Recording music is a strange and wonderful sport. I recently saw a very interesting documentary called Muscle Shoals which covered the town in Alabama of the same name and all the great studio work they did around the 70’s. I grew up in Alabama, and was born in ’66, and there were sounds and smells in that documentary that reminded me of how I heard music growing up.
Hearing music is different, that just hearing music, if you know what I mean.
Something in the South speaks very specifically through music. There is spiritual depth, and lament. There is pride, and some idealism. Many of the fundamentals are from black culture, and much of the meter is from old Church hymns and working songs. The music culture of my roots was not found in an album, a band or a movement. It was in the red clay and the Southern heat, and it was always meant to be engaged at a soulish level. The soul is the fleshy, feeling parts of our being. Our will, emotions, and mind are all woven together, and if you dig down deep enough you can find rhythms at the very bottom of them. That’s the well of your soul. This kind of stuff, which comes from deep down, is very difficult to record using the modern tools of computers, metronomes, and pitch correction. It is exactly what they were doing, however, in Muscle Shoals. They were digging down deep and playing music from the deeper places—then someone had the audacity to capture it on tape. It is into that musical thievery that I have always wanted to work. This is probably why I was never a great producer for other people’s music, and I found it counterintuitive to do much fixing to the music once it had been played. The moment of creation, in my imagination, is supposed to be something sacred, and to capture it on tape something like stealing.
The very first time I was in a recording studio was around 1986. An audio engineering student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham invited us to record a song as part of his class project, and my bandmates and I went in to the circa 1970’s studio, complete with dead main room, dead drum booth, big analog board and a 24-track tape machine and cut our first song. I will always be thankful to Noah White, the engineer at the Sound of Birmingham studio, who took extra time with me, even later with my first full album, to accommodate my novice, and encouraged my career direction as a recording artist. Though the technical aspects of recording never really captured my full attention–for that matter neither did playing the guitar–it was the process of creating a song and bringing it to life that really captured my heart. I love to make things. Songs and albums are things to make, and what makes them great is that they can be shared with other people to help them.
Helping people is central to understanding how I make music.
I was only 17 years old when I felt that God was, literally, calling me into the ministry. What I knew about “ministry” at that time was that it was a full time work of helping other people in their journey with Christ. I didn’t know how I was going to do that, and I didn’t have a set plan on how to accomplish it, but I knew enough to go to college to prepare for full-time ministry work … and nothing else. It actually was a surprise that using music became so central to my desire to help others because it seemed so unconventional. I was not brought up in a family that celebrated the unconventional. My parents had worried looks on their faces quite often as they struggled to understand how a career in ministry and my continued obsession with music were ever going to pan out, and I am sure they may have thought I would back in the guest bedroom in no time. What worked out for me was simple: I found out that if you love people and work to help them using whatever tools you have, and don’t quit, that even if you are frighteningly average some amazing things can come from it. This relates to making music because it is this connection to loving people before loving music that has given me a specific focus. It is what, I find, is often missing in young artists that I meet now and again who are trying so hard to be excellent … but not trying hard enough to be helpful. It is pretty easy to discern when someone is more interested in their reputation and music production, than in the affect they are having on other human begins. If the only affect a musician desires to have on another person is the response of purchasing an album, then I would say that is some low-minded art. I am here to promote to you that the making of music might be more about helping people than helping yourself. Here are some practical questions that I ask myself when I am going to write an album or produce a song:
Who are the people that I can help right now? Who can I have influence on for good?
What is the message in my heart that could help them?
What kind of music, and what quality of production and delivery, do they require in order to receive my encouragements?
I realize these are very utilitarian thoughts, but I challenge you to try them anyway. They are not very romantic, but neither is a marriage contract. Asking these kinds of questions that focus on your musical intentions in others really can shape the style and feel of your work. The logic it simplest form might go like this: I don’t need to write an album for teenagers who love dance tracks since my primary listening audience is in their thirties and likes country music. But with a little more work we might see it shaping up other, less caricatured conclusions, like:
Since I want people to sing a long and get these words into their conversations with God, then I will try and use their language and not be so focused on my unique poetry.
