/indie is a little constrained as a descriptor. I like the way the band refers to its own music, as “hot pop, garage-soul, electro sensual rock & roll.” Their sound and style are fully formed, and one of the reasons they stand out specifically to me is their use of interesting chords and surprising changes and bridges. The range of the singer is impressive, both in pitch and volume. And the lyrics get a check in the poetic and intellectual column for me, even if they occasionally border on the adolescent and angsty side of things.
But even given their other strengths, I think dynamics is their biggest asset of all. Each song of theirs has the potential to swing between lush hush and stomping rock, so the band can present quite a challenge to record or reinforce in a live setting.
It’s not that it can’t be done. We did an OK job, and I’ve seen them live, twice. I’ve also seen their other live videos, which usually have them stripped down for simplicity. Every one of these videos or memories I have of them live is fine, but sadly thus far they’re all imperfect facsimiles of the original. Once you’ve heard what they can do on a studio album, taking plenty of time and having all the tools they need, your eyes are opened and you see it.
Hear it, actually. The studio affords engineers involved the chance to wrap their heads around the compositions, one by one, sometimes using visual means. I found myself charting on paper the songs that we were recording. At the time, I hadn’t heard their music, and owing to the fewer-takes-are-better rule, I likely wouldn’t get many chances to fully grasp the songs.
The extra understanding and time makes a difference. The band is pushing its new EP, Late Kids, which they just released on January 5th, featuring the title track of which our video was the first recording (yikes!). To me it feels like the second half of a full album, with the first being their debut EP, You Are Your Own Dentist. The composition style is so even throughout, and I find the wanderings of their songs refreshing.
On my home sound system that I’ve recently gotten to be relatively dialed-in, I find myself preferring the sonics of the first record, just slightly. It feels to me less limited and less compressed, and a little more juicy because of it. You Are Your Own Dentist is one of the albums from local artists that I’ve recently rediscovered as a surprisingly enjoyable recording, especially on a resolving system.
Take a look below at my attempt to reign in this wild beast of a sound on short notice, and do yourself a favor and pick up a disc or a download to hear an interesting band in its true form. Also below is the electronic press kit video for the group, for background. More info and albums available at rossonianmusic.com.