The Wonders of Recording

I spend most of my working life alone in a room and much of that is spent waiting for inspiration. Since there’s no-one else too consult or argue with I listen to the work in progress again and again, examining it from different angles to see what should be added or subtracted in order to make it right. My opinion’s gradually formed by the graduall accretion  of listens.

As has always been clear, I’ve been keen to keep a certain element of chaos involved in the recording progress and that’s, actually, pretty easy for me to do. I don’t read or write music of course and, over many years, have approached recording in a way which evokes action painting as much as it does formal arrangement. Certainly, t’s rare for me to start off a song with *any* idea of where it’s going to end up. (At least, that’s the case in solo work – if I’m writing for VdGG I have the imagined musical voices of HB or Brain somewhere in mind….)

So, in fact, most of the time I have to guess what additions will contribute well to the current available musical space. Or, indeed, what will maintain the essential openness. I’ve never had any pretensions to virtuosity as a musician, so in turn I have to be aware of my technical limitations when it comes to what will be overdubbed. Blistering solos are rarelty the ideas which come to mind as being the best way to move a piece forward. Generally, though, I do have some idea of the sonic territory which I’m looking to expand on or into.

It has to be said, of course, that listening to any work-in-progress is heavily skewed towards whatever is the most recent musical addition. It’s this that’s presented in pride of place, even if, in fact, it’s *not* an essential architectural part. Always, though, there’s the knowledge that the final, finished, work will involve a degree of cramming together in order to find a coherent mix for the whole.

Most of my time, then, is gathered up in calm(-ish), gradual consideration. Sometimes, though, a lucky patch hits and I’m hurtled right back into the wonderful hurly-burly and instant gratification which is the real world of the studio. I had such a run a couple of days ago.

The piece I was working on was, to be honest, the one in the worst shape of any on this particular project atr the time. It had a guitar, a couplpe of pretty average and messy stabs at a bass pars and a gesture at lead vox…and, indeed, only rough lyrics. Such notes of prospective amendments as I had seemed to indicate redoing most, if not all, of these p[rts and beyond that I really wasn’t sure where to take it.

The timing was pretty sloppy too. I don’t mind that in principle – there’s always a bit of life in a straying beat – but in this case I’d started without any semblance at all main beat and hence it was all over the place.

So first I retrospectively added some various simple pulses. Having done so, fairly radical editing and shifting of the guitar part was in order. Suddenly it began to sound rather more promising. I even managed to salavage a coherent bass part out of the original efforts, by radically reducing the amount played. This was something of a result, as I’d imagined I’d have to start from scratch on the instrument.

I had enough now to feel much more confident about doing a proper vocal. It’s also the case (pretty obvious, I suppose) that when things are getting real in the L Vox stakes then the final lyrics are also forcing their way forward into the frame.
So suddenly the song was becoming a serious proposition.

So far, so normal, actually. What came in the next 48 hours, though, was really quite out of the ordinary.

I had an inkling that some B Vox might work and set to work in my usual fashion, experimenting with lines and positioning. Over a couple of hours I found a two-part harmony which ran right down the song, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in oppostion to, the main vocal. And in my normal way of working (this is one of the skills I *have* got) I tripled up each line. Very warm.

I also found a couple of places where the B Vox could go off completely on their own, both in the middle section of the song – which had been spectacularly empty up till this point – and in an extended coda, which was also completely new.

The piece was transformed and, perhaps more importantly, structurally sound.

Over the next day I had an inspired – or supremely lucky – period of recording. Every idea I came up with worked out spontaneously and immediately in terms of sound, instrument, approach. That’s prettty rare: usually one has to work through some erroneous first takes and misjudgements. Swiftly, I overdubbed sevral different parts, some purely sonic, using various keyboards and guitars. Each one of these was absolutely instinctive and improvisatory.

All of these dubs were in themselves fairly simple…the cumulative effect, though, was to make the piece fully complete. None of the dubs in themselves had totally altered the structure; but sometimes  adding atmos and angle in the background ushers in major change in overall effect.

This is the wonder of recording. What had not been there at all two days before was now safe and complete. That’s why I still love and am fascinated by the studio process.

Still, after all these years, when I hit one of these passages I just keep hitting that replay button going “well, where did all that come from?”.

Yet there it is.


31 Comments on “The Wonders of Recording”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Peter, now that the record is out. Could you tell us what was this song you refer to in your post and makes you finally say: The piece was transformed and, perhaps more importantly, structurally sound.

    “well, where did all that come from?”. mm…Popper’s third world? Buawee Biaeii ?

    With profound admiration


  2. Tamara says:

    Loved it, thanks for sharing

  3. Kat says:

    I’m glad you are satisfied with the results, and i hope someday i will be too, thanks for this amazing post.

  4. Andrea says:

    Ciao Mr. Hammill !

    Did you ever read “music as a gradual process” by Steve Reich ? Your insights of this post might loop in … or …
    Beautiful post , thanks for sharing your experience.
    Andrea, Italy

  5. Vergil says:

    Many of us will agree that it is your human duty, Peter, to have a studio at hand for when inspirations comes along. 🙂 Mars transits over and fires your Mercury these days. Luckily to your fans like me, due to his capricious motion he will continue to do so next 6 months. It seems that a creative year is awaiting you! Cheers!