Since I have a real gift at reaching out to the broken who don’t yet believe in Christ, then I probably don’t need to build my career around selling pop songs to Christians.
Why should I record and print a full album to CD’s with a $50K recording budget since my audience, presently, is about 150 people who listen to their music mostly on their phones?
I know that these thoughts may not fit your world. They are just loose examples, but it is how I have processed many of my decisions on what, when, and how to record music. This is not rocket science, nor is it the reduction of art to raw commercialism. It is not commercialism to simply be aware and responsive to the needs of people you love. If your art must remain truly disconnected from loving others, then this page is not for you, forgive me, and make a stealthy exit …
So, back to the point about making music. Back in 1998 Robin and I realized, after years of touring college campuses as 100 Portraits, that young believers on those campuses were dying for some music they could play from their own soulish expressions. We were playing in bars and clubs and music venues to paint pictures of Jesus for searching students, but we still came into settings where Christians were worshiping and spending time together. They were usually singing songs written by believers from a different generation for fellow believers in giant fellowships, and these college students were in groups of 40 with a guitar and maybe some hand drums. What a dissonance it was. Aha! What if, to help them, we wrote a worship album that could be played on hand drums and guitars, and delivered in a sort of street-hippie, retro-folk style that anyone could understand? With Robin already inventing new ways of playing world percussion, and me on the acoustic guitar this was an easy direction for us. We also sang simple two part harmonies and countermelodies that were more rock and less choral, and this made it easy for male and female parts to be engaged. What if we pulled our lyric sheets from the Scripture so that the fundamental conversations were in line with Psalms of David? This would be great because students could learn more about the soul of the Scripture’s songs, learn Bible verses, and engage new conversations with God … all at the same time! Eureka! It really did feel like a revelation to us. We didn’t lead worship at that time, at all, but we thought it would be a great gift to these student-filled small groups.
I never aspired to be a worship leader. I aspired to the work of evangelism. I wanted to reach out to the people on the edges and introduce them to the love of Christ. As it turns out these things can go together. I am reminded that even the songs King David wrote were performed in public, in parades, and in the open courts in the temple where foreigners and unbelievers were mixing and mingling. This worship was not private, nor was it salesmanship. It was an open conversation with God who was so trusted and so loved, that even when the songs turned to complaint and frustration there was no lack of respect and honor. This gave those who didn’t know God a chance to understand how they might engage such a loving Divinity and what words they could use to speak with him. I think worship is like training wheels for our conversations with God. If we can borrow words and tunes from one another, maybe one day we will write our own! This is central to the way every single album I have ever cut, including the Enter The Worship Circle albums, is shaped and presented. I sincerely want anyone who listens to this music to find a new way to approach God, and learn to trust and love him more. What a wide open playground for being creative! I don’t fixate on what is a Christian song, or a worship song, or a Bible song, or any other kind of category, really, I just want to make the songs that share my gut-level conversations with God and my prophetic senses about how to see him better. I want the music to unfold a picture of Jesus from any angle that might help.
It does not take a lot of gear to record music that sounds like Enter The Worship Circle. It does take some musicians who are skilled in their craft enough, however, to play from their strengths and submit to one another. All great rhythm sections have this in common. Each person plays their strength whether on bass, or drums, or percussion, or rhythm instruments, and in that confidence they lean into one another to find what magic happens when they lose themselves in the song. This cannot be accomplished in a multi-tracking environment where everyone plays one instrument at a time. I am not saying that it won’t be beautiful, I am saying it won’t achieve the gritty depth of a 24-track machine tracking the “Swampers” in Muscle Shoals, and it won’t capture the unhinged energy of the Worship Circle tracks. This kind of music comes alive in real time.
