The Brain in the Studio

Unlike all of the other selections cut-n-pasted here, this one I typed in by hand; that’s how much I wanted to share it. It’s from Tape Op, the free audio recordists’ magazine that you should already be reading. The Nov/Dec issue features a great interview with Dr. Daniel Levitin, a neurological researcher, musician and audio engineer who works with the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, Lenny Kaye (of Patti Smith’s band), Gary Lucas (of Captain Beefheart’s band), Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan when not authoring books or conducting experiments. He’s got 14 gold or platinum records to his credit… so when he talks about music, he’s not just talking about a neurological phenomenon or some kind of laboratory stimulus. He’s talking about music.

The whole interview is really worth seeking out, but the following (long) passage is the part that stood out the most. It’s about the two kinds of brain functions that one needs to access in the studio – and how to use neurological insights (context, perspective) to make better recordings and to be a better listener:

I did this event in New York a few weeks ago with Paul Simon where we were talking about music and the brain, sort of like what I’m going to do with Roseanne [Cash]. We were at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan. Paul was talking about how whenever you’re writing you’re also editing, because ideas come out and you keep them or you don’t keep them. The interesting thing is we no know there is a paprt of the brain that does that editing, and it’s in the prefrontal cortex, right here behind your eyebrows. It’s a part of the brain that that’s most highly developed in humans. Most species can’t really do this kind of editing. They don’t really evaluate alternatives, hence the donkey stuck between two bales of hay. They don’t have the neural structures necessary to say, “I could do this or this, and here are the pros and cons.”

What things should we know about the part of the brain that does this editing, as far as being creative and working with music?

Well, either because of genetics or because of training, not everybody is a good editor. All of us who have been in studios know an artist who doesn’t know their own good from their bad. Among other reasons, that’s why we have producers. Or take somebody who does know good from bad in others, but can’t see it in themselves – what I would call a “self-monitoring deficit.” There are a lot of individual differences for how rapidly someone can switch from one mode to another. There are some people who can switch back and forth between the art and the technical or the creative and the editing very rapidly. Other people are slow switchers. I happen to be a slow switcher. What you want to be creative is to be non-judgmental. You want to let all of the ideas through, because you don’t want to restrict something from coming into consciousness. Just because it’s crazy, outlandish or unusual doesn’t mean it won’t be a great idea. You want to let that stuff through and you want to later evaluate and edit. You don’t want to restrict it too early on in the process.

Maybe the process of making a record is kind of like the human brain itself? If you have a producer and an artist being creative….

Yeah. If you think about what the painter has to do – the painter has to have something in mind, whether it’s in front of them or not. …[A]fter each stroke they have to look at what they did and compare it to the image in their head and make a decision on the spot – “Is that what I intended or not?” If it’s not, “Do I like it anyway, or do I need to somehow erase it or modify it to get back to what it is I had in mind?” You’re making this decision thousands of times throughout the process, and of course we do that in recording. The very first instrumental or vocal sound hits the tape and you have to ask yourself – it’s never exactly what you expected – “Is it close enough? Should I change the mic? Should I change the EQ?” ….

Everything that happens is an opportunity to add a branch in your decision tree. “Do I go with it the way it is or do I change it?” Change could mean, “Well, we’ll throw that take out and try another take.” Going with it could mean, “This isn’t what I expected, but now that it’s gone in this direction this means we don’t really have use for those strings anymore.” Bob Clearmountain told me once that a lot of what he does [while mixing] is deciding what not to use from what’s been recorded. He wasn’t there when that trombone part was recorded, and he doesn’t have to see how much time it took and how much sweat and energy and heartbreak it took to get it right or how much they they paid the guy……

Let’s say you’re in the studio and you listen to a song over and over all day and then start of the next day, doing the same thing. What I’ve gathered from reading your work is that we don’t rescan the world every millisecond and rewrite what we perceive. We fill in the blanks with assumptions, so to speak, of what the world is around us. Working as a producer, I sometimes feel like people aren’t really listening.

I think, especially if you are in a room for hours listening to a snare drum, you lose perspective. I know and I’m sure you know and your readers probably know that you have to have a stack of reference CDs that you bring and you put on every few hours to remind yourself of what you’re doing. Everybody knows that you have to do that when you enter the mastering room or when you enter the mix room. But I think you need to do it at every stage.

Listen to other music and get your bearings?

Not because you’re trying to make your record sound like that record, but you need to sort of pull yourself into reality. I usually bring records that I’ve been listening to my whole life – not records that are new favorites, but things that are goal posts or landmarks in my musical brain. It’s just like if a painter is in an unfamiliar environment and the lighting is odd, they might look at a color palette to remind themselves, “This is a red that I know and this is how it looks under this light.”