  6. Lubtisch says:

    We, as a race, have always been obsessed regarding creation. The debate rumbles on; freak chance or intelligent design? We fascinatate upon a retort of amino acids, lightning providing the spark, and Lo! life starts! Four pails of water and a bucket of salts. Is it all beyond the veil?
    At The University of Exeter VdGG/Hammill Society we were graced with our Bavarian member Deiter who, studying Biochemistry, claimed that the IAFT song ‘Invisible Ink’ was actually the blueprint for Life itself!
    Well it turns out he was actually trying to impress a girl. And had to eat some humble Hemlock. But thinking about it now I wonder…. did he not at least frame the question and demonstratably provide a physical manifestation of the eternal urge?
    The mystery is still beyond the veil but it casts the most concrete and adamantine shadows. Then how much stronger must that mystery be?

  7. Scott says:

    Not sure that it matters but – Is the album titled ‘Otherworld’ or Other World ? You have written it as the former but it appears the cd/album appears to have it ‘wrong.’ Just wondering. Scott –
    should have it any day now!

  8. Jon JVisser says:

    Making music because you want to. That is the way i see peter making music and why I love what he is doing.
    This blog tells me he is as authentic as he can be. That is great. That is the true artist. That is what makes his music so intens. That is why i love his music. That is why his music still hits me. Even after al these years. So thanx Peter.

  9. patricia says:

    Love your insights, Peter. Such an unexpected gift it is modern technology. People from all over are able to take a close look at your amazing creative process. For that, I cannot be but grateful.
    patricia from Argentina

  10. Ugo says:

    This is creativity combined with a high sense of introspection, a rare gift. Thank you.

  11. Ricardo says:

    Thanks for allowing us a peek inside your creative processes. I always loved your short story “Waiting”, which, to me, describes the reality of a creative artist’s existence more keenly than any other piece I have read.
    Regarding the fact that you neither read nor write music, you sang in a church choir as a boy, so you must have the rudiments. I assume that not having pursued that tool has been a conscious choice, since the musical notational system borders on the infantile in its simplicity. It is, at any rate, way simpler than the English language.
    Looking forward to Other World. Good luck with the Union Chapel gig. I would come over, but have a pretty big concert myself that same evening in Norway.
    And keep up the good tambourine work (hey – I like it!)

  12. Sylvain Arth says:

    What a wonderful gift to us (at l’East tout myself) is such confidence about how you feel jour own work.
    Many thanks and “Merci” tout you

  13. David Collins says:

    Your sense of excitement is delightfully contagious.

  14. Marc says:

    Love it.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hey Peter,
    I hope there is no white lines involve in the process! or those little pills…you know the one that there are no reason to believe…How’s the tequila theses days? Always with orange juice? The album with Lucas from what i heard on You tube sounds very interesting the collaboration seems surprising …i might get it…In the end it’s looks like the latex (LOL) sessions in the studio have been very exciting for you! well the german loves latex…(and isn’t english close to german?) Everything we do is hopefully about and with love….latex or not..anyway after this little arty delirium, you still seems pretty much in love with the music or at least curious to find it…(more important)…Bonjour du Québec…Daniel

  16. Olivier Darras says:

    Bloody hell !!! Any girl here?

  17. Andrew Read says:

    So many established recording artists start to sound as if they are bored with making music after a certain time. I always feel inspired to listen to your latest work when I read this kind of stuff, Peter. It really does capture the very enthusiasm and sense of discovery (even after all these years, dare I say), that is at the heart of your music. Thank you for this.

  18. Simon Wenham says:

    I’m guessing that you are pleased with the results,

    I hope that more care went into them than the speeling in the blog ;). Actually, that helped convey the creative rush than a perfectly sub-edited article would have.

    I also look forward to hearing the song, even after all these years you continue to delight and surprise us.

  19. Mathias says:

    Sounds great, Peter. Glad to hear that you still have the excitement after all this years as a musician. I’m looking forward to the new album and seeing/hearing you live again.

    All the best for you!

  20. Tim says:

    Thanks for these insights – I am about to take part in an Internet songwriting/recording challenge (14 songs, from scratch, in 28 days!), so it is encouraging to read how you brought order to a chaotic session. (Looking forward to “Other World” next week – pre-ordered!)

  21. That magical studio-information makes me very curious ! Can’t wait till the record is out !

  22. Raf says:

    Thanks… Hope to learn some day which exact song this is about. Or will it speak for itself?

  23. Stu says:

    What I love about reading your articles is how much your creative approach and methods sets a note in my own head and relates to and inspires me in my work as a visual-technical artist ; the worlds all being connected.

  24. rob says:

    heartwarming to read your latest blog dear Mr. Hammill. I feel inspired to kick on with my own blank page at last. Many thanx!

  25. Mike says:

    Wow. Thanks so much for this. So often when I’m asked what I do for a living, I just stumble around for a few seconds, or minutes, trying to convey what it is that keeps me so consumed in just a few words. I probably never succeed. I think you just did.

  26. Scott says:

    Sounds like you/we are/will (be) satisfied with your efforts…..AGAIN! Can’t wait!

  27. Maurice says:

    Some fascinating insights here, Peter. Many thanks. One mild quibble though: do go easy on the tambourine!

  28. Mikayel Abazyan says:

    Thank you very much for sharing the details of this magical process of creation. Indeed, this is a privilege to keep on writing music and to remain a happy man.
    Good luck!

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