On the “group” Worship Circle albums we would first run through the songs, picking up ideas, dropping certain instincts, and work to find a musical fit with one another. When we thought we had an overall energy we would turn on the recording machines and track it all down at one time. To do this each person has to play their strength and continually focus on their coordination with everyone all at the same time. Eyes open, everyone! We have to see one another, move with one another, and anticipate what is happening next with eyebrow raises, head nods, and winks. Worship Circle recordings were done in a “live” room with no separation booths, click tracks (well we did have some on the Second Circle when were cuing up pre-recorded clips from my field recording in India), and we could hear one another in the room, and in our headphones, during the taping. Even tracks on my latest album, Residue, were recorded this way. Sure we did overdubs on that rock album (this is when tracks are recorded separately over the rhythm bed), but we laid down the drums, and the bass tracks, with me singing and playing a guitar (behind an acoustic shield) all at the same time. We played in a big room, separated from each other, but close enough to see each other’s faces and movements. We wore headphones so we could hear each other well, but we cued one another visually with our whole bodies and our energy into the songs. Later we came back and laid down guitar lines and vocals, but the music bed, the ocean of energy for the song, was already rising and falling and emoting over time. Tracking the rhythm section together allowed us to give energy and cues to one another and build dynamics that simply could not be accomplished in a computer-driven, one-track at a time, recording process.
Even if this is outside of your musical instincts, I think it would be a great discipline to learn. I do think every serious musician and producer should have the experience, at least once, of tracking together real-time in a studio. It makes something that can’t be made in any other way.
If you want to try something like this I would make a few suggestions. First, spend most of your time just learning to play along with friends in a rhythm section. If you fancy yourself a solo artist, join a band anyway and learn to work with a team–learn to give yourself up to the flow of the group. Secondly, don’t buy much gear. Either buy one stereo recording device, or go to someone’s studio so you don’t have to think about anything except for playing. Get all the instruments arranged in the room so that things are spread left to right on the sound stage, front to back, and vocals clear and present. Track rehearsals until you like the mix when played back with no extra mixing tricks applied at all. Sometimes this means putting instruments, amps, or people in crazy places around the room or even behind screens to balance out the mix. Bleed–the sounds from one instrument getting into another instrument’s microphone–is not that big a deal. Don’t get worried about it. If you are committed to keeping the tracks as played with no time or pitch correction (take courage people, you can do it!) then bleed is the happy blending of life. This means you can use one stereo recorder or 24 microphones into a big interface, it doesn’t matter, what matters is whether you and your team of musicians can get in a groove together and ride it like you own it. You will need an engineer with the courage to ride the input faders a little, and enjoy the creative process without the overwhelming need to stop and fix every little tiddly thing.
No house is perfect in very detail.
No relationship is perfect in every exchange. Why should music be perfect on every note of every measure?
Perfection in romance is about being swept up in the moment, and so is, in my view, great music. The words micro-managing and romance have never belonged together in a sentence, why should they come together in music?
Well, maybe this long rant is more interesting to the technician or the producer, but I hope to have piqued your interest in our adventure. Maybe it’s just that wild energy that stayed with me from Alabama that I can’t shake loose, but I am always hopeful for the brave musicians who can really play their instruments, and really take a risk to let their musical soul be stolen in those moments that the “tape” machine is turned on. I hope you have enjoyed this story-journey through my process of making music. It is not for everyone, but maybe it has been a little inspiration for you. If you ever need any help don’t hesitate to contact me. Though engineering is not my present interest, my comrade Ben Canon, who lives close by in Woodland Park has the perfect gear for this kind of recording and I enjoy coaching him in what little I might know about this style of musical thievery. I pray the very best for you and yours, and that you might create something so unique between you, and so fit for loving the people around you, that you can enjoy the same kind of loving feedback we have received from so many people, over the years, who have found Enter The Worship Circle to be a treasured soundtrack in their life-journey with God.