Part of the Problem

Zack gave me a wonderful little “Escrow Survival” gift a few weeks ago, a copy of Gavin DeGraw’s new album Free. I’m diggin on it.

If you own a copy, check something out with me. Roll to the song “Stay”, track 3 on the album. Hit play. Hear that? 3 seconds in, “have to be part of the problem.” Hear that? Yeah.

That’s what a vocal sounds like when you track it in your bedroom at 3 am, engineering it yourself, and you blow a big phat “P” right into the mic with no popper stopper. That’s not the only example on the album, but it’s the easiest one to find.

So, now I’m torn. I’m not a big fan of the perfect pop experience, where everything is ironed out and tuned up and comped together into an indistinguishable amorphous wash of frequency. But … yeah. But. There are technical flaws on this record that really bug me. I can’t enjoy that tune. Everytime I hear it, I hear the pppppop. It keeps me from enjoying some very good songwriting and damn fine singing, some of DeGraw’s best I think (the previous song “Free” hangs together so well, check it out). I find myself wishing there had been a little more attention paid to the basics of good engineering.

So, I guess I’m part of the problem.

22 thoughts on “Part of the Problem

  1. Daniel Semsen

    There’s a good statement to be made for authenticity in here somewhere–Because you’re right, it’s not polished up pop like Britney or Pussycat Dolls…

    I suppose the argument could be made that one of the characteristics of authenticity is imperfection. So is this more authentic than _____ (fill in the pop-star blank) because it is imperfect?

  2. Jeremy Hunt

    I’m with you Mike. This isn’t “authentic” or “real” this is basic recording 101. Put some pantyhose in front of the mic! Even I know that.

    I don’t think the issue is about hiding flaws or enhancing flaws. In my world of post production you can spend a lot of time and money making something look “real.” Add camera shake, add lens flares, add grain. (or conversely, not removing any of that stuff.) But that is not what this is. This is the equivalent to having the boom mic in the shot, or seeing the 1st AC in a reflection. It takes you out of the moment. And it’s an easy thing to avoid? Right?

  3. michael lee Post author

    Jeremy, I think you nailed it. This is a technical flaw that makes the performance seem less real, because all of the sudden in takes you out of the song and makes you start thinking of all of the gear that had to be in the room to catch the song.

  4. michael lee Post author

    By the way, if you have the record, I dare you to listen to “Dancing Shoes” without singing “Walking in Memphis” when he plays that piano riff.

  5. Gretchen

    A bit off topic, but Jeremy your comment reminded me of seeing Jerry Mcguire in the theatre and throughout the movie you could see the boom mic, the top of the sets into the warehouse and the lighting shield. Matt, back me up here. It was crazy. I don’t know if they had an unedited version or what, but yeah, couldn’t focus on the movie at all. I learned a lot about the sets and how to mic certain scenes though…

  6. Christy Semsen

    >>>“Authentic” has become worthless when talking about music.

    Hm. Nice. How about other art forms? Or is there ANY authenticity out there in art?

  7. michael lee Post author

    I think my point is that nobody has any idea what they actually mean by authentic, so it has become a stand in for “music I like, and also I’m not a mindless consumer drone.”

    It doesn’t actually say anything about the music.

    I’m not saying nothing is “authentic”, I’m saying I hate the word.

  8. Stick

    The dumb thing about that “p” is that it’s a maximum of 24 seconds to edit the fix, and that’s if you need to replace it with another clean “p” from elsewhere in the song. Unless, of course, it’s only recorded on 2″, then it’s slightly more complicated. But, probably still fixable with a little console automation. But, don’t get me started on the whole authentic analog vs. authentic digital recording thing.

  9. Zack

    October, 2000…

    I had just moved to New York City, and was forced to share a 1-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side with 3 other people. (Fortunately, I knew them rather well) With virtually zero disposable income, I sought out free entertainment. Lucky for the poor, it’s not hard to find free live music in New York. Not too far from our 4th-floor walk-up, I discovered Wilson’s.

