Working Smart

May 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY MAUREEN DRONEY

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Anybody who's spent time in a studio lately has observed what happens when inexperienced producers collide with the endless choices offered by digital recording. Adrift in a sea of tracks and derailed by system crashes and mismanaged hard drives, sessions founder. Meanwhile, bored musicians wait, losing the edge that sparks a great track. On producer Don Gehman's projects, you'll find a different scenario. Applying a disciplined approach, he lays groundwork that frees him up to achieve what he's really after: spontaneity and passionate performances.

Gehman has had plenty of career success; he has produced numerous hit records, including multi-Platinum outings by John Mellencamp and Hootie & The Blowfish. A few years ago, with an eye to the changing business — and a better quality of life — he chose to reinvent his recording style. To that end, working with engineer Mark Dearnley (AC/DC, Paul McCartney, Carl Perkins), he's put together a streamlined record-making process that combines classic techniques with digital speed.

“It was a conscious decision,” he explains, speaking from Sound Design Studios in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he is finishing up sessions with Blues Traveler. “It actually came about from having my second child. If I were going to keep making records, and also really be a dad, I had to figure out how to have more flexible hours. Instead of working 12 hours straight every day, I wanted the ability to put something up, work on it for three hours and put it away having accomplished something.”

Gehman met Dearnley, a computer expert and early Pro Tools convert, in 1999, and was impressed with his skill. The two set about designing a system that would enable total recall for an entire project. The end result led to more than Gehman anticipated; he now finds himself making records more efficiently, more economically and, he says, more creatively.

To capture a performance's special energy while a song is fresh, Gehman prefers to arrange songs in the studio rather than during pre-production — something many producers, fearing chaos, avoid. Gehman often fills a studio with vast amounts of instruments and equipment during a session, all of it miked and ready. The setup is precise and time-consuming, but then, “Engineering problems are sorted, we've got everything we need and can shift into creative mode.

“It's good to rehearse a little so you get comfortable,” he comments, “but the magic happens early on; sometimes, before you even realize it's happening. It's when you have to come back and get on track again that kills a lot of time. When we're putting together the arrangement and honing a groove, it's all happening fast. If you're recording all of that, you wind up doing a few takes that have everything you need.

“The cut-and-paste part of today's technology makes it easy to composite any take into the final production and still have a live performance,” he continues. “We can get one, or sometimes more, full songs done in a day: a core track, vocals, backgrounds, some overdubs and a rough mix. Every band we've worked with in the past year has been really excited by the process.”

Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla agrees. “As a musician, it's a much more intuitive way to build songs,” he says. “When you're in the creative moment, speed is good. You can only stay focused for so long. Working this way, there's no time to sit around on the couch and sputter out.”

Of course, cut-and-paste production is routine these days. What sets Gehman's sessions apart is not only the amount of live material recorded, but the ability to access it quickly. That's Dearnley's domain. He admits that it requires a lot of processing power, special attention to file management, rigorous backup habits and a penchant for fast decision-making.

At the Blues Traveler mixdown, Dearnley was beta-testing DMOD software to upload high-quality, encrypted mixes to the Internet. “You can assign permission for a one-day time frame,” he notes. “Bandmembers get a full, uncompressed version to download and burn. If they want to send a portion to someone else, I can give it ‘play-only’ permission so it can't be burnt. The band can hear good-quality mixes and give us feedback without being here.”

“Mark and I have both been through the process of working with bands on albums that took over a year,” concludes Gehman. “We learned all of the things that you should never do. We know that our job is to cut to the quick with the songs. Now, with the systems we're using, we can make a project for half of the cost that we used to and get the same quality — maybe even better!”






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