    It was kind of a hoity-toity steak joint, but they didn’t have a cover, and the bartender was a heavy pour. And there was this really talented kid playing piano 3 nights a week. His name?

    Gavin DeGraw.

    I was lucky enough to see what he was all about before he was signed to a label. From his prime-time covers of folk and pop songs, to the late-night, “locals only” performances of his yet-refined, and oft unfinished originals, I’ve never before or since seen a performer with that level of intimacy and charisma.

    Eventually, Gavin noticed that I was always at the shows, singing along to his original songs. (I was easy to spot, since the place was usually filled with people who didn’t care about the music, only the bar and the steak) We started to hang after the shows, and chat about music, life, NYC, etc.

    A few months later, we were eating leftover birthday cake at about 4 am, at the bar. Gavin mentioned that he had been contacted by Clive Davis….personally. Insane. We congratulated him, even though he hadn’t even discussed a deal.

    Two weeks later, he played his last show at Wilson’s. I called him a few months after that, and left him a message. He called back a few days later, and told me how fast everything was happening. Before I knew it, “Chariot” was released on J Records.

    I rushed to the store the day it came out. I couldn’t wait to hear it, and congratulate Gavin. But honestly….the sound that bounced off the walls of Wilson’s was gone. It was so produced. So tidy. So neat. So perfect. And I immediately hated it.

    Eventually, I came to really love the record, understanding that there’s really no way to capture the live, intimate feel of a bar-room set. But more importantly, I came to realize that there was no way to record what my heart was filled with that first winter in New York City. I didn’t initially hate the record because it sounded “professional” and produced – I hated it because I thought that it would transport me back to that winter. When I shared a shit apartment. When I was broke. When I was falling in love with a filthy city. Those live intimate performances provided the soundtrack of one of the most important (and terrifying) times in my life, and I was just upset that no recording existed.

    All this to say:

    I have a different take on “Free”. I don’t think the songwriting is nearly as swank as the stuff on his last record, or his debut. It’s certainly not polished and perfect. But it’s a closer approximation of what bent my ear in that uptown bar in 2000. It’s a songwriter, writing and singing. Just creating without sweating the details. I have it on good authority that Gavin was never really thrilled with the over-produced nature of his records. I have a pretty good feeling that “Free” is an exercise in being exactly that.

  10. Chad

    I haven’t heard “Free” yet. I’ll have to check it out. I still think the “Stripped” version of Chariot is the canonical version.

  11. corey

    Zack this post solidifies you as one of the 3 coolest people I know.

    Speaking of recording blunders that should’ve never seen a retail shelf- Van Halen’s Balance was their 1994/1995 release and was their most produced, most expensive, most mature, and last with Sammy Hagar. The first single was “Can’t Stop Loving You” and it was classic party love pop music. The guitar solo ends with a little 8-bar half-time breakdown to get into a down chorus and one of the last licks creates some digital clipping. The first time I heard it, I thought something weird happened. Then when I learned what digital clipping sounded like, it stung my ears every time I listened to that record (and continues to do so). What a bummer.

    In contrast, John Mayer just posted on his blog that Pino finally returned to town and they were officially starting to lay down tracks for his new record. He makes a comment about what a bummer it is to record a great tune and feel like the bulk of it is in the bag- and then come to find it was “one click too fast” in tempo and has to be re-cut. Atta boy, Johnny May-May. Make us proud.

  12. Chad

    Just watched that latest video on JMs blog, and I could swear that house is in Hidden Hills, which means that all this sexiness is happening about 15 minutes from me, which kind of makes me wish I knew how to break and enter without detection.

  13. corey

    My buddies at the Fender Custom Shop say it’s Calabassas. They’re heading up to shoot a documentary in the next month or two.

  14. michael lee Post author

    Zack and I can show you how that whole breaking and entering thing works.

    Assuming that the loss of nicotine hasn’t rendered him criminally incompetent.

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